The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Round-up of sad news stories

Not that anyone is surprised, but Samuel Alito got confirmed an Associate Justice of the U.S. today.

Civil-rights activist Corretta Scott King died this morning.

Exxon reported a $36 billion profit in 2005, the largest corporate profit ever, making Exxon shareholders the largest beneficiaries in history of the ongoing environmental degradation of our planet.

And today is Alan Greenspan's last day as Federal Reserve Chairman, which actually may be good news for our children, since it's unlikely that incoming chariman Ben Bernanke will allow the structural imbalances in the U.S. economy that Greenspan encouraged to continue. More on that later.

Finally, the Oscar nominees were announced this morning, prompting me to send a very long, pun-filled email to Anne, which I will spare my loyal readers.

That is all.

An analogy about climate change

Imagine you're a fisherman in an English village sometime in the 10th century. You notice, on the horizon, some longboats. You get worried, because you know the Norse have raped and pillaged from Dover to York for many years, which always ends badly for those raped and pillaged.

You mention it to the lord of the manor, who asks, "how many boats?" You say you don't know; it could be two, it could be four, they're still a ways away. "Come back when you know for sure," he tells you.

Another villager runs in to tell the manor lord essentially the same thing: He has seen Norsemen coming, they're heading right for us, hadn't we better get the men at arms ready?

No, says the manor lord, and further if you challenge my authority again, I shall shackle you to the wall.

A third villager runs in, shouting that the Norsemen are coming, at least two boats with 160 men, they'll arrive within the hour.

The manor lord shackles the third man to the wall, and shortly thereafter gets a Norse battle axe through the skull.

This is, of course, an (admittedly bad) analogy to the Bush Administration's handling of the ongoing global warming crisis, which has just gotten worse. Scientists now have stronger evidence that we're heading to a "tipping point" where climate change will accelerate beyond our ability to adapt, never mind our ability to prevent it.

Notice I said "stronger evidence." Climatologists have, in fact, predicted this scenario for at least 20 years, and until Dubya our government was listening—sometimes with only half an ear, true, but that's better than now.

Our current administration just doesn't want to hear about climate change. Their prinicpal argument has been that since the actual degree of change is uncertain, we don't know what actions to take yet, so we should do nothing lest we do the wrong thing. This, of course, makes no sense, as the principal actions to take are quite obvious to anyone remotely paying attention.

As they have done with other bits of evidence they didn't like, they've exerted political pressure to squelch it:

"There's no agreement on what it is that constitutes a dangerous climate change," said [President Bush's chief science adviser, John H.] Marburger, adding that the U.S. government spends $2 billion a year on researching this and other climate change questions. "We know things like this are possible, but we don't have enough information to quantify the level of risk."
This tipping point debate has stirred controversy within the administration; [NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies director James E.] Hansen said senior political appointees are trying to block him from sharing his views publicly. When Hansen posted data on the Internet in the fall suggesting that 2005 could be the warmest year on record, NASA officials ordered Hansen to withdraw the information because he had not had it screened by the administration in advance, according to a Goddard scientist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. More recently, NASA officials tried to discourage a reporter from interviewing Hansen for this article and later insisted he could speak on the record only if an agency spokeswoman listened in on the conversation.

(Personal aside: the Washington Post article quoted above ends with this bit:

The small island nation of Kiribati is made up of 33 small atolls, none of which is more than 2 m (6.5 ft) above the South Pacific, and it is only a matter of time before the entire country is submerged by the rising sea. "For Kiribati, the tipping point has already occurred," Schneider said. "As far as they're concerned, it's tipped, but they have no economic clout in the world."

...which is interesting to me because my friend Danielle just got back from Peace Corps duty there.)

I chose the analogy to Norsemen because I'm just finishing up Jared Diamond's book Collapse, whose central thesis is that societies collapse primarily because of ecological changes combined with the societies' responses to them. Witness the Norse in Greenland dying out after 450 years, while the Inuit happily lived on to the present day.

Someday, when we spend half a trillion dollars to build seawalls around New York and Miami, we're going to look back on this Administration the way the French look back on Louis XVI.

Stuff we already knew about Abramoff

Not that anyone who reads a newspaper will be surprised, but Abramoff didn't give money to Democrats, only Republicans:

A new and extensive analysis of campaign donations from all of Jack Abramoff’s tribal clients, done by a nonpartisan research firm, shows that a great majority of contributions made by those clients went to Republicans. The analysis undercuts the claim that Abramoff directed sums to Democrats at anywhere near the same rate.

It's the corruption, stupid.


For the record: The existence, or quantity, of any photos of the President shaking Jack Abramoff's hand, is totally irrelevant.

As Josh Marshall points out, Abramoff was the #1 most-connected guy in Republican fundraising during Bush's first term. So it's unlikely that Bush didn't know him, regardless of what either says on the subject.

Haven't we had enough of this already? One president lies about extra-marital sex, the other about helping his friends steal billions and kill thousands. One gets impeached, the other re-elected.

It's sad, really.

Two slightly related items before going back to work

First, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has a great column today (sub.req.):

[The President's] breathtaking arrogance is exceeded only by his incompetence. And that's the real problem. That's where you'll find the mind-boggling destructiveness of this regime, in its incompetence. ... [T]he plain truth is that he is the worst president in memory, and one of the worst of all time.

Second, I've been ambivalent about the Times charging $49.95 per year to read most of its content, but I think more and more that it's fair. I don't know, though. I pay it, because I read Krugman and Dowd every week, and I like occasionally reading the Magazine. What are other people's thoughts on this?

Political joke from my sister

A man enters a bar and orders a drink. The bar has a robot bartender. The robot serves him a perfectly prepared cocktail, and then asks him, "What's your IQ?" The man replies "150" and the robot proceeds to make conversation about quantum physics, string theory, atomic chemistry, etc. he customer is very impressed and thinks, "This is really cool."

He decides to test the robot. He walks out of the bar, turns around, and comes back in for another drink. Again, the robot serves him the drink and asks him, "What's your IQ?" The man responds, "100." Immediately the robot starts talking, but this time, about football, NASCAR, baseball, supermodels, etc.

Really impressed, the man leaves the bar and decides to give the robot one more test. He goes back in, the robot serves him and asks, "What's your IQ?" The man replies, "70." And the robot says, "So, you gonna vote for Bush again?"

Three Mid-Eastern items

First, Palestine's Fatah government has resigned after Hamas has apparently won yesterday's ellection, following several years Fatah of inaction and corruption. I suppose that means we can look forward to several years of Hamas inaction and corruption, with an occasional terrorist bombing thrown in every now and then. Hamas, you may remember, is dedicated to the annihilation of Israel.

Reactions from Israel were restrained, for now:

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert scheduled talks with senior officials later in the day. Olmert said Wednesday, before Hamas claimed victory, that Israel cannot trust a Palestinian leadership in which the Islamic group has a role.
"Israel can’t accept a situation in which Hamas, in its present form as a terror group calling for the destruction of Israel, will be part of the Palestinian Authority without disarming," Olmert said in a statement issued by his office.

Note to the new Palestinian Authority government: You'll accomplish more for your people if you stop blaming others for all your problems. But I suppose you know that already, don't you?

Next, it was 65 years ago today that the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz. All together now: "Never again."

Finally, a not-entirely-unrelated fact, exactly ten years later, on 26th January 1955, the Constitution of India took effect, solidifying it as the world's most populous democracy.

I just can't stand rules like this

The BBC reported last week on a new workplace rule at a firm in Germany.

The firm, which until recently had a staff of 16, forbade complaining or whinging in the workplace, on pain of immediate firing:

[E]mployees have a clause in their contracts which states: "moaning and whinging at Nutzwerk is forbidden... except when accompanied with a constructive suggestion as to how to improve the situation."
Ramona Wonneberger, chief executive of Nutzwerk, came up with the idea. She claims that "negative energy" puts a dampener not just on workers' moods, but also on productivity.

The story raises several questions. First, these are Germans, right? I've met plenty of Germans and I think only we Chicagoans outdo them in the quantity or quality of our complaints. Second, how bad was the problem that Wonneberger felt she needed to do something about it? Finally, how does one determine whether a comment constitutes a complaint, or is merely the predicate for a "constructive suggestion?"

Deutschland Über Beschwerdeführen, I guess.

Corporations, not parties, are the problem: Guest blogger Yak

I've asked Yak, one of the friends I mentioned Sunday, to give us his two cents. He gave us a couple of bucks and said "keep the change." And just before posting this, CBS and Time Warner announced a merger. Interesting, no?


I think the first idea I need to reinforce is that I am not a Democrat and do not embrace the hope that if Democrats can "take back" the federal government, this should in turn "take back" America. I do not believe there is a fundamental difference between Republican and Democrat in this country, though at the local and perhaps at the state levels this may not be as true. Perhaps this is the opposite of what conventional poli-sci takes as truth. One of the reasons I don't see a substantive difference is that both sides are predominantly older, rich, white male lawyers. When so many members of Congress have such common backgrounds, I don't think we can expect much real difference among them. With a deeply entrenched bureaucracy handling the day-to-day operations of the federal government—see James Q. Wilson's "Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It" for the most objective and generally lucid explanation I've seen about this—our policy makers argue about semantics, posturing for sound bites and empty rhetoric. I know this is generalization, but I just don't see enough of a difference between Dem/Rep to view either as "the problem." To me, they both are.

Let me also add that I do not believe a Republican conspiracy is driving the problems I've asked about (rhetorically, or at least Socratically). If Dem basically equals Rep in my opinion, then neither is intrinsically less desirable as a political representative, and neither is conspiring against anyone. You're right, most of our crises can be attributed to human vices or apathy. Put someone in power and he (yes, he, still vastly more likely than "she") will likely bend his power to serve his personal needs. The Greeks understood this. But then, they had a democracy; we live in a republic, and most Americans don't seem to understand (or, you're right) care about the difference.

Let me throw a Supreme Court case at you: Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 11 US 394 (1886). This is the decision that is widely identified as the case that gave corporations the same protections under the 14th Amendment as individuals. With this precedent, the courts were quick to extend this interpretation to giving corporations the same legal rights and protections as individuals. When that happened, I think, the American political landscape changed forever. Now a legal amalgamation of assets and financial resources far dwarfing almost any individual could operate in ways that served its best interests even when those interests ran contrary to individual citizens—or when those interests were predicated on the illusion of what Marjorie Kelly calls "shareholder primacy." Over time the corporation rose in power and influence, and nobody could stop it. It is virtually impossible to fight a corporation - and where one falls, several more rise from its legal corpse. Re-read Heinlein's Friday starting on page 120 (of the edition I borrowed):

Any territorial state is a sitting duck. But fighting a multinational is like trying to slice a fog. Where's your target? You want to fight IBM? Where is IBM? Its registered home office is a P.O. box number in Delaware. That's no target. IBM's offices and people and plants are scattered. you can't hit any part of IBM without hurting somebody else as much or more But can IBM defeat, say, Russia? It would just depend on whether or not IBM could see a profit in it. So far as I know, IBM doesn't own any guerrillas. [You can] take [your] own sweet time getting set because Russia isn't going anywhere. It will still be there, a big fat target, a week from now or a year.

Heinlein's commentary, a mere aside buried in the fast-paced plot, makes a point that many people tend to forget: A company like IBM doesn't have borders, it isn't tied to a piece of geography. The corporation may have started in the United States but that doesn't mean the IBM Corporation is bound to US ideology or politics unless its own organizational mission benefits from that association. Thus, it becomes difficult to regulate; legislation for such a company must go beyond the US borders to truly affect the corporation. And with the rise of private security companies, Heinlein's work becomes even more eerily prescient.

My perspective on the American condition can be laid out like this:

A very small percentage of Americans control a very large percentage of the assets, wealth, and resources in this country. Through their investment managers (who in turn are grotesquely overcompensated) they shape the direction of capitalism, which is carried out by corporations with the purpose of maximizing the bottom line. If something doesn't increase profits, there's no reason to try it - which is why so many corporations aren't more socially or environmentally responsible - if the potential fines and PR spinning are less costly than fixing the problem in the first place, then it's business as usual, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes. Consider General Electric, which pays hundreds of millions of dollars in fines every year. What do they call this? The cost of doing business—and they budget for it! Anyway, corporations are largely owned by private investors or investment plans, whose participation are largely dominated by other corporations and investment plans. At the end, who benefits the most? A very small number of private investors - the richest people in America. If this appears circular, good, it is. The introduction of new money in the 80s and 90s with financial machinations and the tech bubble shifted some of the money to new investors, but when the markets "corrected" a few years ago, what a surprise, the same faces show up that have been there all along. Read Kevin Phillips' "Weath and Democracy" for more stats. It's not that the rich control America actively, it's that the consequences are inevitable and too big for any of us to stop or even slow down. We aren't even a mosquito biting in a tender spot; we don't matter because we can't stop the corporations that control the media, the majority of access to our political reps, the culture in which we're all so immersed, even the education we've received and the information we can access to continue learning.

I don't know who's ultimately in charge if Dem=Rep and the top rich have the most access to power via their disproportionate resources. It analyzes like a plutocracy but the rich don't seem to pull the strings actively. I've heard the word "meritocracy" thrown around but that's not accurate, either. "Aristocracy" and "oligarchy"? I dunno. It just seems we live in a nation that isn't what it claims to be and has elements of structures we're taught don't exist here. And for most of us, every day goes along without any clear sign that things are different than we were taught and believe. Why question the American Dream when most of us have food, shelter, and some of the considerations that allow us to move a little farther up Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs? Just don't get me researching Bohemian Grove again - that stuff really rattles my sociopolitical-economic cage...

It's really hard to get anything concrete on these ideas. It's taken me several years to piece some of this together; such a vast societal inertia is really hard to push against. I'm still not done tying threads together, which is why I can't give you a nice neat executive summary of my theory with E.B. White-sized bullet points. And I'm not convinced I'm right, either. I feel as though I'm onto something Big and Paradigm-Rattling, but the closer I get to illumination the more I wonder "why bother?" I can't change anything, I don't really want to try, I just want to live on my country property and make a good life for us without more challenges than life will throw at us regardless of any non-conformist ideas we may have. Fortunately, I have a great deal of work ahead of me this spring, so there won't be much consideration for these ideas until the summer. For anyone who wants to get a better foundation to understand my perspective, here are some suggestions:

Bakan, Joel. The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York: Free Press, 2004.

De Graaf, John, Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic . San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2001.

Hartmann, Thom. Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft. New York: Rodale Books, 2002.

Hawken, Paul. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.

Hooks, Bell. Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kelly, Marjorie. The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2003.

Miller, Ron. What Are Schools For: Holistic Education in American Culture. Brandon, Vt.: Holistic Education Press, 1990.

—Guest blogger Yak