Economic and political analysis-Window on culture-Media criticism

Monday, October 26, 2009

Reality check

Where are we? Our health care costs are highest in the world. As is our military budget.

Our monetary system is in tatters and dependent on the largesse of foreigners who now own over half our debt. To finance its trade deficit, every day some $2 billion must flow into the U.S. from outside its borders. To finance our government's deficit--which will this year hit $1.4 trillion--our government needs to borrow $4 billion daily. Present borrowings will come from our future, with interest in what could be the greatest liability ever passed from one generation to the next.

There are only three ways our government can pay its debts. It can either print money, cut spending, or increase taxes.

The financial stability of many is in peril. When (not if) inflation hits, savers will get punished by others' excessive borrowing. The states cannot continue to run huge deficits or print up money like the federal system. Spending in schools is shrinking. For linked facts and info on the financial situation, see this blog post by Carl Herman, LA County Nonpartisan Examiner.

Who can say they're not worried? We already see enough elderly asking "paper or plastic?" Yeah, I know you think it won't happen to you, but who can say they're not thinking about their old age? So many millions will come of age--the Social Security and Medicare liabilities are so massive, in the tens of trillions. I've seen some vigorous debate over the fiscal solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund; put it this way: we ain't got barely enough to cover our future liabilities.

With a monetary train wreck lying ahead, will the Boomers even be able to retire? Social security benefits aren't likely to cover rising costs of living, especially as the overall fiscal solvency of our government, based largely on its ability to borrow, drops as debt loads grow to an untenable size. Rabid consumerism still rules the day--"gotta have it now." We've founded our economy on the unsustainable notion we can borrow our way to prosperity.

There may yet be hope, but it could come through correction, in the form of financial ruin and devastation. Talk to anyone who lived through the Depression and you'll soon discover that they value saving. As a matter of fact, they're very cautious about losing their investments. Move ahead a few generations, and Americans have lost all sense of frugality. Perhaps only through scarcity will we come to appreciate the value of accumulating hard-earned money.

The recent financial shenanigans show just how eager our government is to keep the financial system afloat, even though the entire premise is based on debt, as pointed out in Grignon's Money as Debt. To sustain "growth," we don't create anything, we borrow.

Fearful that the economy would stagnate, the government saw to keeping zombie banks afloat. Yet the banks still cling to trillions in derivatives and other assets of questionable value. They're hardly lending, despite the vast sums offered them through the Federal Reserve ($2 trillion +) and TARP ($700 billion.)

Due to their unstable balance sheets, banks can't lend. Foreclosures are zooming, made worse by the loss of over 7 million jobs this year. Things are so bad that Elizabeth Warren recently said the housing market might be in worse condition today then a year ago. As the Obama-appointed chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, Warren is in a position to know.

Millions were depending on their home values to fund their retirement. Now, many can't sell their homes in such a soft market. And if the banks begin to liquidate foreclosed homes at bargain basement prices, it will further depress home values. So we enter a phase where saving face become more important to keep the American real investment scheme from collapsing outright.

A similar situation occurred in Japan during its lost decade of the Nineties. Banks had trillions of Yen in bad loans, much of it in corporate real estate, they refused to write off. In time, the financial system experienced a slow motion train crash characterized by zero growth and ongoing bankruptcies.

According to Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis, the lesson from Japan was "no matter how much money you throw around, economies cannot recover until noncollectable debts are written off. That is why you have 'zero interest rates and still nothing’s happening.'" [link]

Banks have continued to fail here in the US. The equivalent of bad loans--mortgage-backed securities--remain on the books, adding up to more than the sum total of deposits.

And like Japan, oversight over the American banking system is plagued by favoritism and sweetheart deals--look no further than Goldman "we got our people in the White House no matter what" Sachs.

The close ties between regulators and the industry they oversee has actually become a hot field of study in economics, even earning its own term, "regulatory capture," a term The Economist magazine attributes to Richard Posner from the University of Chicago:
"regulation is not about the public interest at all, but is a process, by which interest groups seek to promote their private interest ... Over time, regulatory agencies come to be dominated by the industries regulated.”[source]

So acute has the perception gap become that Bernanke referenced TBTF (too big to fail) in a speech October 23rd:
"...to promote financial stability and to address the extremely serious problem posed by firms perceived as "too big to fail," legislative action is needed to create new mechanisms for oversight of the financial system as a whole..."

Bernanke goes on to explain the myriad of changes that need to be made, in conjunction with his delineation of the causes of last year's crisis. All nonsensical stuff, but if changes aren't implemented, it's hard to believe our financial system is anywhere near being fixed.

It's worth noting that Bernanke seems to be preoccupied more with public perception than with the financial standing of TBTF firms. Passing the buck to Congress is a way to avoid incriminating the Federal Reserve for its role in causing the crisis, which appears mostly limited to making huge sums of capital available, as well as granting investment companies "bank holding company" status at the height of the crisis, a move that has suspiciously brought billions in disaster capitalism profits to politically connected Goldman Sachs. Moreover, pushing for great regulation thrusts scrutiny back towards Congress' failure to preserve Glass-Steagall and its undermining of regulatory enforcement through interventions on behalf of companies like Countrywide, who was making millions largely from mortgage fraud (although of course the mass media frames the mortgage crisis as one dominated by irresponsible subprime borrowers, which only compromise 2% or so of the pool of at-risk assets.) Senators Dodd and Conrad received mortgages on favorable terms through Friends of Angelo, an organization tied to the company's CEO.

The idea that some entities would never be closed undermined confidence in the system, and that the problem was largely one based in perception...in other words, too obvious. Bernanke's focus on perception management echoes the prevailing Washington consensus: that problems are only problems if the people are aware of them. The Too BIg To Fail problem is real, not because a bigger failure imperils the entire system as Bernanke says but because the public's reaction might make loaning more public funds to a TBTF harder, and expose the secret arrangements between the Fed, Treasury and Wall Street insiders. As long as the public believes the banks are solvent, lending through the Federal Reserve can continue to bring massive profits to those financial entities with the most political influence.

At some point, the zombie bank will have to be cut-off, like Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers. See Matt Taibbi's "Wall Street's Naked Swindle" at Rolling Stone. See Robert Creamer's take on the bloated and parasitic financial industry here.

Bonus Essay: Boomered out

How did we get here? I blame the generational gap for many of our woes. The plunging fiscal position of our government may make Boomer health care expenses and pensions impossible to finance. Few American Boomers have saved anywhere near enough for their retirements. Perhaps harsh economic times are a method of reacquainting Americans with the importance of saving and self-sufficiency.

It's time to re-evaluate where the values of the Baby Boom generation have taken us. Boomers had to have it now: credit became a way of life. Material gratification was elevated to the highest attainment in American society.

Moral relativism rules the Boomer generation's values. "If it feels good, it can't be so bad" goes the Sheryl Crow song. Drug use skyrocketed, along with divorce rates and premarital sex, teenage pregnancies, etc.. Compared to the generation before them, the Boomers have slipped on morals. Ideals concerning class and respect for one another have disappeared along with any sense of shame, replaced by "me first."

The Baby Boomers can't be blamed for where we are today, but one of their chief overriding values--greed--does frame the economic situation we're now in. Without Kenneth Lay' and other Boomers' desire to be rich beyond their dreams, the motivation to commit massive economic crimes simply wouldn't be there. Of course every generation has it villains, but we may see before it passes on one of history's greatest intergenerational thefts.

Of course there are redeeming characteristics to the Boomer generation. Our standard of living has expanded remarkably since the 70s. We have things. Many things.

American attitudes towards race shows how societal norms change between Generations. Boomers were raised in a far more racially intolerant environment. Boomers themselves grew up in a mostly homogenized America in the 50s through the 70s. Their first exposure to injustice was probably the struggle for Civil Rights, with Vietnam of course their defining moment. That war was an example of how society can reject the values of their parents--TImothy Leary's dropping out.

There are plenty of exceptions but it would seem that Americans born after the Boomers are far less sensitive to race, and many are in fact color blind--most don't really notice anothers' race, at least beyond recognizing the superficial differences, and filing them in the subconscious.

Children tend to inherit many of their parent's values so one way to judge the Boomers' values is through their children. Making a study of Boomer children--or Boomerspawn, as I'm prone to think of them--harder is the trend for children to gravitate away from their parents' values. Just like the Greatest Generation before them, the Boomers grew up to be quite the opposite, forgetting perhaps the value of shared sacrifices like those made by their parents through World War 2 and the Great Depression. By this standard, we can reverse-engineer Boomer values--if the young are lazy, the Boomers are hard-working, the young giving, their parents selfish, etc..

Making inter-generational comparisons can be useful. Boomers worked hard, Xers less so. As a small business owner, I tried to model my own work ethic on Boomers and failed. I realized that reaching my goals would close many of life's other interests, ending things I'd always wanted to do. It was a sacrifice I wasn't able to make. I'm probably deluding myself by assuming my business could have been profitable enough anyway.

Working hard is a perfect Boomer behaviors to model, but the present day work ethic is not so much about working for work's sake, but working to own more, to have more, to get more pleasure. With real wages flat for so many working stiffs, it's simply impossible to work enough hours to enjoy life. At least in places around here, it's very hard to get a factory job anymore. America economy is declining. Our social mobility is now less than Europe's. In other words, an American born today is less likely to enjoy a standard of living higher than his parents.

Working hard should deliver to X'ers what the Boomers got: prosperity and a rising standard of living. Then again, if those are the values that made Boomers happy, it's no surprised that the next generation might reject those things. But X'ers may not be victimized not so much by laziness but by devolution of the American economy, at least for the working classes. The capitalist system can be and is often labelled as the culprit. The Kondratieff cycle claims that that corrections every 70 years are inevitable in a system such as ours. Seventy years ago we were in the Great Depression-are we in one now?

Putting work above all other things--exempting perhaps God and family--comes at a price. The more Americans are consumed by their labors, the less free time they have. It's as if Americans are in a perpetual state of "Destination Disease," a condition where happiness must always be deferred.

Having a better standard of life doesn't mean having no free time, or no fun. Even if sacrificing all one's time now might mean even more pleasure later, perhaps much later, or too late.

Americans suffer from the ominous plague of always wanting to be happy, according to Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. We're even unhappier than we should be because we expect to be happy and can't settle for less. Without accepting the idea that it's all right to be unhappy, Americans seem cursed to always want more. Rather than look at unhappiness as a symptom that something's wrong and needs to be changed, Americans tend to think they can just work harder and everything will get better. Look at the "get'r'done" perception so common among supporters of our Mideast adventures. Don't complain, just work harder and we'll win. The mechanics of how to win, and the nitty gritty can be glazed over by the idea that all we need to be successful is more work.

Demographics have now turned against the notion that work will set us free. Many now have two or more jobs, and don't have the benefits necessary to avert disaster in the event of medical or some other calamity. If work were the panacea, how is it that so many Americans, who work the most of any people in the world, have little to show for it? Like mice on treadmills, Americans no longer seem aware that they're not getting anywhere the faster they run.

Unfortunately, the next generation will be the first that has a lower living standard than their parents, the Boomers. They'll live in an America which won't have enough to go around. As the ranks of the unemployed grow, working harder won't be a way out--many won't be able to work at all.

Depressed yet? Well, I guess if you've made it this far, you understand that understanding the truth is more important than how you feel. Our emotions, happiness and the fear of being unhappy, need to be sacrificed for the goal of learning what we need to know about our world. The ignorance that so many of us know wear so proudly, placated by knowing less despite the danger, comes at a price far worse than the temporary emotional burden associated with "depressing" news.

The time has come for Americans to grow up. We need to shed the ostrich-like preoccupation with pleasure. As we're about to learn, the pursuit of pleasure alone yields very little of substance. We can fill our TVs with endless doses of entertainment lacking any substance. It's like eating an endless diet of bland soup: it may diminish our hunger but we're never truly sated.

We've become easily manipulated, branded targets for mass advertizers, who convert wants into urgent, pressing needs. The pleasure-seeking comes at the price of ignorance, we cannot afford to question why we need the things we do. We just consume. To grant ourselves the pleasures, we must work. We exchange time for pleasure but how much is lasting. At least we accumulate an attic full of things.

Hyper-capitalism and the endless pursuit of things has decimated the planet. The American lifestyle, if emulated worldwide, will bring the planet to an end. The American way of life is simply unsustainable and we must change. To get there, we'll need create new ideals, which are the opposite of self-gratification with its over-emphasis on me, what I need. What American society is not more me, but more us. Too often, we see any effort which doesn't enrich us, or our families, is not worth it. However, we're also generous, giving more to charity per capita than virtually anyone else. So there is hope, hope that we will change. The political system alone can't guarantee change. As I've blogged, we need to make change happen, together, not just for Planet but four ourselves. For our young, so they don't end up rich in things but weak on character.

Americans shy away from political differences, so implementing change will be a challenge and a collective one as well. If we can't agree to disagree, we really won't be able to advance goals that make the American lifestyle about more than accumulating capital, and things.

What of the future we leave behind for our young?

First off, I don't see a coherent set of values being delivered from the Boomers (this would be the latter half of the Boomers, people about 45-55.) The youth of America seem to lack any core defining set of values. In this respect I see one one the greatest dangers we face as the failure to transmit distinctly American values from generations, especially considering the detour they've been on, transiting the long strange trip through the Boomer years.

Boomers' children are now on the scene--I'm surrounded by college students where I live. I observe their behavior every day and I see some troubling trends. Criticizing the youth is probably a common predilection of people moving into middle age like myself. We're grumpy and tend to see the young as incompetent, and confuse youthful inexperience with foolishness, however much the two might overlap.

Judging from fraternities around here--not exactly an archetypical group for study--we've become something of a mob. Sure we can display our feathers on national holidays, and revel in all the abundance that our consumption-oriented lifestyle has given us, but younger people don't seem to have anything that binds them together. For us, the X generation, we had respect for one another's individual identity. That was our model. This may be passed on to the Y generation to the point everyone is trying too hard to be different.

Lacking any way to incalculate value, Americans who come after the Boomers will not know what they've missed. The Greatest Generation--the Boomers' parents--is dying off and few young people will know what our society was like during that period. The shared values and perseverance that saved the world from fascism have been lost, perhaps forever. American society has become about me, a truth we seldom admit.

I've heard that modeling is the most effective method for teaching values, and providing a leadership example. The changing role of the Presidency in American society offers a window on the lack of character at the top, a place where we need it the most and the absence of character is most obvious.

Sadly, younger Americans have known Bush as their model of character. Enough has been said about our recently departed leader. Before him, Clinton, a man who lied publicly to hide a sexual relationship. Another beef against Clinton was his raiding the Social Security Trust Fund to balance the budget.

The idea that we are either with him or against him has taken hold. Partisan divisions have grown to the point the President's ability to lead our nation has been limited. The partisan divide expanded during Bush the Younger's reign. In an about-face, opposition to Bush morphed into support for Obama, which appears to be plagued by town hall screamers, birthers, and other extremists. Now as Obama waffles on domestic surveillance, torture, and other issues vital to advocates of less intrusive government, he appears to be creating a new divide.

Can we blame the dilapidated state of leadership purely on the President? No. At a certain point we need to concede the fact that maybe these Boomer Presidents have all screwed our country up. Like both his predecessors, Obama is a Boomer, though a young one.

In this media age, we've elevated the President into some kind of all-powerful Emperor the media coverage a sort of Truman Show covering every aspect of the Great Leader's life, no matter how mundane. Obama's very much a product of the media age, one where managing perception in the media has been elevated to an art form. elevated rhetoric way over reality. Say one thing to one crowd one day, another the next. Promise the world when it pleases the audience, regardless of the ability to deliver on the promise. Typical cheesy politician stuff. Obama's just elevated it to a new level of sleaze, disappointing so many who had faith in him.

The President is supposed to be a role model. From these examples, and the way, how can the young know what honor is? Who is it that will teach them? They will learn from whom, their parents?

TV plays a big role in changing societal attitudes. Perhaps TV has become a surrogate parent, except instead of Sesame Street we have South Park. Many episodes carry a positive theme--tolerance, sustainability, honesty, etc.. But the way the show delivers its message is very crude, appealing not to the merits of behaving well but rather turning misbehavior into a carnival of oddities and laughter, the best relief.

Crude homosexual themes run through South Park, exposing South Park children to adult lifestyles in a way previous generations would consider unwholesome. I guess the stigma and prejudices that prevail in our society towards BGL&T people will fall, if enough young people grow indifferent to what is done. In its distinct way, South Park blends humor with the taboo details, then smacks the viewer with the openness of its depictions of the gay lifestyle. Perversely, South Park spews a constant flow of flagrant cussing, including every manner of discrimination used in the adult world, one which they will inevitably enter. When today's young grow up, I guess we'll be better able to judge tolerance for sexual orientation. (Scarily, I just realized that South Park kids have grown up, and that the example for many of them has been no one other than George W. Bush!)

Though not made for children, I think many Americans wouldn't be troubled by their older children watching the show. Younger kids tend to prefer less adult shows, with subject matter far easier to grasp, so in many respects little has changed except the amount of TV viewing and the raw volume of data/content/input/choices from the days of Sesame Street, ABC's After School Special, and Saturday morning (only) cartoons.

DNA Reality Check

I'll admit this is a topic on which I know next to nothing, so this is pure speculation based on wild conjecture.

Interesting indeed it would be if our DNA reprograms itself between generations, reflecting adjustments in attitudes in society over time. Parents fight for the right--of blacks to equality, for instance--and their children end up embracing a world far more tolerant of racial differences a generation later. Are the Boomers more color-blind than their parents? Yes. But Americans of my generation, the Xers, have made race immaterial to the point electing an African-American president isn't a big deal, despite what it says about how race issues have advanced.

Well, I guess if my generation were to stomp endlessly for something like Womens' Rights, /Bi-/Gay/Lesbian/Transgender Rights, get them, it might be a whole 'nother generation before those advancements reflect in the way Americans treat each other. Whatever the science, it's clear societal values do change more slowly than the laws, but they do change.

The study of genomics has been making headlines recently. Apparently if a parent abused their bodies in some way, the DNA inherited by descendants might be damaged. Fascinating concept: a sort of cross-generational curse passed on parent to child, the body's revenge for its abuse. I guess this is how DNA changes itself, possibly to protect the next generation from likely over-indulgences or some such thing. I've heard that Jews have the lowest rate of alcoholism of any peoples, and it's true alcohol has been a prominent feature in Jewish society since its earliest traceable origins. On the contrary, Scots and Irish weren't exposed to alcohol until much later, suggesting that we're more likely to abuse it (having not been hardwired like Jews.)

Maybe if your parent was a heroin addict, your DNA may make your body is much more likely to reject it, perhaps making you convulse upon ingestion. Or perhaps it's the other way--heroin addiction makes you more prone to addiction. (Of course there'd be some statistical bias being that former addicts are more likely to expose their children to similar underlying conditions that are know to increase the risk of addiction.) Or perhaps not in one generation but many, the tolerance for heroin might go up to the point the drug just doesn't satisfy.


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Friday, October 09, 2009

Emotions, ignorance drive 9/11 wars

Americans' knowledge of international politics is dismal. Ambrose Bierce once said the only good purpose served by war was to teach Americans geography.

Failing to understand international affairs makes Americans vulnerable to the selling of myth, especially one wrapped in the flag. Our leaders, not above manipulating 9/11, used that event as a shock device to instill fear, offering as its sole antidote militarism mixed with patriotism.

Our ignorance makes us prone to the telling of lies by those in positions we trust like ministers and presidents. Blind obedience to government is bound to invite an abuse of power. Our gullibility makes possible the Lie. For that we, the American public, must assume responsibility. We accept what our leaders tell us because we don't know better. Our trust becomes a weapon those we trust use against us.

Part of our gullibility rises from being overworked, part from the exercise of hyper-consumption and -capitalism, which elevate greed into our reason for existing. We work so we have more, not so others have more, though Americans are generous.

In an age of "me," the needs of the nation are easily forgotten. So self-centered we're prone to be that periodic events need to remind us that we have something in common with one another: sinking of the Maine, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, all of which have precipitated wars, which is the perennial method by which Americans come together and by necessity, not choice, learn about the world beyond their borders.

When you have what you want at home, I guess it's easy to get comfortable, and comfortable we've become. Sensing the natural tendency to be indifferent to threats originating outside our borders, Newt Gingrich last year said that we should have reminder attacks: "it's almost like they should every once in a while have allowed an attack to get through just to remind us."

The suspicious timing behind changes to the color-coded terror threat levels is indicative of how tempted incumbent administrations are to jerk the terror boogeyman. Making matter worse is the willingness of so many to abandon non-partisanship in our foreign policy; before Obama even touched down abroad, his mission has been pilloried many times over by his domestic critics.

Bias and partisanship have marred virtually every policy we now have, especially our foreign policy. Whereas it was considered unpatriotic to question the Bush administration's motives after 9/11, every decision Obama makes is now plagued by internal bickering. Where criticism suits their purposes, the domestic political opposition is willing to undermine the President's overseas agenda.

Whatever I may think about the policies our President endorses, I do understand the need to keep my complaints within the family. Of course anyone who watches America knows we're a melting pots of different opinions--that aspect of our character may in fact make our society stronger and more open to debate, rather than weaker, though some abroad might perceive tolerance that way.

Perhaps we're not so tolerant of each other any more. We've dumbed down politically and know less, and trust our leaders to tell us the truth. Worse, we take differences of political opinion personally, and let them divide us.

Unfortunately all too often Americans are afraid to make their viewpoints know. Rather than discuss our different opinions, we tend to confuse intensity and passion with violence and shy away, or get more aggressive. We can't resolve our differences or work through them. Instead we get into an us vs. them mentality, a problem made especially bad when we need to decide what is best for us all in an international context, in matters like wars and foreign policy. We need to agree to disagree, then keep the debate in the family while we give full support to the President as he goes abroad, even if we don't agree.

Consuming media or being consumed by it

In our media-centric society, celebrities speak for millions who lack the courage and confidence to make their voices heard. We consume news without really digesting it. News has become a matter of convenience, a choice of entertainment options on the media platter. Real news is so much more, knowing the truth a matter of necessity in an age of deceit.

Americans are more likely to believe what they read in the mass media than many other societies. Even the Russians during the communist period were less likely than we are to believe what their government told them. I guess people who've been routinely lied to by their governments grow skeptical in proportion to the gap between what they're told and what they see. During Vietnam this was the Credibility Gap, where reports from the US military about body counts and progress were easily disproved out in the battlefield.

Not all change in the infowars is negative. The Internet, and the prevalence of video recording devices, have made disseminating lies made by governments that much harder. In 1999, for instance, during the infamous WTO riots in Seattle, while authorities claimed no rubber bullets were being used, video was being uploaded in real-time to the Web showing spent rubber bullets lying in a street just outside.

Here's a little quib I found in a MIT report on the Seattle protests:
"Indymedia provided elaborate coverage of the WTO protests.  They did this by disseminating thousands of activists’ videos, photos, recorded interviews and print stories...

"We relied on Indymedia reports and videos as one source among many for our data. While some critics viewed Indymedia as reflecting the point of view of protestors, the conventional media sources reflect the perspective of the dominant order. Indymedia’s critique of mainstream media builds on the ideas of Chomsky (1989) and Habermas (1975) who claim that corporate media’s “truth” corresponds with the interests of corporate sponsors, and that a privatized media cannot serve as a free press.  Without a free press, there is truly no genuine public sphere."

Some of you may have looked to Indymedia.org for footage of the recent protests at the G-20 in Pittsburgh, which involved for the first time use of a Long Range Acoustic Device, more commonly known as a noise gun. See the annotated video here; this site, called G-Infinity, is a production of Indymedia's Pittsburgh site.

Like the Seattle protests, an information war was occurring beyond the reach of cameras. Photographers and videographers are targetted during these protests, as stemming the flow of real-time information is a major goal for the authorities.

Perhaps you saw coverage of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008 (blogged it here.) During that event, people who dared film the events were pepper sprayed and subjected to police harassment. In the more recent Pittsburgh event, many University of Pittsburgh students were caught up in mass arrests. These police actions are designed to funnel protestors and bystanders alike into cordons from which they can't escape. Then, when told to disperse, they're choked by chemical agents for "failing to comply."

Most of Middle America probably doesn't care. They don't attend protests, and are quite content to be docile, at least until their jobs or health are threatened. I guess I'm particularly focused on demonstrations simply because I know the mass media won't cover the stories. The conglomerates don't want to reveal anything that might expose the myth that our wars are vital to our security.

While mainstream media did show miniscule clips of the events in Pittsburgh, becoming aware of what was really happening is only possible through alternative media. Unlike all the marketing-laced banter that fills our mainstreams and attention, the real stories like Pittsburgh aren't delivered to the viewer. You have to work to find them on the Web.

No corporation has a vested interest pinning their name to such coverage--potential advertizers might bolt. Improving the quality of coverage doesn't do much to boost sales. American viewerships are based on celebrity worship, not grim realities. So real stories are relegated to limited viewership on some obscure websites like mine.

If Americans don't make an effort to get informed, chances are they won't understand what's really happening to their society and world. As busy as they are, many are hard-pressed to make a healthy meal, much less scour the Web for some story that may not affect them personally. Same with our endless wars of occupation in southwestern Asia--unless you've got a love one in harm's way, you don't have to care; flip the channel and let someone else worry about it.

Some Americans are almost militant in their observance of ignorance; anti-intellectualism is rife. They'd prefer to live in a bubble insulated from ugly realities--I guess we all would. Discovering the Bug Lie entails leaving your comfort zone, and reconciling patriotism and duty with fact and necessity.

Somehow to make our democracy work, we need informed Americans. That commitment simply isn't there, largely because Americans are too busy working to see the big picture. Failing their responsibilities, Americans put their trust in their leaders whose populist rhetoric comforts them. The remedy for Americans too busy to care, or become informed, has been Barack Obama.

Obama the savior

The President just won the Nobel Peace Prize for diplomacy, a curious achievement considering the scale of wars he oversees as the nominal commander of our military forces. (I say nominal because the Pentagon seems to have differing views on escalation in Afghanistan. In London, General McChrystal spoke out on the need for escalation. The White House has been backpedaling since then, and internal policy discussions have supposedly been going on for weeks.)

The young turned out in droves for Obama, soaking up his spiel that he would bring change. Obama's candidacy was often expressed as a sign that American politics had moved beyond race; a black candidate could be accepted. Even bringing up the subject of Obama's race was considered racist by many of his supporters. Now in office, many of his supporters are eager to reach for the ubiquitous "race card" when the President is criticized.

Part of the Obama mistake has emerged from the idea that the President is and should be at the center of our politics. Maybe the President should be less involved in the day-to-day issues in our society. Perhaps Americans no longer see much benefit in getting disconnected, but rather value hyperconnectivity 24/7, 365 days a year. Look no farther than endless cell calls, about things that really aren't worth the time, about media-generated hype meant to sell some product or point of view. We're surrounded by it-can we escape it?

Now we wouldn't want our President to be out-of-touch, but sometimes that can help the human brain sort things out, a sort of mental vacation that allows time for the brain to catch up with the speed and sheer volume of information we receive.

Obama may be too in touch. He's intelligent enough, for sure, but no man can possibly be our guide, or substitute for our lack of time and meditative capacity. Americans are on the whole a shallow people, whose collective psyche is more built around the illusion on our TVs than any sense of shared values.

The real question as our society matures is if we can elevate individuality beyond the needs of the group. We know Americans embrace all the pleasures that come with being free, but can they handle the heavy responsibilities required to preserve a higher standard of living?

There's this notion of sacrifice. Obama even brought the word up, referencing the "sacrifice" made by terror victims on 9/11. The quote made on the anniversary of 9/11 did raise eyebrows, and references to it on the Web have since been stricken. It's like he never said it at all, jettisoned to the Memory Hole courtesy broken links and the infamous Http:404 Not Found error, the end-all for any story in cyberspace if it hasn't been archived.

Making sacrifices is different from being a sacrifice. Sure, we all understand the need for heroes--another loaded term--to give up their lives and freedom for us Americans, so we can have a better world. But when it comes time to make a sacrifice, most Americans think about giving up eating out, or some other mundane inconvenience.

The idea that people are routinely sacrificed is actually Mayan. Obviously the 9/11 victims weren't consenting, so in this respect they've been mislabeled as heroes and patriots.

The idea of their passing for something better than consoles the living, who must bear some sense of survivor guilt. If the 9/11 victims gave their lives for nothing, then I guess the terrorists "win."

I guess the idea of an all-seeing Supreme Leader comforts us in times of trouble. As I've written here over the years, Bush set the dangerous precedent as "The Decider" and emperor upon whose judgment we were led to believe we could depend. The Washington establishment went along, deluded by the false patriotism and militarism spawned by the reaction to 9/11. Rather than thinking about 9/11 objectively, we were encouraged to believe that it was bin Laden and the Arabs. We blamed the Taliban in Afghanistan exclusively, despite evidence that the Saudi government was involved in helping the hijackers.

The government had foreknowledge of the pending attacks, judging from Atta coming up on the Army's radar through Able Danger and the title of Bush's August 2001 briefing "bin Laden determined to strike in the U.S.." Yet Americans don't see what they don't want to see. If studying the attacks means entertaining that notion that the government was lying, then a good proportion of Americans would simply not believe in the possibility of 9/11 truth being anything other than what the government tells them.

People weren't the only thing sacrificed in the attacks. Facts, scientific truth, and reason itself were sacrificed in the hate-filled rage that consumed the public reaction. We really haven't had our wits since the attack. We're running a financial deficit largely because of wars that were rationalized by the attacks. It's worth remember that Osama Bin Laden, not wanted by the FBI for the attacks, sought to destroy America economically and they've done a good job of it, assisted of course by our own thirst for vengeance in an unfilled, endless quest for emotional release.

Our leaders urged action. Emotions, particularly fear, became marketing tools. It was easier to sanctify violence against the alleged perpetrator than it was to investigate.

A rational explanation for fires raging for months below the ruined tower, without oxygen, suggesting nano-thermite, was suppressed. Never mind that the Taliban offered bin Laden after 9/11, or that the CIA shut down the bin Laden unit. Disregard WTC 7's free-fall speed, anything else that might not jibe with the idea the culprits were unassisted and the attacks planned in Afghanistan, a justification still used today to continue the occupation there. This disregards what we know: Atta's cell planned the attacks in Hamburg, Germany and they were trained not in some cave in Afghanistan but in Florida.

Ignore also the huge natural resources that lie under Afghanistan, or the fact Karzai and RIce were on Unocal's board, and actively pursued a pipeline deal through the country. None of the facts mattered. Instead revenge took the place of reason, and base instincts ruled the day--and still do, despite the pleas of some of the 9/11 victims' survivors like Amber Amundson. Instead of forgiving, we've chosen to stretch our initial reaction into an open-ended occupation.

Failing to find al Qaeda--not a surprise if they didn't coordinate 9/11--we opted to go after those that reputedly gave them safe harbor, the Taliban. Denied their rights in a system of military tribunals designed to produce convictions, few Gitmo "enemy combatants" have been successfully prosecuted--the majority have been released. The lack of successful prosecutions suggests not only a lack of evidence--derived from coerced testimony or not--but also al Qaeda's limited size, raising doubts as to their ability to pull off 9/11 independent of any outside help.

Trying to justify continued incarceration regardless of guilt or innocence, Congress has passed a law that would keep Gitmo inmates out of the US, where they could make public all the egregious acts committed against them in America's gulag system. Instead, batches are quietly sent home, or to nations where they won't be tortured (it turns out many were enemies of their home regimes and given over to us for that reason, not any involvement in al Qaeda, "the toilet" in Arabic.)

The failure to grasp the truth that our government knew--that 9/11 was allowed to happen--has produced unconditional acceptance of whatever our government tells us, in the name of our security. It's as if Americans are like children who believe what their parents tell them. In that Alice in Wonderland existence we may find some temporary relief, wrapped in a bubble of presumed safety, but the grasp of an ever-growing State will eventually feel like that of a wraith, seizing more power and taking more of what we have through taxes and inflation. As long as we're dependent on the State, we'll never really find a way out of our current predicament, which depends more on interdependence and coexistence than trying to impose our will overseas or increase State power.

It's no wonder that we now find ourselves stuck in ground wars in Asia, a folly military scientists told us to avoid after the experience of Vietnam. Obama debates, and the generals preen on, demanding more boots, which we knows aren't boots at all, but souls. How many more must we sacrifice before Americans realize they've been misled by the government, given a false pretext? 3000 of us have been sacrificed, but do we do all this to honor them, or to placate our burning desire for vengeance? How many more Afghans and Pakistanis and Iraqis have to die?

Ghandi said an eye for eye would leave the world blind. Martin Luther King lamented the cycle of violence, recognizing the futility of trying to end hate by creating more hate. As many peoples have discovered firsthand throughout the previous wars, violence doesn't solve anything. Yes, anger might be temporarily mollified, but at what cost? We will likely be forced to react to yet another terror strike in the future, one likely generated by our forceful occupation. And contrary to what our government tells us, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. There are plenty of so-called Taliban who have nothing against the American people but simply want us to leave. What if we were occupied by a foreign power--wouldn't you resist, too?

In leaving them alone, we might be left alone. In asking for forgiveness and going home, we'll be performing an act construed as weakness by some (who hate us anyway), but an act of strength by others, those we need to win over.

Accepting the need to change is a harder exercise than continuing to do what's wrong. Until we Americans can come to grips with the truth, that 9/11 no longer justifies what we're doing over there, and that we need to launch a full investigation to find the real culprits, this travesty of justice will go on, and our country will suffer economically and depreciate morally.


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