Archive for January, 2011

President Gasbag

By • on January 30, 2011 at 6:08 pm

After watching President Obama’s state of the union address, plus the first Republican response to it by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and the second response by Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, chair of the Tea Party caucus in Congress, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if nations survive and prosper by realistic assessment of their problems, America really is finished.

Obama surely instructed his speech writers to capitalize on his successful outing to the memorial in Tucson, where he gave a speech that essentially reprised the campaign rhetoric of 2008 that got him elected in the first place. The result in Congress on January 23 was the quintessence of gasbaggery.

The keynote was unity, symbolized by Democrats and Republicans eschewing their normal factional seating pattern in favor of interspecies mixing. Rep. Joe Wilson, famous for having shouted “You lie” at Obama during his health care speech to a joint session of Congress in 2009, now sat demurely next to two lady Democrats. Supreme Court Justice Alito, who mouthed a reproof at Obama at his last state of the union, didn’t even show. Neither did the other two most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas (the latter now in hot water for failing to reveal on his financial disclosure forms the nearly $690,000 paid to his wife Ginni by a right-wing lobby shop, the Heritage Foundation between 2003-2007).

The consequence was a markedly less spirited, partisan affair. Instead of bounding to their feet in raptures of applause or snarling in their chairs, the nation’s legislators sat demure and glassy-eyed as Obama gave a pep rally on America’s crisis.

It was all very, very familiar. America has lost its technological dominance. Solution: Kennedy’s New Frontier, when the shocking challenge of the Russian sputnik, launched into space in 1957, led to the U.S. moon shot, which in turn “unleashed an age of innovation.” (Actually, it led to the bogus “missile gap” and the building of 2000 ICBMs, a giant leap forward for the arms race.) America now faces another “sputnik moment.” The challenge: to “out-innovate, out-educate and outbuild the rest of the world.”

This is to be achieved by a green revolution in energy, better schools and teachers, efficient government subservient to the needs of business, less debt.

From the 1970s we got a reprise of President Nixon and President Carter’s pledges of energy independence. Obama’s version was spectacular in its divorce from reality. He set a “goal” (soothing word) that by 2035–five presidential terms after his last conceivable day in office in 2016–80 percent of America’s energy “will come from clean energy sources.” This being Obama, it turned out in the next sentence he was counting not only wind and solar but also coal, natural gas, and nuclear power as “clean.” Even so, without oil, the notion is ludicrous.

Every president calls for Americans to do better at science. Clinton made a veritable industry out of it, also out of “reinventing government,” which Obama also proposes to rehab in the form of a new onslaught on burdensome regulation, so crippling to the American entrepreneurial spirit, not to mention Justice Thomas’s peace of mind. Like Clinton, Obama wants every American child to have the ability to log onto the internet, though presumably only to do homework and not read the sort of incendiary political and ethical tracts studied so keenly by that child of the internet and foe of schools, Jared Loughner of Tucson.

“Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver,” said Obama. “Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97 percent of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said ‘Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing … that we are smart and we can make it.’”

I asked Rob Prince, a CounterPuncher in Denver, what the real story is on Bruce Randolph. Rob sent me back this comment from Phil Woods, a poet and retired teacher:

My take on Bruce Randolph, and I used to know the principal a little bit because she was an assistant at South when I first got there, is that it fits the Arnie Duncan model. You cherry pick minorities for college track, kick out all the other difficult kids, get the unions to give you a waiver so you work the teachers to death and call it progress. The point is, as with charter schools, this kind of stuff tends to be unsustainable because it causes teacher burn out. As with so much else, educational “reform” has to use market forces, etc. etc. All else is outside the pale.

The deficit is to be fought by a freeze in annual domestic spending for the next five years, which will reduce the deficit by $400 billion and reduce discretionary spending, Obama vowed, to the level of the Eisenhower years. This pledge seems to undercut the government investment required for a green energy revolution, plus a high speed rail network, not to mention our old friend–probably the most realistic passage in the entire speech–a redoubling investment in road and bridge repair, the standard make-work ploy of every president trying to create jobs.

The left got a vague pledge from Obama not to mess with Social Security, plus a rhetorical kick at the oil companies. The right got substantive support for lowering corporate taxes, plus all sorts of agreeable commitments about cutting Medicare and so forth. There was even a very vague hint, in a sentence (“I’m asking Democrats and Republicans to simplify the system. Get rid of the loopholes. Level the playing field”) that Obama might head towards giving up the progressive tax system altogether and head towards the right-wingers’ dream of a flat tax, which usually, in its habitual right-wing garb, spells out as roughly an 18 percent rate for poor and rich alike, a putative levy much appreciated by the rich, or at least those among them whose accountants aren’t inventive enough to ensure that they pay no taxes at all.

Success, the members of Congress learned from the President, is “a function of hard work and discipline,” “the future is ours to win,” “the changes we face are bigger … than politics.” Obama did not forget to reassure the U.S. Congress that “America is a light to the world” (a steal from Woodrow Wilson), that “we do big things” and that “our destiny remains our choice.”

Obama’s address was swiftly followed by an official rebuttal from Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, noted for calling for swift privatization of Social Security. Sensitive to the spirit of warmth and bipartisanship, Ryan did not disclose to the national audience this ambition, but stressed the traditional fantasy message of small-town Republicanism: Budgets have to be balanced, no matter how much blood–a word he did not use–might be left on the floor: “limited government, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and sound money … Limited government and free enterprise have helped make America the greatest nation on earth. These are not easy times, but America is an exceptional nation.”

Then–screened only by CNN–came the fiery Bachmann, fresh from an outing to Iowa last weekend where she claimed the Founding Fathers had been stalwart foes of slavery and had successfully labored to end it, which would have come as news to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It’s probably because she gave up reading any history after her ugly experience with Gore Vidal’s Aaron Burr: “He was kind of mocking the Founding Fathers and I just thought, ‘I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, ‘You know what? I don’t think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican.’”

Bachmann’s star is rising as the new Sarah Palin, the ur-model now a fading farce. She certainly gave the most spirited presentation of the evening in five short minutes, replete with the sort of charts Glenn Beck likes to use. She dwelled on a fact omitted by Obama from the resume of his successes, namely that that unemployment rate is still at 9.4 percent, despite a $3 trillion increase in the deficit: “Instead of a leaner, smarter government, we bought a bureaucracy that now tells us which light bulbs to buy and which may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama’s health care bill.”

That’s Tea Party talk which at least has the virtue of concreteness.

Bachmann did not fail to note that “America is the indispensable nation of the world.”

As noted at the outset, the evening marked another downward swoop in the national fantasy. The rest of the world got only fleeting mention from Obama, nothing from Ryan and a brief allusion to Iwo Jima from Bachmann, who clearly did not know that the famous photo of the raising of the flag was a staged replay. The relationship of war–as currently waged in Afghanistan–to the national deficit was not mentioned by any of the speakers, even though Stewart Lawrence wrote on Counterpunch last week very interestingly about a Left-Tea Party alliance on Pentagon spending. Ryan and Bachmann made no mention of military spending.

All three ignored the export of jobs and the destruction of American manufacturing and the pauperization of American families. Obama seemed to be trying to stage a replay of his own, of the U.S. economy in the 1950s. “We do big things.” No we don’t. We do Stupid Big Things, dating back to that last heyday of Stupid Big Thing Thinking: dam constructon in the 1930s, surging to the disaster of the Glen Canyon dam and Lake Powell in the 1950s, the same decade freeway construction–Big Concrete–destroyed city after city the same way (albeit more permanently) Big Bombing destroyed Germany and many countries thereafter. Mr President: Big Thingishess is passé, like the new tunnel to Manhattan from New Jersey. It’s an unfinished Tunnel to nowhere, like the Bridge to nowhere in Alaska; boondoggles so swollen in their porkerish immensity that even their boosters run out of hot air trying to justify them. Is it $350 billion for the F-35? Let’s hear $400 billion. Give me $500 billion!

Nothing about the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan–without which there would be no deficit right now. Nothing about the costs of that Big Thing–the American gulag and its three million unproductive denizens. It’s not just that none of Tuesday night’s speakers had any sort of a sane plan. None of them had a map of America’s recent history to help them figure out where the ship of state has drifted, sails in tatters and parrots perched on the yard arm, squawking about America’s singular greatness.

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Human Rights in the Rear View Mirror: Colombian Commandos Training Mexican Military and Police

By • on January 30, 2011 at 5:41 pm

In another misstep of the historic failure of Plan Colombia and the U.S.-supported War on Drugs, Colombia is training thousands of Mexican soldiers, police, and court officials in an effort to boost Mexico’s fight against drug cartels. Trainings have mostly taken place in Mexico, but now Mexican troops and police are traveling to Colombia to [...]

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Reaching across

By • on January 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm

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Collateral Damage

By • on January 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm

It’s too soon to say, of course, but it really does look as though the Tucson shooter has done Sarah Palin serious damage. A Gallup poll run at the end of last week gives her a 53 percent unfavorable rating, the lowest level she’s sunk to in public esteem since she was first lofted to [...]

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The Tunnel Contract: Here ‘Tis!

By • on January 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Attention tunnel critics: The complete contract for the deep-bore tunnel is now viewable online in PDF form, courtesy of Stranger news editor Dominic Holden, who’s been filing records requests for details all through the bidding process. His introduction to the documents, along with links to the PDFs, are available on Slog.

Here’s a great opportunity for tunnel critics to make our case against the tunnel in super-fine, policy-wonky detail. Let’s roll.

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January 21, 1997: In Search of the Golden Shower of Public-Private Partnerships

By • on January 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

Gentrification, triangulation, and public urination, oh my! Such were the underlying themes of civic life in Seattle during the allegedly halcyon days of the dot-com boom. And such was the backstory on the date in focus here, when roughly 75 local homeless citizens and advocates invaded the downtown Nordstrom store (then in its original Westlake [...]

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Two speeches

By • on January 20, 2011 at 8:00 am

Since Boomer pundits, many of whom still idolize John Kennedy, dominate national political media, we’ll hear a lot this week about the 50th anniversary today of Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech of Jan. 20, 1961 (“Ask not what you can do for your country…”). But while Kennedy gave a fine speech, and his oratory really did inspire a generation, it’s not nearly as relevant to our country today as another speech given three days earlier: the Farewell Address of outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Today, politicians left and right flee from the notion that Americans should sacrifice for, well, anything, let alone as cheesy a notion as their country. Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about now consumes well over half of the discretionary federal budget, and the US, in a development unprecedented in its history, is fighting two major wars, skirmishes in half a dozen others (most of which the average American can’t even name), spends staggering amounts of money on dazzling kill toys that achieve nothing beyond random civilian death, and maintains military bases in most of the Earth’s watersheds, with the apparent sole purpose of spending taxpayer money while guarding an ill-defined someone against a nebulous threat generated mostly by that same imperial presence.

Kennedy was of the World War II generation, the last time the nation actually willingly sacrificed for a common cause. 16 years later, calling for such an ideal didn’t seem like much of a stretch. Today, when most Americans have zero connection to the wars being fought in our names and with our tax dollars, Kennedy’s idealism seems quaint. Eisenhower’s warning, however, is all too real. Maybe that’s why it’s not getting nearly as much attention this week.

One more depressing thought: in 1961 two American statesmen gave speeches that still resonate 50 years later. Today, Barack Obama is certainly capable of that kind of oratory. But aside from Obama, is there any American politician that’s even capable of, let alone interested in, words that will stand that siort of test of time? I sure can’t think of any.

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Reclaim Our History: January 16-31

By • on January 19, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Jan. 16, 1919: Police smash peaceful IWW demonstration in Seattle; 43 are arrested and later sentenced to prison. Jan. 17, 1902: Washington State Federation of Labor formed. 1929: Uprising in Afghanistan against British rule. Jan. 18, 1943: WW II hardship, Soviet style: Red Army breaks 890-day-long German siege of Leningrad. 1943: WW II hardship, American [...]

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Focus on the Corporation: Corporate Junk Economics Return to Capitol Hill

By • on January 18, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Watch out for corporate junk economics on Capitol Hill. Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, has reportedly asked more than 150 trade associations, corporations and think tanks to provide a wish list of public health, environmental and other public protections that they would like to see eliminated. The purported [...]

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Nature & Politics: The Tucson Memorial: Politics is Everywhere

By • on January 18, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Last Wednesday night’s memorial in the McHale Arena at the University of Arizona did strike me as slightly strange, like an Irish wake that had prematurely transitioned into the later boisterous phase. The offbeat tone was established from the outset by Carlos Gonzalez, an associate prof at AU who delivered us from stuffy Anglican proprieties [...]

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