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April 2009

Rags and Bones

 

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Eric Holder’s remarks

            Attorney general Eric Holder’s comment that on the topic of race, we are a “nation of cowards”, was at once correct and ill-advised.

            Many people deflect away from any discussion of racism as if it were rude and unmannerly to bring it up. The reasons are often ambiguous but one thing is clear: if you are the one trying to start a conversation, and the person you are talking to won’t go along, he is certainly not trying to spare your sensibility—unless of course ashamed or frightened of what he might say. I suspect that most people who won’t talk about race instinctively feel that you are rude to bring it up—as if you insisted on discussing prostitution in the presence of children, or botulism while food was being served.  Their own racism must be the usual cause of this reluctance. 

            I would probably accuse us of being a nation of hypocrites, not cowards.

            However, Holder should have been more careful, because of his Cabinet role. As one of the most powerful figures in our government, he has some responsibility to lead by making affirmative and positive statements, and avoiding insulting rhetoric (which is particularly cheesy directed at people less powerful than yourself). Also, as Phil Gramm discovered last year, politicians, in or out of power, ought to avoid the pejorative “nation of” formulation.

            Holder would have been better advised to say something like: “The time has come for an open and thorough examination of race relations”.

Bush was dangerous

            I should not be so shocked to learn that secret memoranda, by the same Bush administration lawyers who defended water-boarding,   justified a domestic role for the army in conducting raids on suspected terrorists, arresting (if not killing) them, and performing searches and seizures—all without the use of probable cause, warrants or other significant elements of due process.

             The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists maintains as a thought-provoking publicity gimmick a “doomsday clock” where the hands are  currently five minutes from midnight (=nuclear annihilation). Whenever it adjusts the clock, the group explains how some government action had just moved us a minute closer to, or further away from, our doom.

            Similarly, it would behoove all of us to imagine a democracy clock, where the movement of the hands puts us closer to, or further from, becoming a military dictatorship like 1973 Chile.

            Bush’s legal whores (calling them hired guns would be too kind) tried to put us a whole lot closer to Pinochet-land. It’s a good thing nothing came of it.

Fake food

              Part of the dreary mall-ification of America is the prevalence of restaurants (many of them national chains) offering bogus versions of lively, spicy ethnic and local cuisines. In Southwest Florida, where I have been for five months, I can find any number of restaurants offering so-called “jerk” chicken or fish—but it is always some kind of sugary sauce tasting slightly like jerk seasoning, slopped over a sautéed chicken breast or fish filet. I haven’t found a place yet which offers authentic Jamaican jerk chicken, bones in, made in a smoker and intensely spicy. Yet we are close to the Caribbean.

            At least, I can find authentic Southern barbecue here—but far outnumbering the real barbecue restaurants are the places offering the same dreary fake-out of a sautéed chicken breast slathered in bottled and very sweet “barbecue sauce”.

Liberal Senators vote no

            Russell Feingold and Evan Bayh, two of the most progressive legislators we have, voted against an omnibus spending bill yesterday, helping the Republicans deal another setback to President Obama. Both men mentioned their opposition to the earmarks in the bill. (Feingold is one of only two people in my law school class who made something of themselves; the other, Brad Leithauser,  became a novelist.)

            The pundits think Obama is just going with the flow, letting legislators load bills with pork so long as he gets his agenda done, and dismissive remarks from the White House that this is the conclusion of “last year’s” legislation seem to support that theory.

            In general, it appears that Obama does not have his own party under control. Getting the Senate in particular to line up is like herding cats, but if Obama can’t do it then he will be on track to become the new Jimmy Carter, a man with intelligence and heart who became a political laughingstock.

            We were sold on Obama as decisive and cool, a man able to lead. He needs to exert more control over the shape of legislation and the votes.

The death penalty

            Its been a long time since I wrote about the death penalty. A trial followed with great interest in Southwest Florida, though not in the national media, was that of Fred Cooper, accused of murdering a Fort Myers couple in their home as revenge for an affair the man was having with Cooper’s girlfriend.

            The cops, as they so often do even in major cities with more experience and resources, woefully fucked up the investigation.  The cops visited Cooper at his workplace and told him they needed the coat they believed he wore at the murder scene. Cooper sent them to his house, then retrieved the coat from his car, cut the lining out and burned it, and washed the coat with industrial solvents. In the end, there was no definitive physical evidence, DNA, fingerprints or anything else,  at the murder scene, on the bodies, or on or around Cooper himself to link him to the murders. Eyewitnesses thought they saw someone who looked like him in the victims’ development but were uncertain. A security camera at a nearby convenience store caught someone on a motorcycle who might have been Cooper but again, it wasn’t clear.  The weapon was never found. Cooper was convicted in the absence of the usual direct evidence because he had a motive and acted guilty (he has three prior felony convictions, though not for murder).

             It is hard to say, on such circumstantial evidence, that the jury which just convicted Cooper did so “beyond a reasonable doubt”. (A previous jury deadlocked 9-3 for conviction.) In Florida, the jury which convicts then deliberates again and makes a recommendation on the death penalty. Florida is a conservative, death-oriented state but this jury yesterday recommended life imprisonment. The judge is not required to follow, but apparently it is quite unusual in Florida for a judge to sentence someone to death without the jury’s agreement.

            The evidence in this case was completely circumstantial, and  strongly based on the defendant’s personality as a “bad actor”. The prosecution actually made an attempt to introduce testimony by the grandparents that the victims’ preverbal toddler, left alive at the scene,  later “reacted strongly” to Cooper’s picture in a magazine. Please. This is complete over-reaching by the prosecutor to supply the evidence that the cops did not.

            Cooper probably has substantial basis for appeal on the grounds that the prosecution did not prove its case. He is the quintessential example of a convicted person who should not be sentenced to death; not on such uncertain evidence, and when there is no way to fix things if in five or ten years a technology unavailable now, or some other new evidence,  clears him of culpability of the crime.

“The stock market always goes up”

            An interesting article in the New York Times for March 6 reports that Japanese stocks have not returned to  their pre-crash levels  since the  1986 Japanese real estate bubble. U.S. stocks which fell on Black Tuesday in 1929 did not get back to the same share price until 1954.

            This suggests that the truism “The stock market always goes up” is as inane as “its always the other guy who gets killed in a war”.

            I wonder whether historically, there have been many extended periods of quiet, healthy markets and steady, slow growth. The possibility strongly exists, given human nature, that the history of the market is largely that of alternating bubbles   and crashes. I now believe that I spent most of my adult work life, at least the portion of it from 1990 on, in a bubble with occasional contractions.

            The article interviews Japanese investors who agree that the stock market is for gamblers, adventurers and anyone who thinks they can master its timing, and not a forum for parking your net worth so you can watch it increase over time. Certainly, it is not a place where anyone’s retirement money should be stashed, ever again. While the recipients of defined benefit pensions can still be screwed if their ex-employer goes bust, there is a lot to be said for a deal where, in return for twenty or thirty years’ service, you get a set percentage of your former salary, rather than a coupon exchangeable for chips in a casino.

Health care entitlements

            The debate over whether health care is a right or a privilege is up there with the most esoteric questions of religious dogma of the angel/head/pin variety: we appear to be talking about something, but are actually discussing nothing at all. Or at least, not what we think.

            There are no rights or privileges except what we decide there are. Let me say that again in capitals for emphasis: THERE ARE NO RIGHTS OR PRIVILEGES EXCEPT WHAT WE SAY THERE ARE.  Health insurance, like many things we have decided to have (a national highway system, electricity, a nuclear arsenal) is not in the Ten Commandments or even the U.S, Constitution.  Thus, discussing whether health care “is” already a right or privilege is a sorry waste of breath. The real discussion is whether we want it to be a right or privilege, and even this high-concept intellectual approach conceals a grittier question: do you want to have health insurance or not?

            Here it would be interesting to take any diverse group of citizens and ask them to take a test something like the following:

PLEASE CHECK OFF ALL THAT APPLY

Which of the following most nearly describes your opinion?

__ I think everybody should be entitled to free health care.

__I think everybody should be entitled to, and pay for, cheap, affordable health care.

__I think only certain people should be entitled to health care. (Please describe which groups you would grant or deny health care to:                                              Use the other side of this page if you need more space.)

__As long as I have health care, I don’t care if anyone else has it.

__I think that people being able to afford health care is a more important  social goal than doctors  or drug companies being able to charge high prices.

__I think that doctors and drug companies being able to charge high prices is an important social goal even if it means that some or many people won’t be able to afford health care.

__I would happily go without health insurance personally in order to ensure that doctors and drug companies are making an appropriate profit on their services or goods.

__I would happily go without health insurance personally if the only alternative was to live under a Canadian-style system.

            Inability to afford critical health care is a much greater danger to me personally than being killed by an Al Qaeda bomb, and if we couldn’t afford simultaneously to wage war in Iraq and take care of our citizens’ health needs, I would sacrifice the former to the latter in a heartbeat. Health care, preferably a single payer system, is one of the fundamental things I would want from any government I had a hand in forming.

            One of the great ironies of the present dysfunctional situation is that the right wingers, when not actually shouting the word “Socialism!”, can find nothing else to scare us with than Canada—our peaceful, sympathetic neighbor, which shares with us the world’s longest unguarded border. When it comes to any other matter, the Canadians are partners, in free trade, in war, in culture; but talk about health insurance and its “Booga! Booga! [wave hands menacingly] CANADA!”

Gun brains

            Every year or so, I think about buying a gun. It is a thought experiment, a way of determining if my thinking has changed. I put aside the embarrassment factor; I have written extensively and critically about guns  and the people who love them, the Second Amendment and the NRA. After all, I am an all-American male child in a middle aged body; I still admire the way any actor looks racking a shotgun (dignified, in command, taking shit from nobody). Also, I am a pessimist and a realist; I have been in situations where the fabric of society tore briefly.  Finally, I have had guns pointed at me twice, once during a post office robbery in Paris, once by a possibly psychotic man in green combat garb in the Connecticut woods. I am independent, distrustful, angry and probably in some ways the ideal candidate for a first gun purchase. Also, since I have spent the last five months in Florida,  for the first time in my life I could legally walk into a local store and buy a handgun.

            The answer is that I still don’t want one,  and the main reason is that I don’t want to think like a gun owner. It really is true that to the owner of a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I believe that gun owners inevitably see the world in terms of situations in which the gun is needed or in which it is not, and at an even more specific level, in terms of who or what can legally be shot. Hence those little paperback books sold at the gun counter which tell you that if you shoot an intruder on your land, you should drag the body into your house.

            The owner of a gun, especially one carried in the car or on his person, makes a decision (if he bothers to) that he really trusts himself in two contexts: never to get carried away by anger (or a homicidal impulse of any other kind),  and never to misinterpret the information being delivered in real time in an uncertain or confusing environment. As we all know from the nightly news, people trust themselves inappropriately on all headings, pulling weapons out to settle disputes over fender benders, and sometimes shooting people in what they thought was self defense but wasn’t (witness recurring stories of the man who shoots a relative who ill advisedly jumped out from a closet).

            I worked for four years on 911 ambulances in New York City, much of that time in the South Bronx and sometimes in Harlem. I never felt personally in danger, and some other more experienced ambulance workers would think me naïve for this. But I knew that even the very dangerous people understood that I was there to help them, and though I was no great shakes as an EMT, I did have a talent for talking to and calming down crazy people. I had already learned on New York streets before I put the uniform on that a lot of trouble can be avoided by being calm and unafraid, and by extending respect and courtesy.

            In modern memory, no ambulance worker has been critically harmed or killed while on the job in New York City (excluding vehicle accidents).  During my tenure one was shot in a 5 a.m. argument with the friend with whom he had been drinking all night in a bar. Although I was punched, kicked in the balls and almost bitten, I was never hurt; my attackers were all  especially weak people. I personally knew people who heard or ducked gunfire (this is not uncommon) and one friend of mine had his ambulance shot up (by an over-zealous cop). If ambulance workers carried guns, they would inevitably see their patients and the people around them differently, as threats and targets, and there would be more violence in ambulance work than there has been.

            As always, I decided to rely on my own judgment and wits to avoid or talk my way out of danger, rather than undergo the psychological changes inherent in owning a gun.

Concealed carry

            This all got me thinking about the morality of concealed carry . In general, rights that are near-absolute tend to trump the harm other people experience from their exercise. The Second Amendment is unique but most closely analogous to the First (more so than the Fourth, Fifth, etc.). However, the profound difference between the two is that the direct harm caused by speech is anger, embarrassment, or confusion, while the direct harm caused by guns is holes in your body potentially causing fatal blood loss or organ failure.

            It occurs to me that a near absolute right to bear arms could be guaranteed without resorting to concealed carry. States which routinely grant concealed carry permits are essentially enabling citizens to lie to others by omission. I would certainly like to know if anyone in my surroundings has a gun. A law permitting gun owners to display their weapons openly, but not to conceal them, gives me better information.  Concealing weapons seems to remove their deterrent value (though the NRA crowd probably argues that if weapons are concealed criminals should assume everyone has one). Recently, In Alabama, a law was narrowly defeated removing churches from the list of places where concealed weapons can’t be carried. This was undoubtedly a response to a recent rash of church shootings, but nonetheless, it is quite remarkable that gun rights largely even are considered to trump the right of property owners to decide what may be brought onto their land.

            The gun lobby is brutal, selfish and single-minded in its positions.  The recent successful battle to remove all gun control in the violent District of Columbia, where the majority of the affected population desperately does not want handguns to be ubiquitous, proves that the NRA and other Second Amendment organizations have a dangerously undemocratic world-view.  The analogy to the First Amendment breaks down here. Although in many cases a democratic majority may wish to ban speech, there is a less restrictive alternative of avoiding it: don’t read the offending book or see the movie; walk by the sidewalk orator quickly with hands over your ears. There is no known way of avoiding bullets punching through the thin walls of your urban apartment or for young children playing in the street to reliably opt out of cross-fires.

“Fundamentals”

            I wrote in a recent column that speeches lauding the sound “fundamentals” of a crashing economy are evidence of the moral and imaginative bankruptcy of the speaker. I cited President Hoover and a  Rockefeller during the Great Depression and Senator John McCain, among others, during the current crisis. I am very embarrassed that President Obama just added his name to this sorry list.

            What was he thinking? The Dow is much lower, the deficit and unemployment much higher than when he and the Democrats trashed McCain for his remarks during the campaign. Saying that fundamentals are sound when they are badly broken is either dishonest, or naïve, or both. The President would have been better advised to stay on message, that things are in a bit of a mess right now, but we are doing everything possible to fix them.

            If I were on board an airliner that had just lost two engines, I would want to be able to trust the pilot to glide the damn thing while trying to fire them up again. If he gets on the PA and says, “The plane is basically in good shape,” I will doubt his judgment and sanity.

Stem cells

            Embryos are not babies. At some point in the womb, the embryo divides enough that it arguably becomes a person-in-waiting; tons of trees and bits have been devoted to the debate as to when this occurs.   I believe that the embryo must have started to resemble a human being at the earliest possible moment we should set any such dividing line. Thus, the use of mere undivided embryos in stem cell research does not raise a fundamental issue (it may raise secondary ones involving sale of embryos, particular research applications, etc.). Though stem cells have apparently been over-hyped as a panacea, with the silent complicity of scientists who know better, the good likely to be done through stem cell research is the sole guidance we should follow on this issue. A woman’s womb contains approximately 10,000 eggs. She has no moral obligation, pace the Catholics, to fertilize or bring to full term even one of these. The contribution of a few of these cells to a line of research which could better everybody’s lot should be regarded as a good deed. By caring more about the “rights” of  the unborn than they do about the quality of life for everyone else, conservatives render serious the old liberal joke that , for right wing Republicans, life begins at conception and ends at birth.

Scammers

            We have had a few examples now of Ponzi schemers who share the same background, that they were formerly legitimate and apparently honest businessmen before they became fraudulent. This creates an interesting contrast to the smaller scale con men arrested every day who come from backgrounds of petty crime.

            Bernard Madoff ran a successful and honest brokerage and was a pioneer in the 1960’s of the electronic clearing of trades. Two other recently arrested hedge fund scammers made their initial millions with successful 1990’s stock-trading software called “Shark”. The Texas and Antigua based banker who offered fraudulent CD’s had started life as a businessman and entrepreneur backed by the millions of his successful father.

              I think what happens is that such men, emboldened by their honestly-obtained success at lower levels,  went after the holy grail of finance—the status of exclusive, sought-after, mysterious, trusted hedge fund manager. People like these are the modern equivalent of King Croesus; money entrusted to them increases exponentially,  though it is better not to ask too many questions about the ways and means.

            Madoff, pleading guilty, described the Ponzi scheme’s origination  as a short term solution to a pressing problem, and said he had hoped for a long time to put things back on an even keel.  Though he did not go into detail, what undoubtedly happened to him and many of the others of similar background was that a moment came in which he knew he did not have the almost magical talent required to be an honest, successful hedge fund manager. At that instant, he stood at a cross-roads; he either had to go back to his existing clients and admit that he lost their money, or embark on a life of fraud. He chose the latter.

            At a time when the majority of the Wall Street establishment appears to be fools, or rogues, or both, it is impossible to argue that such people are a vanishingly small percentage of the total, or can’t do much hurt.  And the argument that we don’t need the government to protect us against them is completely exploded. Just one Madoff, with his ten thousand wealthy clients, has done irreparable harm across a wide swatch of the American landscape. The Bush administration and its predecessors were asleep at the switch, lulled by the pleasant, inane idea (or perhaps only lulling us with it) that Bernard Madoff is the rising tide who lifts all boats.

Drones

            An article in the New York Times for March 8 reveals that one third of the Predator drones the US flies over Afghanistan and Iraq have crashed, with a significant minority of those crashes due to operator error. One of the problems is that the button to fire a missile is next to the button which cuts the engines.

            One of the formative books I have read, the ones which shape the way I see the world (books which wrote me) is Donald Norman’s “Psychology of Everyday Things” about design, and the gross mistakes we make—door handles which  trick us into pushing when we need to pull, and so forth. The book contains an unforgettable photograph of a console in a nuclear power plant. Two levers are next to each other; one dumps the core and the other does something completely trivial, like adjusting the air conditioning. The plant workers responded with their own design adjustments, by putting beer kegs of two different brands and shapes over the levers so they would not confuse them.

            More important on a life and death level is the moral and psychological impact of war as a “first person shooter “ video game. The article does not go into this issue in detail, but indicates that some Predator operators (who sit in a warehouse in Arizona and fly the craft by joystick) are extremely troubled watching the impact of their missiles (good for them!), while others have difficulty negotiating the disconnect between fighting a war in the afternoon and attending the kid’s soccer game at night. In general, the ability to fight a war while remaining completely physically safe and running no personal risk, used to be reserved for the highest echelon of command.

            My concern about Predators is that they make it too easy to kill without really facing the fact you are killing. Soon after September 11, there were reports of a Predator operator firing upon and murdering a man in Afghanistan he hoped was Bin Laden, and two companions. They turned out to be impoverished villagers scavenging scrap metal in a remote area. There have been numerous complaints in Afghanistan and Pakistan about drone strikes killing women and children.

            Of course, pilots who fly bombers at high levels have always killed large numbers of faceless people—and fared better psychologically than infantry who did so at close range. Even pilots in the stratosphere are taking some kind of personal risk, of encountering  SAM’s, anti-aircraft fire,  or mechanical failure of the aircraft. A war without any individual risk is a new kind of war. While the practical benefits are obvious—you can commute to work from your suburban ranch house, kill for eight hours with a lunch break, drink coffee while watching the screens, make it home in time for dinner—the moral status of this kind of war, not paid for by any personal danger or valor, are very murky.

Senator Grassley and responsibility

            Republican Senator Charles Grassley made a statement a few days ago, urging American businessfolk to follow a Japanese model of responsibility. I made the same recommendation recently in this column. Grassley’s initiative has resulted in a semi-absurd debate as to whether he is recommending that businesspeople responsible for the economic downturn commit hara-kiri.

            Grassley himself was a leading proponent in the 1990’s of primitive forms of Internet censorship which revealed on his part tremendous ignorance—or possibly deliberate disregard—of the First Amendment. I have been waiting many years for Senator Grassley to apologize for these attempts, which would be appropriate under a Japanese theory of responsibility.

The AIG bonuses

            There’s a lot of smoke being blown about the AIG bonuses. This reckless, insolvent huge insurance company, so extensively bailed out that it is now 80% owned by the government, paid $165 million in year end bonuses to many of the same employees who were responsible for its disastrous bets on derivatives. Various arguments have been made, that it was important to retain these people (many of whom have already left), or that the company was contractually obligated to pay them.

            The news coverage so far has stopped a step short of revealing the exact legalities underlying the bonuses. I worked for ten years in a company where the annual bonus meetings were one of my biggest headaches. In my experience, the fact of a bonus may be a matter of contract, but its amount should never be. If it’s calculated as a percentage of revenue or some other objective number, its not a bonus at all, but a commission. A bonus by definition is a discretionary payment, rewarding performance. As such, it should not be paid in a year where there have been no results.

            Every year at my company, executives went to bat to protect favored salespeople, and we would hear the same arguments: so and so is used to getting a certain amount; he has three children in private school and a large mortgage; he will leave if we don’t keep him at or near the level he is used to. The fact that he failed to perform, that he lost key accounts, that his sales dwindled, was disregarded or blamed on uncontrollable external forces.

            The biggest difference between these experiences and the AIG dilemma is that the executives sitting in the meeting, and in many cases protecting their key people, were the shareholders of the company. AIG, by contrast, is 80% owned by one shareholder, the US government, which complacently or cluelessly allowed these bonuses to be paid. This is one more embarrassment for the Obama administration, perhaps a relatively small one in the grand scheme of things, but stinging nonetheless.

            By the way, even if there was a contract obligating AIG to pay bonuses, there were ways out of it. By definition, an insolvent company does not have the cash to pay bonuses. Anyone offering to loan money to the company, or buy shares from it, is entitled to make conditions on use of the proceeds. In fact, this is the way things are always done. Bankers, venture capitalists, anyone placing money in an enterprise, obtain numerous concessions about the way the money may be used, and also have some kind of oversight to make sure these covenants are observed. Apparently, the government is the only investor that turns over gross amounts of money with no strings attached.

            The government could have conditioned the bail-out funds on signed waivers by the employees of any bonuses they were due. In a worst case, AIG might have had to face a lawsuit from some of these employees, which would have been preferable to the public relations debacle which has ensued. Pundits excusing the bonuses with reference to contractual obligations really are just blowing smoke by oversimplifying the issues.

            The retention issue is somewhat separate. There came a point even in my company’s bonus decisions where the financial and psychic overhead of retaining a non-performing, demanding and problematic  employee became too great, no matter how many years he had worked for us or how much a subjective cornerstone of the team we believed him to be. In those moments, you start making contingency plans as to how to manage the disruption involved in terminating or losing the person.  It is extremely rare that  an employee genuinely cannot be tolerated to leave (in reality, almost everyone is replaceable).

 If the Obama administration genuinely believed that these bonuses needed to be paid, it could have gone public with its reasoning. Instead, it allowed the bonuses to go out behind the scenes and then pulling a Claude Rains act (“I am shocked, shocked”).

A day later—The hypocritical House just voted a provision which would levy a 90% income tax on AIG bonuses. The supporters included many of the conservatives who are usually opposed to new taxes. Of all the ways available to solve the problem, confiscatory taxation is the worst on both a symbolic and practical level. In some cases, the money has already been spent, so we are destroying the recipients as a sort of “public burning”. Though in many cases, the people getting bonuses may have been personally culpable for AIG’s bad actions, crushing them with a confiscatory tax denies due process.

Earmarks

Earmarks are a standard feature of a landscape based on unacknowledged corruption. As I have been saying since the first issue of the Spectacle fifteen years ago,  campaign finance in the modern day U.S. is morally indistinguishable from bribery. You make a large campaign contribution to a politician who in return introduces a bill which benefits you. That may be a general purpose bill (for example, a tax break favoring all businesses of the same type as yours in all states and congressional districts) or a more targeted benefit (a research grant to your particular company without competitive bidding). In the latter case, it is an earmark. To debate earmarks without discussing the underlying gross, systemic problems of our campaign finance system wastes everybody’s time.

Earmarks are also a rather small percentage of all the commitments made in the current bail-out and spending bills. Though I would be personally comfortable with a strict no earmarks rule, I think the Republicans are being dishonest and obstructionist by trying to blow up the earmarks into an issue which will derail all attempts to solve our grave economic problems.

Finally, the Republicans are hypocrites because they have placed as many earmarks in legislation as anyone else. There are people having it both ways today, inserting an earmark, voting against the legislation with the serene knowledge it will pass, and then bragging to their constituents about the benefits they gave them. The ur-earmark, the one which captured public imagination beyond all others, was the $398 million dollar Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere”, from Ketchikan to Gravina, an island of fewer than sixty residents. It was inserted by Republic Senator Ted Stevens in a 2006 spending bill, and was supported by Republican governor Sarah Palin.  (Palin did back away from it when the public debate got too hot, and she was told she could get the same money and use it for another purpose.)

Republican behavior reminds me of an adage I learned practicing law in the bruising, sucker-punch environment of the New York City courts: “Argue the law. Argue the facts. If you have neither on your side, pound on the table and shout.”

Useless gadgets

            As opposed to lousy design decisions like placing identical buttons or levers side by side that do radically different things, humans sometimes make technology which perfectly executes a task needed by nobody. The world’s greatest example of this was a device touted in a single full page ad in the New York Times in the 1980’s. Called “The Rabbit”, it promised to split the signal from your VCR so the movie you were watching could be viewed simultaneously on two or three televisions. It was the perfect solution for families where the teenagers want to watch the same movie their parents are viewing, without having to be in the same room.

            We call these “solutions without problems”. They are produced by geeks who get so excited by technology that they sometimes forget to analyze user needs.

            I am struggling these days with an example only slightly less grandiose than the Rabbit. The borrowed Acura I am driving is keyless, meaning you use a button on the dashboard to turn it on.  Before the car will turn on, it ensures that you have a device with you called a “fob”.  The car is able to detect that the fob is nearby, and if it is not, it refuses to start. The problem is,  you can exit the running car with the fob in your pocket. Instead of refusing to drive away, or screaming at you with klaxons and flashing lights, the car displays an inconsequential little message which is easily missed. As a result, the following scenario was possible.

            My wife had an appointment scheduled to which I did not need to accompany her. She dropped me off at a coffee shop with free Wifi where I intended to work on this column, then drove the car about a mile and a half up the highway. Only when she turned the car off did she realize I had taken the fob. I walked the highway’s shoulder to get back to her.

            This got me thinking about any benefit from the fob technology which could possibly outweigh the inconvenience. There is none. I gain nothing from not having to insert a key in the dashboard. The fob is an example of glitzy technology adding a new problem to modern life while granting no benefit. 

Killing civilians in Gaza

            Israeli analysts and journalists have started reporting that the threshold for killing civilians in Gaza was very low. Standing orders and the army’s philosophy in certain areas held that any civilian who had not evacuated must be a terrorist. The Times for March 21 reports instances of a sniper shooting an elderly woman and another one killing a mother and her two children who walked in the wrong direction. The article also reports rampant vandalism and wanton destruction of Palestinian property during home occupations, and rabbis preaching to troops that they were fighting a holy war to give Israelis exclusive possession of a holy land.

            I have said a number of times here and in other Spectacle articles that I would not have voted to create Israel, had I been a member of some secret council making that decision circa 1947. A major reason why I believe I would have opposed the foundation of a new country is that occupation, holding sovereignty over another people who don’t want to be ruled by you, is a morally degrading job no matter what the original intentions were. It may start with noble declarations about equality, justice, and brotherhood, but it always ends in racism and cold-blooded murder. For me, one of the tragedies of Israel has been to see the Jews, whom I was taught as a child to believe had a special moral dignity and responsibility on Earth, prove they can be as brutal and hypocritical as anyone else.

Star naming

            Every time I hear a radio commercial that offers to name a star for your loved one for $54, I become rageful. I just named two stars myself (Peachy and Fishy Face) and it didn’t cost me anything. I also named an invisible unicorn (Horny Boo) for the same money.  If I want an official looking certificate, I’ll make one myself on my PC for about 1 cent worth of paper. So what is that $54 for?

Overture to Iran

            President Obama taped a video in which he offered an olive branch to Iran based on respect and cooperation. Ayatollah Khamenei has now responded with the usual rhetoric rejecting the overture while crowds chanted “Death to America”.

            Our President, who is smart, thoughtful, decisive and compassionate, tends to look naïve too often. I struggle to find another explanation for this effort, which he should have known would be rejected. Though I think it was worth attempting a new dialog with Iran’s leadership, perhaps it would have been better tried via back channels? The only rationale I can think of for courting a public rejection is that sometimes it can put you on the moral high-ground. If that was the intention,. I think tougher rhetoric would have been called for. Along the lines of, “We can play this any way you want, hostile and dangerous or cautiously interested in exploring a new relationship of trust. Let us know.” However, from the moment that the outreach was public at all, Khamenei probably had no political choice other than to reject it.  I suspect the real work gets done behind the scenes.  There was some indication that Iran secretly cooperated with us against Al Qaeda after 9/11 (Iran is Shi’ite and Al Qaeda are Sunnis who have killed a lot of Shi’ites along the way).

            I would like to write for this column that “Obama nailed it, he was right on target.” About something.

Decline of the U.S.

            I am frightened that the U.S. is in decline. I can’t say that the country is ungovernable; that would imply that it is too large, the people too disparate, communications too poor, the geography too forbidding. None of that is true. I think instead what has happened is that the people have lost the willingness—based on intelligence and consent—to be governed, at the same time that their leaders have lost the ability to govern.

            In order to make us more malleable, we have been propagandized for years, via television, the speeches of politicians and, more dangerously, the things they legislate, to believe we are exceptional, deserve everything, and must give nothing. At the same time, we have been acclimatized to a sort of insincere, content-less political strife as entertainment, so that we watch politics as we would a wrestling match, never as the attempt of opposing interests to find a middle ground. Everything is rewards and point-scoring. The two most meaningful new stories are that John won the lottery and that Jane will not be confirmed as head of a government department because she failed to pay her nanny’s social security. In an era of instant electronic communication seeking to avoid any dead air 24x7, any gaffe, any small revelation is instantly communicated and endlessly chewed over by talking heads. In the 1860’s, it probably took months or years of mistakes to lose an election; today, it can be instantaneously lost, as an embarrassing photograph (Dukakis in the helmet) disseminates instantly around the world.

            In an arena in which what you did or said last minute may mean instant career suicide, nobody is able to lead, because this would mean taking risks. Everyone therefore follows, waiting for the press to set the tone, while the press looks to the politicians, who fear the public while manipulating them, and the whole thing continues around and around the vicious circle. What you have when a mass of people mills around trying to follow one another is a dark comedy, but also a huge vacuum of leadership, like Rome in the 400’s. 

            We may have that today. Even Obama seems to be falling into that trap, looking to the Congress and the people for the leadership he needs to provide to us. What happens to nations which mill around endlessly, unable to make a decision, is that someone else stronger comes in and takes over. What follows tends to be brutal and in any event, unrecognizable as a continuation of the spirit, constitution and culture which came before. Byzantium was not Rome.