2011/10/30

Fair Game

Finally got to see the DVD of Fair Game, the story of the Bush Administration's rush to war against Iraq in late 2002, early 2003. Very good and no, it doesn't leave the slightest doubt that Bush's people knew full well that in the two cases the film looks at, the aluminum tubes (centrifuges or missile launch tubes?) and whether of not Niger sold raw uranium to Iraq, that the Bush Administration very consciously, deliberately and with malice aforethought, lied to get Americans enthusiastic about going to war with Iraq.
I had never before heard the exact reasons the CIA gave for not believing that the aluminum cylinders were for missile launch tubes as opposed to being nuclear fuel enrichment centrifuges, but in the film, the agents laughingly answer a Bush Administration official that the tubes that Iraq possessed were three to four times thicker and twice as long as centrifuges would have been. Makes sense, as centrifuges wouldn't need to be very thick, but a launch tube would need to be able to withstand a rocket going off inside it.
I could tell when Joe's article came out in late 2003 that there were lots of problems with the idea that Iraq got uranium from Niger (Joe Wilson pronounced it Ni-zheer, precisely to distinguish it from Nigeria). There are no railroads in that part of the world and the film specifies that it would have taken 50 heavy trucks to have carried a sufficient quantity of raw yellowcake uranium to have made a few bombs. I looked at a map and saw that it was 400 miles from the Southeastern tip of Niger to the nearest ports in Benin or Nigeria. The author Tony Hillerman wrote about people living in isolated areas such as one finds in Niger and Northern Benin and Nigeria. Hillerman wrote about two Apache detectives who lived in the American West. When vehicles in those isolated areas move, they get noticed and commented on. People in the Hillerman novels get asked if they've seen, say, a blue car going West. They usually remember just such a car and approximately when it passed. Even if Niger could have gotten all 50 trucks the 400 miles in one day (That of course, presumes really well-maintained roads), it would still take quite a while to get all the yellowcake offloaded from the trucks and loaded onto a ship. There's simply no way that even the most minimal due diligence wouldn't uncover all kinds of testimony and other evidence about such a large shipment. Even if satellites didn't pick up such a large movement for that region, spies in the ports would definitely have gotten lots of pictures of the loading. Obviously, the ship would have been carefully tracked and intercepted long before it got to Iraq.
I was surprised to hear that Valerie Plame Wilson (Played by Naomi Watts) didn't tell her husband (Played by Sean Penn) that she had informed her supervisors in the CIA that Joe had previous experience being a General Services Officer in the late 1970s to Niger. And no, I never believed for a single moment that she "sent" him to there. Her explanation that she merely suggested that "Oh, if we need someone to go to Niger, my husband has relevant experience being in that area." Joe didn't work for the CIA, he went voluntarily and Valerie wouldn't have had the authority to send him anywhere as she simply didn't play any such role in the CIA.
What was always the most ludicrous charge thrown against the Wilsons was that Valerie had sent Joe on a "junket." When I served in the Navy (1991-2001), I spent two years in the Mediterranean (1996-1998) onboard the USS LaSalle (AGF-3), the command ship for the Sixth Fleet. I certainly got to the big party/tourist ports, Venice, Italy; Cannes, France; Mallorca, Spain, etc. But I also got to some not-so-wealthy, not-so-touristy places, Constanta, Romania;  Tunis, Tunisia and Poti, Georgia, among others. Now, if I were told by a US government official "Mr. Gardner, your country would appreciate it if you were to go to [one of these places to do whatever]", I'd salute, say "Aye-aye," get over there and make the best of it. But would I go to any of these places as though they were tourist destinations? Uh, hardly. There's a scene in the film where Joe turns on a tap and, instead of getting water, gets some sort of thick, black liquid. Clearly, Niger was not any sort of touristy kind of place that wealthy Americans or Europeans were visiting for the fun of it. So I never found it the slightest bit believable that Joe Wilson had set out to Niger for any reason other than what he said he was there to do, to see whether Niger had sent uranium to Iraq.
And yes, I agree with the films conclusion, that it's right for citizens to stand up when things are wrong and to publicly say so.I greatly appreciate both of the Wilsons for having done so.

2011/10/26

British vs French or incrementalism vs overnight change


Had an extensive debate with a fellow member of UFPJ-DVN on Facebook about his use of the term “Working Class,” he was using the term in its classical Marxian Das Kapital 1867 meaning, to denote those who work for, and get a wage from, those who own the means of production. I was using it to mean people who are wealthy enough to own homes as opposed to those who rent apartments.

The immediate, practical difficulty here is “What is going to work to advance our goals?” Is it going to help the movement to insist on Millennial goals, on trying to overthrow capitalism and to try and replace it with communism? I pointed out here that communism failed. Communism simply couldn't keep up with capitalism. Did it fall into the dustbin of history or, as Ronald Reagan and other right-wingers insisted, was it pushed by US military expenditures? My own interpretation is that it fell due to
the fact that it simply doesn't work for certain sectors of the economy. Government control works fine for health care and education as those two sectors don't act like markets, with competent customers making informed, unhurried decisions in a reasonably fair marketplace. When, on the other hand, one is purchasing shirts or houses or lawn mowers, markets work fine. Now, we saw with the Triangle Waist factory blaze that corporate capitalist enterprises simply cannot be trusted (Remember, the blaze occurred in 1911, many decades after corporate industrial capitalism began, so it's not like it wasn't given a chance to regulate itself) that the Federal Government must assume oversight of corporate enterprises to see that workers are protected.

I believe there is an inherent, inborn tendency towards wealth and property to concentrate, for a wealthy person with a lot of land to obtain more wealth and land. As the Bruce Springsteen song goes:

Poor man wanna be rich,
rich man wanna be king,
And a king ain't satisfied,
till he rules everything, ...

For those people with more modest means, they must occasionally struggle to keep what they have. These struggles started with the development of agriculture and I simply don't see them ever ending. In the Soviet Union, we saw the development of the nomenklatura, in China, they saw the Red-Hat Businessmen. In both cases, the group that had the most (In Marxian terms, they're referred to as the Ruling Class) morphed and changed shape and adopted new terms, but never essentially changed from what they always were. My own preference is for the term aristocracy as I consider that to be a more accurate and descriptive term.

So what's with the title of this post? As either a tween or as a young teen, I read a piece comparing what the author termed the “British” and the “French” method of social change. The French method was what my fellow member obviously prefers, a sudden, vast, overnight change from the old to the new. The British method, by contrast, was referred to as “muddling through.” It consists of moving incrementally, moving in a general direction as opposed to being focused on specific goals, trying one thing at a time, seeing how it works, modifying it if necessary and then moving again.

We all saw how the French Revolution worked, it very quickly resulted in bloodshed and empire and their defeat at the hands of foreigners and a return to the bad old days. The Netroots, on the other hand,
have been quite successful. Their electoral strength was shown first in 2006 by the defeat of Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary for Senator of Connecticut. It was very much a partial victory, one step forward, another step back, but Lieberman was no longer speaking with any credibility for the Democratic Party as Democratic voter had booted him out of the party. He was still able to do some damage to progressive goals, but not as much as he was doing before. The Netroots had handed over the day-to-day control of policy to our President, who went in a Blue Dog Democrat direction and promptly suffered losses in the 2010 midterm, but we're pushing back again with the assistance of the Occupy Wall Street people.

The anti-war movement has very definitely gone in the direction of incrementalism. We don't describe ourselves as being pacifists as that implies we have a fixed and rigid and unchangeable goal, but as people who oppose this particular war or that particular action. The ultimate shape of our proposed policies may resemble those of doctrinaire pacifists, but by showing how particular policies are bad or ineffective on a case-by-case basis, we build a far more credible case for the general public that we're taking a thoughtful, flexible approach to the issues of the day.

Our approach to economic issues is similar. We don't oppose the wealthy simply because they're wealthy. We oppose particular wealthy people because they're cheating and not following the “rules of the game.” England had to conduct several land reforms between the Norman invasion of 1066 and the switch-over to industrial society during the 1800s. Land had gotten too concentrated and was held by too few people, just as wealth today is far more concentrated than it should be, so land got broken up and moved into many more sets of hands. The redistribution of wealth that occurred after the crash of 1929 (Second chart on this page) was done in a far less conscious and deliberate manner, but resulted in many good things for people of regular income. What progressives today would really like to see is another version of land redistribution or a more conscious process of returning some wealth back to regular people, as was done via the Great Depression. Obviously, we'd like to do that without going through another Great Depression.

2011/10/16

Entertainment - Vampire Diaries

When I'm seeking entertainment, I have no desire to review issues that actually affect me. I don't have any desire to see shows or movies about people who are broke, I don't need to be reminded of that particular problem.
Now, in the latest Vampire Diaries, we have a blond vampire who's sleeping with a Latino werewolf, the brother of the series' heroine is caught up in a love triangle between his former girlfriend, who's now a ghost and his current girlfriend, who's a former witch. The fellow who's going out with the heroine is yer classic "bad boy," only much more so as he has the bad habit of biting and draining the blood of people he doesn't like (There are a lot of people he doesn't like as he's got a generally bad attitude). So you know, these are the sorts of problems I like seeing on TV, precisely because I'm most likely never going to run into them in real life. Falling Skies was also pretty cool for just that reason. Not much chance we'll have an alien invasion where our young people are drafted into picking up scrap metal and having the aliens carry off the metal back to their own planet. In the recently-canceled comics series Secret Six, a super-heroine was carrying on a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet sort of thing with a super-villain. It struck me that her hero buddies would probably be a lot more judgmental about her going out with him than his villain buddies would be about him going out with her.
Fun stuff to worry about and consider, precisely because I'm highly unlikely to ever run into such problems myself.

Privatizing education - a zombie idea that just won't die

(I wrote this in response to a piece in the Inky, gave it to a buddy of mine to check and he never got around to reading it. With the news that Rupert Murdoch' of the News Corporation (NY Daily News, Fox News, Wall St. Journal, etc.) giving the keynote speech at an education summit, I've decided the piece is just too relevant to continue to hold back.)

Re: "School choice programs are making inroads" Aug 28

Y'know, it would sure be nice if the Inky would expand their explorations of certain issues beyond simply reprinting right-wing think-tank handouts. A perfect case in point is a piece from the Heritage Foundation "
School choice programs are making inroads" that they published on August 28th. A better explanation of the article's thesis comes from a piece from a Heritage Foundation blog ("FamilyFacts.org: Education Spending Skyrockets While Achievement Remains Flat" March 29th of this year) makes the more detailed case that while spending on education has gone up, achievement by students has remained flat. The New York Times, however, took a detailed look ("Growth in Education Spending Slowed in 2009" May 25th) at why education spending has gone up.

As economists have pointed out, the main driver of the growth of federal budget deficits is America's health care system. Not surprisingly, health care for teachers and other school personnel is a major factor in the rise of schooling costs. We also might keep in mind the rise of mandates in education, things that parents would like to see schools do and teach. The Heritage Foundation blog is correct, there are many, many more persons working in positions in schools today that weren't there 100 or even 50 years ago. 

As far as costs go, however, it's important to keep in mind that once a school has paid for things like their grounds, their building and their furniture, there are standard yearly expenses like books and uniforms and sports equipment and daily expenses like cafeteria food.
But the vast majority of money was, and I believe still is, spent on salaries for the teachers, the administrative staff, the janitorial staff and others.

I worked as a secretary for a private school from 1985 to 1990. Computers were just beginning to become standard equipment (Popular use of the Internet was still a long way off) and I used a typewriter for most of the documents that I produced for some of the teachers. These included tests and student evaluations.

When, near the end of my time there, I brought in a laptop computer, I produced student evaluations for teachers faster and better, but as I had a lot of free time anyway (I got lots and lots of reading done on that job, sometimes finishing big hardback books in a week), it didn't make much difference to the workloads of the teachers. They still gave me drafts written in pen and I still typed them out on paper with carbons. Technology was a nice thing to have, VCRs were helpful and although photocopiers were in use, lots of paper reproductions were still done via the mimeograph
(slide projectors weren't replaced with computer slideshows until long afterwards), but as teaching was mainly done through teachers talking to students from the head of the classroom and with students writing their thoughts and answers and essays on paper, technology didn't make a whole lot of difference to the teacher's workload.

Education simply is, was and always will be a very labor-intensive field.
Obviously, money can make some difference, students can achieve more in a clean, well-lit and physically comfortable classroom then in a place where the roof leaks and books are in short supply. But once a certain level of spending is reached that enables classrooms to reach that level, a point is quickly reached where the school's spending hits the point of diminishing returns. At that point, money continues to be helpful, but ceases to be critical to whether a school can teach children effectively.

So the idea
that the educational system is simply throwing money at the problem of bettering education is not very credible.

There's no question that the school choice movement is a growing one. The real question is why that is. From a generally rah-rah piece on privatizing schools ("
Julia Steiny: The Excellent School-Choice Movement Accidentally Leaves Vulnerable Children Behind" June 9th):


Mind you, research shows that apart from a few truly great schools, the choice movement hasn’t boosted academic performance overall.  Charter schools, for example, have roughly the same range of good, bad and indifferent as regular district schools.

And from a question and answer session with the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute ("Frederick Hess: Questions and answers" January 23rd):

So far, charters have had mixed results. They haven’t been shown to be consistently better than traditional district schools...

A piece in Z Communications ("The History of the School Privatization Movement" March 15th) states:

However instead of improving funding to these struggling schools, the one intervention supported by statistical research, they continue to aggressively shift education funding from public schools to private charter schools – despite the Stanford study showing that charter programs don’t improve achievement levels...

So if proponents of charter schools/school choice aren't delivering better quality schooling for our youngsters, then what's the point? Z Communications makes the case that the movement is a neoliberal attack on liberal activist government generally.

It's a very generously-funded movement (Counterpunch "The Future of Charter Schools" August 26th, 2009) that forces teachers to be mere

...technicians, dispensaries of information for memorization purposes in accordance with the testing regime of NCLB

As I suggested in my opening, there is very considerably more to the school choice issue than any right-wing think-tank hand-out will ever tell you.

2011/10/10

Of straw men and arguments


George Will makes an interesting assertion in opposition to Elizabeth Warren's famous YouTube talk to a group of supporters:

Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts.

Let's look first at exactly what a straw man argument is. G.W. Bush was famous for using them. Bush would address and “refute” arguments that no one was making in the first place. Bush tackled the question that perhaps the Iraq War was making terrorism wordwide worse. There was strong evidence for this, as terrorist incidents worldwide shot up enormously after the Iraq War was launched. But Bush spent his answer insisting that US interests were attacked before the Iraq War was launched. That's all very fine and well and entirely true, but that didn't address the essential criticism, that the Iraq War increased terrorism.

Have right-wingers asserted the opposite of what Warren asserts, that when they build factories and turn out products, that they owe their success entirely to themselves? As a matter of fact, some commenters quoted by the right wing Instapundit do exactly that:

you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; No, you did not educate them. You babysat them for 12 years. Then I hired them, taught them how to be responsible and show up for work, taught them how to communicate in clear sentences, taught them that there are rights and wrongs and (unlike with your schools) wrongs have consequences in the workplace. Then paid for extended education for my employees so they could continue to improve themselves and better add value to what we do around here.

No, sorry, but when Warren's argument is met head-on and addressed directly by critics, it's not a straw man argument! George Will adds an interesting paragraph:

The collectivist agenda is antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, a.k.a. the pursuit of happiness. The fact that collective choices facilitate this striving does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity (Warren’s “the rest of us”) is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving. [emphasis in original]

Of course, Will completely fails to tell us how on Earth government is supposed to “facilitate individual striving” without taking “ as much as it pleases of the results of the striving.” Government is supposed to build useful things for us for free? Sure, I'll go along with Wills' statement near the end of his piece:

Society — hundreds of millions of people making billions of decisions daily — is a marvel of spontaneous order among individuals in voluntary cooperation.

But where is society supposed to get the money to produce “such public goods as roads, schools and police” if society cannot “take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving”? The airy-fairy philosophy of Will falls apart on the practical question of “Where are we supposed to get the money to pay for all of this?”

2011/10/06

A Review of Deena Stryker's Lunch with Fellini, Dinner with Fidel


Ebook available from Girlebooks .

Full disclosure: I've known Deena for awhile, having worked on her website and I saw much of the material that she used in this, her autobiography, before she wrote it.

The theme of an independent woman, striking out on her own and blazing her own path is by now a familiar one, but this ebook is a very well-done tale of a woman doing just that in the early 1960s. Deena Stryker sets the tone of the book early on as she describes being 15 years old in 1949 and being on a train in Germany and being confronted by a train conductor over her lack of a “Tripartite Pass.” She never heard of such a thing before or since, but the way in which she handled her confrontation with the conductor was striking and showed someone who was ready to fearlessly confront the world.

Deena was aware of the “women's lib movement” in the early 60s, but didn't have a lot of contact with it. She spent most of her early decades shuttling around between her native Philadelphia, Europe (Paris, Rome and several countries behind the Iron Curtain) and Fidel Castro's Cuba. She gained great sympathy for the viewpoints of Communists. The Cuban government was so pleased with her piece on them in the French magazine Paris Match, that she was invited back to Cuba to conduct more interviews, but she was always more ideologically in tune with West European Social Democrats.

Before Deena went to Cuba, she wrote a book about the Italian film director Federico Fellini and followed him around while he made the movie 8 ½. She saw the making of the film in up-close detail, but was still quite impressed by Fellini's talent when she saw the film again 13 years later.

Deena has two sons, but she remained single. She made it into the US Government as a speech writer to the Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural Affairs under President Jimmy Carter. She lives today in Philadelphia and still keeps up with world and political affairs enough to maintain the blog http://otherjones.com/.

2011/10/04

Decisions reached on Occupy Philadelphia

The occupation will begin at City Hall at 9:00am on Thursday, October 6th. Come one, come all! Bring the kids, bring the grandparents, heck, bring the family dog!

Occupy Together has put together some down-loadable posters here.
Here are the Occupy Pennsylvania websites.

Now, I've always had a problem with the Cat Food Commission and don't have much use for Cat Food Commission II, or the Super Committee. But now it's become clear that the second iteration of the Cat Fod Commission is simply unable to produce a useful consensus. The Republican Party is holding firm on a no-cuts-to-the-military and no-tax-increases platform which means all of the automatic cuts will fall on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and any other socially vital program.
No, let's call for the complete elimination of the Commission.