The Political Stupidity Index; or, What separates the USA from the world to its south

Some US presidents not powered by petroleum

The July issue of Counterpunch just showed up in my mailbox; I suppose I could have read it weeks ago if I subscribed to the email version rather than the paper-and-ink one.  If I did that, however, I wouldn’t be able to leave old copies in laundromats and doctor’s offices and wonder who is getting a shock from them. 

There are three pieces remembering the late and much lamented Ben Sonnenberg, founder of the (alas, equally late and much lamented) literary quarterly Grand Street and a longtime eminence of the American Left.  I want Alexander Cockburn and Jo Ann Wypijewski to write my obituary.  As they went on about Sonnenberg’s historical greatness, profound learning, unfailing humility, inexhaustible compassion, and cheerful lovable-ness, I started to wonder why he hadn’t risen from the tomb on the third day.  Still, they do show that Sonnenberg devoted his life to celebrating and advancing the achievements of the human intellect, and that he was fearless in bringing reason to bear when entrenched interests intimidated others into accepting the official story.  

Two muckraking pieces tackle official stories which claim that the US government protects its citizens from menaces approaching the country from the south.  Jeffrey Saint Clair’s “How BP and the Obama Administration Have Been Joined at the Hip” tells how Mr O has overseen “a profound bureaucratic lethargy that ceded almost almost absolute control over the response to the spill to BP.”  While he might have invoked powers under the 1968 National Contingency plan and “seized control of both the well and the cleanup operations,” leaving BP’s officers with nothing to do but “sign checks for billions of dollars,” Mr O in fact sidelined all advisors who showed any sign of independence from the oil giant, instead relying on former lobbyists for and executives of BP.  The administration did little to nothing to contain the damage the leak would do to the Gulf coast, its wildlife and fisheries, but a great deal to help BP contain the damage to its public relations.  Most of Saint Clair’s facts are also reported in this Rolling Stone piece.   

Frank Bardacke’s “Why the Border Can Never Be ‘Secured'” introduces the phrase “the Political Stupidity Index,” which Bardacke defines as “the difference between the words politicians say and the way we actually live.”  Bardacke argues that the national debate about immigration registers a remarkably high level of this sort of stupidity, taking it to a level where “the words at the top have nothing to do with life at the bottom.”  “Despite what may be said in the public debate, people know there is no way to stop Mexicans coming to the USA, as long as Mexico remains poor and the USA relatively rich,” writes Bardacke.  More enforcement at the border only means more corruption among border patrol agents and more power for criminal enterprises that have set out “to make border crossing a big, corporate business.”  Amnesty for undocumented workers, whether marketed under the label “a path to citizenship” or under some other brand name, will only increase the rate of illegal immigration, as the upsurge in immigration after 1986 legalization definitively proved.  Guest-worker programs are “a bad idea all around,” as the experience of the Bracero Program showed.  By the mid 1960s, the poor working conditions to which braceros were subjected had raised the ire of liberals who objected to the program because it was a form of indentured servitude, while conservatives were alarmed by number of braceros who left their places of indenture to blend into the general population of the USA. 

I’m not at all sure Bardacke is right that the border cannot be “secured.”  Israel has certainly shown that walls can keep highly motivated people from crossing borders, and enforcement of citizenship requirements at points of employment need not be any more difficult than enforcement of laws  that require employees to be at least a particular age or paid at least a particular wage.  In order to implement those measures, the US government would have to confront the people who profit from the current system.  Considering the absurd timidity our current government has shown in its dealings with BP, it is rather difficult to imagine a future government that would be prepared to take on all the interests that benefit from keeping US wages from rising too far above the Mexican average.  Difficult though it may be, it is hardly impossible that such a thing might happen, and therefore unjustified to say that “the border can never be ‘secured’.” 

Whether it should be secured is of course another question.  If a government ever does come to power in the USA that has the backbone to stand up to the low-wage lobby, that government would likely be the result of a profound change in the country’s whole political culture.  If that change ever does come about, it might reveal more attractive possibilities for the US-Mexican economic relationship than fortifying the border and adding a new layer of policing in employment.  Maybe if working people get hold of real political power they will find ways to work together to develop the US and Mexico in tandem, rather than submitting to policies that exacerbate economic inequality and hollow out industry on both sides of the border.

The poisoned feast

A listening device

Like most publications produced on a tiny budget, Counterpunch is very uneven in quality.  In April, for example, they came out with an issue that was mostly taken up with a monologue that their reporter JoAnn Wypijewski heard from some man she met while covering an anti-Obama rally.  The monologue was an exposition of the man’s crude racism.  When Wypijewski demurs from one of his antiblack tirades, he tells her that he isn’t surprised to hear that from a white woman, that the white race is destroying itself and so it only makes sense that she would seek to survive by giving her allegiance to “a savage race.”  It went on and on in that vein.  The conversation ended with the man giving Wypiejewski’s business card back to her because her name includes a sequence of letters that spells “Jew.”  I suppose the point of giving so much space to this sort of garbage was to show that racism is alive and well in the USA and is an animating force on the political right.  The editors may have decided to include some portions for comic relief; I must admit there were moments when Mrs Acilius and I laughed out loud at the man’s idiocy.  Still, I can’t believe it is really necessary to give so much publicity to such foolish views.

The issue for 1-15 May is much better.  There’s an interview with Michael Pollan, who has become well known as a critic of the way Americans now produce and consume food.  The interview is excerpted from Kreisler’s new book Political Awakenings.  The part that most stuck with me was Pollan’s identification of the four tenets of what he calls “the ideology of Nutritionism.”  This ideology tells us, first, that “foods don’t matter, nutrients do”; second, that “you can divide the world into good and bad nutrients”; third, “if the important thing in food is a nutrient, and nutrients are invisible to normal people, you need experts to tell you how to eat”; fourth, “the whole point of eating is health.”  To follow these doctrines is to be estranged from “our sense of eating as a complex social, as well as biological, phenomenon, involving community and identity and pleasure.”  While a dish is defined as food because it is part of customs that bind people together, whether by eating in family groups or giving a meal to a guest or sharing a feast as a community, a chemical is defined a nutrient because of its role in the functioning of a single body.  While food can excel aesthetically, and like other aesthetic experiences can always offer us something new to learn, a nutrient can only be judged by preset standards derived from medicine.  While food is governed by cultural norms that have evolved over the millennia, nutrients are overseen by an infant science that has barely advanced beyond superstition.  While the production of food is a process that has traditionally nourished both humans and soil, the extraction of nutrients depletes soil and pollutes the human body.  I wonder if it would be helpful to go further than Pollan and to define food as a gift.  A gift we receive from a host, from nature, from God; a gift we pass on to those with whom we share important bonds.  Perhaps this sense of gift is the key to a truly healthy use of eating. 

The other story in the issue is also an excerpt from another publication, this time from the Russian magazine Smena.  Like Pollan’s interview, it tells of a corrupted gift, a poisoned feast.  Igor Atamanenko gives us the story of a gift the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union received from Stalin in 1943.  It was a magnificently carved wooden piece depicting the Great Seal of the United States.  The ambassador hung the piece in his private office.  He and the next three to hold the post kept it there until 1952, periodically redecorating the office to highlight the extraordinary beauty of the carving.  As it turns out, the carving enclosed an electronic listening device that gave Soviet State Security access to all of the ambassador’s conversations.  The device was so sophisticated that when it was finally discovered, it took the Americans years to produce a working copy.  As it turns out, the inventor responsible for this extraordinarily advanced listening device was none other than Lev Sergeyevich Termen, known to music-lovers in the West as Léon Theremin, inventor of a musical instrument that is played without being touched.

The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must

Thucydides wouldn't have been surprised


The February 16-February 28 issue of Counterpunch looked at various statements about international law that have come from offices of the Israeli Defense Forces in the last few years and found in them a systematic disregard for the concept of international law.  These statements, the author of the piece argues, are part of a campaign to render international law irrelevant to the conflicts in Israel/Palestine, and as such represent a threat to the entire project of international law.  The blub on the front of the newsletter asks us to “Imagine an entire world unprotected against occupation, invasions, exploitation, and warehousing, a global Gaza!” 

I would suggest that such a feat of imagination might be rather easy to achieve.  The whole history of mankind, from the earliest records to the present moment, offers us the spectacle of precisely such a world.  International law no more protects the weak against the depredations of the powerful today than appeals to justice protected the Melians against Athens in 416 BC.  

Thucydides’ story of the Peloponnesian Wars summarizes my habitual view of “international law,” in his day and ours.  Writing of the events that had led to the outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC, Thucydides concluded that the main cause of the war was the rising power of Athens and the fear with which the other Greeks viewed that power.  After ten years of desperate struggle, the Spartans and their allies brought Athenian power to a standstill.  A series of negotiations concluded in 421 BC brought the first phase of the war to an end.  Thucydides devotes much of Book 5 of his History to the detailed legalistic language of the treaties of this year known under the name “The Peace of Nicias.”  Thucydides’ decision to devote so much of his text to these documents puts a heavy emphasis on the treaties and their legalism.

Had the History ended there, one might have imagined it to tell a story of the triumph of law in human affairs.  What in fact follows, however, shows that nothing of the kind happened.  The Peace of Nicias was not at all satisfactory, involving frequent confrontations between proxies of Athens and Sparta and occasional battles between Athenian and Spartan forces.  When, five years into that period of  tension, the people of Melos tried to break their alliance with Athens, the Athenians sent envoys to hear the Melians’ case.  The Melians appealed to justice and to the legal principles encoded in the treaties of the Peace of Nicias.  The Athenians responded that “The strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”  When the Melians appealed to notions of legality, the Athenians responded that these obtain among equals, while in cases where one party is far stronger, the other must submit and make the best of submission.  The law that prevails among states is not the sort of law agitated in courts, but a law of nature.  “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do” (Rex Warner’s Penguin Classics translation.)     

The Athenians would destroy Melos, killing its men and selling the women and children as slaves.  Thucydides leaves us to find justice for the Melians in another sort of natural law.  The next topic he turns to is Athens’ invasion of Sicily, a military adventure that would cost Athens tens of thousands of men, virtually its entire fleet, and its hopes of winning the second phase of the Peloponnesian Wars.  By 404 BC, the Athenians would be defeated, as abjectly at the mercy of Sparta as the Melians had been at their own mercy 12 years before.  The ancients Greeks believed that power bred arrogance, that arrogance bred folly, and that folly brought the mighty low. 

The Greeks tended to describe this process in mythological terms, attributing it to the jealousy of the gods.  By laying out a narrative in that traditional form without  dwelling on the gods in his own voice, Thucydides was able to gain a reputation as the first scientific historian.  Whether science can discern in history a pattern of power leading to arrogance leading to folly leading to downfall, the idea of such a pattern is at least as likely to be comforting to the victims of power as are any of the lawyerly fairy tales told at the Hague and in the headquarters of the United Nations. 

As for the case of Israel/ Palestine, the idea of international law may at times have had a gentling effect on the Israeli state.  On the one hand, it may have given the Israeli leadership a set of criteria they had to meet if they were to be assured of a smooth flow of operations in their relations with the outside world.  And now and then, some Israelis may have seen in the promise of international law something they could rally around, something to soften the harsher angles of Zionism.  So whatever limitations there might be in the prospects for international law as an actual force  that could protect the weak “against occupation, invasions, exploitation, and warehousing,” and however much the spectacles that we now call “international law” might disgust us, still we might wish that it will go on.

The Wickersham Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement

George Wickersham, 1930

George Wickersham, 1930

I’ve been meaning to post a “Periodicals Note” about the July issue of Counterpunch, in which “Peter Lee” wrote about the report that a commission headed by one George Wickersham submitted to US President Herbert Hoover on 7 January 1931.  The Wickersham Commission had investigated charges that US law enforcement agencies were using torture to enforce the prohibition of alcohol that was then in effect across the United States.  The commission’s staff was led by a civil liberties lawyer named Zechariah Chafee, and Chafee turned up evidence that made the Wickersham report impossible to ignore.  Lee gives considerable detail from the report, and points out that all of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that CIA and military interrogators have been accused of using against captives in the “war on terror” were familiar to Prohibition agents in the 1920s.  Those methods disgusted the American public then, and the exposure of them did a good deal to spur the movement that ended Prohibition.  The difference in the outraged public reaction of 1930 and the muted public reaction to the exposure of the same methods in the last five years cannot be attributed to the difference between accused bootleggers and accused terrorists; Lee points out that torture is not in fact a very effective way of thwarting terrorists.  What has changed is us.  The headline above Lee’s piece is “When America Said No!”  His implication is that the American people have lost the moral compass that once enabled them to say no to torture.   


The USA and Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan

Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan

The 16-30 June issue of Counterpunch carries a brief article by Andrew Cockburn about US government backing for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.  In view of the concerns top American officials have expressed about the possibility that Pakistani nukes might fall into the hands of Bin Ladenite extremists, and of the fact that Dr. A. Q. Khan sold Pakistani nuclear material on an international black market, it is sobering to learn of the extent to which Washington has been involved in the development of Pakistan’s arsenal.  When CIA analyst Richard Barlow tried to blow the whistle on the US government’s complicity in helping Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons in the 1980s, his career was ruined.  Even the Khan affair doesn’t seem to have changed the CIA’s attitude; indeed, Khan’s shipping manager was a CIA agent.  The article lists an impressive array of malefactors involved in the business of promoting Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions.  Some of them, such as an unnamed group of “Israeli arms merchants,” are accustomed to bad press; others, such as the Dalai Lama, usually get friendlier publicity.

Seymour Melman

seymourMelmanThe 1-15 June issue of Counterpunch features a story about the US government’s snooping on Professor Seymour Melman during the years 1958-1974.  What I wanted to note were the titles of two of Melman’s books, Our Depleted Society and The Permanent War Economy.  Also noteworthy is a review of Melman’s 1962 book The Peace Race that appears in his FBI file; apparently a researcher at the Bureau’s Central Research Section was assigned to write the book up.  The remarkable thing about this review is how favorably it reported Melman’s argument against the Cold War military buildup.

Wounded Knee, nanotech, Serbian broadcasting, and the car industry

The headquarters of Radio Television Serbia after the 23 April 1999 bombing

The headquarters of Radio Television Serbia after the 23 April 1999 bombing

Go away for a month, and things pile up.  Time to get back at it.  Here are “Periodicals Notes” on three recent issues of Counterpunch

16-30 April: Tiphaine Dickson reports on the case of Dragoljub Milanovic, the only person ever to have been tried and punished for NATO’s 23 April 1999 bombing of Radio Television Serbia (RTS), an attack on an undefended target that killed 16 civilians and served no military purpose other than to disrupt broadcasting between the hours of 2 and 5 AM that morning.  The attack followed an ultimatum NATO issued to the Serbs that the station would be considered a legitimate target unless they consented to broadcast six hours a day of NATO-approved western programs, an ultimatum NATO dropped when the Serbs accepted it.  Mr Milanovic has been in prison for seven years because of his role in this wanton act of murder.  What was that role?  He was one of NATO’s intended victims.  The director of RTS, Mr Milanovic was at his desk in the building less than an hour before the bombing.  Dickson details a story of the dizzyingly absurd injustices that Mr Milanovic has suffered, illustrating the workings of the West’s anti-Serb policies of the last couple of decades. 

In the same issue, former US Senator James Abourezk (Democrat of South Dakota) gives a synopsis of the relations between the Minneconjou tribe of the Sioux nation and the US government before, during, and after the 1890 massacre of Minneconjou people at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.  This is to serve as an introduction to Senator Abourezk’s recollections in the next issue of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by militant American Indian Movement (AIM) activists.  

1-15 May: Senator Abourezk tells the story of his trip to Wounded Knee in 1973, when he and George McGovern (his senior colleague in the US Senate from South Dakota) tried to mediate between AIM and the federal agents surrounding them.  The senators left thinking that they had negotiated a peaceful resolution to the standoff, only to find that the Nixon administration had blocked the deal.  Senator Abourezk suspects that the president wanted to keep the crisis going in order to stoke anti-Native feeling among whites.  

In the same issue, Steven Higgs looks at nanotechnology.  After listing such applications as self-cleaning eyeglasses (very attractive to me!), he quotes experts who are concerned that carbon nanotubes strongly resemble the microstructure of asbestos and that exposure to them may pose some of the same risks as does exposure to asbestos.  Other nanotechnologies also seem to represent considerable dangers; for example, the minute portions of silver used in high-end washing machines can enter living cells and may alter DNA there, threatening cancer.  Higgs notes that after years of federal inaction, the Obama administration has issued notice that it may begin a review of regulations in this area.   

16-30 May: Eamonn Fingleton points out that all the explanations for the decline of the US auto industry favored by corporate media are bogus.  For example, one often reads that the Big Three fail to produce any models with the steering wheel on the right, and that this explains why the Japanese won’t buy American cars.  In fact, Fingleton reports, Detroit makes dozens of models with the steering wheel on the right, and has done so for years.  We also hear that closing a country to imports will doom its manufacturers to eventual irrelevance in the global contest for shares of the export market.  Yet the Japanese and Korean car markets have been the most tightly closed in the world for decades, as Japanese and Korean car makers have gone from strength to strength and now dominate the US market. 

In the same issue, Bill Hatch reports on Michelle Obama’s visit to the University of California’s new campus at Merced.  Hatch quotes Mrs O’s criticism of the University of Chicago’s development of the Hyde Park neighborhood as abuffer between itself and the South Side of Chicago, then points out that UC-Merced is trying to do exactly the same thing.  Hatch tells how UC-Merced was built during the California real estate bubble, and how the construction of the university and the bubble worked together to shatter the working class town that had existed there.  In Hatch’s telling, Merced sounds like a ghost town in the making.

Victoria Fontan

Victoria Fontan in Baghdad
Victoria Fontan in Baghdad

The 16-31 March issue of Counterpunch features an article by Victoria Fontan, a scholar in “Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies,” a growing subfield of Peace Studies.  Fontan studies conditions under which people who have been humiliated are more likely than others to become terrorists.  She has interviewed members of several violent groups in Lebanon and Iraq.  In this article, Professor Fontan tells what happened when she taught at Colgate University in upstate New York and a group of right-wingers launched a smear campaign against her.  The smear mongers managed to hound her out of her job and to get her name on an official terrorism watchlist.  A French citizen, Professor Fontan did research in Iraq after leaving Colgate, and now teaches at The University for Peace in Costa Rica.  While Colgate’s campus rightists may consider Professor Fontan to be a stooge of America’s enemies and congratulate themselves on having performed a patriotic service by driving her off campus and out of the country, much of the US national security apparatus disagrees.  Her work is still assigned to cadets at West Point, and the FBI agents who interview her every time she flies into the USA (she’s on a terrorism watchlist, remember) have become her friends, recognizing in her research something indispensible to them as they try to figure out how to look for terrorists without making more terrorists. 

Fontan’s article reminds me of two things.  First, I’ve often thought that in the Aeneid Vergil represents warfare as primarily a matter of humiliation.  One of these days I might get around to developing that idea in a scholarly article about books 7 through 12 of the Aeneid, the “battle books.”  

Second, an idea popped into my head which I don’t believe is original with me, though I can’t seem to find where I may have picked it up.  It doesn’t seem to be Fontan’s idea.  The idea is that the road from “humiliated person” to “terrorist” may tend to run in three stages:  humiliation→ isolation→ radicalization. 


A full world

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen

The 1-15 February issue of Counterpunch carries the third of three short articles in which Paul Craig Roberts surveys the academic discipline of economics.  On the 15th, I noted the first two parts, in which he defended supply-side theory and attacked the theory of comparative advantage.  This third part concludes with Roberts declaration that “If economics is to be of any use to humanity, it must cease being absurd.” 

Roberts points out that the world mainstream economists describe is one empty of things humans have made.  In this “empty world,” the only limits on production are the limits of human productive activity.  “Nature has no role in the game.”  In the real world, by contrast, nature is full of things humans have made.  The limited availability of natural resources, of “natural capital,” imposes sharp, sometimes terrifying limits on production.  Roberts calls for economics to be reinvented to give a realistic description of this “full world.”     

Roberts takes up the banner of mathematical economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, who proposed that the discipline of economics essentially start over.  Georgescu-Roegen attacked the “Solow-Stiglitz production function,” which, according to Roberts, “assumes that man-made capital ias a substitute for nature’s capital.  Therefore, as long as man-made capital can be reproduced, there are no limits to growth.”  Roberts asserts that Georgescu-Roegen “destroyed the Solow-Stiglitz production function,” but mainstream economists cling to it “because it is a mathematical way of saying that ecological limits on economic growth do not exist.”  Georgescu-Roegen proposed replacing the Solow-Stiglitz function and the body of economic theory that depends on it with a new understanding of production.  “In contrast to the Solow-Stiglitz absurdity, Georgescu-Roegen made it clear that production is the transformation of resources into useful products and waste products.  Labor and man-made capital are agents of transformation, while natural resources are what is transformed into useful products and waste products.  Man-made capital and natural capital are complements, not substitutes.”  Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen died in 1994; the most notable living exponent of his ideas is economist Herman Daly.  Roberts particularly recommends Daly’s 2007 book Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development.

Counterpunch, 16-31 January 2009

free-tradeFrom Paul Craig Roberts, part two of a three-part survey of economics.  In Part One, published issue-before-last, Roberts had defended supply-side economics as the insight that reducing marginal tax rates increases the amount of goods available in the economy at every price range.  In this original sense, Roberts asserted, supply-side had “nothing to do with trickle-down economics or the claim that tax cuts pay for themselves.”  Roberts claimed that when inflation declined after the Reagan tax cuts of the 80s, the old Keynesian theory that loosening fiscal policy would raise prices was definitively refuted and supply-side just as definitively established.  This article was essentially a synopsis of Roberts’ 1984 book The Supply-Side Revolution

In this issue, Roberts argues that the doctrine of comparative advantage, for 200 years the cornerstone of the intellectual defense of free trade, does not apply to today’s world.  Roberts says that comparative advantage, as originally laid out by David Ricardo and elaborated ever since, rests on two basic presuppositions.  First, that the differing geographical, demographic, and climatic characteristics of countries would mean that in each country there would be different opportunity costs associated with choosing to make one product rather than another.  Second, that “the natural disinclination which every man has to quit the country of his birth and connections” meant that capital and, to a lesser extent, labor would remain fixed within national boundaries. 

Today, Roberts declares, both of these presuppositions are exploded.  In our world, “most combinations of inputs that produce outputs are knowledge-based.  The relative price ratios are the same in every country.  Therefore, as opportunity costs do not differ across national boundaries, there is no basis for comparative advantage.”  The second presupposition is even more thoroughly discredited.  Not only do owners of capital routinely migrate from country to country, but in the era of multinational corporations and electronic communications owners of capital need not follow their investments abroad to supervise their operations. 

Roberts cites many scholarly publications that challenge the doctrine of comparative advantage.  Among them: Global Trade and Conflicting National Interests, by Ralph E. Gomory and William J. Baumol; The Predator State, by James K. Galbraith; Robert E. Prasch’s January 1996 article in The Review of Political Economy,  “Reassessing the Theory of Comparative Advantage“; and, from 1888, R. W. Thompson’s History of Protective Tariff Laws