Archive for December, 2009

Coping With Copenhagen

By Gordon Solberg

As expected, the Copenhagen Climate Conference was a bust, showing once again the inability of government to cope with the unprecedented crises confronting us.  The problem is not so much the concept of government per se, but the fact that governments worldwide have been captured by global exploitative capitalism.  Governments serve their capitalist masters, not the people or the planet.

An increasing number of people correctly predicted an unsatisfactory outcome to the Climate Conference.  This means that more people are waking up to the reality we are living under.

Predicting the future is simple in principle.  The most important step — and also the hardest one — is to correctly assess present reality.  Then you plug in whatever parameters seem the most likely to occur… for example, “more of the same,” or “slight improvement,” or “radically worse,” whatever the case may be in that situation.  Since most people live in a delusional reality to begin with (believing, for example, that we live in a democracy), it’s no wonder that their predictions don’t count for much.

It’s gratifying to see that more people are seeing reality as it is, and are therefore able to see into the future to some extent.  Not that this makes any difference at this point, but at least a few people are awake to present realities.  Many people, for example, predicted that Oblahma would be a vast disappointment…  and sure enough, this has turned out to be the case.  In short, we was had.  (Even though Obama has received many nicknames already, I’m surprised that nobody is calling him Oblahma yet.  This seems like an obvious nickname for him, because when it comes time to assess his legacy, he will be known for three things:  blah, blah, blah.)

I was struck by how the robo-cops are the same the world over, even in “enlightened Scandinavia.”  This is because it’s a Global Empire, not just an American one.  Every element of the Empire has the same goals:  maximum profits, maximum resource extraction, maximum exploitation.  They care not a fig for “survival of the biosphere,”  “social justice,” and other such poppycock.  They are the Masters, they rule, the rabble are now powerless (in fact the rabble barely noticed as the Masters of the Universe took total control during the 50 years after World War II).

Back in the old days – 1968, say – cops were vicious in a hot-blooded way.  If they didn’t like your demonstration, they would crack your head with a billyclub and throw you in the paddywagon and haul your ass to jail.  Then you could all sit together in a cell and sing “We Shall Overcome” all night.  But not these days.

These days, cops – or at least the anti-demonstration robo-cops – are trained to be cold-blooded torturers.  At Copenhagen, demonstrators who got arrested had their hands handcuffed behind their backs, the first step in the arrest ritual.  (Cops do this now as a matter of course… supposedly for the protection of the cops, but actually to reduce the arrestee to a helpless and uncomfortable state.  It’s a dominance ritual.)  Then, the demonstrators were forced to sit on the cold pavement for hours, to the point that some of them had to urinate on themselves.  More dominance.  (This might not seem like much of a torture, but I urge you to try this for a few hours, and let me know how it makes you feel.)  When the demonstrators finally got hauled off to jail, they encountered facilities specifically designed to be as inhumanly uncomfortable as possible.

Modern-day demonstrations are ineffective, and don’t accomplish anything.  No doubt getting beat up by cops gives demonstrators status points with their peers, but so what?  If the demonstrators armed themselves and battled the cops on a more equal footing, so what?  The Masters of the Universe would remain untouched.  Why isn’t more monkeywrenching going on?  It seems obvious that the Empire is vulnerable to some extent:  its exposed flank is everywhere.  Either the hot-blooded young revolutionaries aren’t desperate enough yet, or they’ve been successfully programmed into passivity.  (Not only has the Empire colonized the entire planet, but our own minds as well.)

At any rate, once again we find that the politicians and bureaucrats fiddle while the planet burns.  People – for the most part – still don’t dare to speak the most likely outcome of all this madness.  After all, there’s not much you can do with “massive dieoff.”  You can’t make a career out of it.  People aren’t going to give you a standing ovation when you enter the room.  It’s deemed better to be an Al Gore or Bill McKibben, fighting the good fight till the very end.  Whatever.  We’ll continue to do what we’re already doing, as long as circumstances allow us to do so.  Then we’ll start doing something else.

In my case, my internal guidance is telling me to start thinking about dropping back out.  I was pretty well dropped out at one time.  It was a magical time of great freedom and relatively little impact on the planet, but I didn’t have any kind of act together back then.  Now, seeing what’s coming, I feel like I’ve taken the “laying up treasure on Earth” routine to as ridiculous an extent as I can bear.  It’s time to change my evil ways.  Then maybe more guidance will come.

(Gordon Solberg’s blog is http://newearthtimes.blogspot.com)

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Let’s Not Waste the Budget Crisis

By State Sen. Steve Fischmann

The January legislative session is fast approaching, and it’s time for both the governor and the Legislature to step up to the budget crisis.  Temporary federal aid, gauze and Band-Aids have gotten us this far, but the first-aid kit is now empty.  Projected general fund revenues for fiscal 2010 have declined over 25 percent (from $6.4 billion to $4.7 billion), with no sign of significant revenue growth in sight.  Little has been done to address the long-term structural problems we face.  The tough decision-making still lies ahead.

It’s no mystery how we got here: Big increases in state spending, $700 million in tax cuts since 2002 (largely to the highest income earners), “economic development” perks of dubious public benefit, and questionable deals made in a “pay-to-play” political culture.  All of this was financed by a bubble in natural gas severance tax revenue that is unlikely to return, and financial-market shenanigans that fueled a bloated economy.

Tired posturing about indispensable government programs or no new taxes will not solve our problems.  A combination of immediate measures and long-term policy shifts can.  Successful businesses use tough times to reinvent themselves.  That is exactly what New Mexico State government needs to do.  It’s painful, but it sure beats the alternative.  Let’s not waste this crisis.

Here are some ideas for moving forward this next legislative session.

Reducing Government Spending

It’s human nature to get sloppy about spending when there’s lots of money around.  The first step back to financial stability is controlling spending.  The governor has created a citizen panel to review potential tax increases; we should do the same to address potential budget cuts.

There has been much discussion about “across-the-board” cuts to “share the pain.”  This will only result in across-the-board mediocrity.  Large bureaucracies tend to create new programs to solve each newly identified problem.  Real solutions often lie in better delivery of core services rather than layers of new initiatives. Marginal and underfunded programs should be dropped as we refocus on more effective delivery of basic services.

Our public school classrooms are a perfect microcosm of this phenomenon.  Between overcooked federal and state testing mandates, documentation-heavy programs to help struggling students, and a bevy of “flavor-of-the-month” programs, it is widely acknowledged that teachers no longer have enough time to actually teach.  By streamlining and eliminating mandates while maintaining accountability, we can improve instruction and save money at the same time.

Policy adjustments can also significantly reduce spending.  It costs upward of $30,000 annually to house a prisoner in a state corrections institution.  Taxpayers are punished as much as criminals every time we send someone to jail.  Though we call them corrections institutions, the overwhelming evidence is that prisons are far more adept at teaching criminal behavior than correcting it.  Do we really benefit by sending non-violent first time offenders to jail?   Alternative forms of punishment not only save money, but promise fewer career criminals in our future.

Now might also be a good time to review the state procurement code.  Many complain that it often adds significantly to cost.  I don’t pretend to know one way or the other, but given the claimed level of waste, review and possible adjustment of the procurement code seems reasonable.

Restructuring Taxes

Legislators face many proposals for tax breaks for narrow interest groups every year.   Far too many are approved and never reviewed again.  More taxes are exempted in tax credits and deductions than is actually collected in state income and gross receipt taxes each year.  The result is a tax system where tax-break losers subsidize tax-break winners.

We do not need to raise tax rates to increase revenues.  We need only eliminate tax breaks that serve no broad public purpose.  Is it really appropriate that New Mexico auto sales excise taxes are only about half as much as gross receipt taxes on other products?  Other states don’t give this tax break.  Forty-eight states have implemented “consolidated reporting” policies to prevent national corporations from avoiding local state taxes through accounting tricks.  New Mexico has not.  Correcting just these two inequities would increase revenues an estimated $60 to $100 million annually.

Legislation that requires annual review of tax breaks, and that imposes sunset clauses on all narrow tax and economic incentives deserves our support.

Curtailing Pay-to-Play

The impact of pay-to-play is much bigger than the criminal violations we regularly see in the news.  Technically legal transactions that violate the public trust probably cost us far more than illegal activity.  Giveaway deals by the State Land Office, subsidies that give (not loan) hundreds of thousands of dollars to private speculators for every acre of private lots they create, and film incentives that give a cash rebate of $.25 for every dollar production companies spend in New Mexico will cost well over $100 million this year.  Total costs are much higher and are impossible to measure.

If we abhor pay-to-play as much as we let on, we should change the laws that encourage it.  Contractors working for the state, and companies seeking publicly funded subsidies or tax breaks should be prohibited from making political contributions.  There is no hope of curtailing corruption if we’re too faint-hearted to make it illegal.  Legislation that addresses these “ethics” issues may well save taxpayers more money over the long term than any other change we implement.

Steve Fischmann is State Senator for District 37 and a retired Fortune 500 corporate executive.

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Serving two masters turns Democrats into confusion-mongers

By Gordon Solberg

I’ve been an observer of politics since junior high school. (Does anybody remember Jack Redman’s run for Congress in 1962?) To me, politics has been the ultimate spectator sport. Like sports, there are winners and losers, with the added thrill that the winners get power in the real world. It’s a compelling spectacle, but lately it’s started to pall for me. I get tired of watching the idiots on Mount Olympus screwing things up. It’s like watching a really bad reality TV series. When you already know how the series is going to turn out, why bother watching?

The Bush era was easy to scope out. The plot line was simple. The Republicans are always cartoonish in their venality, so we always know exactly what to expect from them. When they’re in power, they’ll cram their agenda right down our collective throat, no nonsense. And the Dems will whimper and ask for more. Makes me glad I’m not a Democrat.

Now that the Democrats are supposedly in power, the situation is far more complex. Anything the Dems do is pre-compromised and so convoluted that only a policy wonk can follow the ever-changing twists and turns of a piece of legislation as it makes its tortuous way through the legislative meat grinder. The Dems will jab and feint and dither and flip and flop until you’re totally confused. What do they stand for, again? Oh right, they’re trying to serve two masters: the people who elected them, and the corporations that fund them. Hmmm, they must ask, how to serve the corporations while keeping the people as confused as possible? Maybe incomprehensible legislation will put people to sleep? Maybe sending diametrically opposite messages will keep people confused? And, how about convincing people that instead of insisting on half a loaf, they should just sit back and enjoy the smell of baking bread instead? There are so many options for the clever confusion-monger!

It doesn’t matter what the issue is – health care “reform,” financial system “reform,” climate change legislation, whatever. The end product is a 1000-page piece of legalese that, when you read it under a microscope to parse its true meaning, turns out to actually make things worse. Our 233-year-old experiment in representative government hasn’t turned out very well.

***

The Internet is full of fabulous writers, and just look at the impact they’re having out there in the larger world! (Which just goes to show that if you want to be a major player, you’ve got to get on national TV. Writing is so 18th century.) At any rate, here are a few of my favorites:

Matt Taibbi. Writes for Rolling Stone and has a blog. I appreciate his insight and take-no-prisoners writing style. http://trueslant.com/matttaibbi

Digby. She posts several times a day on her blog. Her insights into Congress, the press, and all kinds of sociodynamics are unparalleled. http://digbysblog.blogspot.com

Joe Bageant. Born a redneck, and offers a lot of insights into redneck culture and why rednecks vote Republican. http://joebageant.com

James Howard Kunstler. I look forward to his weekly dose of doom-and-gloom every Monday morning. He’s a very entertaining writer, considering his subject matter. http://kunstler.com

Ilargi and Stoneleigh put out a financial blog, The Automatic Earth. They post more financial information than I can assimilate, but I always enjoy Ilargi’s commentary. If you ever find yourself believing the good news propaganda about the economy, try this blog for an antidote. http://theautomaticearth.blogspot.com

And of course my own blog. I try to go easy on the political and doom-and-gloom stuff, but sometimes I have no choice. I prefer to post pretty pictures, homestead happenings, signs of the seasons, and other positive reflections of life. It’s still a good life, despite the catastrophes on their way. http://newearthtimes.blogspot.com

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Rationalizing endless war

By Steve Klinger

President Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan is tragic, ill-advised and yet entirely predictable. The candidate of hope and change could loudly proclaim his unencumbered opposition to the war in Iraq (he wasn’t even a U.S. Senator then), but the President of the United States has a much more difficult time bucking the flow of all the massive forces of military-industrial imperialism that conspire to suck rebellious notions out of a commander-in-chief’s head.

When that president listens too much to the very generals charged with accomplishing some sort of military victory in said war, the conclusion is inevitable; all that’s left is to choose the degree of escalation – in this case, the number of new troops who will be cast into the killing machine.

The buildup will be rationalized with an attempt at a firm exit strategy, of course, and a forceful proclamation that our commitment is not open-ended. Does this start to sound like Iraq? Obama no doubt has convinced himself his decision is the best available option. But no matter how you gift-wrap it, despite months of conferencing, consulting and deliberation, Obama chose not the change for which he was elected but rather perpetuation of a flawed and militaristic foreign policy.

The fact that this nation is armpit-deep in a deteriorating conflict of its own creation is no valid reason to offer up more young Americans to die. Nor is the loathsome alternative of watching the Taliban retake control of this agglomeration of tribal villages reason enough to heighten our commitment to the corrupt Karzai regime and pour an additional $30 billion into propping up a house of cards.

As for Al Qaeda – the target of our invasion in 2001 – multiple intelligence sources now place the core leadership in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. To escalate the war on the soil of the latter does little to defeat the foe that has regrouped in the former. The argument can be made that a heightened U.S. presence will keep Al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan, but an increased military commitment now does not mean that Afghan forces will rise to the task of defending their own borders any time in the foreseeable future. Beefing up our force for the short term also may reassure Pakistan of our commitment to the region but will not magically stabilize the tottering Zardari government or inspire it to get tough with Al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban, as long as that divided nation is supportive of those elements.

How many Vietnams and Iraqs does it take to learn the lesson that a military force does not produce a political solution – especially not in a radically different culture, when that force acts as an infidel presence that spreads resentment and instability?

There is so much logic on the side of Obama ordering his generals to cut their losses and pull out of Afghanistan (and make haste to complete the withdrawal our forces from Iraq) that we lose sight of all the weight on the other side of the equation – not morally defensible, but heavy with precedent and pragmatism. There is our history of militarism that has dotted the globe with American soldiers, especially since 1945, our age of empire. There is the defense industry and its incestuous relationship with the Pentagon (what Ike dubbed the military-industrial complex) that drives a huge component of our economy and feeds on unending war. There is the power of the lobbyists for all those interests that thrive on the expansion of markets into corners of the world that must be “protected” by a strong military presence. There is the ever-escalating demand for armaments to match the weapons of our customer-nations’ enemies, real or imagined. And if any would question our unsustainable course, there is the complicit corporate media always at the ready to make the government’s case rather than speak truth to power.

And so Obama will do what every president does, rationalizing the just to accommodate the necessary, sacrificing the indoctrinated to advance the self-interested, cloaking it all in a mantle of benevolent patriotism to protect the self-anointed.

Words, artfully crafted. Emotions, cynically manipulated. Blood, unconscionably let. War, endless justified.

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