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Friday, March 30, 2007

Nepal: Bad As Things Are, It Could Get Worse, Daniel Lak

What’s truly amazing about human society is the degree of dysfunction that people and institutions are prepared to tolerate.

Westerners assume any little crisis or collapse will bring things crashing down. Everyone else knows that life largely goes on, no matter what leaders, wannabe kings, and conquerors get up to. Take Nepal at the moment. To all intents and purposes, there is no government in the country. There are political forces that engage from time to time with issues and problems, but there’s little in the way of governance, leadership, vision, and thoughtful policy-making. The tyre burner in the street has as much influence as the politician in parliament.

To some, especially on the right side of the spectrum, this is disaster. All is unravelling, rightists proclaim. Nothing can function without a strong hand on the tiller; better that the hand be misguided or malignant, than the tiller be unmanned. The hard left feels much the same, craving like its rightward counterpart to be the hand inside the mailed fist. Hardier centrists, whether tending right or left, have a little more sophistication. They know that things can slide along for quite some time without firm guidance or a long view on how to get to a distant policy horizon. What the late PV Narasimha Rao, former Indian prime minister, used to practice, an apparently Hindu concept called 'masterly inaction', got India well and truly on its way to today’s miraculous economic growth. Faced with a series of hard choices, Rao made none of them and just waited for things to change of their own accord, stepping in only if necessary. Arguably, it worked.

At the moment, you’d think Nepal would be deep in economic freefall and descending into absolute anarchy. But bad as things are, they’re not that bad, not yet anyway. There’s a rickety shell of a civil service, a somewhat livelier civil society, and a whole network of families and other groups across the country that keep some things functioning in good times and bad. Politicians dither and blather and do dirty deals. Kings and their cohorts hatch empty plots. No one governs overtly, but it matters less than we might think.

Right now, the country is waltzing towards greater limbo as the June elections fade from the radar, Nepal’s only natural resource, hydro, dries up, and people continue to queue up at foreign embassies to get themselves a job and a new life abroad. Small comfort might be sought in the notion that it’s worse elsewhere. Much of Africa squirms and suffers through much greater dysfunction and higher levels of violence. The components of the former Soviet Union, and much of Russia, are gripped by authoritarianism, corruption, and frustration. Pakistan and Afghanistan become ever more chaotic and Taliban-ready. Nepal’s stasis du jour seems mild by comparison.

That’s not to argue that anyone can afford much more inaction. In this country, in this polity, doing nothing is far from the masterly option. There’s too much poverty and need. There are no Narasimha Raos to plot the crafty—if inactive—course down the centre. Now more than ever, Nepal needs its centrists to stand up and start working, to get up from the chairs and out of the meeting rooms, to avoid the nightly bhoj, and forego the raksi, to resist the overwhelming urge to just do nothing.Nepal’s dysfunctional functionality is nearing its limits.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Far From D.C.: Politicized Justice, Jerry Politex

Christine: I don't get it. More House and Senate Republicans are siding with the Democrats on attorneygate than other even more damaging issues. What gives?

Jerry: A clause in the Patriot Act gives Bush the right to fire any fed attorney for any reason without consulting Congress, and they resent being taken out of the loop, since the old rule was that Bush could get rid of a fed attorney, but had to get the approval of Congress. This is just another part of Cheney's overall plan to turn the presidency into a dictatorship.

Christine: But there have been other instances of such behavior by Bush, and congressional Republicans and a good number of Democrats just rolled over. We're not talking about what every President does at the start of his term in office: at his pleasure, he fires all of the old fed attorneys and fills all of the posts with his selections, and Congress traditionally rubber stamps his selections.

Jerry: No one complains when that happens. Since all of the attorneys are replaced, both liberals and conservatives, the myth of a non-politicized federal justice system is continued. Congress can pretend that the new President is selecting a whole new slate of attorneys on the basis of their ability to do what's right and just, not what's politically expedient, whether its just or not. At the start of his second term, Bush decided to keep his first term selections in place, but weeded out a few who were not following his playbook. Obviously, as in so many things the Bush administration does, politics was more important than justice. The difference between the Bush adminstration and past modern administraions is that the Bush administration, in its blind arrogance, does not even pretend to place justice over politics. Even a significant number of Republicans in Congress can't tolerate such a blatant exposure of how the actual system of justice too often works: hence, their response.

Wedesday, March 28, 2007

Nepal Diary, #6: It's a Gas! Jerry Barrett

Another reason we've heard for the petrol shortage is that tribal groups to the South, feeling under-represented in the make-up of the new political system, are forming roadblocks to prevent the tanker trucks from getting through on the twisting, mountainous roads into Kathmandu. Some believe that these groups have the backing of royalist factions who want to retain power as the country moves into the pre-election period, the constitutional assembly elections scheduled for June. Both the nepali military and Maoist rebels are reportedly working to keep the roads clear. Meanwhile, here we were, just past the Ring Road south of Kathmandu, trying to get home on fumes.

Before passing Tribhuvan University on the right, where the four-lane University Road becomes a narrow, fifteen foot wide two lane road that takes us around the mountain to Pharping, we came upon a petrol station that was open...for the moment. Motorcycles, five abreast, were lined up facing south into the petrol station. On the other side of the station's driveway, cars were streatched a mile up a hill, facing north into the station. The station owners were wise to separate the two types of vehicles, since a single line of both cars and cycles into the station would have mirrored the chaos of the typical driving experience going on in the other three lanes, with vehicles of all kinds jockying for position. There were no trucks or buses in either line; they have their own petrol stations.

We drove to the end of the line of cars, hoping the station would still have petrol by the time we actually reached the pumps. We started out facing uphill, having to use precious petrol each time we moved forward in line. Soon, we reached the crest of the hill, and pushed our vechicle the rest of the way, a few yards at a time, into the petrol station an hour and a half later. Each time the line stopped, most of the drivers got out of their cars and walked around, visiting with the other drivers, washing their hands and feet at wells on the side of the road, buying snacks from carts standing in driveways, or waving to motorists passing by.

Many of the trucks and buses passing by were painted in gawdy colors and elaborate patterns, some with eyes where the headlights were. As night fell, the high-tech buses were the best: animated neon replaced the paint. In the front, bright, blue-white blinking lights bounced in animation around the signage and the windshield, creating something out of a science fiction movie. In the back, a large, animated hand in bright yellow on a black background waved bye-bye. Finally, we pushed our vehicle next to a petrol pump, a well-dressed, matronly woman stuffed our $10 worth of Nepali rupees into her bulging billfold, and we were rewarded with 10 liters of petrol.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Nepal Diary, #5: Folks on the Hill, Jerry Barrett

One reason Christine and I are presently living at a Buddhist Center in Pharping is to help build a guest house on the property. Perched on a mountainous cliff edge, the house overlooks a verdant valley of terraced farmland. Dots of farmers work their patches of land down below, and carry up baskets of produce on their backs into Pharping, which lines the bowl-shapped valley on one side. Christine designed the interior and I designed the exterior. Our challenge is going over the plans with a contractor who only speaks Nepali. We speak to a Center worker who speaks Hindi and English. He speaks to a young monk who speaks Hindi and Nepali. He speaks to the contractor. It's worked pretty well so far, as we learn what can and can't be done.

Since wood is scarce in the Kathmandu valley for a number of reasons, houses here are typically brick with concrete roofs. Flat concrete roofs (our choice) are finished off with balustrades; peaked roofs have tile-like designs scored into the cement and are often painted. Stucco over brick is considered to be "modern." Combining traditional Nepali and Santa Fe modern architecture, the guest house is a two-floor Nepali box, but with larger windows than usual to capture the fantastic view, sitting on top of a floating concrete platform, inspired by mid-century modern architecture. While three sides of the guest house are traditional brick, the fourth side, the side facing west, is stucco with narrow, slotted windows in the Santa Fe modern spirit.

Sunday was a big day, as the work force of 10 was doubled for the pouring of the thousand square foot second story concrete roof. All building in Pharping is labor-intensive. Workers carried bags of cement, stone, and sand in wheelbarrows and on their backs down narrow paths to the site from the road a block away. The concrete was mixed in a downstairs room and, like buckets of water to put out a fire, large metal "woks" filled with cement were passed, hand to hand, up two flights of stairs and poured over steel rods that criss-crossed the previously constructed wooden form. Others on the roof kept the concrete wet and smoothed it out. Since all of this had to be done as quickly as possible to prevent the concrete from cracking or hardening unevenly, the work continued non-stop for seven hours. At the end of the day, families arrived to walk the workers home, and the contractor wisely gave everyone Monday off.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Nepal Diary, #4: Calling All Freaks, Jerry Barrett

Durbar Marg, Kathmandu's fashionable street of upscale hotels, restaurants, banks, and travel agencies, runs North and South through the center of the city and ends up at the forebodingly tall fence that sorrounds the vast grounds of the Royal Palace. A few blocks to the west lies the touristy Thamel disrict (ta-MEL). It's been estimated that up to the 50's fewer than 300 Westerners had visited Kathmandu. By the 60's the Hippie invasion had begun, with those tourists on a budget permanently changing a street south of Thamel next to old Durbar Square into "Freak Street." Since then, over a thousand tourists arrive in Nepal each day, providing its third-largest source of foreign currency. While it's possible to live on Freak Street for under $25 US a day, its days of glory are long gone, and Thamel has taken its place as a tourist destination for Westerners.

Thamel's narrow streets and alleys, festooned with all manner of banners and signs, and the dense mix of Westerners and Asians navigating past beggars, con men, and dealers reminded me of the set of an exotic von Sternberg movie. A dwarf passes by, dressed in a superman costume. Shops filled with reproductions of local art, fabric, and jewelry, and mirrors reminds you of that hippie pipe shop in your hometown (sans pipes). Bootleg CD's of classic rock in paper covers sell for a buck. A couple bucks at "Barnes and Nobel" gets you a used copy of a John Harvey Brit detective mystery exchanged by a returning trekker. Have a pizza at "Pizza Hut," a burger at North Beach Cafe, or Irish Stew at Kilroy's of Kathmandu. For desert, try Le Bistro or Hungry Eye. Evening entertainment takes you to Blue Note, Tom and Jerry's, or the Rum Doodle Bar. Stay a night or two at Nepal Peace Cottage or the Nirvana Garden Hotel. Sounds like the Village or Haight in the 60's, doesn't it?

Kerry Moran ("Nepal Handbook"), my favorite guide to Napal, claims that the initial euphora one gets from a visit to Thamel soon wears off, and Christine agrees. Moran's reminded of Bangkok's Kao San Road and notes that while Thamel's easy to get around and it seems like everyone speaks English, "the mixture of hustle and self-delusion in the air can soon become distasteful." Maybe so, but on my initial visit to Thamel, I found it a blast!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Nepal Diary, #3: New Year's Eve in Kathmandu, Jerry Barrett

Prior to coming to Pharping I asked a friend who had been there about its pace of daily life. He said, "Every day is like New Year's Eve." Of course he was kidding. Standing on the cliffs overlooking the green, placid, farming valley below, Pharping is one of the calmest, least hectic places I've ever been. Kathmandu, with an estimated one million plus inhabiants, is another story. Twelve hours in Nepal's major city was enough for me, at least for a week. Like Bangkok, the pollution from densly packed motorized vehicles of all descriptions is stunning. Add to that, incredible noise pollution.

Although the main roads in the city are paved and the major thoroughfares are four lanes, the concept of orderly driving behavior is weak, very weak, except for stopping at red lights. In effect, any empty space is fair game, and veering into oncoming traffic is part of the game. The result is everyone is blowing their horns ALL THE TIME. With cars, trucks, busses, motorcycles, bikes, and people milling on, across, and through the roadway at all angles to the constant cacophany of blaring horns and screechy, sudden stops, the Kathmandu city experience is exhausting. On the packed sidewalks it's easy to get lost from your friends as people on the move quickly stream around you. (Busy sidewalks feature vendors displaying their wares. The book vendors prominantly feature books on both Bill Clinton and Hillary, but books on Daddy Bush or Junior are nowhere to be found.) You leave the city physically exhausted, with your respiratory system struggling to get back to normal the next day. It's really like Times Square on New Year's Eve, the only difference being that in Kathmandu it's New Year's Eve every day.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Nepal Diary, #2: Care For A Demonstration?, Jerry Barrett

We were planning on going to Kathmandu today, but yesterday our driver told us he learned through the grapevine that parts of the Ring Road around Kathmandu will be closed by impromptu demonstrations.  (Our driver, by the way, is a fashionable late teen-early twenties guy: black and gold racing jersey, low-rider jeans dragging on the ground, topped off by a big, thick chain hanging off his belt and looped into his back pocket. Short black hair and a great smile.) The demonstrations consist of stacking tires across the road and setting them on fire.

The road up the mountain from Kathmandu to Pharping is ragged, narrow, and precipitous. Two busses have a real hard time passing one another. No barriers to stop vehicles from plunging into the gorges below. There was even a demonstration on that road not long ago. A bus driver picked up some passengers at a stop along the way, but refused some young people.  The young people staged a tire burning demo and no one could get through. The next day only the busses were stopped. The day after that, the owner of the bus company came and apologized, and traffic went back to normal.

Then there are scheduled demonstrations, so you know in advance when things will be tied up. One checks the appropriate page on the American Embassy web site daily daily.  Tomorrow the All Nepal Free Students Union (Integrated) will hold a 15-minute Road Block in front of Tri-Chandra College near the Clock Tower. We'll be sure to avoid that part of town around lunch time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nepal Diary, #1: Hello? Getting Online, Jerry Barrett

Austin...Chicago...Moscow...Kabul...New Delhi...Kathmandu. Christine and I left Austin last Wednesday afternoon and arrived in Kathmandu last Friday afternoon, after an overnight stay in New Delhi. Our youthful drivers from the Buddhist Center met us, ready to take us 15 miles over the mountains to the villiage of Pharping, where we are staying. We first wanted to stop in Kathmandu to pick up SIM cards for our phones to make them usable as part of a digital wireless internet system. We were told, "No." Low on petrol. The petrol stations along the way were closed, and the semi-secret, muddy truck stops had none to spare. We made it to Pharping on fumes.

Mountainous Nepal gets its petrol by truck from Indian dealers across the southern border. As prices have gone up over the years, the government has subsidized the cost of gas. When the government of Nepal recently attempted to remove its subsidies, the nation's drivers staged massive protests, preventing that from happening.

We were told there was a store (more like a stall) in Pharping that sold SIM cards, but it was either closed or out of business. An American friend working for a few days in Kathmandu was going to purchase and bring SIM cards out to us on Monday, but learned he had to provide the name and number of a local, ongoing account, which he didn't have, to do so. A local on a motorcycle was going to pick up SIM cards in Kathmandu for us on Tuesday, but the stores in the city closed down in protest to political actions.

Word was a group of Maoist rebels had taken over a hotel in Kathmandu and had roughed up the manager, demanding he pay them a tax. In retaliation, the local Chamber of Congress had the city's shopkeepers close their places of business, bringing the city to a halt. Apparently, their quid-pro-quo action worked. Today, Kathmandu was open and our SIM cards were purchased and delivered. And here we are.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Nepal: As Political Unrest Eases, Travel Picks Up, Michelle Higgens

...After more than 10 years of bitter conflict, the Nepalese government signed a peace deal with Maoist rebels in November. A new temporary constitution is now in effect and an interim Parliament has been formed. The United Nations Security Council voted in January to set up a mission to oversee a disarmament and cease-fire accord between the government and the rebels and to plan elections of a constitutional assembly in June. Despite such developments, the State Department has continued to post travel warnings for Nepal on its Web site, www.state.gov/travel, urging Americans thinking of visiting the country to obtain updated security information before they travel and to be prepared to change their plans on short notice.

An Australian government advisory, which can be found at www.smartraveller.gov.au, recommends exercising a “high degree of caution” when traveling to Nepal. “While considerable progress has been made in negotiating a formal end to the decade-long Maoist insurgency,” the report states, “the longer-term security situation in Nepal remains unpredictable and could deteriorate.” Michael Steigerwald, director of the Himalayan region for Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco, who just returned from a February scouting trip to Nepal, said roadblocks that had doubled travel time along the road from Pokhara to Kathmandu — a key tourist route — were gone. And Maoists have stopped collecting money from tourists along trekking routes.

While there were demonstrations in Biratnagar, a city near the southeastern border with India, Mr. Steigerwald said that the company’s tours did not include visits to the city. “I didn’t really feel any threats or disruptions,” he said....If you decide to take a trip to Nepal, consider using an established outfitter, like the ones mentioned above, that has local contacts in Nepal and can quickly arrange to pull out of the region if signs of unrest reappear. Avoid demonstrations and large gatherings throughout Nepal, as they could turn violent.

A list of planned demonstrations can be found at the Web site of the United States Embassy in Nepal, nepal.usembassy.gov. And it’s best to stay away from the southeastern Terai region, where violent demonstrations in January and February resulted in deaths and injuries.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Nepal: Return to Kathmandu, Part One, Susan Spano

The all-seeing eyes of Buddha stare blankly over Kathmandu's Palace Square from a massive, wooden portal. The door is shut tight. But standing here on the very day in November when Maoist rebels signed a peace accord ending 10 years of turmoil in Nepal, I could almost hear the giant door open, bidding visitors back. A Hindu adage says guests are like gods. But travelers have largely stayed away since 1996, when Maoist insurgents began a terror campaign. Rebels blockaded roads, bombed tourist areas and demanded money from trekkers in the mountains. The US embassy in Kathmandu advised citizens to avoid Nepal and the Peace Corps suspended operations.

Then, in 2001, the king and nine members of his family were massacred in the palace by the crown prince. The tragedies seemed almost unreal, especially to travelers who, over the years, had become deeply attached to Nepal. I booked a trip to Nepal - my first - last summer, about the time insurgents agreed to lay down their arms. Since then, negotiations between the government and the Maoists have remained on track. A peace accord was signed November 21, and visitors are returning. With 75 percent of the country covered by mountains, including many of the world's tallest peaks - among them 8,850-meter Mount Everest - Nepal is a dream destination....

The myriad faces of Nepal today are nowhere more apparent than in the fertile Kathmandu Valley, which is ringed by terraced rice paddies. The Himalayas are about 80 kilometers north but seldom visible from the city because of clouds and pollution. I spent a week walking through this vibrant, noisy, nerve-rattling capital and touring nearby Bhaktapur and Patan. Since the late 13th century, this triad of cities - now melded in urban sprawl - has been the home of Nepal's kings, who filled it with palaces and temples. With seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Kathmandu Valley would richly reward visitors even if it were not in the shadow of the Himalayas....

I stayed at Hotel Tibet near the foreign embassies and new royal palace. It is owned by a family that immigrated to Nepal after the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1951, when refugees flooded in. The newcomers were known as keen business people, and they prospered in Tibetan Buddhist communities. The women at the hotel's front desk wore traditional Tibetan dresses. Carved dark wood, tiger rugs and stuffed yaks decorated the lobby. It was a 10-minute walk from the hotel to the tourist hub of Thamel in central Kathmandu. I took a variety of routes, passing vegetable stands, bicycle taxi ranks, boys playing cricket and intersections clogged with cars that abide by no traffic rules except survival of the fittest.

My path passed the eerily quiet, heavily guarded new royal palace, which occupies a huge walled compound in central Kathmandu. Once open to tourists, it has been closed since that night in 2001 when, high on drugs and alcohol and distraught after an argument with his parents, Prince Dipendra opened fire on his family then turned the weapon on himself. He was rushed to the hospital in a coma and proclaimed king, but he died without regaining consciousness. The prince's uncle, Gyanendra, took the throne. Though he does not enjoy wide popularity, many Nepalese are deeply attached to the monarchy and his picture is seen in restaurants and shops....continued below

Monday, March 12, 2007

Nepal: Return to Kathmandu, Part Two, Susan Spano

...Life goes on, especially in crazy Thamel, which grew up when hippies discovered Nepal's cheap hospitality and hashish in the 1960s. The country outlawed marijuana in 1973, and only a few graying flower children hang on. But the Thamel street scene remains overpowering.... Thamel's unofficial nerve center is Pilgrims Book House, which has a large collection of titles on the Himalayas, handicrafts and a congenial restaurant. I sat there drinking milky Nepalese tea with owner Rama Nand Tiwari....The only other quiet corner in Thamel is the newly opened Garden of Dreams in the grounds of an old European-style, Rana-era palace occupied by the Ministry of Sports and Education.

I kept going back to Thamel because of the restaurants. They serve every variety of Asian cuisine, refreshingly unfused. I had perfect pad Thai in the courtyard at Yin and Yang, and sat on the floor at Thamel House, tasting traditional dishes of the Newari people (half the population in Kathmandu Valley) such as roasted soybeans and potatoes fried with turmeric, chili and cumin.

Thamel is also an irresistible place to shop, with merchandise from all over Asia, testifying to Kathmandu's favored location on ages-old trading routes between India and China. Prices for fabrics and clothes, carpets, wood carvings, Newari metalwork, handmade mulberry paper and an astonishing array of knick-knacks are low even before negotiation. Upscale shoppers favor Durbar Marg, two long blocks east of Thamel. It is Kathmandu's Fifth Avenue, despite uneven sidewalks and stray dogs.

Kathmandu's historic center, Palace Square or Durbar Square, is crowded with statues, pavilions, the old royal palace and marigold-decorated temples in a range of architectural styles. Pilgrims who come for blessings from the Shivas and Vishnus inside, souvenir hawkers, rickshaw drivers and restoration teams working atop rickety scaffolds make the area vibrantly alive....

In Nepal, religion is not for holy days only but tightly woven into routine, as I saw one morning at Swayambhunath Temple a few kilometers west of downtown Kathmandu. Devotees in warmup suits were circumambulating the hill on which the temple is perched. A steep flight of steps leads to a giant white "stupa" - Buddhist shrine - decorated with prayer flags and another image of Buddha's all-seeing eyes. Monkeys skitter across the tile roofs and, when I was there, teenage soldiers filed around the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels. I watched, counting my blessings. To be in Nepal at that moment seemed a great gift. Only Buddha can see how the Nepalese will fare as they rebuild their fragile democracy....

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Politex News Wire...We're not surprised that America's "American Idol" voters have voted non-singers into the top 12. After all, George W. Bush, another non-talent, is our President...For those who want to pardon Libby and those who discount the charges, I'll expect them to back a bill that removes truth swearing from all U.S. legal proceedings. --Politex


“Whoever is the [Democratic Party] nominee is going to win, so the stakes are very high. ... “Not since the Vietnam War has there been this level of disappointment in the behavior of America throughout the world, and I don’t think that another incredibly polarizing figure, no matter how smart she is and no matter how ambitious she is — and God knows, is there anybody more ambitious than Hillary Clinton? — can bring the country together....Obama is inspirational, and he’s not from the Bush royal family or the Clinton royal family. Americans are dying every day in Iraq. And I’m tired of hearing James Carville on television....I don’t think anybody believes that in the last six years, all of a sudden Bill Clinton has become a different person...
I think [Republicans] believe [Hillary’s] the easiest to defeat....It’s not a very big thing to say, ‘I made a mistake’ on the war, and typical of Hillary Clinton that she can’t...She’s so advised by so many smart advisers who are covering every base. I think that America was better served when the candidates were chosen in smoke-filled rooms....[The Hillary] machine is going to be very unpleasant and unattractive and effective....[Clinton's] a reckless guy [who] gave his enemies a lot of ammunition to hurt him and to distract the country....Marc Rich getting pardoned? An oil-profiteer expatriate who left the country rather than pay taxes or face justice?...Yet another time when the Clintons were unwilling to stand for the things that they genuinely believe in. Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling.” --Hollywood mogul and major Dem contributor David Geffen

"Secret U.S. Plans For Iraq Oil":

President Bush was planning to invade Iraq before the September 11th attacks and was considering two very different plans about what to do with Iraq's oil. The plans sparked a political fight between neoconservatives and big oil companies and may help explain the recent appointments of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank and John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. That's the explosive charge in an expose by investigative reporter Greg Palast. This exclusive report aired on the BBC last week. This is the first time it is being showed in the United States. [transcript follows] --March, 2005

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Do The Math: To those 29 Dems who voted to give Bush permission to invade Iraq and are presently standing firm, saying they were misled, saying they made a mistake, or saying they wouldn't do it again: after two years of Bush lies prior to your vote on a bill titled "H.J. Res 114, the 'joint resolution to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq'," either you don't have enough smarts to be President or you're a warmongering liar. (Yes, you, Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, and McCain.) Who's left? Obama and Gore, who weren't in the Senate, and Rudy and Romney, among others. Of these four, who has been the most outspoken against the war from the git-go? (Hint: it's not Rudy or Romney.) --Senate Vote

Do Your Part To Fight Pollution:

Now that Al Gore has won the Academy Award and his success has become a threat to the GOP Puppet Party and its corporate masters, the Republican propaganda machine has gone into high gear in its attempt to smear him as a Green hypocrite. The charge: he has two houses, drives cars, and travels. Of course, George W. Bush and more Republicans than Democrats have two houses, drive cars, and travel. The difference is Al Gore pays for the pollution caused by his houses, cars, and airplanes by buying carbon shares; that is, giving a calculated amount of money to environmental causes to offset the pollution he is causing. If everyone did this, we would have zero sum pollution.

Of course the Republicans, ever concerned about the plight of poor people, as their legislative record suggests (not), complains that Gore can afford to cover his pollution costs, but others can't. In their warped, propagandistic minds, this make Gore a bad guy. Nonsense. This is how Gore deals with personal pollution, because he can afford it. For those who can't, his film and the books of others suggest many, many ways the individual can deal with personal pollution. No one has ever said buying carbon shares is the only way to fight pollution. To imply so suggests how desparate and fearful the GOP machine is of Gore and his ideas.

As for us, Christine and I live in a house, each drive a car, and travel. This year we're buying $300 worth of carbon shares to offset our personal pollution. If you're interested in considering doing the same, go here (our choice), here, and here. --Jerry Politex

Friday, March 09, 2007

Our Contributors: Floyd, Weiner, Collins, Wokusch, Samples, Ford, Collins, Uhler, Baroud, Ross, Partridge, Pringle (2), Miller, Brasch

How the Clintons and Bushes Took us to Hell, Chris Floyd
Origins of the Iraq Disaster, Bernard Weiner
When Does Opposition to Israel or the Israel Lobby Indicate Anti-Semitism?, Water C. Uhler
Inside the Libby Jury Room, Guest Contributor Denis Collins, Juror #9
War on Terror, War on Women, Heather Wokusch
Politics vs. Lives: Lost in the Lust of Werewolves, Sheila Samples
The Barack and Hillary Show Plays Selma, Glen Ford
Florida Gov. Crist wants to end disenfranchisement of ex-felons, Michael Collins
Middle East: Peace and Justice Movement in Britain at Crossroad, Ramzy Baroud
US has arrested more than 500 Iranians in Iraq, pursued others into Iran, Sherwood Ross
Oh What a Lovely (Cold) War!, Ernest Partridge
FDA - The Rest of the Story, Evelyn Pringle
Behind the Scenes Snake Oil Salesmen , Evelyn Pringle
Of Shameless Devotion to Wealth, Privilege, and Empire, Jason Miller
A Television Snow Job , Walter Brasch

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Ditech Nation: Housing Bubble Debt And Oil Supply Decline Spelling Collapse, Jim Kuntsler

The jive-finance economy had a few acidic burps last week -- or, at least, that's how it may seem in the days ahead as the equity markets finally upchuck the toxic notional junk "money" they have been gorging on in recent years. Has there ever been a financial collapse with brighter or louder warning signals?
     I suppose the expectation (or hope) is that the quasi-mythical "plunge protection team" -- a "working group" of federal reserve officials and bankers -- will jump in and administer some soothing pepto-bismol, but frankly I don't see how that's possible this time. The poison at the bottom is a fetid mass of "non-performing" mortgages, billions upon billions of loans that strapped borrowers are not paying back, loans which, in the meantime, have been rolled over, rebundled into jive "securities" (ha!) and sold, and rolled over again and used as "leverage" for massive exotic bets and bloated arbitrages involving mere abstract figments of electronic digital pulses completely removed from any reality-based productive investment activity.
     Among the leaders at the supply end of this racket has been General Motors -- that's right, the company that used to manufacture cars, the company about which one plutocrat once remarked what was good for [it] was good for the country. In fact, General Motors' main source of earnings for a long time now has been money-lending, not car-making (which only loses money). They started decades ago with GMAC, their own car-loan operation -- which makes sense if you are serious about selling cars -- but in the 1990s, with foreigners way out-selling GM's shitty cars, the company's financial wizards decided to venture into home loans and thus Ditech was born.
     That's right, Ditech, the outfit that advertised incessantly on TV, promising that house-buyers could sleepwalk their way into mortgage approvals -- and thus frustrate all the smarmy, over-fed, punctilious bankers who obstructed such requests with pain-in-the-ass qualifying protocols and burdensome paperwork. Last week GM put off filing regular required financial reports because of disarray in its Ditech operation. Ditech is responsible for as much as $80 billion in mostly sub-prime house loans -- i.e. given to people with dubious prospects for repayment. But GM's Ditech is but one of scores of entities now choking on non-performing paper (and many of Ditech's rivals are now bankruptcy road kill).
     What makes matters far worse is that all this wildly reckless lending has been in the service of a suburban sprawl-building juggernaut that will itself represent another layer of grotesque liability for the United States. The crash of the house-selling bubble, based on absurd asset inflation for things built badly in the wrong places, is coinciding exactly with a permanent oil crisis that will only exacerbate the locational disadvantages of houses built in the newest and furthest suburbs.
     Evidence now conclusively shows that Saudi Arabia's oil production was down 8 percent in 2006 over 2005, even while the number of oil rigs went up substantially -- indicating that the Kingdom is drilling as fast as it can and still losing ground. (Production slipped from 9.9 million-barrels-a-day to about 8.4 mm/b/d.) Mexico's Cantarell field is crashing (minimum 15 percent annual decline and possibly much steeper rate, meaning in a year or two the US will cease getting oil imports from its number two foreign supplier). The North Sea is crashing, too. Russia is about show steep decline. Iran is past peak. Iraq, as every six-year-old knows, is the world's cluster@#$% poster child. Indonesia (OPEC member) is now a net oil importer. Venezuela is past peak and full of loathing for the US. Nigeria is collapsing politically. No amount of corn is going save the Happy Motoring utopia, and that's really all our economy is now based on.
      When the financial markets factor all this in -- and they really haven't yet -- I think we'll see a lot more of what they like to call "downside action." These things are all connected. The housing bubble was set into motion by $10-a-barrel oil at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps as much as half the jobs created since then have been in house-building, house-selling, house-buyership-enabling, house furnishing, and other things house-related. The whole final suburban blow-out enterprise has been a fantastic blunder. Now it's unraveling and the only "performing" loans will be the ones paid to the accounts receivable department in hell.
      It ought to be an interesting week in the markets.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Vicious: Dick Cheney's Covert Global War, Michael Carmichael

The New Yorker’s ace investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, had done it again with his latest earth-shattering exposé. Hersh revealed Dick Cheney and his henchmen had deliberately set about inciting chain reactions of sectarian violence and civil wars across the Middle East via a massive covert operation disguised as a shift of geopolitical strategy. It was therefore entirely appropriate that the earth itself opened up in Bagram and came close to swallowing up the main perpetrator of this seemingly unstoppable nightmare - namely US Vice President Dick Cheney. Now, instead of launching a war against Iran, Cheney with Bush’s complicity, has pulled the trigger on a covert war of global proportions pitting Sunnis against Shias.

According to Hersh, Cheney’s covert plan involves massive US financial backing for militant Sunni groups that are known to be inimical to the Shia militias of the Badr Brigades, the Mahdi Army, Hamas and Hezbollah all of whom support the revolutionary government of Iran. The US-backed Sunnis include the Muslim Brotherhood, a vast and powerful multinational organization, who are definitely on friendly terms with Al-Qaeda and its allies, including the Taliban. The government of Saudi Arabia is Sunni, although they are deeply despised by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda because of their subservience to their masters in big oil and George Bush’s America.

The Israeli right and a rogue faction of the royal family of Saud who are loyal to Prince Bandar bin Sultan are backing Cheney’s covert plan. The ultimate objective of Cheney’s redirection of US strategy in the region is to redraw the national boundaries of the Middle East and to give an explosive multiple birth to a sprawling litter of new cantons, colonies, domains, enclaves, protectorates, statelets and territories all pledged to American and Israeli dominance of the region and its precious oil, gas and energy reserves.

For starters, Lebanon is to be dismembered so as to form a chain of new semi-autonomous and religiously segregated cantons: one Sunni, one Christian, one Alawi and one Shia. Iraq will suffer the worst and most disfiguring surgery. Baghdad will become a City State poised perilously on the border between the new Arabic Sunni and Arabic Shia states. The southern borders of the Arabic Shia State will straddle Kuwait and extend down south to include the oil-fields of southern Iran on the east and an oil-rich strip of Saudi Arabia on the west. A new state of Free Kurdistan will be separated from the Sunni and Shia enclaves of Iraq. A Greater Jordan will be carved out of Saudi Arabia to provide more space for the relocation of Palestinians, and a Free Baluchistan that will include Helmand province and Kandahar will be severed from Afghanistan. Perhaps, most controversially, an Islamic Sacred State that will include the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the Hejaz will be surgically separated from the rest of Saudi Arabia. (see map)

Coincidentally, at the same time that Cheney is fomenting religious conflicts and civil wars between the Sunnis and the Shias, the US-backed government in Iraq is poised to hand over control of Iraqi oil production to the western oil companies. In this plan, the government of Iraq will retain their ownership of the oil reserves, but they are irrevocably awarding the right to extract the oil reserves exclusively to big oil. Given this sequence of events, Dick Cheney might argue for the Jungian principle of synchronicity – an unexplainable consequence of simultaneity sometimes as pleasant as serendipity but sometimes as painful as catastrophe – but few would believe him. Cheney might implore, “Why not redistribute the oil wealth of Iraq to big oil at the same time the US shifts its strategy to trigger a wave of religious confrontations designed to dismember, dissect and carve up the entire region while masking the expropriation of the Iraqi people’s oil rights?” The reply could be, “Because this crude tactic is blatantly immoral, unethical and illegal.” But, those trivialities have never stopped Cheney before, nor are they likely to stop him now.

Tueday, March 06, 2007

Media Bias? NYT Stirs Clinton Marriage Dirt, But What About George and Laura?, NYT, FAIR, Politex

...The dynamics of a couple's marriage are hard to gauge from the outside, even for a couple as well known as the Clintons. But interviews with some 50 people and a review of their respective activities show that since leaving the White House, Bill and Hillary Clinton have built largely separate lives -- partly because of the demands of their distinct career paths and partly as a result of political calculations....

Because of Mr. Clinton's behavior in the White House, tabloid gossip sticks to him like iron filings to a magnet. Several prominent New York Democrats, in interviews, volunteered that they became concerned last year over a tabloid photograph showing Mr. Clinton leaving B.L.T. Steak in Midtown Manhattan late one night after dining with a group that included Belinda Stronach, a Canadian politician. The two were among roughly a dozen people at a dinner, but it still was enough to fuel coverage in the gossip pages.... --Patrick Healy, NYT.

...In his May 23 front-page article in The New York Times, staff writer Patrick Healy asserted that "[w]hen the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up for many prominent Democrats these days, Topic A is the state of their marriage" and how it "might affect Mrs. Clinton's possible bid for the presidency in 2008." Healy offered no specific reasons for this purported interest among "prominent Democrats" aside from the amount of time the Clintons spent apart, a mention of a decade-old affair, and a reference to year-old "concern" over a "tabloid photograph showing Mr. Clinton leaving B.L.T. Steak in Midtown Manhattan late one night after dining with a group that included Belinda Stronach, a Canadian politician." Healy continued: "The two were among roughly a dozen people at a dinner, but it still was enough to fuel coverage in the gossip pages."

As it happens, the cover of the May 29 edition of the Globe contains another sensational headline about another high-profile political couple: BUSH MARRIAGE BREAKUP!...On Pages 20 and 21, the Globe announces "Bush and Laura's 29-year marriage FALLS APART," adding: "They barely talk to each other," "[t]hey argue when they do speak," and "[s]he's afraid he'll hit the bottle." Quotes in the article attributed to "a longtime friend" include the assertion that "[w]hen the cameras aren't on, they have nothing to do with one another," and that "[f]or all practical purposes, they've broken up." The "family friend" continues: "After their last fight over booze, they just stopped talking -- period." The Globe's report that Laura Bush is concerned that President Bush may "hit the bottle" is reminiscent of a September 21, 2005, National Enquirer article about "Bush's booze crisis," which reported: "Faced with the biggest crisis of his political life, President Bush has hit the bottle again." Media Matters wonders when we can expect The New York Times to assign a reporter to tally the number of nights the Bushes spend together and to conduct 50 interviews with Republicans to assess their interest in the state of the Bush marriage, or in President Bush's reported relapse -- and when it will run a 2,000-word front-page article on the topic.... --Media Matters, with Globe cover

The New York Times might respond to FAIR's concerns over bias in its reporting by mentioning that Hillary wants to become the President of the United States, so her private life is of concern to all Americans. As if allegations of a drunk making life and death decisions for American troops in battle is not. This smacks of the same kind of kid glove treatment given to Bush as President during his early years in office. As Bush Watch has documented, Bush was a liar from the get-go, but the mainstream media was reluctant to say so, since he was, after all, the President. Today, of course, the words "liar" and "Bush" are connected with great regularity. --Jerry Politex

Monday, March 05, 2007

Indecision '08: Is Richardson The Man To Back?, Politex, Brooks, etc.

In the middle of the 2004 Dem presidential primaries a reader asked me who I would support. I answered "John Edwards." Since then, Edwards has paid his populist dues, making him the choice of many Dems for a domestic issues president, but his attitude towards the war in Iraq is a real turnoff. Here's what Frank Rich said about that on Sunday:

...Some [Dem] politicians ended up voting to authorize war exactly as Mrs. Clinton did (Senators Hagel and Biden). Some didn’t. But all of them — and there were others as well — asked tougher questions and exerted more leadership. John Edwards, by the way, did not: he was as trigger-happy about speeding up the war authorization then (“The time has come for decisive action”) as he is gung-ho about withdrawal now, despite being an Intelligence Committee member when Mr. Graham sounded alarms about the Bush administration’s W.M.D. claims.

Richardson appears to be more balanced than Edwards; he is not as populist as Edwards, but his record leans toward diplomacy, not war. On the other hand, he may be is as populist as Gore, less outspoken against the war, but experienced in fighting pollution as an ex-Sec. of Energy. As for Obama, Richardson has the positive experience in numerous key roles in government. Obama does not. Further, Richardson's appeal to the Hispanic vote should not be discounted. With respect to Clinton, Richardson is simply more representative of the iedals and aspirations of the Democratic Party than Hill. As for the candidates' position on supporting Israel, neither Dems nor Repubs feel strong enough to challenge Israel foreign policy or the conservative U.S. Israel lobby. --Jerry Politex, March 5, 2007

What if Richardson does this well at forums for the next 10 months? Is it possible to imagine him as a leading candidate for the nomination? When you think that way, it becomes absurdly easy to picture him rising toward the top. He is, after all, the most experienced person running for president....Once a century or so the Democratic Party actually nominates somebody the average person would like to have a beer with. Bill Richardson is that kind of guy....I wouldn’t bet a paycheck on Richardson. But I wouldn’t count him out. At the moment, he’s the candidate most likely to rise. --David Brooks, March 4, 2007.

Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico is a three-fer: a natural executive, a Westerner for a party that needs to crack the Southwest code, and a public official of unusually rich experience (congressman, UN ambassador, energy secretary, diplomat extraordinaire, and so on). Oh, and did we mention that he's Hispanic, a member of the most fought-after ethnic grouping in America today? Rumors about his amorous personal life notwithstanding, if Richardson decides to run, he'll be a factor at the least. --Larry Sabato.

We'll leave aside, momentarily, the fact that Richardson is clearly more qualified for the White House than anyone else in the race, since everyone knows that doesn't matter. Just consider the bare fact that he's the popular, second-term governor of a swing state -- you know, the sort of person who back in the day used to win presidential elections. And it's not as if Richardson isn't getting attention because the field is crowded with popular second-term governors of swing states. No. We're too excited about the first-term senator from Illinois whose only competitive election in the past was against Bobby Rush -- and who lost. Or that vice presidential nominee from a losing ticket....I'm not going to tell you to vote for Bill Richardson, or even that I'm going to vote for Bill Richardson. But, at a minimum, I'd like to learn more, and you should, too. --Matthew Yglesias.

Gov. Bill Richardson amused an audience of Hispanic leaders in the fourth week of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Being a Hispanic is a positive credit for his "win," Richardson said in a speech Tuesday. He added that since the beginning of his presidential drive, his poll numbers have risen from 1 percent to 8 percent. "I am moving up!" he said to applause and laughter. At a luncheon sponsored by the Latino Leaders Network, Mickey Ibarra, the group's chair and founder, urged the Hispanic community leadership to work together and promote the fast-growing minority. "We must build each other up, don't you agree?" he said, clearly referring to Richardson. Speaking without a formal written speech, Richardson asked, "Am I going to be the first American president to do more for Hispanics than any other president?" He answered his own question with a strong "Yes!" But he said he wasn't just running on Hispanic issues.... --Sayed Zafar Hashemi.

--research by Joe Burgess

Friday, March 02, 2007

Our Contributors: Baroud, Fisher, Mickey Z., Weiner, Floyd, Ireland, Uhler, Ross, Jones, Robertson, Wokusch, Collins, Kane, Rant Man

The Final Punch: Removing Iran from the New Middle East Equation, Ramzy Baroud
Cheney Is Recklessly "Bob"-ing Iraq & Iran, Bernard Weiner
Brothers in Arms Again: Bush Faction Arming Al Qaeda to Thwart Iran, Chris Floyd
A Pig Looking at a Watch: Assessing Iran's Nuclear Program, Walter C. Uhler
Blabbermouth Bush's Threats Against Iran Are Pushing Up Oil Prices, Sherwood Ross
Stop U.S. state-sponsored terrorism, Don Robertson
Unreported: Two Bomb Plots Averted, John Calvin Jones
Aspects of the U.S. Under Bush, Heather Wokusch (videos)
Unsports: America's March Madness, Mickey Z.
Supporting the Troops: "Shut Up and Suffer, Chris Floyd
Campaign '08: Fingers in the Wind, Fisher
Let's Hear It for the Moderates, Fisher
Missouri Activists Say “Show Me The Vote”, Michael Collins
Letter from Rome: PM Prodi's Contradictions, Judy Harris
French Candidate Royal in Free- Fall, Direland
Why I Don’t Hate My Hate Mail, Madeleine Begun Kane
if-you-hate-america-so-much-get-hell-out, Rant Man

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Pinto Nation: U.S. Corporate Behavior And The Stockholm Syndrome, Kent Southard

When I was eight, my parents divorced and my mom, little sister and me moved in with my grandparents, where they had retired to in the Mormon town of Mesa, Arizona, outside Phoenix. Arriving in January, my Grandfather soon came up with what seemed like a great idea - he was going to mount my prized Lionel train set permanently on a 4'x8' piece of plywood, standing outside under a grape arbor. Summer rolled around, with temperatures so hot to step outside seemed like stepping into an oven. Nobody played outside during the day. One morning, I guess, I went outside to discover that my Lionel trains had melted - my milk car, lumber car, livestock car, milk, lumber and livestock stations, had become something out of a painting by Dali, twisted and drooping and ruined. Another toy was a large plastic army helicopter with battery powered rotors and wench - it was stored outside in a cupboard that was shaded under an eave, and it melted too.

This was in 1961. These memories bring to mind the thought - how much global warming could Phoenix actually sustain before people spontaneously combusted on the sidewalk? I recently heard an interview where in the Arctic winters are up to 28 degrees above zero, where normally it was 30 below. Phoenix couldn't take another 10 degrees, much less 60.

Yesterday's catering gig was the opening of the first hydrogen refueling station in the country. BMW was there, with their hydrogen fueled piston engined 7-series, so were Toyota, Honda and Nissan with an assortment of hydrogen fuel cell hybrids. My favorite science teacher in college was enthusiastic about a plan where floating batteries of photo voltaic cells on the ocean could convert ocean water to hydrogen, which when used as a fuel, produces nothing but water vapor. Fuel without monopoly, which when used doesn't kill everyone. Makes entirely too much sense, doesn't it? The crowd for this grand opening was large and enthusiastic and international. (Speaking as someone whose father ended up as an engineer displaying the worst of stereotypical symptoms - he had pocket protectors on his pajamas - I was a bit amazed at the Japanese R&D types, who looked for all the world like French movie stars.)

Missing from the festivities, as you may have discerned, were any of the Detroit 'Big Three'.

Have you driven a Ford lately? Me neither. Maybe there's a reason? There was a time though.........when I was 14, to be exact. Ford had won Le Mans, the 24 hour race through the French countryside, beating Ferrari at its own game. And the winning car, the black #2 Fort GT Mk II driven by Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren, was on display at the Ford dealer in my little Mormon town. It was beyond awesome - one of the team mechanics was on tour with the car, and he opened it up for my stepdad and me, showing off the cockpit, engine, everything. The chassis of the Ford GT was of monocoque construction, like an airplane, but used a lightweight honeycomb composite instead of the usual aluminum, which made it actually more advanced than aircraft technology of the day. American's were leading in technology everywhere! Ford followed with another Le Mans win the next year, but after that.........after that came the Pinto.

I was interested to read a profile of the new Ford CEO, the guy who came over from Boeing. He's having his managers meet on a weekly basis. And he's trying to do away with a culture where managers would use meetings as a forum to 'explain away problems.'

Also read a profile of the new CEO of Honda. Originally started in Honda's motorcycle racing program. Loves racing. (Honda has a practice of cycling their young engineers through their racing programs so they're simultaneously exposed to the very latest technology and learn how to work and solve problems on a very compressed timetable. Which may be a reason why Honda hasn't produced many Pintos.) The article talked about Honda's managing practice where problems 'are not solved in the executive's office, the executive goes to the shop floor, listens to what the shop guys have to say, respects what they say, and solves the problem there.'

Did you catch all that? The suit goes to the shop floor. The suit listens to the guys who don't wear suits. The suit respects the guys who don't wear suits. The problem is solved. The suit doesn't just sit in his office, invested with the power to create the narrative for his area of responsibility, and 'explain away problems.'

It seems to me that increasingly (Republican) America consists of little more than the striving to obtain a position where we can control the narrative, to suit the corporate culture, to 'explain away problems.' A recent NPR piece, possibly finding their gonads a bit after the Dems retook Congress, discussed George W.'s time as Texas governor: how he claimed a history of bi-partisanship, whereas in fact the legislature met for only a couple of weeks every other year, giving George less than two months of actual practice. Yet, the NPR reporter said, 'from this Bush constructed a narrative of bi-partisanship.' Of course, we must realize that as a condition of his birth, and the nature of his character, George W. Bush's life has been about little else but the creation of narratives - successful businessman, successful governor, war-president, etc., all narratives created pretty much whole-cloth - because that's what you can get away with when your culture tells you can explain away problems and declare success when there is none, simply because you are in the position to say so.

Have you seen the developments about Jose Padilla? The gang kid accused of going Al Qaeda? Apparently he's suffering severely from PTSD, from a few years now of being kept literally in the dark. Government attorney's say he's faking - yeah, like I'm sure most gang kids have an encylopedic knowledge of PTSD. An LA Times article said he often displays Stockholm Syndrome behavior: "When you are helpless and dependent on an all-powerful group, it takes away your anxiety when you line up with them." Sounds like everyday corporate life to me.

I mean really, isn't that the complete corporate American experience these days - we no longer consciously affirm whatever management dictates, because we are socialized to merely 'line up' with them, not because they are right, but because they control the narrative. And it's that narrative, not the truth or facts of any situation or our individual performance, that controls whether we survive or are kicked to the curb.

Except.........we are probably mere months away from the 'Big 3' car companies in America being Toyota, Honda, and BMW. And what is true of Ford and Chrysler and GM is true of Bush too - when you pride yourself on not listening to those 'beneath' you, when you pride yourself on your contempt for them, maybe, just maybe, reality's about to bite you on the ass.

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