Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 April 2011

What If We Are Wrong?


[I hate to upstage my most recent post on oil, which you can find here. But this one is even more important, and not unrelated. For comment on Egypt’s recent diplomatic initiatives, click here.]

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today, May 1, 2011, begins Holocaust Memorial Day, or Yom Hashoah (“Day of the Holocaust”) in Hebrew. The full day is May 2, but in accordance with Jewish tradition, it begins at sunset tonight. In the United States, it starts an official eight-day period of remembrance known as Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust.

Normally in this period we recall the fates of the six million Jews―and the Roma (“Gypsies”), Russians and others―whom the Nazis murdered solely because of who they were, not what they did. But these victims are long dead and beyond recall.

This year, I propose we recall also the living. While we once again mourn those who died so long ago, may we also remember the millions of victims of brutal tyranny around the world today, in our own time. May we think of North Korea and Zimbabwe. But may we also spare a thought for other victims of tyranny, who are Arabs and Muslims living in places like Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and, yes, Saudi Arabia.

I do not mean to claim an equivalence between their suffering and the Holocaust. But I do mean to revive the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, which means “repair the world.”

How can we repair the world that we see today without the Arab and Muslim liberation that is just now beginning to bud like trees in the springtime? And how can Jews whose credo is tikkun olam fail to support it?

It is hard to acknowledge the suffering of others when suffering of your own, past or present, weighs so heavily on your mind. But are we not all human? And are not some things worth doing precisely because they are hard?

About seven decades ago, Jews and others were persecuted and slaughtered in great numbers for their beliefs, their speech, and their unusual dress and customs. Even if it is not so severe, can we not recall today the present plight of Arabs and Muslims, persecuted and murdered (although in much smaller numbers) for their speech, their sect, their political views, and the strength of their faith, and in their own lands? And can we consider the possibility that self-determination and self-government lead not to yet more war but to peace?

As we recall the horrors of the past, can we look forward to a brighter future? Can we anticipate the day when Arabs and Muslims are as free to speak out and practice their religion everywhere as Jews and Muslims, for example, in Israel and the United States? Can we recall the height of Islamic culture in the Middle Ages, when religious tolerance reigned supreme, and Jews, Christians and Muslims practiced their faiths side by side?

And as for women, can we not imagine that the liberation of Arabs and Muslims from tyranny will lead eventually to their liberation, as noon follows dawn? In the age of Al Jazeera and the Internet, surely it must, and surely it will.



Are Arabs and Muslims inherently incapable of governing themselves competently? Will popular rule in their ranks always create unacceptable risks to the West, to the flow of oil, and to others generally?

Do we just have to depend on clever but ruthless tyrants like the Saudis to keep things under control? Is the Egyptian Army all that holds back the storm waters of chaos? Are Bashar Al-Assad and his bloody torturers necessary evils because they corral a greater evil that lies in the hearts of ordinary Syrians?

That’s what conventional wisdom thinks, at least in the West, and especially in Israel. That’s what it has thought for decades. It would answer all these questions “yes.”

But what if it is wrong? What if Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey―all real Islamic countries, all with varying degrees of real, democratic self-rule by Muslims―are neither fictions nor aberrations? What if Pakistan, where lawyers marched in the streets, with overwhelming popular support, to remove the strongman Musharraf, and did so both successfully and peacefully, is a sign of things to come?

What if Al Jazeera, the Internet and other means of instantaneous electronic communication can motivate Muslims worldwide to follow the best examples of their peers, not the worst? What if they’re doing just that right now?

Is Islam an inherently dangerous and inexorably violent religion? That’s what conventional wisdom thinks, especially among the much-propagandized American people. (Here Israelis, who live side by side with Muslims every day, are a bit more sensible.)

But what if we Americans are wrong? What if Muslims can re-create their medieval greatness, when Islamic culture was the global center of religious tolerance and learning, where Islamic scholars perfected astronomy and invented algebra and algorithms (both perversions of Arabic words) while Europeans were collecting themselves in mud huts around their feudal lords’ castles?

What if Muslims worldwide, who appear to be rejecting the false prophet bin Laden and his credo of perpetual, senseless and counterproductive violence, are just waiting for an Islamic Martin Luther to help them establish personal relationships with God and set them free? What if Muslims are just coming out of the same sort of millennial cultural slump from which China so recently emerged?

Are the Arab people, their intellectuals and future leaders inherently incapable of dealing rationally with oil as a valuable resource? Are they more likely to hoard or destroy it, out of ignorance of sheer spite, than to sell it on the global market for resources to improve themselves and their societies? Are leaders clever and subtle enough to wrest power from tyrants peacefully, as in Tunis and Cairo, so stupid as not to see the power of oil, in a global capitalist economy, to better their own lives?

That’s what conventional wisdom thinks. It would answer all these questions “yes.” But what if it’s just wrong?

What if the rational structure of global capitalism that the West has created so assiduously over the last century appeals to peaceful Arab “revolutionaries” as a useful and convenient tool for picking themselves up by their bootstraps? What if the intellectuals and patient organizers who are leading the “movement” for Arab liberation are smart enough to see that oil, properly respected and handled, provides the best means to jump-start their experiments in self-government?

Are Arab tyrannies what keep terrorism as bay, or are they the cause of it? Does the Saudis’ support for extremist Wahhabi madrassas throughout the Islamic world advance the cause of peace and prosperity or the twisted progress of terrorism? Are Arabs and Muslims inherently so evil and stupid as to make blowing themselves up to destroy others a way of life and a foundation of their culture? Or have they been driven to desperation by hardy, vile tyrannies that have crushed their lives and ruined their futures for decades or centuries?

And, if the latter, what will they do when the pressure of those tyrannies is released, not by universal carnage as in the French and Russian Revolutions, but by peaceful popular protest and pressure, as in Tahrir Square? Will they turn against each other like rabid dogs―Sunni against Shiite, Arab against Persian, everyone against Kurds―immediately destroying what they have so carefully and painfully built? Or will they continue to organize constructively and peacefully, as they learned to do in throwing off their yoke of tyranny?

And what of their leaders? Which is better? tyrants who rule absolutely by force of arms and regular torture of innocents? revolutionary figures who overturn tyrannies violently by arms and guile, and whose chief skills are subversion and war? or leaders clever and patient enough to overturn a hardy tyranny peacefully, by sheer popular will, with a minimum of bloodshed?

And what of our leaders? What if Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, John Cornyn and John Kyl are not the greatest minds and wisest souls in American history? What if Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy are? What would they think?

Conventional wisdom would answer every one of these questions in the darkest possible way. But what if conventional wisdom is wrong?

What if Donald Trump’s playing at being a presidential candidate and the real President’s revealing his long-firm birth certificate are not the most important events in current global history? What if what’s going on in Tunis, Cairo, Damascus, Tripoli, Riyadh and, yes, Tehran is?

Then isn’t this spring of Arab and Muslim liberation something that every sound mind and generous heart should support to the utmost, especially in the West?

Egypt’s Talks with Hamas and Iran

Having written the foregoing post, I can’t refrain from commenting on today’s developments in Egypt. As reported by the New York Times, Eqypt’s new, less tyrannical government has opened discussions with Hamas and restored diplomatic relations with Iran. At the same time, it has reaffirmed its commitment to the peace treaty with Israel.

In on-line comments, hysterical reactions flew from ostensible supporters of Israel. Many inferred that the Muslim Brotherhood would soon take control of Egypt. Some concluded that a sea of Islamic extremism would engulf Greater Arabia, producing a new war, most probably nuclear, with Israel.

That outcome is possible. I have written about it myself. But Arab liberation makes it less likely, not more so.

Four and a half years ago, when I wrote my essay about the risk of war with Iran, I did so to warn of two self-reinforcing trends. First, by imposing preconditions to peace talks, Israel increasingly gave the appearance of a stalling and refusing to negotiate seriously. Second, the apparent stalling was raising the level of general enmity in an increasingly aware, competent and modern Greater Arabia.

These two trends reinforced each other. A rising Greater Arabia demanded greater respect from others, including Israel. Israel’s consistent refusal to recognize changing circumstances, bargain more seriously, and make necessary concessions for peace not only precluded peace. They also pushed it further away by increasing Arab enmity.

But my analysis then assumed implicitly that Arabs in the region would remain focused on Israel and Palestine because―as had been the case for decades―they had no real power to affect the circumstances of their own lives in the countries where they lived. I didn’t even consider the possibility that some day they might have that power, for there was then not a glimmer of Arab liberation (let alone Persian liberation) on the horizon.

Today there is more than a glimmer. Now, for the first time since the Pharaohs, ordinary Egyptians have claimed a measure of self-government.

So what are they going to do with it? Are they going to devote all their political energies to destroying Israel, as paranoid Israeli and American fanstasies insist? Or are they going to try to improve their own society and their own lives? I feel fairly confident in predicting the latter approach.

To me, the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is about to stage an Islamist coup d’etat is equally fantastic. Before the Tahrir Square movement, it was a small movement of intellectuals, scholars, and Islamist revolutionaries. Mubarak and his military tyranny (and their predecessors) persecuted it, executed many of its members, jailed many others, and drove some leaders out of Egypt. (Among them was Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second in command.)

So the Tahrir Square movement owed nothing to the Muslim Brotherhood and indeed caught it by surprise. The Army, which now rules Egypt, is secular, professional, largely Western trained, and deeply suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood.

These facts lead to two conclusions. First, the Muslim Brotherhood has little political power in Egypt now. It can gain power only to the extent that it can become a viable political party with broad appeal.

Islamic fundamentalism is weak in Cairo and Egypt’s big cities, although stronger in the countryside. So in order to become a viable, let alone winning, political party, the Muslim Brotherhood will have to give up its extremism and much of its Islamism. The intellectuals and scholars who lead it now are the ones who stayed behind when the extremists fled Egypt to begin their terrorist jihad. So if they are not already aware of these realities, they will become so after election campaigns begin.

Second, the Army is still jealous of its power and largely secular. It is not about to allow an extremist Islamist coup, and more than is the military in Turkey. (There is in fact a possibility that army strategists are approaching Iran just to scare the West into giving it more power and allowing it to suppress Egyptians’ legitimate desire for self-government.)

But whatever the Egyptian army’s motives, talking with Hamas and even Iran is a good thing. As I have written before, one of Israel’s dumbest strategies was to refuse to talk to various parties (including Hamas and Hezbollah) without preconditions.

The main preconditions were renunciations of violence and of the goal of destroying Israel. Those preconditions certainly seem reasonable on their faces. But when you think of the circumstances, they’re more reasonable as an outcome of talks than as preconditions.

The intifada and Palestinian terrorism had and has the power to kill schoolchildren and make life miserable for Israelis (less so after the Wall). But what other power did the Palestinians have? Israel outmatched them in every military category, from training through locally produced small arms (the Uzi) to nuclear weapons. Israel is by far the dominant naval and economic power in the region.

So here were powerless people, with legitimate grievances, expected to negotiate those grievances by abandoning their only source of leverage and their chief recruiting tool before they ever walked into the room?

That might seem reasonable to an Israeli mom whose daughter had been maimed in a rocket attack. But to a neutral observer interested in peace, it seems like a good way to kill talks before they begin. After all, we Americans negotiated with our deadly adversaries, the Soviets, without preconditions for twenty-seven years, from 1962 until the end of the Cold War.

And so, rightly or wrongly, observers like me came to the conclusion that Israel has not been serious about negotiating for peace since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed by a Jewish extremist. Veiled and coded statements by Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, referring to a “Greater Israel” and to the West Bank by biblical names, only added to that impression.

What American wants to pay taxes, let alone die, for a quixotic quest to restore ancient Israel’s biblical boundaries? Isn’t giving the Holocaust victims and their descendants a secure home enough?

And if I, an American Jew, see recent and current Israeli leaders as less than serious about negotiating for peace, you can imagine what the Palestinians think.

That’s why what Egypt is doing is liberating, and not just for Arabs. What I have called “stiff-necked diplomacy,” half hearted-talks that lead nowhere, have gone on long enough.

One of the reasons why those talks failed is that Palestinians feel abandoned. Israelis have the world’s only remaining superpower (albeit one in decline) decisively in their corner. Up to now, the Palestinians have had no one. It will be good for them and good for peace to have a powerful sympathetic force that can say, “This will be good for you. Do it. Agree.”

The rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas that Egypt arranged shows just how quickly and effectively such a force can work. And you can bet that the Egyptian army, secular and professionally trained, did not arrange the rapprochement to start another war with Israel, but to provide a unified Palestinian entity with which Israel can make peace.

As for Iran, what do the people who fear Egypt talking want? Besides Israel and Turkey, Egypt has the most secular, professional, and sensible military in the region, more so than the Saudi tyrants. If that army talks to Iran’s mullahs, it may talk sense into them. There’s certainly no harm in trying. The notion that the secular, professional, nominally Sunni Egyptian army will be subverted by mere discussions with Shiite, extremist Iran is simply laughable. More likely, the Egyptian army may help prevent a regional war.

We Americans have to face facts. The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has dragged on for 63 years. Despite enormous effort and even bribery (though arms subsidies), we have not been able to resolve it. Every president since Jimmy Carter has tried and failed. Part of the reason is that we have never gained the Palestinians’ trust.

Now, after we have failed repeatedly and when we have serious, intractable problems at home, is a good time to let others try. Whether the Egyptians can do better remains to be seen. But we owe them a fair trial period, at least a fraction of the 63 years during which we have repeatedly tried and failed. After all, Israel and its supporters here and there will know that we are watching from the sidelines.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to the assassinated Israeli prime minister as Menachem Begin, rather than (correctly) as Yitzhak Rabin. Begin’s role in peacemaking was far more ambivalent. He negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt and for doing so (among other things) received the Nobel Peace Prize, as did Rabin. But later he appeared to endorse the notion of Greater Israel and expanded settlements in the West Bank. I apologize for the error.

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27 April 2011

“Daddy! Mommy! I Want More Oil!”


[For brief comment on the future of nuclear power after Fukushima, click here. For comment on shale gas, click here.]

If nothing about my generation of Americans, the Baby Boomers, has disgusted you yet, read on. We are now entering a phase of American history in which their children and grandchildren are beginning to sound like spoiled brats, and we Boomers like the clueless parents who spoiled them.

As you may have noticed, oil and gasoline prices are going up. They’re going up in China, causing truckers to stage a rare public protest. They’re going up here at home. They’re going up everywhere.

The reason is as simple as Economics 1A. We humans now have a global marketplace, more for oil perhaps than for any other commodity. We produce it globally, distribute it globally, and consume it globally. And in that global market supply has peaked irrevocably and demand is exploding worldwide.

To use the well-known jargon, we passed Peak Oil at least a year ago. None other than the world’s biggest and best oil company (Exxon-Mobil) made the announcement, not by words but by deeds. It bought XTO Energy, a gas “fracking” company, because it couldn’t replace the energy in its declining oil supplies with anything else fast enough, except for fracked natural gas. It did so even though its managers knew it would lose money, at least initially, because natural gas now costs a lot less than oil on an energy-equivalent basis.

As for the demand side, the growth is obvious. Europe and we Americans are the laggards in growth, with recent annualized growth rates of 0.3 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively. But together we account for about 10% of global population. The rest of the world is growing at least twice as fast, with places like India and China growing between 8% and 10% annually―over three times as fast.

And, in case you hadn’t noticed, economic growth is based on oil, worldwide. It takes oil to make the fertilizers that underlie the so-called “green revolution.” It takes oil to produce, transport and run the tractors and farm combines that plow the fields, seed the crops, spread the fertilizers, make and spread the weed killers and pesticides, harvest the crops, and thresh and grind the grains that result. It takes oil to bring the crops to market (mostly in big cities) and to get consumers to markets to buy them. That’s why oil-consumption growth rates closely track economic growth rates, except in most-developed societies, like ours, that are now (rightly) concerned with conservation and in relative economic decline.

So the supply of oil is dwindling. Demand for oil is growing globally like gangbusters. Both supply and demand for oil are highly inelastic. So basic college economics tells us that prices will rise rapidly and ineluctably for the foreseeable future.

All this was predictable. Decades ago we knew, or we should have known, that oil takes millions of years for geological forces to produce. So the supply in our Earth’s crust is limited, especially near the surface and on land, where we can get to it easily. The shortage is a function of basic geology and geography, of which we self-centered Americans are the most ignorant folk on the planet.

In fact, the shortage was not only predictable. It was predicted. Jimmy Carter foresaw it, turned the thermostat in the White House down, and wore sweaters. We Boomers laughed at him as we stuck the gas hoses in our long-finned Edsels and filled them up.

Of course no one could predict precisely when the crunch would come. Now it has come, and everyone who can face reality and do arithmetic should have seen it coming.

It was here before the Crash of 2008. But that economic collapse postponed it for a few years by killing the global economy and, with it, demand for oil. Now that rapid economic growth is back, mostly in portions of the globe outside of Boomerland, so is the oil “crisis.” But it’s not really a “crisis” at all. It’s a well-understood, wholly predictable and predicted phenomenon.

The world’s smarter people already know this and have been preparing for some time. Denmark, for example, is the world’s leader in windmills. Fly over its territory and you can see them from the air, in every conceivable location. France became the world leader in nuclear energy, making over 75% of its electricity from the atom and using it to run a modern system of electrified rapid transit, including marvelous high-speed intercity trains. Even China, which came late to the development party, is exploiting every substitute for oil it can find: windmills, solar cells, nuclear power plants, and dirty coal-fired plants.

But we Americans are “Number One”―the self-proclaimed world leaders in everything from free markets to military force. The whole world wants to know what we are doing, or so it seems to us.

Like spoiled brats, we are crying to our clueless politicians. “Daddy! Mommy! We want more oil!” (I put the male parent first not for reasons of gender discrimination, but because daddies are more likely to over-promise first, most, and always. It’s that macho thing.)

We direct this cry to the most clueless and incompetent members of our society, politicians. For forty years they saw or should have seen this “crisis” coming but did nothing about it. So now we, like spoiled brats turning to clueless parents, expect them to solve overnight what they couldn’t or wouldn’t solve for two generations.

And like the serial failures that they are, they come up with still more non-solutions. The first is offshore oil.

The highest estimate of all the offshore oil we know we possess, all together, amounts to less than 3% of global reserves. (For a more conservative estimate of US total reserves, including onshore reserves, look at this map.) When compared to 5% to 10% global growth rates, what does that mean? If we could take all that offshore oil out of the ground and make it available to refineries immediately―today!―it would mean a temporary slowdown in rising prices for a few months, at most a year. Then we’d be right back where we are today.

But of course we can’t do that. We can’t make any offshore oil available for refining immediately, except that which we’re already drilling. Drilling wells and building pipelines or tanker infrastructure takes years, up to a decade in rough climates like Alaska’s. And of course we can’t get all the oil because getting the last few bits requires multiple wells, pressurization, “fracking,” water-and-mud flooding and other increasingly expensive, toxic, and environmentally damaging technology.

That’s reality. Offshore drilling is not a cure for rising oil prices. It’s not even a reliable brake on rising prices. It’s just something that incompetent parents tell kids who’re screaming “Daddy! Mommy! I want more oil!” when they haven’t got anything sensible to say.

Dipping into nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve would be even worse. It would be committing national economic suicide.

The Reserve has a ninety-day supply of oil for our nation. That’s three months. It’s intended to stave off immediate national economic catastrophe in the event of some truly unforeseeable oil crisis like a revolution in Saudi Arabia, or a nuclear war in the Middle East that makes the oil radioactive. Each of those eventualities is looking a lot more likely now than even a year ago. But don’t count on loving parents to avoid suggesting insanity when they hear those plaintive cries, “Daddy! Mommy! I want more oil!”

Oil is running out, inexorably and globally. Geological forces aren’t going to make any more, at least not within the foreseeable future. With global economic growth just reaching its truly exponential phase, price increases are going to continue and likely accelerate as far out as we can see. And, at the end of the day, we need to save some oil to synthesize fertilizers, plastics, and medicines, unless we want to spend the time and enormous energy to synthesize them atom by atom, starting with methane.

Those are facts. Unlike spoiled brats and their clueless parents, adults face them. They don’t deny them.

So we need to find substitutes for oil, and we need to find and use them fast. The best and cleanest candidates are obvious and have been for some time. They are: nuclear, wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, with smaller amounts of geothermal and tidal power. There are also biofuels like ethanol, algae by-products and other biotech ferments. But these are in their infancy, and some of them create economic problems by displacing crops for food.

There is also coal, the dirtiest fuel known to the human race, and the one most likely to turn our blue-and-green earth into a smoggy brown purgatory. Most of the developing world overuses coal, and some of us want to follow its sorry lead. But the consequences would be disastrous. No one who has seen the grandeur of the Milky Way at night or sensed the fresh smell of spring would ever want to live in a world powered mainly by coal.

When parents hear their kids crying “Daddy! Mommy! I want more [X]!”, their first response is to make up stories to assuage the mental pain. It doesn’t matter whether the stories have any basis in reality.

That’s where we are now. But parents who continue on that tack end up ruining their children’s lives and their own. The hard choices and hard work lie ahead.

Will we Boomers continue to lie to our children and ignore their future, while they continue to live in our houses and face increasingly bleak prospects of energy scarcity, economic insecurity, pollution and global warming? Or will we strive to find good substitutes for oil and make them work? The answers will affect mostly us, for the rest of the world already has been far quicker than we to face reality.

P.S. The Future of Nuclear Power after Fukushima

Readers of this blog know that I am a strong supporter of nuclear power (1, 2, and 3) and a vehement opponent of coal (1, 2 and 3). The reason is not that I favor twentieth-century solutions over eighteenth-century ones, although I generally do. The reason is that I would far rather live right next to a nuclear power plant, taking the small risk that I might have to leave my home forever, than to live day-to-day with asthma, dirty skies, mercury pollution and acid rain, let alone the numerous consequences of global warming.

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima raised the ante for supporters of nuclear power like me. I am preparing an essay addressing the issues raised by that disaster. But, as a preview here, I’ll make two points.

First, Fukushima proved conclusively what we should have learned from Chernobyl: active safety is not enough. Every one of Fukushima’s six reactors and six spent-fuel cooling ponds required (and still requires!) continuous, ongoing, active cooling with circulated water in order to avoid meltdown (or now, further meltdown).

Relying on continuous, active human intervention to avoid catastrophe for the centuries and millennia required for radioactive fission byproducts to decay into harmlessness is the height of human hubris and insanity. Modern designs can provide safety with passive systems alone, that is, with systems that do not require any human intervention (let alone continuous intervention for decades or centuries) to work as designed.

We must use such passive safety systems wherever they are available, both in new plant design and in retrofitting old plants. If old plants cannot be retrofitted at reasonable cost, or at all, we should abandon and decommission them safely. Doing so is part of the cost of a safe and rational nuclear power program.

The second point is that cost. New nuclear-plant designs with passive safety systems may be more expensive than existing designs, let alone extending the lifetimes of existing plants far beyond their design longevity (as was done in Fukushima and many like American plants). But Chernobyl and Fukushima now give the lie to such “economies.”

We should design nuclear power, above all, to be safe. If that makes it too expensive, then we should exploit safer alternatives like wind and solar power or biofuels. But if we humans massively exploit nuclear power―as I think we can and should―then we should do everything we can to make it safe, without the need for constant and ongoing human surveillance and attention. Chernobyl and Fukushima should be the last human nuclear disasters that could have been avoided with a little more foresight and for a little more money.

Shale or “Fracked” Gas: An Interim Solution?

Careful readers will have noted that Exxon Mobil is betting on shale or “fracked” gas as the next step in our nation’s energy supply. So is Chevron.

This evolution is natural for oil companies because it uses variations of their customary technology. You get natural gas, including shale gas, by precisely the same methods you use to get oil: drilling wells. The wells for shale gas are more numerous and tricky; but they’re simpler, for example, than drilling for oil in the deep sea or the frozen Arctic. So oil companies are happy and in their element in recovering shale gas by fracking.

But shale gas has two big problems. First, it offers only limited supply. The Marcellus Shale gas deposit, reputed to be the world’s largest, may have enough recoverable gas to supply the whole US for twenty years. It’s a big deposit, but twenty years is not much time. It’s already been nearly forty since Jimmy Carter wore those sweaters in the White House, warning us of limited supplies of oil.

In comparison, consider supplies of thorium, the fuel for Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, a new (and much safer) form of nuclear power plant. We have enough thorium right here in the United States to power us at current rates for a millennium. That’s a long-term solution.

So shale gas is, at most, an interim solution, not a long-term one. Shale gas’ second problem is environmental damage. The last few months have produced the usual controversies (1 and 2) in Marcellus Shale drilling areas: environmental contamination, industry denials and play-downs, and citizen concern. The precise extent of the danger and damage are not clear yet, as all sides are engaged in the usual “spin.” But even at this early stage, it’s clear that shale gas drilling is neither costless nor riskless.

The Marcellus Shale covers parts of at least five states: New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. If the costs and risks turn out to be larger than expected, why risk the water supplies and peace of mind of millions of people in the most heavily populated part of the nation for a mere twenty years or so of energy grace?

Shale gas does have several advantages. We know how to get it. Our existing natural-gas infrastructure provides a reasonable means of distributing it. And we can modify internal combustion engines in cars and trucks to use it as a fuel, albeit with significant decrease in driving range. So, as long as its environmental damage and risks are tolerable, it’s not a bad interim solution to declining oil supplies and ever-rising gasoline prices.

But the big drawback is supply. Like oil, shale gas is limited in supply. There won’t be any more. So when its availability inevitably starts to diminish, we will experience the same sort of inexorable price increases and shortages that threaten us now with oil. And that probably will happen within three decades at the outside, because using natural gas as a substitute for oil (which has a higher energy density) will vastly increase our present natural-gas “burn rate.”

So while I didn’t mean to slight fracked gas, its potential as an interim fuel, or the continuing environmental controversies it is likely to create, I see the whole thing as largely irrelevant from a long-term perspective.

Besides hydroelectric power (which also may wane with climate change), there are only four general technologies that could provide long-term solutions: nuclear, wind, solar, and renewable biofuels (which are essentially biochemical means of storing solar energy). Coal could be a medium-term solution but with unacceptably horrible environmental consequences; so I exclude it.

The basic point of this essay is that we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. Doing so is wasteful and economically and politically disruptive. Shale gas should give us about twenty years to make a reasonable transition to a longer-term energy solution. But in order to realize its potential in that regard, and to minimize shale gas’ foreseen and unforeseen environmental consequences (including climate change), we have to start the transition now.

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21 April 2011

Arab Liberation: Another Cold War Ending?


Introduction: The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Cold War and Its Resolution
Today’s New “Cold War
The Role of Islam
The Awakening
Conclusion

[For a brief update as of 4/21/11, click here.]

Introduction: The Day the Earth Stood Still

On October 24, 1962, the world held its breath and waited for global destruction. I know. I was there. I’ve described here my impressions, which I remember more clearly, after 49 years, than yesterday’s breakfast. I was seventeen and in college. My adult life was just beginning, and I thought it might end on that day. So did millions of others around the globe.

Like me, the Cold War was then just seventeen years old. It would live to be 44. Although I didn’t expect to do so, I’ve outlived it by more than two decades. Now our close brush with species self-extinction is just a page in the history books, a fading memory for those who lived through it.

But only those who lived through it, like me, can recall the tone of the times. Like the War against Terrorists today, the nuclear arms race with the Soviets seemed endless and endlessly terrifying.

The Cold War and Its Resolution

The Cold War lasted 44 years, from 1945 to 1989. Its chief feature was a mindless, horrendously expensive and terrifying nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union.

First there were long-range nuclear bombers. Then came short-range nuclear missiles, then intercontinental ballistic missiles (with their own well-known acronym, ICBMs). Later both sides developed MIRV’ed ICBMs with multiple warheads, so-called “multiple independent re-entry vehicles.” Finally, there were nuclear submarines, which could hold a dozen or so of these terrible weapons and hide under the sea for months at a time. Each submarine could destroy a small nation utterly in fifteen minutes, all by itself.

Besides a pervasive sense of imminent doom, the Cold War produced plenty of frustration. The Soviets held the Baltic and Eastern Europe in their iron embrace. Lot of refugees from their vassal states came here. Their heartfelt tirades against the Soviets were constant. Some here actually wanted war, either to get the whole thing over with at last, or to stop the “Evil Empire” from oppressing so many innocent people. But cooler heads prevailed, and the human race muddled on, under the ever-present threat of self-extinction.

Then, all of a sudden, it was over. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, then Boris Yeltsin. The Berlin Wall fell. Eastern Europe went free, and the fearsome Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight.

It had started in September 1981, with the obscure election of Lech Wałęsa as president of an independent workers’ movement in Poland. Within a decade, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and both Poland’s and Russia’s own people were free. Now Eurasia is at peace. Russia, while not exactly a democracy, at least has the form of one. It is preoccupied with its internal affairs and the advancement of its own ordinary people.

An irrational ideology called Communism had gripped an otherwise sensible people, the Russians, who had created some of humanity’s greatest literature, music and science. Because that ideology contradicted human nature, it required the Terror for its sustenance. The Terror inside led to Terror outside, demonization of the West as the enemy, and the Cold War.

When the Russians and their subject peoples came to their senses, it all went away with hardly a shot fired. The denouement was as bloodless as India’s independence from the British Empire in 1947.

Politicians and historians called it a “miracle.” But it was nothing of the kind. It was the slow process of people coming to their senses, gaining collective courage, and changing their minds and their social environment.

Today’s New “Cold War”

It seems odd that few can see the analogy. Terror by Islamic extremists did not start with 9/11. It’s been going on since the first airplane hijacking in the early 1970s. So it’s now almost as old as the Cold War was when it died of old age. What we are going through is a New Cold War, with Islamic extremism replacing Communism and retail Terror replacing the wholesale Terror of the First Cold War.

There are differences, of course. The tyrannies of Communism ultimately came from a single source: the Kremlin. The tyrannies that provoke Islamic extremism are dispersed and various. They are as rude and obvious as Saddam’s, now gone, the despotism of Assad in Syria or Qaddafi in Libya, or the so-called “Islamic Republic” of Iran. They are as subtle and smooth as the secretly brutal rule of the Saudi Princes, who themselves teach terrorism abroad as part of the price of buying their people’s acquiescence at home. (But just like the Soviet vassal states of Eastern Europe, the Sunni tyrannies reinforce each other; and they play on their fear of the Shiite tyranny, Iran, to beguile their peoples.)

Another important difference is the complex role of religion. Christianity―specifically the Catholic Church―played a vital and entirely positive role in human rejection of Soviet Communism.

With extraordinary courage and determination, a young Polish Cardinal named Karol Wojtyla laid the groundwork for the Polish Solidarity movement and Polish liberation. When the secular Communist tyrants demolished his church and refused to build another, he held his services in an open field for several years, even in the depths of winter. His refusal to be cowed inspired others, led to his selection as Pope John Paul II, and ultimately gave birth to the Solidarity movement.

The Russian people learned of the Pope’s heroism and its legacy of Solidarity though little pamphlets about the size of decks of cards. “Samizdat” self-publishers printed these pamphlets in secret and distributed them secretly, from hand to hand, throughout the Soviet Empire, in various Slavic languages. (I still have one in my library.) Thus did modern communication set the stage for a “miraculuous” bloodless revolution, a decade before the Internet, and right under the noses of the Soviet secret police.

The Role of Islam

In the second Cold War, the role of Islam is more ambiguous. There is no towering figure like Pope John Paul II to inspire a peaceful revolution. Part of the reason is Islam’s loose organization.

Unlike the Catholic Church, Islam has no widely recognized central authority, even among Sunnis or Shiites separately. It’s a fragmented religion. That’s why people as diverse as the mullah-tyrants of Iran and Muqtada al Sadr in Iraq (both Shiites) can claim religous authority. It’s also why someone like Osama bin Laden, who was never an imam and has no formal religious training whatsoever, can purport to issue a fatwa instructing Muslims to kill Americans.

This Islamic decentralization is both bad and good. It’s bad because it allows previously unknown terrorists like Osama bin Laden to claim the mantle of Islam and capture the imagination of an oppressed and suffering people. It’s good because, at any moment, a smarter and more humane Islamic leader can emerge and help liberate the Arabs, just as Pope John Paul II helped free the Slavs.

To my mind, the role of Islam is the key misconception in many Americans’ minds. Not everyone can be as courageous as Karol Wojtyla when facing down what seems to be a monolithic tyranny with all the tanks, guns, planes and social power. People need inspiration and spiritual sustenance, and that’s where religion comes in.

In fact, that’s where Islam already came in. But it got sidetracked.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which was a predecessor of Al Qaeda, started as a resistance movement in Egypt, opposing the military tyranny there. After decades of massive roundups, jailings, and executions of its members, it was no nearer to its goals. So in desperation it turned to what it saw as the motive force behind the tyrants, namely, the West in general and the US in particular.

The terrible irony about this change in tactics was that it was basically a cry for help. Had the cry been directed toward the American people, rather than against Americans and their government, it likely would have struck a chord of sympathy.

But as a cry for help, resort to terror was vastly counterproductive. By the time the terrorists got through with slaughtering the tourists at Luxor, bombing the USS Cole and the barracks in Lebanon, and demolishing the embassies in Ethiopia and Tanzania and the World Trade Center, they had managed to alienate the American people entirely, along with most of the West, and incite us to demonize them.

Each side horrendously misjudged the other. The Islamists assumed that Americans actively supported vicious tyrannies, like the Saudis’, of which they were in fact mostly unaware. So the terrorists decreed all Americans their enemies and made them so. Americans, in turn, responded by demonizing the Islamists, imagining that they, every one, are hell bent on destroying us as their fondest dream.

President G.W. Bush―never the brightest bulb in the marquee―told us that Islamists hate us and our way of life. That’s not so. What they hate is the tyrants who are oppressing them. They see us as the immovable force behind those tyrants, thwarting their every effort to dislodge them, despite decades of effort and sacrifice.

So like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, these idealists, who could not even dislodge the Egyptian or Saudi tyrants, sought to bring down the greatest empire in human history. Instead, all they did was alienate a people who, based on our own history and traditions, would have been likely (but subtle) allies if approached more kindly.

The Awakening

Now the smarter Muslims are wising up in three ways. First, they are getting tired of people (Al Qaeda) purportedly “helping” them by blowing them up, along with their friends and relatives, even at Muslim weddings and funerals. Second, they are coming to recognize that there is a lot of support, here in America and around the world, for what they are trying to do. No one loves a tyrant, least of all Americans.

Finally, and most important, they Arabs are recognizing what they should have known all along. No one can give them their freedom. They have to organize and struggle for it, all on their own.

Some of them will have to die. Some of them already have. But what’s the best cause for becoming a martyr? Killing a few innocent Americans and just enraging the rest of us? Or striking a blow for freedom in what could be a bloodless and relatively painless revolution like Tunisia’s or Egypt’s? It doesn’t take a genius to get the answers to those questions right.

That’s what’s happening right now. And that’s what makes Arab liberation―possibly followed soon by Persian―the most important international development after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It relies on the power of ordinary people, in their masses, seeking and demanding what most of the rest of the world has. The people seek not democracy or any particular form of government. Instead, they want only a measure of self-determination and a government that cares about ordinary people, and—if only in some rude and awkward way—seeks their advancement or at least lets them help themselves.

In this struggle, Islam is a two-edged sword. The terrorists have given it a bad name by perverting it to justify their insanely counterproductive tactics.

But real Islam doesn’t countenance murder, let alone the murder of innocents, let alone the murder of innocents indiscriminately in large numbers, let alone the murder of innocent Muslims, let alone while attending weddings or funerals. The terrorists have justified these heinous acts, anathema to any religion, by the most transparent and pernicious sophistry.

It has taken a while, but Muslims worldwide are finally coming realize how much damage bin Laden and his followers have done not only to their religion, but also to their chances of wresting a normal life from their tyrants in their lifetimes. And their beliefs and tactics are beginning to change.

So when you hear crowds of Arab patriots should “God is Great!” you shouldn’t hear a call to terrorism. You should hear a generic call to faith in a single God. And when you hear that cry at a rally for liberty and justice, you should translate it as “Thank God!”

Muslims’ God may have a different name from ours, expressed in different characters. But it’s the same one that we Americans believe in, whether we are Christians, Jews or Muslims ourselves (as increasing numbers of us are). It’s the same one that sustained our troops from Valley Forge to Iwo Jima. It’s the God that inspires men and women everywhere to seek their liberty for themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not our enemy. It seeks the same thing that all patriots everywhere seek: liberty of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom to exploit and enhance one’s God-given potential. The terrorism that offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood (never the whole movement) sponsored or condoned was a mere tactic―a terribly misguided and counterproductive one―in that struggle.

Damaging America was just a mistaken means to an end: the liberation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That end, of course, is something that most Americans can support, although not of course the means. Now that the means is courageous, nonviolent domestic uprisings, support from the West should be overwhelming, at least from its people, if not their governments. Here France is the leader, as always where liberty is at stake.

Conclusion

The analogy between the First Cold War and the Second Cold War (on Terrorists) is not perfect. The Soviet tyranny was concentrated and centralized. The Arab tyrannies are diverse and dispersed. Catholicism was a positive force in liberating the Slavs. Islam has been hijacked by terrorists in a grave tactical and strategic blunder.

But the basic analogy still holds true. A people can liberate itself from its own tyrants only through its own effort. The terrorists’ mistake was assuming that the US could grant the Egyptian and Saudi people their freedom, and that it could be coerced to do so. We Americans responded with our own blunder: thinking that we must remake the Middle East in our image, primarily with military force, in order to protect ourselves. The enormous cost of the War in Iraq, both to us and to Iraqis, has revealed that blunder beyond all doubt.

But what is happening now is quite different. The multiple revolutions in the Arab world are spontaneous outpourings of popular courage, a lust for the liberty that most of the rest of the world now enjoys.

They are like the Soviet and Slavic awakening, in which captive peoples of the old Soviet Union rebelled non-violently against tyrannies and ideologies that had oppressed them and that, to maintain their power, had demonized the outside world. When the dust had settled, both the tyrannies and external terror were gone, along with the internal one.

That is what Arab liberation means for the West. And that is why it’s the most important international development since the Cold War’s end.

We are not the authors of Arab liberation. We can’t be. The Arabs must wrest their liberty from the hand of their tyrants as all other people have done, including us. We can’t even be good abettors, because we really don’t know how. We are strangers to the culture.

But if we are smart, we can speed the process in ways small and large, as we are doing in Libya. At least we can avoid doing harm and retarding the process.

We have seen the same sort of human “miracle” so recently in the Cold War’s end. We were clueless then. But now we’ve been through it once, in a case where the stakes—species self-extinction—were so much higher. So now maybe we can help the inevitable, speed it on its way, and minimize the price in blood and treasure that need be paid by all concerned.

The harder and smarter we work, the more “miraculous” things will get. Attribute it to God or Allah if you like. But smart and good people can make God’s miracles work faster.

Update 4/21/11

More good news continues to come from Libya. The rebels are gaining ground, and the President has authorized Predator Drone strikes to add to NATO’s power in the theater. It’s about time. Drones can operate at lower altitudes than manned planes without endangering pilots. They therefore offer greater accuracy, fewer civilian and friendly-fire casualties, and an ability to counter Qaddafi loyalists’ common tactic of using civilians shields. And if you want to see what the fuss is all about, look at this profile of Arab youth waiting for a better life—some skeptically and many with hope.

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18 April 2011

Arab Liberation: Which Side Are We On?

    “Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?” --- Bob Dylan

You have to love the French. They know how to live. They invented the term “affaire d’amour.” Their cuisine, cheese and wine define quality. Their countryside is a rare delight. And with efficient public transit and safe nuclear power at 77%, they have the cleanest skies in Europe. For peaceful enjoyment of life, without troubling others, they are unsurpassed.

The French also love liberty. The were the first to endorse our own American Revolution. Through their Marquis de Lafayette, they helped us win our War of Independence. Their war against King John helped the Barons wrest the Magna Carta from him and found Anglo-American self-government. And the French were the first to recognize the Libyan rebels in their struggle for freedom.

Why is it so hard for the self-described “leader of the free world” to go and do likewise? Why do we, who saved the world from Nazism and Imperial Japanese aggression, who stood a scary half-century vigil against the scourge of militant Communism, now find it so hard to support freedom for all Arabs?

It’s a puzzlement.

At the moment, we like to pick and choose. Tunisians are “good” as free people, because they are mostly secular and their women don’t wear veils. Egyptians are risky, because the Muslim Brotherhood is their invention and a likely future political party. But ultimately they also are “good” because their army is strong, conservative, and well organized and unlikely to let things get out of hand. Libyans are even more risky—we don’t know much about them—but they, too, are “good” because their tyrant is crazy and has cut the flow of oil.

But as for the others, forget them! Bahrainis can’t free themselves because, well, the Saudi Princes don’t want them to, and the Saudi Princes are our tyrants. Syrians are risky because their tyranny is very stable and their tyrant is very tough and very conservative. Never mind that he supports Hezbollah and Hamas and probably had the late, senior Hariri murdered. Never mind that he keeps Lebanon divided, supports terrorism, and foments hatred against Israel and the West. The devil we know is better than the devil that may follow him.

And then there’s the worst tyranny of all: the Saudi Princes’. We don’t see it as the worst because it’s our tyranny, supported by our arms and oil money and consistent national policy for two generations. But a tyranny it is, and one of the worst on Earth.

What kind of Americans—if they knew the truth and didn’t fear for their gasoline—would support a medieval family monarchy that rules absolutely, with the aid of the most ruthless and effective secret police outside of North Korea? that keeps women completely covered up and uneducated and won’t even let foreign women drive? that supports and encourages Islamic extremism and terrorism around the globe by financing madrassas that teach no useful skills but push extremist Wahhabi Islam and hatred of the West and Israel? that keeps its own Arab people uneducated, unemployed and servile unless they belong to the royal family? that maintains legions of foreign workers in abject conditions of near slavery to run the oil fields and support the royal family’s obscene wealth? that pretends to be pious Muslims at home but leads the most promiscuous, dissipated and immoral lifestyle in its secret, gated mansions abroad?

Arabs themselves don’t make these invidious distinctions. They all want to be free. Al Jazeera and the Internet have opened their eyes. They know that, outside of central Africa, their own tyrants have made them the most backward, deprived and poverty-stricken people on Earth. They see what the rest of us have, and they want it. And that includes the freedom to live, work, worship and prosper in their own way. Increasingly, they won’t let self-serving tyrants stand in their way.

So as Saudi tanks rush over the causeway into Bahrain, the question is what will we do about it. Which side are we on?

It’s not enough to say the Arab “street” loves Islam and hates Israel. Perhaps it loves Islam so much because it cannot love itself or improve its own condition. And Islam, after all, has two faces. Who’s to say that love of God and self-improvement won’t replace perpetual jihad when freedom makes self-improvement possible?

As for hatred of Israel, who stokes it? The tyrants encourage that hate, and the street responds, because expressing hatred for its real oppressors results in surveillance, jail and execution. Free the Arab street and watch it change, as the focus shifts from alleged foreign enemies to improving people’s lives.

It’s also not enough to point to Yugoslavia and its ethnic splinters. The conventional wisdom that all fell apart when the Soviet boot stepped off is a bit simplistic. For it took another vicious tyrant, Slobodan Milošević, to start the conflagration. Now that he is gone, the broken Balkans are at peace.

And as for the oil wells, why worry? They are an obvious prize. But they are valuable only if they work and produce oil. The only person in human history ever to destroy them willfully was Saddam—a tyrant so brutal and unpredictable that we ginned up a war on false pretenses to remove him. The people of Iraq didn’t destroy those Kuwaiti oil wells. Need I say more?

I don’t mean to imply that the revolutions, let alone our part in them, will be simple. Even Libya isn’t simple, despite universal contempt for Qaddafi and our overwhelming military force. Exerting our influence in various ways will be difficult and complicated. We will need finesse and sometimes even Machiavellian duplicity.

But the world and the Arab street have to know where we stand. There is no question that the revolutions are real. There is little question that they will triumph eventually, whether in months or in decades. When that happens, we must have been on the right side of history.

The Arabs and their fellow Muslims constitute nearly one-quarter of humanity. When the dust settles and the Arabs are free at last, what do we want them and their fellow Muslims to remember? Do we want them to think of us as liberators or as oppressors who sold them into slavery for a barrel of oil?

And what about us Americans? What should we think about ourselves? Will our self-image survive supporting plutocrats at home and oil tyrants abroad? I don’t think so.

Nor would Thomas Jefferson. “The tree of libery,” he said, “must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” How much better for us when our own patriots need not shed blood, but need only express their firm support and put their shoulders to the wheel.

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15 April 2011

Teaching the Retarded


In the maelstrom of daily politics, it’s easy to forget that the President is an educator. He professed about four times as long―twelve years―as he organized communities in Chicago. That length of teaching experience matched his entire political experience before he ascended to the White House.

At the University of Chicago, where he taught, his students were hardly slow ones. They were among the best in the nation. To teach them well, which he did, the President had to be a quick study. Now he’s learned how to teach much slower learners, namely, the so-called independents whose confusion and misguided votes have made our nation a dystopia.

As always, the President’s sense of timing is impeccable. Although still at some risk of inflation, the nation is visibly emerging from the economic catastrophe his predecessors aided and abetted. And the risk of a government shutdown has temporarily abated. So he now has an unbroken “semester” of nearly eighteen months, until the next presidential election, to teach the retarded what the GOP is really all about.

Quicker learners now know that the GOP has no substantive policy―at least none that makes any sense. Its energy policy is “drill, baby, drill!” But Peak Oil has passed, and the developing world is growing much faster than we are. So oil prices will rise without end, bringing us economic ruin.

As for global warming and the threat of climate change, the GOP’s policy is simple. Play the ostrich and keep your head in the sand. That policy didn’t even budge after the GOP’s most credible advocate changed his tune and accepted the conventional scientific wisdom.

The GOP’s policy for finance is as simple and as misguided. Let the Big Boys play. Don’t stop their gambling and swindling, which account for most of the business the profit we have left. And by no means let someone who understands both what they do and its huge risks (namely, Elizabeth Warren) guard the henhouse. Keep the foxes in charge.

As for other issues, the GOP recognizes none. It’s hard enough to keep human history’s greatest propaganda machine focused on the lie du jour. Disputing the President’s birthplace and legitimacy, falsifying his religion, lying about the prevalence of abortion and its causes, and lamenting the loss of small-town “values” that are historically retrograde and haven’t existed for the vast majority of Americans for decades―these are the “issues” the GOP uses to distract Americans from things that really matter.

So it’s not surprising that the GOP has focused primarily on the deficit. That’s the only drum it can bang that makes any sensible noise at all.

Never mind that Republicans from Reagan to Dubya and Cheney decreed that “deficits don’t matter” when they were in power. Never mind that a recovering and growing economy will produce more tax revenue and cure the deficits in due course, albeit slowly. Never mind that our deficit is nowhere near as big a problem as energy, global warming, financial gambling, infrastructure decay, deteriorating education, and gross inequalities of opportunity and income between the rich and the rest of us.

The deficit, at least, is real. It’s a big, scary number. It reminds ordinary people of the debt with which the GOP policy vacuum has forced them to live in order to survive. And best of all, human history’s greatest propaganda machine has managed to convince a critical mass of voters, contrary to fact and memory, that the deficit, like the Great Collapse of 2008, is all the President’s fault.

So insofar as real policy goes, as distinguished from “social” issues and the President’s race, the deficit is all the GOP has got. No wonder they bang that drum so hard; it’s the only real instrument in their band!

But now, with the GOP having backed down from being the villains in a government shut down, the President is in a position to demonstrate this fact. His is a simple proposal, which even the retarded can understand. Want to lower the deficit? Fine. Raises taxes on the rich. Don’t ask the poor and middle class to pay, either directly through an historically unfair share of taxes, or indirectly through reductions in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the myriad government services, from libraries to police and firefighters, which the rich can provide for themselves but the rest of us cannot.

This strategy puts the GOP in a simple fork. Agree to raise taxes on the rich, and the GOP gives the lie to their consistent trickle-down “policy” over the last thirty years. Coincidentally, they do the right thing and admit the justice of the Democrats’ position. Fail to agree, and the GOP quite visibly puts the interests of the rich and powerful above the interests of the rest of us.

Of course, that’s what the GOP’s been about for 31 years, ever since Master Swindler Reagan, which his Irish charm, stole the nation’s heart, soul and wallet. But not enough people see it yet to stop the Great Swindle that is now three decades old.

So we now have a great experiment in public education. Can a president trained as an educator overturn three decades’ worth of consistent and spectacularly effective propaganda, and teach the American people that the GOP have three goals only: (1) to win at any cost, (2) to further enrich their rich patrons, and (3) to soak the poor and middle class for that purpose and to keep them tractable?

Classes begin now and run for eighteen months. Let the teaching begin.

Footnote: In testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology this March 31, Professor Richard A. Muller of the University of California at Berkeley, a self-professed climate-change skeptic, testified as follows [unpaginated page 5]:
"Did . . . poor [temperature-measurement] station quality exaggerate the estimates of global warming? We’ve studied this issue, and our preliminary answer is no. [emphasis in original]"

"The Berkeley Earth analysis shows that over the past 50 years the poor stations in the U.S. network do not show greater warming than do the good stations."

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10 April 2011

The Proper Response is Rage


Sitemeter suggests that readers may be surfing this blog to see my reaction the House’s last-minute avoidance of a government shutdown. No doubt the Obama Administration expects gratitude for averting the train wreck. No doubt Idiot Boehner (1, 2 and 3) and his Tea Mob legions expect gratitude for making a minuscule contribution to deficit reduction.

But my response is far from gratitude. It is rage.

I’ve just returned from visiting seven countries on five continents. In none of them have I seen government as dysfunctional.

I’m furious that I live in a country where buffoons waste real power to improve lives in such useless political theater. I’m angry that my fellow citizens are so uneducated and uninformed as to take this charade seriously. And I’m mad that the president I worked hardest for and contributed most to in my 65 years has been forced to partake in it.

I know, I know. It’s mostly the Republicans’ fault. Of course it is. Deficit reduction is so far from our most serious problem as to make touting it a swindle of its own. And anyway this charade did not even make an appreciable dent in the deficit. It was all about posturing and preening for the great unwashed in the hope of winning elections without any sensible policy whatsoever.

The whole affair was and is a waste of time and money. Even though I’m now retired, I resent the little time I spent reading news reports of it.

But despite my placing blame where it belongs, I can’t help feeling disappointment at the Obama Administration. The President did (finally!) threaten a veto to move bargaining along. But the charade continues. Our governance continues to degenerate into useless, misleading and embarrassing political theater.

I personally would have preferred to see the President let the government shut down and put the blame where it properly belongs: on the party that doesn’t believe in government and wants to destroy it.

If the uninformed morons who pass for independents and fix our electoral fate these days can’t even yet see what is happening, they need a very rude shock to wake them up. Increasingly I think such a shock must come before we see any change in what is without doubt the least effective government on the planet, with the possible exception of North Korea’s or Zimbabwe’s.

My rage and despair are not without consequences. I must get five or more e-mails a day from various Democratic organizations, signed by various political luminaries, all asking for money. But why should I contribute to useless political theater that accomplishes nothing real? Why should I spend even discretionary income from my life savings on utter incompetence and foolishness?

If I want theater, there are much better places to go, even outside Manhattan. I would sooner spend the money on saving a rain forest or helping the victims of natural disasters in Japan, Chile and Haiti.

“Fight the right!” the e-mails shout, or words to that effect. “Don’t let the GOP get away with murder!” But all my money will support is more simplistic bumper-sticker ads to convince fools who are apparently incapable of rational thought to wise up.

I’m a dedicated teacher (tough retired, I still teach at times). I never give up on slow students. But that’s on a “retail” basis. This is wholesale. You can’t teach people whose minds are made up before they ever see the first piece of evidence, and who are trained like Pavlov’s dogs to believe in myth more than their own eyes. And no propaganda machine assembled by mere politicians can ever match the power of Rupert Murdoch’s empire.

So the only hope I see at present is the ruling class that pulls the strings itself wising up. Glenn Beck is on his way out of Fox Propaganda. The Wall Street Journal today published a short article in effect admitting how dysfunctional our health-care system is (while proclaiming with false equivalence that foreign government and private systems alike beat our own). The response of the FAA and the aircraft/air travel industry to the recent blowout of ceiling panels on a Boeing 737 suggests that our captains of industry and some regulators can at least respond rationally when the lives of innocent passengers are at stake. So maybe there is hope.

But the vile charade that passes for politics and government in our nation today will stop only when the rich folk who call the shots get tired of it. That probably won’t happen until the storm begins to shake their first-class cabins.

As for me, I’m going to watch the farce from afar, doing what I can on this blog to analyze real problems. I didn’t train for half a century in three demanding, evidence-based careers to become a literary critic of self-satire.

So don’t expect this blog henceforth, as in the past, to spend much time refuting inaccuracies, even obvious lies (1, 2 and 3). In our theater- and PR-driven culture, their fount is inexhaustible.

The only prescription I can now provide is one I’ve made before. Keep the President and Vice President safe not only from traveling together, but even from being in the same city at the same time. John Boehner is third in line for the presidency. If he ever gets there, this blogger and his spouse will emigrate, even at our advanced age.

Coda: A Chance Missed?

The more I think about it, the more I wish the President had called the right’s bluff and let the government shut down. Conventional wisdom says that it would have been hard to predict whom our idiot electorate would blame. But blame is not the issue. The issue is fighting consistent and highly effective right-wing propaganda and strategy for the last thirty years.

Ever since Reagan, the right has insisted that government is not the solution, but the problem. A generation and a half of propaganda has taught unthinking and uniformed Americans to hate their own government. And I don’t use the word “hate” lightly. Remember the nameless senior who screamed at the President, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”?

Demonizing government as ineffective, inefficient, corrupt and coddling freeloaders is the central pillar of right-wing propaganda. Not only that. It is also the central pillar of right-wing policy (insofar as you can call nihilism “policy”).

The right seeks a win for fascism in America not just by making government hated, but by depriving it of the revenue and political support it needs to function. The very charade we all just witnessed advanced those goals by convincing citizens that government is incapable of functioning at all, let alone rationally.

So many people have bought into this myth so strongly that contrary evidence (1 [search for “most robust”] and 2) is incapable of changing their minds. So the only way to reach them, I think, is with a swift kick in the stomach. Take away the government services on which they unknowingly depend, and they may discover the value of what they lost. A large fraction (though hardly all) of Tea Mob members are seniors; stop their Social Security checks and they may wise up.

Would it be a risky strategy? Of course. But so is doing nothing as government degenerates into farce and real issues (energy and preventing another finance-led economic collapse by putting teeth in financial reform) remain dangerously unaddressed.

Sooner the later, the people will wise up and rise up. But they might not do so until the next economic catastrophe, which is sure to come without effective government intervention. Reversing its effects in a bankrupt and rudderless country may take years or decades. Wouldn’t a short but painful engineered demonstration of how vital is government to ordinary people’s lives be better for all?

As I’ve opined before, the best way to teach children not to play with fire is hard experience. I’m afraid the train-wreck just averted was a good chance missed, which may not soon come again.

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04 April 2011

Runnymede in Tripoli


People who think Libyans aren’t ready for self-government ought to study the Magna Carta and its history. That venerable document is the ultimate source of self-government, the rule of law, and human rights in the English-speaking world.

Over the ages, the Great Charter has acquired a patina of unreality. Without thinking deeply about it, most people in Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, the United States and Wales probably think their modern democracies, as imperfect as they are, sprang full blown from it, maybe with a little “tweaking.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1215, when King John signed the first of many versions, the entire once-colonial part of this English-speaking world didn’t exist. There was not even a Britain, only a nascent England harried by external and internal wars. The vast majority of its “citizens” were serfs, living on rented land at the sufferance of their lords and ladies. It was, after all, a medieval society.

King John did not cede the rights in the Great Charter gladly. He had overextended himself in war in France, and the Barons who assembled their forces in the fields of Runnymede chose their time wisely. John saw he was outnumbered and that victory, if it were even possible, would be very costly. So he made a deal and wrote it down, and the rest is history.

There are good translations of various versions into modern English, and reading one of more of them can open your eyes. You will search in vain for mention of “the people” or common men and women. The rights that the Great Charter established were for the Barons whose forces were assembled, and for their officials and functionaries, including knights (military leaders), sheriffs and tenants with title or rank.

The document also mentions abbots and other religious figures and protects their lands and rights to their callings. But the Magna Carta’s basic thrust was to protect the land and rights of feudal lords and ladies and their tenants and vassals against the King’s arbitrary rule.

Once you understand that bit of history, it’s not hard to make a good analogy between the feudal Barons and the tribal sheikhs of Libya. Like the Barons, the sheiks are local leaders, responsible for protecting and governing their local empires, battling rivals, and dispensing local justice. Like the Barons and their sheriffs and notable tenants, the sheikhs are primarily concerned with preserving the continuity of their traditional way of life―their local laws, customs and religious practices. Just as the Barons resisted King John’s tyranny out of London, so the sheikhs resist Qaddafi’s tyranny out of Tripoli.

Even the existence of foreign intervention is similar. Without King John’s war in France, which was going badly at the time, the Barons’ attempt to assert their “rights” against an all-powerful monarch might have gone quite differently. (We Americans acknowledge our debt to the Marquis de Lafayette in our own War of Independence, but the whole English-speaking world owes a similar debt to France.) So the fact that foreigners’ arms are playing a part in asserting self-determination is nothing new.

Viewed broadly and in historical context, the process that produced the Magna Carta has only two distinct differences from what is happening now in Libya. First, King John decided not to fight but to bargain. It’s unfortunate that Qaddafi is not smart enough to see the writing on the wall, but that’s not the fault of Libya’s sheikhs or its people. And his supporters still may see the light.

Second, the Great Charter recognized the rights of women (noble ones, of course). It required the King to respect the “dower” rights of wives of landowners and reserve for them at least one third of their deceased husbands’ estates for their lifetimes.

Rights of women are important, but it is not essential that they arise full-blown from this present conflict. Apart from the Great Charter’s limited recognition of noble women’s land rights, and beyond the need for a certain level of force to convince Qaddafi’s retainers to abandon him, there is little to distinguish what’s going on in Libya today from the ultimate foundation of our own self-government. Even the same nation―France―that midwifed our own American self-government, and whose war helped the Barons at Runnymede, was the first to recognize the Libyan rebels. Italy now has followed suit.

As many have remarked, it’s ridiculous to to call what may come out of Libya democracy. It’s likely to be limited self-government, a departure from brutal tyranny and a bit better than what came before. But that’s precisely what the Magna Carta authorized. Changing a people’s culture takes time, even in the Internet Age.

If we can restrain our Western sense of cultural superiority, understand that this is a Libyan affair, and let nature take its course, we may have reason to look back on our intervention as proudly as educated French people no doubt do their assistance (unwitting and witting) in the birth of Anglo-American self-government out of an all-powerful monarchy.

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