Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vietnam and America Go to War, 1954-1968

This is just to let you know that I posted another draft chapter of my book The U.S. War Against Asia. This is the second chapter on Vietnam. Here are the links:

Vietnam and the West Until 1954

Vietnam and the U.S., 1954 to 1968

Rivers of a Lost Coast

Last night Jan and I went to see Rivers of a Lost Coast at the Point Arena theater. I was prepared to be bored, as while this was billed as an environmentalist documentary about northern California rivers, I knew it was actually about fly fishing, which I consider less than fascinating.

The film, however, was artfully crafted. There were no long demonstrations of twenty ways to tie a fly. It was a story well told, the history of the heyday of fishing for salmon and steelhead from Santa Cruz to the border of Oregon. It showed the vast schools of giant salmon and the fishermen who learned to catch them in the elegant fly-fishing style. Some of these guys were pretty kooky. If the fish were running, they were there, even if it meant adopting a nomadic, job-free life style.

The heyday was in the 1950's. The salmon were running as stongly as they had for thousands of years. Anglers lined the banks of the rivers, big and small, including the Russian River, Klamath, Smith River and Eel River.

By the late 1970's, the fish were gone. Instead of catching several fish in a day, one was lucky to catch one fish in several days. The film shows what happened. Logging, especially clear-cuts with no remediation, caused too much sediment to run into the streams during the winter rain storms. Also, logging companies filled in streams to use for roads. Urban areas and suburbs grew, sucking the water from wherever they could find it (much northern California water is diverted to Los Angeles). Wine production, with its attendant vineyards, destroyed more forests and sucked up more water while dumping enourmous quantities of pesticides into the environment. When years of drought came, the rivers sank. Already hurting, the fish died off rapidly. Rather than restoring the fish by restoring the rivers, politicians decided to fund hatcheries. But dumping live hatchlings into dead rivers does not work very well, we have found.

And so fly fishing for salmon and steelhead in California has also died. Ancient fishermen remember the good old days and regret they were too busy fishing to fight with the loggers, developers and their politicians to protect the fish.

Craig Bell, who knew some of the old geezers interviewed in the film, spoke before the film and answered questions afterwards. I admire Craig. He is a workhorse when it comes to protecting our rivers and fish. But he is also a good illustration of why the environmental movement is so crippled in American politics. Multiply the example of Craig Bell by a factor of 10,000, and you might get an idea of the magnitude of this problem.

With Craig Bell as an example, the other half of the coin is going to be Mike Thompson. Mike, is this area's guy in the House of Representatives. Mike is known as an environmentalist largely because he once got photographed holding a salmon and demanding that water in the Klamath River be reserved to protect the salmon. The farmers who wanted the water for their farms were in a different Congressional District. Mike is in the conservative wing of congressional Democratic Party members, the Blue Dog Caucus.

Beyond that, local perceptions of Mike Thompson on the environment are shaped by people Craig Bell. I have heard Craig praise Mike Thompson many times. Unlike most of the local greenish voters, however, I know quite a bit about Mike Thompson. I also know why Craig has no choice but to praise Thompson in public.

Congressional offices operate like little feudal fiefs, not just on the local level, but in Washington as well. They get a lot of say in things that happen in their districts. Including funding for new parks, just for instance. You might think that the Interior Department gets a budget, and bureaucrats divide it up, but that is only partly true. If you want to extend a park or create a new one, you can't do it without the help of your person in Congress.

So activists like Craig Bell and their organizations spend a lot of time asking politician like Mike Thompson for their help. Even though the money actually comes from taxpayers, they are made to feel like it comes from Mike Thompson's own hands. Of course Craig rarely talks to Mike. Instead he talks to staff people. The staff people are really nice, if you are nice to them. That is their job. They are not so nice if you are a person known to campaign actively against their guy in elections.

After the film, in listing the causes of loss of salmon runs in northern California rivers, Craig listed grape vineyards as a major factor. This is on many people's minds locally right now because a astonishingly large vineyard is being proposed in our area by an international corporation. Craig did not mention Mike Thompson in regard to vineyards.

That would be impolitic.

In other situations, say wine tastings or vineyard tours, it is not impolitic to mention Mike. Vineyard owners love Mike Thompson. They are major contributors to his bloated campaign war chest. Mike Thompson created the Wine Caucus in Congress and has been one of its co-chairs for years. Representative Thompson has done a lot for the wine industry over the years. He is their guy in Congress. He has done a lot to help keep vineyards profitable. He recently got them a nice federal tax break, for instance.

Profitable vineyards mean expansion. Old vineyards grow, and new ones are built. That sucks more water from the land and dumps in more pesticides.

Craig Bell should be screaming about how damaging Mike is to the salmon fishery.

But that is the job of people like me. I don't ask Mike for anything, so I am free to criticize. I always vote for and support candidates who run against him (not Republicans. I support Green Party, Peace and Freedom Party, or independent candidates, depending on who is available). Of course my candidates always lose, but there is always the next election cycle.

Most of the big, national environmental groups are in the same position as Craig Bell. They do good work, but if they want anyone in Congress to work with them, they must mute their criticisms.

Sadly, many of them go further than that. They try to shout down the more radical environmentalists (I have never heard Craig Bell do that, but I've seen it plenty elsewhere).

As environmentalists our mainstream political strategy needs to be to replace the Mike Thompson's in Congress by genuine Greens. And since the big money will always be trying to oust any green in any major political office, we need a long term strategy to keep the voters on our side.

We also need to revive the concept of direct action. Direct action gets the goods. If you want the rivers to flow to the sea so the salmon can swim up them, don't wait for the government. Craig mentioned how much of what has been done since the 1960's to protect our rivers began with direct action. Like I said, Craig is one of the good guys.

But when he swears that Mike Thompson is a good environmentalist, imagine him winking a warning that maybe you should look a little deeper before believing him.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Blood Dries Quickly

"But blood dries quickly, at least the blood of ordinary investors. If any journalists recalled the shenanigans of Milken's friends ... no one wrote about it in the national press." — Ben Stein, A License to Steal
When Michael Milken started issuing junk bonds ("high yield bonds") I was in college, studying Political Science, trying to figure out why the world was such a mess and what might be done about it. A decade and a half later, when Milken's empire went down in flames, taking a good section of the Savings and Loan industry with it, I was in Earth First! and the IWW, trying to save the old-growth forests of northern California from Pacific Lumber. That company had been taken over by Charles Hurwitz, using junk bonds and money he had looted from a Texas savings and loan or two.

I had learned a thing or two about business in that interval, mostly by accident, mostly from taking odd jobs, a bit from reading books, and not just Das Capital and Wealth of Nations. And I had taken Economics 101 and 102 in college. I had worked as a paralegal on the bankruptcy of OPM (rumored to stand for Other People's Money), on the economic meltdown related to nuclear reactors known as WPPSS, on the trial of a drug that caused birth defects, and on writing trusts for wealthy people, among other things.

Chang the names of the players, and substitute mortgage-backed securities for junk bonds, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for President Ronald Reagan, and you have a book about 2008 and 2009. Ben Stein's A License to Steal came into my possession more or less by accident a few weeks ago. Published in 1992, it illuminates exactly what is needed to keep financial predators from ruining the economy for the rest of us. The public is, for the most part, not in a position to defend itself against unscrupulous, well-versed liars who have the ability to create securities.

But even after the U.S. government used our taxpayer dollars to make whole the savers at the savings and loans; even after people lost their retirements when junk bonds issued by Milken and held by insurance companies went bad; even when stock holders lost their investments as Milken's friends pillaged well-known American companies, the government did nothing. Worse still, under President Clinton, then under President Bush, the "deregulated" securities markets to a far greater extent.

The popping of the Internet stock bubble in 2001 did not even give Congress, the Federal Reserve, or either major political party pause. The Internet bubble was caused mainly by investor stupidity, but the housing bubble that followed was engineered by the Federal Reserve's low-interest rate policy combined with the "magic" of collateralized debt obligations backed by mortgages that would be impossible to pay off. That little business is mentioned in Stein's 1992 book, but it took a decade to mature into full-scale fraud.

As with the Milken era, most of the people responsible will not go to jail. They have been allowed to say they are sorry. In a showing of political crassness (after Crassus) that would have humbled even the great humbug politicians of 1992, taxpayer money is being used to pay the salaries of the very group of bank executives who scammed the public and the government.

That is the only reason Obama and the Democrats are pretending to do anything about health care. The health care crisis is serious, but if they do anything, they will just move the deck chairs around. While you watch that, you will be forgetting. Forgetting about the national debt, forgetting about how the Democrats were even more eager to bail out the rich fraudsters than the Republicans. After all, it is Republicans who are going to be hit hardest with the tax bill.

Believe it or not, many Republicans are honest. They worked honestly hard for their money and kept their belts tight for a time in order to be able to save and invest. They are mad as hell, and don't believe the Republican Party should be bailing out con artists. Of course they also were choked with their own rope, the fine spun hemp of deregulation and free market fantasy economics.

Blood dries quickly, especially the blood of small-time investors. I wrote an article back in 1996, Charles Hurwitz's Money, that explained how he went from being a small time guy to being a mogul. In short, he defrauded people - people who bought insurance from him, investors in companies he gained control of, tax payers - and defended himself with an army of lawyers. He has not spent a day in jail.

If you live in the hood, mark this lesson well. The drug trade is highly competitive. When all is said and mortality is taken into effect, if makes only ordinary profits. If you really want to make money, study the the Michael Milkens, Charles Hurwitzes and Stanley O'Neals of the world. You can make all the money you want, buy all the lawyers, journalists, and Senators you need, and almost never, ever, go to jail.

If you are an ordinary person who has managed to save some money, keep in mind the old adage about investment deals: if you don't know who the sucker in the deal is, it is you.

I believe that this economic downturn will most likely end, but I cannot entirely discount a long recession or an even greater upheaval. The debt of the group of madmen that calls itself the United States Government is probably unpayable. Some day, when people realize that, there will be hell to pay. Hopefull the citizens of this country will refuse to pay it. Isn't there some old American maxim, No Taxation Without Representation? Do you feel represented?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Memento, History, and Political Tattooes

First, a couple of new articles not given blog entries: Catholic Inquisition of U.S. Nuns and review of Zonet 16-Port Ethernet Switch.

In the movie Memento the main character, Leonard, has lost his short term memory. The movie runs back through time, showing how how Leonard uses a system of notes, some tattooed to his body, to try to track down the killer of his wife. The problem is that other people realize Leonard has not only lost his short term memory, but that his long-term memory has deficits as well. So they use him for their own ends.

I doubt the writer or director intended it, but this is a nearly perfect metaphor for American politics. It is an even scarier notion than George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which a totalitarian government manipulates people by actually re-writing history as needed. The governance (here I include both the government and corporate decision making) of America is not totalitarian. If you don't like Vista, you can buy OSX or Linux. But it does encourage forgetfulness, History Channel not withstanding.

Lack of long-term memory is at least comprehensible as a human fault. There is a lot of history. Just to survey it takes a huge commitment. For example, there are quite a few nations in the world that I have not read a single history book about. Even if you focus on American history, and just try to get a sense of what really happened in each decade of our history, you have a lot of reading to do. Once you realize how carefully edited most history books are, how they lie by omission, you have a lot of work to do finding books that have critical views. Usually to find a critique of any given nation you must look to histories written about it by other nations.

There is no easy way around the long-term memory problem. We can't all be history majors.

You would think, however, that people would remember what happened in their own lifetime, and learn from their experiences.

If the Democratic Party members over the age of 55 in this rural area of northern California are any indication, we might as well save ourselves the ritual of voting. Sadly, many Green Party members (but not all) have been just as forgetful. We are reliving 1965. I was ten back in that bygone year. I paid minimal attention to news and politics, but I knew Lyndon Johnson had beat Barry Goldwater in the November 1964 presidential election largely by implying that Senator Goldwater would get us into a nuclear war with Russia.

We did not have a war of any kind with Russia, but Johnson bombed North Vietnam and then invaded South Vietnam on the flimsiest of excuses. Not that President Johnson was all bad. He was the first Democratic Party president to break with the racist past of the party in deeds as well as words.

Now we have a black President (but not one whose ancestors were slaves in the United States), and the excitement over that caused otherwise cynical voters to forget everything else. Like that politicians tell you what you want to hear, then deliver unto their major donors.

So now what was the Bush war on terror is wider than ever before. Fighting in Iraq has cooled for the moment because we are happy with our puppet government there. But fighting has intensified in Afghanistan and we are regularly bombing Pakistan. Shades of President Johnson, shades of President Nixon.

And let's not forget about the economy. I predict there will be no real economic reform. The crisis is past, and for a while bankers and investors will be cautious. With no reform, however, the conditions will be in place for another massive round of thievery, with working class Americans, again, as the ultimate victims.

Nor are we getting real reform on environmental issues. The Democrats figure that by being slightly more green than the Bush administration, they can keep their corporate sponsors and trap voters in the old the-Republicans-are-worse recycling bin.

So, ask yourself, what should you tattoo to your body politic?