Archive for December, 2008

Do We Need Another Kennedy?

December 19, 2008

After weeks of gossip, Caroline Kennedy seems to be overtly presented herself as a candidate to fill Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat. I view the news with a bit of dismay. I don’t really like the idea of another Kennedy in a powerful government position.

This has nothing to do with the Kennedy’s themselves; I’m rather ambivalent about the clan and their record. I consider the disdain of many on the Right toward the family to be just as silly as the adulation which many liberals heap upon John, Robert, and their relatives. Personal conduct of some members of the family aside, they have collectively done their share to promote liberal values in the nation—though they appear to be as willing as any to compromise their ideals when those ideals conflict with their personal interests.

But none of that really has anything to do with my reticence. I’m more bothered by the concept of dynastic succession. I’m troubled by the appearance of a growing governing aristocracy in the nation. The Kennedys are the most obvious example, but hardly the only one. Prescott Bush made Senator, his son George was president, as was his son George W, whose brother was governor and is still considered a potential future presidential candidate. Two generations of Al Gores held the Tennessee Senate seat, the second also climbing to the Vice-Presidency. Bill and Hillary Clinton are another obvious example, albeit with an unusual horizontal, rather than vertical, familial connection.

These few examples (there may be other national examples of which I’m not aware, and there are plenty of local-level examples, such as Chicago and the Daly’s) hardly constitute a wave. And it isn’t as if there isn’t historic precedence ( John Adams and John Quincy Adams; William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison); there have been political families in the past.

Nevertheless, I would prefer we avoid any possible dynasties. One of the concepts which we have come to hold dear in this nation is the concept of widespread opportunity and social mobility. One’s success and mobility isn’t supposed to be based on one’s family ties, but on one’s merit. as celebrity families become entrenched in politics, as whom you know and to whom you are related become more important factors in the political field, it weakens the basis of social mobility and creates rich breeding grounds for corruption.

Having well-connected relations should not disqualify Caroline (or Hilary, or Jeb, or anyone else) from entering the political arena. If a given tree truly provides outstanding fruit, so be it. But I think we should be cautious and carefully inspect the fruit to ensure that we are not selecting them more for their heritage than for their own qualities. Granting them entrance via appointment rather than the normal election process seems alarmingly dynastic to me.

President Bush Deregulates Coal Mining Debris Disposal

December 13, 2008

Despite what the headlines seem to suggest, President Bush is not yet inconsequential. His executive powers are maintained for another few weeks, and like the last several of his predecessors, he is spending that time issuing eleventh hour executive orders and regulatory changes. Among the most distressing of the changes is one which lifts many restrictions on the disposal of mining waste. In truth the rules regulating that disposal have widely been ignored for years. Lifting those restrictions will allow mining operators even greater freedom to dump their mining refuse into nearby streams and valleys. Mining runoff contains high levels of selenium and other hazardous chemicals, which threatens not only local fish and wildlife, but the local communities.

Deregulation has always been a central tenet of conventional free market theory as a means to maintain freedom for society. The argument is in theory very persuasive. Why is it that in practice deregulation so often means keeping producers free to pass off the true costs of their production onto others; free contaminate the private property and health of the less powerful, as well as the public property on which we all rely, in their pursuit of profit? So much for the people downstream being “free to choose.”

Reducing Packaging Waste

December 12, 2008

One of the things which drives me nuts about shopping is the amount of packaging. We seem to have been victims of “packaging creep.” Now just about any sort of consumer good has some type of cardboard container, two layers of hard plastic clamshell cases, a few pieces of styrofoam, and soft plastic bags surrounding everything. When you’re done shopping, and after you find a way to break upon the seemingly impenetrable packaging, you end up with half-a-dozen plastic bags. All of this plastic has to be disposed of—most of it ending up preventing natural decomposition in landfills, or collecting in the ocean.

So its nice to see that the tide may be turning. I see more people declining bags when their purchases are easy to carry (something I’ve practiced for years—I don’t need an extra plastic bag for a package of pencils or an apple!). Reusable gift bags are becoming more popular, a more sustainable option than gift wrapping. More people are using reusable shopping bags. More stores are offering bulk bin options for foods and cleaning supplies, which eliminates individual containers. Amazon is trying what should be a common-sense idea of utilizing “frustration-free” packaging, which minimizes the packaging and appears to be fully recyclable.

Small steps, but worthwhile ones to promote. How else can we cut down on the waste associated with shopping?

Chris Hedges “The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff”

December 11, 2008

It isn’t unusual to hear conservatives criticize the elite institutions of higher education—despite the fact that many of the Republican and conservative leaders are products of those same institutions. Critiques from the left are far less common, which the recent essay by Chris Hedges rather intriguing.

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredded constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the feet of our elite universities. Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford, along with most other elite schools, do a poor job educating students to think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, advanced placement classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools and blind deference to all authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. The collapse of the country runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and halls in places like Cambridge, Princeton and New Haven to the financial and political centers of power.

The nation’s elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers and rigid structures that are designed to produce certain answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service—economic, political and social—come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the “specialist” and of course the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political and cultural questions. Those who defy the system—people like Ralph Nader—are branded as irrational and irrelevant. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement and information systems are the only things that matter…

…While public schools crumble, while public universities are slashed and degraded, while these elite institutions become unaffordable even for the middle class, the privileged retreat further into their opulent gated communities. Harvard lost $8 billion of its endowment over the past four months, which raises the question of how smart these people are, but it still has $30 billion. Schools like Yale, Stanford and Princeton are not far behind. Those on the inside are told they are there because they are better than others. Most believe it…

…These universities, because of their incessant reliance on standardized tests and the demand for perfect grades, fill their classrooms with large numbers of drones. I have taught gifted and engaged students who used these institutions to expand the life of the mind, who asked the big questions and who cherished what these schools had to offer. But they were always a marginalized and dispirited minority. The bulk of their classmates, most of whom headed off to Wall Street or corporate firms when they graduated, starting at $120,000 a year, did prodigious amounts of work and faithfully regurgitated information. They received perfect grades in both tedious, boring classes and stimulating ones, not that they could tell the difference. They may have known the plot and salient details of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” but they were unable to tell you why the story was important. Their professors, fearful of being branded political and not wanting to upset the legions of wealthy donors and administrative overlords who rule such institutions, did not draw the obvious parallels with Iraq and American empire. They did not use Conrad’s story, as it was meant to be used, to examine our own imperial darkness. And so, even in the anemic world of liberal arts, what is taught exists in a moral void…

…Intelligence is morally neutral. It is no more virtuous than athletic prowess. It can be used to further the rape of the working class by corporations and the mechanisms of repression and war, or it can be used to fight these forces. But if you determine worth by wealth, as these institutions invariably do, then fighting the system is inherently devalued. The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system. College presidents are not voices for the common good and the protection of intellectual integrity, but obsequious fundraisers. They shower honorary degrees and trusteeships on hedge fund managers and Wall Street titans whose lives are usually examples of moral squalor and unchecked greed. The message to the students is clear. But grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin said, isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists.

Most of these students are afraid to take risks. They cower before authority. They have been taught from a young age by zealous parents, schools and institutional authorities what constitutes failure and success. They are socialized to obey. They obsess over grades and seek to please professors, even if what their professors teach is fatuous. The point is to get ahead. Challenging authority is not a career advancer. Freshmen arrive on elite campuses and begin to network their way into the elite eating clubs, test into the elite academic programs and lobby for elite summer internships. By the time they graduate they are superbly conditioned to work 10 or 12 hours a day electronically moving large sums of money around.

“The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name,” Deresiewicz wrote. “It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.”

“Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul,” he went on. “These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers. Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. I don’t think there ever was a golden age of intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions raised in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that flourished on campus.”

Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden Cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find “solutions,” such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don’t expect them to save us. They don’t know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us ( “The Best and the Brightest Led America Off a Cliff” )

O’Reilly and Buttars are Right

December 10, 2008

The Lord does care about Christmas retail campaigns!

Jesus Returns To Give Consumers Christmas Pep Talk

warning: contains satirical references to Christ. Do not click if you find such humor offensive

Somalia Revisited

December 8, 2008

A couple of years ago, I wrote the post “Somalia and U.S. tendencies in Foreign Policy.” In the essay, I criticized the US response to the turmoil in Somalia. That response involved support for warlords against the Islamic Courts Union, which had recently formed a government and begun to establish some semblance of peace in Mogadishu and the surrounding area. Given that the ICU and the Somalia Muslim community was considered by most experts to be rather moderate, I insisted that the U.S. policy of undermining the ICU was ultimately self-defeating.

Since that time, the U.S. made a change. Sadly the change was only tactical, not policy. Rather than relying on Somalian thugs, the administration heavily supported Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia to oust the ICU.

And as one might well have guessed, US intervention in Somalia—albeit by proxy—has been about as successful as their other fronts on the “War on Terror.” The latest reports indicate Ethiopia has failed dismally to erect any sort of peace through their occupation. It should not be terribly shocking that Somalians do not appear to appreciate the intervention of a historic nemesis, and have galvanized quite an insurgency. Ethiopia is unable to maintain the occupation, announcing that they will withdraw shortly. Worst of all, the conflict has greatly strengthened the hands of radical Islam. The militant Al-Shabaab has taken the reigns of the Muslim movement in Somalia, winning control of the southern regions and creeping northward. Foreign radicals have flocked to Al Shabaab’s aid.

How long until we realize that interventionist policies do not succeed? How many times must we kick the hornet nests before we learn?

If neo-con grand-poobah Bill Kristol has his way, at least once more. Using the escalation of Somalian piracy as an excuse (can anyone doubt that the fiasco shoreside has something to do with rise in piracy?), Kristol recommends that the president invade.

…perhaps he [President Bush] could tell various admirals to stop moaning about how difficult it would be to deal with the pirates off the coast of Somalia (isn’t keeping the shipping lanes open a core mission of the Navy?) and order the Navy to clobber them. If need be, the Marines would no doubt be glad to recapitulate their origins and join in by going ashore in Africa to destroy the pirates’ safe havens (“Before He Goes,” Weekly Standard)

Retired Navy Commander Jeff Huber heaps well-earned scorn on Kristol’s hair-brained scheme.

It was only a matter of time before Long Bill Kristol and his scurvy dogs of war used piracy as an excuse to goad young Mr. Bush into invading one last country before the door hits him. In the latest gurgitation of the Weekly Standard, Bill suggests that the best thing young Mr. Bush can do in his final days as commander-in-chief is send the Marines into Somalia to deep-six those pesky buccaneers. Now: if we can’t identify and capture pirates while they’re plundering ships on the bounding main, I’d like to know how the yo-ho-ho Bill thinks the Marines can tell the pirates from the rest of the poor starving Somalis once they go ashore.

Bill also remarks how Bush can do the nation a service “by reminding Americans of our successes fighting the war on terror.” One wonders if Bill is no fooling unaware that terrorists are on the verge of a sparking war between two nuclear powers, or that a congressionally mandated task force has reported that “it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” or that, according to the respected analysts at the Rand Corporation, Mr. Bush’s pursuit of a military-centric counter-terror strategy “has not undermined al Qaeda” and that the terrorist group “has remained a strong and competent organization.”

One would hope that given the enormous influence he wields, Bill is at least partially cognizant of the world around him, that he just talks that way because he’s a master of Socratic dialectic who recites gibberish until people agree with him so he shuts up…

Seemingly aware of his limitations, Long Bill normally delegates the hardcore humbuggery required of any given subject to one of his more gifted mateys, and the pirate issue is no exception. Seth Cropsey’s “To the Shores of Tripoli…” is a standard neocon compendium of fuzzy premises and fear and loathing and the sort of logic that insists ear is to hearing as nose is to face.

The first thing that struck me about the piece was Cropsey’s apparent alarm over the estimated $30 million ransom money the Somali pirates raked in this year. Cropsey must have shared a cryogenic chamber with Dr. Evil. We’re chaffing $10 freaking billion into Iraq every month, which isn’t a pismire compared to the $7 freaking trillion we’re going to spend trying to fix the freaking economy, and Cropsey wants to send the Marines ashore for $30 measly million that didn’t even belong to us?

…Only slightly less ludicrous is Cropsey’s admonition that “Americans ought to know the limits of relying on naval power alone to stop piracy as a result of the nation’s experience in the Barbary Coast wars.” Comparing the present Somali pirate situation to our Barbary Coast wars of the early nineteenth century is as tidy an apples-to-elephants analogy as you’ll ever find…

…Thomas Jefferson’s America also didn’t possess a couple fistfuls of fixed wing aircraft carrier strike groups, two of which, with their E-2 Hawkeye surveillance aircraft and the rest of their air wings, could turn the whole Indian Ocean into a no-pirate zone faster than you can say “Avast.” Yeah, at first blush it’s overkill to use more than $10 billion worth of carrier and air wing and escorts to stop a few measly millions worth of piracy, but what else do the carrier groups have to do right now: bomb Muslim weddings in the Bananastans? Heck, the Navy’s got cruise missile equipped nuclear submarines to bomb Muslim weddings with.

And if it ever happens that the nuclear submarines can’t bomb Muslim weddings any more because, oh, what…because they run out of fuel when the Iranians go and gobble up the whole world’s supply of uranium, say, well we have a whole separate service branch that pick up the Muslim wedding bombing slack. It’s called the Air Force, which has these really, really expensive things called, oddly enough, bombers.

…Plus, if the Navy can solve the pirate problem, there’s no need to get our land forces tangled up in another pointless quagmire, which Cropsey admits a Somali invasion would be. “Somalia’s descent into turmoil began almost two decades ago,” he writes, and is “unlikely to be reversed” by military intervention.

…And as if the article weren’t already sufficiently stunning, Cropsey closes with the neocons’ favorite propaganda ploy, the taunt. Failing to hit the beaches of North Africa “will increase the jihadists’ contempt for us.” Psst. Ahmed over there just called you a booger nose. What are you going to do about it??

Thanks for the info, Crops. Oh, did Ahmed tell you your fly is open?

It’s well and good to have a good laugh at Kristol’s unholy crew of blobs, buffoons and bull feather merchants. They not only deserve ridicule, they demand it. It is vital to the continued health of our nation that we lay bare the absurdities inherent in the neoconservative philosophy early and often and forever.

But it’s also imperative to remember that this collection of ideological sideshow amusements steered our ship of state and dictated the fates of nations for eight years, and that some of the people in Barack Obama’s national security team still take them seriously (“Shiver Me Neocons,” Pen and Sword, emphases in the original).

Let us pray that Bush isn’t delusional enough to consider Kristol’s advice. Let us also hope that Obama will be true to his word to provide change; change from the policies of interventionism which so many of his predecessors have foolishly pursued. In this time of global economic struggle and international tension, the world cannot afford the consequences of more of the same.

How Do We Measure Economics?

December 6, 2008

Mary Nelson, president emeritus of faith-based community development corporation Bethel New Life and contributor to Sojourners recently took issue with the narrow perspective with which our society and commentators view economics.

I’m tired of all the frantic talk about how much or little consumers are spending over this Holiday time. Something’s wrong with an economy based on consumer spending, with kids thinking the measure of parents’ love is the gifts they get. We need to figure out a new kind of gauge of well-being, of quality of life, not only for individuals in families, but for communities as well. Studies share that people who are rich in relationships, who are involved in sharing beyond themselves, live longer and have a higher quality of life. A recent radio show shared ways to make this Holiday time special for kids…doing things with them, together volunteering in homeless shelters or food programs, baking cookies and sharing them with a homeless shelter. A different measure (“A Different Economic Measure: Quality of Life and an Economic Bill of Rights,”).

In our modern culture, economics has come to refer almost exclusively to finance. We seem to think that it can all be quantified in concrete figures, such as profits and losses, market share, job numbers, import/export ratios, stock valuation, or GDP.

The word “economics” comes from the Greek oikonomia, “household management.” Budgets and finance are certainly an important part of managing a household, but they are hardly the only aspects. One who runs a household without taking into consideration the holistic well-being of the family—the distribution of materials, the relationships, the emotional growth, etc—are likely to find their family crumbling around them.

Mary rightfully points out this problem. The conventional economic indicators are grossly inadequate to answering the real question of our economic well-being, of whether or not the financial and productive activity is contributing to the health of our society. Slavish devotion to those indicators will lead to economic recommendations—Increase consumer spending! Get people borrowing!—which will not be conducive to the well-being of society.

We need to try to take into account the humanistic aspects of our economy. Is the wealth generated being distributed in a meaningful way throughout the economy, or does it pool among a few? Is that wealth meeting their needs for food, shelter, mental and emotional growth, etc? How are those at the lower margins doing? Is there a sense of security about provisioning, or is society anxious about their future prospects? Are people happy?

British Economist E.F. Schumacher insisted that we needed to take into consideration the human aspects of economics. From Schumacher’s ideas has grown the concept of the more holistic Buddhist economics. Some have even tried to find more holistic indicators, such as a Gross National happiness.

Given the financial troubles we’re facing right now, this may be an ideal time to reflect and reorient. I’m confident that we will better help society restore and maintain a healthy household if we must find a way to reclaim that broader perspective of economics.

Stop the Cavalry

December 5, 2008

One of my favorite quasi-Christmas songs, particularly in light of the last few years. It was fun to find the video recently. Rather poignant.

Most Boring Charity Fundraiser Ever

December 4, 2008

Found on the Yahoo! homepage.

Children’s hospitals ride shotgun on the Desert Bus.

By Ben Silverman

The thought of playing a video game for charity sounds great on paper, but spend a few hours driving the Desert Bus, and you might have second thoughts.

In an effort to raise money for charity, comedy troupe LoadingReadyRun has been playing the infamous video game ‘Desert Bus’ nonstop.

First seen in the obscure Sega CD game, Penn and Teller’s Smoke & Mirrors (yes, that Penn and Teller), the ‘Desert Bus’ tasks players with driving a bus from Tuscon, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada. In real-time. The game cannot be paused and the bus won’t go faster than 45 mph. Plus, it slightly veers to the right, so you can’t just put something heavy on the controller and let the game play itself. The cruel result is considered by many to be the most boring game of all time, an 8-hour feat of gaming endurance few have had the will to outlast.

The folks at LoadingReadyRun, however, have been playing the mind-numbing game for over five days, but they do have an incentive. Donors must pay to keep the crew playing, and the longer they play, the more it costs.

It seems to be working. So far, the newly re-minted ‘Desert Bus For Hope’ has raised nearly $60,000 for the charitable organization Child’s Play, which benefits children’s hospitals across the country. You can catch more info — including a live stream of the, uh, “action” — here.

They have apparently completed the game and raised $69,476.00. Kudos to them for coming up with a…creative way to help a worthy cause at a great time of year.

Chris Buttars’ Christmas Demands

December 3, 2008

Since the rest of the Utah blogosphere is abuzz with the news of Chris Buttars’ Christmas buffoonery, I might as well get into the game.

The West Jordan Republican is having a resolution drafted for the 2009 Legislature that he said asks retailers not to “exclude Christmas from your holiday greetings.” Resolutions, of course, cannot be enforced.

Buttars said he is seeking the resolution because he was contacted by several employees of a retailer he declined to name that had been told they couldn’t say “Merry Christmas” to customers.

“We have a war on Christmas,” Buttars said, invoking the battle fought this time of year by conservatives nationwide, including, since 2005, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has said the issue is at the center of the nation’s culture war ( “Buttars says bah to ‘holiday’ greetings,” Deseret News).

Oh, so many buttons. Where to begin? How about the fact that the entire War on Christmas is a complete canard? Or that trying to repair the integrity of Christmas through marketing slogans is oxymoronic? Rob of The Utah Amicus recently noted

…I don’t know of anyone who has been converted to a Christ-like-life by the words, “Christmas Sale.” Although I uphold any person’s freewill to patronize an establishment because they do use the word Christmas in their advertising, or when greeting customers, it is my opinion that the real war is within, and it’s not promoting Christ’s love when we force establishments to use the word Christmas so that we will give them our dollars regardless if they believe in the word, and it’s significance, or not…isn’t turning the words, “Merry Christmas” into a wedge issue to divide us, and forcing its use to insure the exchange of money about as un-Christ-like as it gets ( “Davis County Clipper Partylines—Is there still a war against Christmas?“) ?

Then there is the fact that the U.S. is not a Christian nation as Buttars believes. Not to mention the fact that such legislation is either an infringement on freedom of speech (by pressuring people to change the terminology they choose) or—as a resolution with no enforcement power—is nothing more than message legislation, and thus a pointless waste of legislator time and taxpayer money.

Buttars did it again. Every time you think he can’t get any more ridiculous, he trumps himself. If you were to try to dream up a caricature of the modern conservative, could you outdo him?