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Archive for January, 2010

Before I say anything else, let me first note that in the last presidential election, political spending in the US was roughly equivalent to the amount Americans spend annually on chewing gum.  That is an important level-set for this discussion.

So, the Supreme Court (which doesn’t have to run for re-election) has decided that corporations and unions, which are legal entities created in order to make money and carry out other functions, are equivalent for campaign spending to real people, and so should be able to spend directly in unlimited amounts of money to promote causes or candidates.  This decision is a pretty heroic leap from the constitution or from any existing case law precedent; after all, corporations can’t vote in the election, so they aren’t all that equivalent to biological people, but the court decided 5-4 along conservative – liberal lines (whatever they are) and so for now it’s the law.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this is bad law.  Corporations are not actual people, they are organizations with vast resources in money and talent and they never blink, 24-7, as they pursue their self-serving objectives.  Because of these resources, they should be subject to limitations on the extent to which they can directly enter into the political process.  Not prevented from participating, mind you, but limited.  But however unfortunate this ruling is, it isn’t the end of the world, for a couple of reasons.

Corporate spending on campaigns or issues is at least to some extent self-limited by the corporation’s desire not to take a politically-unpopular position and risk alienating both customers and employees who disagree with it.  Unpopular positions can of course be heavily spun to the public and delivered with day-and-night pounding advertisements, but having worked inside large corporations most of my career I can just say that this is more difficult to successfully execute than you might think.  And of course, political spending competes with product advertising, machinery investment, and other pressing demands for capital and hence is going to be viewed with a jaundiced eye by stockholders.

The second reason is more interesting, and it comes from the actual human people who head these corporations.  A few days after the Court issued their ruling, a group called Fair Elections Now sent a letter to congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle complaining that this new ruling will cause congressmen to hammer them even more than they do now, for contributions to counter the likely flood of corporate advertising.  About 40 executives from the likes of Hasbro, Delta Airlines, Seagrams, Crate and Barrel, Ben & Jerry’s, Men’s Wearhouse, and Playboy Enterprises said in the letter,

Members of Congress already spend too much time raising money from large contributors . . . and often, many of us individually are on the receiving end of solicitation phone calls from Members of Congress.  With additional money flowing into the system, due to the court’s decision, the fundraising pressure on Members of Congress will only increase . . .

This is actually a very healthy development — people who are in a position to make corporate policy but who are impacted personally in other ways, are saying, “stop this right now.”  So maybe, just maybe, we will see some actual legislation passed that will undercut the Court’s ruling.

But ultimate it falls back to the electorate.  We, as a nation, need to increase our attention span and actually study these issues and make up our minds about them, and not be swayed by week-before-the-election advertising.  We need to stop being swayed by partisans screaming “death panels!” and other patent lies.  We need to belly up to our responsibilities, personally, and make the things we want happen.

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Of all the poor places on the planet, perhaps no place would be as poorly prepared to weather an earthquake, or any other natural disaster, or even disruption, as is Haiti.  Haiti is without question the most absolutely impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, seemingly a sinkhole of boundless misery and misfortune.  And now, this: a magnitude 7++ earthquake centered almost directly under a fantastically-overcrowded capital city.  The destruction is almost impossible to quantify, and there is virtually no surviving infrastructure.

This earthquake happening is, of course, predictable and inevitable, for Haiti lies directly over a major strike-slip fault zone that is moving at millimeters per year.  Sooner or later, it’s going to give.  If you’d like more details, here is a good explanation from Woods Hole.  The same thing is going to happen to California, sometime, perhaps sometime soon (geologically speaking).  I guess everybody thinks that it won’t happen to them, that they will be dead or away in England or something, so they don’t need to worry about it.  But these things DO come, eventually.  And the reality is, build substandard structures in an active fault zone and this is what happens.  I ask: why is anyone surprised?

To answer my own question, they apparently were surprised by New Orleans, too, in spite of 30 years of warnings by geologists, meteorologists, and engineers.

But the catastrophe of this earthquake is compounded by the thing that is Haiti, by it’s culture and it’s history of misery.  The core of why Haiti is what it is was summarized by Tracy Kidder in the New York Times on January 13th:

Haiti is a country created by former slaves, kidnapped West Africans, who, in 1804, when slavery still flourished in the United States and the Caribbean, threw off their cruel French masters and created their own republic. Haitians have been punished ever since for claiming their freedom: by the French who, in the 1820s, demanded and received payment from the Haitians for the slave colony, impoverishing the country for years to come; by an often brutal American occupation from 1915 to 1934; by indigenous misrule that the American government aided and abetted. (In more recent years American administrations fell into a pattern of promoting and then undermining Haitian constitutional democracy.)

Full text of this is here.    A more comprehensive discussion of Haiti’s beyond-unfortunate history is here.)

The essence is this: slaves gloriously threw off their slavemasters, but never having lived under their own hand, soon fell into slavery again, now to one of their own.  It is beyond sad, they could have been a beacon of liberty in the Caribbean.

So now what?  The history of aid to Haiti is pathetic: for billions, almost nothing to show for it.  This isn’t all their own fault, much of the US aid to Haiti was tied to spending it with American companies, a perfect recipe for fraud and ineffectiveness.  Even before this disaster, providing aid to Haiti was an established growth industry.

Much as I am not a fan of US intervention in the world, if we’re going to intervene, this is the place, and now is the time.  I would suggest these steps:

  • Send in the Marines, stabilize the situation on the ground, prevent total chaos;
  • Haul in food, and be prepared to feed much of the population for several years (yes, years);
  • Develop a 20-year plan that emphasizes infrastructure, for example build roads, build natural gas distribution so that towns, then villages, then individual houses, can get cooking heat, so they can stop destroying their environment by stripping every single twig to make charcoal;
  • Implement this plan with whatever resources are available, and as part of it start — immediately — turning responsibility over to Haitians in bite-sized pieces, to learn to manage as their own;
  • Bring in businesses to employ Haitians doing what is now so often done exclusively in China — give these people a head start, give them hope, give them jobs;
  • Follow the 20-year plan to have us — and other Western democracies — out of there completely by then.

Many will decry this as paternalistic and disrespectful of Haitian culture.  Sorry, but there is so very much of Haitian culture that is so deleterious to them: graft, corruption, voodoo, etc., and it just needs to go.  I would say: where do you want Haiti to be in 20 years?  Step on the road to go there.  Remember, another earthquake is coming, sooner or later.

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I was very distressed the other day to hear President Obama continuing the use of the term, “War on Terror.”  Probably nothing hampers our ability to deal with the Middle East and the rise of Neo-Islamist extremists more than talking about it as a “war.”  Are we at war?  Against “terror?”  Terror is just a tactical or strategic decision about using a weapon in a certain way.  Was Hitler at war with “strategic daylight bombing?”  No, he was at war with most of the rest of the world.  If we’re going to be at war against terror, we might as well be at war against howitzers.  Neither concept makes much sense.

Whatever it’s against, are we in fact “at war?”  I’m sure as  a paean to the (mainly) Republican saber-rattlers in Congress, Obama stated “we are surely at war . . . ”  But a war should be against some tangible objective, over a limited amount of time, and it should require the mobilization of massive resources and the will of the population to persecute it.  In this case, we are (by the Bush Administration’s calculus) really at war with Islamic populations world-wide.  Do we mean to do this?  Do we want to, if we can help it?

No, I submit we are NOT at war, not in any meaningful sense of the word.  We are not out to defeat Islam, or Pakistan, or whatever.  What would our objective be, then, defeat Osama bin Laden?  That’s pretty pathetic, and probably pretty unlikely, too.  It may sound stirring, I guess, to talk about being “at war,” but thinking that this business will resolve itself the way World War II did, with the utter defeat of the enemies, is just delusional.  Remember, the Japanese populations were eating the bark off of trees to live near the end of that war.  Are we willing to do this to the Islamic population of Pakistan?  Or Indonesia?  Are we really?  If we are, believe me our current strategies won’t take us there, not by a long shot.

No, I think we’re really trying to deal with mainly extra-governmental entities (think: al Qaeda) who are religious fanatics with an agenda against the West, and specifically the US as a proxy for the whole West.  They infest places with weak or minimal governments, and reach out to strike at their presumed enemies.  They are going to be plotting against us for a long time and we’re going to have to devise ways to restrict their actions and blunt their blows, but they’re always, like cells waiting to become cancerous, sitting there looking for an opening.  And unless we’re willing to utterly destroy the countries that harbor them, really destroy them and much of their civilian populations, military action is the wrong tool.

I don’t have a perfect solution to this, but I do know that stopping maniacs from carrying out terroristic actions will require something much more like police work than anything military.  It will require tracking people and their behavior, using little clues to home in on individuals before they make it to the airport with their bomb or their gun.  This isn’t as glamorous as sending in the Marines, but it will be, in the long run, much more effective against these guys.

And of course we could figure out what we’re doing to create all these Islamic terrorists and stop doing that at least for a while.

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