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One couldn’t make it up!

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Stop the world, I want to get off.

Cars travel through flood water in Helston, south-west Cornwall - Daily Mail August, 2013

Cars travel through flood water in Helston, south-west Cornwall – Daily Mail August, 2013

 

You can tell, undoubtedly, from the title and sub-title to today’s post that I am feeling somewhat forlorn about the way that we humans work things out!  As the old saying goes, “Question: Why has Planet Earth never been visited by an alien species? Answer: Because they have seen no signs of intelligent life!

This feeling is a result of reading a recent essay from George Monbiot, Drowning in Money.  It is republished here within his terms of sharing.

Now before you read it, if you are not living in the UK it would be easy to reject the messages as being only relevant to the United Kingdom.  But when you do read it, you will agree that this level of government policy stupidity is not the sole reserve of the UK.  The ‘virus’ is alive and well elsewhere!

ooOOoo

George Monbiot

George Monbiot


Drowning in Money

January 13, 2014

The hidden and remarkable story of why devastating floods keep happening.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th January 2014.

We all know what’s gone wrong, or we think we do: not enough spending on flood defences. It’s true that the government’s cuts have exposed thousands of homes to greater risk, and that the cuts will become more dangerous as climate change kicks in (1).  But too little public spending is a small part of problem. It is dwarfed by another factor, which has been overlooked in discussions in the media and statements by the government: too much public spending.

Vast amounts of public money – running into the billions – are spent every year on policies that make devastating floods inevitable. This is the story that has not been told by the papers or the broadcasters, a story of such destructive perversity that the Guardian has given me twice the usual space today in which to explain it.

Flood defence, or so we are told almost everywhere, is about how much concrete you can pour. It’s about not building houses in stupid places on the floodplain, and about using clever new engineering techniques to defend those already there (2). None of that is untrue, but it’s a small part of the story. To listen to the dismal debates of the past fortnight you could be forgiven for believing that rivers arise in the plains; that there is no such thing as upstream; that mountains, hills, catchments and watersheds are irrelevant to the question of whether or not homes and infrastructure get drowned.

The story begins with a group of visionary farmers at Pontbren, in the headwaters of Britain’s longest river, the Severn. In the 1990s they realised that the usual hill farming strategy – loading the land with more and bigger sheep, grubbing up the trees and hedges, digging more drains – wasn’t working. It made no economic sense, the animals had nowhere to shelter, the farmers were breaking their backs to wreck their own land.

So they devised something beautiful. They began planting shelter belts of trees along the contours. They stopped draining the wettest ground and built ponds to catch the water instead. They cut and chipped some of the wood they grew to make bedding for their animals, which meant that they no longer spent a fortune buying straw. Then they used the composted bedding, in a perfect closed loop, to cultivate more trees (3).

One day a government consultant was walking over their fields during a rainstorm. He noticed something that fascinated him: the water flashing off the land suddenly disappeared when it reached the belts of trees the farmers had planted. This prompted a major research programme, which produced the following astonishing results: water sinks into the soil under the trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under the grass (4). The roots of the trees provide channels down which the water flows, deep into the ground. The soil there becomes a sponge, a reservoir which sucks up water then releases it slowly. In the pastures, by contrast, the small sharp hooves of the sheep puddle the ground, making it almost impermeable: a hard pan off which the rain gushes.

One of the research papers estimates that, even though only 5% of the Pontbren land has been reforested, if all the farmers in the catchment did the same thing, flooding peaks downstream would be reduced by some 29% (5). Full reforestation would reduce the peaks by around 50% (6). For the residents of Shrewsbury, Gloucester and the other towns ravaged by endless Severn floods, that means, more or less, problem solved.

Did I say the results were astonishing? Well, not to anyone who has studied hydrology elsewhere. For decades the British government has been funding scientists working in the tropics, and using their findings to advise other countries to protect the forests or to replant trees in the hills, to prevent communities downstream from being swept away. But we forgot to bring the lesson home.

So will the rest of the Severn catchment, and those of the other unruly waterways of Britain, follow the Pontbren model? The authorities say they would love to do it (7). In theory. Natural Resources Wales told me that these techniques “are hard wired in to the actions we want land managers to undertake.” (8) What it forgot to say is that all tree planting grants in Wales have now been stopped. The offices responsible for administering them are in the process of closing down (9). If other farmers want to copy the Pontbren model, not only must they pay for the trees themselves; but they must sacrifice the money they would otherwise have been paid for farming that land.

For – and here we start to approach the nub of the problem – there is an unbreakable rule laid down by the Common Agricultural Policy. If you want to receive your single farm payment – by the far biggest component of farm subsidies – that land has to be free from what it calls “unwanted vegetation” (10). Land covered by trees is not eligible. The subsidy rules have enforced the mass clearance of vegetation from the hills.

Just as the tree planting grants have stopped, the land clearing grants have risen. In his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, made during the height of the floods, the environment secretary Owen Paterson boasted that hill farmers “on the least-productive land” will now receive “the same direct payment rate on their upland farmland as their lowland counterparts.” (11) In other words, even in places where farming makes no sense because the land is so poor, farmers will now be paid more money to keep animals there. But to receive this money, they must first remove the trees and scrub that absorb the water falling on the hills.

And that’s just the start of it. One result of the latest round of subsidy negotiations – concluded in June last year – is that governments can now raise the special mountain payments, whose purpose is to encourage farming at the top of the watersheds, from €250 per hectare to €450 (12). This money should be renamed the flooding subsidy: it pays for the wreckage of homes, the evacuation of entire settlements, the drowning of people who don’t get away in time, all over Europe. Pig-headed idiocy doesn’t begin to describe it.

The problem is not confined to livestock in the mountains. In the foothills and lowlands, the misuse of heavy machinery, overstocking with animals and other forms of bad management can – by compacting the soil – increase the rates of instant run-off from 2% of all the rain that falls on the land to 60%(13).

Sometimes, ploughing a hillside in the wrong way at the wrong time of the year can cause a flood – of both mud and water – even without exceptional rainfall. This practice has blighted homes around the South Downs (that arguably should never have been ploughed at all). One house was flooded 31 times in the winter of 2000-2001 by muddy floods caused by ploughing (14). Another, in Suffolk, above which the fields had been churned up by pigs, was hit 50 times (15). But a paper on floods of this kind found that “there are no (or only very few) control measures taken yet in the UK.” (16)

Under the worst environment secretary this country has ever suffered, there seems little chance that much of this will change. In November, in response to calls to reforest the hills, Owen Paterson told parliament “I am absolutely clear that we have a real role to play in helping hill farmers to keep the hills looking as they do.” (17) (Bare, in other words). When asked by a parliamentary committee to discuss how the resilience of river catchments could be improved, the only thing he could think of was building more reservoirs (18).

But while he is cavalier and ignorant when it comes to managing land to reduce the likelihood of flooding, he goes out of his way to sow chaos when it comes to managing rivers.

Many years ago, river managers believed that the best way to prevent floods was to straighten, canalise and dredge rivers along much of their length, to enhance their capacity for carrying water. They soon discovered that this was not just wrong but counterproductive. A river can, at any moment, carry very little of the water that falls on its catchment: the great majority must be stored in the soils and on the floodplains.

By building ever higher banks around the rivers, by reducing their length through taking out the bends and by scooping out the snags and obstructions along the way, engineers unintentionally did two things. They increased the rate of flow, meaning that flood waters poured down the rivers and into the nearest towns much faster. And, by separating the rivers from the rural land through which they passed, they greatly decreased the area of functional floodplains (19, 20, 21).

The result, as authorities all over the world now recognise, was catastrophic. In many countries, chastened engineers are now putting snags back into the rivers, reconnecting them to uninhabited land that they can safely flood and allowing them to braid and twist and form oxbow lakes. These features catch the sediment and the tree trunks and rocks which otherwise pile up on urban bridges, and take much of the energy and speed out of the river. Rivers, as I was told by the people who had just rewilded one in the Lake District – greatly reducing the likelihood that it would cause floods downstream – “need something to chew on” (22, 23).

There are one or two other such projects in the UK: Paterson’s department is funding four rewilding schemes, to which it has allocated a grand total of, er, £1 million (24). Otherwise, the secretary of state is doing everything he can to prevent these lessons from being applied. Last year he was reported to have told a conference that “the purpose of waterways is to get rid of water” (25). In another speech he lambasted the previous government for a “blind adherence to Rousseauism” in refusing to dredge (26). Not only will there be more public dredging, he insists: but there will also be private dredging: landowners can now do it themselves (27).

After he announced this policy, the Environment Agency, which is his department’s statutory adviser, warned that dredging could “speed up flow and potentially increase the risk of flooding downstream.” (28) Elsewhere, his officials have pointed out that “protecting large areas of agricultural land in the floodplain tends to increase flood risk for downstream communities.” (29) The Pitt Review, commissioned by the previous government after the horrible 2007 floods, concluded that “dredging can make the river banks prone to erosion, and hence stimulate a further build-up of silt, exacerbating rather than improving problems with water capacity.” (30) Paterson has been told repeatedly that it makes more sense to pay farmers to store water in their fields, rather than shoving it off their land and into the towns.

But he has ignored all this advice and started seven pilot projects in which farmers will be permitted to drag all that messy wildlife habitat out of their rivers, to hurry the water down to the nearest urban pinch point (31). Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Paterson has demanded massive cuts at the Environment Agency, including many of the staff responsible for preventing floods (32).

Since 2007, there has been a review, a parliamentary enquiry, two bills, new flood management programmes (33), but next to nothing has changed. Floods, because of the way we manage our land and rivers, remain inevitable. We pay a fortune in farm subsidies and river-mangling projects to have our towns flooded and homes and lives wrecked. We pay again in the form of the flood defences necessitated by these crazy policies, and through the extra insurance payments – perhaps we should call them the Paterson tax – levied on all homes. But we also pay through the loss of everything else that watersheds give us: beauty, tranquility, wildlife and, oh yes, the small matter of water in the taps.

In the Compleat Angler, published in 1653, Izaac Walton wrote this. “I think the best Trout-anglers be in Derbyshire; for the waters there are clear to an extremity.” (34) No longer. Last summer I spent a weekend walking along the River Dove and its tributaries, where Walton used to fish. All along the river, including the stretch on which the fishing hut built for him by Charles Cotton still stands, the water was a murky blueish brown. The beds of clean gravel he celebrated were smothered in silt: on some bends the accretions of mud were several feet deep.

You had only to raise your eyes to see the problem: the badly-ploughed hills of the mid-catchment and above them the drained and burnt moors of the Peak District National Park, comprehensively trashed by grouse shooting estates. A recent report by Animal Aid found that grouse estates in England, though they serve only the super-rich, receive some £37m of public money every year in the form of subsidies (35). Much of this money is used to cut and burn them, which is likely to be a major cause of flooding (36). Though there had been plenty of rain throughout the winter and early spring, the river was already low and sluggish.

A combination of several disastrous forms of upland management has been helping Walton’s beloved river to flood, with the result that both government and local people have had to invest heavily in the Lower Dove flood defence scheme (37). But this wreckage has also caused it to dry up when the rain doesn’t fall.

That’s the flipside of a philosophy which believes that land exists only to support landowners, and waterways exist only “to get rid of water”. Instead of a steady flow sustained around the year by trees in the hills, by sensitive farming methods, by rivers which are allowed to find their own course and their own level, to filter and hold back their waters through bends and braiding and obstructions, we get a cycle of flood and drought. We get filthy water and empty aquifers and huge insurance premiums and ruined carpets. And all of it at public expense.

www.monbiot.com

References:

1. https://www.foe.co.uk/blog/camerons-claims-flood-defences-dont-stack

2. http://www.architecture.com/SustainabilityHub/Designstrategies/Water/1-3-2-5-SUDS.aspx

3. Coed Cadw and Coed Cymru, no date given.The Pontbren Project
A farmer-led approach to sustainable land management in the uplands. http://www.coedcymru.org.uk/images/user/5472%20Pontbren%20CS%20v12.pdf

4. M. R. Marshall et al, 2013. The impact of rural land management changes on soil hydraulic properties and runoff processes: results from experimental plots in upland UK. Hydrological Processes, DOI: 10.1002/hyp.9826. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hyp.9826/abstract

5. Howard Wheater et al, 2008. Impacts of upland land management on flood risk: multi-scale modelling methodology and results from the Pontbren experiment. FRMRC Research Report UR 16. http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/5890/1/ur16_impacts_upland_land_management_wp2_2_v1_0.pdf

6. As above.

7. See for example Natural England, Environment Agency, Defra, Welsh Government et al, 2012. Greater working with natural processes in flood and coastal erosion risk management. http://a0768b4a8a31e106d8b0-50dc802554eb38a24458b98ff72d550b.r19.cf3.rackcdn.com/geho0811buci-e-e.pdf

8. NRW, 9th January 2014, by email.

9. I talked to one of the employees over the weekend: everyone is being made redundant as all funding has ceased.

10. Official Journal of the European Union, 31st January 2009. Council Regulation (EC) No 73/2009 of 19 January 2009, establishing common rules for direct support schemes for farmers under the common agricultural policy and establishing certain support schemes for farmers, amending Regulations (EC) No 1290/2005, (EC) No 247/2006, (EC) No 378/2007 and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1782/2003. Annex III. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2009:030:0016:0016:EN:PDF

This rule remains unchanged in the current round.

11. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/opportunity-in-agriculture

12. European Commission, 26th June 2013. CAP Reform – an explanation of the main elements. http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-13-621_en.htm

13. Natural England, Environment Agency, Defra, Welsh Government et al, 2012. Greater working with natural processes in flood and coastal erosion risk management. http://a0768b4a8a31e106d8b0-50dc802554eb38a24458b98ff72d550b.r19.cf3.rackcdn.com/geho0811buci-e-e.pdf

14. John Boardman and Karel Vandaele , 2010. Soil erosion, muddy floods and the need for institutional memory. Area (2010) 42.4, 502–513 doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2010.00948.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2010.00948.x/pdf

15. R. Evans, 2010. Runoff and soil erosion in arable Britain: changes in perception and policy since 1945. Environmental Science and Policy 13, pp 1 4 1 – 1 4 9. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2010.01.001

16. John Boardman and Karel Vandaele , 2010. Soil erosion, muddy floods and the need for institutional memory. Area (2010) 42.4, 502–513 doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2010.00948.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2010.00948.x/pdf

17. http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2013-10-10b.289.1&m=40459

18. Owen Paterson, 2013. In evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Managing Flood Risk, Volume I. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmenvfru/330/330.pdf

19. I am grateful to Dr Richard Hey and to Charles Rangely-Wilson for the discussions we had about these issues.

20. Natural England, Environment Agency, Defra, Welsh Government et al, 2012. Greater working with natural processes in flood and coastal erosion risk management. http://a0768b4a8a31e106d8b0-50dc802554eb38a24458b98ff72d550b.r19.cf3.rackcdn.com/geho0811buci-e-e.pdf

21. Sir Michael Pitt, 2008. Learning lessons from the 2007 floods. The Pitt Review.

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100807034701/http://archive.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/pittreview/_/media/assets/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/flooding_review/pitt_review_full%20pdf.pdf

22. See http://www.wildennerdale.co.uk/

23. I hope before long to write up the extraordinary story I was told by a representative of United Utilities about the sharply differing responses of the rewilded River Liza in Ennerdale and the still-canalised St John’s Beck in Thirlmere
to the famous 2009 downpour.

24. Natural England, Environment Agency, Defra, Welsh Government et al, 2012. Greater working with natural processes in flood and coastal erosion risk management. http://a0768b4a8a31e106d8b0-50dc802554eb38a24458b98ff72d550b.r19.cf3.rackcdn.com/geho0811buci-e-e.pdf

25. http://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/have-we-reached-peak-paterson/comment-page-1/

26. http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/modevents/item/improving-the-environment-and-growing-the-economy-can-we-have-it-all

27. http://charlesrangeleywilson.com/2013/04/26/a-storm-cloud-for-rivers/

28. Judy England and Lydia Burgess-Gamble, August 2013. Evidence: impacts of dredging. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/72349203/Evidence%20-%20impacts%20of%20dredging%20-%20August%2013%20%282%29.pdf

29. Environment Agency, 2009. River Severn Catchment Flood Management Plan.
Summary Report.

http://cdn.environment-agency.gov.uk/gemi0909bqym-b-e.pdf

30. Sir Michael Pitt, 2008. Learning lessons from the 2007 floods. The Pitt Review.

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100807034701/http://archive.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/pittreview/_/media/assets/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/flooding_review/pitt_review_full%20pdf.pdf

31. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/river-maintenance-pilots-begin

32. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/07/england-floods-budget-cuts

33. Defra and the Environment Agency, 2011. Understanding the risks, empowering communities, building resilience: the national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy for England. http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/other/9780108510366/9780108510366.pdf

34. Chapter XVII.

35. Animal Aid, 2013. Calling the Shots: the power and privilege of the grouse-shooting elite. http://www.animalaid.org.uk/images/pdf/booklets/callingtheshots.pdf

36. See also the Upper Calder Valley Ban the Burn campaign. http://www.energyroyd.org.uk/archives/tag/ban-the-burn

37. https://www.gov.uk/government/case-studies/flood-defences-south-derbyshire-residents-help-protect-their-homes

ooOOoo

Just to underline that message of it not being only the UK with crazy policies, the photograph below is of a forest ridge within sight of the house here in Oregon.

A local ridge demonstrating 'clear-cutting' mania poking above the valley mist.

A local ridge demonstrating ‘clear-cutting’ mania poking above the valley mist.

Rather underlines the message contained in last Saturday’s post about rewilding: Restore large carnivores to save struggling ecosystems

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The long heist!

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Suddenly, it all makes sense!

Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” -Paulo Freire

Dear neighbours, Dordie and Bill, lent us a documentary video to watch on Sunday night.  It was called “HEIST: Who Stole the American Dream?

As the film’s website explains:

HEIST: Who Stole the American Dream? is stunning audiences across the globe as it traces the worldwide economic collapse to a 1971 secret memo entitled Attack on American Free Enterprise System. Written over 40 years ago by the future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, at the behest of the US Chamber of Commerce, the 6-page memo, a free-market utopian treatise, called for a money fueled big business makeover of government through corporate control of the media, academia, the pulpit, arts and sciences and destruction of organized labor and consumer protection groups.

But Powell’s real “end game” was business control of law and politics. HEIST’s step by step detail exposes the systemic implementation of Powell’s memo by BOTH U.S. political parties culminating in the deregulation of industry, outsourcing of jobs and regressive taxation. All of which led us to the global financial crisis of 2008 and the continued dismantling of the American middle class. Today, politics is the playground of the rich and powerful, with no thought given to the hopes and dreams of ordinary Americans. No other film goes as deeply as HEIST in explaining the greatest wealth transfer of our time. Moving beyond the white noise of today’s polarizing media, HEIST provides viewers with a clear, concise and fact- based explanation of how we got into this mess, and what we need to do to restore our representative democracy.

It’s an incredibly interesting film, but more of that later.  For me, what was stunningly enlightening was at last understanding the powerful forces at work since Lewis Powell published ‘the memo’ back on August 23, 1971.  Because for me over in Britain, the era of the ’70s’ and ’80s’ were incredibly fulfilling.  First, as a salesman for IBM UK – Office Products Division, from 1970 through to 1978, and then forming and managing my own company through to 1986 when I succumbed to an attractive purchase offer.  Then, when my company was sold, taking a few years off cruising a sailboat in the Mediterranean; based out of Larnaca, Cyprus.

Thus I was immune to the global money and power plays, albeit enjoying rising house prices!  Only Lady Luck protected me from the collapse of 2008 in that I had sold my Devon home in early 2007 and was renting.  Then Lady Luck arranging for me to meet Jean in Mexico, Christmas 2007 (we were born 23 miles apart in London) and subsequently moving out to Mexico with Pharaoh in September, 2008, to be with Jean and all her dogs.  Lady Luck’s magic continued in that we came to Merlin, Oregon because we were able to take advantage of a bank-owned property; moving there in October, 2012.

Of course, the scale of the downturn was obvious and there were many instances of people that I knew losing jobs or homes, or both, and generally having a very rough time.

So back to the film.  Here’s the official trailer.

Uploaded on Feb 17, 2012

Please watch the newly updated trailer for “Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?,” the new, explosive documentary from Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher exposing the roots of the American economic crisis and the destruction of the American dream. Visit www.Heist-TheMovie.com for more information on how to see the feature film and how to Take Action in restoring democracy and economic justice in the United States.

But here’s another thing that now makes sense: The legitimate anger of so many people, especially those who have some insight into what had been taking place.  No, amend that!  What is still taking place!

Just one example of that legitimate anger, that of Patrice Ayme. Just go across and read his blog post of two days ago: American Circus.

My strong recommendation is that you take an evening off and watch the film. Here’s another preview:

Frances Causey, Co-producer & co-director-Heist & Donald Goldmacher, Co-producer & co-director-Heist join Thom Hartmann. Corporate America is the biggest Welfare reciepient in the country – but that wasn’t always the case. The makers of Heist will tell you how organized money has been able to pull off the biggest “Heist” of the American Dream!

The film also concludes by offering many ways in which individuals can take back control of their lives, reinvigorate local communities, actively show that people-power is unstoppable. As it always has been and always will be.

This post started with a quote and I’m going to close with another.

The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Synchronicity of minds, part one.

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A collection of essays and ideas that unite in a common theme.

Back in those times before dogs became the domesticated friends of man, the leader of the pack, the alpha female, had two key pack roles.  One of them was having first pick of the males, for mating purposes, and the other was knowing when their territory was no longer conducive to her pack’s interests.  When that happened the ‘boss lady’ was the one to signal that the pack had to find another, more beneficial, homestead.

While mankind is in desperate need of learning so many of the qualities of dogs the one example that is beyond us is finding a new homestead. This planet is the only homestead we have.

This basic and fundamental concept seems to be missing from the minds of leaders and power-brokers.  Missing big time!

Coincidentally, over recent days there have been three essays from three different authors that scream out the madness, to put it nicely, of the way of our world just now. Let me dip into those three essays.

First, to a recent essay from Tom Engelhardt over at TomDispatch.

American Jihad 2014 
The New Fundamentalists 
By Tom Engelhardt

In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political system.  You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances, miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy.  There was, Americans then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life.  These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins.  Certainly checks, balances, rights, and democracy wouldn’t top any New Year’s list.  Since my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and unbalanced.  In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S. military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces, gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual “defense department,” as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers, contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never stopped growing.  It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington’s national security state — let’s call it the NSS — to gargantuan proportions has historically met little opposition.  In the wake of the Edward Snowdenrevelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the “right” of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort.  The debate about this — invariably framed within the boundaries of whether or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to balance the two — has been reasonably vigorous.  The problem is: it doesn’t begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation’s capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson.  After all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal way of thinking for a moment.  At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet.  They are capable of causing genuine damage — though far less to the United States than numerous other countries – but not of shaking our way of life.  And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it’s a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

It’s a long, deeply thoughtful essay that deserves your full read.  This is how it closes:

After 12 long years in Afghanistan and an Obama era surge in that country, the latest grim National Intelligence Estimate from the U.S. intelligence community suggests that no matter what Washington now does, the likelihood is that things there will only go from bad enough to far worse.  Years of a drone campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula hasstrengthened that organization; an air intervention in Libya led to chaos, a dead ambassador, and a growing al-Qaeda movement in northern Africa — and so it repetitively goes.

Similarly, intelligence officials brag of terrorist plots – 54 of them! — that have been broken up thanks in whole or in part to the National Security Agency’s metadata sweeps of U.S. phone calls; it also claims that, given the need of secrecy, only four of them can be made public.  (The claims of success on even those four, when examined by journalists, have proved less than impressive.)  Meanwhile, the presidential task force charged with reviewing the NSA revelations, which had access to a far wider range of insider information, came to aneven more startling conclusion: not one instance could be found in which that metadata the NSA was storing in bulk had thwarted a terrorist plot. “Our review,” the panel wrote, “suggests that the information contributed to terrorist investigations by the use of section 215 telephony meta-data was not essential to preventing attacks.” (And keep in mind that, based on what we do know about such terror plots, a surprising number of them were planned or sparked or made possible by FBI-inspired plants.)

In fact, claims of success against such plots couldn’t be more faith-based, relying as they generally do on the word of intelligence officials who have proven themselves untrustworthy or on the impossible-to-prove-or-disprove claim that if such a system didn’t exist, far worse would have happened.  That version of a success story is well summarized in the claim that “we didn’t have another 9/11.”

In other words, in bang-for-the-buck practical terms, Washington’s national security state should be viewed as a remarkable failure.  And yet, in faith-based terms, it couldn’t be a greater success.  Its false gods are largely accepted by acclamation and regularly worshiped in Washington and beyond.  As the funding continues to pour in, the NSS has transformed itself into something like a shadow government in that city, while precluding from all serious discussion the possibility of its own future dismantlement or of what could replace it.  It has made other options ephemeral and more immediate dangers than terrorism to the health and wellbeing of Americans seem, at best, secondary.  It has pumped fear into the American soul.  It is a religion of state power.

No Martian could mistake it for anything else.

Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt

Now let’s move from the USA to the UK.  George Monbiot penned an essay on the 6th January about the growing loss of freedoms in my old home country.  He opens:

Dead Zone

January 6, 2014

A shocking new bill threatens to make this country feel like a giant shopping mall.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 7th January 2014

Until the late 19th Century, much of our city space was owned by private landlords. Squares were gated, streets were controlled by turnpikes. The great unwashed, many of whom had been expelled from the countryside by acts of enclosure, were also excluded from desirable parts of town.

Social reformers and democratic movements tore down the barriers, and public space became a right, not a privilege. But social exclusion follows inequality as night follows day, and now, with little public debate, our city centres are again being privatised or semi-privatised. They are being turned by the companies that run them into soulless, cheerless, pasteurised piazzas, in which plastic policemen harry anyone loitering without intent to shop.

Streetlife in these places is reduced to a trance-world of consumerism, of conformity and atomisation, in which nothing unpredictable or disconcerting happens, a world made safe for selling mountains of pointless junk to tranquilised shoppers. Spontaneous gatherings of any other kind – unruly, exuberant, open-ended, oppositional – are banned. Young, homeless and eccentric people are, in the eyes of those upholding this dead-eyed, sanitised version of public order, guilty until proven innocent.

Then a few paragraphs later, the essay continues:

The existing rules are bad enough. Introduced by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, anti-social behavour orders (Asbos) have criminalised an apparently endless range of activities, subjecting thousands – mostly young and poor – to bespoke laws. They have been used to enforce a kind of caste prohibition: personalised rules which prevent the untouchables from intruding into the lives of others.

You get an Asbo for behaving in a manner deemed by a magistrate as likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to other people. Under this injunction, the proscribed behaviour becomes a criminal offence. Asbos have been granted which forbid the carrying of condoms by a prostitute, homeless alcoholics from possessing alcohol in a public place, a soup kitchen from giving food to the poor, a young man from walking down any road other than his own, children from playing football in the street. They were used to ban peaceful protests against the Olympic clearances.

Inevitably, over half the people subject to Asbos break them. As Liberty says, these injunctions “set the young, vulnerable or mentally ill up to fail”, and fast-track them into the criminal justice system. They allow the courts to imprison people for offences which are not otherwise imprisonable. One homeless young man was sentenced to five years in jail for begging: an offence for which no custodial sentence exists. Asbos permit the police and courts to create their own laws and their own penal codes.

All this is about to get much worse. Tomorrow the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill reaches its report stage (close to the end of the process) in the House of Lords. It is remarkable how little fuss has been made about it, and how little we know of what is about to hit us.

The bill would permit injunctions against anyone of 10 or above who “has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person.” It would replace Asbos with Ipnas (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance), which would not only forbid certain forms of behaviour, but also force the recipient to discharge positive obligations. In other words, they can impose a kind of community service on people who have committed no crime, which could, the law proposes, remain in force for the rest of their lives.

The bill also introduces Public Space Protection Orders, which can prevent either everybody or particular kinds of people from doing certain things in certain places. It creates new dispersal powers, which can be used by the police to exclude people from an area (there is no size limit), whether or not they have done anything wrong.

Please read the original essay in full as well as refer to background links that were included in that original.  I will offer the closing paragraphs.

The Home Office minister, Norman Baker, once a defender of civil liberties, now the architect of the most oppressive bill pushed through any recent parliament, claims that the amendments he offered in December will “reassure people that basic liberties will not be affected”(11). But Liberty describes them as “a little bit of window-dressing: nothing substantial has changed.”(12)

The new injunctions and the new dispersal orders create a system in which the authorities can prevent anyone from doing more or less anything. But they won’t be deployed against anyone. Advertisers, who cause plenty of nuisance and annoyance, have nothing to fear; nor do opera lovers hogging the pavements of Covent Garden. Annoyance and nuisance are what young people cause; they are inflicted by oddballs, the underclass, those who dispute the claims of power.

These laws will be used to stamp out plurality and difference, to douse the exuberance of youth, to pursue children for the crime of being young and together in a public place, to help turn this nation into a money-making monoculture, controlled, homogenised, lifeless, strifeless and bland. For a government which represents the old and the rich, that must sound like paradise.

www.monbiot.com

The last of the three essays was about Europe, being an essay on Naked Capitalism two days ago.

Written by Don Quijones, a freelance writer and translator based in Barcelona, Spain who also publishes the blog Raging Bull-Shit, the essay was originally posted at Testosterone Pit.

Death By A Thousand Cuts: The Silent Assassination Of European Democracy

As is gradually dawning on more and more people across the old continent, the European Union is riddled with fatal flaws and defects. Chief among them is the single currency which, rather than serving as the Union’s springboard to global dominance, could well be its ultimate undoing.

Another huge problem with the EU is its acute lack of transparency. Staggering as it may seem, in the last 20 years the Union has not passed a single audit. Indeed, so opaque is the state of its finances that in 2002 Marta Andreasen, the first ever professional accountant to serve as the Commission’s Chief Accountant, refused to sign off the organization’s 2001 accounts, citing concerns that the EU’s accounting system was “open to fraud.” After taking her concerns public, Andreasen was suspended and then later sacked by the Commission.

However, by far the EU’s greatest — and certainly most dangerous — structural flaw is its gaping democratic deficit. To paraphrase Nigel Farage, the stridently anti-EU British MEP, not only is the EU undemocratic, it is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Yet again, the essay must be read in full.  As with the others, I will include the closing paragraphs:

Of course none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the abject failure of modern nation-state democracy — not only in Europe, but across the globe. As Mair wrote in the first paragraph of his book, although the political parties themselves remain, “they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

The European elites have masterfully exploited this crisis of representative democracy and the resultant voter disaffection and apathy to enshrine a new system of rule by bureaucrats, bankers, technocrats and lobbyists (as I reported in Full Steam Ahead For the EU Gravy Train, Brussels is home to the second biggest lobby industry in the world, just behind Washington). If anything, we can expect this trend to accelerate in 2014 as the Eurocrats seek to consolidate their power grab through the imposition of EU-wide banking and fiscal union. Once that’s done, the quest for the holy grail of full-blown political union will begin in earnest.

Whether the EU is able to pull of this ultimate coup de grace in its decades-long coup d’état will depend on two vital factors: its ability to continue preventing economic reality from impacting the financial markets; and the willingness of hundreds of millions of European people to be herded and corralled into a new age of technocracy.

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the abject failure of modern nation-state democracy — not only in Europe, but across the globe.

Don Quijones wrote that with a focus on Europe.  But also a recognition that right across the world the rights and safeguards of everyday citizens are being dangerously undermined.  I will return tomorrow with Part Two and an insight into the growing power of those everyday citizens.

 

Legitimate hope.

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It’s too easy to be overwhelmed with negativity.

Many will have read yesterday’s post about the slaughter of elephants by ivory poachers and felt, as I did, a feeling of despair in the pit of one’s soul.  We seem to be living in such challenging times with so much madness about us.  It’s incredibly easy to feel as if this is some sort of ‘end of times’ period.

Today’s post tells us that there is always hope.

Let’s remind ourselves that elephants are very intelligent animals.  As I wrote last November in a post with the title of Smart Animals:

There was a fascinating article on the BBC news website a few weeks ago that went on to explain:

10 October 2013

Elephants ‘understand human gesture’

By Victoria GillScience reporter, BBC News
African elephants have demonstrated what appears to be an instinctive understanding of human gestures, according to UK scientists. In a series of tests, researcher Ann Smet, of the University of St Andrews, offered the animals a choice between two identical buckets, then pointed at the one containing a hidden treat.

From the first trial, the elephants chose the correct bucket.

The results are published in the journal Current Biology.

(The two video clips on the BBC website are really worth watching.)

A story published in the Daily Mail just a few days ago underlines the intelligence of elephants.

This adorable baby elephant had to be rescued by its mother’s huge trunk after it got stuck in the mud while taking a bath.

The youngster was enjoying a quiet dip in the water but became stranded when it struggled to pull itself out of the lake.

He had to be lifted to safety by its mother and her trusty trunk, which acted as a crane as she carried the three-month-old calf out of the water.

Stuck in the mud: The baby elephant slipped while taking a dip and was unable to haul himself out of the lake.

Stuck in the mud: The baby elephant slipped while taking a dip and was unable to haul himself out of the lake.

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A mother's touch: Fortunately the calf's mother was able to scoop him up in her trunk and haul him to safety.

A mother’s touch: Fortunately the calf’s mother was able to scoop him up in her trunk and haul him to safety.

The rest of the story may be read here.

Also what needs to be highlighted are the organisations that are actively working on behalf of the elephants.

The Independent Newspaper have their own elephant campaign.

Elephant Crisis

In 2011, more African elephants were killed than any other year in history. The figures for 2012 and 2013 are not yet known, but are likely to be even higher. At current rates, in twelve years, there will be none left.

It is a familiar cause, but it has never been more urgent. Poaching has turned industrial. Armed militia fly in helicopters over jungle clearings, machine gunning down entire herds. Their tusks are then sold to fund war and terrorism throughout the continent and the wider world. Ivory is still illegal, but as China booms, it is more popular than ever.

This campaign will raise money to support rangers on the ground to protect Kenya’s elephants from armed poachers, together with Space for Giants’ longer term work to create new wildlife sanctuaries where elephants will be safe, forever. More can be found about the charity at Space for Giants

The article above includes two videos.  A shorter one that can be viewed on the paper’s campaign website. Then there is a longer, five-minute, video also on YouTube and included below.

Offering a donation to help is only a click away.

Then there is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust helping animals in Africa. And, finally, the campaign over at Bloody Ivory where one can sign a petition and donate towards stopping elephant poaching.

Thus, like so many aspects of life, never give up trying to help those less fortunate.

Without hope there is nothing.

The Pain and the Hope, continued.

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Part Three of reflections on where we are today.

Those of you who watched Part One of Awakening the Dreamer that was published yesterday could be excused for thinking that it was a very gloomy window on our world at the start of 2014.

Park those feelings and watch Part Two.

The Hope

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Tomorrow, Friday, I will complete this run of four days by dropping in on a few of the organisations named in these films plus a few other items.

Written by Paul Handover

January 2, 2014 at 00:00

The Pain and the Hope

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Part Two of reflections on where we are today.

First things first!

A very Happy New Year to you and all your loved ones!

Yesterday (I’m tempted to write last year!), I posted a little tale about the donkey in the well; essentially a message about being happy.

My original plan for today was to post a series of photographs of some animals next door that our neighbours, Larry and Janell, have recently adopted.

But then Jean and I watched a documentary two evenings ago that had us both spellbound. The documentary, Awakening the Dreamer, consisted of two 45-minute films.  The first highlighting the precarious nature of our present times.  The second showing the accelerating pace of people all across the world actively changing things for the better.  Hence the title of the post The Pain and the Hope.

So here’s Part One.   I do so hope you can find the time to watch it.

The Pain

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Written by Paul Handover

January 1, 2014 at 00:00

The trials of Steve Marsh

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This is worthy of support.

Some seven days ago, there was an item on Permaculture News about Steve Marsh’s fight with Monsanto.  Here is that article in full.  I strongly recommend watching the longer video at the end of the post.  It’s an incredibly important issue for all lovers of healthy food.

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Help This Farmer Stop Monsanto’s GM Canola

Posted December 20, 2013 by  & filed under GMOs.

You might not have heard of Steve Marsh yet but this man could lose everything to protect your right to eat GM-free food.

Who is Steve Marsh?

Steve Marsh is an Australian farmer who lost his organic certification when Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) canola blew onto his farm from a neighbouring property in 2010. Since then, Steve lost most of his income and has been struggling to get his organic certification back.

Monsanto has a no liability agreement with GM farmers that prevent them from being sued. The only avenue Steve had to protect his livelihood was to take his neighbour to court. It is due to start on the 10th February 2014 in the Western Australian Supreme Court and is scheduled to run for three weeks.

Donate Now to Support Steve!

A landmark case for a GM-free future

This is the world’s first case of an organic farmer using the courts to recover loss and damages from a GM farmer. This case has been described as a landmark case to determine who should take responsibility in case of GM contamination. If Steve wins it will set a precedent to guide the application of common law to GM contamination and will be of interest to lawmakers worldwide.

We don’t want to be part of the global GM experiment underway with barely tested, unlabeled and uncontrolled GM foods infiltrating our food supplies. When people like Steve stand up for their rights in spite of what he may lose, it gives us a chance to stand alongside him.

Take action!

Steve’s neighbour is well supported and well funded by a pro-GM organization and we are helping to raise funds and awareness for Steve’s case.

Have a look at the short video above explaining his story and share it with friends, family and work colleagues. Please make a donation to support this landmark case and protect the future of GM-free food.

Donate Now to Support Steve!

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Jean and I have made a donation.  We hope you can find your way to supporting this campaign.

This is the longer version of that video above.

Animal rights.

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This cougar was looking for love.

I forget how I came across this editorial in the Chicago Tribune but it was published a month ago, to the day.  What is more to the point is that the editorial was inspiring and I vowed to republish it.  With the absence of any formal permission to republish the editorial I thought it best to leave it for a few weeks.  When you read it you will realise just why it needed to be shared with you.

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Editorial: The cougar killed in Illinois was looking for love

ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCESThis cougar was shot last week by a state conservation officer in Whiteside County. The animal needn’t really have been killed.

ILLINOIS DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES.
This cougar was shot last week by a state conservation officer in Whiteside County. The animal needn’t really have been killed.

He was lean, athletic and had traveled hundreds of miles, most likely from the Black Hills of southwestern South Dakota. He had attacked no one as he passed hundreds of towns and many more farms, each of them a lethal threat to his mission. Yet for lack of a better wildlife management plan in Illinois, the young cougar couldn’t get past a conservation officer armed with a state-issued rifle.

The necropsy says the cougar killed last week as he hid near Morrison, 130 miles west of Chicago, died of gunfire. In truth he died of official neglect: Even though more cougars and possibly wolves likely will be visiting Illinois, state lawmakers and the Department of Natural Resources haven’t forged policies that could allow the tranquilization, capture and survival of animals whose ancestors blissfully roamed the Midwest long before humans intruded on their turf.

Given his hunting skills, the young male could have homesteaded anywhere in the Upper Midwest and dined on the bountiful deer population for the rest of his life. Instead, his four huge paws carried out the imperative that drove him: With larger, older males driving him away from the females on their home ranges, this cougar came looking for love.

A farmer called authorities to report a large cat running from a cornfield toward his farmstead and, sure enough, a responding conservation officer found the cat under a corncrib, probably hiding until darkness would allow it to flee.

We won’t second-guess the officer, who consulted with law enforcement and wildlife personnel before killing the cougar. That said, this was an outcome that didn’t have to be. A magnificent creature might well be headed back to South Dakota if Illinois had learned lessons after Chicago police shot and killed a cornered cougar in the Roscoe Village neighborhood five years ago.

What all of us, legislators included, have to understand is that the return of feline or canine predators to their traditional realms doesn’t mean the animals want to hurt anyone. Even as this episode unfolded, millions of National Geographic readers were receiving the magazine’s December issue, with an 18-page spread: “Ghost Cats … Cougars are quietly reclaiming lost ground.” The relevant passage: “Cougars have attacked humans on about 145 occasions in the U.S. and Canada since 1890. Just over 20 of those assaults — an average of one every six years — proved fatal.”

Yet in this case, with an animal that had threatened no one while bypassing thousands of Midwesterners, a DNR spokesman rationalized that, “Public safety is what we’ll make the decision on every time.” The rest of DNR’s explanation is similarly lame: The department otherwise would have had to find someone to capture and move the animal. This officer thought the situation too unsafe to call a veterinarian to tranquilize the cat. Conservation officers don’t carry tranquilizer guns. That thinking led the DNR to the specious excuse that if the officer had shot the cougar with the wrong dosage of tranquilizer, the animal could have been harmed or killed accidentally. That excuse evokes the February 1968 explanation from a U.S. major to an Associated Press correspondent about the Vietnamese provincial city of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

We were struck by sensible comments last week from Bruce Patterson, curator of mammals at Chicago’s Field Museum, who wonders why this animal had to be shot when it evidently was hiding during daylight and hadn’t threatened anyone: “It’s possible to manage wildlife while still keeping it around.”

When we editorialize about humans slaying wild predators, some readers say our concern should be — as it constantly is — directed instead to the needless killings of young people, and not toward one lost, probably frightened animal.

Fair enough, although it’s possible to think about both. Just as we know there will be more homicides, we know that more big predators likely are coming to Illinois. So we’ll look back to what we expressed after the 2008 killing of the cougar in Roscoe Village: We hope Illinois comes away from last week’s episode with more than one dead cougar and a communal sadness. Illinois should develop a reliable protocol that errs on the side of trying to preserve the life of the lost animal — not of making the ad hoc decision to kill it and then resolving the ambiguities in favor of that decision.

That’s what happened here. A logical first step now: Give cougars protection under the Illinois Wildlife Code; they lack that protection now only because there is no known breeding population in this state. But with trail cameras capturing photos of one or more cougars in Jo Daviess, Morgan, Pike and Calhoun counties last fall, the animals evidently are re-establishing themselves in a state where they haven’t been known to live since 1870. In recent years, wolves have dipped into Jo Daviess, the state’s northwest corner. A black bear even visited there, evidently for a few days.

Lawmakers, DNR officials, you can do better. So can the rest of us, first by using sites such as cougarnet.org to offset our visceral fear with scientific knowledge.

Wild animals roam this state. Always have and, we hope, always will. As we urged here in 2008: The same Illinois that was unprepared for the last cougar had better get ready for the next. He’s probably en route.

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As you contemplate your New Year resolutions for 2014 please resolve to protect our animals.

Scum worse than a dog!

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G’rrr!

I am indebted to Per Kurowski who yesterday sent me an email about the atrocious recent act in North Korea.  Per writes the blog A view from the Radical Middle and has been a good friend of Learning from Dogs.

Per’s email read:

Lowly opinions on dogs

Paul

With respect to the execution of Jang Song Thaek the North Korea government issued a statement calling him “Despicable human scum who was worse than a dog”… and I just felt you could have a real serious issue with that.

Merry Christmas

Per

My reply to Per included, “I did hear about the statement and your thought also crossed my mind, then something came along and I forgot to do anything about it. Will be corrected in a post coming out tomorrow.”

Per’s email included a link to a Financial Times article that is not visible unless one registers with the FT.  However the relevant section reads thus:

Jang Song Thaek

Jang’s summary execution – reported by state media on Friday – marked a spectacular demise for a man seen until recently as the most powerful adviser to Kim Jong Un. It also raised questions about the potential for further instability in the court of the world’s youngest national leader.

Describing him as “despicable human scum”, state media said Jang had been put to death immediately after his conviction for treason by a military tribunal, where he confessed to having plotted a coup against Mr Kim.

If one then goes to the full text of that state media report, then one reads (my emboldening):

It is an elementary obligation of a human being to repay trust with sense of obligation and benevolence with loyalty.

However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.

Frankly, if one cogitates about just a few of the qualities of dogs: integrity, loyalty, unconditional love, trust, openness, forgiveness, affection – then this world would be one hell of a better place to live for all humans if only we learnt to live like dogs.

G’rrrr!

Thanks Per!

Different ways of looking at life.

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A fascinating essay by Corey Robin

Like me, I suspect you haven’t come across this author before.  The connection for me was made by a link in Thursdays selection of Links from Naked Capitalism. It was “Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness for a Hundred Years Corey Robin (martha r). Today’s must read.”

I was intrigued and went across to Corey Robin’s website to read the article. On the website I learnt a little more:

Corey Robin

Corey Robin – Photo by Sasha Maslov

I teach political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. I’m the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea. My articles have appeared in the New York TimesHarper’s, the London Review of Books, and elsewhere. I also blog at Crooked Timber and Jacobin. I am currently working on a book about the political theory of the free market.

I live in Brooklyn with my wife, daughter, and too many cats.

So to the essay.

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Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness for a Hundred Years

In yesterday’s New York Times, Robert Pear reports on a little known fact about Obamacare: the insurance packages available on the federal exchange have very high deductibles. Enticed by the low premiums, people find out that they’re screwed on the deductibles, and the co-pays, the out-of-network charges, and all the different words and ways the insurance companies have come up with to hide the fact that you’re paying through the nose.

For policies offered in the federal exchange, as in many states, the annual deductible often tops $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for a couple.

Insurers devised the new policies on the assumption that consumers would pick a plan based mainly on price, as reflected in the premium. But insurance plans with lower premiums generally have higher deductibles.

In El Paso, Tex., for example, for a husband and wife both age 35, one of the cheapest plans on the federal exchange, offered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield, has a premium less than $300 a month, but the annual deductible is more than $12,000. For a 45-year-old couple seeking insurance on the federal exchange in Saginaw, Mich., a policy with a premium of $515 a month has a deductible of $10,000.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., where the exchange is run by the state, Robert Aaron, a self-employed 56-year-old engineer, said he was looking for a low-cost plan. The best one he could find had a premium of $488 a month. But the annual deductible was $5,000, and that, he said, “sounds really high.”

By contrast, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average deductible in employer-sponsored health plans is $1,135.

It’s true that if you’re a family of three, making up to $48,825 (or, if you’re an individual, making up to $28,725), you’ll be eligible for the subsidies. Those can be quite substantive at the lower ends of the income ladder. But as you start nearing those upper limits (which really aren’t that high; below the median family income, in fact), the subsidies start dwindling. Leaving individuals and families with quite a bill, as even this post, which is generally bullish on Obamacare, acknowledges.

Aside from the numbers, what I’m always struck by in these discussions is just how complicated Obamacare is. Even if we accept all the premises of its defenders, the number of steps, details, caveats, and qualifications that are required to defend it, is in itself a massive political problem. As we’re now seeing.

More important than the politics, that byzantine complexity is a symptom of what the ordinary citizen has to confront when she tries to get health insurance for herself or her family. As anyone who has even good insurance knows, navigating that world of numbers and forms and phone calls can be a daunting proposition. It requires inordinate time, doggedness, savvy, intelligence, and manipulative charm (lest you find yourself on the wrong end of a disgruntled telephone operator). Obamacare fits right in with that world and multiplies it.

I’m not interested in arguing here over what was possible with health care reform and what wasn’t; we’ve had that debate a thousand times. But I thought it might be useful to re-up part of this post I did, when I first started blogging, on how much time and energy our capitalist world requires us to waste, and what a left approach to the economy might have to say about all that. It is this world of everyday experience—what it’s like to try and get basic goods for yourself and/or your family—that I wish the left (both liberals and leftists) was more in touch with.

The post is in keeping with an idea I’ve had about socialism and the welfare state for several years now. Cribbing from Freud, and drawing from my own anti-utopian utopianism, I think the point of socialism is to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. God, that would be so great.

• • • • • •

There is a deeper, more substantive, case to be made for a left approach to the economy. In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.

In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.

…We saw a version of it during the debate on Obama’s healthcare plan. I distinctly remember, though now I can’t find it, one of those healthcare whiz kids—maybe it was Ezra Klein—tittering on about the nifty economics and cool visuals of Obama’s plan: how you could go to the web, check out the exchange, compare this little interstice of one plan with that little interstice of another, and how great it all was because it was just so fucking complicated.

I thought to myself: you’re either very young or an academic. And since I’m an academic, and could only experience vertigo upon looking at all those blasted graphs and charts, I decided whoever it was, was very young. Only someone in their 20s—whipsmart enough to master an inordinately complicated law without having to make real use of it—could look up at that Everest of words and numbers and say: Yes! There’s freedom!

That’s what the neoliberal view reduces us to: men and women so confronted by the hassle of everyday life that we’re either forced to master it, like the wunderkinder of the blogosphere, or become its slaves. We’re either athletes of the market or the support staff who tend to the race.

That’s not what the left wants. We want to give people the chance to do something else with their lives, something besides merely tending to it, without having to take a 30-year detour on Wall Street to get there. The way to do that is not to immerse people even more in the ways and means of the market, but to give them time and space to get out of it. That’s what a good welfare state, real social democracy, does: rather than being consumed by life, it allows you to make your life. Freely. One less bell to answer, not one more.

oooOOOooo

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