Saturday, May 17, 2008
A good news offering for the weekend
My cousin Dandy Nieuws insists he's going to start a blog any day now where we can come together to celebrate and gloat over the hard times befalling Republican politicians and their enablers in the business community. And there will be occasional bouts of genuinely good news, though I've warned him that he may run short of material.
In the meantime I thought I'd mention a few stories that caught his eye—
- After the Democrats picked up a House seat in Mississippi last week, the Republicans have now lost three special elections in a row. Of course the Democrats replacing them bear an eerie resemblance to their Republican predecessors.
- Alaskan Congressman Don Young, under investigation in a bribery probe, is reporting "no activity" in his legal defense fund. As a consequence he's had to spend over a million from his campaign fund for lawyers' fees. He might as well divert all of it. He's going to lose the election anyway, and his legal expenses are only going up, up, up!
- The Vatican is organising a conference next year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. It will be interesting to see how the conference evolves. And a priest-astronomer is floating the notion that God may have created aliens elsewhere. (I foresee a severe immigration problem in our future.) There's evidently a push by the Roman Church to save science from the clutches of Evangelical know-nothings.
- And speaking of Evangelicals, pastor Joe Barron of the Prestonwood Baptist megachurch in Plano, Texas, was arrested Thursday after driving 3 hours to minister to someone he presumed to be a 13-year-old girl. He brought along a hymn book, some condoms and a minicam. I'm trying to rein in my imagination.
- Texans are also finding new uses for guns. Jorge Espinal of Ft. Worth was playing poker when he developed an itch. He went to the next room to look for a backscratcher and settled upon a revolver. Unfortunately the gun went off in mid-scratch and left him somewhat bloody but presumably without the itch.
With news like this, how can you not have a good weekend?
Thursday, May 15, 2008
The gored republic
Today a friend sent me an excerpt from Amy Goodman's interview with Gore Vidal that was broadcast yesterday on "Democracy Now!" Aside from Vidal's fame as an author he is also Al Gore's cousin. I don't recall that anyone attempted to use this family connection against Al Gore during his campaign for the Presidency in 2000, but rest assured that Vidal is more outrageous than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright any day of the week.
I'd like to think that Vidal has been reading Simply Appalling, but the truth is that no one—least of all Gore Vidal—should really need my assistance to see the obvious.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you hold out hope right now?
GORE VIDAL: Well, what hope?
AMY GOODMAN: That’s what I’m asking, if you have any.
GORE VIDAL: No, not much.
You know, Benjamin Franklin, after the Constitution of 1789 was ready to—was being voted on, actually, in Philadelphia, he was leaving the hall, and he had been warned—the people running the Constitutional Convention, they knew he was very sharp-tongued and he was not an admirer of their works. He thought they were naive. He thought they were missing the point. He had read Aristotle, who explains how every republic has gone crashing. And he was leaving the hall, and an old lady that he knew said, “Well, men, what are you giving us?” He said, “Well, we’re giving you a republic, if you can
Well, there were three or four boys who had been assigned to follow him around and make sure he didn’t say anything embarrassing to the people. Well, he went right around saying exactly what he wanted to say. So the kids sort of cornered him on the way out to the street, and they said, “Why do you take such a dark view of the Constitution? It’s the best work of some of the best people in the United States. Why are you so skeptical?” And he said, “Well, Aristotle or indeed history tells us that every republic of this nature has failed because of the corruption of the people.” And he stepped off the stage.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen right now?
GORE VIDAL: It’s happened. We’re broke.
Do you follow television, as they find out we’re running out of food? That’s never happened in my lifetime.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think there’s a way to fix this?
GORE VIDAL: A crash will do it. But that’s pretty extreme.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
The Depression Chronicles – 5: Consumer spending
As I mentioned in a recent post, the economic cheerleaders spare no effort to present a rosy scenario of the nation's economic future. Since the Department of Commerce releases the nation's economic statistics faster than I lose hair, there's plenty of material to work with.
The latest cause for cheer was the "Advance Monthly Sales for Retail Trade and Food Services" released this morning by the Census Bureau. It comes out monthly and these were the numbers for April.
This report is watched carefully by economists and investors. It's considered of great significance because two-thirds of the contribution to the statistical measure of the overall U.S. economy consists of nothing more than the total of money that consumers have spent, whether they actually have any or not.
The report found that retail sales had dropped by 0.2% since March. Well, whoo-hoo! Before you turn all incredulous let me explain that the reason for the good cheer was that the number had dropped less than economists had expected! That calls for a second whoo-hoo!
But sometimes you have to dig about for the really good news, and our economic brethren wasted no time. Chris Bryant of the Financial Times, in a story glowingly titled "US retail data show signs of resilience,"
Fewer car purchases put a dent in US retail sales last month, which fell 0.2 per cent, as consumers were hit by high fuel costs and a weak labour market.
Excluding autos, however, total sales increased, indicating signs of resilience in consumer spending, a government report showed on Tuesday.
So if you eliminate car sales, things went swimmingly, right?
To bolster that view, Bryant quotes from an expert—
“Given all of the negative news... the strength in this report is a startling reminder of the resilience of the US consumer,” Drew Matus, senior economist at Lehman Brothers, said.
My, oh my. Digging a little deeper Bryant finds that—
Car sales fell 2.8 per cent last month while overall petrol sales posted a surprise decrease, slipping 0.4 per cent.
Is it really possible that someone can get a degree in economics and be surprised that gasoline sales dropped?
But here's the good news—
Excluding petrol, retail sales fell 0.2 per cent, while excluding both petrol and cars retail sales rose 0.6 per cent.
Michael Feroli, US economist at JPMorgan Economics, said he was encouraged by the broad-based nature of these sales increases, which included gains in electronics, apparel, sporting goods and general merchandise.
In other words, if you drop out the figures for auto sales and gasoline, sales were actually on the increase! Now I'm beginning to get it.
So I decided to drop by the Commerce website and have a look at the actual report. Economic statistics can be a bit tricky, so I wanted to find out what was being measured—was it the number of units sold or the total dollars spent? The short answer turned out to be total dollars spent.1 And here's what I found floating above the charts—
Estimates adjusted for seasonal variation, holiday, and trading-day differences, but not for price changes
In other words, if consumers made exactly the same purchases in April that they made in March, we would expect "total consumer spending" to rise, since the price of just about everything has risen. Whoopee! We're saved! We don't have to buy more, we just have to pay more for it, and the economy will still be on the right track!
It appears that the "core CPI," a measure of inflation, hasn't been released yet for April. (Forgive me if I'm wrong. I don't follow these matters very closely.) However, the March figure was 0.6%—an exact match to the increase in consumer spending for April once we jigger out those depressing numbers in auto and gasoline sales.
See how easy it is to find hope in a doomed economy.
Of course the stock market responded immediately. One atop the other in Google News were these two headlines—
Stocks head to higher open after retail sales report
The Associated Press - 2 hours ago
Stocks decline after retail sales report, Bernanke speech
The Associated Press - 44 minutes ago
Mr. Bernanke should just shut up. He's ruining my day.
The Depression Chronicles – 4: Insurance (5/10/08)
1The long answer turns out to be—
The advance estimates are based on a subsample of the Census Bureau's full retail and food services sample. A stratified random sampling method is used to select approximately 5,000 retail and food services firms whose sales are then weighted and benchmarked to represent the complete universe of over three million retail and food services firms. Responding firms account for approximately 65% of the MARTS dollar volume estimate.
Reader Comment of the Day: re Henry Kissinger
Kissinger's op-ed appeared last month, and I would have missed it entirely if a rabid Zionist publication had not dropped a link to it into my Inbox this morning. After reading Kissinger's effulgence I concluded that the Zionists' enthusiasm derived from Kissinger's Europe/NATO bashing—
Conventional wisdom holds that disenchantment with President Bush's alleged unilateralism is at the heart of European-American disagreements. But it will become apparent soon after the change of administrations that the principal difference between the two sides of the Atlantic is that America is still a traditional nation-state whose people respond to calls for sacrifices on behalf of a much wider definition of the national interest than Europe's definition.
Shorter version: Europeans are less enthusiastic for war than their American counterparts.
Zionist Jews can barely contain themselves over the efforts by Western European countries to maintain a more balanced stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when compared with every U.S. administration since Ronald Reagan. The European refusal to accept at face value every Israeli claim of injustice and every Israeli excuse for vengeance is a matter of some grief to Zionists.
Then there's the Islamist threat—
Today it is radical Islam that threatens the already brittle state structure via a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran as the basis of a universal political organization. Jihadist Islam rejects national sovereignty based on secular state models; it seeks to extend its reach to wherever significant populations profess the Muslim faith. Since neither the international system nor the internal structure of existing states has legitimacy in Islamist eyes, its ideology leaves little room for Western notions of negotiation or equilibrium in a region of vital interest to the security and well-being of the industrial states. That struggle is endemic; we do not have the option of withdrawal. We can retreat from any one place, such as Iraq, but only to be obliged to resist from new positions, probably more disadvantageously. Even advocates of unilateral withdrawal from Iraq speak of retaining residual forces to prevent a resurgence of al-Qaeda or radicalism.
Shorter version: The notion of the nation-state is being threatened by "Islamists." (That would include Israel of course.) These people are beyond negotiation, so stay in Iraq or fight them elsewhere.
Never mind that Iraq was a secular state before the invasion, and never mind that there is at least one advocate of unilateral withdrawal—retired Gen. William Odom—who does not speak of retaining "residual forces." And never mind that this was Kissinger's talking-point during the Vietnam War—that we must stay in Vietnam or fight the Communists elsewhere.
To paraphrase a line from a famous general—Old U.S. war criminals are never indicted, they just go into consulting.
A different view of the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq (5/9/07)
Reality Check of the Day (6/20/07)
Training the Iraqis: A contrary view (7/19/07)
Monday, May 12, 2008
Why haven't the Democrats ended the wars?
The newly energized voters on the moderate left look at what they have wrought in the 2006 election and wonder why they've seen no change—especially in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lulling the Republican base and the fellow-travelers
The most benign view of the Democratic majority in Congress is that they don't want to "rock the boat." That is to say, the Democratic leadership knows that if they sit tight and keep their trousers buttoned the Democrats are going to win big come November.
It's also true that the Democratic majority in the Senate is razor-thin and falls apart at the slightest sign of contention. This means there will be no impeachment of Bush or Cheney. Confrontations between the Democrats and the White House will go no further than a sound-bite on cable news. And you can be damn sure they're not about to cut off funds for the war and lay themselves open to accusations of "not supporting the troops" or "losing Iraq."
Underlying this calculation is a fear that they will do something to re-energize the Republican constituency—the low-paid white men, the conservative money machine and of course the Christian evangelicals, who've been the real workers at the roundup when it came time to herd the Republican faithful to the polls.
The multi-party Democrats
Another reason for Democratic inaction that many voters fail to appreciate is that within our two-party system, unlike the European multi-party systems, we have parties within parties—and this is especially true of the Democrats.
An item in the Wall Street Journal provides an excellent illustration of this. Bush has demanded—and the Democratic leadership intends to give—$183.7 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through next summer, which will be agreeable to the so-called "Blue Dog" Democrats. But the Democratic leadership hopes to sweeten the bill for the antiwar Democrats by providing better benefits for veterans and a requirement to begin the drawdown of troops within 30 days of the bill's passage. And for the populist liberals there's a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits—all in the same bill.
Sarah Lueck writes—
House Democratic leaders have set a floor strategy intended to deal with the different views of the war within their party. Three separate votes will be held: one on the war funding, one on the war restrictions and one on the domestic-spending items. No lawmaker will have to vote for all three items. The procedure will allow antiwar Democrats to support the domestic programs but vote against the funding for Iraq. Fiscal conservatives can oppose the domestic spending but vote for the war funding.1
There's something for everyone—and an escape hatch for all.
But Bush has promised to veto any bill that contains anything other than the money he wants, and I'm doubtful that anything but the war funding can make it through the Senate. Perhaps if the Republican Senators become sufficiently frightened at the prospect of being accused of "not supporting the veterans" or if employment figures begin to worsen (which they will), there is a possibility that a veto-proof majority could be fashioned that would include some progressive features in the bill. But whether that occurs or not, when the dust has settled you may be sure that Bush will get his war money.
The power of capital
Of course there is another view—readily found among the more leftist writers—that the Congressional Democrats are simply sucking on the same capitalist teat as the Republicans and are not ready to switch to formula. The corporate profits from this war are enormous, and small portions of those profits are allowed to filter back not only to the campaign coffers of the Congressional Representatives but also to the citizens of the Senators' states and of most Congressional districts.
Nevertheless, if the Democrats are installed in Congress at a level not seen for generations and Obama wins the Presidency, there will be some real pressure to get off the teat—at least so long as the public continues to demand change and the internet donations keep coming.
That said, we will be electing politicians—not heroes. Unfortunately, too many Democratic politicians—especially the old-guard—will readily accept the murder of vast swathes of foreign populations in return for two more years in office. To end the wars will require ongoing pressure from the electorate and real Presidential leadership. Either precondition is hard to come by, and to satisfy both at once will be a miracle.
A Simply Appalling view
I believe that all of the factors cited above are playing a role in Democratic inaction on the wars. And I'm doubtful that any combination of marching, letter-writing, praying, voting or electing will be sufficient to overcome them—especially the power of capital.
Regular readers may have noticed that I haven't been writing about Iraq or Afghanistan but have preferred to write about banks and bankruptcies. This isn't because I've lost interest in ending the wars, but because I'm persuaded that the only force powerful enough to end them is economic—a massive failure of the U.S. economy. Day by day that is looking more certain.
As it happened, Jim Hightower, the columnist and radio personality, was on C-span yesterday addressing some of the issues in this post. He's more optimistic than I am about what can be achieved through electoral politics, but here's his answer to a questioner who wanted to know why the Democrats "haven't been able to make more of a difference."—C-span clip. (If you have a popup blocker, you may need to click on the Flash icon on the right side of the screen to play the video.)