Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sopko Speaks, Again: Root Out Corruption in Afghanistan and the Entire State Collapses

Today's news features several stories on the DEA's $86 million flightless plane meant for counter-narcotics surveillance in the U.S.-created klepto-narco-state of Afghanistan. According to Reuters' Julia Harte writing in "U.S. anti-drug plane for Afghanistan still flightless after $86 million":
The U.S. government spent $86 million over seven years developing a counter-narcotics surveillance aircraft for Afghanistan, but the plane has never carried out a mission and is sitting idle in Delaware, a watchdog said on Wednesday. 
After years of war in Afghanistan, a global hub of opium and hashish production, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had until now largely avoided criticism for questionable spending of the sort leveled widely against the U.S. military.

But Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a report that an aircraft purchased by the DEA and modified with tens of millions of Defense Department dollars missed every delivery deadline and remained inoperable.
This brings to mind John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), who was at the University of Pittsburgh yesterday giving a speech, "An Existential Threat: U.S. Oversight of and Responses to Corruption in Afghanistan,” at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

For years Sopko has been giving these kind of speeches on the U.S. project in Afghanistan. The government there is completely corrupt, and nothing ever changes. A rational person would conclude that corruption is therefore by design. And this is basically what SIGAR Sopko says:
Corruption was not always at the top of the U.S. agenda in Afghanistan. In fact, some would argue that it still is not given the importance it deserves. SIGAR has created an office on Lessons Learned from Afghanistan and is preparing a report on how the U.S. government understood corruption there and sought to combat it. It will show that the U.S. government initially had little understanding that corruption could threaten its entire security and state-building mission. Indeed, during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and for some years to follow, the United States partnered with abusive warlords and their militias to pursue al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and supported the installation of these warlords and their militias at high levels of the Afghan government. The United States also failed to recognize that vast sums of money injected into the Afghan economy, with limited oversight and pressures to spend, created conditions for corruption. 
Not until 2009-eight years into the reconstruction effort-did the U.S. government begin to understand the connections among a vast, interdependent web of corrupt Afghan officials, criminals, drug traffickers, and insurgents. At that time, a consensus emerged that corruption threatened our core goals: Corruption undermined the legitimacy and viability of the Afghan state, fueled grievances that strengthened the growing insurgency, and sapped resources from the reconstruction effort. 
The problem, then and now, was that combating corruption required the cooperation and political will of Afghan elites whose power relied on the very structures that anticorruption efforts sought to dismantle. While President Ghani has declared a "national jihad" on corruption, as Afghan National Security Advisor Rangin Dadfar Spanta told high-level U.S. officials in 2010, "corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance."[1] And since corruption is embedded in the state, it is difficult to root out without destroying the state in the process.
Nothing improves in Afghanistan because the U.S.-backed government is a kleptocracy. In the West we call it neoliberalism,

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Trump in Trouble

Given the unrelentingly negative media coverage -- such as this morning's "Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s Campaign Manager, Is Charged With Battery" by Maggie Haberman and Michael Grynbaum; or, "Donald Trump, Revoking a Vow, Says He Won’t Support Another G.O.P. Nominee" -- I don't think Trump can survive as a viable general election candidate too much longer.

Basically The New York Times has given over its editorial page to an unending string of Trump attacks. Yesterday it was a David Brooks dissection of Trumpist misogyny, "The Sexual Politics of 2016," paired with a broadside by Roger Cohen, "Trump's New World Disorder," accusing Trump of calling for a nuclear arms race in East Asia.

The goal is to drive up Trump's negatives so high only the most fervent of supporters will back him. Trump will be left only with uneducated, working-class white men. He might win the GOP nomination, but he will not be electable in the general.

This appears to be the establishment strategy du jour. MoveOn is polling its members to see if they want to engage in an extended anti-Trump mobilization.

But good reporting has also been done on the Trump phenomenon. Nicholas Confessore's "How the G.O.P. Elite Lost Its Voters to Donald Trump," which appeared Monday, is a must-read. The answer to the question of lost voters is lost jobs. Trump was able to get traction by attacking trade and immigration.

Corporate-managed trade policy, which has de-industrialized large swaths of the United States, is emerging as the premiere issue of the 2016 presidential race. The New York Times, always a stalwart on free trade, has attempted to obfuscate the issue with a series of think pieces -- Neil Irwin's "The Trade Deficit Isn’t a Scorecard, and Cutting It Won’t Make America Great Again" and Eduardo Porter's "Nafta May Have Saved Many Autoworkers’ Jobs" -- which acknowledge that jobs might have been lost because of U.S. trade policy but overall the country is stronger.

That might sound good in a corner office in Manhattan, but it makes no sense to most voters. People want jobs, affordable housing and health care, quality public education, efficient transit and well-maintained roads and decent food. Oh, and some green space. That's about it. They don't care about the dollar's hegemony and the rest of the Great Game bullshit.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

With Palmyra U.S. has Lost the Information War in Syria

The routing of Islamic State jihadists from Palmyra by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is another game-changer in a series of recent game-changers in the global proxy war taking place in Syria. First, there was the military victory by the combined forces of Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah in Aleppo Province; next, a ceasefire, excluding Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State; then, Russia's announcement of a "mission accomplished" withdrawal of forces, followed, this past weekend, by the military victory in and recapture of Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site filled with ancient ruins where the Roman and Persian worlds intersected.

On the losing end is not only ISIS, but the United States, Turkey and their clients in the Gulf Cooperation Council as well. For a superb explanation of these events turn to yesterday's post at Moon of Alabama, "Syria - How The Palmyra Victory Changes the Narrative."

U.S. involvement in Syria is defined by contradiction papered over by crass propaganda. The overarching theme of the propaganda is that Syria is ruled by a bloodthirsty dictator who feeds on the broken bodies of a peaceful citizenry. The U.S. supports the peaceful citizens, the "moderates,' in a war against Islamic jihadists and regime goons.

When Russia intervened militarily last fall, the United States wailed constantly -- a cry amplified in the Western press -- that Russia was attacking the "good guys," the U.S.-backed "moderates," and not the ISIS jihadists. The press asserted that Russia and Syria were actually working with Islamic State to keep Assad in power.

Russia explained that there were no "moderate" jihadists in the war theater; and if indeed there were, why didn't the U.S. provide coordinates of their location so that Russian bombers might spare them?

With the victory in Palmyra, Russia, as Moon of Alabama persuasively outlines, is vindicated. The campaign against U.S.-backed Islamic militias working in concert with Nusra led to a ceasefire which freed up troops to retake Palmyra from ISIS. Obama's false narrative is debunked. Even the Los Angeles Times is taking note in "Syrian army's blow to Islamic State presents a paradox for Obama" by Patrick McDonnell, and "In Syria, militias armed by the Pentagon fight those armed by the CIA" by Nabih Bulos, W.J. Hennigan and Brian Bennett.

Where the discredited U.S. position on Syria goes from here is anybody's guess. If a major daily newspaper is reporting that the Pentagon and CIA are actively engaged on opposite sides of a proxy war in Northern Syria -- the Pentagon backing the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units; the CIA, from its operations center inside Turkey, Fursan al Haq, or Knights of Righteousness -- one wonders if this might be the future: U.S. wars overseas where one branch of government battles another.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Washington State Caucus Post-Mortem

Bernie delivered a blowout yesterday, beating Hillary by 45 percentage points in Washington State, which is an even larger margin than predicted. I participated in my precinct caucus. So I got to witness the 2016 presidential contest up close.

And I have to say, it kind of left me giddy. Bernie has the youth. No doubt about it. The overwhelming majority of people who took part in my precinct caucus were young; I am talking under 30 young. One young man next to me looked like he was maybe 14. I chatted with him while he was blazing away on his smartphone, receiving updates from other area precincts and sending reports from our own, while occasionally checking his fancy Android or Apple wristwatch. I could make out some sort of scrolling readout that he glanced at briefly on his watch before returning to thumbing his smartphone.

All the other young people also had their smartphones out. It was odd to be among 150 people in our corner of a ballroom dance hall with almost everyone transfixed by a smartphone. Other precincts were caucusing in different parts of the room, while still more precincts had to move outside and across the street to a large artificial turf sports field when the fire department arrived and declared the ballroom at maximum capacity.

My biggest takeaway of the day is this (and it is more social than political): There is a new type of consciousness. It is cybernetic. Standing there in the packed hall I could not just see it, as I do every workday when I observe the young woman for whom I work, I could feel it. It is different, feels different. It is split, divided as it is between the online world and whatever conversation is taking place in the meat sphere directly in front of the person, but it is not necessarily manic or schizy. It feels meditative or contemplative. But people are not fully present. They are somewhere else at the same time they are standing in front of you.

My recollection from high school literature class is that Huxley's Brave New World is a softer dystopia, founded on consumerism and sexual permissiveness, than Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four dark police state. The caucus yesterday brought home to me that Huxley is closer to the mark than Orwell, in the United States at least.

But a word on Hillary's supporters before I deliver my verdict on the presidential race as seen through the lens of yesterday's caucus. Hillary had her supporters. They were there, not in great number, but they were visible with their blue 'H' (a logo which reminds me of the traffic sign symbol for a hospital) Hillary stickers. They were out of place in my neighborhood. They had a look of suburban conformity (sexbots from Stepford); that, or the well-coiffed middle-aged respectability of a gay small-business owner. Either way, both struck me as anachronistic in a post-Lehman-meltdown world.

The vote in our precinct ended up being 116 for Bernie, 30 for Hillary. Four delegates -- three Bernie, one Hillary -- were sent to a district level meeting in a couple weeks. From there the process moves to the county, followed by the state convention; before the final destination, the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this July. All along the way party apparatchiks will work to secure the delegate slots, even if it means posing as Bernie supporters. I think a lot of this goes on. The process is run by party insiders. It is a bigger issue for Trump with the GOP than for Sanders though.

The big takeaway from yesterday besides the epiphany about Homo sapiens cyberneticus is that Hillary has real trouble ahead. These young people are not going to vote for her in large numbers in the general election. Best case scenario I would say is 50%, and that number could go as low as 35%. The rest will vote third party or not vote come November. Very few, if any, of the young people I caucused with yesterday will cross party lines and vote for Trump.

This is a problem because the Clinton campaign still insists that it can return the Obama coalition to the polls for a third presidential win in a row. After yesterday I know that this is not true.

The Democrats under Hillary have lost the youth, an essential bloc -- first-time voters -- in the Obama coalition. Hillary is going to have to tack briskly to the center-right to compensate for the loss of the youth bloc. She is going to woo the Republican soccer mom. Blacks will be ignored.

The weakness with this strategy, a campaign pitched to moderate Republicans in swing states, is that it will drive down turnout even more among youth, blacks and Latinos. There will be no down-ticket bonanza party pros are predicting in a general election against Trump.

Hillary could very well triumph in a Republican primary against Trump, and that is what the general election is shaping up to be. But with so many coalitions fracturing and blocs realigning, it is very hard to predict what will happen this fall.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: After Bathing at Baxter's (1967)

After Bathing at Baxter's, released at the end of the revolutionary psychedelic year of 1967, is Jefferson Airplane code for tripping on acid. The album, I think, provides the best example of the what the Hippies, birthed as they were in the San Francisco Bay Area, were all about.

For an accurate, succinct appraisal let's turn to "The 40 Essential Albums of 1967" by Robert Christgau and David Fricke:
Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxter's (RCA)
Singer Marty Balin was so alienated by the acid-fueled indulgence of the sessions for the Airplane's third album -- four months in Los Angeles, where the band stayed in a mansion that once housed the Beatles -- that he co-wrote only one song, "Young Girl Sunday Blues." Yet Baxter's was the Airplane at their most defiantly psychedelic, exploring outer limits of despair and song form in the dark urgency of "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil," Grace Slick's "Rejoyce" -- a protest-cabaret adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses -- and the nine-minute instrumental improvisation, "Spare Chaynge." The raw challenge of Baxter's was also a requiem for the Day-Glo life promised a few months earlier by the Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow. In the closing medley, "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon," Paul Kantner looked back in longing at the Human Be-In of January '67, a new dawn that already seemed a lifetime ago.
Nineteen sixty-seven is the year the United States starts its slide into freak out. The year opens with the January release of the eponymous debut by The Doors, which implores people to "Break on Through (To the Other Side)" in its opening track, followed in February by Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, before Sgt. Pepper's arrives in June. During 1967 the Beatles release not one but two psychedelic albums, Sgt. Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour; as do The Doors, The Doors and Strange Days. The Jimi Hendrix Experience adds to the cerebral onslaught with two of its own, Are You Experienced?, released in August. and Axis: Bold as Love, in December. Not to be left out, The Who and the Rolling Stones get into the mix with psychedelic releases of their own: Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Rolling Stones' psychedelic one-off, and The Who's brilliant The Who Sell Out.

By the end of 1967 the U.S. body politic is roiling and primed for the "crack in time" to come in 1968. Nineteen sixty-seven began with the arrival of the counterculture as a political force. The event was the Human Be-In, the founding moment for the Hippie. Peace, love, self-exploration and rock 'n' roll were its high points. But by the time the year had run its course -- huge race riots in Newark and Detroit and the first massive march on the Pentagon to call for a halt to the Vietnam War -- the Hippies were mindful that "breaking through to the other side" was going to be a messy business.

A year or two back I did a week-long immersion in After Bathing at Baxter's, the idea being that it would be the subject of a Hippies vs. Punks post.

One winter afternoon I descended to the large file room on the first floor of the building where I worked. There, after eating an apple and CLIF Builders Protein Bar, I nestled myself in the stacks and flat on my back on the carpeted floor drifted off to a state of quasi-consciousness while listening to After Bathing at Baxter's on my iPod. The lights to the file room were set to a motion detector. So after 15 minutes they blinked off and it was as if I were in a John Lilly sensory-deprivation tank.

It must have been Paul Kantner's "Martha" that I was listening to. I heard the song's concluding lines -- "There she'll be: in green sun, on blue earth under warm running shower" -- and it all came back to me: My childhood growing up in the Bay Area in the Sixties and Seventies. The weekend family outings and nature getaways. The green space and wetlands. Cattails. An intimate up-close tactile memory of cattails. Who interacts with cattails anymore? I certainly don't. But there I was on my back in the dark file room with my face in a cattail smeared with duck down set against a background of cool blue sky.

I figured what had happened is that I had accessed a buried memory of After Bathing at Baxter's. I don't think my parents owned I copy. I think my parents' best friends, the Bruscas, did. Our family would often go over to the Brusca family manse, a restored Victorian, on Friday nights and while the kids played Monopoly and watched horror movies on television the adults would smoke dope and listen to the stereo in the living with a big fireplace. This is where I am certain I must have been exposed to After Bathing at Baxter's because I remember being mesmerized by Ron Cobb's cover art. The Bruscas were the family we went with on camping trips -- to the beach, to various area parks and trails.

When I think about the Hippies I think about the vast San Francisco Estuary. I don't think you have the Hippies without the sense of the ecology of this gigantic wetlands; that, and a platform of shared prosperity and social democracy that Pat Brown liberalism realized in Northern California.

The Hippies were weekenders retreating from the workaday world. They thought it would be a good idea to make the weekend retreat an everyday reality. I agree wholeheartedly. It is. If you want to hear what that idea feels like listen to After Bathing at Baxter's. particularly the last track, Kantner's elegy for the Human Be-In, "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon":


Apologies. I promised a hypothesis explaining our current hopelessness. Maybe next week. We'll stay on 1967. Get ready for The Monkees!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Washington State Democratic Presidential Caucuses

The Democratic presidential precinct-level caucuses take place in Washington State this Saturday. Bernie Sanders is expected to win by 30 percent.

The weekly newspapers appear each Wednesday. We still have two in Seattle, the Seattle Weekly and its longtime rival The Stranger. Starting in the 1990s, I used to read both, probably up until 2004, when I severed my relationship to the local Green Party. The Stranger, founded the same month that Nirvana's Nevermind was released, is 15 years the junior of the Seattle Weekly. The Stranger has always been the more self-referential, satirical, brittle, pompous and interesting of the two.

Walking back from a lunchtime coffee, I spied the cover (see above) of the new issue of The Stranger. At first I thought it was a gag, a ploy to make readers pick up the paper. But it is real. The paper is calling on voters to caucus for Hillary this week. The staff explains their reasons why in "Support the Real Progressive: The Stranger Election Control Board's Endorsement for the 2016 Democratic Caucuses."

It reads like talking points distributed by the Hillary campaign. We shouldn't caucus for Bernie because:

1) Trump is really, really scary and we should be very, very afraid. (Get ready for a steady diet of this one. It is basically all we're going to get from June until November. In fact, It has already started.)

2) Bernie has been rejected by black voters. (This should be familiar to all old Naderite Greens whose organization was dismissed as insufficiently progressive because it failed to attract significant numbers of African Americans.) How much attention do you think Hillary is going to shower on Alabama and Georgia blacks this summer? Do you think she is going to be spending a lot of time campaigning with the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner?

3) Sanders is a disingenuous peddler of pie-in-the-sky, a craven pol who suckles at the teat of the NRA. (See any of the Democratic presidential debates for Hillary's version of this line of attack.)

4) Hillary is actually a practical progressive -- imperfect, albeit -- who gets things done. Hillarycare is touted as a precursor to Obamacare (as if we all agree that Obamacare has been a complete success), and Clinton is praised for her championing of women's rights when she was first lady. Not a word about any legislative success she achieved while representing New York in the U.S. Senate, nor any accomplishment as Obama's Secretary of State. What are Hillary's accomplishments? That is going to be my question to any Clintonista  who tries to lobby me at the Saturday caucus.

While it is too much to say that The Stranger's endorsement of Hillary would be like The Phoenix endorsing Hubert Humphrey in 1968, it does seem to me another sign of the world gone wrong. At least the Seattle Weekly has fulsomely endorsed Bernie.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Sanders Must Win Arizona

Before turning to two interesting posts -- Lambert Strether's "The Democrat Establishment Plan for a Three-Front Anti-Trump, Republican-Splitting, Anti-Left Campaign" and this morning's FiveThirtyEight chat "The Most Important States On Trump’s Path To 1,237 Delegates" -- let's get the latest on the terror attack in Brussels from the early morning Foreign Policy "Situation Report" by Paul McLeary and Adam Rawnsley:
BREAKING: At least 13 people were killed and dozens more wounded at the Brussels international airport on Tuesday after two explosions rocked the departure area,collapsing part of the ceiling and spreading chaos. The attack -- which Belgian authorities said was a suicide strike -- came at the same time as another bomb went off at the city’s Maelbeek subway station. Belgian officials are reporting 15 dead and 55 injured in the subway blast. All flights and train service in and out of the country have been cancelled.
The attacks come just days after the main suspect in the November Paris attacks that killed 130 was arrested in Brussels, FP’s Lara Jakes and Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer write. The arrest on Friday of Salah Abdeslam heightened fears of more terror attacks in the country, as European officials warned that many people who were involved in the Paris attacks people were still at large. No group has claimed responsibility for the Brussels strikes, but the Paris attackers were affiliated with the Islamic State.
Belgian federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw called all three explosions “terrorist attacks,” and Prime Minister Charles Michel said, "we were fearing terrorist attacks and that has now happened." Witnesses to the attack at the airport described a bloody scene where water pipes burst, mixing with the blood of the wounded and dead as dazed survivors staggered from the building. Security at airports and train stations around Europe has been heightened in the wake of the attack.
Brussels is a batting-practice fastball right to Trump's wheelhouse. He is the only candidate who viscerally addresses the fear and loathing the masses feel towards the establishment in regards to the perpetual war on terror. Joe the Plumber and Brittany the Burger Flipper are more hip to how the game of global jihad works than the power elite and the mainstream press care to acknowledge. The masses might not be able to describe how Pakistan runs the Taliban with Saudi input or how Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra are main players in Syria thanks to the generous support of the Gulf shiekhdoms, but they know the United States and our European cousins are getting played. Trump, all bluster and braggadocio, says it has to stop, that we need to bar all Muslims from entering the country until we can address the problem, and people listen. People listen because they are tired of the never-ending, ever-expanding war on terror.

So expect Trump to benefit in the near term and every time there is a bombing or gun battle in a Western city.

The FiveThirtyEight chat susses out the real estate mogul's chances of locking up the GOP nomination after the primary season ends June 7. The long and short of it depends on how he does in California. A native of the Golden State myself, I think Trump will do quite well.

An interesting exchange in the FiveThirtyEight chat has to do with Trump's potency among blacks in traditionally Democratic enclaves:
dave: Trump seems to be benefiting a great deal from the fact that there are many places where neither Cruz nor Kasich has much natural appeal. For example, Trump has won a lot of delegates in African-American-majority congressional districts in places like St. Louis and Chicago where there aren’t many evangelicals, wealthy whites — or for that matter, Republicans period. So I see Trump winning a lot of delegates in minority-majority districts in places like California and New York, and that’s a big problem for #NeverTrump right now.
This was brought home to me by a clip on Democracy Now! of a black guy beating the shit out of a Hippie protester at a Trump rally in Tucson.

Hillary's overwhelming support among African Americans is due to her being a known, familiar figure. Well, black people feel like they know Trump too. As long the billionaire can keep the spotlight off the crackers who constitute the base of his support and keep it focused on a cartoon version of a bloodthirsty Muslim, he will win his fair share of African American votes.

What blacks and Bernie supporters need to come to grips with is that we will be consigned to the scrap heap by the end of spring. Lambert Strether lays it all out clearly. There will be no role for Bernie in the Hillary general election campaign and his supporters will not be catered to. The reasoning is well known to progressives and peaceniks. You got no place to go. Team Clinton will happily wave goodbye to all the Hippies and Punks who leave the Dem rez to vote for Jill Stein. The big-game hunt for Hillary is the mythical soccer mom ensconced in her exurb McMansion.

As Strether convincingly argues, Trump v. Clinton is going to be a horrendously negative, epically brutal, low turnout campaign. Hillary will pitch her message to moderate Republicans. By September Bernie Sanders will be a memory as distant as a Nader Super Rally in Y2K.

Bernie is not even mentioning Hillary, choosing instead to inveigh against Trump. He had an opportunity to score points when he was in Seattle over the weekend by mentioning that David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager who is part of Hillary's brain trust, is an Uber executive who spoke out against the company's drivers unionizing with the Teamsters. Top Dems now openly advocate union-busting knowing there will not be a peep from AFL-CIO headquarters. It is truly pathetic.

Bernie shit the bed last Tuesday by losing all five contests -- Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. He is running significantly behind in Arizona. The way I see it he has to win everything from here to California to prove he is something more than a progressive boutique candidate. Sanders has to beat Hillary in Arizona to take the narrative back.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Russian Military Power, Syrian Federalization and Merkel's Refugee Deal with Turkey

Recently I've been wrong about two of the biggest issues facing the West: war in Syria and the European refugee crisis that it has helped to create. I didn't think that the February 27 U.S.-Russia negotiated ceasefire in Syria (minus territory controlled by Nusra and Islamic State) would work. It has for the most part. There have been violations from the outset, but the agreement has held; so much so that last week Putin announced the withdrawal of the bulk of Russian forces from the war-torn country. (The S-400 missile defense system will stay of course.) Then in Brussels on Friday Turkey and the Europe Union actually settled on a Rube Goldbergesque plan to stem the flow of refugees to Europe.

What is going on? It looks as if the warpig Western leaders are -- finally -- turning the battleship around. We should be incredulous since the neoliberal coin of the realm is stamped with the motto "In war we trust." But something is definitely happening here.

Whenever the reporting largely goes blank in The New York Times you know that it is not for lack of action on the ground but because a political decision has been made to put out the lights. It happened in Ukraine after the junta got its clock cleaned in Debaltseve. The paper, which had three reporters -- Andrew Kramer, David Herszenhorn and Neil MacFarquhar -- regularly filing dispatches, basically stopped reporting on the Donbass conflict. Debaltseve impressed upon the Obama administration the ease with which Russia could take Kiev. So I suspect the word went out to ratchet down coverage of the New Cold War in Ukraine, and editors of "the newspaper of record" complied. The free press at work.

I think what happened in Debaltseve at the beginning of last year in Ukraine is something similar to what the Russians accomplished in Syria with the recent victories in Aleppo Province. A game changer. The West and the Gulf sheikhs were forced to the table; we got the ceasefire and now the gradual press blackout.

There has been little coverage of the ongoing peace talks in Geneva. One thing seems clear though, federalization of Syria is the country's future. It is hard to believe that Turkey will accept any form of Kurdish statehood. I think this is where the refugee deal with Europe comes in. Beginning this summer, provided certain unnamed conditions are met, Turkish citizens will be able to enjoy passport-free travel to Europe. If Turkey and the EU manage to accomplish this, then Turkey's membership in the European Union is closer to becoming a reality than ever before; such a historic achievement for Erdogan would likely grease Turkish support for a federalized Syria.

As for Merkel's Rube Goldberg scheme to block refugees in Greece for rapid return to Turkey at the same time admitting to Europe a refugee warehoused in Anatolia, I think it is bound to fail. Just supplying the administrative manpower needed to process migrants in Greece for return to Turkey is an enormous logistical feat. What about corruption? What prevents smugglers from pursuing an Italian route? The agreement only covers Greece. How long can the heinous canard of listing Afghans as "economic migrants" be maintained? At least there is a partial ceasefire in Syria; in Afghanistan there is nothing of the sort. What about international humanitarian law? Merkel's EU plan is in violation. Refugees will not be allowed to seek asylum. They will be registered in Greece and then whisked back to Turkey.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

George Martin, the Beatles producer, commonly referred to as the "Fifth Beatle" (though not by John Lennon), died last Tuesday at his home in England. He was 90. I was under the impression that he had already died,

Martin's obituary in The New York Times summarizes his career as follows:
Mr. Martin helped redefine a record producer’s role in pop music. He was one of a handful of pop producers — Phil Spector and Quincy Jones among them — to become almost as famous as the musicians they recorded. And when he left Parlophone, a subsidiary of EMI Records, to start his own production company in 1965, his reputation as the producer of the Beatles helped raise the stature of record production as an independent career, rather than as simply a record label function.
In the dozen years before he met the Beatles, Mr. Martin produced symphonic, chamber and choral recordings, jazz albums and a string of popular comedy records by Peter Ustinov, Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. In the 1960s, as the recordings he made with the Beatles rode the top of the charts, he also produced hits by other British Invasion acts, among them Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas. He later worked with a diverse roster of pop and jazz performers, including Ella Fitzgerald, the Bee Gees, Jeff Beck, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Paul Winter, Cheap Trick, America and Ultravox.
His collaboration with the Beatles inevitably overshadowed his other accomplishments. From 1962 to 1970, Mr. Martin produced 13 albums and 22 singles for the group, a compact body of work that adds up to less than 10 hours of music but that revolutionized the popular music world. After the Beatles broke up, he virtually doubled that output, overseeing archival releases drawn from the group’s concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, BBC radio performances and unreleased studio recordings that reveal a great deal about the Beatles’ working process.
George Martin's greatest achievement, and the greatest achievement of the Beatles, is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), the ur-document of the 1960s, what Robert Christgau has referred to as the "massification of bohemia," numero uno on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."

The Hippies might have existed without Sgt. Pepper's, named as they were in the press on the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park in January 1967 (Sgt. Pepper's was released in June), but thanks to Sgt. Pepper's the Hippies went global. The album was number one throughout the summer of 1967. American consciousness was so saturated by Sgt. Pepper's in the 1960s, blue-collar workingmen drank their lunchtime coffee in dark winter diners accompanied by Lennon and McCartney's "A Day in the Life" on the radio. I know because I was there, a little kid eating lunch with his dad.

One would be hard-pressed to find another example in the history of popular consciousness when the avant-garde was being mainlined so directly to the masses. George Martin used techniques found in the work of John Cage and Krzysztof Penderecki to create the trippy effects in "A Day in the Life." According to Allan Kozinn, "George Martin and the Beatles: A Producer’s Impact, in Five Songs":
The song that closes “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and is, for many listeners, the most astonishing track on an astonishing album, actually began as a pair of unrelated songs: The melancholy outer verses were Lennon’s, the brighter central section was Mr. McCartney’s. What transformed these fragments into a cohesive whole is a touch of avant-garde string scoring by Mr. Martin. By the time the Beatles set to work on the track, on Jan. 19, 1967, they and Mr. Martin had mapped out its structure. Two of Lennon’s verses would open the song, followed by Mr. McCartney’s verse, which would lead back to final thoughts from Lennon. Between the two composers’ sections, though, the band would vamp for 24 bars, and there would be another long vamp after the closing verse. How these would be filled — well, Mr. Martin would figure that out later. 
For several weeks, the group tweaked the main parts of the song, polishing the vocals, drums and bass, adding extra percussion parts, and trying to imagine what should occupy those long vamped sections. Mr. McCartney thought an orchestral section would be good, but left the question of what that should entail to his producer. Mr. Martin’s solution was to take a page out of the playbooks of classical composers like John Cage and Krzysztof Penderecki, who at the time were creating works in which chance played a role. Mr. Martin hired 40 symphonic musicians for a session on Feb. 10, and when they turned up, they found on their stands a 24-bar score that had the lowest notes on their instruments in the first bar, and an E major chord in the last. Between them, the musicians were instructed to slide slowly from their lowest to highest notes, taking care not to move at the same pace as the musicians around them.

The sound was magnificently chaotic, and it became more so once Mr. Martin combined the four takes he recorded (some with Mr. McCartney on the podium, some conducted by Mr. Martin himself). It was a brilliant solution: as Lennon’s voice faded into the echoic distance, the orchestra began its buildup, ending sharply on the chord that begins Mr. McCartney’s section.
My parents purchased a copy of Sgt. Pepper's upon its release. It was played repeatedly on the family phonograph, probably so much so that grooves of the vinyl were worn down. The record no doubt structured my freshly myelinated little brain.

Listening to Sgt. Pepper's all week on my way to and from work what jumps out is the division of the album into bursting exuberance, positiveness and exceedingly hopeful tracks -- "With a Little Help From My Friends"; "Getting Better"; "When I'm Sixty-Four"; "Lovely Rita"; "Good Morning Good Morning" -- and the psychedelic, trippy tracks of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"; "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"; "Within You Without You"; and the masterpiece "A Day in the Life."

The overall effect screams -- Another world is not only possible, it is here right now; and it is wonderful!

It is hard to imagine, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the #1 album of all time, a message more alien in our current milieu with its multiplying perpetual wars, skyrocketing inequality, a political drift towards fascism, mass species extinction and a planetary crisis brought about by human-induced climate change.

Sgt. Pepper's is the shiny diamond, a beautiful artifact from the post-WWII age of post-scarcity. Anything and everything was possible, and possible right now. 

We have almost completely lost this sense. It has been drummed out of us decade after decade. Our bones our now bleached dry. We are in a constant state not of bliss but of pain

A timely example of this is the story from the other day by Sabrina Tavernise, "C.D.C. Painkiller Guidelines Aim to Reduce Addiction Risk":
WASHINGTON — In an effort to curb what many consider the worst public health drug crisis in decades, the federal government on Tuesday published the first national standards for prescription painkillers, recommending that doctors try pain relievers like ibuprofen before prescribing the highly addictive pills, and that they give most patients only a few days’ supply. 
The release of the new guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ends months of arguments with pain doctors and drug industry groups, which had bitterly opposed the recommendations on the grounds that they would create unfair hurdles for patients who legitimately have long-term pain. 
In the end, the agency softened the recommendations slightly but basically held its ground, a testament to how alarmed policy makers have become over the mounting overdoses and deaths from opioid addiction. Opioid deaths — including from heroin, which some people turn to after starting with prescription painkillers — reached a record 28,647 in 2014, according to the most recent federal statistics.
Can you imagine a more apt juxtaposition? If Sgt. Pepper's announced the "massification of bohemia" with a tribute to LSD, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," our present age is distinguished
by narcotic death. There are many reasons for this spike in heroin and prescription painkiller deaths -- the crass commercialism of a gigantic, poorly regulated pharmaceutical industry and the shameful quality of care provided by most medical doctors rank high on the list -- but a pervasive, almost atmospheric feeling of pain and hopelessness cannot be dismissed. It is real. You can feel it and so can I.

I have my own hypothesis about this pervasive atmosphere of pain and hopelessness we find ourselves in today; it is highly speculative, to the point of being located solidly on the lunatic fringe. I was going to indulge in it this morning because it follows on ideas I stumbled upon at the same time I was thinking about the alchemists' VITRIOL, as mentioned in last week's post. But it will have to keep. I am out of time. We will return to it next week when we treat ourselves to another psychedelic bombshell from 1967, Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxter's.

If fifty years ago we were thirsty for the infinite possibilities that psychedelic experience offered, why today are we are deadening ourselves en masse with painkillers? Just think about this. Now we spend our holidays watching football games funded by commercials for pills to reduce opioid-induced constipation.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Goldberg's "Obama Doctrine"

Jeffrey Goldberg's long Obama interview piece in The Atlantic, "The Obama Doctrine: The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world," is sophisticated puffery, but it is fascinating puffery, a telling portrait of a failed president who owes his presence in the White House to the fact that he convinced voters he would not entangle them in any more needless foreign wars.

That is why the overwhelming focus of Goldberg's piece is on Syria and Obama's refusal to bomb the country at the end of summer 2013 after sarin gas was used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August. Without going into any detail about why the Ghouta sarin attack was likely a false flag operation meant to force the United States into bombing Damascus, Goldberg does mention that
Obama was also unsettled by a surprise visit early in the week from James Clapper, his director of national intelligence, who interrupted the President’s Daily Brief, the threat report Obama receives each morning from Clapper’s analysts, to make clear that the intelligence on Syria’s use of sarin gas, while robust, was not a “slam dunk.” He chose the term carefully. Clapper, the chief of an intelligence community traumatized by its failures in the run-up to the Iraq War, was not going to overpromise, in the manner of the onetime CIA director George Tenet, who famously guaranteed George W. Bush a “slam dunk” in Iraq.
Overall nothing is said -- other than to mention the names of the countries -- about the failed militaristic approach Obama has taken in Yemen and Afghanistan. (See the frontpager today "Quiet Support for Saudis Entangles U.S. in Yemen," by Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, on how the U.S. has helped to create another failed state to go along with Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.)

There are some good lines Goldberg tosses the readers about Obama's loathing of the Saudis:
In private encounters with other world leaders, Obama has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity. 
Though he has argued, controversially, that the Middle East’s conflicts “date back millennia,” he also believes that the intensified Muslim fury of recent years was encouraged by countries considered friends of the U.S. In a meeting duringapec with Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering. 
Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening? 
Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family, Obama told Turnbull. Today, Islam in Indonesia is much more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there, he said. 
“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?,” Turnbull asked.
Obama smiled. “It’s complicated,” he said. 
Obama’s patience with Saudi Arabia has always been limited. In his first foreign-policy commentary of note, that 2002 speech at the antiwar rally in Chicago, he said, “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East—the Saudis and the Egyptians—stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality.” In the White House these days, one occasionally hears Obama’s National Security Council officials pointedly reminding visitors that the large majority of 9/11 hijackers were not Iranian, but Saudiand Obama himself rails against Saudi Arabia’s state-sanctioned misogyny, arguing in private that “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.” In meetings with foreign leaders, Obama has said, “You can gauge the success of a society by how it treats its women.”
In the end the reader is left with the impression of Obama as a guy who thinks he will always be the smartest one in the room. The problem is brains alone don't solve problems. Obama clearly understands that the Saudis are behind global terrorism and instability in the Middle East but he refuses to confront them. If such confrontation is off limits, and the United States continues to back al-Saud, as Obama does in Yemen, the recent successes -- a working ceasefire in Syria and a closure of the Balkans migrant route into Europe -- will not last long.


My job is taking more of my time and attention. I've gone from posting on this page six out of seven days a week to four or five. My reading is suffering. I'm basically in survival mode. From here on out posts are going to be more sporadic. There could be as little as two or three a week. This week is particularly tough. I'll try to keep the "Hippies vs. Punks" post on Friday. Hopefully things will stabilize at work.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Where Monsters Dwell #4 & Where Monsters Dwell #5

Where Monsters Dwell was a five-issue limited series that was part of the recently concluded Secret Wars Marvel crossover event. The multiverse collapses in on itself --
Now all that remains is Battleworld: a massive, patchwork planet composed of the fragments of worlds that no longer exist, maintained by the iron will of its god and master, Victor von Doom!
Each region is a domain unto itself!
While abandoning a tribal princess carrying his child, flying ace (and general jerk) Karl Kaufmann agreed to fly the fetching, well-heeled Clemmie Franklin-Cox to her husband. En route, an unnatural storm stranded them in a dangerous region of Battleworld . . .
Where Monsters Dwell
To repair his plane, Kaufmann need to steal an engine and propeller from the beautiful warrior women with whom Clemmie had very happily settled down. He convinced a tribe of diminutive cannibals to wage war on the ladies. As his troops died by the dozens, Kaufmann grabbed his plane parts, and promptly deserted them.
If the original Where Monsters Dwell, an early-70s Marvel reprint series of Silver Age SciFi and horror, treated the cultural verities of the U.S.-Soviet Union Cold War and its underlying logic of Mutually Assured Destruction through a prism of aliens from outer space, the present Where Monsters Dwell, subversively penned by Garth Ennis with compelling art by Russ Braun, depicts a social milieu where men are scheming, pussy-hungry, bloodthirsty cowards and women are strong, moral and lesbian. It is a world that is the polar opposite of the Cold War 1950s and 1960s. I think it is a fair description of our world today. If there is any hope for the species to survive, men need to be shown the way out of the halls of power.

Below are nine scans from Where Monsters Dwell #4 and Where Monsters Dwell #5. The murderous poltroon flying ace gets his just desserts. He ends up trapped on an island of dung and guano with his impregnated native princess.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Bullet LaVolta's Swandive (1991)

While the end might not be clearly visible, I can sense that it is coming.

When I was young, at least for a period of a few years, between the time my wife divorced me and I moved in with a new girlfriend, I was fascinated by the alchemical idea that you could think yourself back to the moment of conception. The alchemists believed human cognition was this powerful, which they captured in the motto VITRIOL, Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem  -- "Visit the interior of the Earth and rectifying (i.e., purifying) you will find the hidden/secret stone." What was accomplished by this, I assumed, was some sort of omniscience -- the Philosopher's Stone. By thinking oneself back to the womb one was able to perceive the moment nothing becomes something.

In my mid-20s I despised working, whether at an office job or as a laborer. I was a drinker. I liked to read, scribble notes and listen to music. My marriage was failing. So I decided to leave my wife and New York City and head back to the West Coast and work for a drywall contractor located in Seattle. I had worked for him a few summers while I was still enrolled at the university in the Bay Area. At the time he was working rat jobs in Oakland and San Francisco,

I arrived in Seattle, late spring 1990, the day after Randy Johnson had thrown a no hitter, right when Grunge was blasting off.  Soundgarden. Skin Yard. Nirvana, Screaming Trees. But other than reading SPIN I had no idea what was going on because I never went out. I worked and came home to a sublet studio apartment in a house on 23rd Avenue East and drank 40-ounce bottles of Midnight Dragon malt liquor and typed on a Brother manual typewriter. I had some sense something was percolating because when I got a day off I would head to the local coffee house and it was chock full of hipsters and rockers.

My personal motto at the time, not dissimilar from the alchemists' VITRIOL, was RECLAMATION EVERYTHING. (It probably had something to do with my collapsing marriage.) On my way to the Emerald City I had stopped off in The Haight and picked up a used copy of Quentin Lauer's book on Husserlian Phenomenology. The idea that there was a pre-linguistic or meta-linguistic way to approach the world that might free us from error, confusion and loss was very compelling to me. It seemed a road to redemption.

The hubris of a motto like RECLAMATION EVERYTHING was perfectly in sync with the Grunge Age. It takes a lot of chutzpah to attempt to re-energize, re-new, re-vivify the old, decades-dead form of the classic rock cock rocker. But that was the conceit of my generation. I think it came about organically from young men and women listening simultaneously to Punk bands as well as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Rolling Stones, Richard Thompson et al. without the filter of a dialectical understanding.

An excellent example of a Grunge band, now largely buried by the sands of time (even in our digital age), is Bullet LaVolta. While it might be a stretch to argue that Bullet LaVolta was ubiquitous during the Grunge Age, the band was certainly a fixture on my stereo. Listen to Bullet LaVolta's Taang! Records/RCA album, The Gift (1989), and I think you will agree that rock is reanimated. My buddies and I would regularly celebrate the zenith of our evening's intoxication by blasting at high volume and jumping along to "Trapdoor." (For a visual sample of Bullet LaVolta at the band's apex, look at the video from a 1990 show in Dusseldorf.)

The followup to The Gift was Swandive (1991) released on RCA the same day as Nirvana's Nevermind. (There is a good article about this temporal Ground Zero of Grunge -- late summer/early fall 1991 -- by Bullet LaVolta drummer Todd Philips, "The night before Nevermind: Bullet LaVolta's drummer on opening for Nirvana in Boston on September 23, 1991.")

That fall and winter I probably listened to Swandive more than any other record. Immersed in it this week 25 years later I didn't feel the same empathy. One track, "Before I Fall," my favorite from back in the day, still holds up. I used to think that the chorus was "What I want to do before I am born" rather than "What I want to do before I fall." I took this as proof that there was a generational intuition about the importance of alchemical VITRIOL and the idea that everything can be reclaimed.

I think Bullet LaVolta achieved a measure of perfection for a brief time. The band broke up in 1992 and never got to wallow in the corporate trough. Hopefully The Gift and Swandive will be reclaimed. Those two albums document the essence of Grunge.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Michigan Post-Mortem

The results from yesterday's primary election in Michigan are an indication that we are headed to another Bush v. Gore-type standoff in the fall. Trump won, and he won by double digits -- 36.5% to Cruz's 24.9% and Kasich's 24.3%. But added together, his opponents won nearly 300,000 more votes in the Wolverine State than the celebrity billionaire. This points to something that Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin noted in their post-election frontpager this morning, "Bernie Sanders Wins Michigan Primary; Donald Trump Takes 3 States." Trump's negatives are on the rise:
Even before the votes were counted Tuesday, there were new signs that resistance to Mr. Trump’s candidacy within his own party was growing. The number of Republicans viewing him unfavorably spiked to 46 percent in a Washington Post-ABC poll released Tuesday, the highest figure recorded in that survey since Mr. Trump entered the race last year.
This percentage will likely grow as next Tuesday's GOP Battle of Armageddon takes shape. The Republican strategy is to block Trump from running the table next Tuesday. If Trump manages to win in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio, his chances of avoiding a brokered convention and cinching the nomination are great. To prevent this, the Republican Party is concentrating its anti-Trump attack in Florida and Illinois. The problem for the GOP is twofold: 1) Rubio has collapsed as a viable alternative; and 2) Ted Cruz remains the most dominant "next man up."

With the Rubio charade thankfully retired by voters in Mississippi and Michigan, I'm sure that Republican power brokers would love everyone to get behind Ohio governor John Kasich. But Ted Cruz blocks the way with his Super PAC millions.

So the dynamic -- Cruz a solid number two stifling the emergence of an acceptable mainstream alternative -- that has led to the rise of Trump remains in place. Barring a surprise showing from Kasich, Trump sweeps next week. Let the coronation begin.

On the Democratic side, Bernie won a solid come-from-behind victory in Michigan. He did it by outworking Hillary on the ground and, like Trump, by hammering home the message of how trade agreements backed by ruling elites like the Clintons gutted the industrial backbone of the country. According to Yamiche Alcindor and Patrick Healy in "Trade and Jobs Key to Victory For Bernie Sanders":
Mr. Sanders pulled off a startling upset in Michigan on Tuesday by traveling to communities far from Detroit and by hammering Mrs. Clinton on an issue that resonated in this still-struggling state: her past support for trade deals that workers here believe robbed them of manufacturing jobs. Almost three-fifths of voters said that trade with other countries was more likely to take away jobs, according to exit polls by Edison Research, and those voters favored Mr. Sanders by a margin of more than 10 points.
This is good news for Sanders going into next week's contests in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. (Bernie seems to be largely conceding Florida and North Carolina.) Hillary managed to win more delegates last night because she trounced Sanders in Mississippi. And even if Sanders manages to win all three industrial states next week, but Clinton continues to rack up lopsided wins in heavily African American Democratic districts, Hillary will likely come away with more delegates.

But that shouldn't be the thing that concerns us. After next week the remaining segments of Hillary's Dixie firewall are all finished and the calendar is much more favorable to Bernie. The march to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia will be weary and woeful for Hillary. She will arrive in the City of Brotherly Love exactly what she is -- a bloated political cadaver kept in a state of animation by untold millions in corporate cash.

The American people are in for a real treat this July. We will bear witness as the duopoly attempts to subvert the results of the primary election season.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Universal Basic Income and the Heroin Epidemic

Two stories caught my eye recently. One appeared last week in the business page, Farhad Manjoo's "A Plan in Case Robots Take the Jobs: Give Everyone a Paycheck"; the other, Katherine Seelye's "Heroin Epidemic Increasingly Seeps Into Public View," on yesterday's front page.

There is a prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic in the United States and people are regularly overdosing in public. At the same time, according to Manjoo, we are in the midst of a robot revolution in this country:
[W]ithin in two to three decades we’ll have morphed into the Robotic States of America. 
In Robot America, most manual laborers will have been replaced by herculean bots. Truck drivers, cabbies, delivery workers and airline pilots will have been superseded by vehicles that do it all. Doctors, lawyers, business executives and even technology columnists for The New York Times will have seen their ranks thinned by charming, attractive, all-knowing algorithms.
How will society function after humanity has been made redundant? Technologists and economists have been grappling with this fear for decades, but in the last few years, one idea has gained widespread interest — including from some of the very technologists who are now building the bot-ruled future.
Their plan is known as “universal basic income,” or U.B.I., and it goes like this: As the jobs dry up because of the spread of artificial intelligence, why not just give everyone a paycheck? 
Imagine the government sending each adult about $1,000 a month, about enough to cover housing, food, health care and other basic needs for many Americans. U.B.I. would be aimed at easing the dislocation caused by technological progress, but it would also be bigger than that. 
While U.B.I. has been associated with left-leaning academics, feminists and other progressive activists, it has lately been adopted by a wider range of thinkers, including some libertarians and conservatives. It has also gained support among a cadre of venture capitalists in New York and Silicon Valley, the people most familiar with the potential for technology to alter modern work.
Rather than a job-killing catastrophe, tech supporters of U.B.I. consider machine intelligence to be something like a natural bounty for society: The country has struck oil, and now it can hand out checks to each of its citizens.
These supporters argue machine intelligence will produce so much economic surplus that we could collectively afford to liberate much of humanity from both labor and suffering.
In theory this is true. But in actuality technology has concentrated wealth in the 1%. The current vogue of the UBI is a version of the "workerless factory" of the first half of the 20th century. The idea was that the working class would have to toil less as technology was integrated into the job site. The reality has been the exact opposite. People have to struggle harder, work longer at less stable employment, to earn less than what they made before. Look at a chart of the productivity gains since the early 1970s, a fraction of which has gone to the working class.

Hillary beat reporter Amy Chozick had a line in a story, "Clinton Offers Economic Plan Focused on Jobs," the other day that summed it up: "This is the latest revision to the corporate tax code Mrs. Clinton has proposed in an effort to create jobs and lift wages, which have been virtually stagnant for 15 years even as the costs of college, child care, housing and health care have soared."

We live a precarious, stressful. "no future" life these days. The rich would sooner see the vast majority slaughtered than guarantee a basic income. This hopelessness, a rudderless moral destitution, is part of what is fueling the heroin binge.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Europe's Unraveling Refugee Deal with Turkey + Election Results in Slovakia & the U.S.

The refugee crisis in Europe is actually a triumph of rationality. The neoliberal and neoconservative leadership class believes that it creates reality, that perpetual and ever-widening wars can be waged while the deleterious effects are skillfully managed. The European refugee crisis is proof that such is not the case.

Today in Brussels the oft-mentioned but never implemented deal with Turkey will be negotiated again. The deal commits Turkey to keep refugees and migrants fleeing war and privation from traveling to Europe; also, Turkey agrees to accept those who Europe designates as economic migrants (such as, unbelievably, Afghans) as opposed to refugees (Syrians and Iraqis). For its part, Europe commits to resettling a number of those warehoused in Turkey designated as refugees; also, it pledges Turkey $3.3 billion, with assurances of more to come.

The problem is that EU parliamentarians are none too happy with the proposal, as James Kanter reports in "NATO to Expand Patrols in Aegean Sea to Stop Human Traffickers":
European Union leaders had raised hopes that such a trade-off with the Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, could be negotiated at the meeting in Brussels on Monday. They have said, however, that it remains too early for an agreement on the number of people who would be transferred from Europe back to Turkey. 
Another factor that could impede progress at the meeting is a ruling by a Turkish court ordering the seizure of the opposition Zaman newspaper. 
That move has prompted sharp criticism from some European Union parliamentarians who say Europe relies too heavily on Turkey to ease the migration crisis. They say it should instead make a unified effort to help Greece and create an effective coast guard to protect the bloc’s coastlines.
In Greece, a nation still grappling with severe economic problems, many thousands of migrants have become trapped because Macedonia, which is not a member of the European Union, has blocked their passage northward. 
On Sunday, Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group in the European Parliament, said Turkey had so far given little more than “empty promises” on returning migrants. He also warned against making a deal with “a country that imprisons journalists, attacks civil liberties and with a highly worrying human rights situation.” 
As Europe continues to dither over the worst crisis of its kind since the Second World War, the announcement that NATO would expand its operations could, at least, give leaders more time to reach a more united position and wring more concessions from Turkey.
The NATO naval mission in the Aegean at this point is limited to monitoring the refugee flotillas and communicating that information to the Greeks and Turks and Frontex. NATO will intervene to provide emergency assistance.

Slovakia, like Ireland and Spain, has had an election where the results make the formation of a government difficult (see "Slovakia’s Governing Party Loses Majority as Far Right Makes Gains" by Miroslava Germanova). Slovakia is getting attention because a neo-Nazi party, People's Party-Our Slovakia, won 14 seats in a 150 seat parliament. This kind of election we're seeing throughout the West. People are frustrated and desperate over the chokehold that the neoliberal consensus -- the corruption -- has on the political system.

The United States is no different. The GOP power brokers, sensing vulnerability based on the Super Saturday returns, are pouring money into Florida and Illinois to block Trump from locking up the nomination. While I agree that Cruz's victories in Kansas and (particularly) Maine prove that Trump definitely has some weaknesses, the fact is that Trump still won the day with his victories in Kentucky and Louisiana. And Trump is going to win Michigan big; Ohio, too. The Republican establishment is betting everything that Trump can be blocked from winning Florida. Even if the establishment succeeds it is not clear that this will be enough to keep Trump from the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination prior to the convention.

Sanders had an excellent weekend, proof of which is to be found in The New York Times. The newspaper contorted its headlines to read Hillary the big winner because she won Louisiana. Never mind that Sanders won three out of four contests over the weekend. More of the same greets the Gray Lady's readers this morning. Hillary is declared the winner of last night's debate in Flint. I watched the entire two hours. There is absolutely no way to objectively declare Hillary the winner. She was completely demolished. So The New York Times is once again running interference for a woefully weak front-runner.

What is troubling for Sanders is that he is running behind Hillary in Michigan. Bernie, it seems to me, must be able to win a state like Michigan if he has any hope of catching Hillary. But as it stands now it looks like another Massachusetts, a split contest.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing (1991)

Nirvana's Nevermind (1991) followed Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing (1991) by a couple of months. More than any other record, Nevermind launched the Grunge rocketship into orbit. It is ranked number 17 on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time."

My suspicion though is that Kurt Cobain would have loved Nevermind to sound more like Steady Diet of Nothing. Cobain was openly critical of the slick, commercial, classic rock mix that Butch Vig produced for Nevermind. But the kids loved it so much it created a situation that, as Guy Picciotto, one of Fugazi's two vocalists and guitarists, has noted (or something to the effect): "After Nevermind other bands might as well have been hobos pissing in the forest playing ukuleles."

This week and the next we'll look at two albums that appeared at the same time as Nevermind -- Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing, released in July of the all-important Grunge year of 1991; and Bullet LaVolta's Swandive, released the same day in September as Nirvana's Nevermind. Let's call it an homage to the "Ghost of Testosterone Past."

In 1991 I was a young man living alone in the megalopolis. I had copies of both Steady Diet of Nothing and Swandive, which I listened to frequently. When I look back on that time in my mind's eye it always seems to be at night and in the winter. I am alone in my studio apartment drinking quarts of beer and typing letters to friends. I didn't own a copy of Nevermind. I was suspicious of all the hoopla surrounding Nirvana. It seemed to me more about record industry marketing than the music. (I finally sat down and listened to Nevermind at the insistence of my friend and musical mentor Oliver when he visited New York City the summer of 1992. At first I thought Kurt Cobain was Sting.)

I recently found a used CD of Steady Diet of Nothing for $5. I happily snatched it up and loaded it into my iTunes. Walking to work in the February morning dark, saturated by the Pacific Northwest winter gloom and drizzle, and hearing Ian MacKaye, Fugazi's other guitarist and vocalist, sing "Reclamation," followed by Picciotto belting out "Nice New Outfit," I became transformed. The word I want to say is "tumescent," minus any sexual connotation. I was full, powerful. It felt like I was mainlining testosterone. I had the sense that muscle was stronger than the strongest metal. When "Stacks" followed "Nice New Outfit," it felt like I was about to blast off; literally, I could feel myself leaving the Earth.

Steady Diet of Nothing is an album like no other. It's the combination of the two guitars of MacKaye and Picciotto, their muscular male vocals, and the attacking drums of Brendan Canty. What's funny is that it is a record the band dismisses as a novice initial attempt at producing, one where each player was overly careful not to piss the other guy off; plus, MacKaye, Picciotto, Canty and bassist Joe Lally were fried from back-to-back tour dates. Nonetheless, for me at least, I'd say it is close to perfection.

Listening once to the 20th anniversary edition of Nevermind this week, I understand why Nirvana had such enormous appeal. Cobain was an unparalleled rock vocalist. He could shift on a dime from rager to crooner better than anyone else. Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, for instance, could do one song as a rager and then another as a crooner, but Kurt Cobain could do both in the same song effortlessly. Also the songs on Nevermind have a consistent vibe of blissed-out suffering. Cobain was a junkie who had an amazing ability to communicate a wide-panorama, unblinking view of the world.

Fugazi was the direct opposite of Nirvana. The band had its own label, MacKaye's Dischord, and sold its music at a much lower price than any other label, including other independents. I remember going to the record store in the early 1990s and Fugazi albums were $5 cheaper than the rest. You have to figure that took some hard bargaining by Dischord because the tendency of record stores at a time when big chains like Tower still existed was to mark up everything to the established retail price.

While Fugazi was radical commercially, it was even more so socially. Ian MacKaye is a founding father of the straight edge movement. Straight edge is a refutation of the mindless glorification of sex and drugs that goes back to the Hippies and their confused (and failed) ideas of liberation. Straight edge advocates abstemiousness and vegetarianism; it is against the worship of violence. In college straight-edge people were referred to as "Peace Punks." (One summer evening when I was an undergraduate a young black woman on a BMX-type bike who called herself a "Peace Punk" followed me home from Telegraph Avenue and asked if I wanted to hook up. I demurred, saying I lived with my girlfriend. )

Now, at 51, other than a devotion to coffee, I can declare myself straight edge.

Let's wrap things up with an assessment of Fugazi by the "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau:
The most principled band of the '90s declined to send out promos, a decision I would have respected even if they hadn't been so stalwart in minimizing ticket prices, staging all-ages shows, and otherwise putting punk's D.C-based straight-edge ethos into practice. Since their Dischord label remained solvent as other indies went mainstream or under, I'm sure they understood venture capital better than me. I bought three early-'90s albums: 13 Songs, Repeater, and Steady Diet of Nothing. These were enough to convince me that from the strictures of Minor Threat's razor-sharp hardcore to the confrontational formalism of Fugazi's surgical AOR, Ian MacKaye has always been a musical puritan as well as all the other kinds. Obsessed with corruption, he figured out that words and voices don't excise it as efficiently as a well-honed guitar--specifically Guy Picciotto's precise, rock-solid distorto riffs. On Repeater, Picciotto offered something like pleasure. On the other two the resemblance was more abstract. I'm not any kind of puritan. So I stopped buying their records.
If you are a man, and you want to find purity, listen to Steady Diet of Nothing