Archive for September, 2008

Predictable and Strange

What is going on is both so predictable and at the same time too strange for words. Predictable: the finance crisis — whether triggered by the housing mortgage debacle, the oil problem or some other factor. Because one does not really have to be a banking expert to understand the basics of the mechanism: Banks are the kind of infrastructure to lend money for business needs that are expected to result in gains — profits — later with which the loans will be paid back. The loans are paid out of what? a) Of people’s savings deposits: money they have earned and that they don’t need for their own business needs but would like to earn interest on by lending it out to those who do. So now what happens if people don’t have money saved? (The US has one of the lowest savings rates in the world, according to my imperfect knowledge.) Well, the banks will just have to borrow the money the need for their loans. Where? The savings accounts are empty. Other banks? No savings there either. So: b) the government? It prints money. Never mind that unrestrained money printing will lead to inflation. So that will work, up to a point. Or: c) foreign investors? Yeah: they have sold us so much stuff and piled up savings they’ll lend to the US, as long as it invests and uses it wisely, and doesn’t deposit it overseas, outsource its own industries, wastes it on frivolous wars and excessive CEO bonuses. Now for some reason, the foreign investors have gotten the impression that the US is doing just all those unwise things. And some of the biggest ones — do we have to name names? — are getting antsy about it. And what they want the US to do is to fix it, somehow — by the only remaining means, strategy b) above. Hoping, holding their breaths, that the old capitalist remedy of kickstarting the economy to eventually raise tax income to pay off that loans while keeping inflation under control (by producing so much stuff that prices will be kept down through competition) will work one more time.

All of this was predictable. What hadn’t been predicted properly was that it happened so fast; even those foreign lenders were taken by surprise. And they have intervened with the US government to apply the above fix. Subtly at first, then increasingly insistently and openly. The really strange part is that nowhere in the US media is this mentioned, least of all in the campaign rhetoric, on both sides. I don’t scrutinize all of the US media, but I had to find it spelled out in foreign newspapers (Die Zeit, in my case). The public is bickering about whether it is good or bad to ‘bail out Wall Street’ — plausibly enough, and the right talk rants are whipping up sentiment — and fears — against it by calling it ‘socialism’. Missing the point entirely: namely that the Bush administration whom nobody could suspect of socialist leanings, simply does not have any other choice. It is over the barrel by the lenders: they are now pulling the US strings. And both candidates are promising both programs (neglecting to mention the fact that these imply more spending) and at the same time tax cuts — for slightly different constituencies, — just like the good ol’ days of the 20th century, as if nothing had happened. Should we have predicted that too?


How is it, Abbé Boulah,  that in this God-fearing (or so they say) nation that reveres the Good Book in which the  practice of money-lending at interest is denounced in numerous verses –(though the better-sounding advice  “neither a lender nor a borrower be!” is from Shakespeare ) the notion that without a vigorous system of credit  the entire country will go to the dogs — is  so blindly believed by all political parties that its government abandons within one single week its hallowed doctrine of capitalism and adopts a  scheme of  taxpayer bailout of the foolish lenders who ran the largest lending institutions into bankruptcy?

Oh my friend Bog-Hubert:  It is indeed fascinating. A miracle.  But I am not sure anymore that all miracles are good…

laqskins oracle

yearning to find meaning
in the myriad noises and images
crowding his senses day in day out
without offering answer or solace
abbé boulah turned at last
to ancient traditions
augurs, high priests, i ching
by well-meaning friends and traitors
intrigued by the image of high priests
standing in solemn silence on marble terraces
of mediterranean holy sites
watching the flight of birds

what were the rules
the key, the connection
between the patterns of geese
making their unerring angled way
across the path of helios’ chariot
or the silent circles
of black-winged vultures
for the death of some suffering creature below
and his own troubled questions

he did not find in himself
the indifferent strength
of knife-wielding priest
slashing the throat of sacrificial sheep
filling earthen bowl with its blood
summoning shadows from nearby woods
to approach and drink
arranging the innards into signs
predictions, interpretations
revelations of hidden meaning
of deeds of helmeted leaders
gathering warriors for vengeful raids
upon some other sun-drenched island
turning the bowl, reading the signs
into dark pronouncements
that would retain their ambiguity
premonition of death or glory —

sighing, resigned accepting
his lack of oracle secrets
he poured his questions upon still waters
swirling ointments on the surface
the sign of the question mark
vanishing in the spreading oil
moving the swirls with his breath

gathering patterns on parchment
offering to the rays of the morning sun
murmuring, muttering
what others might have called prayers
he returned to the images
dried memories of random flows
tried to read meaning
into swirls and crisp edges of pigment
spaces receding into infinity
galaxies of distant universes
mute signs made up of those infinities:
promises or warnings?

only to find his dreams

doubts and memories mirrored
in the textures and surfaces
of those infinite questions
no answers to hold on to

he sold the pictures
to aimless passersby
who were actually
looking for picture-trophies
of ducks

Elites and elitism

– Abbé Boulah, what is making you roll your eyes again so early in the morning — your coffee hasn’t even gotten cold yet?
– Ah my friend Bog-Hubert: It’s this silly controversy about elite and elitism.
– What’s the problem with that?
– It seems that in the current campaigns some people are basing their criticism of a candidate on their supposed ‘elitism’, referring mainly to having been educated in high-faluting universities, and therefore not being able to relate to ordinary folks. And others countering that with the notion that ‘elite’ means ‘ having been chosen from the best, so it shouldn’t really be a derogatory term.
– Aha. I know you have a thing about all kinds of ‘isms’, so elitism must be something bad, in your esteemed opinion. But what about ‘elite’ — I always thought that’s something good and admirable? What does it really mean, anyway?
– Well, the word comes from the latin ‘selecting’; ‘choosing’. So an elite is a group of chosen ones.
– Then: if the elite, the chosen ones are chosen from the best: that’s good, right?
– Stands to reason, but only if the ones doing the choosing are using good judgment and good criteria… If they’re not, perhaps not so good.
– I get it: It all depends. On who’s choosing, and how they’re doing it. As usual.
– Now, elitism, that would mean one of several things.

– Ah. I see troubles and combobulations coming up already.

– Quite. One is the belief that people in important positions should be chosen from the best.

– Sounds good. Except: who’s doing the choosing, and how?
– Yes. Two: The belief of the choosers that they should be the ones doing the choosing?
– Well, again, it depends, see above, on their criteria and judgment.
– You got it. Three: The belief and insistence of the chosen ones that they should be in their exalted positions — e.g. of making important decisions — because they have been chosen from the best?
– Makes sense, as long as the choosers and critieria are OK, but they probably shouldn’t let it go to their head… And I see where people could have their daily disagreements about that.
– Right again. Four: could it be that sometimes the choosers are just choosing someone from their own group, not necessarily from the best?
– Nah… couldn’t be, not in this great…
– And five: What if the chosen ones believe they are the best just because they have been chosen — regardless of the abovementioned judgment and criteria, or because they believe their own group just IS the best?
– Oh boy. I see the trouble.
– Good. For all the good that does. The problem, as is often the case, boils down to: how do we tell the difference? Which becomes a real problem when some people believe that they are chosen to denounce other people for being elitist.

Argument patterns

Overheard in the Fog Island Tavern:
What in all of Pedro Domecq’s cellars are you chuckling about, Abbé Boulah? Are you still reading the funnies?

Ah, no, Bog-Hubert my friend. The funnies aren’t really much fun anymore. No, it’s the election. What a spectacle!

You lost me. I am getting so tired of all that bickering I can’t even listen to it anymore. What in three twister’s name are you still getting out of hearing the same old points being hashed over and over?

I agree, there’s a lot of boring repetition. But there are patterns — oh brother — that make you marvel at humanity’s ability to be duped!

You’ll have to explain that to an old dupe, your Boulahighness.

Why, haven’t you seen the emergence of this marvelous new pattern in the exchange of inanities between the two campaigns? Ah well, I guess it’s not all that new, the Democrats have been using it for quite a while, but now the Republicans are turning it back on them with a vengeance?

What are you talking about, by all the papermaché cliff hangers in Hollywood action flicks?

Well, my friend, you may have perceived this persistent phenomenon: anytime the Republican launched an attack on the Democratic nominee, it was effectively reflected by the argument that it was really revealing a racist attitude, and therefore not only beneath consideration, but also exposing the entire Republican campaign as a crypto-racist enterprise.

Well, isn’t it?

Who knows, perhaps you are right. but they could never openly admit to it, and therefore their defense was, well, somewhat lamely defensive, and therefore not very convincing.

I couldn’t argue with that. But I’ve noticed that they have countered that with the strange argument that the Democrats were somehow playing ‘the race card’ in doing that?

That’s the strange part: both sides are accusing the other of playing that card! What do you make of that?

I dunno. It somehow looks like it’s a red herring…

Not entirely. Because there are still people out there who are eminently susceptible to having race as a justification to vote this way or the other. But the interesting part is that now the Republicans have countered that whole strategy with their own version of it, selecting a woman for the Vice president spot. And any criticism of that person can now be easily deflected as ‘playing the gender card’ and in the same motion painting the opposition as male-chauvinistic and antifeminist — and therefore not to be taken seriously — whether or not there are legitimate issues at stake. Brilliant, if you ask me.  Just like the other devious tactic they are using.

What’s that?

Oh,  don’t tell me you haven’t noticed what’s going on: the increasing tendency to just accuse the opposing side of engaging in unsavory campaign tactics — like attacking the VP nominee on the grounds that her daughter is pregnant with an out-of-wedlock child.  Doesn’t matter that the opposite candidate has declared that family and children are off-limit topics — perhaps they have planted some scurrilous blog attacks themselves as pretend-Democrats — and now they can denounce all the Democrats as engaging in this kind of dirty and unconscionable campaigning.

Can they really do that?

Why not?  Just look at the devious ‘Operation Chaos’ scheme of a certain ‘Doctor of Democracy’  talk show host,  who persuaded a bunch of Republicans to register — temporarily, of course, — as democrats and vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

Why the hell did he do that?

I guess he thought that Hillary would be easier to beat in the main election.

But what about those Republican voters: did they get to vote for their Republican candidate in the primaries?

Good point. They didn’t. So it seems that he didn’t quite think that one through — at the time, he sounded like he didn’t really like the way the Republican primaries turned out either — but perhaps the point is that he knew no matter which Republican would be elected President, the policies and laws he’d pass would be pretty much the same?

You’re really scaring me now. You are saying that something or somebody else is pulling the strings?

I’m not saying anything of the kind. Make up your own mind. But I’ll just remind you that the Republican nominee had to go make peace with those folks who, in the 2000 election when he ran against Dubja, called him the embodiment of evil. And that he surprised everybody by suddenly embracing the drill baby drill battle cry he had previously stayed away from.

So you are saying this chaos-monger shot himself in the foot with that Chaos thing? That he screwed up the primaries and ended up with the wrong nominee?

Hard to tell, especially now that the nominee has kowtowed to all the Right proper powers that be, and picked a VP candidate that allows him to play that argument game we talked about.

Well if both sides are playing it, as you said, what’s wrong with it?

Did I say that? I guess I did, as far as both sides playing it is concerned. But the problem is that while playing those entertaining games, non of the really important issues are being discussed. It’s a diversion.

And you think that’s funny, entertaining?

It’s hilarious. Yes. It makes me laugh so hard it makes me cry. Because, aren’t both sides are still claiming — seriously? — that this kind of democracy is what America should spread all around the world?

So what are the important issues?

You know, Hubertissime, with all this entertainment, I just plumb forgot.