Archive for January 4th, 2010
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to look very stupid. Patrick Cockburn in the Independent:
We are the Awaleq
Born of bitterness
We are the nails that go into the rock
We are the sparks of hell
He who defies us will be burned
This is the tribal chant of the powerful Awaleq tribe of Yemen, in which they bid defiance to the world. Its angry tone conveys the flavour of Yemeni life and it should give pause to those in the US who blithely suggest greater American involvement in Yemen in the wake of the attempt to destroy a US plane by a Nigerian student who says he received training there.
Yemen has always been a dangerous place. Wonderfully beautiful, the mountainous north of the country is guerrilla paradise. The Yemenis are exceptionally hospitable, though this has its limits. For instance, the Kazam tribe east of Aden are generous to passing strangers, but deem the laws of hospitality to lapse when the stranger leaves their tribal territory, at which time he becomes "a good back to shoot at".
The Awaleq and Kazam tribes are not exotic survivals on the margins of Yemeni society but are both politically important and influential. The strength of the central government in the capital, Sanaa, is limited and it generally avoids direct confrontations with tribal confederations, tribes, clans and powerful families. Almost everybody has a gun, usually at least an AK-47 assault rifle, but tribesmen often own heavier armament.
I have always loved the country. It is physically very beautiful with cut stone villages perched on mountain tops on the sides of which are cut hundreds of terraces, making the country look like an exaggerated Tuscan landscape. Yemenis are intelligent, humorous, sociable and democratic, infinitely preferable as company to the arrogant and ignorant playboys of the Arab oil states in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
It is very much a country of direct action…
Something is rotten in the state of American capitalism, and if you agree with Barry C. Lynn, almost all stinky paths lead to the monopolization of our economy. The rise of behemoths like Wal-Mart and Viacom are not only lowering the quality and safety of the products you use, but also undermining our so-called democracy.
I had a chance to speak to Lynn about just how bad things are — and what we might be able to do about it. Lynn’s new book, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, from Wiley Press, will be out in January.
Q: In the book you say we have no choice but to reverse the process of monopolization in our economy. How can we practically achieve that, at this stage of the game?
Barry C. Lynn: We can achieve it and there’s proof we can because we’ve done it in the past. In the late 19th century there was a really incredible process of monopolization. In the Gilded Age, you ended up with really tight concentration of control over finance in Wall Street. Think of Standard Oil, of U.S. Steel. There was some effort to break up those companies in the early 20th century but the real change took place after what people call the Second New Deal. The Roosevelt administration ended up breaking up a number of companies. What they did most successfully is stop the growth of massive companies and created space for new companies to grow.
In the middle of 20th century century, again there was a case in which we actually undid many of the powers and protected the entrepreneur. It was policy that at least three or four companies had to be competing with each other in each industry — and preferably eight or ten. There’s the Alcoa case, for example. They had a 100 percent monopoly through the end of World War II. After the war, the government created opportunities for new companies and forced Alcoa to share its technology with new companies.
We have a lot of experience with this, we’ve done it on a whole-scale in the past, and doing so would be creating a lot of interest in these companies. There are lot of managers in Wal-Mart, for example, who won’t rise up in the ranks in such a large system, but if there’s 30 smaller Wal-Marts, lots of individuals can reach their full potential. Companies aren’t monolithic in nature. They’re made of people, and lots of these people have an interest in breaking them up.
Q: What about shareholders’ and board members’ interests? They surely wield more power and sway over these kinds of decisions than associates at a huge company like Wal-Mart…
While I’m loath to write a top-10 list, if only for fear of falling short of Dave Letterman’s legendary bit, I’m making an exception in this first week of 2010 — a moment when we get to not only make New Year’s resolutions, but resolutions for the new decade. As we make those prospective pledges, let’s take a moment to look back at the top 10 quotations from the last 10 years — the ones telling us some painful truths about our country, society and worldview; the ones that might inform us of what we need to do as we move forward.
10. "They frankly own the place." — Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in 2009 admitting the taboo about banks’ influence in Congress.
9. "Haven’t we already given money to rich people … Shouldn’t we be giving money to the middle?" — President George W. Bush in November 2002, acknowledging to advisors that he knew his tax cuts were giveaways to the super-wealthy.
8. "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." — Anti-healthcare protester at an August 2009 congressional town hall meeting in South Carolina — the single most succinct sign that our country has become an idiocracy.
7. "We did this for the show." — Falcon Heene on Oct. 15, 2009, telling CNN that the Balloon Boy chase was a hoax. The declaration demonstrated that the media‘s 24-7 knee-jerk sensationalism is irresponsible and proved that America’s culture of celebrity aspiration is completely out of control.
6. "As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know they’re some things we do not know. But there’re also unknown unknowns; the ones we don’t know we don’t know." — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Feb. 12, 2002, effectively telling us that the government had no idea what it was doing by invading Iraq.
5. "Bring ‘em on." — President George Bush on July 2, 2003, daring al-Qaida to attack U.S. troops — yet more proof that the elite defines "toughness" as politicians flippantly sacrificing young American lives for Washington’s hubristic ideologies.
4. "The investment community feels very put-upon. They feel there is no reason why they shouldn’t earn $1 million to $200 million a year, and they don’t want to be held responsible for the global financial meltdown." — Daniel Fass, chairman of Obama’s financial-industry fundraising party on Oct. 19, 2009, insisting that despite wrecking the economy and then being handed trillions of bailout dollars, Wall Street is a victim.
3. "$500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus." — Wall Street compensation consultant James Reda on Feb. 3, 2009, giving the New York Times a good example of just how totally out of touch the super-rich really are.
2. "I didn’t campaign on the public option." — President Obama on Dec. 22, 2009, expecting the public to forget that his presidential campaign platform explicitly promised to pass healthcare legislation giving all Americans "the opportunity to enroll in (a) new public plan."
1. "It doesn’t matter." — Vice President Dick Cheney on Nov. 5, 2006, referring to polls repeatedly showing the majority of Americans oppose the Iraq war — a sign the ruling class truly does not care about the demands of the public.
These epigrams expose a nation that has internalized and accepted the forces of avarice, corruption, dishonesty, incompetence and insensitivity. Some of them are darkly funny, some of them are gut-wrenchingly sad — but all of them are warnings. Whether we listen to them or not will be the difference between repeating the last decade’s folly or learning from it.
Here’s to resolutions for the new decade that finally choose the latter.
I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but David Brooks actually had an excellent column in yesterday’s New York Times that makes several insightful and important points. Brooks documents how "childish, contemptuous and hysterical" the national reaction has been to this latest terrorist episode, egged on — as usual — by the always-hysterical American media. The citizenry has been trained to expect that our Powerful Daddies and Mommies in government will — in that most cringe-inducing, child-like formulation — Keep Us Safe. Whenever the Government fails to do so, the reaction — just as we saw this week — is an ugly combination of petulant, adolescent rage and increasingly unhinged cries that More Be Done to ensure that nothing bad in the world ever happens. Demands that genuinely inept government officials be held accountable are necessary and wise, but demands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive. Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens: please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe.
This is what inevitably happens to a citizenry that is fed a steady diet of fear and terror for years. It regresses into pure childhood. The 5-year-old laying awake in bed, frightened by monsters in the closet, who then crawls into his parents’ bed to feel Protected and Safe, is the same as a citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe. A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values can only be degraded and depraved. John Adams, in his 1776 Thoughts on Government, put it this way:
Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.
This post in Boing Boing caught my eye. I haven’t used soap in the shower for years, ever since I read a comment by a Brit that Americans are crazy about soap. He said that you need soap in the shower only if you are really dirty, with ground-in dirt, grease, and the like. Otherwise, if it’s just sweat and the daily grind for an office worker, water is plenty.
I tried it, and he’s right. What caught my eye in the story is that shampoo can similar be put aside, though it takes one’s hair a while to get right. I do know that some people don’t use shampoo except once a week or fortnight, and simply use conditioner.
I got a haircut today and made it short because I want to try the no-shampoo approach.
I was reading a Wisconsin blog that leaned decidedly right, when the issue of banning smoking in restaurants, bars, and public places arose. My, how they responded! First was the effort to deny any dangers from secondhand cigarette smoke (dismissing all the research findings as "hooey" — the usual tactic of the Right: ignore scientific evidence and history), then the idea that the free market would solve the problem (dismissing the fact that the free market was NOT solving the problem). I don’t recall what happened in Wisconsin, but here’s what has happened in Virginia. Faye Fiore writing in the LA Times:
The changing face of the Old Dominion can be seen in the stuff Jimmy Cirrito sweeps up off the floor of his bar every night. It used to be cigarette butts — now it’s gum.
"I got Nicorette and Bubblicious and green and yellow and purple. It looks like a circus down there," said Cirrito, owner of Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern in the northern Virginia suburb of Herndon, where patrons once smoked so much they burned holes in the curtains. Now they chew to fight the urge.
It’s been one month since Virginia became the first Southern state to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. For about 400 years, that was an unthinkable proposition. George Washington grew tobacco at Mount Vernon. Marlboro-making Philip Morris USA is headquartered in Richmond.
But the same demographic shift that helped Virginia pull off another unlikely feat — supporting Barack Obama for president — has fueled a smoking ban in the state where the tobacco industry was practically born. A more moderate, college-educated batch of newcomers is changing the cultural landscape here and across the South. In North Carolina, the king of tobacco producers, a similar law took effect Saturday.
"They are people who go to white-tablecloth restaurants, not barbecue joints. They don’t want their kids to smoke, they don’t smoke, and they are not tied to the tobacco economy," said Ferrel Guillory of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Now Virginia hovers at that odd intersection between what was and what will be. The "golden leaf," as it is affectionately known, still flourishes in the red soil of a few farms. But Virginia counts itself among 29 states and the District of Columbia to restrict smoking in just about any public place where people eat or drink. Private clubs and separately ventilated smoking rooms are exempt.
This did not occur without a fight. Gov. Tim Kaine was pushed back more than once in his quest for a more smoke-free Virginia. The tobacco, restaurant and hospitality industries rose up. Businesses would suffer, they cried. Owners should decide how to run their restaurants, they protested.
Cirrito was among them. "This is America, and we’re supposed to have freedom," he said. But as he closed out his December books, Cirrito had to admit the law has its good points.
His business, a tavern and restaurant in a historic, crooked building, was booked solid for New Year’s Eve. Food sales are up. He added extra shifts in the dining room, which means more money for his wait staff, most of whom were thrilled to work in cleaner air. "We can smell things in the bar now we never smelled before," he rejoiced.
Smoking was banned on a Tuesday, and on Friday there was a line of families out the door, waiting for a dinner table.
"They didn’t come before because they could see the smoke in the bar or were allergic to it or had to walk through it to get to the bathroom," said Cirrito, who’s a nonsmoker but never begrudged his customers the pleasure.
To his surprise, a lot of the chain-smoking regulars came too, lighting up outside in the cold, chewing gum between smokes and, in the end, smoking less.
"I’m sticking by my guns; it should be the owner’s choice. But I have to say it’s nothing but a good thing. It’s fantastic. I can breathe. We can all breathe again," Cirrito said. "People who were smoking two packs are smoking one." …
Continue reading. Mr. Cirrito’s guns, to which he is sticking, are unfortunately defective. If he gave the matter a moment’s thought, he should realize that businesses in general, and businesses that serve food or drink to the public, are subject to a great many laws regarding health and safety. And, since cigarette smoke is dangerous to one’s health, whether or not he or she is smoking a cigarette or simply breathing the smoke from someone else’s cigarette, it is natural to regulate it. American is indeed a free country on the whole (though some whom the US has detained and tortured despite their innocence may disagree), but that does not mean restaurants and bars will be free of regulation. If Mr. Cirrito had the sense God gave a green apple, he would realize that.
Three years before Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, a senior executive at Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital assessed its vulnerability to the sort of flooding that had been long feared there.
His conclusion is now evidence in a lawsuit against Methodist that could have significant implications for hospitals nationwide.
“The first question is, do we have generators placed to accommodate an emergency flood with 15 feet of water?” wrote Cameron B. Barr, then an executive vice president. “The answer to that question is no.” One of the two main generators was located on a roof, he said, but another “would be nonfunctional at about two feet of flood water around the generator.”
Not only would it have to be relocated, he said, but the power plant and an underground tunnel connecting the plant to the hospital would have to be protected.
As a “back of the envelope” estimate, Mr. Barr wrote, “to protect the Hospital, East Tower, power plant building and to relocate the emergency generators and fuel supply would probably be a $7.5 million project.”
But the money was never spent, the power went out, and the hospital’s life-support machines stopped working. Now, the family of Althea LaCoste, a 73-year-old patient who died in what her family’s lawyers allege was sweltering heat after nurses spent hours pumping air into her lungs by hand in the pitch dark, is raising a potentially far-reaching legal question: How prepared do hospitals have to be for the worst possible circumstances?
More than 100 deaths occurred in New Orleans-area hospitals and nursing homes after Hurricane Katrina when emergency backup power systems failed and patients languished for days awaiting transport. About 200 lawsuits have been filed in Louisiana alleging that these institutions are liable for the deaths and for the suffering of other patients who survived because corporate failure to plan adequately for flooding and implement evacuation constituted negligence or medical malpractice.
The LaCoste trial is set to begin on Monday…