Out of one whirlwind and into another

My house and my family emerged from Hurricane Sandy unscathed, but it was a huge distraction, to say the very least–and now all of a sudden the election is upon us. Living in a blue state, city, and community as I do, I hadn’t seen many of Romney’s TV commercials until these last few days, when his PACs started dumping all their money into national buys. When we were watching Saturday Night Live this weekend, my younger son pointed out to me how many of their protagonists are women, rueing the economic pain that Obama’s reckless spending has wrought on their families. Then the music changes to a major key and a ray of sunlight and Romney break through. It’s not about war, or abortion, or immigrants, the ads whisper–it’s about security. Who’s your Daddy really? A skinny black Kenyan or a tall, chisel-chinned white man in a suit and tie?

Like everybody else who shares my socio-political profile, I have been drawing whatever comfort I can from Nate Silver’s number crunching. From a strictly actuarial standpoint, I shouldn’t be as worried as I am–Romney’s odds have been shrinking every day. But I am.

If Romney wins–and between voter suppression, margin of error, racism acknowledged and unacknowledged, and on-going economic frustration I see no reason to dismiss the possibility that he will–the country is going to take a catastrophically wrong turn, econmically, socially, and culturally. The abolishment of Obamacare, the voucherization of Medicare, the restoration of the neo-conservative foreign policy establishment, the Scaliazation of the Supreme Court, the triumph and vindication of the most wealthy and the least educated among us, are terrifying prospects all. If Obama wins, on the other hand, things aren’t likely to get much better in the short term. The House will almost certainly remain Republican, and I suspect they will try to impeach him for his supposed crimes and misdemeanors in Benghazi, or at the very least ensure that we continue to fall off one fiscal cliff after another.

If the financial crisis and this interminable election season have taught us anything (and I’m not at all sure that they have), it’s that we’re not at all the country that we like to think we are. When our great grandchildren look back at us, I suspect we will look no less hypocritical to them than our slave-owning Founders, who talked such a good line about natural rights, do to us. The hot button issues of our day will seem as obscure and unfathomable to them as the Missouri Compromise and Silverism do to us today. And there’s an irony in that, because we’re still fighting those same battles–we just call them by different names. The big questions–the nature and purpose of government, the scope of natural rights, the definition of private property–are still up in the air.

When I defined Capitalism in Isms & Ologies, I made the point that it is not so much a system as “the absence of a centrally organized economic system.” But classic Liberalism still reserved a threefold role for the state, as Adam Smith insisted:

First, the duty of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, so far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice, and thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain.

This, I believe, is the true crux of our era–the fact that Capitalism has captured the state; that it wields political and military power to its own exclusive advantage. The protection “so far as possible, [of] every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it” has taken on a Randian cast. If we are going to change for the better, if we are going to maintain our status as a world power, we need to recognize that government doesn’t exist solely to protect the rights of property–it exists to protect human rights from property.

When our grandchildren look back at this election, I suspect they will see it as a turning point. Romney’s wealthiest supporters understand that very well–and they are staking their chances on the hope that his less-wealthy supporters don’t.

19 thoughts on “Out of one whirlwind and into another

  1. What Hurricane Sandy has made indisputably clear is that our country is not ready for any major disaster.

    Suppose, for example, that instead of a Category 1 hurricane, New York/New Jersey experienced a category 3 or 4 storm OR suppose they had to cope with a terrorist attack involving a portable nuclear device or a biological weapon.

    Suppose that instead of 100 or so dead people, there were hundreds or thousands.

    Suppose that instead of no power for 6-8 million people for 4-5 days, we had to cope with no power for 2-4 weeks!

    Suppose that instead of needing to evacuate a few hundred hospital patients over 2-3 days, we instead faced the prospect of evacuating thousands of patients.

    Suppose that instead of no fuel available for 2-4 days, there was none available for 4-6 weeks.

    Suppose that instead of limited or no food/water for one week, we faced no food/water available for a month or more.

    Suppose that instead of mass transit being shut down for 2-4 days, it was shut down completely for 4-6 WEEKS.

    If the largest city in the United States with the most resources and our best and brightest talent available was brought to its knees from a relatively small event, what would happen if it had to face an adverse event 4 or 5 times the order of magnitude of hurricane Sandy?

    And what would happen to less fortunate communities and states without those resources and that talent?

    For those of us living in California, on or near a major earthquake fault line, the New York/New Jersey experience does not give us much confidence that our state (or any other) could handle a major earthquake. Our infrastructure damage and destruction could easily surpass Sandy by 4 or 5 times with a commensurate inability of getting needed resources to our people in a timely manner.

    1. Just so, Ernie.

      As for calamity by terror, the remedy of ratcheting up the war machine simply perpetuates the animus felt for the United States. Far better it would be to treat humanity humanely as a superpower instead of lording our policies and addictions to oil and other resources over them, this forcing our way of life on the world. Exceptionalism is really another name for self-interest. Perhaps if we wish to prevent calamity we should be more generous, less bellicose, and more willing to think in terms of global governance.

      And to environmental calamity, the earth has been raped, scraped, and dumped on for generations, due in large part to capitalism and unregulated human activities. There is 27% more carbon in our atmosphere than 650,000 years ago, when the last time temperatures were so hot. In fact in North America we had the hottest summer since the paleocene, which coincided with massive species death among vertebrates.

      Thirty years ago this message was considered a tree-hugging bromide of profound alienation, and largely poo-pooed by bourgeoise Americans who preferred their habits of comfort and consumption. Now we begin to see the effects of what happens when greed is allowed to run its course.

      1. Aadila — what a load of crap!

        The fundamentalist Muslims you think are upset with OUR lack of generosity or whatever — despise their own people. They murder their own women for seeking an education; they torture their own people for listening to music. They have a depraved indifference to human life.

        Please stop pretending to be an American. Move to Pakistan or Afghanistan and let us know how much you enjoy living in that environment!

      2. “Move to Pakistan or Afghanistan and let us know how much you enjoy living in that environment!”

        But not Iraq, right Ernie? Oh, no, no… Iraq learned its lesson. A million dead. They won’t hate freedom anymore.

      3. No, aadila, move anywhere you want — but please stop pretending that you are an American.

        No American believes what you believe, i.e. your “Always Blame American For Everything” crap.

        The people who organized the first bombing of our World Trade Towers did not do so because they desired Americans to be more “generous”. Instead, they demanded that we end all aid to Israel and end diplomatic relations with Israel.

        You want to grovel to Islamic fundamentalists who kill or torture their own children — and you have the nerve to suggest that the United States is too bellicose.

        I did not support our war in Iraq. Nor did I support our war in Vietnam. Nor do I support our continued presence in Afghanistan — but I never side with America’s enemies as YOU consistently do by accepting their bullshit and self-serving propaganda.

        The Taliban (and comparable groups) are depraved murderers who are totally unmoved by your feeble-minded attempts to justify their behavior.

      4. So, Ernie, just for the record, you are asking me to “Show Me Your Papers!” Stormtroop much? Given that I just voted for Obama, you had better call your local Republican black shirts and claim voter fraud. Either that or drop the straw man arguments before I set them ablaze.

        Yes, you are correct that one of the ideological reasons for the attacks on the WTC was indeed longstanding U.S. support for Israel. If you speak to any diplomats or read about the issue you will find that this diplomatic relationship is very frustrating for all parties. Attempting oversimplify the situation is a precarious argument.

        More important than this diplomatic relationship is to understand what Israel and the United States represent to common people in the Muslim world. They are frustrated with the corruption and inefficiencies of their own rulers, politically disenfranchised, and without much hope for something better. Yes there is propaganda and deception, disaffected youths are drawn to the seeming wisdom of the radical Imams and militants who apparently are doing something to better their people.

        But unfortunately you assume this is based on well informed ideologies or absent of local economic realities that are perpetuated by the U.S., or at least not in any way relieved. The wars you mention have brought little reason for anyone in the Middle East where extremism is likely to occur, to desist from jihad and embrace American values.

        However I am much more concerned with Americans who seem to justify through fear alone the killing and torturing of both Americans and foreign nationals, men women and children, the bombings of schools, hospitals, and basic infrastructure required to support life regardless of ones political views. What we have seen and are seeing is a resource grab and a means to project American military hegemony beyond our borders. The terror label is one aspect of a dual purpose military campaign. And your fear and anger are the fuel for this engine of war.

        Given that our own economic security in the United States has been shattered by the profligate spending on the war machine that has yet to mitigate the risk of terror — last I checked it was still a threat — maybe we should look at alternative approaches like humanitarian relief and global governance, instead of jingoism.

        For some reason you have chosen to view this as being “anti-American” or “siding with enemies” but all of these ad hominems and slurs do nothing to solve the problem. Unless you have personally sat down and talked with some of these “depraved murderers” as you put it in the Muslim world, you will have to agree that any and all impressions you have of the scenario have been shaped by third party views.

        That makes you highly dependent upon filtered information. And that, my sweet, tolerant, interlocutor, makes you as guilty of wallowing in bullshit and propaganda as anyone.

  2. Less than a dozen conspirators with box cutters brought pretty much the whole world to a screeching halt eleven years ago. A pair of gunmen were able to disrupt DC. There is a lot of really interesting literature on the resilience (or the lack thereof) of urban and cyber infrastructure. One positive consequence of Sandy making its landfall in a media capital might be that it forces planners and politicians to take rising sea levels, freak storms, and terrorism a lot more seriously than they have been.

    On the other hand, when you look at history broadly, it’s incredible how much disruption people and countries can tolerate–West Germany and Japan had fully functioning economies within less than a decade after WWII; places like Somalia and Rwanda are showing signs of sustained recovery today. Collectively and over the long term people are a lot tougher than they think they are.

    1. Nobody doubts the resilency of our people. The problem is disaster planning which is not commensurate to what a reasonable person could reasonably predict. Let me give you one small example:

      Surely we have engineers that could design and install water-tight doors for NY subway entrances and tunnels and those doors could have been deployed prior to a hurricane or even a less severe storm?

      Similarly, it is inconceivable that our disaster planners did not anticipate a situation where electric power would be out for several days (or even a week or more) but, somehow, they did not think about how that would impact the ability of ordinary folks to obtain gasoline from gas stations without power?

      There are many more examples one could cite — which do not require anything more than common sense to anticipate, plan for, and execute post-disaster.

      1. Ernie I think your comment is valid and points to the failings of the Republican government of NYC to adequately plan for the necessities of the people. Time and time again when we see disaster in this country, the failings of the capitalist system are exposed.

        I intentionally bring up the term “socialism” because like so many hot button words (such as “terrorist) bantered about by the right wing without a great deal of thought into what they mean, it generates an emotional response that clouds any attempt at reason by the average American.

        Socialism has shown itself time and time again to be more adequate at caring for human life and dignity when disaster strikes. When a disastrous tsunami hit Asia in recent years, while the the U.S. and England twaddled their thumbs, donations sent by common people throughout Asia dwarfed the contributions by capitalist superpowers.

        When Hurricane Mitch hit Central America in 1998, ten thousand people died in U.S. vassal states such as Honduras, due to complete lack of planning and social organization. In 2001, Hurricane Michelle struck Cuba with nearly identical severity, but Cuba was prepared and managed to evacuate 750,000 people. As a result, only five people were killed.

        It is clear that if we seek to remedy the awful effects of climate change wrought by willy-nilly capitalist greed and insatiable consumption per capita by the American people foremost, we need to look long and hard at the political and economic power structures that prioritize the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich over disaster relief.

      2. Aadila: Another non-credible reply. It has nothing whatsoever to do with
        “the Republican government of NYC”.

        First of all, the Democratic Party is predominent in both NYC and New York state politics — and pretty much has been for a long time.

        The makeup of the New York City Council is as follows:

        Brooklyn = 15 Democrat, 1 Republican
        Queens = 12 Democrat, 2 Republican
        Manhattan = 10 Democrat, 0 Republican
        Bronx = 8 Democrat, 0 Republican
        Staten Island = 1 Democrat, 2 Republican

        TOTAL
        46 Democrats, 4 Republicans

        The Speaker (Christine Quinn) and Majority Leader (Joel Rivera) are, obviously, both Democrats and have held their positions for 6 and 11 years, respectively.

        The head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management (Joseph Bruno) oversaw the comprehensive revision of the city’s Coast Storm Plan. He was previously the NYC Fire Commissioner. He was appointed by a Democratic Mayor.

        The Mayor of NYC (Michael Bloombeerg) would be considered, in any normal context, a liberal.

      3. Bloomberg ran as a Republican, Ernie. Surely you remember that. He may be jockying for office later by declaring himself Independent, but he ran and was elected as a Republican. And having lived in NYC myself I am quite aware of the type of money grubbing demogogury many of the council members subscribe to.

        Now, that you are done cherry picking, would you care to respond to the substance of the argument about the inadequacies of capitalism to respond to disaster, vis-a-vis socialism? Or will you concede, that yes, capitalism cares first and foremost about protecting the rich, and the poor people be damned?

  3. Arthur continues to write and think brilliantly. A true inspiration and rare genius.

    My one response is in regard to the truth of political capture by the capitalist ideal; this system without a system, this mythic laissez faire, that always seems to benefit the few and oppress the many. Democracy came about in Greece as a means to protect the numerous weak from the powerful few. Society feared tyrants who as individuals had more power than large groups of people combined. There was no other purpose behind “democracy”, a government by the people forged by necessity to protect themselves from tyrants with terrible power. At some point, in order to advance as a society, we will need to consider the ways in which the traditional capitalist ideology of “free markets” is a farce which exists to protect the tyrannies of a system that benefits the few at the cost of the many. We need to recognize it gives some individuals too much power.

    And my final observation is one I hope others might sincerely reflect on, as a philosophy, as well as a way of life: do we own our posessions, or do they own us?

  4. Infrastructure, contingency planning…. It goes way beyond NY or Democrats and Republicans. In fact it is one of the original problems.

    Human beings are big on draining swamps and taming rivers; it’s how civilization began in Mesopatamia–which is also where the primal myth of the great deluge comes from. Nature is always stronger. Did you see the map of 17th Century New Amsterdam superimposed over the flooded areas? Virtually all of the hardest-hit parts of Manhattan are build on landfill.

    New York, like most big cities, is run on an ad hoc basis. Its biggest and oldest public works are crumbling (we don’t paint our bridges–we wait 20 years and then we do hugely expensive interventions); its newest public works are built on the cheap by Donald Trumps. Had they built the subways with flooding in mind 100 years ago, they could have raised the vents, put entrances on high ground, and incorporated other passive and active flood control measures. Retrofitting is incredibly expensive–though not as expensive as fixing it after disaster happens, which is of course what they’re doing now.

    City planners have been predicting precisely what happened last week–and getting almost no response from politicians. Columbia University published a big study on NYC flood risks last year, calling especial attention to the subways. After every storm, there is discussion about whether we should bury our power lines, but it almost always stops before any money is spent.

    I dearly hope that the cumulative impact of a Katrina, a 9/11, the Tsunami, a Sandy, is to inculcate greater respect for both tactical, long-term planning, and for ecological thinking. Insurance companies could stop insuring (or the government could stop subsidizing the insurance) of developments on flood plains; wetlands can be restored. Most important, we can begin to work to reduce our carbon footprint. But all of this requires respect for government, which is sorely lacking in this country.

  5. Tuesday, November 6, 2012
    Stunning predictions for Election Day!

    Obama will remain the Prez – and will keep his Nobel Peace Prize!

    No incumbent Jew running for office will lose their election. And every new Jew running for office will win their election.

    Media pundits will be naming the winners with fewer than ten percent of the “vote” in – based on “exit polls” that quiz one in every ten thousand “voters”.

  6. Aadila: As is your custom, you always pretend that ONLY YOU understand anything and your personal opinions represent self-evident morally and intellectually superior ideas.

    I can assure you that I have studied the issues which you think I know nothing about.

    I repeat the bottom-line: There is absolutely nothing whatsoever which our country could do that would have any impact whatsoever upon the people or groups that hate us within Islamic countries. It is fundamentally a clash of civilizations which is not amenable to reason or compromise or negotiation.

    What these depraved murderers want (and the ONLY thing that is acceptable to them) is if we totally repeal The Enlightenment, then repeal our Constitution and, instead, adopt a Muslim theocracy based upon sharia law as THEY (and ONLY THEY) interpret it.

    Most of the problems in the Middle East have nothing whatsoever to do with the United States. Instead the problem is (as you should know if you have even a modicum of genuine knowledge about that area) the centuries-long dispute between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

    The overwhelming cause of death in those countries is Muslims murdering other Muslims — including women and children.

    No, I do not need to see your “papers”. I am certain, however, that had you lived during the the first third of the 20th century, you would have defended Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini —- all of whom were your precious “socialists”.

    1. Oh dear, the “Hitler is a socialist” meme again.

      Ernie, I am willing to entertain the idea that you know what you are talking about till proven otherwise, but clearly this is an example of simple ignorance of history. Allow me to re-educate you.

      I guess you are confused by the word “socialist” in the Nazi party long form, which was officially NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party). The party was dominated by the Strasser brothers in the 20s, who were vaguely sympathetic to the Russian communists, whom they saw as allies against Wall Street (there were disputes during Germany’s financial crisis between bankers and indebted industrialists, even though both were capitalists). However at that time (1925-1927) Hitler wasn’t even allowed to speak, and had accordingly no influence in the party.

      Once the Strassers were exiled and murdered, respectively in 1930 and 1934, Hitler rose to prominence within the party. Hitler, who was opposed to socialism (being a strong believer in private property, much like yourself I am sure) decided to keep the term “socialist” in the party name for strategic reasons. If you bother to read Hitler’s biographer Joachim Fest, this would be very clear to you. Hitler only became Chancellor though an implicit promise to industrial capitalists that they would be left alone and that trade unions would be abolished. Any remaining “socialists” of the party were murdered in 1934.

      So, Hitler’s “socialism” in name only embraced capitalism as the preferred form of national advancement, believing, as he did, that socialism was impossible to put into practice outside of capitalistic models. If you will kindly refer to Mein Kampf, Hitler openly crows about using the symbols of socialism and communism to sell his brand of nationalism to the working class, through the same sorts of patriotic, jingoistic diatribe you swallow hook, line, and sinker about “terrorism”, “socialism” and America’s “enemies”.

      If you recall the other day when we were discussing Fear, this is exactly what I meant and it was exactly why I mentioned socialism today.

      Once again, I suspect you are informed by right wing talk radio, whose listeners sadly lack any credible schooling in history and rely upon blowhards to re-jig history to suit their present day political agenda. But I am rather surprised at you, Ernie, because it is pretty obvious to anyone who has any education whatsoever about socialism or the Third Reich, knows that the two were at diametrically opposed political spheres.

      Sadly, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

  7. aadila: “The [Nazi] party was dominated by the Strasser brothers in the 20s…. However at that time (1925-1927) Hitler wasn’t even allowed to speak, and had accordingly no influence in the party. Once the Strassers were exiled and murdered, respectively in 1930 and 1934, Hitler rose to prominence within the party….”

    You’re clueless….

    Hitler, almost from the start took, over leadership of the Nazi party. The Nazis, as their name indicates, were indeed socialists. And H was indeed a radical leftist by the standards of the time. He was forced to come to terms with the German industrialists only because he needed their support to obtain political power.

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