Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lazio Takes the Low Road

Rick Lazio has always had boyish good looks and a charming personality. I discovered this working with him on the World War II legislation—the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act—of which he was the co-sponsor, and which was signed into Public Law #106-451 on November 7, 2000. Lazio was able to work with Democrat Eliot Engel and others in the House of Representatives, and, as a Republican, seems to have had some influence with then-Judiciary Committee Chairman, Henry Hyde, in granting the Una Storia Segreta project the critical Judiciary hearings that ensured the bill’s passage. For all this I was and am grateful, as is the entire Italian American community.

Recently, however, in his attempt to become New York State’s governor, another side of Rick Lazio has come to the fore, and it is neither handsome nor charming. Though he seems to have repudiated the Tea Party in his state (partly, at least, because his Republican primary opponent, Carl Paladino, has become their darling of the moment), Lazio has concluded that the silly flap over the building of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero can be a winning issue for him, and, despite vigorous criticism from all sides, is milking it for all it’s worth. Some have accused Lazio of being so desperate for campaign funds that he has sunk to this level to raise money. Whether or not this is true, his words and his position in this controversy make clear that Lazio’s moral compass can easily go missing when he senses an opportunity. In this, of course, he has ample company—including most of the Republican Party and a large number of Democrats as well.

To briefly review the controversy: plans to build a 13-story Islamic Cultural Center once known as Cordoba House, now known as Park51, two blocks from Ground Zero, were recently approved by the New York State landmark preservation board. Tea Party activists including Sarah Palin, have raised hell about this “insult” to the memory of 9/11 victims and the alleged sacrilege to what is called “hallowed ground.” Notwithstanding the fact that the structure is the brainchild of Imam Faisel Abdul Rauf—a man so associated with bridge-building among faiths that he was chosen as an ambassador without portfolio to help the Bush Administration reach out to Muslim nations and promote the American image abroad—and notwithstanding the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, the project is being compared to planting a Nazi sign at Auschwitz, or building “a memorial to kamikaze pilots next to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.” (this last from Carl Paladino, Lazio’s opponent in the Republican primary.)

Incredibly, Lazio has taken the accusations several steps further. Claiming that his objection is not religious (President Obama has stated publicly that religious freedom guarantees Muslims the same rights to build a center as anyone else), but involves only a plea for “transparency,” Lazio has raised the issue of “safety and security.” He has therefore attacked his expected opponent and current Attorney General of New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, for failing to investigate the “books” of the project to find out who is funding it. This call for transparency is clearly shorthand for raising the issue of terrorism—a barely veiled warning that mosques should be suspected as fronts for terrorist groups bent on harming New Yorkers. Here is how he framed it in an appearance on the PBS News Hour on August 16:

“What I’ve been calling for is transparency. There’s a certain defiance about the need to put it right there…This Cordoba initiative has $18,000. right now for a $100 million mosque…Where is this money coming from? Who’s behind this?....Let’s open the books, let’s find out where it’s coming from, whether it’s a foreign government or militant organizations that are funding this. The question here is whether or not we should feel safe, this is about safety and security…This is about what’s right, what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair, and from a standpoint of safety…”

Thus, where most criticism of the Islamic Center project focused on its alleged insult to the memory of the dead, Lazio, though he refers to “what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair,” has abandoned ethics, decency and fairness to foreground the element of fear: is this project funded by the same terrorists who funded 9/11?

As if to amplify his verbal raising of the fear factor, Lazio has recently released a two-minute video described as “a collage of various opinions from people filmed near Ground Zero,” featuring “images taken on September 11, 2001 depicting firefighters running into the debris of the former World Trade Center Towers.” So outrageous is this ad that it has incited criticisms from the very people Lazio was trying to associate himself with. According to an August 20 report, both the NY Fire Department and the Police Department have demanded the video’s removal:

“The Uniformed Fire Officers Association and the NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association has sent Lazio letters denouncing the use of the 9/11 footage. ‘We have always been opposed to the use of images from the attack on the World Trade Center in political advertising. Virtually every candidate for public office has honored that sentiment to date. So it was with a mix of surprise and disappointment to see your new video that seeks to capture the attention of the viewer with graphic images of Ground Zero that day,’ read a letter signed by UFOA President Alexander Hagan. ‘For someone whose argument against the mosque is that it is insensitive to those who lost loved ones on that day, it is unconscionable that he would display similar insensitivity by evoking these painful memories for his own political purposes,’ wrote SBA President Edward Mullins.”

Whether Rick Lazio can summon the courage to come in from the moral desert he’s placed himself in remains to be seen. Given the national attention his stance has garnered for him, though, and given the Tea Party competition from his rival Paladino, such an attack of conscience doesn’t appear likely. Rather, in this year when the twin specters of racism and McCarthyism seem to have risen from what we hoped was their grave, we can probably expect more of the same, if not worse. And though the politics are sad, sadder still is what is likely to result from all this—the conviction among Muslims worldwide that our so-called war on terror is really a war on them.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Banana Split Economics

We may never get out of the woods
To make and export our goods
If amidst all the sobs
We export our jobs
Instead of our handiwork
For that’s where big troubles lurk
The top banana wears a crown
And the rest of us wear a frown
Immersed in our tears and bankrupt
To support the rich and inept

One of the telling differences between the mixed democracies of Mexico and Central America and our own democratic republic has been the relatively high upward mobility of our citizens. Much of the mobility came from education and the public school system of the United States as well as excellent colleges and universities that came within reach of millions of citizens after World War II. Perhaps the single most influential factor was the GI Bill that provided the technical education that propelled the United States through the technology explosion of the 50s and 60s. We invested locally and gained internationally.

The federal government was the underwriter of advanced education and made that education easily affordable and within the reach of nearly everyone socially and even geographically. The technological cauldron was pretty much just that. It was a heated vessel that combined investment, education and labor here in the United States. While other pots were warming, our cauldron boiled over until foreign investment caught up with our market economy. Some of their catching up was through central planning as in China, India and to a lesser extent Japan where social status was subordinated to the needs of each nation to become competitive in a world marketplace. After WW II, the US had a comparative advantage in that we did not suffer major damage or loss of the capital equipment and other resources to compete in the world market. Given extended optimism and insufficient investment, that advantage eventually became a disadvantage as countries that replaced their capital infrastructure did so with more modern and efficient systems and equipment.

The economic disadvantage was made worse by some decisions in the 50s and 60s regarding wages and benefits that sought to give workers medical benefits instead of wage increases. Large corporations discouraged government investment in tax supported medical care. Two decades later, the Reagan Administration changed Medicare policy from payment based on treatment to payment based on diagnosis. Partially due to this, and due to the expansion of diagnostic techniques and equipment, diagnosis became a growth industry within medicine. Myopic labor unions did not fully consider the impact of technology on shrinking job numbers and they did not call for systemic changes in either wages or healthcare. Most developed nations adopted government-controlled healthcare when the US decided (by default) to maintain healthcare provided by corporations, mostly manufacturing. This later became unmanageable when costs skyrocketed and corporations began to cut back on inflationary benefits. The “last straw” for this rickety structure was the massive sea change resulting from labor being competed on a world-wide basis where ever lower level economies provided labor at lower and lower costs. At this point in 2010, not even China can compete in areas such as textiles and has closed hundreds of textile mills. Pakistan, a more recent entry to textiles has already had to close 600 of its 1,000 textile mills. Some of our recently purchased furniture was made in Vietnam. Years ago, it was made in New England. Later, it was made in North Carolina (a right to work state) and then in Europe, but the inexorable beat for lower labor costs accelerated the migration of manufacturing centers to a dizzying pace. Now, unions represent less than 13% of all jobs and far less in manufacturing. We got what we asked for: highly mobile workers and competition for work. Unions are powerless to slow the process. The trend is clear and the only bright spots over these decades has been technology surges when new technology combined with investment capital provided a respite in the outflow of good jobs from the US and the importing of cheap labor from Mexico and Central America. Eventually, Silicon Valley became just another brief stop on the Pony Express to economic oblivion. Executives like Carly Fiorina became famous for exporting high tech jobs (about 32,000 on her watch as CEO of HP). Unfortunately, once the process begins, it cascades and cannot be stopped without both courage and capital. Fiorina was fired and HP stock shot up 7% the following day, but the damage was done and only determined and focused management and investment helped bring HP back to life.

Despite her faulty management of HP, Fiorina was given a golden parachute worth about $20 million. Realistically, if given the opportunity, throngs could have ruined the company for half that severance. All this is describing a situation where our nation is often beatifying CEOs that appear to have only their own interests at heart. It was during the six turbulent years of Fiorina’s leadership that HP circumvented laws preventing the sale of high tech equipment to Iran while simultaneously exporting jobs. Is this in our national interest? These sainted CEOs are highly compensated for failure, perhaps because they have become our new upper class. They have been immunized from their disasters and rewarded for merely being CEOs. They are the lords and ladies of industry. What is more ironic is that now Ms. Fiorina, who seems unable to get another job in private industry, is seeking to become a senator using her name recognition despite the fact that it is negative and that she rarely, if ever, voted as part of the political process.

It is this penultimate social development that brings us back to the banana split. This style of social promotion varies significantly from that practiced in many schools. It is more akin to the social structure of the banana republics where the upper class rules politically as well as economically and that class has no need to take risks. Success becomes an element of birth and not of performance. They invest less in creation of meaningful jobs, but take control of businesses that are essentially monopolies or oligarchies with minimum risk and minimum investment. Carlos Slim is the wealthiest man in Mexico (and the world) with opportunities to assist his own nation to generate meaningful work. He sought and obtained privatization of the telecommunications in Mexico and that acquisition alone raised his net worth by nearly $20 billion. But then he also invested $250 million in the New York Times. While there is nothing wrong legally or even ethically with that purchase, it does nothing for the thousands of Mexicans who seek work here in the US due to lack of opportunity in Mexico. The “final” development is the increasing restriction of “banana republic” economics that effectively throttles the flow of youth into higher education that is needed for social and economic growth by the US. Once that process is nurtured, then relatively few families control the politics and economics of a nation and social striation is solidified. At that end point, the top banana gets economic and political control and takes fewer risks. Education becomes an artifact of the upper class and stagnation of economics is a natural result. The major variable becomes the downward pressure on wages.

The US needs to invest in technology and education and to keep the channels for vertical social movement open for all her citizens. Merit must replace the current system of rewarding birthright in industry. These are economic imperatives more than social engineering. Otherwise the lords and ladies get the ice cream sundae including the banana and the rest get the peel. Watch your step. Vote to support higher education. It may save your job through energy and innovation instead of stagnation and competing your salary.

George Giacoppe
17 August 2010

Is Democracy Possible?

No one needs to be reminded that we’ve all just been through some pretty depressing times. The economy nearly collapsed and remains anemic, BP pretty much trashed the Gulf of Mexico with its oil eruption, the health care “reformers” couldn’t even squeeze a public option into their pathetic bill, and the promised legislation to begin to bring greenhouse gases under control was just abandoned because of a lack of votes in the Senate. Barack Obama, hailed into office with so much fanfare and hope (at least from progressives) seems shell-shocked at best, and ineffectual at worst. Hounded on the right by Tea Party idiots who call him both a socialist and a Nazi, and criticized on the left by his own supporters as disinclined to fight for his beliefs, his poll numbers have plummeted so rapidly since the BP spill that some of the Democrats running for Congress have warned him to stay away from their districts. As to the congressional and gubernatorial races coming this Fall, most seem headed for disaster, with Republican yahoos threatening to take over one or both houses of Congress—a result that would doom any prospects for reasonable legislation and perhaps result in repealing the few decent items already passed (like health care).

To counteract their looming catastrophe, the Democrats are doing their usual dance—kowtowing to conservative ideas and slogans, and courting the banks and corporations which brought the country to its knees. With their need for campaign cash as primary, such so-called “representatives of the people” make ever clearer that they represent not you and me, but the biggest, dirtiest, most ruthless elements in the nation: Wall Street operators, corporate crooks, energy barons, health care frauds, and the military-industrial complex which profits from war and terror.

In short, though we all like to think that we the people control our government because we get to vote every two or four years, the sad truth is that our control is illusory, a con game meant to pacify the masses while the same old robber barons and insiders get to set the agenda, invent the terms of debate, and offer up the candidates (in recent years, bypassing the back rooms and seeking elective office themselves—i.e. Michael Bloomberg in New York, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina running for governor and senator in California). And in the few instances where their control fails, they hire armies of lobbyists to hamstring any legislation that might threaten their profits, their incomes, their mandarin lifestyle.

The question this raises is the one in my title: Is Democracy Possible? Or more pertinently, is democracy doomed?

I’m not sure I can answer this question (surprises are always possible), but a recent documentary raises some fascinating alternatives. That’s why I’m suggesting here that you take a look at what average people in several other parts of the world are doing. The basic idea is simple: since those who represent/rule us are captives of the moneyed interests who brought the whole system to its knees, and since our so-called leaders could think of nothing to do but to rescue these same criminals and try to restore the very system of organized thievery that failed, the people themselves are obliged to find other ways. Other ways to survive. Other ways to come together as a society of human beings. Other ways to barter and bargain and aid each other without the mediation—and rapacious profit-taking—of the banks and corporations who care nothing for people or the planet they’re daily trashing but only for their precious bottom line. Other ways; because if the bigs can’t or won’t do it—and they’ve made crystal clear that they will fight tooth and nail not to—it makes no sense to wait until they sink the whole ship; the change has to come from the bottom up.

So here’s the url for the documentary. It comes from the web site,, of Katherine Austin Fitts, a longtime economist and U.S. government official who’s talking some of the most radical economics around. Take a look. I did, and though I’m not yet sure how or if it can apply to me or my community, just the fact that ordinary people are thinking and acting in these ways—opting out of the nefarious system that has us all bound and gagged, and implementing amazing alternatives—made my day. The website:

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Class Warfare

In case you were wondering where all the money went and why the economy is still in the doldrums, here are a couple of clues. “The 500 largest non-financial companies are sitting on $1.8 trillion in uninvested cash.” That’s a stat from Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, quoted by Paul Buchheit in a 7/22 CommonDreams essay. The piece goes on to note that whereas the Republicans blame big government’s lavish spending on the poor, the truth is quite a different story: IRS figures report that “the richest 1% have TRIPLED their cut of America’s income pie” since 1980 (that’s when Reagan began cutting taxes for the rich, and blaming “welfare queens” and big government for everything). From taking 1 out of every 15 income dollars, the rich now take 3 of every 15 income dollars, or a TRILLION extra dollars a year. Put another way, instead of taking $7 of every $100 of America’s income, the rich now take $20 of every $100.

If this sounds like class war, it is, only it’s the rich doing the firing (literally).

Then there’s this, from Bob Herbert’s Sunday column. Top corporations (you know, the guys who have been declared to be “persons” by the Supreme Court, and thereby free to pour as much money—it’s free speech!—as they like into buying politicians) have been using the economic collapse to fire workers in droves. Those who are left are forced to take pay cuts, or else. Here are the stats:

“from the 4th quarter of 2007 to the 4th quarter of 2009, real aggregate output in the U.S., as measured by GDP, fell by about 2.5% but employers cut their payrolls by 6%.”

Worse, when the economy started to rebound (due to that evil government stimulation), the corporations somehow forgot to start hiring again. Herbert quotes economics Prof. Andrew Sum this way:

“At the end of the 4th quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go DOWN by $122 billion.”

In other words, the corporations are “making out like bandits” and, as Fakaria noted, sitting on mountains of cash, saved from not rehiring workers. As Prof. Sum writes: this economic recovery “has seen the most lopsided gains in corporate profits relative to real wages and salaries in our history.”

Meantime, the Republicans blame Obama and the Democrats for a “jobless” recovery (demanding lower taxes to stimulate hiring; more “trickle-down”—that’s what we need!). And the electorate appears ready to do the same thing.

Isn’t our capitalist democracy a wonder?

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, August 02, 2010

Oh What a Lovely War

As we all ponder the meaning and impact of the massive release of 70,000 or 90,000 secret documents on Wikileaks this week, I can’t help but focus on just a few elements: First, the activity of drone aircraft in seeking out and killing “targets”; and second, the mistakes inevitable in relying on massive airstrikes to simply kill whatever moves in an area selected by troops on the ground. Both of these expedients—the certain result of the impeccable military logic that annoints high-tech equipment as a god capable of removing casualties from war and making its soldiers invulnerable—combine to justify massive killing to prevent any threat to Americans, even American forces armed to the teeth and invading another country.

Before looking at a few samples of the wikileak trove, it’s important to recall a June 2, 2010 report by Agence France Presse conveying a UN special rapporteur’s report on the CIA’s use of drones. Philip Alston, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, said that the CIA’s droning amounted to “a license to kill without accountability.” Alston worried that the U.S.’s claimed license of targeting individuals anywhere in the world runs the risk of “doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.” He especially complained about the fact that the criteria used by the CIA to justify its targeting of individuals was shrouded in official secrecy. In other words, not only were U.S. operatives assassinating individuals with impunity, but by offering no justification for their selections, they were judge, jury and executioner all in one: “In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated.” To add that the human agents in the drone killings were youthful pilots sitting in dark rooms in faraway Nevada, tracking shadows on a computer screen, only makes the executions more macabre.

These drones, though, are the latest and apparently the most beloved of the military’s death toys. No human need enter a danger zone. The drones fly above battlefields or villages or wherever they choose, operated from afar, carrying lethal weapons that are precisely fired. They never complain, do not get tired (drones can stay aloft for 24 hours without a break), or bored, or distracted. They are the ultimate killing machine. Except, that is, when they get lost. This is what happened to one of the Air Force’s prized drones, a Reaper (don’t you just love the names the military comes up with? surely not to evoke thoughts of McCormick’s wheat reaper, but rather the euphemism for death as “the grim reaper”—though cutting down humans as the reaper cuts wheat is no doubt what animated the metaphor in the first place). As the NY Times explained the Wikileaks report:

“Equipped with advanced radar and sophisticated cameras, as well as Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs, the Reaper had lost its satellite link to its pilot [the one in Nevada]. No matter how he tried, the pilot couldn’t regain control [of his toy, only with a 66-foot wingspan], so his superiors ordered an F-15E fighter jet to shoot down the $13 million aircraft before it soared unguided into neighboring Tajikistan.” (NY Times, 7.25.10)

This grim comedy continued when the jet struck the drone with a Sidewinder missile, destroying the drone’s engine, just as the remote pilot regained satellite control. But it was too late. The comedy ended when the pilot steered it “into a remote mountainside for a final fiery landing.”

Imagine. Millions in equipment crashed into a mountain—because far worse than losing a measly $13 million would have been a landing that resulted in the Taliban recovering our secrets, our technology, our technological advantage.

Imagine, too, the terror of being on the ground pursued by one of these things. Death from the sky. No protestation of innocence. No begging for mercy. No warning even. Innocent or guilty, the Reaper seeks only to complete the death sentence ordered from half a world away. By some 20-something dweeb in a bunker in Nevada.

Or by some dweebs on the ground, those Special Forces killers until recently commanded by their killer-in-chief, General McChrystal. Another Wikileaks document, from June 17, 2007, details one of their missions gone awry. Of course, they were trying, via five rockets, to dispatch Abu Laith al-Libi, reportedly a top commander for Al Quaeda, said to be hiding in the targeted compound in Paktika province. But when helicopters dropped commandos from Task Force 373 to finish the job, they found no al-Libi. Instead, they found a “group of men suspected of being militants and their children. Seven of the children had been killed by the rocket attack.” When the men tried to flee, six of them were also killed by encircling helicopters. The rest were taken prisoner. But the good Americans did try to save a child still alive in the rubble, and performed CPR.

Unaccountably, news of the attack resulted in “a wave of anger over the region.” But not to worry, with a list of “talking points” drawn up by the Americans, the local governor explained the mistake: the Americans had been after an Al Quaeda leader and no one told them women and children would be in the compound. Indeed, the attack was really their own fault, caused by the “presence of hoodlums,” he said, and “could have been prevented had the people exposed the presence of insurgents in the area.”

Finally, a Sept. 3, 2009 report, from Kunduz province, described yet another mistaken airstrike, this time attributable to a slight mishap on the part of JATC, the Joint Terminal Attack Controller team responsible for ground communications and guidance for pilots and airstrikes. Responding to a police report saying that “2X FUEL TRUCKS WERE STOLEN BY UNK [unknown] NUMBER OF INS [insurgents]” who planned to cross the Kunduz River with their booty, the JTAC claimed to have seen not only the trucks, but “UP TO 70 INS” at “THE FORD ON THE RIVER.” [As to how JTAC “saw” this, the Times account speculates that the JTAC may have received live feed to their computer from infrared video cameras in some aircraft]. Then a German commander got involved, assured everyone that “NO CIVILIANS WERE IN THE VICINITY” and “AUTHORIZED AN AIRSTIKE.” An F-15 fighter plane then dropped two 500-pound guided bombs. Naturally, those killed were “56x INS KIA [insurgents killed in action],” 14 more fled northeast, and the two trucks were also destroyed. A good night’s work.

Only that the initial report was wrong. In fact, the trucks, apparently abandoned, were surrounded by civilians trying to remove fuel. This was learned only when the military reported that “International Media reported that US airstrikes had killed 60 civiians in Kunduz.” Those dastardly Taliban, having stolen the truck, had invited civilians in the area to help themselves with fuel. Seen from above, civilians were clearly INS [insurgents].

You get the picture. War is not lovely. In the best of conditions, it is messy, gruesome, murderous to those who have the misfortune of being in its vicinity. In this case, it is Afghan villagers who most often feed the grisly appetite of the war machine. And in Afghanistan, increasingly, the machines are in control. Trouble is, machines have no sense. They are inhuman by definition. When that inhumanity, as it inevitably must, reaches back and infects the humans ostensibly in control, they too become mechanical. That is what, overall, one discerns from reading the Wikileaks material. The United States, in attempting to maintain its tottering global empire, has become a killing machine. Far from protecting us as its champions claim, that transformation imperils us all.

Lawrence DiStasi

NB: For those of you too young to recall, the title of this piece comes from a 1963 musical composed by Joan Littlewood; it premiered on Broadway in 1964, and though it’s ostensibly about WWI, it applies to other wars rather nicely.