Wednesday, June 30, 2010

This Is War?

Ask the question; “why are we fighting in Afghanistan?” and some people might answer it with another question; “what else is new?” It’s no secret why we first went there. That’s where the people responsible for 9/11 called home. Hunting them was a logical response, although collateral damage to innocvent people from our bombing raised questions. But now that the guys we're after have moved next door the operation has ceased to make sense.

I think much of the problem has to do with our fixation on” winning” of which we had a century long streak with victories in the Mexican, Spanish- American and both World Wars. We hadn’t had another before Iraq, unless you count Grenada, which may explain our continuing hunger for one.    

A lot depends on what one considers winning. Having taken the land we wanted from Mexico, driven the Spanish from the hemisphere and caused the surrender of the Central Powers and Axis in both World Wars, we had every right to feel that when it came to winning wars we were number one. Korea turned out to be a push and Vietnam, considered a defeat was, in my view, a highly impractical occupation which we abandoned. At this time winning In Afghanistan appears to involve establishing a stable government in a nation that has never had one in recorded history.

There also remains the question of what constitutes war. I take issue with the belief that a large conflict, that causes people to kill each other, fills the bill by itself. A case in point is the Boer War. I see it as a British Expeditionary Force sent to South Africa to purloin another nation’s newly discovered gold, a striking similarity to our invasion of Iraq, with barrels of oil replacing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Having lived as a teenager through World War II with rationing and something called brownouts, I find the notion of our current conflicts as war to be comical. Now we don’t even have a draft which we had as recently as Vietnam. I don’t mean to disparage the loss of five thousand plus lives in our current conflicts. But we lost half a million in a much shorter time fighting Germany and Japan.

But I digress, and at some length  too. In discussing Afghanistan with two Democratic Congresswomen who opposed our presence there, Chris Mathews played devil’s advocate by asking them why they would let our enemies return to the place from which we were attacked. They responded reasonably that Yemen and Somalia are alternate safe havens.  If they’d taken him literally they might have questioned the wisdom of attacking Boston.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Choosing An Adage

Within, but not limited to, my politically social circle Republicans are considered representative of the corporate interests, when opposed to those of the public. To dispute this stereotype, many party devotees triumphantly point out that corporate America contributed equally to both political parties in the 2008 election. True enough. But for obvious reasons they avoid mentioning that these same interests are now contributing overwhelming to Republicans.

There’s no mystery why. In 2008 they were just playing it safe. Knowing that Barack Obama was at least even money to be president and that corporate political contributions are no secret, these people felt it in their interest that the new president wouldn’t take office feeling that corporate America had been hell bent on seeing that he didn’t. So far Barack Obama has hardly been another Roosevelt, Teddy or Franklin, when it comes to leveling the playing field.  But the fact that he has been considerably less compliant with corporate America than his predecessor has put an end to the need for this pretense.

In disputed matters the corporate side of this equation is generally aligned with producers as the public side is with consumers. Since becoming president Obama has taken on producers in health care insurance and the financial sector. Republicans have been understandably careful not to publicly identify themselves with the producers of health care insurance and whatever Wall Street produces. So they’ve had to fall back on fictions like “death panels” and reliable clich├ęs like socialism. A surefire winner is that old devil “government,” hellfire damnation of which is always good for a standing ovation by the faithful.

The Gulf oil spill has altered this calculation. Government can be criticized for allowing it to happen, which hardly limits this oversight to the current administration.  But there’s no way around the fact that the event was the direct consequence of the action of British Petroleum! Does anyone remember that BP was one of the five companies considered major beneficiaries of our controlling Iraq oil after the invasion?

At this point Republicans have no choice but to acknowledge BP culpability as the official party line. This was more than over a hundred red blooded Republican Congressmen, most conspicuously ranking Energy Committee Member Joe Barton, could stand. They referred to the $20 billion BP has agreed to put in escrow as partial compensation for damage as a “shakedown.” Cooler heads eventually prevailed and the familiar “I’m sorry if anybody was offended” limited apology was offered. It’s not hard to know what they really believe.  

This saga is just beginning to unfold. Since there’ll be so much more for all of us to talk about as the situation develops I decided to end this simply with an adage. I first considered; “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and then “old habits die hard.” I finally settled on “you can take the boy from the country, but you can’t take the country from the boy.”  

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Nation of Laws

The issue of Illegal immigration has been, is and will be with us for some time. The immigration now in question is by people of Hispanic ancestry primarily from Mexico and most often by way of Arizona. I’ve heard arguments from both sides in the summation of their complaints, a bit more vociferously from the get tough people, and agree with each that our immigration problem is serious and deserves high priority. It’s the solutions that I question.
I’ve heard little detail about this from the “bleeding hearts” other than their saying that the lure of sub minimum wage jobs provided American business is the problem and should be prohibited, a valid point. But I don’t believe that this is the sole cause of the problem or that prohibition could be enforced any better than the sanctity of the border. On the other hand I am in complete disagreement with the legislation enacted by the State of Arizona. I find abhorrent the idea of deporting citizens, legitimate by virtue of our Constitution, or of forcing their parents to abandon them.
While arguable disagreements exist over the effectiveness of proposed solutions it seems, to this lay person and I believe to impartial jurists, that the Arizona action is purely and simply unconstitutional. I’m amazed that so little has been said about something this obvious. Illegal immigration is a violation of federal law and, as such is properly enforced by federal authorities. The U.S. Government may order assistance from the states in enforcing its laws, as it often has. This has been the case with State National Guard troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. (A credible argument can be made that these groups comprise the “well regulated militia” the writers of the Second Amendment had in mind) The idea that a state can unilaterally decide when federal law has been broken and, in the absence of federal approval, when and how to enforce it, seems patently absurd.
Evidently the Obama administration thinks so because it has declared its intention to challenge the Arizona law, and presumably that of any state taking similar action. The merits of this law can be argued as a practical matter, but not as a legal one. We are supposed to be a country of laws, even when they conflict with our opinions. In proper Bronx English my advice to advocates of the Arizona law is to fuggedabadit!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Deep Water

Like many others who voted for Barack Obama I was disappointed by his Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil spill. Where was the anger that was and still is overdue? What particularly upset me was his saying that a commission would be set up to determine the size of compensation owed by BP. I was mollified somewhat the next day on learning that $20 billion was being put in escrow for this purpose although I question this amount being sufficient in the long run. The loss of a year’s earnings is one thing, the loss of a career a more costly other,

The initial impact of the spill on the public was considerably less traumatic than Pearl Harbor or 9/11 because its consequences were not immediately evident. On April 21 relatively few Americans realized the enormity of the previous day’s event. While I hesitate to quote myself, I wrote two weeks after the spill that the public was more interested in what didn’t happen in Times Square, but might have, than what was, and still is, happening on the floor of the Gulf.

I’m sorry to say that my estimation of Obama’s leadership has declined because of his handing this crisis. Still there is little he could have done that would have made things better today. Nobody in authority seems to have any idea how to cap the well. Until and unless this is done, containment of the spill is an exercise in futility. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, I don’t believe that oil can be retrieved at the ocean’s surface at anything like the rate at which it’s coming from the floor.

It’s unfortunate that the offending corporation has a British name and predominantly British ownership, lending a potentially misleading xenophobic context to public reaction. It’s my educated guess, the “education” based solely on what I’ve observed in the years I’ve lived, that this kind of accident could have happened as easily to any of the companies now drilling deep in our waters. Their manuals dealing with this sort of disaster are virtual copies, down to concern for the Gulf wildlife which includes walruses.

We know how to deal with “foreign” enemies. The day after Pearl Harbor FDR and Congress declared war on Japan. Bush’s response to 9/11 was to bomb and invade Afghanistan. But we don’t know how to handle corporate enemies. Their thievery is more akin to the method of burglars than the figurative armed robberies carried out by the perpetrators of Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The damage this time has been more to property than human life, which should get the attention of Republicans, who tend to put a relatively high value on property.

There is a division in the nation over the need for governmental regulation of business in general which tends to fall along party lines. I favor more of it in all the areas in which I’m informed. But simple logic dictates that the need for it in one field does not by itself apply in others. That said, the Gulf oil spill by itself with a bit of luck should do to the case for self regulation of deep water oil drilling what Pearl Harbor did to isolationism.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Who's In Charge

While the Gulf oil spill is the topic du jour the closest thing to news is the occasional BP attempt to cap the well routinely going awry. I’ve ranted at some length about the original sin of even having such a facility. For the moment I’d like to put that part aside and say a few words about the “cleanup,”   

“Where was the government on day one on day one when it was needed in the Gulf?” How many times have we heard this or similar sentiments? It seems that among the things expected of the United States Government is maintaining a fleet of ships with the capacity, and a crew sufficiently knowledgeable to respond to the consequences of a malfunctioning oil rig 13,000 feet deep in ground 5000 feet below the water surface. Vessels from this fleet would have to be accessible to rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Pacific, from California to Alaska.

This would be a reasonable expectation from a government in the oil business, a reasonable impossibility in our case.  If the perception of government as financially incompetent is correct, its presence would be a breath of fresh air in a field where the damage was done by culprits who cut corners to make even more money than they were already making. But then if we don’t want government beaurocrats messing with our health insurers or the folks who handle our 401Ks, we wouldn’t want them involved in selling us `gasoline?

So who is responsible for the business of controlling this sort of damage? On the surface it seems that it should be those who profit from the production and sale of the product. That happens to be the way the law reads. But In this case the responsible entity has just proved its irresponsibility by having allowed the catastrophe to take place without polishing its image in its response.  A strong case can be made for having another party supervise the rescue.

The situation cries out for incisive legislation which has been lacking since well before this president took office. I’m not equipped to suggest how it should read. But among options are increased federal involvement and the conscription of the facilities of worldwide producers of oil. I refuse to dismiss the possibility that other oil companies have been as remiss with the rules and cozy with the regulators as BP. In any case they all have a vested interest in the PR aspects of this and possible future cases.  

To close I’d like to put the matter in its proper perspective. As important as the cleanup is, it is small potatoes compared to the reason for there being one.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Oil Oil Oil and Trouble

I recently opined that the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is the worst man made accidental disaster in history. I’d like to reword that opinion. It is verging on becoming the worst disaster of any kind in recorded history. For semantic precision it should be added that in a “spill” oil would flow down rather than up to the water surface. But “if you can’t lick ‘em join ‘em.”

This spill of course is monumental news. But developments have been slow and I for one am tiring of pictures of oil. The well began to spew on April 20th (Hitler’s birthday) and it’s still spewing. So is political palaver which deals with the problem in all but its most important context, that our overall energy policy has been proved wrong, dead ass wrong! Amazingly the “drill baby drill” people are sticking to their guns. It must be admitted that in one respect they were right. As they’ve been saying for years, there is plenty of oil beneath the earth’s surface, much of which is now covering the Gulf of Mexico and threatening to infest points north and east.

The government response has been something less than ideal according to that deep thinker Michelle Bachman, who asked repetitiously where the Coast Guard was on “day one.” She has a point in the sense that had multiple U.S. Government vessels been filmed scurrying about the accident site the current presidential approval rating would probably be higher. There are situations where a simple show of activity can create an impression of accomplishment without accomplishing anything. Taxpayer dollars would have been wasted, undoubtedly leading to criticism from the other side. The basic flaw in Deep Thinker’s logic is the assumption that there was something that could have been done on day one that has yet to be learned by day fifty. What we needed was someone with prescience and knowledge on the scene at day minus one.

We should learn from this event that we are dealing with intolerably high stakes when we gamble on the safety of energy sources such as deep water drilling and yes, atomic energy. As a practical matter, current circumstances necessitate the use of these sources to some extent for our existing needs. But the idea that we should direct our resources to advancing these high risk technologies while working simultaneously on safety measures overlooks one important consideration. As our technology advances so do potential dangers, as in the Gulf scenario where our safety measures were a big step behind our technological achievements.

The parallel may be oblique. But I’m reminded of an E.Y Harburg lyric which goes “Once I built a tower up to the sun, brick and rivet and lime. Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother can you spare a dime?”

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Their Thieves vs. Our Thieves

Considering the fact that we are faced with at least three more months of oil effluence in the Gulf of Mexico, I consider this event one of the three greatest national tragedies in my lifetime. The other two are the JFK assassination and the 2000 presidential election, in the latter case not as to who won it, but how it was won. I agree with those who criticize Obama’s failure to make a timely response. What he has said, or more to the point when he didn’t say it, is important.  But as importance goes it pales in comparison to what is happening in the Gulf now and why it’s happening. As to the “what” part, we can get a reasonably good idea from media coverage. It’s the “why” that deserves our attention.

Our addiction to fossilized sources of energy is notorious. Given the money spent to make sure we stay addicted, it is little wonder that virtually none of our ample resources have been directed toward green energy since l973 when the need first became evident. Even if we were to see the light immediately we will still have to rely to a great extent on traditional sources for some time. It’s on this aspect that I’d like to dwell for a moment, specifically on the myth of “energy independence.”  

The fact that among the handful of oil companies considered “ours” is British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell should give us a hint that things are not exactly as advertised. Seventy percent of BP is owned by the British government. The others are corporations with international ownership. Trans Ocean, the builder of the Gulf oil rig is from Switzerland, a country with a rich maritime heritage. We’ve all heard about Halliburton, a corporation run out of Dubai. If Dick Cheney’s personal wealth is involved, as I suspect, it would give him a big boost for the title of The Man Who Has Done America for the Most.

The world price of oil is the same regardless of the seller. Oil is the product of one big market and, like other products, the motive behind its production and sale is profit. This is true of Saudi Arabia, where oil is nationalized for the benefit of the Royal Family and its friends, as it is of corporations whose CEOs pocket the swag while sanctimoniously invoking the interest of shareholders. If OPEC cuts back production to increase the price, its beneficiaries include the likes of Exxon Mobil. To most people who share my estimation of these people, the idea that our bad guys work more in our national interest than their bad guys is laughable.

The phrase “painting with the same brush” is usually used to suggest painting a distorted picture. In this case one brush will do nicely.