Brute Necessities

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on October 29, 2008

In Tuscany about now, maybe a little earlier, the farmers cut away the old dead wood from the olive trees. The perfumed smoke rises up from the valleys into the cold air. Through it you can make out a distant cathedral, or a train station built by fascists. It seems jarring to smell destruction in a place so often associated in one’s mind with that growth that having settled things affords. But this is how it is done. For centuries on end, independent men have pruned the origins of their sustenance and left them, as the poet says, “hacked clean for better bearing.” We are coming now to the end of a sad summer of bitter fruit. And so we cut out the old dead wood that has betrayed us. The memory of so much bitterness has shaken our belief in the fecundity of this valley. We doubt it all and the decision of so many ages before to settle in this place. I remember better summers, glorious halcyon days when together we teased each other, free in our own land, as we carried in the harvest. Those days existed, I recall, for I have not yet lost my mind, I think. And so something must have happened to cause this harvest to have been so bad. In some way we must have strayed from the old traditions that year on year filled our now empty barns with tall jars of grassy, perfumed oil. With my other eyes I can see my mother, half-lit in the window. She fills a peppermint bottle in the shadows of the cellar. I can smell the song of lamb cooking over the open fire. She is gone now. The jars are dusty. Empty. Unasked I defend myself. Throwing my arms out to heaven I point up and down the smoke filled valley – it is a blight! Father. I stare down on the village below. It is inevitable now. Rumors wind by the river, of troops on the move from Pisa. The days of this Prince are ending. We will be a republic once more. I stoke the fire and remember sitting on my father’s knee as he told me, beneath his father’s gaze. Of round tables and our old customs. The leaves spit and hiss amidst the flames. I watch a line of luminescent orange sear through a blighted leaf – the tired green and the spotted mold equally consumed. Next summer we will have a harvest mother, when things are settled and the lamb is done.Brute NecessitiesB


A Better Way To Do Things

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on October 29, 2008

This morning a user on YouTube left a comment on my profile at that site. The comment was short and said something close to ‘like terrorists everywhere, anybody but John McCain.” I don’t have the comment because I deleted it. Later I watched a speech by Robert Kennedy and reflecting upon it and speeches by Barack Obama I wrote the commentator the email below. The reason I am posting it here is because it is an example of the effect that Barack Obama has already had, on me, on public discourse, and on this nation. It is evidence of leadership by example.

“Dear Romphh

I am writing to you because of your comment that you left on my YouTube profile to the effect that terrorists would desire the election of anyone but McCain. I had deleted your comment, thinking that it was just the sort of thing one has to deal with on such an open and anonymous forum as this. A while passed and as I was watching some old historical footage in which former leaders of the United States called on us to come together that I realized that I could do better.

I disagree with your point of view. To focus exclusively on your point I think that the policies of the Bush Administration, and those advocated by John McCain do not help us to defeat terrorists. Specifically, I think putting a standing army in Iraq, a place where there was no al-Qaeda presence to begin with has only delivered a target around which terrorists could gather, to practice and improve their techniques, and continue to erode our image around the world. The erosion of this image is not an insubstantial thing. We rely on the good will of other nations to exercise their best efforts to arrest terrorists within their own borders. It is because of good will that the British help to catch terrorists in London. The war in Iraq is forecast to cost us 3 trillion dollars and Professor Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate economist, has argued that it is one, if not the cause of our current financial weakness. The way to fight terrorism is not by putting a standing army, at great cost in an irrelevant battlefield and in doing so remove a counterbalance to Iran. A fraction of the cost of this approach could have been spent on infiltrating terrorist networks, on developing our intelligence capacities and allies on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The war in Iraq has not shown America’s strength to the world, in fact it has shown how America can be antagonized into a weak position. I think it is important to understand that al-Qaeda wanted the United States to put an army on the ground in the Arab world. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is what John Brennan, head of the National Counterterrorism Center said: “al-Qaeda’s strategy has been to bleed the U.S. into bankruptcy and to continue with the same approach will have severe consequences for U.S. national security.”

To win this fight, we must use our head and not just our muscle. To move, as the enemy wants you to move, is to concede to his strategy. If you reflect upon the history of guerilla warfare, from the Boer War in South Africa to the conflict in Northern Ireland, infiltration and not a standing army is the best way to defeat a terrorist organization. A terrorist group attacks a standing army and then disappears into the civilian population. The army strikes back, civilians are killed and the ranks of terrorist organizations are swelled. Infiltration removes the opportunity of the terrorist organization to score points in the media, to point to civilian casualties. Infiltration puts the terrorist group on the defensive and cripples them from within.

This is not some hidden insight. I remember discussing this with my history teacher decades ago. That the Republican party failed to appreciate that they were in effect, being goaded into an ambush on an epic scale strikes me as being an example of extraordinary bad judgment. It was a bad judgment that came at a horrible price to American soldiers, the lives of thousands of innocent people and to the image of the United States in the minds of people all around the world. The administration that made this mistake has shown itself unfit to rule. John McCain voted in favor of this war and in doing so showed that he too is unfit to lead. Barack Obama was against this war because he anticipated how it would play out. That’s judgment, and its the judgment we need.

I understand if you continue to disagree with me, but I hope you respect that I have taken the time to explain my point of view respectfully to you. You and I should be able to talk about these things as two people working together to build a democracy. I am doing this because the example of Barack Obama has shown me that just because we have different points of view we don’t need to be disrespectful to one another.

Have a good day and whichever way you decide to vote, please vote.

A Single Ouroboros

Posted in Philosophy by Arasmus on October 28, 2008

All things are defined by their opposite. Without night there is no day. The extreme of anything leads to its antithesis. Thus, in determining how one should live one’s life, without balance, to pursue one direction without restraint is to end up in completely the wrong place. With sufficient degree, one’s destination couldn’t be further away from where one wants to go. But where along the road is this balance to be found? No one knows. Perhaps it is essential to go all the way. Perhaps it is necessary to go to Hades in order to know the joy of returning from the Underworld. This cannot surely be a practical solution, there are more hells than man can endure. In the best case, one runs out of life just as one runs out of hells. Then falling from a once youthfull hand the secret returns to the darkness.  Perhaps there is a sufficient degree.  Perhaps once you have seen one ouroboros you have seen them all and can intuitively understand their universal applicability.  A sailor, even in a foreign fjord knows how to sail his ship, he knows where the deep water must be.  This then is judgment, knowledge, the fruit of man’s first trip to hell.  And like Prometheus, once stolen from the Gods, one flame alone is sufficient to illuminate the earth.

Fatal Privilege & Essential Empathy

Posted in Anthropology, Politics by Arasmus on October 28, 2008

With our presidential election just a number of days away, I found it interesting to revisit the themes that Jared Diamond explores in his book Collapse. In this video lecture, Jared summarizes his thesis. In doing so he relates the astonishment of his UCLA students when faced with examples of societies that cause their own collapse. These students ask how was it possible that the people in those societies did not see the collapse coming – what did the individual who cut the last palm tree on Easter Island think he was doing? Diamond points to a disconnect between the reality that a society is experiencing and the reality perceived by its leaders. The various chiefs of the doomed Norse society on Greenland wanted more and more livestock because the chiefs were in a competition with each other on this metric, even though the overstocking that it caused was reducing their people to poverty. In short, there was a conflict of interest between the interests of the leadership and the interests of the society they lead.

Turning now to the choice before the American people, one has to ask which of the two candidates has the experience to best appreciate the conditions that American society is going through today? Which of the two know poverty? Which of the two know uncertainty? Which of the two know the conditions that are necessary for people to move themselves from poverty to security?

Both John McCain’s father and grandfather were four star US Navy admirals. His current wealth has been widely commented upon. It is fair to say that John McCain has lived a privileged life that was in no small part due to the family into which he was born and that into which he married. These factors, suggestive of patrician envelopment, do not preclude his potential to be a good president. One could argue that this financial position allows him to make independent decisions or that by virtue of his background he comes to the job with a species of institutional knowledge. But the same could have been said for the Norse chieftains that drove their societies to extinction. By virtue of his background, McCain has been immune to the hardships and constraints felt by the majority of the American population. By contrast, Barack Obama came from an economic position in society that is closer to that of the majority. For example, his experience of his mother arguing with health insurance companies from her death bed allows him to better empathize with, and represent the interests of the 45.7 million Americans that live without health insurance. John McCain has never experienced that life-lesson. He does not know what it feels like to live, and know that one’s family lives, in perpetual fear of getting sick. Furthermore, Barack Obama is a self-made man.  He owes his position to his own hard work rather than a multi-generational inheritance. He has first-hand experience of the conditions that are necessary for others to similarly advance and it appears to me from his speeches he believes that one of the key components is access to education. McCain’s record shows that for him education was a rather annoying chore.

As if to further illustrate Diamond’s thesis, the presidency of George W. Bush has clearly taught us that we all need to carefully consider who we put in power. The incompetence of the Bush administration, in particular its attitude towards financial regulation (if not foreign policy), has brought our society to, and many other societies beyond the brink of collapse. Over a decade of wealth creation has now been erased. Our world today is too interconnected for any one of us (American or not) to think that he will be unaffected by the choice of US president. I challenge anyone to point to a single asset class anywhere in the world where an isolationist can park their wealth and be beyond the incompetence of George W. Bush.  In such a delicate world, facing the sort of threats described by Diamond, and of which every single one of us is now aware, we must ensure that the individual to whom we give executive power has the deepest understanding and empathy of our condition. Most of us do not have the ability to right our mistakes with a check from the family. Most of us take care of ourselves. Most of us got what little we have by working hard for it. That is why, at this point in our history, in a world as interdependent as ours is today, we cannot afford a privileged president.  We need one who has lived with the same tradeoffs, incentives and compromises with which the vast majority of Americans live every day. From this point of view at least it seems clear to me that Barack Obama’s experience and achievements in life make him more likely than John McCain to make better decisions for the American people.

A Righteous Wind At Our Backs

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on October 24, 2008
“The Washington Post reports at an “ear-splitting rally in the Richmond coliseum and a late-afternoon speech at a chilly park in Leesburg, Obama promised to deliver the Commonwealth in the Democratic column,’ saying at one point, ‘I feel like we’ve got a righteous wind at our backs.’ USA Today adds that in Leesburg, in a ‘county that President Bush won by more than 13,000 votes in 2004,’ Obama ‘drew a crowd — estimated at 35,000 by the township parks department — that stretched across the rolling hills of a local park.'”

Activists Under Surveilance By Maryland State Police

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on October 24, 2008

According to current Maryland Police Superintendent, Terrence B. Sheridan (who has invited the suspects to view their files before they are deleted) the surveilance campaign targeted opponents of the death penalty and the Iraq war. The surveillance took place over 14 months in 2005 and 2006, under the administration of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (Republican). The former state police superintendent who authorized the operation, Thomas E. Hutchins, defended the program in testimony yesterday before a legislative hearing. Hutchins said the program was a bulwark against potential violence and called the activists “fringe people.” For more details you can read the Washington Post article here.

Volunteering for the Obama Campaign in Washington DC

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on October 23, 2008

I am writing this quick note to let people know what its like to volunteer for the Obama campaign in Washington DC based on my experience today.

Two key takeaways: (1) there is no minimum time commitment, you can do 5 minutes, 25 minutes, an hour, 5 hours, etc., (2) there is a 60 second learning curve. When I was thinking about volunteering I thought it was going to be such a pain, paperwork and nonsense and sitting around thumb-twiddling and just the usual lack of co-ordination that is invariably found in volunteer temporary organizations. Not a bit of it. 100% of my time was spent “on task.” So I strongly encourage you, if you want to help, to do so. Its very easy.

What actually happens? You go in and sign up with your contact details. You are given a list of people to call and then you sit around a large table and go through the list, updating it as you go as to whether someone is at home, available to canvas, phone-bank or if you have found a wrong-number or someone who would rather not be contacted. These sheets are then taken from you and the database is updated. Bring your own cellphone (they have some phones if you need to use theirs), charger if you plan to stay a while, and avoid eating the candy!

My discussions with people covered the following 3 areas:

  1. Local Events – letting people know about events in their neighborhood (for example Mayor Fenty and Delegate Eleanor Norton are going to speak at a rally this Saturday, October 25 at 1pm at the DNC Headquarters Parking Lot at 430 South Capitol Street SE, – nearest subway stop is Capitol South Metro on either the blue or the orange line)
  2. Determining their willingness to canvas – If you are in the Washington DC metro area (Maryland & Virginia) and would like to do some canvassing either this weekend or next weekend then there are opportunities on October 25 (at 1pm, after the rally), October 26 (2-4pm) November 1 (2-4pm) and November 2 (2-4pm). Assembly is at the DNC Headquarters Parking Lot. During the week they are looking for people to canvas in the evenings (after 5pm) in Virginia.  If you are interested call the Canvas Confirmation Hotline at 202-579-2584.
  3. Determining their willingness to do phonebanking – i.e. to call other people. To phonebank, on weekdays, go to the Obama Headquarters at 803 Florida Avenue, NW in Washington DC between 10am-9pm. The priority is 5pm-9pm because obviously that’s when people are not at work.  The telephone number for the U Street headquarters is (202)-265-0059. The U Street Metro stop (on either the Green or Yellow line) is just two blocks away and their is also a parking lot just two blocks away.  This Saturday and Sunday (October 25th and 26th) they will be doing phonebanking at the Warehouse Theatre at 1021 7th Street, NW, Washington DC from 10am-7pm

Warren Buffett on the Financial Crisis

Posted in Economics by Arasmus on October 2, 2008

Here are my notes from this Charlie Rose interview with Warren Buffett on the subject of the current financial crisis.

  • Financial Crisis is an economic Pearl Harbor and people are right to be worried
  • Bailout is essential – we need to get it done now
  • Paulson is the best man for the job.
  • Time is essential – delay will be deadly
  • Bailout will not produce remarkable results
  • Congress needs to focus its oversight on ensuring that assets purchased will be purchased at market price but politicians should not be allowed to determine what the investments are – otherwise you will have pork-barrel decisions by politicians
  • He is very confident in America’s future but the athlete is on the floor right now
  • Future inflation will be the cost of doing what we have to do to fix this problem
  • Inflation and unemployment will go up from here
  • Best case scenario we recover in 6 months, worst case scenario we recover in 5 years
  • Long-term balance of payment deficit is bad news for the country and bad news for the value of the dollar, partially ameliorated by our improving productivity and exports
  • He is paying the lowest taxation he has ever paid in his life.  He believes it is just not fair that he pays 15% capital gains while woman emptying waste-paper basket pays higher rate of income tax.
  • Doesn’t have a problem with America sharing global prominence with others – inter-connected world is safer.