Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Monsanto and the banality of evil

A discussion about Monsanto arose in a private technology forum that I attend, which dredged up the following from me and that in turn I'd like to share with my regular readers. DS

My great uncle was one of the original chemists of Monsanto... the boss had no money for the payroll and he paid them in shares... my great aunt had to work in a sweatshop for two years so that they could eat.... they all ended up rich. In those days there was a rotating board of directors, so every so often my relative, like the other original chemists, was chairman of the board...only in America, eh what? He was a lovely old guy, when I was a little kid.
I just mention this so you could understand how painful it is for me to know that Monsanto is one of the most villainous, monstrous, harmful corporations to ever have existed, which is causing thousands of Indian farmers to commit suicide (this is just a tiny sample). For me this is like discovering that my dear old, Horatio Alger of an uncle was Heinrich Himmler. Watching the wonderful "Food Inc." made my skin crawl and spoiled a hundred lovely, childhood memories for me.
There is a Spanish saying, "con las cosas de comer no se juega", which translates literally as "don't play with your food", but in Spanish "jugar", "play" also means to gamble.
The heart of our humanity in civilization is born in agriculture and naturally, being so fundamental to our deepest needs, physical, cultural and spiritual, it has a religious aspect... seen that way Monsanto is beyond blasphemy.
A few years back incensed by what I was reading about the old family "milch cow" and giving free rein to my dark journalistic arts, I used a social-hack to fool then WTO head Mike Moore into giving me the private email address of then Monsanto CEO, Bob Shapiro, the creator of the field to dinner plate "Roundup" concept. We carried on a civilized dialog for several years.
Shapiro is a very pleasant person to correspond with and I came to the conclusion, which I communicated to him, that he was an idiot-savant like the Dustin Hoffman character in "Rainman". A commercial genius, but completely tone deaf politically... When he got canned more or less for this defect, he was inclined to agree with my analysis.
He didn't seem to see the connection to his business model of thousands of Indian farmers, on losing their lands because of debt incurred by Roundup, committing suicide by drinking the stuff and that millions of other Indian country folk who have been forced by this agriculture to flee to cities with poor sanitation, where they defecate in the streets, threatening a worldwide 14th century style pandemic. He couldn't see what a storm this would raise.
My impression from my dialog with Bob Shapiro was that he saw his mission on earth solely to "create value for shareholders" and could see no other responsibility to humanity and mother earth than that... I am much reminded of Hannah Arendt's theory of the "banality of evil".
Finally I think if Monsanto could they would patent oxygen and charge us all to breathe. It's like something out of Kurt Vonnegut.
The irony of all this is that I have heard classic Marxists maintain that this is an inevitable stage in the completion of the capitalist cycle and that simply by nationalizing Monsanto and Walmart we would have a perfect, planned economy... in other words we are all dressed up and waiting for Lenin. DS

Monday, January 28, 2013

Is middle class renewal in any way based on cheap shale gas?

David Seaton's News Links
Fracking illustrated

It seems to me that the challenge of rebuilding the American middle class: bringing back the jobs, ensuring good public education, health care and decent pensions is now to a great extent predicated on a very controversial "energy revolution": the lowering the cost of energy by the method of hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil-bearing shale known as fracking.
Not only is this technique of breaking apart the shale with water mixed with chemicals supposed to lower the costs of energy for industry and reduce America's dependence on imported gas and oil, thus producing more taxable income for social programs, but also to allow the United States to reduce its armed "footprint", the billions of dollars in military resources with which we police the troubled areas of the world where much of the energy we now import comes from. The idea being that the money saved in this way would be the money used to pay off the national debt, while simultaneously guaranteeing entitlements, etc..
It may be just my fevered imagination, but since fracking appears to be extremely dangerous to both human health and the environment itself, we might be looking at a future train wreck between social democracy and green concerns. DS

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Israeli elections

David Seaton's News Links
“This is a government that will not be able to make decisions on anything — on the peace process, on equal sharing of the burden or on budgetary matters,” Emmanuel Rosen, a prominent television analyst, said early Wednesday on Channel 10. “The next elections are already on the horizon.” New York Times
All the cliches about Israel come to mind here: two Israelis mean three opinions, or the land of a hundred ghettos. In fact what you have is one of the west's most unequal societies, a collective of people who range from what is left of the founding Zionist families, on through opportunistic Russian money launderers, to Yemenite and Moroccan sub-proletarians, none of them particularly religious, all seasoned with mostly American Haredim that "sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them"... nor serveth they in the Israeli armed forces, neither payeth they taxes either, by the way.
All of this mishmash directly connected to the masculine attributes of the US Congress.
I lived in Tel Aviv for a year and I loved the place, a sexy Mediterranean climate and beach filled with some of the world's most attractive women, all with the energy of New York. I had to go to Jerusalem almost every other day (I was a budding paparazzo)... horrible place, filled with priests and rabbis and soldiers with guns. And I came to the following conclusion: If the Arabs ever declared peace on the Israelis and left them strictly alone, with no external enemies, the country would tear itself apart in civil strife and probably disappear in a very short time. All that is holding them together are their enemies...
They would be crazy to want peace. DS

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Inauguration and the Speech

David Seaton's News Links
I found Obama’s message encouraging, but then again the president always speaks/reads well.
His speech was a direct attack on the Reagan revolution and made important social democratic points about solidarity and equality -- health and education -- being directly connected to economic prosperity. I think it was also important to connect gay rights to the Declaration of Independence: America is full of beautiful words, filling those words with meaning is America's perennial unfinished symphony.
Despite being black Obama isn't Doctor Martin Luther King and there doesn’t seem to be any MLK right now to pressure him. That is the American left's perennial unfinished symphony.
In his speech the president was obviously asking the people who voted for him to pressure Congress to support his agenda. I think that in many ways the ball is now in the court of America's progressives and they would be wise to play that ball as it lies. If there is even an ounce of sincerity in Barack Obama's message, this is the best opportunity that America's progressives have had since Reagan entered the White House, maybe the best since Johnson left it, ruined by Vietnam.
I think it is mistaken to criticize Obama for not being MLK, because, except for the color of their skins, there is no real similarity between Obama and King, Hawaii is a long way from Georgia and, except for the color of their skins, there are many similarities between Obama and LBJ, both being presidents of the USA and ex-senators.
Being dissatisfied is an essential ingredient in making a person progressive, but I think people on the left may be asking more of the US presidency than it can deliver. MLK, for example, was not LBJ: King produced the pressure, Johnson — who also did Vietnam — with that pressure, produced a wealth of legislation.What little we have of social democracy in America, in great part we owe to him.
Here is a sample of what LBJ did with an active society pushing him:
Johnson was a brilliant politician of uncommon intelligence and grand visions for improving the country's domestic life. His effectiveness as a presidential legislator translated into great advances, some of which had been bottled up in Congress for more than 60 years: health insurance for the elderly and the poor; federal aid to elementary, secondary and higher education; repeal of the 1924 National Origins Act giving favored treatment to Western European immigrants; environmental protections promising cleaner air and water; urban renewal under a Department of Housing and Urban Development; more effective and integrated means of national movement under a Department of Transportation; National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities; and national public television and radio. And most important, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, respectively, ending Southern apartheid and fulfilling long-stymied constitutional promises of black freedom to vote. Robert Dallek - Los Angeles Times
The job of the left today is to create pressure, consciousness, just as King did… and be grateful that Romney didn’t win, because at least Obama finally talks like a liberal centrist in the Johnson tradition, maybe now he’ll walk like one… at least if there is enough pressure and support from the people who voted for him.
From the speech also I gather that president Obama has learned the most important lesson that Johnson can teach any progressively inclined president: you can't have guns and butter; foreign wars and social progress are inimical.
Living in Spain as I do and having become familiar with its history I have learned that Spain's decline and decadence came from spending its riches on foreign wars, dynastic and religious, and neglecting the development of its own land and people. This is the lesson that Americans may be learning. 
The Cold War is over and no matter how hard the neocons try to invent one, there is no ideological enemy facing the United States trying to undermine its "way of life"... the far away Islamic movement is one of anti-imperialist reaction to foreign interference in their societies. Finally, if and when they take power, they will have to feed their people and their people cannot eat oil, so they will have to sell it. Cost effective intelligence and immoral and unethical drones will have to keep them at bay till they are ready to deal, not expensive aircraft carrier battle groups, supersonic jets, heavy armored divisions and boots on the ground that drain America's social net of resources.
Where America does have to keep a credible military presence is Asia, but that doesn't mean getting caught in armed conflict, on the contrary, in Asia, America's navy and air force are a stabilizing influence, but the USA would be foolish to allow itself to be drawn into all the frictions produced by a newly powerful China flexing its muscles. For example, the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands. If the Japanese want to pick a fight with China, one could only wish them the best of luck, but the USA should never go to war with China to defend Japan. I wouldn't cut one school lunch or old age pension to pay for that, much less sacrifice American lives for such a cause.
That is the bottom line, keeping out of other people's fights, rebuilding America's infrastructure, social net and middle class. Let us hope that Barack Obama can deliver that. The role of progressives now is to hold Obama's feet to the fire and hold his words up to him. DS

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance Armstrong: price versus value

David Seaton's News Links
"Any given accumulation of commercial wealth may be indicative, on the one hand, of faithful industries, progressive energies, and productive ingenuities: or, on the other, it may be indicative of mortal luxury, merciless tyranny, ruinous chicanery." John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900)
Trying to find any kernel of wisdom following the news media is a little like trying to get to the nectar of Jesus Christ by reading Sinclair Lewis's "Elmer Gantry" or studying the Vatican's account books. Difficult, rare, but sometimes it happens: suddenly, lo and behold, someone as unlikely as Lance Armstrong comes along to teach us how to distinguish price from value.
Lance Armstrong
With Lance, we might even be looking at a good teaching illustration of Marx's "use value" versus "exchange value" or especially "commodity fetishism". 
There are certainly plenty of people around who have stolen -- are stealing -- more than Lance, have lied -- are lying -- more than Lance, bullied the vulnerable more than Lance, but few provide such a clear and simple story of lying, bullying, cheating, defrauding and stealing as Lance does. It is a simple story and unlike Wall Street, it's easy to understand and follow and Americans just love stories.
Lance has made a lot of money... and not only for himself... ask Nike and Anheuser-Busch or ask any kid that bought an overpriced jersey, shoes or a helmet just because Lance wore them.
His victories have been declared officially valueless, but he can still make a lot of money for himself and you can still make money by chasing his wheels up the shit-hill where he now reigns... just ask Oprah.
There is a book here and probably a film to be made from it... Who will play Lance?
Really, nothing could be simpler than Lance himself, the world is filled with mean, hard faced, sociopathic assholes like him, they only differ from him in that they can't go up a hill as fast, even doped... it is the rest of us and our reactions to Lance Armstrong's story that are complicated. DS

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Democracy in an age of "unhappy capitalism": signal and noise

David Seaton's News Links
They say that only the good die young.  In the short time he lived, it was given to Aaron Swartz to define the principal problem facing public life in the United States of America:
If it was conventional wisdom that a bunch of unelected bankers looking out for rich people were the reason everyone was out of work, politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it. The late Aaron Swartz
This post is entitled, "democracy in an age of 'unhappy capitalism'". What do I mean by that, and what, if anything, does "happy capitalism" mean?
To explain how it works, here is a graph straight from the great vampire squid itself:

Corporate Profits versus Wages

As you can see in the squid's graph between 1960 and 1990, wages were up, while at the same time America's corporations were making good money: I call that "happy capitalism", because most of the working citizenry were reasonably content and investors were too.
After 1990 (neatly coinciding with the collapse of the USSR?) the relationship wages/profit becomes erratic and in the last two years corporate profits have shot up and wages have fallen dramatically.
What does this mean?
It means that you can make a lot of money without paying even skilled people very much. People are no longer used to make you rich, only to serve you in low paying jobs once you are rich. Most of the jobs being created now are low-paying service jobs.
That could be a problem because in a democracy "unused" and underpaid people can still vote and if they understood the mechanisms impoverishing them, this could cause problems for the "users" because as Aaron Swartz said, "politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it".
"Unhappy capitalism" then, is when articulate, educated, middle class people like Aaron Swartz, begin to question the system. In this way the "conventional wisdom" that Swartz talks about is created: in a national "conversation" of a great number of articulate, educated voters. Topic of the day: something has gone wrong, let's all get together and fix it.
Making that conversation difficult, hopefully impossible, is a major objective of the users facing the formerly used.
Signal and noise
Über forecaster, Nate Silver's success in predicting everything from baseball games to presidential elections is based on his methodical ability to separate the significant datum known as the "signal", from the masses of meaningless, confusing, data known as "noise".  If we take the rising of profits and the lowering of wages as the signal, then the way to distract attention from that signal and prevent a calm and intelligent conversation about the problem leading to practical, actionable solutions, is to create increasing quantities of noise that drowns out the signal.
The strategy couldn't be simpler: the money is out to activate, empower, monetize and mobilize every paranoiac, son of the wild jackass, that they can flush from America's ample underbrush. Here is a tiny sample of what is crawling out of the woodwork, taken at random from Matt Drudge's zoo:
The United States of America is a very complex country with many diverging interests and points of view; never has serene, constructive, result-oriented dialog been more necessary and probably since the Civil War itself has it been so conspicuously missing. Until this is changed the country is drifting toward disaster. More than going off a cliff, it is like going over a waterfall. This is something that must be addressed.... immediately.
When you organize your day's activities, you might make a "to do" list and put the items in order of importance.  It seems obvious to me that keeping the serious and serene political conversation audible above the insane noise produced and paid for by the extreme right, for the express purpose of paralyzing the political system, should be the primary objective of every sensible, politically aware person, whatever their location on the political spectrum from moderate conservative to the left. There are many problems to be solved and it isn't getting done.
Therefore, if America's domestic "primary contradiction", number one on the national "to do list", is cleaning corporate money from the channels of America's national "conversation" thereby making it possible to identify and solve the real problems that the American people are facing, then all elements who are willing to engage in that conversation, looking for actionable solutions, from centrist and moderates to the hard left should put away their difference for the time being and concentrate on reversing the "Citizen's United" verdict and supporting strict campaign finance reform, upending gerrymandering and ending voter suppression.
Once all that calm has been achieved, the merits of each faction's case can be assayed and allowed to stand or fall on its own merits in a free and civilized environment and we could reasonably hope, again quoting Swartz, that "politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it." DS

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Whither Obama

David Seaton's News Links
The demographic shift evident in the last election and the growing estrangement of the aspirational middle class from the super rich and a general disenchantment with the "conservative revolution" is offering the president-elect some interesting opportunities. However it is still going to be a hard slog, lowdown and dirty. The question now is, can Obama fight?
The slow implosion of the Republican Party — along with the growing strength of a Democratic coalition dominated by low-to-middle-income voters — threatens the power of the corporate establishment and will force big business to find new ways to reassert control of the policy-making process.(...) Although the stars are lined up in favor of the anti-corporate left, American business, when its back is to the wall, has historically proved to be extraordinarily resourceful. Thomas B. Edsall - New York Times
There is a new playing field... Will the real Obama (if there is one) please stand up? In the next few months we are going to discover whether Obama is one the longest headed, devious, cold blooded politicians to ever sit in the White House or just an empty suit. Everything he has done in politics appears to have been programed to peak at this very moment.
It seems to me that since getting elected in 2008 Obama simply tried to do everything he could to get reelected and do nothing that might prevent him from getting reelected. That defines his first four years.
He followed the plan he describes in his biography, one he developed as a lone young black man surrounded by white people, which was to "be courteous, smile a lot and don't make any sudden moves"... It worked.
Whatever Obama may really be we will see from now on.
Taking on the gun lobby will be the real test of his mettle, if he dares to go to the mat with that monster and wins, we will be looking at a serious president, and that could be extrapolated to other areas. All other adversaries will be intimidated if he humbles the NRA. If he fudges on that he will begin to look vulnerable, even a bit lame duckish. This is to be or not to be.
What does he want to do?
It seems to me that by nominating Kerry and especially Hagel, that he wants to downsize America's military micromanagement of the world's affairs, which should have been done when the USSR collapsed (perhaps sooner) and use the resources thus saved on strengthening America's infrastructure and welfare state.
I think he will continue to be a huge disappointment on human rights. It seems impossible to close Guantanamo Bay prison since there is no place to send its inmates. Obama's solution seems to have been to simply take no more prisoners and kill all of them directly where they live. So I imagine he will continue with the drones because they are a very cost effective way of intimidating faraway poor people without putting boots on the ground and dispatching carrier battle groups. That simple, that cold.
If he wants to be remembered for anything besides having been the first African-American president though, he is going to have to hit the ground running. DS

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

New Year's Re(v)olutions

Obama in Rosa Park's seat
POTUS sits in Rosa Park's seat
"It would be a good idea"
Mahatma Gandhi, when asked his opinion of western civilization.
Putting content into fine words would be the greatest of revolutions, now and always. 
Cynics today might be forgiven for thinking that the words of Jesus are often only used as a cover for serial child abuse, but who could doubt that if only all those with four grandparent that called themselves Christians, practiced only the following Christian precepts: to love their neighbors as themselves, to do unto others as they would have others do unto them, to never cast the first stone and then  forgive others their trespasses, then most of the world that even today considers itself civilized would instantly be like heaven on earth. However hypocritical Christians abound and we are as we are.
I cannot imagine that anybody would call Jesus himself a hypocrite, he certainly walked the walk, no space between his words and his actions, however hypocrites can often say memorable things too.
An example: perhaps the greatest hypocrite in America's history, Thomas Jefferson, a brutal slave owner, a sexual exploiter of his slaves, wrote the most powerful words in the American canon, words that rival the Bible in their grandeur and echo: Jefferson wrote that line, "All men are created equal"...
Despite Jefferson's hypocrisy, citizens trying to fill those words with some meaning brought about a revolution in my lifetime.
How hypocritical were Jefferson's words in America's mouth?
An example. In the segregated South, during World War Two, during America's war against fascism, African-American GIs, wearing the uniform of the United States army, often found themselves riding in the back of public buses while German POW trustees rode up front with the local white people.
How is that for hypocrisy?
The Civil Rights movement changed that. Today, with all the endless caveats you can apply, a black man is the president of the United States. He is the Chief of State of the most powerful country in the world, sitting in the White House, the tenant of a building where during most of America's history the only black people ever seen there were butlers and waiters.
People got lynched, went to jail, marched and sang for the photo that tops this post. J. Edgar Hoover would spin in his grave if he saw it. There are people still spinning when they see it.
So, if enough people make their minds up to change, to change themselves, then to change the world, then change is doable.
I would say that during the coming year, the next set of fine noble, words that need to be reconsecrated, refurbished and refilled with meaning are Abraham Lincoln's from his Gettysburg Address:
"Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth".
To do that the Citizen's United verdict needs to be overturned and campaign financing needs to be regulated. Any meaningful change begins there.
The goal is clear, now the question is, who is going to bell the cat?
Happy New Year!