Posts Tagged ‘Policy’
Matt Taibbi has one of the most lucid posts on the recent health-care scandal I’ve seen recently.
You may remember the California Anthem Blue uproar that occurred a week or so ago, wherein they arbitrarily and unilaterally jacked up their prices almost 40%. Taibbi asks the logical question – “Why can’t California customers just switch to another, cheaper provider?” – and then answers it: “Because they have no choice.”
You see, as it turns out, health insurance providers are exempt from anti-trust legislation, which means they can hold veritable monopolies over huge areas and no one can do a thing about it. This was certainly news to me.
Dating back to 1947, what was supposed to be a “temporary” exemption quickly became a permanent loophole in the Sherman Anti-Trust legislation.
As Taibbi says:
This is why insurers (especially insurers with large market shares in small states) are easily able to gouge customers and deny coverage. There’s really no legal mechanism for preventing the firms from getting together and arranging price-fixing and other outrages. In a normal market customers would be able to get better coverage and cheaper rates from a competitor, but insurance is really more like a series of competition-free fiefdoms where the customers can’t go elsewhere for a better deal.
The exemption is known as the McCarran-Ferguson amendment, and so long as it’s still on the books health-care providers will continue to have a monopoly over large swaths of land. This is yet another reason why the “individual mandate” in Obama’s health-care plan is so goddamn offensive. “Reform” is impossible without repealing McCarran-Ferguson. How many of you think that’s likely?
The New York Review of Books gives a harrowing continuation of its series on widespread sexual abuse in our “juvenile detention centers”:
Adults who want to have sex with children sometimes look for jobs that will make it easy. They want authority over kids, but no very onerous supervision; they also want positions that will make them seem more trustworthy than their potential accusers. Such considerations have infamously led quite a few pedophiles to sully the priesthood over the years, but the priesthood isn’t for everyone. For some people, moral authority comes less naturally than blunter, more violent kinds.
Ray Brookins worked for the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), the state’s juvenile detention agency. In October 2003, he was hired as head of security at the West Texas State School in Pyote. Like most TYC facilities, it’s a remote place. The land is flat to the horizon, scattered with slowly bobbing oil derricks, and always windy. It’s a long way from the families of most kids confined there, who tend to be urban and poor; a long way from any social services, or even the police. It must have seemed perfect to Brookins—and also to John Paul Hernandez, who was hired as the school’s principal around the same time. Almost immediately, Brookins started pulling students out of their dorms at night, long after curfew, and bringing them to the administration building. When asked why, he said it was for “cleaning.”
What can one say here? We talk of Bagram in Afghanistan or Guantanamo Bay as “legal black holes”, and we feel content, safe in the knowledge that “real American prisoners” have rights. But who has actually seen the inside of a prison?
Surprisingly many, if the statistic bear witness. The Times reported a couple years ago that upwards of 1 in 100 adults was incarcerated – an astounding figure which no other country, not even China, can boast. In absolute numbers, the United States carries more prisoners than any other country, a fact which fails to awe until one considers that China and India each have triple our population. Much of this has to do with draconian drug laws, wherein a man or woman can be put in jail for years for the horrific crime of carrying around some dried-up plant or a bit of white powder – but much of it also has to do with this “lock ‘em and forget ‘em” mentality of dealing with crime, as though the primary focus of our “justice system” ought to be punishment, rather than rehabilitation.
More worrying is how this attitude has shifted toward juvenile prisoners. I don’t want to make too many apologies for our incarcerated juveniles, for the truth is that many of them have committed horrible acts, but to treat them simply as miniature adults represents, I think, a grave injustice.
Particularly when they’re raped by their so-called caretakers, as the above article meticulously and painfully details.
Lilliana Segura of Alternet turns us on to an upcoming change in Obama’s war policy:
In a one-page memo dated Feb. 17, 2010 and signed by Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense officially requested that U.S. Central Command “change the name of Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.”
“The requested operation name change is approved to take effect 1 September, 2010, coinciding with the change in mission for U.S. forces in Iraq,” Gates wrote to CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus, noting that this would send “a strong signal that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended and our forces are operating under a new mission.”
“The DoD’s latest attempt to sell what we’re doing in Iraq to the people and international community simply highlights the tenuous position they’ve committed our forces to,” Jose Vasquez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, told AlterNet. “Their latest misnomer, Operation New Dawn, has all the qualities of a George Orwell novel. Perhaps ‘Operation Imperial Sunset’ is more appropriate. No one is fooled by their attempts to spin what is happening over there, namely permanent bases, lopsided oil deals and serious breaches of international law. Let’s bring the troops home and let Iraq enjoy its sovereignty.”
“Operation Imperial Sunset”! That’s a good one.
A young man describes the budget appropriation procedures in India:
“This road was unpaved for a long time, so we began to agitate for it. The central government appropriated $10 million. It had to go through the Chief Minister, after which $5 million remained. Then it passed to the city commissioner, and it became $3 million. The rest of city government took their cut, and $1 Million remained. The contractor did $500,000 worth of work, and pocketed the rest for himself. The whole $10 million, that was all people money; it all went to rich individuals.”
With the history of 2008 in mind, can we honestly say to ourselves that things are different in America?
The policy blogs are abuzz with the recent news that the Federal Reserve System might finally undergo an audit. The bill, sponsored by Ron Paul and endorsed by nearly everyone else, passed with a lopsided 43-26 victory in the House and would be the first comprehensive inquiry into what the Fed does with the trillions of dollars it commands. Glenn Greenwald has the best dissection of what went down.
Our leading media outlets are capable of understanding political debates only by stuffing them into melodramatic, trite and often distracting “right v. left” storylines. While some debates fit comfortably into that framework, many do not. Anger over the Wall Street bailouts, the control by the banking industry of Congress, and the impenetrable secrecy with which the Fed conducts itself resonates across the political spectrum, as the truly bipartisan and trans-ideological vote yesterday reflects. Populist anger over elite-favoring economic policies has long been brewing on both the Right and Left (and in between), but neither political party can capitalize on it because they’re both dependent upon and subservient to the same elite interests which benefit from those policies.
Beyond the specifics, a genuine audit of the Fed would be a major blow to the way Washington typically works. The Fed is one of those permanent power centers in this country that exert great power with very little accountability and almost no transparency (like much of the intelligence and defense community). The power they exert has exploded within the last year as a result of the financial crisis, yet they continue to operate in a completely opaque manner and with virtually no limits. Its officials have been trained to view their unfettered power as an innate entitlement, and they express contempt for any efforts to limit or even monitor what they do.
Paul Krugman’s recent bellicosity in The New York Times has seen much discussion, though more for its economic implications than its political. The tone with which he writes reflects a growing indignation among our policy circles toward China’s monetary dealings. Krugman asserts, essentially, that China cheats, and most of our policy makers (most notably, Timothy Geither) seem to agree. Krugman’s offering is worth discussing in detail because it presents, in a form to be consumed by the public, a significant debate occurring on an international level.
Like most of the economic establishment, Krugman believes that a so-called “weak” dollar should actually benefit the US economy. A “weak” currency, he says, inherently supports exports (since the dollar would be valued favorably against foreign currencies), and would encourage employment in those industries. He rightly disparages those “conservative” demagogues who decry the falling dollar as an unmitigated evil which confers no incidental benefits.
Krugman argues, however, that China, by keeping its currency at a fixed value against the dollar, also benefits from the weakening, and in a manner much more pronounced. Their currency is set to be very cheap against the dollar, and by mandating that its value against the dollar doesn’t shift, they can ensure their currency remains the “weakest”, and their export industry thus the strongest. When the dollar tanked last summer China experienced an unprecedented boom in its exports. Our Treasury Secretary has openly called this practice “currency manipulation”, and the Chairman of our Federal Reserve can makes speeches about “international imbalances” with everyone getting the message.
Krugman even lays the blame for the global economic crisis at the feet of China’s monetary policy, saying:
Many economists, myself included, believe that China’s asset-buying spree helped inflate the housing bubble, setting the stage for the global financial crisis. But China’s insistence on keeping the yuan/dollar rate fixed, even when the dollar declines, may be doing even more harm now.
In the end he paints a rather bleak picture, asserting that “Something must be done about China’s currency”, but leaving the specifics of it up to our capable policy handlers. Unfortunately, the options we have for dealing with this situation are severely restricted. As the world’s largest holder of US currency, China remains a problem which, if handled improperly, could cost $2.5 Trillion dollars.
It is telling that Krugman implicitly blames China for its trade imbalance, neglecting to acknowledge that disproportionate exports require a ready buyer. In particular, America gratefully shipped most of its manufacturing jobs across the Pacific during the years 1998-2008 while its corporate class enjoyed an accumulation of wealth unheard-of since the 1920s. By pursuing an import-centric monetary policy (the “strong dollar” model), America did more than its part in inflating the severe trade imbalance we see today.
Finger-pointing aside, it is clear that returning to some semblance of balanced trade requires an active effort from both parties, something for which Krugman and our prevailing economic establishment only advocate a one-half response. They would like China to re-value its currency to a more “fair” proportion to the dollar while at the same time ensuring that all executive decisions and high-level positions remain in the US. The massive US trade deficit, which began under Bush II and largely financed our tax cuts and wars abroad, hardly factors into the equation.
The first step to solving a problem, after recognizing it, is to locate its sources. If we agree that the US-China trade imbalance is a problem, we cannot solve it by focusing on China’s culpability while ignoring our own.
The Center for Media and Democracy turns us on to a thoroughly scurrilous attempt on the part of Big Gas and Oil to downplay the negative effects of CO2 output.
“CO2 is Green”, a new Montana-based advocacy group, derives its dollars from the Coal and Oil Industry and has the sheer audacity to claim that “There is no scientific evidence that CO2 [carbon dioxide] is a pollutant. In fact higher CO2 levels than we have today would help the Earth’s ecosystems.” without breaking into guilt-induced conniptions. Here we have yet another example of “The Big Lie” technique. If you can make a such a statement as above on television with a straight face, many people will conclude that it must be true. No one could possibly be audacious enough to repeat such a patently absurd claim unless there was some truth to it of which the public is not aware. Thus, the idea that “CO2 is not a pollutant” will likely enter into mainstream discourse, despite the fact that almost every scientist declares the opposite.
Some of you may recall this is not the first time our oil companies have undertaken such an advertising campaign. Indeed, as Greenpeace revealed earlier this year, Exxon-Mobil secretly funded much of the Global Warming denial we saw earlier this decade. On podium after podium, cable news show after fabricated report, their hired “scientists” spread the claims that (a) Global warming doesn’t exist and (b) even assuming it does, Global Warming isn’t man-made. Now, of course, we see both of those statements for the patent falsehood they present, but at the time they proved quite influential and likely set us back years in dealing with this problem.
Today, a new generation of pseudo-scientists, such as our friend H. Leighton Steward, a former executive of Enron, wish to spread the message that CO2 is a “net benefit” for the planet – and, presumably, that we are doing our earth a huge service by burning coal and oil.
Please watch their commercial. It gives an excellent overview of the false populism and junk science employed by the coal and oil industries to defend what remains, in the last analysis, a thoroughly indefensible business. And I would encourage everyone to do precisely what they suggest at the end by contacting your Senator, except instead of agitating for even more pollution, ask them to clear our airwaves of deleterious propaganda.
The discovery of a second uranium enrichment site in Iran has again ignited the “debate” over nuclear strategy regarding that thorn in the Middle East. Once again, the conversation centers upon how best to prevent Iran from acquiring those dastardly weapons – no mention is given to why Iran should so badly wish to join the nuclear club, nor does our mainstream even entertain the notion of what might happen should they succeed. Iran must be prevented from “going nuclear” at all costs, according to the US media. Instead of a rational debate as to the causes and possible effects of this development, the newspaper-reading citizen is treated to a variety of doomsday scenarios and chest-puffing from our sensationalists-in-chief.
For instance, here is British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, doing his best impression of John Wayne:
Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, and called the Iranian facility “a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.” Added Mr. Brown, “The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”
The Wall Street Journal’s front page features an essay entitled: “Israel’s attack plan for Iran”, while The Washington Post’s cryptic headline reads: “President’s focus shifts from engaging Iran”. We are left to guess what he is shifting to, although the article hints at “sanctions” and possibly “military action.”
Amid the bellicosity spewing from the western media, the question of why, after all the threats, after all the entreaties to the contrary, Iran should continue to desire a nuclear weapon remains unanswered. The unspoken reason is given to be sheer madness: Ahmadinejad is a “tyrant”, a “madman”, a crazy holocaust denier who wishes nothing more than the obliteration of Israel. That, and only that, is the reason for Iran’s nuclear ambition, and, as Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu thundered at the United Nations this week,
“The most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
But let us suppose, merely as an intellectual exercise, that Iran is not run by lunatics, but instead by reasonably sane politicians who, like all politicians, seek only the continuation of their own power. Then, a few very good reasons to pursue nuclear arms come quickly to light:
1) Insurance against invasion
It is an unspoken rule amongst policy planners that “nuclear weapons states do not invade one another”, a fact most recently illustrated by the delicacy with which the United States has treated North Korea. Nuclear weapons are the greatest safeguard against regime change. Considering that Iran is still part of the “axis of evil”, and especially in light of the fact that the US currently occupies the countries directly to its east and west (Iraq and Afghanistan), there should be no surprise that Iran seeks some sort of insurance against a US invasion. Particularly when one considers what happened to Saddam – who, after all, did not posses nuclear weapons – the choice to acquire nukes should not be a difficult one.
2) Deterrence against Israel
Unlike Iran, who has had to enrich their uranium surreptitiously, Israel, by the good graces of the US, has been allowed to acquire nuclear weapons quite in the open. They now posses a stockpile of unknown quantity, nearly all aimed at Iran, and the American and Israeli media abound with aggressive articles that rather plainly state Israel’s intentions toward Iran.
3) Domestic Prestige
Similar to India in 1974 and Pakistan in 1998, a nuclear detonation is generally a splendid propaganda coup for a ruling establishment which finds itself losing its grip on popularity. The Ahmadinejad regime, by any reasonable assessment, has only a slippery grasp on its population, if the massive protests a few months ago are any indication. Add to the mix skyrocketing inflation, massive unemployment, and a general feeling of mismanagement, and it is not difficult to see why Iran’s leaders should wish to bolster their domestic standing with a nice show of power.
Most scoff at this reason as mere propaganda, but it is a fact that Iran, like everyone else, is seeking alternative forms of energy. But as this is likely the least of their motivations, I have placed it last.
Taken together, these reasons do not quite justify a nuclear Iran, but they surely help to see the situation from their point of view. If we are to seriously understand the stakes of this issue we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by poor caricatures from our yellow press.
“From 2006 through 2008, the top five executives at the 20 banks that have accepted the most federal bailout dollars since the meltdown averaged $32 million each in personal compensation. One hundred average U.S. workers would have to labor over 1,000 years to make as much as these 100 executives made in three.”
“A generation ago, typical big-time corporate CEOs seldom made more than 30 or 40 times what their workers took home. In 2008, the IPS report shows, top executives averaged 319 times more than average U.S. worker pay.”
Should we be outraged yet?
From a local source in the Philippines: Blackwater is apparently training the Filipino military (for “counter-terrorism” purposes, of course).
Might this not have been relevant information for the Times‘ recent declamation of the Philippine military’s widespread human-rights abuses?
It looks as though the Philippines are learning from the best.
I just met a Salvadoran in Central Park who grew up during its 10-year civil war (Please see this post or read the book it describes for more information). I was only able to speak to him for 15 minutes, but he was gracious enough to allow me to take notes.
Here, then, is his half of the conversation, as it occurred. His English was not fluent, so I took liberties with sentence structure and pronunciation, so to better render the exchange for this format. He was the son of a relatively prosperous landowner in El Salvador.
Guerrilla here refers to the Salvadoran insurgency, while “The Army” or The Government” refers to the US-sponsored entity.
“I was born in ’73 – the war started when I was six or seven. The government, they came to our house one day and they said, ‘This area, this is all the Guerrilla territory. Either you’re with us or you’re with them. You have 72 hours to leave, otherwise you’re with them. ‘
It was a big rain the night before, and we had to leave the village the next day at 2 in the afternoon. It was a heavy, heavy rain. We had to leave everything except the clothes we were wearing. We didn’t go back until 4 years later, and everything was completely ruined – the animals, all gone, and we didn”t find anything in our house, we find no tables, no chairs. Most of the village was destroyed by bombs, thrown by the government’s planes.
They have to catch the terrorists – and if you’re not a terrorist, you have to leave the house, so they can eliminate them; find them and kill them. I think that’s what the idea was – why they made us leave.
And oh, it was so sad, because you know, coming from a wealthy family, now everyone had to find a way to survive, start again from the beginning. We had zero, no house, small tiny apartment for 8 people. Ended up selling mangoes, fruits in the streets. It was so sad.
I lost a brother in the war, an older one. We were so poor in those days. The government – when you were 18 you had to go to the army, by law. So he was killed.
Oh, they would take anyone who can hold a gun. If you’re 14 – you go with them. Sometimes younger than that. There was a lot of kids in the guerrilla. The army, though, you had to be 16 to join.
I remember when these guys from the guerrilla came to my mother and ask her, which of your sons will go with them. And she says none of them. So they say, well, we’ll kill them both, because if they don’t go with us, they’ll go with the government. Finally my oldest brother said fine, I’ll go with you. He offered himself in order not for us to be killed. Six years later he was dead.
Sometimes my mother, she cooked food and brought it to him in the mountains – you know how a mother is, she wants her child to eat. But the last couple times we went to see him in the place we always see him, he never shows up. So my mother started to get worried – she goes to her friend, and her friend says, “Oh, Rufino, he’s dead – I just heard”. Yeah, I remember that. After we found out we all suffered so much. I remember.
It was a point in her life when my mother had one son in the guerrilla and one son in the Army. I used to see her crying every day, every day, and praying that the other one survives.
And everyone was turning their neighbors in. It was like this: the army, the guerrilla, they had ways to find out about you – so lets say your family and my family, we’re not friends, all I have to do is say to the army, ‘that family over there, they’re part of the guerrilla, they’re giving information’ – then that family won’t wake up. Or you could go to the guerrilla and say that family supports the government. It’s the same thing. They’ll be killed. I saw three or four families like that.
I heard gunshots and shouting one night. I remember waking up one morning, and everyone was saying “They shot the Rodriguez! The whole family! The army left the bodies in the street for days.
I saw fighting few times. We were traveling in buses, and sometimes the bus gets shot – a lot of people get killed. And that’s how the guerrilla protests, they burn villages, bridges – destroy public property.
It was hard to tell who was who between government and guerrilla. The only way we could tell was that the guerrilla had a few women with them, and they dressed less… appropriate than the soldiers. But a lot of times it was hard to tell who was who. They both did the same things.”
The beleaguered Afghan nation, tormented for three decades, first by the Soviet Union, then the US, dutifully inked their fingers yesterday to vote in a general election. Though the field was a bit more diverse this time around, with more than 40 candidates from which to choose, Hamid Karzai is widely seen as the winning favorite.
Favorite, that is, of the US establishment and Afghan elite – not the Afghan populace, whose opinion matters remarkably little in affairs such as these. The US needs a mandate to continue its aggression in Afghanistan; it needs a friendly Prime Minister to allow construction of the Central Asia oil pipeline – thus, a second term for Hamid Karzai is all but a foregone conclusion.
It matters very little, of course, that entrenched corruption within his government is now widely acknowledged. The US cares very little that Karzai is deeply unpopular among the population he rules. It doesn’t even matter that his own Deputy President openly proclaimed that Hamid Karzai is a “US stooge”. In fact, that is precisely why he will win.
It is interesting to view The Times’ coverage of Hamid Karzai, particularly this saccharine article, published a couple weeks ago. After a brief and dismissive list of the very real charges against him, we are told that Karzai “clearly abhors violence”, that he is “a lonely man”, “painted into a corner”, that “no one is one his side.” (Except, of course, the corrupt graft machine of which he sits at the head).
The article follows a similar tone throughout. I suppose allegations that Karzai’s family derives its wealth largely from opium is beneath The Times’ notice. The article had the audacity to quote Karzai as saying “I’m a very, very, very simple person. I have no property. I have no money. I have no love for luxury.” without any challenge. This, from the leader of one of the most corrupt governments on earth!
As I write, the Afghans count their votes. No one doubts that Karzai, the “US Stooge”, the corrupt executor of our command, the ‘deeply unpopular’ incumbent will prevail. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of Afghan election coverage centers around this man. In him, the US ruling establishment will find an avaricious, though obedient, stooge in Afghanistan.
I cannot claim to have had any more than cursory experience with the various crime organizations in New York, but I would like to record this conversation, however imperfectly, with a someone who claimed to be prominent member of one.
“See that guy over there? He’s a worker.
(He indicates a crumpled-looking person with narrow, watery eyes)
He makes the deliveries. So if someone calls him up, says “Hey, I need a nickel, I need a dime”, he’s the one that answers the phone and gets it to them. Any problems – junkies, cops, whatever – he’s the one’s gotta deal with it. I don’t pay the cops to leave mu guys alone. I know some people who do, but its a bad idea. They leave you alone at first, then they keep comin’ for money. And when you don’t got it, they bust your ass. If you’re sharp, if you know what you’re doing, you should be havin’ problems anyway.
It’s hard to find good workers. Some you trust, some you don’t. You get these guys: they’re honest, lived in the ‘hood all their lives, can’t get a job, just tryin’ to make some cash. And then there are the junkies – the motherfuckers think I’m handin’ them a free fix. (He darkens.) You gotta teach those ones a lesson. But most workers I give 15% of the profit from what they move. Then I take twenty, and the rest goes to the importers. The ones you trust, you can give them more at a time, let them eat a little better.
So coke, then – I get the stuff pure for say, $32 per gram. Then I resell it to that guy over there for $40 Then he does whatever, cuts it, puts shit in it, you know, and sells it again for $45. Then that guy sells it to is a user, who might sell some to tourists in Manhattan. Shit, they’ll pay whatever.
I don’t fuck around with weed. It’s too bokey. Bokey – you know – uh… hard to conceal. It smells, and you can’t carry it around in bulk. There’s a bigger clientele, but you gotta be turnin’ over pounds. The penantlies are lower, but you have a much, much bigger chance of getting caught. Shit, catchin’ dumb kids with weed is like a national sport for the cops. Then they rat your ass out. It ain’t worth it.
My position’s pretty good. I don’t have to carry the shit on me; I just know some good suppliers. So I can just make the deal, bring supply to demand, and make a nice cut on the side. I make $8 per gram – so if I sell this guy 250 grams, I just made two G’s. But you gotta know a lot of people. They gotta respect you, fear you even. People can’t think they can fuck with you – they gotta be afraid.
I always tell people – I can be the nicest guy in the world, but don’t fuck up, don’t make me show the other side. It’s like the lion in the jungle – why is the lion king of the jungle? (He indicates his bicep.) It’s because of this. Most of these guys… I mean look, this is my block, but somebody wants to eat, I’m not gonna prevent from eating. But they gotta go through me.
Sometimes you get tough. I been lookin’ for this one guy all day. He fucked up my money. I told him, right from the beginning: I’ll let you make money on this block, I’ll let you eat – but don’t fuck up my money. But that’s exactly what he did! The junkie,he used all the shit I gave him. I said: here’s 300 dollars worth. Sell it, take a percentage, give me the rest.
But he don’t want to play that – motherfucker uses it all, comes back sayin’ “I don’t have your money, I don’t have your money” Fuck that. People like him, they’re just looking for their next fix. They don’t ever think about the future, they never plan for it. Totally passive; just take the future as it comes. He probably ain’t even worried about the beating I’m ’bout to give him.
(I express shock.)
Oh hell yeah, I’m gonna whip his fucking ass. You don’t fuck with my money. It isn’t even the $300 – I could give two shits about that. I get thousands a day. It’s the principal. You don’t fuck with another man’s money. And shit, who knows? He fucks with me, nothing happens, maybe other people think they can do the same thing.
So what I’m gonna do – I got this pool cue. I’m gonna break his fucking hands. When he puts them up to defend himself. I got the bottom half; it screws off – it’s not gonna break. His hands will.
I ain’t gonna kill him. But you can be sure his ass is gonna land in a hospital. Shit, maybe they clean him up.
You gotta show people, y’know? They see I fucked this guy up, maybe they think twice before messing with me.
(I compare his method with the US justifications for going to war in Southeast Asia: The “Domino Theory”, etc.)
I don’t know nothin’ about that. All I know is when you let one person fuck with you, suddenly they all are. I gotta protect my interests.”
(I note the irony).
Side conversation: Musing on the changes that have taken place in his lifetime.
(He expresses nostalgia for the early ’80s)
“Yeah, I’d say the city’s safer overall than it was back then. More people are working, less violent crime. I mean it happens all the time, but it isn’t as open. Shit, I remember back when me and my buddies had straps, vests – we’d walk around just carryin’ our shit. You can’t do that anymore. I still got my bulletproof vest and my nine [millimeter pistol], but those are in a safe place – only for when I need ‘em.
They got cameras and microphones now. You fire a gunshot in this neighborhood, they got mikes to pick up exactly where it came from and dispatch a squad. No one’s even gotta call anymore. And everyone always snitches. The penalties have gone way up – now if anyone hears about a gun, someone’s always tellin’.
Oh, shit happens. Just the other day guy was shot two blocks over. But you can’t shoot people on the street anymore. Before, we’d be battling in the streets, at least you could see the fucker shooting you. Now you get shot in the back.
And the hustlin’, man. That’s changed for sure. Back then, there’d be someone selling on every street corner. Two, even. The cops would just roll right by. Now people hustle on their cell phone. You come down this street looking for something, you could pass 10 drug dealers and they wouldn’t sell you shit. They don’t know you, they don’t sell to you. Everyone’s afraid of selling to a cop.
That’s where the cell phone comes in. You know this guy, you trust him, you give him your cell number. You tell him: don’t give it out to anybody you don’t trust. And of course he doesn’t want to fuck up, so he’s gonna be careful. It’s gotten more sophisticated. You can’t just sell to whoever you want anymore.
What’s the cause? People snitchin’! There’s no honor, no loyalty. Used to be you didn’t dare open your mouth to the police. You had dignity. Now you got people snitchin’ left and right. I guess the new generation is fuckin’ up. The penalties are way higher now. Before, you get caught you do a one year, two year bid. But now it’s five. You get these junkies, they don’t to go away for that long, be away from their fix – so they’ll sell out whoever. Shit, those fuckers would sell out their own mother.
There’s a lot more money in the city now. Everything costs way more. Drugs included. And shit – even if you want to live in this shitty-ass neighborhood, unless you on section 8, you’re paying $1200 for a one-bedroom.
(Section 8 is the popular name for New York City’s rent stabilization program)
It’s getting to be that you can’t even afford to live here anymore. This whole block’s Section 8. If it weren’t for that we’d have a whole lot more homeless people.
Yeah, I guess it’s gotten better. You can walk around without worrying about getting caught by a random bullet. You can raise your kids here. But shit, people ain’t eating any better. You still got people living paycheck to paycheck. It’s still tough to survive. So where’s the progress?”
Recently, I spoke with an old friend who just started working for an extremely influential financial firm. She was one of my dearest acquaintances for many years, and one of the few people I can honestly say had no character deficiencies. She always seemed destined for greatness; she graduated as valedictorian and president of her class, fiercely intelligent, matriculated at Harvard, and possessed a wit and humility not often seen these days. No one doubted that her life would be a resounding success.
We reminisced for some time, and then our conversation shifted (at my forcing, I admit), to the influence of finance on the US government and its foreign policy. I pointed out particularly that the share of our financial sector in GDP has jumped from 3% to 30% in the last few decades; that AIG, Citigroup, et. al. heavily financed the Obama campaign; that many of our government leaders (notoriously Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner) are still actively involved in the financial industry, and that this has grave implications for representative democracy. I also outlined the role of finance in setting up “free market” dictatorships in the third-world, and its general responsibility in creating poverty abroad. She conceded that these were all “problems” and “valid criticisms” of how the US conducted itself during the latter half of the 20th century, but urged me to consider the benign aspects of our foreign policy. When I suggested our foreign policy amounts to empire, she vociferously denied it.
Now I should repeat that this was no ordinary specimen of humanity, but truly one of its finest models. A regular person might deny our empire – it is intentionally not publicized, and they likely work at a job whose effects are not evident – but she was steeped in politics, economy, and history. She belonged to the organization that essentially leads our empire. From the top of my head I listed ten countries where we had installed leaders, assassinated them, funded massacres, or merely caused economic ruin: Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, the Iran-Iraq war (both sides of which we funded), the Guatemalan civil war (more than a million dead over a thirty-year period by our equipment), Suharto in Indonesia (who, after we installed him, invaded East Timor under our auspices and killed half a million), 30-year dictator Mobutu in Africa, (whose departure sparked a horrific civil war which continues to this day), the dire poverty imposed upon Mexico via NAFTA, Argentina’s “dirty war” (again conducted on our behalf), our support of dictator after dictator (most recently Musharraf) in Pakistan, and IMF control of Poland, South Africa, Eastern Europe, the aforementioned nations, and many, many more.
In countries such as Vietnam and Korea we flattened villages, set fire to thatched huts, and blanketed their crops with industrial pesticide. We personally killed hundreds of thousands in Iraq alone. In Pakistan we kill on the order of 50 villagers per month via our “drone” attacks.
She did not deny these things were true, but she refused to believe they constituted a system of policy. The wars, massacres, dictatorships, etc., were identified as “problems” (but then you can’t expect not to have problems!), “valid criticisms” (those too will always exist!), or merely “good points”.
When Errol Morris was deciding on a title for his documentary about Abu Gharib, he considered the two standard interpretations of that sordid prison-camp: “A Few Rotten Apples” or “Standard Operating Procedure”. These reflected the views that either the torture conducted at those prisons were the work of “a few rotten apples” and not systemic policy, or that they constituted a deeper problem – that such actions were “Standard Operating Procedure” and this was no isolated case. The distinction was important back when we briefly entertained the notion of inditing Rumsfeld for war crimes. If the tortures at Abu Gharib were just a “mistake”, the work of a few rogues, no indictment could follow. But if they truly represented policy, if they were merely the froth on a vast sea of similar actions, then it would not be enough just to indict Bush and co. – our whole history would have to be reconsidered. Morris ultimately decided upon the latter for the title of his documentary (“Standard Operating Procedure” – I would recommend it), though the press and the establishment it represents evidently has decided on the former interpretation.
And so, Abu Gharib became a microcosm for our overall conversation. Either the wars we financed, the dictators we supported for decades, and the poverty we imposed through the Washington Consensus model are isolated instances (“unfortunate mistakes”, as my friend called it), or they constitute a deliberate, continuous policy of military and civil subjugation with the aim of stealing these countries’ resources. She refused to believe this was true, though given the scope of our actions, the length of time at which we conducted them, and their horrifying, uniform results, I don’t see how she could. She provided a clue, however, in attributing those actions to “Capitalism” (the ideology, with a capital C, not the general idea of trade), and by strongly hinting a stance of moral relativism – though when I called it that, she politely denied it. Still, she was hesitant to use the word “evil” to describe bloody civil wars and imposed dictatorships in the name of this ideology, and stated at one point that “institutions are not subject to morality” (I think I later made her recant that)
Moral relativism is at the heart of almost everything one would call evil (or, if you object to that phrase, “undesirable”). Concentration camps, war, massacres, and so forth can only occur when you believe there is something higher than everyday morality, something more important. Ideologies make great use of this effect – at an advanced stage they supersede traditional ethics, and in essence become the only morality. Thus most Nazis felt that murder was OK if the victims happened to be Jewish or Slavic, the Soviets believed that mass arrests and torture were fine if they happened to be “enemies of the people”, and the US government has no problem with poverty, starvation, dictatorship, or war, so long as they occur in countries already under our influence.
This is truly surreal. President Obama, hoper, changer, believer, has decided to honor the man who is supposedly his ideological antithesis. Black is white, up is down! If ever there was any question that our two political parties are really one and the same, this surely answers it. Add to the mix Obama’s fondness for former Citigroup and Goldman Sachs executives, his steadfast refusal to institute a financial services transaction tax or re-instate Glass-Steagall, and there is little doubt as where his allegiances lie.
Inflation is a tax, and even if Obama manages not to nominally raise middle class obligations to the government (highly unlikely), they will find themselves taxed nonetheless through a debased currency. The bailout and stimulus, you will no doubt remember, were enacted so that our investment banks could continue to report multi-billion dollar profits. They do so now, but it will ultimately be on the backs of the rank-and-file American citizen, who will be perplexed to spend in a few years a full $20 on lunch.
Come to think of it, what better way to celebrate Reagan’s birthday than a fresh dose of his powerful Reaganomics? When one places the so-called ‘stimulus plan’ next to its bulbous cousin, the bank bailout, it is not hard to see who our president favors the more.