Monday, December 15, 2008

Crisis and Opportunity

To those who have plenty of personal opportunity, speak first about the environmental crisis. But to those who have plenty of personal crises, speak first about the environmental opportunities -- and how solutions for the Earth's woes can be solutions for their problems too.

-- Van Jones

In This Week's Sift:
  • The Big Picture on Bailouts. They can't stop the recession, but that's not the point. Avoiding a depression is the point.
  • The Next Time You're in the Book Store... pick up The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones. Lots of authors have good if-I-were-the-dictator plans. Jones has a good since-we're-a-democracy plan.
  • Short Notes. A bipartisan Senate report says that the blame for torture belongs at the top. A right-wing pastor wants courts to order gays into treatment. With a Democrat about to take office, the media goes back the Clinton Rules. Pakistan has multiple personality disorder. And Michael Ware is addicted to war.

The Big Picture on Bailouts
The current economic mess has so many sub-messes that it's easy to lose the big picture. Let me reframe a little: The important thing to worry about is the potential for Great Depression II. We're not there yet, but we could get there.

Most of what we've seen so far, painful as it is, is normal recession stuff: lost jobs, foreclosed houses, businesses cutting back or going under, and the market plummeting. That's all very bad for the individuals affected, but from a society-wide point of view it's just what happens. At the end of every business cycle, like clockwork, businesses get too bold. They overbuild and overexpand. Memories of the last recession get dim and big returns for little effort start to seem normal, so people forget to be skeptical of schemes that are too good to be true. When that happens, a recession has to restore the natural balance. It's the yin/yang of capitalism: When greed seems to have totally vanquished fear, fear has to make a comeback.

The last few recessions have not been nearly this bad, but anybody who lived through the recessions of the mid-70s or early-80s should know what I mean. Things got nasty for a while, but the balance got restored in a year or so and a new cycle started.

But depressions have a feature that recessions lack -- cascading bankruptcy. It works like this: You think your business is doing fine, but then I declare bankruptcy. When you factor in the likelihood that I'm never going to pay my bills, you realize that you're bankrupt too. After you announce that, your creditors discover that they're not solvent either. And on and on and on, like the chain reaction in an atom bomb.

That's what the bailouts have been trying to prevent. Even if I'm a terrible businessman who deserves to go under, the government stepping in to pay my debts might allow you and all your creditors stay in business. Bailouts can't fix the underlying recession -- we still built too much and expanded too far and trusted people we shouldn't have, and those chickens still have to roost somewhere -- but the whole economy doesn't have to go down the drain.

It's important to realize that such bailouts are only a short-term strategy. Eventually, poorly-run businesses have to fail, and fear has to be allowed to have its day. Otherwise, you're on your way towards a Soviet system -- and we know how well that worked. But the legitimate role of a bailout is to keep a big, poorly-run business from failing so abruptly that it takes a bunch of well-run businesses down with it.

That gives some context for thinking about the proposed auto-industry bailout. In the long run, the world has more auto-manufacturing capability than it needs, and some of those factories are going to have to close. But if GM, Ford, and Chrysler go out of business tomorrow, then (as Dick Cheney says) "It's Herbert Hoover time." A lot of well-run businesses that supply the auto industry are going to go down too.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats are ready to let that happen. But each has its preferred way to keep the factory doors open. The Democrats want a special arrangement that gives the government a seat at the table as the auto industry re-organizes. The Republicans want the re-organization to happen through the ordinary bankruptcy process -- the same way a bunch of airlines re-organized a few years ago.

The difference between the parties' positions reflects their divergent visions of the economy's underlying problems. Republicans believe that workers make too much money and have too much security; citizens get too many services from the government; rich people pay too much tax; capitalists are over-regulated; and markets will find the best solutions if government gets out of their way.

By contrast, Democrats believe that workers make too little money -- the distribution of wealth has gotten too skewed; capital needs more regulation -- otherwise it gets drawn into the kinds of schemes that created Wall Street meltdown; and the government needs to take the lead in some kind of integrated approach to our energy, environmental, and healthcare problems -- the market won't find the right solution on its own.

Republicans prefer bankruptcy court because a judge's first responsibility is to the creditors. Because a bankruptcy judge can break union contracts, s/he could fix that awful problem of working people making too much money and having too much job security. Democrats prefer a "car czar" who would have broader responsibilities -- not just to the creditors, but to the workers, communities, and the overall economy.

That stuff about UAW workers making $73 an hour is bogus. The people who keep repeating it know it's bogus.

Has there ever been a less professorial Harvard professor than Elizabeth Warren? She heads the congressional panel overseeing the $700 billion bank bailout, but Warren's interview with Rachel Maddow doesn't sound like anything you typically hear on TV. Imagine the conversation two ordinary people would have if they were well informed and very, very smart.

An anonymous middle-school teacher in Kentucky explains how the economic crisis is starting to affect her classroom. And that post got an echo from this teacher.

Yields on 3-month treasury bills briefly went negative Tuesday. That ought to be impossible.

One leader of the opposition to the auto bailout was Louisiana's Republican Senator David Vitter, the D.C. madam client. The leader of the Shreveport GM workers comments: "He'd rather pay a prostitute than pay auto workers."

The Next Time You're in the Book Store ...
... look at The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones. I can't think of anything currently available that pulls together so many of the right ideas -- environmental, economic, and political.

The book's subtitle is "How one solution can fix our two biggest problems". The two problems are saving the environment and our economy, and the solution is a Green New Deal, a massive re-orientation of our economy into a sustainable path that would along the way create large numbers of new businesses and new jobs.

Lots of books tell you about the environmental crisis or some unsustainable part of our economy and how something must be done. A few books go on to discuss one aspect of that something -- windmills or conservation or locally-produced food or some other step in the right direction. This is the only book I know of that goes on to describe how all those somethings could get done -- by building a green populist movement based on locally-visible issues, a movement that very plainly tells ordinary people how it will make their lives better.

The difference between Jones and a lot of other liberal writers is that he's willing to face this problem: The Left is still largely segregated by race and class. As an activist from the San Francisco Bay area, one of Jones' ongoing challenges has been to get the well-to-do environmental activists of Marin County and the working-class environmental justice movement in inner-city Oakland to work together. (In a nutshell -- and stereotyping only a little -- environmentalists wonder what global warming is doing to the polar bears; environmental justice is about why so many untreated chemical-waste sites are near poor, non-white neighborhoods.)

Environmentalism remains a niche issue because environmentalists are so easily stereotyped as elitists -- driving expensive hybrid cars, eating expensive organic food, and vacationing in exotic places that they want to keep pristine. On the other side of the class divide, people may not like their job in the coal mine or in the factory that pollutes their air, but they have to pay the bills somehow. Images and slogans that motivate professional-class environmentalists often have the opposite effect on the less well-off. (That's what this week's opening quote is about.) If you're wondering how you're going to feed your kids until payday and still make your rent payment at the end of the month, the idea that you should also be trying to prevent some nebulous environmental apocalypse is likely to be more than you can deal with. It sends you into despair or denial, not into action.

In addition to the usual environmental-apocalypse dystopia, Jones adds a new dystopia he calls eco-apartheid: The rich live in unpolluted areas with easy (if expensive) access to wilderness and healthy food, while the poor lead increasingly unhealthy and unsafe lives amidst ugliness and degradation. His contrasting view is eco-equity: We have to build a new economy anyway, so this time let's build one that doesn't leave anybody out. Building the new economy is going to take a lot of work at all skill levels, from inventing more efficient solar panels to retrofitting homes and offices to be more energy efficient. Let's make sure those are all good jobs that give people respect and a living wage.

Jones believes that any movement to achieve large-scale and lasting change (abolition, civil rights, and the New Deal are his models) has to be based on sweeping principles rather than ad hoc proposals. He proposes three principles for eco-populism: Equal protection for all; equal opportunity for all; and reverence for all creation. (That third principle is an explicit bid for religious support, which he thinks is necessary both to sustain the breadth of the vision and the breadth of the coalition necessary to achieve it.) And lest it get too abstract, the book is full of examples of existing programs, not just in liberal professional-class havens like Berkeley, but in Milwaukee and Chicago as well.

On a psychological level, Jones critiques some of the basic frames of left-leaning activism. He sees too many of us still trying to live out the David-and-Goliath story of a previous generation of activists. (Martin Luther King vs. the segregationists; Ralph Nader vs. GM; Woodward and Bernstein vs. the Nixon administration.) Would-be Davids come into a room looking for Goliaths -- and find them. Instead, Jones proposes a Noah frame: We're building something, and we need all the help we can get. If Goliath decides to pitch in, we've got some Goliath-sized jobs for him. He also recommends a frame he calls "the Amistad meets the Titanic" -- if they can't work together, the slaves and the slavers are both going down.

This attitude is reflected in the way Jones writes. He doesn't expect anyone to be perfect, so he can criticize without villifying. (Chapter 2, for example, is a very good thumbnail history of the environmental movement, describing both what we owe people like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir as well as how we're still living with the effects of their mistakes and misconceptions.) And while he does not doubt that battles will have to be fought, he wants to avoid fighting the people who should be his allies, so that he arrives at the necessary battles with the largest possible coalition.
I first became aware of Van Jones when he spoke at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in June. (The first guy you see in the video is UUA President Bill Sinkford, not Jones.) He's an incredible speaker, and at the end of the talk we cheered as if he were a rock star who might come back for an encore. My comment the next day in my online journal was: "The world is fortunate that he wants to use his powers for Good."

Short Notes
The lead in a Washington Post article Friday:
A bipartisan panel of senators has concluded that former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials bear direct responsibility for the harsh treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, and that their decisions led to more serious abuses in Iraq and elsewhere.
Invictus analyzes what it all means for prosecuting war crimes. Short version: The legal cover the Bush administration set up for itself was too late; the crimes were already underway. The Senate report verifies the basic story that Philippe Sands was telling in his Vanity Fair article The Green Light back in April.

And it was all for nothing. The interrogator who caught al-Zarqawi says torture doesn't work. It's enough to make you throw your shoes. (See the video.)

The blog Gossip Boy punked right-wing Pastor Steve Kern by claiming to represent Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. Apparently Cornett is seeking Kern's suggestions for who to put on the county's Library Commission -- part of a plan to purge any gay-friendly material from the local libraries -- so Gossip Boy posed as the staffer tasked with writing the mayor's official recommendation. By using anti-gay slurs himself ("faggots" and "perverts") GB made Kern comfortable enough to say this:
We have to ... start curing those sinners. It's past time that this nation stopped placating sin and start putting them in education programs. Courts can force drug offenders into treatment centers and violent people into anger management. There's no reason our courts can't do that with homos.
If you're curious what Kern means by "curing" gays, I reviewed a book on the subject here. As you might expect, the treatment doesn't even work on volunteers who really want it to work. Court-ordered "education programs" would be a little like the re-education camps Mao set up for his opponents during the Cultural Revolution.

Joe Conason wonders if the media's reaction to the Blagojevich scandal means that "the Clinton rules" are back: No negative speculation about a Democratic president is too unsupported to deserve attention. At Media Matters, Jamison Foser elaborates and names names:
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the media's attempts to link Obama to the Blagojevich scandal has been the volume of news reports that are purely speculative -- and not only speculative, but vaguely speculative. That is, they don't even consist of conjecture about specific potential wrong doing. They simply consist of completely baseless speculation that Obama might in some way become caught up in the investigation at some point in the future, for some reason. It's little more than, "Maybe Obama will be involved." Well, sure. And maybe he'll play shortstop for the Washington Nationals next year.

Associated Press reporter Liz Sidoti set the standard for pointlessly speculative news reports with an "analysis" piece declaring that "President-elect Barack Obama hasn't even stepped into office and already a scandal is threatening to dog him." In the very next sentence, Sidoti had to admit that "Obama isn't accused of anything" -- but that didn't stop her from continuing to offer ominous warnings that Obama could be implicated in the scandal, interspersed with concessions that he, you know ... isn't.
Meanwhile, (see the first Short Note) a new Senate report links high-ranking members of the Bush administration to war crimes -- actual crimes and actual links, not just vague speculations about "associations". How much coverage is that getting?

In contrast to the Nobel laureates Obama is appointing, a former State Department official recalls the hiring practices of the Bush administration. After telling the story of an ambassadorial candidate being interviewed by someone who couldn't pronounce the name of the country in question, law professor Thomas Schweich reports his own experience, which he describes as "typical":
I had three jobs in the Bush administration: ambassador for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement affairs and chief of staff of the United States mission to the United Nations. For two of these jobs, my appointment was preceded by an effort by a 20-something in personnel to place an unqualified friend in the job
In other words, Monica Goodling was the norm, not the exception.

Juan Cole description of the puzzle that is Pakistan makes me think of multiple personality disorder. Whenever the powers-that-be in Pakistan have felt the need to do something inconsistent with their public persona, they have spun off some secretive, quasi-independent group to do it for them, like the "retired" intelligence officers who apparently trained the Mumbai terrorists. Once set up, these groups may even have their own funding sources -- drug smuggling or private donors. The government may not remember that they exist, much less know how to influence them.

Now, countries like the U.S. also do nasty things in secret, but we're more like a person who is just devious. No matter how hidden a program is from the public, it's listed somewhere in a classified part of the budget, and the chain-of-command could stop it if they wanted to. But unlike a devious person, a multiple-personality case really doesn't know how all these nasty things keep happening, and he feels helpless to stop them. That's President Zardari.

Of all the links in Cole's article, this one to Pakistani writer Irfan Husain is the most interesting.

Men's Journal just did a phenomenal article about CNN Iraq correspondent Michael Ware. I'm not going to stop watching him, but I'm going to feel a little bit guilty about enabling the war addiction that is wrecking Ware's life.

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