All posts by Anthony Kanigliero

Californian Jurisprudence To The Rescue?

Every morning I drive down Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles, past the largest Mormon Church in Southern California.  Before Proposition 8 – the state referendum functionally banning gay marriage – passed, I felt fairly ambivalent towards the looming concrete structure, anointed by the large gold figurine of a man pointing east towards Jerusalem.  Other than this golden calf, the building itself has few defining features; a bland assault on architectural curiosity.  Its wrought-iron fence and large, uphill lawn are marked only by an attractive black family on a billboard that proclaims, “I wanted to know how to keep my family together.”

Since November 4th, however, each time I drive by I want to yell, “Fuck you!” out the window.  I want to drive up onto the sidewalk and take a hammer to the metal divide and charge up the grass like it is Normandy Beach.  I want to scream to the utterly deaf walls, “Don’t you see the irony in infringing on another minority’s marriage rights? Does the word polygamy ring a bell?  How many soccer practices do your parents have to miss before one becomes intolerant and submissive enough to join or remain a part of this institution? Is it more or less than a woman who decides to become a porn star?  Have you seen that episode of South Park? You know, the one that makes it patently obvious that your beliefs are absurd?”  I know it is entirely childish, but I cannot help it.  It certainly does not help that I’ve never actually seen anyone – ever – enter or leave the building.  Who are these faceless, nameless oppressors?  It’s infuriating.

From week to week, there is an occasional smattering of protesters in front of the church. My favorite dissident so far was a twenty-something guy, flamboyantly dressed in rainbow garb, holding a sign that read: “Honk if you support love!”  Is this guy the threat to Californian families?  The hilarity of his dissent stood in stark contrast to the seriousness of the situation. He danced up and down Wilshire in front of the silent building, by himself, drawing dozens of honks and cheers from the rolled down windows of passersby.  The outright public relations victory of the jovial protester is not surprising considering the liberalism of Los Angeles.  West Hollywood, an enclave of gay and lesbian culture, is only fifteen minutes northeast of the Mormon Church.  To put it bluntly, the repressive and backwards religiousity of Mor-Mania is entirely out of place in a city that lives and dies by the entertainment industry.  My girlfriend works at a prominent talent agency and, if its employees and clients are any indication, television, music and film would almost definitely shut down without the participation of gay people.  Religious fundamentalists still watch TV and go to the movies, right?

I have had many discussions about gay marriage since the campaign to pass Proposition 8 started to crystallize a few months ago.  Many of my liberal cohorts have argued that it is not really necessary for gay culture to participate in religious marriage, because they view civil unions as enabling of the same rights, privileges and throw-your-shit-around screaming matches inherent to most marriages.  In my opinion, this perspective, while informed, is not cognizant of the social and legal realities that a gay marriage ban brings with it, particularly in California.  There is a degree of historical amnesia that this civil unions argument engages with respect to the civil rights struggles of blacks and the failure of the ‘separate but equal doctrine’ of the pre-Brown v. Board world.  Like ‘whites only’ and ‘colored’ schools and water fountains, civil unions exist only for gay people.  It is another, more sophisticated ‘separate but equal’ legal instrument that serves only one purpose – to exclude gays from state-recognized marriage.  That the church and state should be exclusive in American society, contrary to many claims, only reinforces the unfair duality of the marriage/civil union distinction.  What constitues marriage should be up to the people getting married, not the state.  Christianity and Mormonism do not have exclusive rights on the right to marry or its definition.  Many religious zealots from these camps seem to forget that marriage was not the product of their faith.  Plato, in his many dialogues, argued that marriage is “the ideal institution.”  Indeed, religious and social definitions of marriage precede Christianity by many millenia throughout the world.

When studying the history of black civil rights in my earlier education, I always liked to think that I would have been one of those white kids marching and boycotting alongside the blacks.  In returning to that sentiment, I have realized that the current struggle for gay civil rights is exactly equivalent. Sure, gays were never owned as physical property, but that does not take away from the fact that they are also and still excluded and marginalized. As a straight guy, I have the same desire to “speak for the other” that is gay culture.  Not that gay people are an ‘other’ to me, but that the highest exercise of political and social participation comes from protecting minority rights.  True representative democracy and deliberative justice requires the absolute equality of its citizens.  Fortunately, there is good news amidst the maelstrom of anti-equality raging in the United States against its gay and lesbian citizens.

The California Supreme Court, the same higher court that initially legalized gay marriage in California, ruled this week, 6 to 1, that it would hear the case brought by gay rights lawyers to overturn Proposition 8.  I reviewed the proposed Writ of Mandate and I think that there is a very good chance that the court will rule to either overturn the ban or embrace a via media to allow existing marriages to remain intact, while preventing new marriages from occurring.  Their legal argument is fairly brilliant and entirely necessary.  Gay rights lawyers from San Francisco and Los Angeles have contended that a “bare majority” of California citizens cannot vote, even through referendum, to restrict the rights of an unpopular minority, because that would undermine the purpose of the courts and their obligation to uphold minority protections.  Only an “amendment” to the California constitution could allow such a “tyranny of the majority” to come to pass, not a “revision” like Proposition 8.  In my own legal opinion, I think that is a very compelling case for a variety of reasons.

The historical role of the American court system has been to protect minority rights, whether racial, sexual or class-based.  If a majority of citizens could simply vote to restrict the rights of an unpopular minority, the worst aspects of democracy would come to fruition.  The greatest accomplishment of the court system in America has not been to check the power of Congress and the President, but to ensure the constitutional obligations of equal rights apply to all citizens.  California has stood at the forefront of that heightened sense of jurisprudence, particularly the 10th District Court of Appeals, which is routinely criticized for its “judicial activism.”  The idea that, by ensuring equal rights, a court is functioning without regard to the Constitution is absurd.  It is not activist or prejudicial to fulfill the intent of our experiment in republican governance – to create power by the people for the people.  Referenda may be democratic in most instances, but not when they act to delegitimate unpopular minorities.  The court system’s true value comes from overruling those tendencies and keeping republicanism intact.

As the California Supreme Court begins deliberation on this sensitive issue, I hope that their informed jurisprudence comes to the rescue of minority rights once again and brings our progressive state back to the forefront of sociopolitical thought. Anything less would guarantee a return to the world of ‘separate but equal’ – and that is entirely unacceptable.

Turn Detroit Into Cape Canaveral

On Monday, General Motors spooked the entire economics community, financial and academic, when it reported that it was hemorraging $2 billion a month and might be forced to declare bankruptcy.  If their cash reserves dip below $10 billion, the company said it will be unable to pay its health care obligations or even finance its dealerships.  Shares in General Motors (GM) plummeted to $2.92 the next day, their lowest price since 1946.  As an employer of over one million people, a failure would have a horrendous domino effect on the economy.  Not surprisingly, it’s bad when an American corporation with the word “General” in its name goes under.

Although General Motors already received a $25 billion bailout from the government in September, the reality of the situation is that only further state intervention will save the troubled giant.  Democratic congressional leaders are pushing the Bush Administration to give additional funds to GM, but they have been unable to gain ground on the issue.  Barack Obama also fought for the additional bailout and pressured President Bush to that effect during their White House rendezvous.  Without altering course, the Bush Administration plans to let GM fail, much like Lehman Brothers.  It does not yet appear as though Obama has enough of a bully pulpit to substantially influence Treasury policy.  Congressional Republicans also refuse to support a bailout, on the grounds that bankruptcy arbitration will be positive for the flailing company.

The Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans are not likely to change their minds on the issue and General Motors will most likely declare bankruptcy in the next quarter or two.  In my opinion, GM deserves to fail, as their painful lack of innovation and horrendous corporate management structure is a death-knell for any company.  While Congressional Democrats are trying to get in good with Detroit, saving GM in its current incarnation would only stagnate American business culture.  It is very unfortunate that GM’s poor business practice will result in many thousands of layoffs, but it would be better to tear the band-aid off now and spare taxpayers the bill of future bailouts.  It should be noted that a large portion of GM’s fiscal instabilities have come from their extremely expensive health care plan.  As Thomas Friedman already noted in his most recent opinion column in the New York Times, “spare me”.  Universal health care probably would have saved them, but GM has previously denied support for any such measure.  In other words, they asked for it.

While certainly dire economic news, this situation also presents a major opportunity for the incoming Obama Administration.  If and when GM goes into bankruptcy, only then should the federal government present a bailout to them.  This bailout, far from the unsupervised check-cutting of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, should come with strict and unconditional terms that require GM to manufacture environmentally friendly and energy efficient automobiles within a reasonable amount of time. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, that damn San Francisco liberal, has already voiced her intentions to make those environmental reforms a stringest component to any automotive bailout. GM should be forced to cut its production of all fuel inefficient trucks and SUVs, whose sales have tanked anyway, in order to form the manufacturing base for Obama’s energy infrastructure revolution.  GM would be highly subsidized by the government and would bear little risk in the structured venture.

John F. Kennedy gave NASA ten years to get to the moon, Mr. Obama should give GM five.  The technology is already here, GM simply has to implement it within their production structure.  Indeed, GM, through their Chevrolet line, already plans to introduce an electric car, the Volt, by 2010.  If cars like the Volt and Prius-like hybrids were to fill GM’s production schedule in post-bankruptcy restructuring, an American car company could finally compete with the foreign operations like ‘recession-proof’ Honda, which just opened another fuel-efficient automobile manufacturing plant in Canada.  Once the immediate effects of the recession have ceased and consumers start spending again, albeit at probably lower levels than before, GM will have access to a huge market share.  It could revitalize Detroit and, if the other members of the Big Three followed suit and were equally successful, the entire Rust Belt.  Ford Motors already produces the fuel-efficient hybrid Prius, but continues to engage in poor investments with trucks and SUVs.

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law professor and former colleague of Mr. Obama at the University of Chicago, recently published a book with behavioral economist Richard Thaler called Nudge.  The book advocates that the government engage in a form of soft coercion with both the public and private spheres in order to gently shape behavior in a positive and progressive fashion.  For instance, they recommend legislation that auto-enrolls employees in a retirement account with the option to drop out at any time.  Because retirement accounts are unquestionably good investments, coercing people, by shifting the default option to the economically beneficial side, can have tremendously positive effects.  As long as the option to drop out is ubiquitous, there is no real mark left on our freedom of choice.  So, why do I bring this up?

Mr. Obama, already aware of the theories behind Nudge and the book itself, could use GM as a significant test case for soft coercion.  By giving GM the option to either collapse or take loans from the government in bankruptcy court with serious fuel efficiency conditions, the US could softly coerce the first stage of a multi-pronged energy revolution in the United States.  Consumers, instead of being given the default choice of gas guzzlers, would have the initial opportunity to purchase “green” automobiles.  If we were able to cut our dependency on foreign oil through the measure, in conjunction with infrastructural innovations like wind, solar and geothermal technologies to produce carbon-free electricity, there would be a chain reaction in the global political economy.  Indeed, there is a perfect storm brewing.

With the international economy is a tailspin, global demand for oil has drastically fallen off.  China and the United States have driven down consumption and forced OPEC to reduce production by as many as 1 million barrels per day in each member country. Oil prices on commodities markets plummeted to a 22-month low yesterday, hitting $52 per barrel. OPEC states, many of which are hostile to the United States and its allies, have specific requirements for the price of oil in order to balance their national budgets.  According to PF Consulting, a wholly owned subsidiary of Deutsche Bank, this fiscal year Venezuela needs oil to be priced at $97 per barrel in order to balance its budget.  Iran requires a price of $58, Saudi Arabia $62, Kuwait $48 and United Arab Emirates $51.  For the next fiscal year, Russia requires the price of oil to stay above $70 per barrel.  With oil at $52, Hugo Chavez, Vladmir Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are freaking out. Each rely on massive social programs, financed with petro-dollars, to maintain their hold on power.  Putin and fake-Russian President Medvedev are so worried that they told European Union member countries at an economic summit this week that Russia and Europe, together, “speak with one voice.”  Russia and its stock market have been rocked by the financial crisis, occasionally suspending trading to keep volatility down. Ahmedinejad has already written Mr. Obama to express congratulatory sentiments.  Every state with a large stake in oil prices has gotten quite friendly all of a sudden.  Mr. Obama will never need preconditions for diplomatic meetings with any of these leaders, as long as he keeps the price of oil down.  That price sanction, issued at the consumer level, would speak for itself.

Economic interconnectedness is a double-edged sword.  OPEC may have sway over us when oil prices are high, but man do we have sway over them when oil prices are low.  Oligarchies only work when you can fund them.  Considering our immense opportunity to permanently diminish OPEC’s resource returns with a restructuring of Detroit, globalization is looking pretty good right now.  In one fell swoop, the Obama Administration could improve environmental conditions by creating a profitable, competitive and job-producing green manufacturing base, while simultaneously draining the capital from our self-declared enemies and increasing our national security.  That’s a win-win-win-win situation.

Let’s turn Detroit into Cape Canaveral.  The Green Revolution might blow up on the launch pad a few times, but eventually, it’ll get us to the moon.

And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Prestige

David Blaine, watch your back.  Despite your impressive resume of awe-inspiring street magic and death-defying physical exploits, a far better illusionist is attempting to complete his last and most astonishing trick.  A vanishing act, so incredibly unbelievable, that it will forever be considered one of the greatest acts of deception ever displayed to an audience.  No, I am not talking about Criss Angel hovering across the stage in his Las Vegas smash success, “BeLIEve”.  The performer of which I speak is none other than the sitting President of the United States, George W. Bush, who successfully made both the United States and, now, himself utterly invisible. Allow me to explain his grand illusion.

Like the exceptional film “The Prestige” tells us, a magic trick consists of three parts.  First, there is ‘the pledge’.  You show the audience something completely ordinary, in this case a seemingly traditional conservative president presiding over the United States during peacetime.  Next, there is ‘the turn’.  Here, Mr. Bush earned his universal reputation as a skilled magician by making the America we knew and loved completely disappear.  It was one hell of a turn.  Through war profiteering, the torture of prisoners in secret military prisons, the corruption of domestic civil liberties and a collapsed economy, Mr. Bush succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  But, as Michael Cain so pleasantly narrated, to make something disappear is not enough.  You have to bring it back.  Otherwise, the audience is simply confused and disappointed.  The remedy to this disillusionment, the final part of the trick, is quite appropriately entitled ‘the prestige’.  Mr. Bush, however, encountered a serious problem.  He has, in more ways than one, no prestige to give.  So, to pull off the greatest trick of all – to disappear America and then return it – Mr. Bush has engineered a great and final vanishing act.  He has convinced the world that Mr. Obama is already the President.  For then, we might be able to have the prestige everyone so desires.

Although the President still has until January 20th to preside over our much besieged Union, it has become remarkably clear that he no longer believes he has any duty to lead.  I cannot say that I am entirely surprised by this development, as it perfectly coincides with the empirical record.  Nonetheless, the degree to which everyone is comfortable with Mr. Bush’s prestige, or lack thereof, is remarkable.  Having only won the presidential election days earlier, Mr. Obama has already begun talking with foreign leaders, conferring with top business executives about the financial crisis, recruiting a crack team of advisers, receiving invitations to direct diplomacy from our enemies and affecting the outcome of our military adventure in Iraq.  No President-Elect in modern history has had so great a burden forced onto his lap months before assuming office.

We the people, the shocked and horrified audience of the greatest magic trick ever performed, demand our prestige.  Whether or not Mr. Obama can pull off the final act of President Bush’s grand illusion remains to be seen.  If he does not, we will be left with a dead bird called America, crushed by the collapsing cage of neoconservatism.

Idealism On Trial

On Tuesday night, with the resounding selection of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, the latest test case in the trial of idealism successfully earned a place back on the American docket.

It was a moment of emotional catharsis for idealism’s often denigrated liberal clerks, whose flowing tears and unrelenting exclamations of joy were on full display for all civilization to witness. For the first time since the collapse of the credit markets, international capital poured back into the United States, albeit of a different kind than expected.  The smiles we grinned were grinned right back – from Baghdad to New Delhi, from Tokyo to Nairobi, from Moscow to Tehran.  One of the darkest testimonies given in American history, ideologically defined by ruthless self-interest and brought to bear by the barbaric realpolitik of the Bush Administration, had finally lost its appeal.  That the victory was carried by the eloquence of a former-constitutional law professor over the deteriorating grandeur of an old soldier presents a symbolism that should be lost on nobody.  It certainly has not been lost to the international community.

After two years of partisan electoral chicanery, idealism prevailed. It survived the discursive barbs hurled by the Old Guard on both the Left (Hilary Clinton’s matter-of-fact statement to Democratic superdelegates, “He can’t win.”) and the Right (John McCain’s sad rhetorical decline into invocations of “Who is the real Barack Obama?”). Its opening arguments, spoken so mellifluously by Obama, were sometimes hard to pin down, resisting clear appropriation in favor of unrestrained creative potential and post-partisan unity. Idealism’s lack of ideological clarity has made Obama’s critics genuinely fearful of what could come to fruition if it reclaimed the reigns of American power.

Idealism, the hopeful pursuit of what-should-be instead of the cynical acceptance of what-is, spat upon by princes and presidents, has been granted another chance to triumph over the realism that has dominated the sad and lonely exceptionalism we have grown accustomed to.  Idealism is hungry for renewable energy independence.  Idealism is hungry for affordable health care.  Idealism is hungry for international law and multilateralism.  Idealism is hungry for proper regulation and equality.  Above all else, idealism is hungry for change.

We have seen idealism, channeled by Obama’s discourse, confront the same indictments it always has.  You just don’t understand how the world really works.  You just don’t understand, threats are everywhere. You just don’t understand. That idealism has been wholly rejected by the Kenneth Waltz’s and George Wallace’s of our time is neither a surprise nor a deterrent. We knew that they would not come around so quickly. We have to prove it to them.

The irony is that idealism’s detractors don’t realize the power of their own discourse. The world is exactly what you say it is and what you do about it. And idealism is ready to say and do something left unspoken and undone for what seems an eternity. For the last two years, Obama’s painstakingly confident and steady-as-he-goes approach won over the votes of nearly 70 million Americans.  Enough to win a presidential election, but not enough to permanently enact our liberal ideals.

Indeed, it has been a long time since anyone let idealism near the nukes.  In its lengthy absence from power, however, we have not forgotten the brilliant stewards that have steered idealism to reality – Kennedy, FDR, Wilson, Lincoln, Jefferson.  Obama is poised to add his name to that list and push forwards past their successes and failures.  They all faced tremendous challenges. They succeeded and failed. They all tried.  So, too, will Obama.  So, too, will we.

As a longtime student of idealism, Obama has brought the knowledge of history with him.  It speaks volumes.  History tells us that we must use what is at our disposal to make our ideals a reality, not just what we wish we had.  Our current shortcomings – a recession, two wars and declining American social capital – reinforce the necessity of the partnership between idealism and pragmatism.  Obama’s hero, another Illinois law professor turned President of the United States, understood that fact better than any that have followed him.  His challenge was the battle between reality and ideal.  Between a fractured and a more perfect union. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

Idealism has acquired another test case. This time its lawyer’s name is Barack Obama. We must be his devoted clerks, for the trial has only just begun.  It is time to win the case and make our idealism the law.  I am hopeful for the first time in my life that we might be able to do it.

Liberal Media Bias, Objective Journalism and the GOP

For as long as I can remember, I have heard nightmarish tales from conservative pundits of the spectre of a “liberal bias” in the mainstream media.  Ranging from the patently absurd to the clearly insightful, these claims have resurfaced in the current presidential election with a vengeance.  John McCain, who consistently joked that the media was his “base” prior to the Republican National Convention, now continually levels criticisms against television, internet and print news sources for being “in the tank” for Barack Obama.  In keeping with Karl Rove’s strategy of waging culture wars in order to seize elections, McCain and his campaign advisers have made a rejection of the “liberal media elite” a constant talking point in his increasingly dim bid for the White House.  Many highly esteemed news publications responded to these claims with furor, claiming that they have done nothing but hold themselves to the highest standards of journalistic excellence during the campaign, as always.  In an attempt to channel my inner-Aristotle, I thought it would be particularly relevant to find the moderate ground between these warring camps of information dissemination.  That is, of course, assuming there is a centrist’s position worthy of taking.

The ongoing Pew Research Center study, entitled The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), recently investigated these claims, with some interesting results.  It rated news stories about each candidate in one of three categories, either clearly positive, neutral/mixed, or clearly negative.  News stories on McCain roughly broke down as follows:  clearly positive – 20%, neutral/mixed – 20%, clearly negative 60%.  Those numbers are not much in their own right, but, in comparison to Obama’s numbers, a clearer picture begins to emerge.  Obama received approximately 40% positive coverage, 30% neutral/mixed coverage, and 30% negative coverage. Just looking at negative coverage, Obama holds a two to one advantage over his Republican rival.  That’s pretty astounding evidence in favor of the existence of a liberal media bias.  Despite’s attempt at rejecting these findings through assertions of “objective journalism” in the mainstream media, I think there is something to the PEJ’s findings.

The idea of “objective journalism”, like any form of “objective knowledge”, has always been one of those lies that we tell ourselves to sleep better at night.  No piece of knowledge is for certain, but how can we attempt to know anything about the world if all information is constantly suspect?  At some point, we have to draw a line in the sand between the “reputable” and the “egregiously biased”. Our mistake comes from calling that a perfect system of objectivity.  Surely, there are newspapers and television shows that do a much better job at maintaining their “journalistic integrity” – a commitment to maintaining the highest possible standard of factuality – but, no source of information is or ever has been immune from the plague of subjectivity.

This is particularly true in the climate of a presidential election – the head-to-head combat of political theory, the confrontation of the “should” versus the “should not.”  Even if the stories that a newspaper runs are entirely “factually accurate”, there are a variety of factors that can demonstrate partisan influence like language and the highly subjective choice of what is “newsworthy.”  There is no truth, even if it comes packaged as such.  A perfect example of this bias came from the executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller, who responded to top-McCain adviser Steve Schmidt’s claims that they were “150% in the tank for Obama” and “no longer a journalistic organization.”  Keller said, at The New Yorker festival earlier this month, that “My first tendency when [the McCain campaign says things like that] is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.”  Hardly objective for the most reputable American paper, even by my standards of constant subjectivity.  So, why would a respected institution like the Times move so strongly against the McCain campaign?

It is my opinion that the real sources of the liberal media bias are something far less spoken and far more important to studies and perceptions of journalism.  The American media are composed of people.  Their families live in the United States and reap the byproducts of American politics, like everyone else.  At some point, their sincere commitment to balanced reporting gets trumped by their own fears and concerns about intentional distortions of knowledge.  The campaign that McCain has run this election cycle is committed to lying, anti-intellectualism, and ignorance on an offensive scale.  One moment John McCain says that he will buy everyone’s homes to prevent foreclosure and the next he is calling Obama a socialist for wanting to restore taxation levels to those held under Bill Clinton.  One moment Obama is “palling around with terrorists” and the next Sarah Palin’s husband comes clean about his membership with the secessionist movement known as the Alaska Independence Party.  My favorite example of this occurred just this week.  Speaking about the importance of funding autism research, Palin vilely rejected the necessity of fruit-fly research as irrelevant spending, as something preventing a cure.  Little does she admit, or know, that fruit-fly DNA research is utterly essential to an autism cure.  Palin, McCain’s choice to step in as president if he dies in office, runs on sheer ignorance.

This is not to mention McCain’ own policy positions.  McCain’s perspective on global affairs is truly frightening, as anyone who watched the presidential debates could have seen.  Desirous to entirely cast off the United Nations and international law in favor of unhinged American power projection, McCain envisions constant securitization and fear as the driving forces in the United States’ agenda.  Journalists are exposed to the world more than most and see the potential ramifications for the security of their children and grandchildren with a “pitbull” America, clawing to maintain its hegemony.

Part of the “liberal bias” also has to do with the explosion of the “ideology first, facts second” 24-hour cable-news media.  Most of their content is a journalistic joke, but still they are factored into the Pew study because of their extensive share of the public’s attention.  Their “experts” are usually ludicrously partisan hacks, who would say or do anything to keep their ideology prominent in the minds of American voters.  Quantitative analyses are misleading in the respect that they do not explicitly and immediately present the sources that they tapped into in order to come upon their data set.  The numbers are simply circulated around without anyone having the time to delve into the actual structural realities of the study.  The creation of obviously “in the tank” media outlets like Fox News (for conservative thought) or, increasingly and troublesomely, MSNBC (for liberal thought) skews the data in an obvious manner.  At this point, I’m tempted to think that Bill O’Reilly would probably tell his viewing audience that a murder committed by a Republican Congressman was somehow justified.  Keith Olbermann, whose constant ravings about O’Reilly are deserved and necessary, is moving into increasingly dangerous territory, but mainly through ‘lies of omission’ about liberal ideology.  Both play the ratings game with increased frequency and would say whatever keeps Nielson demographics moving in their favor.  Now that there are more liberally-minded individuals in this country, we will see a shift away from the successes that Fox News had during the Bush years.  That, however, is not the entire story.

The media, as agents committed to “objectivity”, but more so to their own families, are sincerely offended by the GOP’s assault on education, science and global stability.  It certainly hasn’t helped that the McCain campaign has taken to slandering them as an election strategy.  As long as the GOP remains committed to paradoxical positions in order to continue to wield power in Washington, the media, which is composed of mainly intelligent and rational individuals, will rebel against them.  If you want the media back, conservatives, stop your party from denigrating American political discourse.  Stop your party from suggesting violent and imperialist foreign policies.  If you do that, believe me, the media will return to its prior levels of “objectivity”, as questionable as that always has been.  McCain, as well as the GOP leadership, is entirely to blame for the currently liberal tendencies of the mainstream media.  As I said above, a lot of this biased reporting has to do with pandering to shifting demographics, but a lot more of it, particularly the overwhelming number of newspaper endorsements for Obama, has to do with the say-one-thing-do-another politics of Nixon and Rove.  If your life’s work was committed to factuality, wouldn’t you work against those committed to destroying it?

Alan Greenspan, We Hardly Knew Ye

In what has to be the most shocking ideological shift caused by the American sub-prime lending crisis, Alan Greenspan has tentatively reversed his position on the ability of financial institutions to regulate themselves.  A stalwart defender of the free-market and deregulation during his 18-year tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Mr. Greenspan testified on Thursday before the House of Representatives in order to stem the tide of criticism obviously heading his way.  His comments come as a deft blow to advocates of permanent market deregulation, who have steadfastly relied on his reasoning and argumentation to advance a variety of equity-generating mechanisms now under intense fire.

Mr. Greenspan began his testimony by reading a prepared statement to the House Committee on Government Oversight, chaired by Henry A. Waxman of California, in which he acknowledged that an excess of demand for the “securitization of home mortgages” was “undeniably the original source” of the market collapse.  He continued that it was the failure of institutions to properly assess risk to credit-default swaps, part of the nascent culture of credit derivatives on Wall Street, that ultimately inflated the housing bubble to its catastrophic size.  In his statement, a paltry 4 double-spaced pages, Mr. Greenspan spent most of his words trying to divert a great deal of the blame away from himself, reminding everyone that he had “raised concerns that the protracted period of underpricing risk…would have dire consequences” in 2005.  After nearly two decades as the most powerful and well-respected economist in the American government, such comments can only be viewed through the 20-20 lens of hindsight.

Perhaps the most telling line of Mr. Greenspan’s prepared statement occurred when he placed his fundamental belief in the sustainability of self-interest into question.  He said, with reverberating echo, “those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief.”  Indeed, when watching your professional legacy turn into a Jimi Hendrix lyric – “and so castles made of sand / collapse into the sea / eventually” – one is usually confined to that position.  Who would have thought that hedge fund managers and their ilk, squeezing every penny out of the American economy, would bankrupt it?  Allow me to fake shock for a moment.

The real blow to deregulation advocates, however, came during a heated exchange, at Mr. Waxman’s prompting, that followed shortly after these initial comments.  Mr. Greenspan tensely explained, “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.” Making reference to his underlying economic philosophy, Mr. Greenspan continued: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.”  Mr. Waxman immediately jumped on him, demanding a further explanation.  “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working,” Mr. Waxman said.  “Absolutely, precisely.  You know, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked,” Mr. Greenspan responded, “because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

I think I speak for everyone when I say, “Whoops.”

I suppose that Mr. Greenspan lost sight of the real powers intrinsic to the markets – fear and greed.  Neither of those emotional states are conducive to a healthy individual or a society not in decline.  For sure, risk assessment and pricing are necessary to the continued functioning of a complex economy, but not without the oversight of knowledgeable social scientists in the government.  I think that Andrew Lahde, a hedge fund manager who recently decided to quit amidst the firestorm, put the viewpoint of investors during the reign of Mr. Greenspan best into focus.  He summed up his personal role in the American market in a resignation letter to his investors: “I was in this game for the money…I have enough of my own wealth to manage.”

I feel the cold hand of history on my back.

Another Take on the Global Financial Crisis

While the current global financial crisis has its immediate roots in the collapse of the American housing bubble, there has been little to no discussion about the deeper causes of the meltdown.  As you’ve probably read many times elsewhere, the internal practices of the financial sector – AIG, Merrill, Lehman, Mac – triggered the floodgates of our economic volatility.  Indeed, it is very easy to assign blame to the equity managers without delving into what drove their actions.  In this time of collective anxiety, everyone needs to stop yelling “Doomsday!” and quietly interpret the events that have just occurred.  What economic analysts have forgotten is that market prices are just qualitative analyses of the commodities and processes we place value in.  The markets are a mirror and what they reflect is us.  We have to learn our lesson and step back from the financial sector to see what choices we have made to cause our distress.

To begin, the culture of greed that exists on Wall Street is undeniable.  Executives over-leveraged their companies on derivatives and extremely risky real estate speculation without regard for their fiduciary responsibilities.  European bankers took part in the game too, as clearly evidenced by the collapse of some of their largest financial institutions and the nationalization of the banks in England.  Iceland made such poor investments that they are now utterly bankrupt.  But I do not think blame should fall as heavily to the equity managers – whether private or public – as it has.  These fund managers are a collective of people who have been trained since their first job out of college to exploit the market through every possible loophole in order to drive profits constantly higher.  Parents saw dollar signs and pushed the golden unicorn of an “investment banking” job.  Meanwhile, all of our finance students were ever taught to do is play with numbers without any consideration of the actual assets they were dealing with.  In truth, the school of finance just got better at its game and the government either didn’t keep up or willingly abetted to profiteer from their exploitations.  Government regulation and oversight, endowed with a lot of foresight, is always necessary to close exploitable loopholes and keep investors rooted to the ground.  For that, the cavalier laissez-faire deregulation that drove the Bush administration can take its share of the blame.  We can also blame the Bush administration for putting us into two costly wars without exit strategies, which destroyed American diplomatic capital and fed helium-inflated deficit spending.  Bush, however, was also not the deeper cause of our financial turmoil.

We, the American people, can point out fingers at the managers of our equity and government until we are blue in the face.  The fact of the matter is that all of them still work for us (except the private equity managers, who were only responsible to those of us who could afford to play).  And, for the most part, all they have ever done is what we have told them to do.  We demanded mansions, they gave them to us.  We never demanded real energy independence, so no one invested in the infrastructure.  We cheered the stock market on, so they invented new ways to continue the ride.  We demanded justice for 9/11 and widely approved the Iraq War in our bloodthirst.  This is not to de-villify the Bush administration, because, more than any in the recent past, it was the most willing to encourage the feeding frenzy.  There is no effective governance from them now, because they were never put there to be effective governors.  The Bush administration was just an enabler of our most base instincts towards racism, xenophobia, fiscal irresponsibility, environmental degredation, and war profiteering.

The 300-foot tall pink elephant in the room is our collective desire for unsustainable consumption.  The American people always demand growth, but without any understanding of where that growth could take us.  Why is it always bigger and not more sustainable?  Whether the effects of our haste take the form of carbon emissions, invisible equity or imperialist intervention, we are playing the game like there is a fourth quarter that will end.  For some reason, probably teleology, people have not yet begun to understand how the game really works.  The game doesn’t end unless we end it.  We like to talk about “the companies doing harm” like they exist apart from reality, but we are the ones that work for them and purchase their products.  We are their lawyers and accountants, shielding them from legal and financial attack.  Neither of the presidential candidates will address it, despite Barack Obama’s promising pledge to create a solar and wind energy infrastructure.

We are not going to fool the environment or the market.  As James Lovelock famously wrote in his book “Gaia”, the Earth is essentially a living superorganism.  Its health is directly impacted by our actions, because we are a living part of it.  Not to mention a dominant part.  There are only so many resources at our disposal and it has become critical that we manage them wisely with our eyes on a permanently iterable lifestyle. I think that Thomas Friedman best described the reality of our situation, when he wrote in his New York Times editorial, “The Post-Binge World”:

“My friend Rob Watson, the head of EcoTech International, has a saying about Mother Nature that goes like this: “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is.” And because of that, says Rob, you cannot spin Mother Nature. You cannot bribe Mother Nature. You cannot sweet talk her, and you cannot ignore her. She’s going to do with the climate whatever chemistry, biology and physics dictate. And Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats a thousand.

There is a parallel with markets. At their core, markets are propelled by fear and greed. They’re just the balance at any given moment of those two impulses. Over the long run, you cannot spin the market. You cannot sweet talk it into going up or beg it not to go down. It’s going to do whatever it’s going to do — whichever way greed and fear tug it. And the market always bats last and it always bats a thousand.”

Whether we ignore these economic, political and social facts is up to us.  When people “put their faith in the markets” to guide society, it’s like praying for divine guidance.  It’s not going to happen and you’re avoiding the inevitable problems.  We have to collectively change our overconsumptive habits before the sense we’re getting of Newton’s Third Law  – “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction” – gets any more intense.  The collapse of the financial markets needs to be evaluated as part of this larger picture.  If we look in its mirror, it is showing a world that no longer can run on credit.  We must pay down our debts – to each other and to the environment.  This election will play an important part in whether we alter our values for the better.  Choose without unsustainable desire.

The Death of a Campaign

John McCain’s presidential campaign is starting to do quite poorly.  According to the latest ABC/Washington Post national polling data, Democratic hopeful Barack Obama has opened a ten point lead –  53% to 43% – over his Republican rival.  Indeed, states that “should have been” solid red like Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida are turning pall shades of blue.  Obama commands such a substantial lead in the electoral college – has currently pegged it at +119 EVs – that ultra-conservative pundits like William Kristol are calling for McCain to “fire his campaign.” Looking back at the history of presidential elections, the Rush Limbaughs of the world have good reason to fret.  Unlike MLB wild-card teams in the playoffs, the electorate does not side historically with the underdog.  Since 1936, only one candidate who was trailing by more than seven percentage points in October came back to win the presidential election – Ronald Reagan.  Needless to say, McCain is a few acting roles away from being Reagan and Obama is no peanut farmer from Georgia.

So far, McCain’s frequent and cringe-inducing attempts at stirring up those same “Reaganites” by referencing Cold War initiatives like Star Wars and listing assorted former USSR heavyweights one after another have been met by either liberal laughter or ignorant silence.  At some point, apparently, McCain’s advisers forgot to tell him that the world has changed since the Soviet Union fell.  McCain’s inability to demonstrate even a tacit understanding of the information revolution or globalization highlights the gap that he is so desperately trying to push back together.  From global capital markets to the importance of international coalitions apart from single-minded and exceptionalist moves towards “coalition-building”, McCain has been unable to grapple with the new political realities he is facing.  Forever tied to the hegemonic policies of the twentieth century by his experience with the Russians and his imprisonment with the Vietnamanese, McCain is slowly watching the death of his campaign.

For sure, almost every major trend that worked for Reagan is working against McCain.  The disintegrating economy, the extremely unpopular neo-conservative presidency of George W. Bush, and the unbelievable successes of liberal voter registration organizations like ACORN have constructed a political tsunami for anyone who rides an elephant to Capitol Hill.  If you need any further proof of this George Lucas-esque “Return of the Liberals”, just watch the smile spread across the face of Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) when someone mentions the word “super-majority.”  In fundraising capabilities alone, the Obama campaign is outmatching their Republican counterparts two to one. Democratic National Convention workers outside of the Starbucks I frequent have lines long enough to suggest they are giving away tickets to the Dark Knight sequel.

McCain initially tried to combat the energy of the “Left in the America” by recruiting the mascot known as Sarah Palin.  Drawing on her folksy rhetoric and utter programmability, McCain saw a chance to swing the momentum in his favor by reminding people what “Main Street” is really about.  It turns out that the reason presidential candidates don’t nominate beauty pageant contestants for their number two slot is because they tend to be poor orators.  Independent voters, who at first responded positively to the populist conservativism that is Palin, came to realize that she more closely resembled the former Miss South Carolina than anyone else.  From disastrous interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, Troopergate inquiries that recently resulted in the finding of an ethics violation, and YouTube video of Palin taking part in a ceremony to exterminate witchcraft, the golden ticket that was her selection has turned into a lump of coal.  Ironic that coal is black, because that appears to be the color the McCain campaign has forced itself into constantly, although implicitly, decrying.

Conservative pundits have been quick to say that anyone pointing out racism in the 2008 presidential election has the moral equivalency of someone yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater.  I do not disagree that race should play no factor in this election.  But, to watch the events of the last couple of weeks with anything other than sad disdain for the utter dredges that Steve Schmidt and the Rove Boys have conjured up to spite Obama, the “racism card” just got a lot easier to pull.  It is true that no one associated with McCain ever says, “Don’t elect Obama because he black.” Instead, they say, “Don’t elect Obama because he is foreign.” The contention that William Ayers has any tacit connection to Obama is ludicrous and has been repeatedly debunked since the Democratic primaries. Yet, the newest words written for Palin to speak have her holding rallies in which she claims that Obama “does not see America like you and I see America”, because he is “palling around with terrorists.”  Not only are those incendiary claims patently false, but nothing short of an invocation of closet-racism.  With antagonists of Obama yelling things at Palin rallies like, “Terrorist!”, “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!”, McCain has entirely moved into the dark side of politics.  Bob Herbert of the New York Times aptly described the situation when he wrote, “The Republican mask has slipped.”

With centrists fleeing McCain-Palin stump speeches faster than you can say “1930’s Weimar Germany”, it appears that the long road of service to his country has finally ended for John McCain.  McCain, the self-described “straight-talker” who used to consider the media his “base”, abandoned any remnants of his former honorable self when he gleefully participated in the overtly xenophobic and implicitly racist “Act III” of his campaign.  Honor turned to ambition as soon as he saw his post-convention boost sink faster and disappear longer than the sun in the Arctic Circle.  Then again, I suppose that’s what you get when you nominate a religiously fundamentalist Alaskan to your ticket.

The 21st Century American Paradigm Shift

If recent polling data is any suggestion of what may occur on election day, then I would be forced to say that the United States is undergoing a massive political transformation.  With no toss-up states, Obama has a 353-185 lead in the electoral college.  In order to lose, the Obama-Biden ticket would have to drop at least one state it currently has a greater than 5% lead in as well as losing every other state still up for grabs.  A supermajority is becoming an increased possibility in the Senate, with at least six to nine pickups looking likely for the Democratic party.  Democrats are also looking at a possible fifty-seat swing of power in the House, with between twenty and twenty-five Republican seats being strongly contested.

Eight years of neo-conservativism in the White House is demonstrably a complete failure.  From the disastrous war in Iraq to, what some writers have dubbed, an “economic 9/11” on Wall Street, Americans have started to tap into their inner empiricist.  You don’t need a political science degree to know American legitimacy is in the basement and you don’t need an M.B.A to know that it’s bad when the Dow Jones drops 777 points in one day.  These simple facts are being translated into very real polling data, like the one conducted earlier this week by CNN/Time/ORC, which cataloged the lowest approval ratings for the President (22%) and the Congress (15%) in the history of the poll.

The last time that a Presidential approval rating was this bad, Harry S Truman was running the country into the ground during the Korean War in 1952.  Should it really be surprising that when the conservative vision of a 1950’s utopia was replicated, it failed just like it did the first time?  It’s called “neo-conservativism” for a reason – it’s been tried before.  A socially reactionary agenda coupled with an imperialist war abroad – am I talking about Korea and the misogynist 1950’s or Iraq and the homophobic 2000’s?  It’s gotten hard to tell. Hopefully, Americans have realized that we cannot keep riding the wave of power that filled the United States after World War II, demanding this and that of the world.  Our hegemonic glee has spread to every aspect of American society, whether we’re waving flags or gambling billions on absurdly dangerous derivatives or engaging in cowboy diplomacy, and it has finally – finally – come back to bite us.

Before you say that I’m acting more anti-American than an ex-patriot living in Paris, let me say this: It’s a good thing.  People need to see policy options fail before they can truly move past them.  From Truman to Nixon to Ford to Reagan to Bush to Bush, the last forty-eight years have been dominated by conservative presidencies and congresses.  In that time, the United States has been engaged in at least eight major military conflicts including Beirut, Nicaragua, and Panama.  We’ve grown highly dependent on foreign energy sources, importing the highest rate of goods in the world without matching exports.  We’ve been become self-obsessed and provincial.  Saying that someone is from another country is almost universally a mild-mannered insult, sparing only Britain.  We proposed an amendment to ban gay marriage, while fighting two wars abroad.  Unilateral ‘democracy-building’ is a Pyrrhic victory at best, a devastating loss at worst.  We’ve seen it happen for a long time.  People seem to be aware that it doesn’t work.

I think – maybe – things are finally going to change.  The stunt-driven nature of the McCain campaign has put the desperation of the Republican party on national display, as the remnants of its philosophies are torn to the ground.  What does social conservatism and American exceptionalism get you?  An experienced senator, whose war-obsessed mind has made him confrontational and unpredictable, and a young, attractive robot, who is well programmed by the ideals of conservative thought and a blind ambition for power.  What does the alternative provide?  An inexperienced senator, who is a former-editor of the Harvard Law Review, a former law professor from the University of Chicago, and an eloquent spokesman of pragmatic politics.  His running mate is a long-time senator, who is a populist orator with perhaps the most definitive foreign policy record of his generation.

Is Senator Barack Obama naive?  Maybe.  But, how could he not be – the word ‘experience’ is tantamount to saying that you were part of the ‘same administration’ that has held the majority of power since World War II.  I’m not sure that ‘experience’ is automatically a qualification any more.  There has to be foresight to accompany that experience, because otherwise you are always looking to the past, to history.  People say that history is doomed to repeat itself if you forget it, but that’s not always accurate.  It should be – history is doomed to repeat itself, if you only use the knowledge of it to justify standing still.  The only way that populations can solve problems is by constantly solving them – the conservative paradigm stopped solving problems and it just created more.  It seemed like we could hold that same stance, riding the legitimacy explosion of the United Stated coming out of World War II.  We saved the world from evil.  We got to define all of the institutions of the global era – the IMF, the World Bank, the UN, everything.

But then, globalization happened.  All the talk of cosmopolitanism coupled with the “I vote fiscally conservative” rhetoric couldn’t hack it anymore.  The global marketplace reared its head and started snapping back at American power.  We probably could have maintained it, if we hadn’t acted so poorly with the reins of global governance.  But, we shouldn’t be too surprised about it, as we’re just part of a long chain of countries who fell from dominance over the last few thousand years.  The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Mongols, the Chinese, the British, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Russians.  They’ve all fallen – but they were never defined by the fall.  They’ve always been defined by how they got back up.  So, the question is – how will America get back up?

If Senator McCain is elected, our fate may well be decided negatively.  Falling from power while kicking and screaming, clawing at the world by threatening everyone he meets, will only ensure that we will have more work to do later.  McCain’s positions during the debate on Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Russia would have us at the brink of war all over the world.  He still thinks that America can either yell at or ignore every other country on the planet.  He hasn’t learned from his mistakes.  Just look at his answer to Jim Lehrer’s question, “What have you learned from the Iraq War?”  McCain answered as if he was reenacting a White House press conference during Vietnam.  “We are winning!” “The surge worked!” “You don’t understand the difference between tactics and strategy!”  Was that Robert McNamara or Richard Nixon talking?  McCain’s stance on the economy was not much better.  He acted like the Congress was a naughty teenager who stole daddy’s credit card and he was going “cut spending”/not give any more allowance until Billy worked off the debt.  Meanwhile, the opportunity costs of Iraq are raging into the trillions.  Did anyone else notice that McCain didn’t really understand the difference between millions and billions during the first debate?  He kept deriding Obama for authorizing $813 million dollars on social welfare programs, when Obama pointed out the billions of dollars being pumped into Iraq each month.  It’s a “B” John, like in the phrase ” ‘B’ecause you continue to support American exceptionalism, I will continue to campaign against you.”

America needs to give Barack Obama the chance to do otherwise.  I know that he is not a lifetime politician and I know he doesn’t have the intense swagger of a military man, but the best person you can put into power in our time of shifting paradigms, is someone pragmatic and uplifting.  Look at FDR and Lincoln and Wilson.  Obama knows it – he tried to bring it up on a few occasions during the first debate.  He drew the obvious distinction between himself and his opponent; McCain was the old imperialist, Obama was the new international lawyer.  Republicans have derided Obama for being a celebrity.  It’s funny, because Americans are showing, for a change, that they don’t just love people who are famous for being famous – they are genuinely interested in a man who has valuable ideas.  That is the greatest paradigm shift that any population can have.  Hopefully, that will be the American paradigm shift of the 21st century.

Somali Pirates, Russian Tanks, and Islamic Extremism

While news about the American presidential election and the proposed bailout of Wall Street has dominated the front pages, many people have missed an interesting story about the hijacking of an Ukrainian cargo ship off the coast of Somalia.  According to the New York Times, the cargo ship, known as the Faina, was carrying a variety of heavy arms including “tanks, artillery, grenade launchers and ammunition” when it was taken over by Somali pirates last Thursday.  The hijacking occurred two-hundred miles off of the Somali coastline, which is a nearly unpoliced stretch of over two-thousand miles that many reason consider to comprise the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world.  Since 1991, when the government of Somalia collapsed into a failed state, there has been little monopoly over the use of force and pirate attacks are common, with over twenty-five occurring this year alone.  The hijacking business is quite lucrative, as pirates routinely receive multi-million dollar ransoms to release crews and cargo.  American warships, reported to be five in number, have cornered the pirates near the Somali shore in order to monitor the weapons and oversee the hostages.  The owners of the ship are currently engaged in negotiations with the pirates and a Russian frigate is on the way to the region to “assist” the United States.

Sugule Ali, the leader of the pirates, granted a 45-minute interview via satellite phone and spoke a great deal about the pirates’ motivations and objectives.  “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”  Indeed, the failure of the Somali state seventeen years ago has resulted in an international free-for-all in their shipping lanes. Commercial fishing vessels from Europe and Asia routinely plunder the tuna-rich waters, which provide an essential income and food supply for the Somali population.  As for Sugule’s contention that arms are funneled through their coastline, he does not need to look far for proof.  He currently possesses 30 Russian T72 tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, and Zu-23 anti-aircraft guns, although there are conflicting reports as to where the arms were destined.

Kenyan officials in Mombasa have publically stated that the heavy arms were part of a legitimate arms deal they had undertaken in for their military.  Other reports say that the arms were inbound to the Southern Sudan via Kenya, but it is not clear for whom they were intended.  Sugule preempted concerns about the pirates selling the weapons by saying that, “Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons,” he said. “We don’t want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money.”  Sugule claims that pirate operations finance a great deal of the food supplies for local villages, which in turn pool resources to finance the pirates.  Without a real state in Somalia, the population is forced to engage the black-market through piracy and the arms trade in order to survive and protect their assets.

This story is interesting because it paints a highly accurate picture of the political realities at play in Africa.  Somali pirates, who are hired to hijack ships to pay for food, seize a shipment of Russian arms inbound to either Kenya, Somalia, or Sudan, to either aid or repel Islamic extremists, depending on where this particular shipment was going.  American and Russian battleships surround the Somali pirates to ensure that the arms reach a favorable destination, which could be anywhere in a region where loyalties can change instantly with some financing.  Islamic extremists wage a daily war against the transitional Somali government and their Ethiopian allies, fueled by arms imports from Russia and China.  The Sudanese wage genocide in Darfur as black Africans are targeted in the south by the Arab-dominated north.  The Kenyans secretly funnel arms and money to their black African relatives in Southern Sudan to strengthen their claims to independence in the upcoming elections against the Arabs.  Worse, the Americans and the Chinese have competing stakes in the oil supply of Darfur and the Russians don’t want to get left out of the market either.  All the while, international corporations openly take the natural resources of the region, forcing locals to arm themselves and resort to piracy.

In this highly volatile region of the world, the negative externalities of each state fuel the political strife of them all.  Violence for one is violence for all.  As such, the United States, Russia, and China have to stop fueling the African arms race.  The immense power that comes with the delivery of modern weapons to Somalia and Sudan is preventing the stabilization of those regions, whose governments have crumbled in the wake of 20th-century colonialism and the proxy-building that followed.  Amidst the power vacuum that has been created, Islamic extremism has once again taken root in a place without an effective governance structure.  It’s occurring everywhere – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, the West Bank, Gaza.

The United States, instead of attacking a relatively strong state like Iraq, which had the power to prevent power-sharing with terrorists, should have been working to cut off the arms supplies into the weak states of Northeastern Africa.  In reality, the United States is probably helping to funnel arms into the region – there’s a reason it’s the world’s number one arms dealer.  The Clinton and Bush era of using NATO as a bully pulpit against the Russians has come back to bite us as well.  Putin has become increasingly angered by Americo-European advances into Russia’s backyard, like the deployment of SAM missile batteries in Poland.  Putin knows that Bush is a sap and has exploited him from day one, when Bush “looked into his soul.”  Russia has grown emboldened, as its recent adventure into Georgia showed, and it is quietly arming the 21st century’s proxy wars.  This time around, they won’t be in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, but in the failed states of Africa.

There is a perfect storm of violence brewing in Africa, combining governance failures with an externally funded arms race and a culture of ethno-religious extremism.  We cannot ignore the signs.  The international community must invest in African governance now, before a regional war erupts.