the watch
bush lied, people died. escalate nonviolence.

Evict Bush!

Friday, May 23, 2003  


Talk Left on a new Texas abortion law. Clearly, no one with a lick of common sense was allowed within a mile of writing this thing.

Liquid List with two posts on topics that seized up my hamster wheels; a massive tax deduction for SUV buyers, and the roundup of recent government resource misallocation.

RonK tells us all about Operation Desert Snipe.

Wampum has moved to Movable Type so go look for her latest flashback posts.

To The Barricades on how the foundations of empire have been set.

Hesiod talks about how conservatives honor freedom of speech.

Why fundamentalism and feminism should never, ever mix.

Cowboy Kahlil has another example of disrespect towards the military.

Alas, A Blog, is having technical difficulties at the moment due to a benighted hosting company which claims against all evidence to be Successful. However, before this disaster, Ampersand left us with the pictures to prove that Sharon has no intention of a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians, and Bean leaves us with a feminist critique of critiques of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

Matthew at It's Still The Economy wonders why anyone can call themselves an economist.

Yglesias wonders what Bush means by saying that we'll win the war on terror.

Skimble with the latest update on the wrist slap delivered to the companies that tore a gaping, fraudulent wound in the California economy.

Calpundit talks about paying for a decent society, wonders why Congress can't declassify documents, and explains why young people are more interested in American Idol than in politics.

Senate repeals nuke testing ban. Is this really happening? Really?

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday said such weapons may be useful in destroying stocks of chemical or biological materials for weapons of mass destruction that other countries may bury in bunkers.

So, to be clear, they want to destroy deadly toxins with shelf lives of decades with radioactive materials whose decay products will be around when the last crumbling remains of our civilization are protected archeological sites? Have our officials utterly lost their minds? No, don't answer that.

posted by Natasha at 6:11 PM | PERMALINK |

Thursday, May 22, 2003  

Is It Paradise Yet?

Democratic politicians have done a very bad job of explaining why taxes represent services we get, and not just money we pay. Conservatives have therefore been able to get the country nearly convinced that a gun in every home and the abolishment of the IRS would result in a utopian society wherein citizens would provide their own security. Where the market would solve every problem. Libertarians seem to believe that the result would be a spontaneous 'open source' self-governance, wherein the reason of the enlightened citizenry would prevail.

It might not seem like having a gun in every home was much of an economic issue, let alone one that relates to taxation, but *needing* a gun in every home certainly is. The provision of security, relatively invisible until recently in a peaceful country like the US, is a major function of governments large and small. A measure of peace is a vital component of trade. And, it happens to have a hefty price tag.

For corporations, it means diminished costs for physical security mechanisms and policing, the reasonable expectation that shipped or ordered goods will arrive at their destination, that contracts will be enforced, and an ability to be insured for unusual losses. (If losses become regular, by definition, insurability diminishes sharply.) For individuals, it means the ability of citizens to travel freely to work, decreases the risk of property loss or grievous bodily harm, centralizes the guarding of neighborhoods, and increases their willingness to engage in commercial transactions with parties unknown to them.

But, it turns out that we have a test case for the utopian dreamers: Iraq. The Big Gummint' is gone, no one is paying taxes, and everybody has guns. Must be sweet.

Yet there's the sticky problem of the need to protect hospitals from looters. A high crime rate. Growing resentment over the high crime rate. The rise of unaccountable paramilitary groups. And a dawning recognition that law and order becomes more important than democracy in the face of a need to perform nightly sentry duty outside your own home.

So I'll pay my taxes, thank you kindly. Bravely standing watch over your property with a trusty sidearm at the ready is yet another thing that's only exciting in movies and adventure novels.

x-posted at It's The Economy

posted by Natasha at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK |

Roving About
(Much thanks to BuzzFlash for several news links)

The Pentagon would like us to believed that the latest incarnation of Total Information Awareness will not unduly invade our privacy. And they have a lovely bridge for sale, bidding starts tomorrow.

Estimated Prophet (whose permalinks are finally working) writes about our current fight for civil rights and freedom from surveillance.

You won't see this on the cover of Newsweek, with a couple of slickly groomed teens vogueing for the camera, but one in five US teens will have sex before the age of 15. Shall we give them real sex education and access to birth control, or cross our fingers and hope they don't do anything stupid?

The Sideshow starts off with a heady dose of Krugman, and goes on to assail conservative pathology. And then, for anyone still mystified, explains why liberals bother with the Democrats.

The EPA says goodbye to Christie Whitman. This 'yeah, right' was included:

Secretary of State Colin Powell once joked that Whitman was the administration's "wind dummy," a military phrase for something pushed out the door of a plane before landing to check wind direction.

"I've never felt humiliated. ... You know you can't take any of this personally," Whitman said Wednesday when reminded of Powell's characterization.

In Florida, Jeb Bush has announced with much fanfare a redefinition of pollution which manages to exclude a great deal of actual pollution. Runs in the family, obviously.

A state in Australia will try medical marijuana.

Old girls network meets in London.

A profile of female Palestinian suicide bombers.

Iran Watch:

US now says that the Al-Qaida leader that planned the Saudi Arabian terror attack is living in Iran. We're left with this reassuring quote from one of the administration's professional unnamed sources:

But a senior Bush administration official said that the United States had "rock-hard intelligence" that at least a dozen Qaeda members, including Mr. Adel, had been "directing some operations from Iran."

This is probably the same kind of rock hard evidence indicating that there were lakes of anthrax boiling away under Baghdad, because there is no evidence of any Iran-Al Qaida link. But let's say, for the sake of argument, that Iran harbored bad intentions towards the west which it intended to act on. All they would have to do would be to stop intercepting opium traffic from Afghanistan, which isn't aimed at them anyway. Emphasis mine:

The Islamic Republic has launched a relentless anti-drug campaign since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which more than 3,100 policemen have lost their lives. Iran's anti-drug campaign costs the country 800 million dollars per year, according to officials.

The country accounts for 80 percent of the opium and 90 percent of the morphine intercepted in the world, according to the International Narcotics Control Board.

An official said that the Iranian police seized 112 tons of illicit drugs and arrested 306,000 people on drug-related charges during the last Iranian year which ended on March 20.

Why should they make themselves targets by harboring Al-Qaida, when through simple inaction they could flood the West with enough heroin to make your head spin? Why bother risking the lives of their police force? Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a project for which the beneficiaries are generally not willing to reimburse them? And if they could fully control the porous tribal badlands that comprise their border with Afghanistan, surely they would have put a stop to this ruinous traffic through their territory.

One thing is certain: If we get ahead of ourselves in creating problems in one of the most resource rich and strategic countries on earth, NATO will likely be finished. Not even Britain and Italy would be able to stand with us, and regional allies would be virtually impossible to acquire. Neither Turkey, Pakistan, India, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, nor Syria would likely stay on the sidelines. If there's any country that knows about the value of gaining new allies, and maintaining good relationships with existing ones, it would be Iran.

posted by Natasha at 6:21 PM | PERMALINK |

Support The Troops, Fund The VA
A Virtual March

Today, Thursday, May 22nd will be the last full working day in congress before Memorial Day, when our intrepid legislators will return home for a week to do whatever it is they do when they aren't hanging around the Capitol building. However, a few of the slackers will probably be lounging around their offices for a bit tomorrow, so you can call then too.

Please take some time today to call your legislators and tell them that you would like real support for our troops. The kind that includes health care funding, full educational funding for their children, and the fulfillment of promises made to WWII and Korean War veterans about retirement benefits.

If you opposed the war, but want to show that you support the men and women who fought it on our behalf, ask the government to remember them when budget appropriation time comes around. Parades and handshakes don't pay the doctor bills, they don't educate children, they don't take care of you in old age.

What you can do: Tell everybody, make a phone call.

Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121

For local numbers, you can look them up at You can always call local offices when the main DC numbers are busy.

posted by Natasha at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK |

"The Watch" staff member channels Bush!

In response to the notable speeches by Sen. Robert Byrd cited below, President Bush has pioneered an extraordinary new medium for expressing himself. Yes, the President has made many startling initiatives for getting his message across, and telepathic links to sympathetic, admiring bloggers like those of us at "The Watch" (which, you should know, has a strong pro-administration bias) have yielded this stunning insight from our leader.

"Senator Byrd has made a compehensive challenge to the wisdom of my administration's leadership, which to the casual observer may seem wide-ranging. It might seem like a challenge to certain lapses in my planning, or judgement. To such as Senator Byrd, my administration's actions seem to stand alone, distinct from a coherent ideology."

"Yet nothing could be further from the truth. From days when our great and admired president, Ronald Reagan, was emerging from the political wilderness, he spoke of a revolution. Historians of the Reagan years have seconded this verdict. We are in a conservative revolution. If this sounds like a contradiction in terms, that's because it is. For the last twenty-five years, my fellow Americans, the political tendency labeled 'conservative' has been anything but. We may represent various hues of the right, but we are far from conservative. We, and not the alleged liberals, are the real radicals."

"Our opponents speak of precedent and decorum. We know the American people are weary of laws and decorum. We promised an end to the environmental laws, safety regulations, or protections afforded by stable capital markets. Our ideological allies dismantled the choking bounds of accounting and banking restraints. We did this to expose everyone, including the young and old, physically and mentally infirm, to the robust hurly burly of the market. We knew that nothing could be known about where this would lead us. Might international competition obliterate our industrial base? Might no-holds-barred competition among our credit-creating, fiduciary institutions--among our commercial banks, with investment banks and insurance companies--lead to widespread failures, panics, and strains on the Treasury? Might the governments of Brazil and Argentina, Turkey and Egypt, abiding by ou advice, face financial calamities and endanger political stability? Of course it would."

"For years we were called conservatives, because in other times and in other places we were associated with wealth-creating bourgeoisie. But we are speculaters and projectors, and we benefit from economic revolutions of any kind. For years we've warned you that wealth and power are created by risk. The staid certainties of European social welfare states, and Depression-era financial regulation, may make sense to the pessimist. But they are eternal frustration to the optimists. My fellow Americans, we are optimists. Unlike our opponents, we face the cliffs of the future with eagerness. We yearn for free fall. We do not shrink from upheaval."

"We do not ask for mercy or approval at the hands of other nations. The heads of state whom we publicly humiliate will be spurred to competition; we welcome their animosity. We know our society will win every competition, will never be vulnerable, never require the helping hand, will always be the center of admiration and innovation and stability. We have nothing to learn from older societies; we are immune from the laws of history; we represent the end of history, and the end of the business cycle. We have only more boom years ahead as we continue to unleash the energies of creative destruction. The forests and rivers of our great nation, the great expanses of prairie and taiga, and the coastal shelves, are part of this great revolutionary transformation: everything is to enter the market. All costs and benefits, all risks and consequences, are to be auctioned off and amortized. Nothing is a disaster; there are no disasters, save the shrinking from risk.

We shall not cease from our risk-taking;
And the end of our risk-taking shall be
To come the site of our deepest fears,
And know it as more progress.

(JRM--I doubt Bush would actually quote from TS Eliot, but I was really warming to the subject)
The sylvan hills of Tennessee, the upper Hudson River, the fragile beaches of the Gulf Coast--you may cherish them, but we who are unsentimental, firm revolutionaries of the original stamp--we do not shrink from laying them down on the barrel for that most sublime goal of all--MORE. It was the choice of Adam, our original father; and that pathetic fool to who I occoasionally pay lip-service, he who shall remain unnamed, refused to make the same choice--what did the market do to him? It preferred Barrabas to him, and he was hung out to dry. May all who shrink share his fate."

"For this reason,we have proudly cast all caution to the winds, and cheerfully affront our allies and brethren in that old folks home of nations, the EU. But be not alarmed on our behalf. We know that markets can be unforgiving even to those who make stern, unsentimental decisions. We know that lesser mortals might, when the stakes seem too high, reverse course and sacrifice uncertain safety for wretched contrition. We have undertaken therefore to put that choice forever beyond your reach, so that you will be steeled to the future we have prepared for you."

"Do not fear that future Americans may challenge me in elections; do not dread that the Constitution will impede me. I was promoted in the Air National Guard without even showing up to practice, and spared the unworthy clamor of guns fired in anger by my august destiny. At my right hand stands Dick Cheney, a man of such fervent revolutionary principles he bends to no laws. Do not march against me, thinking that future enemies of America will spare you for exercising what free will you had against me; none will. Do not think that we whom you disparaged as 'conservatives,' will be bound by the contemptible will of politicians when we have in the past always condemned politicians as unworthy to govern men of affairs. We who sneer at little nations certainly sneer at little people who get in the way of our revolution! We are the world! We are the future! And we do not care what you think!"

"Let's roll."

This is, I'm sure you'd a agree, a virtual miracle for which your humble novitiate is earnestly grateful to have been a party to. And please pay a visit to this here shrine before returning to the world.

posted by James R MacLean at 5:17 AM | PERMALINK |

Cassandra's predictions

Watching the Bush administration push the country to war with the steady, but sure force of a glacier moving down the mountain during the coming of an ice age, I often felt like there was no one in the Democratic party that saw the cynicism and naked power grab that seemed so evident when one watched the Republicans on a number of fronts. Knowing that this administration would be guaranteed to screw up any aftermath of war, I wondered why we didn't hear more from our Democratic Congresspersons or Senators to protest the administration policies. So many of our Democratic leaders have been compromised by their support of Bush and his policies. But, I forgot, even though Paul Wellstone is gone (God, I still miss you Paul!) there are a few Senators that still speak truth to power and are willing to speak out despite the conventional consensus. Notable in that regard is Senator Byrd.

Senator Robert Byrd just delivered another exceptional speech which touched on all the reasons I found Bush's war on Iraq questionable.

Regarding the situation in Iraq, it appears to this Senator that the American people may have been lured into accepting the unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing International law, under false premises. There is ample evidence that the horrific events of September 11 have been carefully manipulated to switch public focus from Osama Bin Laden and Al Queda who masterminded the September 11th attacks, to Saddam Hussein who did not.

Yes, indeed.

For the record (notable speeches of Senator Byrd):

  • Pre-Congressional Vote Handing Over Power to Bush, October 4, 2002
  • The War Debate, October 9, 2002
  • Reckless Administration May Reap Disastrous Consequences, February 12, 2003
  • As War Is Imminent, March 19, 2003
  • Post Iraq Speech, May 21, 2003

  • Reviewing the speeches by Senator Byrd last Autumn, I found that on October 1, 2003, he made a speech on the US's part of supporting Saddam's biological weapons in the 1980s.

    Is it possible that my email asking him to look into the validity of this link led to that speech? I had sent email to Senator Byrd on Sept. 26, 2002, asking him to validate the sources of the data I found on that page since I didn't know if it was just an web legend or a trustworthy document. (It documents the transfer of West Nile Virus by the CDC, along with agents for botulism, tetnus, and anthrax.) Since then, I've come to realize that that paper has been fully vetted since the references largely came from the congressional record.

    Whether it was my email or not, I think I'll go ahead and believe that it was -- it provides me proof that our calls and letters do get heard.

    posted by Mary at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK |

    Wednesday, May 21, 2003  

    Can't Make This Stuff Up...

    Well, President Bush has gone on the offensive with Europe. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he has stepped up the level of offense which had seemed for a while now to have settled at a baseline. The EU is now being accused of (I'm glad I don't have to say this out loud, because it would be hard to keep a straight face) hindering the fight against AIDS in Africa, and recklessly subsidizing agricultural exports.

    As you can see, the speechwriter for this one must have been chortling backstage the whole time.

    As Body and Soul reported very recently, Bush himself has been all hat and no cattle when it comes to fighting AIDS in Africa. And as for agricultural subsidies, we need look no farther back than last year when Bush happily signed an election year giveaway to the megacorporations that handle the bulk of American farming.

    And then, he went on to say that the EU ban on Genetically Modified Organisms (GM or GMOs) was furthering starvation in Africa because it hindered them from taking US food aid. Let's really look at this one. Back in December, George Monbiot wrote about the sorry debacle of biological warfare as propagated by the US version of 'aid' to Africa. This was the portion of the article quoted previously, which does a great job of explaining what a scam this is, emphasis added:

    ...Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, all of which are suffering from the current famine, have been told by the US international development agency, USAID, that there is no option but to make use of GM crops from the United States. This is simply untrue. Between now and March, the region will need up to two million tonnes of emergency food aid in the form of grain. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has revealed that there is 1.16m tonnes of exportable maize in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. Europe, Brazil, India and China have surpluses and stockpiles running into many tens of millions of tonnes. Even in the US, over 50% of the harvest has been kept GM-free. All the starving in southern Africa, Ethiopia and the world's other hungry regions could be fed without the use of a single genetically modified grain.

    But the United States is unique among major donors, in that it gives its aid in kind, rather than in cash. The others pay the World Food Programme, which then buys supplies as locally as possible. This is cheaper and better for local economies. USAID, by contrast, insists on sending, where possible, only its own grain. As its website boasts, "the principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80% of the USAID contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural goods, created new markets for American industrial exports and meant hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans." ...

    USAID's "training" and "awareness raising" programmes will, its website reveals, provide companies such as "Syngenta, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Monsanto" with opportunities for "technology transfer" into the poor world. Monsanto, in turn, provides financial support for USAID. The famine will permit USAID to accelarate this strategy. It knows that some of the grain it exports to southern Africa will be planted by farmers for next year's harvest. Once contamination is widespread, the governments of those nations will no longer be able to sustain a ban on the technology. ...

    Is there any other reason why a country might not want GM set loose in their backyards?

    What about the possibility of hybridization. GM organisms interbreeding with wild cousins, and spreading. It's already happened in Mexico, where the original ancestor of corn is found, along with a variety of types bred over thousands of years. Because corn is wind-pollinated, like many grain crops, the taint spreads easily.

    The reason this matters is as follows: Modern food crops are already the products of tampering. For millenia, humans have tinkered with plants to get them to grow bigger leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, you name it. Just by selective breeding, you can get a great deal of variety, which I'll write about in more depth in a future post. But these hybrids, having been bred for traits that don't necessarily make good survivors, are not always well suited for life in the real world. When a new cross is needed, the agrobusiness monocrop needs to be bred back with a wild variety. What happens when the 'wild' varieties are no longer wild?

    As a test case, we can look at the common supermarket banana, now threatened with extinction due to its low tolerance for the encroachment of disease and pests. The fruit has virtually no genetic diversity, having been cloned (by grafting & other low tech methods) and raised all over the world in large, single species stands. Monocropping is the single best way, in fact, to ensure that a disease caught by one plant will get passed along to all the others. The banana will have to be replaced with a new hybrid developed from its largely inedible wild cousins.

    There's even a reason in here to point a finger at the lawyers. Specifically, the bloodsuckers currently practicing in the field of corporate intellectual property law on behalf of large agribusiness conglomerates. A Candian farmer named Percy Schmeiser was ordered in 2001 to pay Monsanto $85,000 in fees because GM canola from a neighbor's crop had contaminated his seed stock. A judge ruled that whether he benefited or not, intended to use it or not, he had to pay for the use of this property.

    Can you imagine why some countries aren't clamoring to let the stuff in? Hint to Bush: Anything Monsanto can do to a white Canadian farmer, it can do with 10 times the impunity to a black African farmer.

    posted by Natasha at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK |

    A Rare Glimpse into My Private Life

    An extract from one of James R MacLean's letters to Emma Bovary.

    I haven't heard from you despite my no-doubt rivetting tale of the linoleum. Even Firdowsi paid me a visit to see it. He said things had been getting boring since his encounters with Rustam and Shirin, and he was delighted to see evidence that another Rustam walked the earth. He was even more impressed when I showed off my bicycle Buraq, which is so heavy it requires seven strong men to hold upright, and a team of 15 oxen tugging on the brake cable to adjust the brakes. "And yet," he exclaimed in high-piping Pahlavi, "you can propell this beast over the Pamirs!"

    My eyes rolled half shut and I saw myself in a pure mountain valley of the Pamirs, saying to the brave and noble Scheherazade, "And wilt thou see me ride? And when I am abike, I shall swear I do love thee infinitely!"

    (The brave and noble Scheherazade, alas, spins stories in bulk and has no time for this rarefied splendor)

    Buraq is named for the stupendous human-headed, winged bull that bore Muhammad (PBUH) to Paradise during his midnight miraj. It is unbelieveably heavy, and if it were blue I might have named it Babe, after Paul Bunyan's companion. But it is black, as old Persian miniatures of Buraq show it to be.

    Firdowsi is all the more delighted by the gleaming magnificence of Oakland in the summertime. "It is almost as lovely as Balkh!" he exclaims. Balkh, the mother of poets and painters, the capital of the Hellenist philosopher-kings in the snowy, pure green mountains of the western Pamirs... the birthplace of Rumi and Omar Khayyam, the seat of Menander, Muhmud of Khwarizm and Tamerlane. Oakland, hard by the rugged crags of the star-scraping Mt. Diablo (which, I assure Firdowsi, is of such immense height it makes the earth like unto a tear drop in shape), is a worthy seat of heroes too. Its skyline includes the Mosque of Dzheri Burown, with sixteen minarets so high the muezzin must wear space suits when they give the call to prayers.

    "'But hast thou forgotten my servant, Wilayet Burown?'" Firdowsi snidely quotes from the book of Job. Wilayet's mosque, I recall with anguish, has eighteen minarets, each under perpetual construction. A construction worker fell off one of the minarets and, before he reached the pavement, had met a female construction worker who had also fallen off the scaffold, gotten married, had three children, bought a Starbucks franchise, and used the windfall profits to put his children through college, grown old, and died of old age. Wilayet Burown had commanded that the reflecting pool be enlarged and deepened for the children and other gravitationally-challenged city employees. To break their fall it was filled with Dream-Whip instead of water. This was a great success, although another generation of youngsters it was who swam to the top of the Dream-Whip Sea.

    "And in all that time of falling, the minaret rose like its 17 fellows, until it is so high that now, any astronomer describing it to tourists, must recite its dimensions in multiples of the Oakland minaret lest he forget what he is talking about."

    "We Oaklanders are fearful lest it slow down the rotation of the earth," I reply. But there are other glories of Oakland besides our mosque. There is, for instance, the public baths of Sultan Snifti, whose main pool has Dehaviland Otters which take off from one end of the pool and fly bathers to the other end, all beneath the lofty barrel-vaulted ceiling, or the justly-famous Oakland Public Scriptorium which is so quiet its elite caste of librarians has evolved without ears, and of course the freeways with so many lanes...

    "How many lanes does the freeway have?"

    "Each time one changes lanes to the left, one must speed up about 10 miles per hour," I explained, "so that if you reach the the left-most lane, you will reach your destination before your mother was married. One of our virtuous and good citizens, Oedipus, actually..."

    posted by James R MacLean at 4:50 AM | PERMALINK |

    Tuesday, May 20, 2003  

    Only the Little People Pay Taxes

    When Bush's tax cut for the very wealthy is finally signed into law, the poor (and the middle class) will certainly be paying a higher tax rate than the wealthy. Warren Buffet tells us exactly how this will work:

    Suppose this measure goes through and the directors of Berkshire Hathaway (which does not now pay a dividend) therefore decide to pay $1 billion in dividends next year. Owning 31 percent of Berkshire, I would receive $310 million in additional income, owe not another dime in federal tax, and see my tax rate plunge to 3 percent.

    And our receptionist? She'd still be paying about 30 percent, which means she would be contributing about 10 times the proportion of her income that I would to such government pursuits as fighting terrorism, waging wars and supporting the elderly. Let me repeat the point: Her overall federal tax rate would be 10 times what my rate would be.

    So how did this happen?

    Back in November the Wall Street Journal published a remarkable oped piece that stated that one problem with our current tax system was that the poor didn't pay enough in taxes. Since then the administration has put into effect new policies that have made it more likely that a poor person has chance of getting audited by the IRS than someone who is wealthy.

    EJ Dionne remarked on how compassionate the administration's new plan was for the poor when it comes to taxes. It was all about those lucky duckies.

    And WaPo reported in December: New Tax Plan May Bring Shift In Burden: Poor Could Pay A Bigger Share

    Economists at the Treasury Department are drafting new ways to calculate the distribution of tax burdens among different income classes, which are expected to highlight what administration officials see as a rising tax burden on the rich and a declining burden on the poor. The White House Council of Economic Advisers is also preparing a report detailing the concentration of the tax burden on the affluent and highlighting problems with the way tax burdens are calculated for the poor.

    Okay, the latest tax cuts shift the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor and middle class, so perhaps they are done punishing the poor?

    Nah... The administration is anxious to go after the poorer tax cheats as well. In December, the NY Times reported: Departing Chief Says the I.R.S. Is Losing Its War on Tax Cheats

    In his report to the oversight board, Mr. Rossotti put the tax loss from that area alone at $7 billion annually. But in earlier reports to Congress the I.R.S. has used figures that could put the tax loss as high as $64 billion. Mr. Rossotti has said that every fifth dollar of partnership income is not showing up on tax returns.

    One would think that applying the IRS to the cheats who have the highest outstanding balances would make sense. One would be wrong.

    In April, 2003, we find out that the IRS has found new energy to go after the worst tax cheats: I.R.S. Tightening Rules for Low-Income Tax Credit

    The I.R.S., trying to prevent errors and cheating, says it needs greater proof of eligibility months before people claim the credit on their tax returns because its efforts to find errors through audits after the fact have not worked. Treasury officials estimate that $6.5 billion to $10 billion is lost to improper payments each year.

    And, don't forget that our government has encouraged companies to go offshore to avoid taxes. Arianna Huffington teamed up with to shame the congress into going after those scofflaw companies.

    It's depriving the U.S. Treasury of around $70 billion a year.

    Putting this all together: the administration has decided that the poor should pay a higher tax rate than the wealthy and catching the cheats at the bottom end of the scale (possible $10 billion lost) is more important than closing the loop hole that allows companies to hide from $70 billion a year and the potential $64 billion if the IRS auditor was focused on the very well-to-do. Now you know what compassionate conservatism looks like.

    As Leona Helmsley so elegantly said: We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.

    posted by Mary at 11:57 PM | PERMALINK |


    Peace Tree Farm reports on the Senate FCC hearings, and urges us to oppose the further consolidation of our media.

    Steve Soto tells us about the new levels of embarassment reached in the investigation of how the Department of Homeland Security was used for the political purpose of tracking down Texas Democrats on the lam. This has even given Joe Lieberman a chance to look good, and hot damn, but that's pretty hard.

    Body and Soul explains that the Bush promise of $15 billion for AIDS is rapidly going the way of all of the administration's other promises.

    Suburban Guerilla tells us what the Bushies were doing on 9-11. Yeesh.

    Ampersand explains the relevance of one of my favorite musicals ever, Into The Woods.

    Thanks to Frog N' Blog (links broken, but amazingly not bloggered) we learn that Yar has found the redeeming shroud of conservatism, (links bloggered, Tues, May 20) the mantle of the Concerned Parent. Which prevents people from calling you something more craven; like say, a greedy, self-regarding, ungrateful, marrow-sucking tick firmly draining the life from the American polity.

    People have been sending fun stuff to Making Light.

    Digby to Democrats: Stand together, Dammit!

    Wampum alerts us to the fact that the Frist amendment to the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has reared its ugly head once more. And in case you didn't catch it the other day, she answers the eternal question of how bad are Republicans at handling an economy, anyway?

    First, bioweapons. Now, Iran is being accused of harboring Al Qaida. A friend of mine keeps assuring me that even this administration wouldn't be stupid enough to attack the country. Let's hope he's right.

    Mother Jones on how Bush's hydrogen car rhetoric obscures actions taken to ensure that the hydrogen economy will still be based on fossil fuel, be just as polluting, and will crowd out genuine renewables. Also (subscription required for full article), how private military companies are replacing the armed forces.

    Asia Times: Fallout Iraq. You want democracy in the Middle East? Go tell it to Lebanon. How we've gone from Cold War to Holy War.

    Government Executive: Federal workers protest government outsourcing. Secretary Snow extends temporary halt to federal workers' retirement trust fund payments. The House calls for scrutiny of no-bid contracts on projects in Iraq, discusses resumption of nuclear testing. National Guard to be overhauled.

    posted by Natasha at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK |

    Support The Troops, Fund The VA
    A Virtual March

    Thursday, May 22nd will be the last full working day in congress before Memorial Day, when our intrepid legislators will return home for a week to do whatever it is they do when they aren't hanging around the Capitol building.

    Please take some time that day to call your legislators and tell them that you would like real support for our troops. The kind that includes health care funding, full educational funding for their children, and the fulfillment of promises made to WWII and Korean War veterans about retirement benefits.

    If you opposed the war, but want to show that you support the men and women who fought it on our behalf, ask the government to remember them when budget appropriation time comes around. Parades and handshakes don't pay the doctor bills, they don't educate children, they don't take care of you in old age.

    What you can do: Tell everybody, make a phone call.

    Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121

    For local numbers, you can look them up at You can always call local offices when the main DC numbers are busy.

    posted by Natasha at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK |

    Notable Comments

    One of the White House reporters that is always ready to ask the hard questions in Ari Fleischer's briefings is Russell Mokhiber. Yesterday upon hearing of Ari's announced resignation, he asked:

    Ari, one of your predecessors, Jerald terHorst, resigned as President Ford's press secretary, he said, as a matter of conscience - because he couldn't defend President Ford's pardon of President Nixon. I was wondering, is there anything President Bush has done as President, that made you think, even for a moment, that you would resign as a matter of conscience?

    Ari, of course, said, absolutely not. Mokhiber and Robert Weissman followed up by writing the column Why Ari Should Have Resigned in Protest. They concluded:

    In short, Ari, President Bush's war policy has killed thousands of innocents, the administration is allocating trillions of dollars to weapons and military spending and tax cuts for the rich, while starving funding for vital social programs and investments in public infrastructure, and while the world looks to the Middle East, federal and state white collar prosecutors are being stripped of their resources, and the corporate and white collar criminals are ravaging the Middle West, and the rest of the homeland.

    posted by Mary at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK |

    Bush gets Professional Help (and then I woke up!)

    From The Washington Post
    In regard to stimulus measures to confront the current recession, “The White House is forming a package… (which) will include some reduction of the tax on corporate dividends, an added tax write-off for corporations investing in plants and equipment, and a higher limit on contributions to retirement accounts such as 401(k)’s.”

    A Mercantilist Economist Responds:

    My Dear Mssr. Bush:

    It is with great apprehension I broach the matter of your economic stimulus plan, which peradventure was only attributed to your counselors by a most condign device…

    Methinks it would but ill boots your grace to take amiss at such well-meant words as I have to proffer. The purpose you undertake is dangerous; the institutions you name, uncertain; the time itself unsorted; and the whole plot too light for the counterpoise of so great an opposition. The tax cut on corporate dividends wouldst serve in another time marvelously well; I would well content me to endorse it when your exchequer is in better sorts, but the flight of treasure from these shores is of great urgency. God wot I hath in past days praised subsidies and immunities from taxes; but only companies bound to the service of the state.

    The firms who stand to gain so handsomely are procurers of energy, financial services, and entertainment industries like Walt Disney. Such enterprises, while verily of great pith, have no allegiance to your commonweal and are ever wont to regard such graciousness as some gain ill-gotten: to be cozen’d out of the nation, lest it be withdrawn by a future sovereign. When I consider how all of the various items needful for production, such as electric power and natural gas, have done the same when greater profit beckoned, I tremble. And when I further reflect that your adversaries in trade (I mean, God save your grace, the nations of France, Germany, Japan, and a host of other states well-stitch’d together, and well accustomed to cohesive action) are far advanced in securing the diligent loyalty of their beneficiaries in policy, it would be no great leap to conclude you are entitled to no less.

    No my lord, I most earnestly beseech your grace to instead resort to an economy of largess, not a surfeit; to bestow that largess not to reward, nor to stimulate, the flow of reserves or bullion from your kingdom, but to risk debts only where great gains from foreign trade lie in sight. In the national income and product accounting system (NIPA) your Excellency will observe the dual accounts of capital and current balance. Capital account should, under the fiat money your nation has chosen, be kept in all cases negative, to render the merchants of other nations in your debt; but woe betide if it becomes available to foreign princes such as the Mikado, who hath sought in every quarter to cultivate novel enterprises. Since you are unable to establish foreign colonies, you should take care to cultivate the slavish loyalties of foreign elites, who well know they suffer utter ruin should they incur your least displeasure. Thus, mighty states with banks under their own mastery are unworthy for American capital.

    The current account can, and most assuredly ought, to be kept positive, and large, through loans to importers of American goods, and the steady accumulation of monopoly control of foreign markets. At the same time, the collapse of competition within your own markets bodes ill; for if a resolution could be taken to buy only your native goods, retailers would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon the people in the price, the measure, and the goodness… Such monopolies should be made slaves of your state, else they will make a slave of you.

    I remain your most obedient servant,

    Charles Davenant

    A Classical Economist Weighs In:

    To the Esteemed Mr. President:

    In the matter of your proposed economic stimulus package, as cited in The Washington Post, I have undertaken to enlighten your discretion, and elevate your satisfactions, by the following advice.

    You say you intend to stimulate investment in your country by a reduction in taxes on dividends. I say, well and good, if you wish to bring about in ensemble the abolition of just-such rent-seeking behavior as would bring your republic into fiscal balance. But be advised that such a course of action, while noble in the endeavor and virtuous in the execution, cannot be looked to as a source of exogenous stimulus. It is a canard to suppose that your state can endlessly reap bounties from deficit spending, when in fact such deficits merely tie up lendable funds.

    An increase in the amount of donations allowed to retirement funds is, of course, to be praised from the point of view of individual prudence; but be advised that investment is essentially fixed by the available supply of lendable funds. Your proposal, without explicating how deficits are to be avoided, is only half a plan. I fear that certain canaille have deceived you into supposing that such bribes to the affections and sops to the greed of certain bond underwriters might have led to the notion that the economy can be made to produce more by such arbitrary and intangible events. If so, please allow me to disabuse your Excellency.

    Supply creates its own demand. This might be invalid in the realm of the small — the excess inventories of the merchant —- but never in the affairs of a nation of two hundred eighty-five millions of persons, with endeavors of trade extending to the furthest reaches of the world. It might, moreover, be masked by the veil that money casts over the radiant visage of that lovely damsel, pure truth, which, thanks to innumerable petty frictions allows temporary misalignments — but only masked. Hence, if your excellency wishes to remove such drags as presently afflict your nation’s trade domestic and foreign, I abjure you to withdraw from the hurly burly of commerce, and see that your tax policies do not discriminate or prejudge the boundlessly enlightened judgments of the market.

    Respectfully yours,

    Jean-Baptiste Say

    A Keynesian Economist Responds:

    Dear George,

    At the risk of blowing a perfectly good opportunity to gloat, Old Boy, I’m going to dispense with the chortling references to how your crew heaped opprobrium on my name for about 24 years, utterly knocked me about like a disgraced maid aunt, and generally used the opportunities created thereby to peddle a bastardized version of the wholly benevolent advice I offered up to you decades ago. Oh, I could prophesy! But tell me, Dear Lad, what in God’s name “supply side” is supposed to be the supply side of? Are we perchance talking about my policy recommendations as “demand side,” whilst you muck about trying to cut taxes to run deficits? Well, I guess you ought to know I did include that in my general theory but I included constraints as to when one ought and oughtn’t to stimulate with tax cuts.

    Well, enough of that. You passed a pretty big tax cut last year. You are trying to get the economy out of a recession entirely with tax cuts, while doing nothing about the marginal efficiency of capital. At the same time, as Mssrs Mundell & Flemming warned you, you are holding the interest rates down to some arbitrarily low level. So big surprise, you’ve got a big balance of payments deficit because what idiot wants to hold dollars when they could hold euros? Your trade deficit is something else again but at least two years ago there was an influx of capital which was closely matched to your current account deficit. So that’s why you know that tax cuts, per se, are exhausted.

    In the meantime the state governments in 43 states have fiscal crises. To-day, California is slashing everything that moves, and so are other states. If they’re cutting their budget by fifty billion nationally over the course of the year, then the IS curve will be pushed further to the right. So much for fiscal stimulus! Look, if you want to carry on insisting that I’m a discredited Communist, I suppose I can’t stop you but in that case, why don’t you use RBC and Rational Expectations theory? Why even bother with the interest rate cuts? If you want to use the piano, then you must learn to play it.

    Look, if you want I can draw you a diagram.

    John M. Keynes

    RBC (Real Business Cycle Theory): argues that recessions are merely intertemporal substitutions of work for leisure. Rational Expectations is based on the policy ineffectiveness proposition, that neither fiscal policy (i.e., deficit spending) nor monetary policy (i.e., tampering with interest rates). The policy ineffectiveness proposition, IMO, has been as completely discredited as possible with any notions about the economy.

    posted by James R MacLean at 12:13 AM | PERMALINK |

    Monday, May 19, 2003  

    How to Lose Friends, and Delight Enemies...

    "Hyman Roth always makes money for his partners. One by one, our old friends are gone. Death -- natural or not - prison -- deported. Hyman Roth is the only one left -- because he always made money for his partners." - Johnny Ola, Godfather II

    "Connie, all my life, I kept trying to go up in society, where everything higher up was legal, straight. But the higher I go, the crookeder it becomes. How in the hell does it end?" - Michael Corleone, Godfather III

    Bush might want to remember one of these days that Halliburton & friends are in no position to stop Al Qaida, or pass on intelligence information. They cannot encourage billions in foreign direct investment, dictate or remove tariffs on US goods, or allow US companies to buy other countries' companies.

    No responsible country would allow narrowing the definition of 'partners of the nation' to include only those who are direct partners of their leaders. Our interests are far broader than the narrow game played in the boardroom. We now run the risk of alienating those who have engaged favorably with us in the mutual back scratching marathon known as the global economy.

    A country that relies exclusively on corporations as friends may find itself increasingly lonely in the mutual backstabbing marathon known as international diplomacy.

    posted by Natasha at 5:42 PM | PERMALINK |

    Around the Web:

    Alas, A Blog linked to some interesting things last Friday, including an article in the Economist attacking the premise that Europe is trailing the US economically. Then, on Sunday, he found yet more good stuff. Including the excellent news that portions of Iraq's National Library were saved from looting and arson.

    UBlog (links bloggered) has also pointed out that some of the artifacts from the museum have been discovered in storage, both at an outside location, and some apparently in hidden vaults in the museum itself. Several high-profile items remain at large, and professional thieves are suspected. I'd like to speculate about why some of these hidden vaults were so hidden that museum officials didn't seem to know they were there, but I'll resist.

    From Jim Hightower's weblog, we get this posting of an essay on economic fascism, also known as corporatism.

    Billmon wonders what planet Donald Rumsfeld is living on, because it sure isn't the one where the nation of Afghanistan is descending perilously into chaos. Our intrepid barkeep also considers troop deployment, wherein it appears that US forces are getting stretched pretty thin.

    Steve at dKos discusses the deterioration of Iraqi society, and points out that Bush raised our taxes anyway. RonK gives us the new list of things you can't say on television.

    TBogg refutes the complaint that war protestors didn't care about Iraqis.

    Dwight Meredith (links bloggered, scroll to "Tell His Parents", Friday, May 16th) wonders what exactly Michael Savage finds funny about autism.

    posted by Natasha at 11:56 AM | PERMALINK |

    Captured Capital

    (Part of a series; Parts
    1, 2 and 3)

    There continues to be substantial anxiety around the world of deflation. Deflation is a different concept from disinflation, which is mere reduction of inflation. Deflation is a crisis caused by a precipitous drop in demand relative to output. The last major encounter with deflation was the Great Depression. Most analysts since the mid-40's have regarded deflation as a symptom which can metastasize into part of the actual disease. Others, such as the contemporary Prof. Irving Fisher, Fed Chairman Benjamin Strong and the Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, regarded prices as critical; later Milton Friedman would largely endorse Strong and Fisher, and (surprisingly) Morgenthau. Incidentally, I have no idea where you'd find this on the web; I have huge tome on my lap entitled A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 written by Friedman and Anna Schwartz.

    The problem with deflation is it that can touch off a downward spiral since interest rates cannot be negative. It begins with a legitimate correction as certain firms or banks work out their bad assets (a bankruptcy) and then makes the economic situation untenable for legitimate business enterprise. Capital becomes extremely expensive, and firms must lay off workers...further depressing demand. Under a mere recession, there is likely to be disinflation but not deflation; interest rates are suppressed by the market and obviously by central banks, capital becomes cheaper, and stronger enterprises provide the impetus for future recovery. Under conditions of deflation, interest rates cannot fall so the cycle accelerates until only fully liquid enterprises remain.

    The problem that the American economy faces today is that the middle class, which does most of the saving in most economies, hasn't got enough income to do so; in order to maintain a standard of living largely mandated by (the absence of) urban planning, American consumers have taken on larger loads of debt, while the huge paper assets of the wealthy have been ploughed into dissavings. The vast American trade deficit is financed by vast inflows of foreign capital to speculative ventures in the US; but the American population cannot afford what is produced, nor what is imported, without an expansion of credit. If we could, credit would tend to grow at about the same rate as the GDP, and there wouldn't be such demand for net foreign direct investment (FDI). The boom in securities and real estate have enriched a large, economically detached segment of the American population, whose consumption of domestically produced goods is not even remotely close to taking up the slack created by the underpaid lower quintiles of the population.

    In previous postings on this matter I've tried to make the case that the American problems of overconsumption, trade deficits, and so forth arise from the absence of an industrial policy. Industrial policy is still a dirty word in politics; it smacks of socialism. American business and political leaders hate the idea because they have an institutional loyalty to uphold: American policies are wiser that European ones--full stop. End of debate. Unfortunately for them, they are demanding the power to cover their mistakes, by increasing tariffs and business subsidies. Anyone familiar with the "convoy" system used to rescue Japanese bank failures, and the close ties between lenders and large industrial borrowers in that country, will understand how managers use this sort of power to hide, and cover the cost of, their mistakes.

    This means that the US has got--has always had, and is adopting more of, an industrial policy of managing the economy centrally. This has failed to acheive the increased environmental and social benefits of the Northern European system because the latter, being publically acknowledged, is publically debated and publically negotiated. It's far from perfect, but it allows Europeans to implement goals that are popular with the electorate. For example, the US electorate had repeatedly told pollsters they were concerned about the environment. The Bush Adminstration has reacted to this by arguing for non-action--while, in fact, acting quite a lot to defy the wishes of the American people. It's hard to imagine a government like that of the Netherlands going so consistantly against the will of the population in the absence of a strong reason.

    As I've discussed in my previous writings on this subject, industrial policies tend to cause all sectors of the economy to behave like monopolies. In most cases this leads to firms producing less at higher prices than would have been the case under conditions of competition. Exceptions are said to exist (I remain skeptical about this, but I'm very isolated on this) when intellectual property rights are part of the output. Since, as it happens, that is the case for a far larger share of the US economy than in the past, it follows Americans, like Europeans and Japanese, must accept the growing reality that they live in an economy dominated by monopoloid markets for goods and monoponoid markets for labor. In any event, we Americans have reached the situation organically which the Europeans and Japanese have always had, viz., an economy in which the elasticity for inputs with respect to price is very low (so it's balderdash to fear that an increase in the mininum wage, for example, will significantly increase unemployment; indeed, the opposite is more likely to be true).

    Since monopoid markets require more and cheaper inputs to produce at any given level of output, it follows that the state administering the industrial policy will have to ensure that it flows into the economy somehow. In the case of the other developed countries, household savings are stimulated by, e.g., offering alternatives to urban sprawl and concomitant household expenditures on housing and SUVs. Higher tax rates at higher incomes tend to make incentives to save more effective. Savings banks are heavily subsidized; firms are compelled to retain more earnings; beyond that, each country has different methods. But since capital is "captured" by fiat and ploughed into the economy, it is hardly surprising that the returns on capital in the rest of the OECD economies is actually comparatively low. As a result, it seeks higher returns abroad, such as in the US. If the US ever does adopt a European-style industrial policy it will very likely result in major shocks in world markets for luxury goods. The long term growth rates of the US GDP would shrink, presumably to levels presently experienced in Europe. Conversely, since median income hasn't grown significantly since the 1970's, this would probably mean an increase in actual welfare.

    And if we're really lucky, we'd use the staggering wealth that would otherwise have accrued exclusively to the top 20% of households to make Detroit look more like Paris. It'll be fun.

    APPENDIX: Input markets and monopoly/monopsony. Monopsony is the situation where a single buyer, such as a retailer (DeBeers is the most famous example) dominates the market. An inevitable outcome of monopoly in an industry is monopsony in the labor market for that industry (The link includes diagrams). If one considers the reduced elasticity for inputs under that situation, it becomes clear that an increase in the minimum wage will reduce employment by an amount far smaller than the increase in income to the minimum-wage employees. Since they will then have more money to spend, the economy will [probably] have a higher level of employment, since we can assume that the upper quintile would otherwise have saved the amount money they were required to pay their employees.

    CLARIFICATION: Someone is going to object that industrial policy does not actually--does not necessarily--mean the introduction of monopolies. It will be further pointed out that in 1948, for example, the UK began moving towards American-style anti-trust legislation, and there is an EU commission for competitive policy (Mario Monti) which has been more effective than our contemptible FTC in recent years. But industrial policies are not the same thing as central planning, although central planning occurs in an industrial policy. What does happen is that countries with industrial policy tend to restrict market entry, sometimes explicitly, and sometimes by failing to channel scarce capital to new entrants. In the contemporary analysis of competitiveness policy, the touchstone is market entry.

    posted by James R MacLean at 1:26 AM | PERMALINK |

    Sunday, May 18, 2003  

    Debacle (Part Two)

    In my previous posting I wrote about the experience of Athens during its brief history as an independent nation. For a mere 106 years Athens was an independent, democratic nation; it lost empire and sovereignty at the same time. Athens was a tiny country, to be sure, but in an era of tiny countries and great distances by sea it was a universe to its citizens. The Pelopponesian War (431-404 BC) was fought in a theater that extended from Byzantium to Sicily and involved most of the important states of the Mediterranean, including (eventually) the Persian Empire. The Athenians were defeated 25 April 404 BC, having rejected a peace treaty less than a year earlier. During the postwar negotiations among the victorious allies, the Thebans and Corinthians sought to have the Athenian men massacred, but the Spartans who had actually done most of the fighting and were by far the most powerful force left, refused to countenance such a thing. Afterwards a reactionary oligarchy was imposed on Athens--the Thirty Tyrants-- which ruled for eight months.

    The Thirty Tyrants was an early example of a totalitarian regime. Normally there is intense controversy about how bloodthirsty, or how repressive, a particular regime is. The hated Pisistratids, the Persian-backed dictators of Athens before the democratic revolution (510 BC), received kind words from Thucydides. But no one denies that the Thirty Tyrants went on a berserking rampage during 404-403. It was said that they killed more Athenians than the 26-year Peloponnesian War (Xenophon mentions this, by way of quotation; he doesn't challenge it). Even the hyper conservative Plutarch concedes the Thirty Tyrants were despots. Don't bother inquiring about casualty statistics. Writing about events centuries which happened later, the Roman historian Livy uttered the funniest line I've read in classical literature: "My sources say 20,000 men perished in this engagement. Historians are such liars."

    A detailed reading of the rival accounts of the Peloponnesian War reveals an awful lot; for example, Thucydides is politically moderate, and has scorn for the radical democracy that he sees as having ruined Athens; he characterized Alcibiades as having been an aristocrat who played the proletarians off against the moderate lesser aristocrats (in the war, the Athenian lower class was hawkish because anti-Spartan and benefiting materially from Athenian imperialism; this was a perverse twist to the classical political economy I'll explain later). Plutarch makes no bones about Alcibiades being an aristocrat, as was Plutarch himself, but reveals many details about individual acts of treachery he committed which suggest he was forced by events. But then, Plutarch reveals a host of other astonishing details, such as Alcibiades seduction of the Spartan queen while in exile there (it would never have occurred to me to push my luck quite that far, but the mania the classical Greeks had for doing precisely that is truly amazing).

    The Greeks had centuries of experience with colonialism; it was actually different from regular imperialism, insofar as the Greeks sent settlers to various places and trades mostly with their emigrant relatives, rather than subjugating the locals. Thus, for example, the Milesians set up a trading colony called Naucratis in the Nile Delta; it was rather like Hong Kong, except that everyone was Milesian rather than the local Egyptian--and the rulers of Egypt were firmly in control. Hellenic imperialism was astonishing in its scope, with the tiny population of Greece furnishing the entire Black Sea coast and the Tyrrenian Sea with colonies; but in time, a definite hierarchy of power emerged, with the peninsular powers (i.e., the Athenians, Milesians, Spartans, Argives and Corinthians) preying on and exacting tribute from the islands and coastal settlements. The flow of grain from the Black Sea, paid for with tribute, crippled domestic agriculture and created a class of urban proletariat whose employment situation was extremely uncertain. War enhanced it; tribute from abroad enhanced it.

    War also introduced an economically important class of slaves. Sparta, which never sought overseas colonies, had a majority of ethnic Messenes; these were utterly crushed under Lacadaemonian tyranny, and were serfs (helots) with no rights. But Spartan society, absorbed with maintaining the control of the aristocratic Lacadaemonians over the oppressed helots, was an anomaly. The Thebans and the Thessalians had serfs (with far looser restrictions) but the Corinthians, Argives, Athenians, Milesians and others did not. They acquired slaves through conquest, and these were usually women and children who did have rights (albeit, inadequate ones). The dependence upon these cities for industry (textiles) and commerce meant that the urban proletariats were dependent upon tribute and public works programs for food. The tribute, of course, paid for the public works programs and the plays. Some of the wealthier Athenians, such as Natasha, bought captives of unusual cleverness and learning--such as Mary and me--to post at their blogs when they were too busy to do so themselves. (As you can see, the secondary market in bloggers is not brisk). So the economy of imperial microstates like Athens and Rome came to depend very heavily on a huge network of slaves and mercenaries; many of the latter never set foot in Athens.

    This is why the masses of proletarians, such as the charcoal burners in The Acarnians (Aristophanes) are such enthusiasts of imperialism. The farmers are ruined, and offer their children disguised as pigs to the pacifist hero of the play; they have no use for the war. Most of Aristophanes' plays are written after the outbreak of hostilities in a massive war, far greater than any known before; after the first year, Pericles dies and there is a deadly plague which kills thousands. By this time Aristophanes is 20 and thoroughly fed up with the arch-hawk Cleon (Thucydides also characterizes him as a hawk). The longer the war rages, the more dependent Athens becomes on its urban, imperial, commercial economy. Dominated by powerful cartels, the Athenian economy develops a perverse drive to continue the war until it has turned it into a winning proposition. If the expedition against [Corinthian colonies in] Sicily had been successful, it no doubt would have been. So perhaps it is fitting that this is the episode in which Alcibiades, the reportedly beautiful, heroic warrior, aristocrat, prolific seducer of men and women--and of masses--commits the act of treachery that will bring ruin to Athens.

    It would be inexcusable to expound on this war without mentioning the most famous work of literature it provoked--written just after the Sicilian Expedition ended in total disaster. Lysistrata is of course well known as the play about the women of Greece uniting to demand a peace treaty--or no sex! But the play is fascinating because it reveals a couple of amazing things. One is, after 18 years of costly war, ruinous property damage, and the transformation of the Athenian economy into an exclusively maritime and industrial one, the political rhetoric has barely changed. There is the Athenian wurlitzer, likening all critics of war to the hated Pisistratids; and there is the same maddening wrangling over every square meter of seized territory. The other thing is the melding of Aristophane's ruined aristocrats with the radical communists and pan-Hellenists (which Lysistrata is); clearly, Aristophanes sees socialism as something required to end the mania for further conquest.

    Aristophanes and Thucydides seem to focus on the shortcomings and missteps of Athenian leaders, and yet here they are clear to specify whom they mean to blame:

    Why the Laconians do we blame for this?

    For men of ours, I do not say the State,

    But worthless fellows of a worthless stamp

    Ill-coined, ill-minted, spurious little chaps...

    No doubt Aristophanes and his friends were vulnerable to allegations they tended to "blame Athens first," possibly because as men of affairs ruined by war, they had keen eyes for managerial failure. But they were also disgusted at the sorts of people the Athenian voters took seriously. How, Aristophanes demanded, could they take Cleon seriously?

    Ah, Demos, you hold a sway,

    The fairest on earth today.

    You speak, and mankind obey

    In sheer trepidation.

    Yet gullible as a boy

    Beguiled by a stupid toy,

    To flattery insincere

    You lend a delighted ear

    Allowing your mind, I fear,

    To take a vacation!

    Can it be so simple? Are we such slaves to vanity as this?

    posted by James R MacLean at 3:17 AM | PERMALINK |