Realists Denying Reality

The politicians in Washington who so love to brag about their “realism” are in deep denial, to the point of threatening U.S. and all human security. Realism is not about acting like a tough guy; realism is about facing the truth and planning for the future.

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Some politicians present themselves as realists, i.e., as hard-headed, long-range thinkers who can be trusted to defend U.S. national security. The more extreme of these demand the submission of the rest of the world as they pursue their realist imperial policies in a world they perceive as being a zero-sum, tooth-and-claw environment. In order to scrape together the resources for their expensive foreign adventures, they further demand that the American people accept low wages, bad health care, and superficial democracy. Such, they say, is the price of freedom. Lets take them at their word, for a moment, and consider how their policies might in fact serve U.S. national interestsover the long run.
For most Americans, the long run is not even in their vocabulary. It requires an unconventional way of thinking to plan for a time whenwell, shall we say, when your children are grown? Thats not too far down the road, is it?
When your children are grown (and you expect to be settling down for a comfortable retirement), Southern Californiawhere all your winter fruits and vegetables come frommay be a dust bowl.
In the Southwestern U.S. the tipping point has probably already been passed. The scientists now predict that levels of aridity last seen in the 1930s Dust Bowl will have become the norm by mid-century. [Allianz.]
The original report, Major Tipping Points in the Earths Climate System, on which the above conclusion was based spells out why reality is even worse than would be inferred from the above comparison to the Dust Bowl:
Here, comparison has already been made with conditions seen in the 1950s multiyear drought or the 1930s Dust Bowl. However, it is important to note that, while conditions are similar, the future intensified aridity in the Southwest predicted by Seager et al. (4) is caused by different processes and expected drying is “unlike any climate state we have seen in the instrumental record”. [73]
On the drowning East Coast, it may be hard to take seriously the potential collapse of southern Californias invaluable farmland as the Sierra snowpack disappears, but consider:

Global warming is intensifying the water cycle the process of precipitation, infiltration, and evaporation. In the future, the wet will get wetter and the dry will become drier.
Every system requires energy: the more energy, the more vigorous the system. The sun powers the life-giving system that is the water cycle and thanks to greenhouse gases, there is more energy, or simply heat, in the system. [Allianz.]

It is hard to imagine any portion of the U.S. more central to the American way of life and American power than the lush fruit and vegetable lands of southern California. A true realist would deem the protection of this treasure a realistic thing to do. This video, featuring California state environmental scientists, explains what is happening to the crucial Sierra snowpack and the immediate impact of nonaction, including two current trends of rising lightning, dying forests, and—as a result—more and hotter forest fires.

If you are still troubled by the true meaning of realism, watch the first two minutes of this five-minute video.
How are the realists with their Mideast wars, their health care system that leaves 30 million Americans behind, their financial system that coddles billionaires and puts 20 million Americans into the unemployment lines, their sneering at the warnings of the worlds scientists about global warming preparing the U.S. for the loss of Southern California?
  • Are the realists conserving global hydrocarbon supplies?
  • Are the realists developing a healthy green industrial base to provide clean energy?
  • Are the realists promoting small, local farms to ensure food supplies as Southern California runs out of water?
  • Are the realists implementing a plan to combat the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide that is threatening our childrens way of life?
Call them realists, empire-builders,  neo-cons, or just elitists (of both major parties), they are doing no such thing. They are not planning for the long-run survival of our way of life. They are not thinking about how your children will live when they grow up or how you will live when you get to what you imagine will be your retirement age.
Realism today is not about brute force; realism is about facing the truth and taking action to protect human security.

Too Big to Fail

Leaders throughout society indulge in the criminal hubris of considering their institutions too big to fail in great measure because society indulges them by failing to hold them responsible for their socially pernicious behavior. It’s not just Wall Street billionaires.
The current, endless recessionperhaps not a recession at all but in fact a retrenchment to Third World Status for the worlds last superpowermay eventually come to be recognized as a blessing in disguiseif society draws the appropriate lessons. Already enough is understood about the human complicity in provoking this needless disaster to make studying the causes of the recession (if that is all it turns out to be) essential reading for anyone interested in the future course of American and, indeed, global capitalist society. The greed soaked in the belief that failure was impossible is a moral tale that applies to foreign policy, health care management, and the way we treat our poisoned environment as much as it does to economics.
Can the recession earn its keep by teaching us to do a more socially responsible job of managing all major social institutions and policy structures?
No lesson is more important than the idiocy of too big to fail. While Bushs Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (the Goldman Sachs fox guarding the nations financial henhouse) may appear, as the result of his bailout of billionaire buddies, the prime example of everything that is wrong with how the revolving door Wall Street-Washington elite runs the country for its private benefit, even he had evidently realized, before the bailouts back at least as far as June 2008 that too big to fail was a dangerous mirage. Indeed, he reportedly stated in a speech in Russia that:
we must improve the tools at our disposal for facilitating the orderly failure of a large, complex financial institution [Andrew Ross Sorkin, Too Big to Fail (New York: Penguin Books, 2009), 178.]
One could debate whether or not he took his own words seriously when the crunch came, shortly thereafter or whether American society is yet remotely close to digesting the import of those words, but the recession is a textbook case for the importance of doing so.
The recession is not, of course, by any means the only such case, as any good Reaganite or member of al Quaida would no doubt be quick to point out: both groups take credit for bringing down the Soviet superpower, an empire of both sufficiently colossal size and imperfections to match AIG or Bear Sterns or Merrill Lynch any day. Too big to fail in the glazed over eyes of Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Andropov, the sudden, pathetic collapse of the communist empire looks all too much like those of the above-mentioned capitalist empires. Historians can argue over the degree to which Reagans wild spending on Star Wars, bin Ladens Afghan crusade, or internal rot deserves the credit for destroying the USSR. The bottom line is the hubris that leads to the belief that one is too big to fail, which brings us back to the future of a certain society that is characterized by $100 million golden parachutes for CEOs judged to have failed; global-scale environmental catastrophes resulting in great measure from intentional avoidance of known preventive measures; health care designed as a lucrative business for the primary purpose of personal profit; and four-trillion-dollar wars to build political empires (to distinguish them from the previously cited hydrocarbon and health care empires).
If big is goodand to both the US and the old USSR it was so defined, then bigger is better. To that must be added just one little wrinkle that may differentiate the modern world from old empire-building projects (Imperial Russia, Rome, Spains colonization of South America, etc.). Today, on top of hubris, one has moral hazard. Too big to fail amounts to the bosses evading responsibility. Presidents who declare war on false pretenses, oil executives who despoil huge chunks of the earth after cost-cutting on blow-out preventers, financial magnates who gamble with other peoples money leveraged to the max, or heath care executives who refuse to give coverage to poor people precisely because they are sick may occasionally lose their jobs but do so without paying. Indeed, they walk away sneering and rich.
Too big to fail now means too big to be held accountable, and that is the Achilles heel of Western civilization.
Paulson was right on target with his 2008 comment, except that really he should have omitted the word financial. All of society needs tools to facilitate the orderly failure of institutions deemed fatally ill. Consider BPor Libya. As for the worlds last superpower, perhaps the process of developing rules for its failure (something of course totally impossible) would educate American society, provoking us all to figure out ways to deleverage our overstretch and strengthen our social collateral before the bills come due.

Obama: Secondrate Neo-Con or Master of Change?

Could Obama save his presidency by walking the talk, by–like Clark Kent–actually shedding his neo-con suit so we can see his Master of Change cloak?
If we accept the contentious viewpoint that “10 years is enough”—i.e., that 10 years of neo-con policy in Washington is enough, then what should Obama do to save his presidency?
Well, he could start a war, but that approach is getting a little old.
He could apologize for talking liberal and admit that he really, deep down just wants to be accepted into the Washington elite of financiers who visit the Potomac to pass laws for their personal convenience and imperialists who attack or otherwise subvert oil exporting countries for their personal profit, but that would just make him look like Palin, except less pretty.
He has, fortunately, another choice. He could become the Master of Change:
  1. Govern for Change, not to Make Neo-Cons Feel Good. Apologize for talking reform while walking elite, for being so naïve as to imagine that if he kissed up to neo-con policies that the Republicans would then be so kind as to support a moderate effort to clean up the neo-con mess in foreign policy, health care policy, environmental policy, and economic policy. Having said this, Obama could then state that he would, in his remaining two years, govern for the majority (that is not 60 Senators, but 51, assuming he is lucky enough to retain 51), then focus on proposing real reforms. Invite patriotic Republicans to work with him and ignore the rest. If Congress will not pass them, then he can blame the Republicans for preventing reform and go into the election with a clear record. But…what reforms?
  2. Bail Out People, Not Corporations. Remove all appointed officials from the financial sector if they previously worked in Wall Street. Instead, appoint a mix of academics who have NOT made millions advising Big Finance, government reformers (there are several whose names we know well now in Washington, more and more are emerging at the level of state prosecutors), and perhaps some small-town honest bankers who have carefully avoided the various Wall Street scams of recent years. Then, Obama should direct his new team to:
    1. Scrutinize what Big Finance has done with its bailout;
    2. Bring charges against any CEO’s who hid evidence from investors or regulators;
    3. Redirect policy away from bailing out the rich to funding the reconstruction of America;
    4. Propose clear legislation forcing mortgage companies to prove they hold the paper before they pressure a house-owner toward foreclosure;
    5. Bring serious criminal charges against any mortgage company & banking officials who may be guilty of mistreating those facing foreclosure.
  3. Heath Care As a Right, Not a Business. Announce the principle of socialized health care, explaining in a speech lasting no more than five minutes, that “socialized” means “for society” and that health care is henceforth to be considered a natural right of all Americans. Challenge the industry to come up with an acceptable private plan within 60 days to avoid direct government competition.
  4. Compromise With Iran. Quietly (OK – maybe he already has; I would be the last to know) invite Tehran to sit down to discuss a coordinated effort to resolve both the Iraq and Afghan situations. Separately, announce that U.S. military officials in the field have been authorized to shoot down any aerial force crossing the Persian Gulf in either direction for aggressive purposes. Strongly condemn any American or allied figure that threatens nuclear aggression against Iran.
  5. Support Democracy, Not Imperialism in the Levant. Noisily open all channels to the Israeli intellectual community to stimulate the Israeli “left,” for want of a better word, to devise a solution that frees the Palestinians and solidifies Israeli democracy. Announce that the Hamas policy of trying to participate in electoral politics (which they did at the invitation of both Israel and the U.S. in 2006) and trying to limit rocket attacks even in the face of continuing Israeli military pressure against Gaza justifies both removing Hamas from the terrorist list and opening talks with Hamas. Send the U.S. Navy to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
  6. Punish Environmental Crime. End all off-shore drilling until safe technology can be developed, start telling the truth about BP’s pre-oil gusher and post-oil gusher behavior and bring charges against guilty officials.
They say humans can remember plus-or-minus 7 points. Try these six, Mr. President, and maybe enough voters will remember to reelect you.

Responsibility in America

Will the greasing of the Gulf become the 21st century image of the United States…or can the U.S. rise to the challenge and demonstrate it still deserves its old reputation of being a force for good? The answer is deeply entangled with the unpopular notion of taking responsibility.

When I was young, the U.S. landing on the moon represented the technical genius and the aspirations of a society that–all its social and political sins notwithstanding—still believed in itself and the vision of a better society. Citizens of the U.S. held these beliefs with reason. If racism and sexism remained, all members of society, regardless of race or sex, had finally achieved at least the legal status implied so many years before by the best words in the Constitution, the terrible victory of black men in the 19th century paving the way for the victory of women of all races in the 20th, the less terrible nature of which in itself seemed to indicate the maturation of American society. If the U.S. was still making war against liberation movements from Vietnam to Latin America, its post-war generosity toward both allies and defeated adversaries showed the moral heights to which it was on occasion capable of rising. If government still abused power, that same government repeatedly demonstrated the capacity to clean its own house. I was able to persuade myself that the failures were temporary, and that if society slipped occasionally into the gutter it was nevertheless capable of setting itself back on the road ahead.

Today feels different. American capacity and resources may remain impressive, but the pattern of governance across the major arenas—environmental, foreign policy, health care, and financial policy—in the 21st century leaves one with the sinking feeling that the road has been lost. If the symbol of the post-war era was the moon landing, today—when the cascade of wars has made almost incomprehensible the very phrase “post-war”—the symbol of American governance is the sacrifice, very likely for the rest of our lifetimes and perhaps far longer, of one of the world’s great resources, the Gulf of Mexico, on the alter of Big Oil greed. Already challenging the ill-conceived war against Islamic activism brought to us by the Imperial Presidency and the “never-ending recession” created by Big Finance for first prize in the Olympics of Political Screw-ups, the greasing of the Gulf promises to be the event of the early 21st century that will go down in history as the symbol of American governance.

And yet, hope lives. Upon hearing news of the first tar balls hitting the Texas coast, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson announced [AP, 7/6/10] the revolutionary concept of holding BP responsible. What a fair bill for trashing some of the world’s most valuable fishing grounds and wetlands might be is almost beyond imagination, and surely would require both the complete financial dismantlement of BP plus appropriate, long jail time for its corner-cutting executives and such politicians and regulators as looked the other way while BP casually punched holes in the Gulf bedrock. Nevertheless, the vision of responsibility is a positive sign, albeit a long shot.

Responsibility is not a popular notion in the 21st century USA. None have been held responsible for the leveling of Fallujah, the 2006 destruction of southern Lebanon, the repression of Gaza, the undermining of the Constitution in the name of “fighting terrorism,” the invasion of Iraq, making nuclear threats against Iran, or gambling away our national financial security. But if Washington can seize the vision of responsibility voiced by Mr. Patterson, it may still just barely be possible to replace the “greasing of the Gulf” as the symbol of 21st century American governance with the symbol of the “restoration of the Gulf.” If that can be done, then Goldman Sachs and those who make war on defenseless civilians may perhaps also be held responsible for their actions, or, in Mr. Patterson’s phrase, be charged with “picking up the tab.”