Leader of the “Free” World

Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai.

 

LEADERSHIP

Part 3 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.

Vice President-elect Joseph Biden traveled to Afghanistan during the transition to the Obama presidency to gauge the war effort on the ground. After meeting with Afghan leaders, American field generals and soldiers who had served multiple deployments, he returned home to report his findings to the incoming president. His synopsis confirmed what most suspected about America’s forgotten war; there was no good news. We were losing the war.

More troubling, according to Biden, was that nearly everyone he spoke with had a different impression of what our mission was. Intelligence confirmed that al-Qaeda hadn’t operated in Afghanistan in more than two years, perhaps longer. The Taliban was prepared to return at a moment’s notice, having found safe harbor in neighboring Pakistan. The Afghan economy was devastated and any efforts to train Afghani-led forces were futile due to the overwhelming rate of illiteracy among the population and the underwhelming amount of resources being given to our troops on the ground.

The provisional government under Hamid Karzai’s tepid and erratic leadership had not yet been affirmed by a national election and his administration was becoming increasingly corrupt. A combination of protracted war and drought had shattered the local economy and secular tensions and age-old blood feuds among various ethnic groups made the politics impossible to navigate, particularly with no clear objective as to why and whom we were still fighting. These factors, along with an impossible terrain, made an Iraq-style surge improbable and unnecessary in the eyes of many advisors. Nevertheless, in 2009 Obama was now Commander in Chief and it was time to make good on some campaign promises.

For months, Obama frustrated generals, media outlets, Democrats and Republicans—anyone with a stake in the outcome of the war. Even his most ardent supporters derided his Vulcan-like demeanor and refusal to commit to a plan of action. Not only had Obama received full cooperation from the Bush administration during the transition, he possessed a surfeit of intelligence information, an experienced team of advisors, and the support of the American public. And yet, days turned to weeks, which turned to months.

None of the options before him were good. All carried risk. But in order to place the risk in its proper context, there was one piece of critical information that the president was missing—something that no briefing could possibly clarify.
Shortly before midnight on Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base. As midnight passed and the calendar turned a page, he stood in the darkness flanked by military personnel as the bodies of 18 dead soldiers whose calendars ceased turning somewhere on the desert battlefield were carried from a military cargo plane. In his book, Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward describes how after saluting the fallen and meeting privately with the families for the next four hours, the president of the United States “slipped back in the helicopter, switched off the overhead light. No one said a word during the 45-minute flight to the White House.”

No fanfare. No flight suit. Just a solemn acknowledgement that this mission was far from accomplished and that there were human beings beneath those fatigues.

Shortly after this trip, Obama would reveal the strategy for the war in Afghanistan under his presidency. One by one, he delivered his orders to his senior officials, including Gen. David Petraeus. According to Woodward, “When [Petraeus] later learned the president had personally dictated the orders, he couldn’t believe it. ‘There’s not a president in history that’s dictated five single-spaced pages in his life.’”

THE “FREE WORLD”

The world is a big place and Afghanistan occupies only a tiny sliver of it. What I appreciate about the president’s thought process is the scope of it, which stands in stark contrast to the single-mindedness of the Bush administration. We are still losing the war in Afghanistan, but our troops are withdrawing. Our operation in Iraq is finally coming to a close. And despite the most recent wave of anti-American sentiment fueled by an inflammatory film about the Muslim prophet Muhammad, we are balancing foreign affairs. While Obama’s nuanced approach has been marked by miscalculations, it takes into account the whole field of battle, which may not always include armed conflict.

The ground is shifting beneath us. African nations are beginning to subdivide like cancer cells and we may even witness the reconciliation of North and South Korea in our lifetime. In surveying Afghanistan, Obama understood that the real war was with Pakistan. Moreover, our relationship with Pakistan has always been built on half-truths and double-dealing. The Pakistani secret police, the ISI, serves up lies to our operatives half of the time; the trick is to figure out which half. Obama also knows that our presence is virtually meaningless to Pakistan compared to its long-standing feud with India. Deftly managing this dynamic results in better intelligence on al-Qaeda members who move between Pakistan and Afghanistan and as far as Yemen and Somalia with impunity; just as breaking the back of the Assad regime in Syria is more devastating to Iran than drawing artificial lines in the sand.

This is only a fragment of the backdrop against which we are being asked to elect our next Commander in Chief. From dangerous encroachments to our civil liberties at home to the casual over-reliance upon drone strikes abroad, there is plenty of criticism to be hurled Obama’s way. But like so many issues this campaign season, foreign policy is yet another area where Mitt Romney falters.

Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai, a man whom the CIA admits is a chemically imbalanced, erratic manic-depressive. He lambastes Obama for allegedly refusing to support uprisings in Iran, calling it a “disgraceful abdication of American moral authority,” while at the same time condemning Obama’s support of the uprising in Libya.

Mitt Romney is already promising to write checks we can’t cash. From empty threats of force against Pakistan to declaring he will aggressively “disarm North Korea,” Romney has already displayed a remarkable ignorance. He’s also playing a dangerous game with Benjamin Netanyahu, pitting the Israeli Prime Minister against Obama in an effort to woo the Jewish vote at home. Romney ignores the success both the Bush and Obama administrations have had covertly disrupting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and he underestimates the galvanizing effect a unilateral attack on Iran would have in the Arab world against both Israel and the US.

Even more troubling is the team of foreign policy advisors Romney has assembled, which includes several Bush administration retreads, two members of the Heritage Foundation—the sham conservative think tank supported by the Koch brothers—and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, an enthusiastic supporter of rendition.

Despite several initial missteps on the world stage by the Obama administration, it is imperative we maintain continuity with a nuanced approach and maneuver to achieve greater stability abroad; if for no other reason than to prevent the catastrophic return of Bush-era foreign policy that a Romney administration would bring. The world has had enough of American bluster, particularly when we no longer have the financial wherewithal or popular support to back it up.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright (r) salute the remains of army sgt. dale r. griffin of terre haute, ind. during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., Oct. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Iran From 10,000 Feet

Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could.

This column appears in the February 2nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Trunk to tail the elephants circle the ring while the four remaining clowns in the circus vamp, weep and honk their noses to the delight of the audience. The train travels from Iowa to New Hampshire, and then makes its way down the coast to Florida where the most recent performance went off without a hitch. With dozens more appearances planned for the upcoming weeks, the greatest show on Earth promises to keep the masses entertained for months to come.

Outside the alternate reality that is the American election season, however, a gathering storm is rapidly approaching, threatening to rip the stakes from the ground and bring the tent down upon all of us.

The deadliest game of chicken in history is being played in dark alleys with no headlights. Two cars careen toward each other, Iran in one and Israel in the other, while the world huddles close to see which one of them blinks first. But we are all more than spectators in this deadly contest, we are participants. The ever-expanding concentric circles of conflict that began with the Mossad and Hezbollah, extended to neighboring nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria, now encapsulate the United States, Europe, Russia and China.

In short, the stage is set for World War III. Damn, those Mayans were good!

Because the economy is still in the center ring, however, it’s the primary show the audience focuses on. We can see shadowy figures moving about in the periphery. We know they’re there, but our attention is diverted for the moment. Humanity be damned, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s why every pronouncement of war, every threat to prevent a nuclear Iran, includes references to the disruption of the global oil supply.

But exactly how do you quantify the potential ramifications of a complete breakdown in both production and supply of oil in the Middle East, and more specifically Iran? The second oil shock of the 1970s, beginning with an Iranian oil-workers’ strike in 1978 and continuing through the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, is a useful portent of financial catastrophe. This two-year flare-up resulted in skyrocketing oil prices that reached $38 per barrel in 1980. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s around $90 per barrel.

Think about that for a moment. If the equivalent figure of $90 today thrust the global markets into utter chaos and drove the world deeper into recession in 1980, what effect would a new shock today have on the global economy, considering oil is consistently trading around $100 per barrel today? Obama doesn’t need to ask Jimmy Carter how that would work out.

This is why Europe and America have been rallying support to increase economic sanctions on Iran while Israel continues its effective covert assault on the power structure in Tehran. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently visited China to ask for their participation in a global embargo on trading with Iran. The problem there, of course, is that China receives approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran—a figure projected to grow steadily over the next couple of decades as China attempts to break the coal habit. Geithner’s reception was as chilly as it was when he asked the Chinese to adjust their undervalued currency in an effort to stabilize the balance of trade between our nations. Add to the mix that China has no moral or political allegiance to Israel, and it’s easy to understand why Geithner would have had better luck talking to the Great Wall of China than its ruling class.

The political calculus in Washington is as complicated as ever. Obama has been able to walk the tightrope between America’s hawks and isolationists by surging our forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq, and allegedly killing Osama bin Laden while entertaining the possibility of dialogue with Tehran. Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could. But time is running out as the election draws ever nearer, which is why the war rhetoric is beginning to intensify. This diplomatic squeeze is lost only on mouth-breathing Americans whose eyes are glued to the spectacle in the center ring, as they await the outcome of each GOP primary as if it matters. The rest of the planet has adjusted to the darkness as it watches these war preparations very, very closely.

Here’s the current score. Europe has taken a decidedly aggressive stance by leading the way with harsh economic sanctions on Iran forcing the United States to follow suit perhaps more than it might have otherwise. China and Russia have little to gain by punishing Iran as they trade openly. Israel is not above taking matters into its own hands and striking Iran’s nuclear facilities but it requires more assurance from the United States that we will back its play. The less-than-cozy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarts Israel’s next move, because acting unilaterally without U.S. support is as suicidal as doing nothing may someday prove to be.

 Saudi Arabia, which shares access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, also has little patience for Iran’s shenanigans; but it, like Iran’s allies in the area, has its own political and economic issues, and can hardly afford a conflict with any of the region’s stakeholders.

We are witnessing one of the greatest standstills of all time. The deciding vote, however, will likely come from none of the nations mentioned here because a new, more powerful force has emerged in the global landscape with the ability to tip the scales: the people.

From Occupy to the Arab Spring, the past year has shown that the most influential voice in world politics is that of the people. In this new interconnected world, the Iranian government’s clandestine policies and shadowy behavior are anachronistic. That’s not to say Israel and the United States don’t understand this potential, as both admit to stoking tensions within Iran to mobilize its youth in the hopes that they will lead to yet another revolution. If a fruit vendor in Tunisia can set off a series of events that changed the Arab world forever, the same can even happen in a nation as mysterious and closed-off as Iran. Dictators can be ousted and regimes can be toppled without deploying the U.S. military.

It’s why an untimely show of force against Iran would undermine the Iranian people’s naturally occurring dissatisfaction, shown by their willingness to protest the regime’s fraudulent elections and its hard-line stances that have wrought such economic hardship. This phenomenon has been occurring even before the most recent round of rigorous sanctions. In practice, imposing more stringent sanctions or military action may have the opposite of the desired effect by coalescing support for the Iranian government from within. Given the Iranians’ already poor economic circumstances, they may in fact see little distinction between enduring harsh sanctions and a blistering show of force.

Critics of the Obama administration have likened his stance on Iran as akin to that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Pact in 1938. They claim that the United States is being hoodwinked by Iran’s leadership who will immediately use nuclear weapons against Israel once they possess the capability to do so. Most who have written about the subject, however, believe this is folly, but that it’s better to have an Iran without nukes than one with them. In the meantime, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction might take a backseat to the mutually assured production of oil. In my mind, the specter of nuclear warfare is a singular endgame issue, not an ongoing strategic battle that dismisses the Chamberlain/Hitler analogy in favor of Kennedy/Kruschev. When both men drew their lines in the sand and realized the lines were in exactly the same spot, everyone knew where they stood during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Because the current leaders of Iran have publicly stated that they are committed to annihilating the state of Israel, they have legitimized the world’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But I would submit that the world doesn’t have an Iran problem, it has an Ahmadinejad problem. Were the U.S. to declare unequivocally that we will use force if Iran’s president denies UN inspectors in Iran or we discover that they have developed the capacity to use nuclear technology beyond domestic energy production, we would hardly be blamed for being the aggressor. But perhaps we should re-examine the role of sanctions and look at things differently because a free and prosperous people have a much greater ability to dictate policy in Iran than we outsiders ever will.

A desperate population with nothing to lose alters the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction and interrupts the natural evolution of the Arab Spring. It’s time to reverse the antiquated notion that a forcibly impoverished nation is ultimately obsequious to those nations that suppress it. President Obama should call upon the Congress and the world to lift all economic sanctions on Iran because sanctions starve the people, not the government. Moreover, the people have proven they know how to seize the opportunity for self determination.

Then we can all go back to watching the circus.

 

Main Photo: Associated Press

Fracking: The Ultimate Scam Revealed

By touting natural gas as the clean-burning fossil fuel that is cheaper to use and helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the industry has nailed the PR trifecta: cheaper, cleaner and patriotic.

gas mask hydrofrackingOne of the great joys of writing, as in science, is the accidental discovery. To wit: penicillin. And while this entry hardly ranks near Alexander Fleming’s pharmaceutical breakthrough, it does relieve a particular itch that has been nagging my brain. For months I have been vexed by the discrepancy in pricing between crude oil and natural gas. (Wait, I know how tedious commodities can be but I promise you this column is worth sticking with.) Unable to settle on any fundamental market-based explanation, I placed the issue on the mental backburner. It was only when I decided to update a series of articles on the role of speculation in the commodities markets that I happened upon the most plausible solution to this puzzle.

First, a little context. Over the past couple of years New York State has been flirting with the idea of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The discovery of enormous pockets of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation that runs from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York to as far as Ohio, has led to a modern-day gold rush in the region, with Pennsylvania several years ahead of New York. While the gas has always been there, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium when controversial chemical enhancements invented by Halliburton were added to a difficult horizontal drilling technique that accessing this gas became feasible.

Almost immediately, however, environmental concerns began to mount. Stories of contaminated groundwater, intense air pollution and, most recently, a ruptured fault line and mini-earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio, on Dec. 31, have begun leaking into public consciousness. Gasland, a documentary by Josh Fox, increasingly agitated environmental organizations, and high-profile activists such as actor Mark Ruffalo have helped fracking reach the tipping point in the media. Once seen as a panacea for rural land owners in depressed parts of the country, fracking has become a pariah in the environmental community, setting the stage for yet another battle between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists. Caught in the middle of the entire fiasco at the moment is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is cautiously moving toward legalizing fracking in New York, though his public reticence highlights how tenuous this decision truly is.

Early on, I came down firmly against fracking in New York, and the Long Island Press was in the vanguard of reporting on it downstate. So I’m on record quite clearly as to why I believe fracking to be a disaster for New York, or anywhere else for that matter. No need to rehash this position. Still, one piece of the broader issue was missing—until now.

Here’s the issue: Fracking is expensive. The prolonged low market price of natural gas is the most logical deterrent to increasing drilling because it barely pays to pull the gas out of the ground. Moreover, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that natural gas demand in the United States should rise only 11 percent over the next 25 years compared to a projected rise of more than 300 percent in China over the same period.

Here’s where the market rationale gets murky. Analysts point to increased demand for fossil fuel in developing economies as the primary reason behind the steady rise in oil prices. Goldman Sachs’ most recent forecast of Brent Crude Oil, commonly known as “sweet light crude,” is $120 a barrel for 2012, with most market analysts following suit. A weak dollar, the ongoing crisis and uncertainty in the Eurozone, a burgeoning conflict between the U.S. and Iran, and continued growth in China, India and Brazil are the oft-given reasons behind these prognostications.

Historically, natural gas and oil prices have generally moved in tandem, and with natural gas gaining momentum as the fossil fuel of choice, it only makes sense that they would continue their mirrored trajectory. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Crude oil remains stubbornly high and creeping ever higher while natural gas remains depressed.

A closer look reveals that the world has record stockpiles of both fuels, and has developed incredible potential for new sources such as the Marcellus Shale play or the tar sands in Canada. Then there are the yet-to-be-developed fields in Iraq that, according to the New York Times, are “expected to ramp up oil production faster than any other country in the next 25 years, with a capacity…more than traditional leaders like Saudi Arabia.” Or, if you prefer, the real reason we went to war in Iraq.

Excess supply, new discoveries, and sluggish demand—and yet only natural gas is acting appropriately in the markets. This behavior is undeniable proof that the invisible hand of speculation is at work, which naturally begs the question as to why traders would suppress the price of gas but not oil.

For this answer we must turn back the clock once again and revisit several acts in Congress over the past two decades that made it possible for banks to merge with investment banks and trade commodities without limits and without transparency. Much of this trading is done on the Intercontinental Exchange, a trading platform that was founded and owned by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and BP. When you understand that markets today are dominated by investment banks and oil companies, who are at times one in the same (Morgan Stanley’s direct holdings in oil companies, fossil fuel infrastructure and transportation companies make it one of the largest oil companies in America), it is possible to fully comprehend the psychology behind natural gas pricing. Oil companies and investment banks have the ability to move the market by forecasting prices and investing in their own products through opaque exchanges that they own, so no matter where prices are they are making money.

Now you’re ready for the secret behind the fracking con job.

As previously mentioned, domestic natural gas is difficult to procure. The process is devastating to human health and the environment, and the effects are irreversible. To gain momentum and influence public opinion, the oil and gas companies have launched an ingenious propaganda assault on America. By touting natural gas as the clean-burning fossil fuel that is cheaper to use and helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the industry has nailed the PR trifecta: cheaper, cleaner and patriotic. And with an earnest pitchman like T. Boone Pickens, who wouldn’t believe it?

The problem is none of the above is true. First, natural gas might burn cleaner than oil but the process to extract it is so harmful it doesn’t matter. And second, because the same companies who are in control of the product are in control of the pricing, once they sew up the drilling rights they can simply jack up the price. This leaves the final argument that is wrapped in the American flag and served with a side of apple pie: reducing dependence on foreign oil for the sake of the union.

For the truth, let’s check in with the rest of the world to see what they say. (This was the happy accident that prompted this column.)

According to India’s leading daily business newspaper, the Business Standard, “the increasing shale gas production in the U.S. has led to a surplus, likely to increase in the coming years. The U.S. is, therefore, eyeing export to countries like China, Japan, Korea and India… In the past, the U.S. has been an importer of gas.” The article goes on to quote A. K. Balyan, chief executive officer of Petronet LNG, India’s largest liquefied natural gas importer, who states, “With an increase in U.S. gas production, the gas receiving terminals need to be converted to exporting terminals.”

Ta-dah!

The average life of a fracking site is seven years. At best. The environmental and human health catastrophe is forever. All of the current talk of job creation and reducing dependence on oil is a sham. Our natural gas stockpiles are higher than ever and the demand for natural gas, by our own country’s admission, will remain basically flat until 2035. The oil and gas companies are planning to export gas from the Marcellus Shale region to the same developing economies we’re supposed to be competing against. How’s that for homeland security?

The real insult? American oil and gas companies are willing to risk the health and welfare of our own citizens by fracking on our land in order to export fuel they claim is more beneficial to the environment. Normally, our companies are busy screwing up other countries in pursuit of their natural resources for our own consumption. As if this isn’t bad enough, they are finally committing the cardinal sin of shitting where they eat.

Let’s do the right thing for once: Ban fracking now. There’s no other way.

JANUARY 11th – FINAL DAY FOR PUBLIC COMMENT ON DEC WEBSITE. CLICK HERE

Main Photo Image: Photograph from AP. April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day.
Long Island Press cover image. Original art by Jon Sasala
T. Boone Pickens
. AP Photo.

This article was published in the January 5th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Tea Partisanship

Entitlement programs don’t imply that people have some childish sense of entitlement as some Republicans would have us all believe; the programs are precisely referred to as such because we are entitled to receive them.

Boehner and ObamaPart IV of The Season of Our Disconnect

Perhaps the best, most succinct commentary I heard regarding the acrimonious debt ceiling debate was during a BBC broadcast this past week. When asked what the sentiment was in Europe regarding the countdown to American debt default that Congress narrowly avoided on Aug. 2, the reporter said there was a sense of bewilderment that the United States would voluntarily default on its obligations when so many countries were struggling against doing so involuntarily. Not only did this highlight how silly the entire debacle really was but there’s something about hearing it delivered in a British accent that makes it sound all the more ridiculous.

The Republican Party, of which I have been affiliated with since coming of voting age, has never behaved so badly. This is a party that touts itself as pro-business and anti-tax, with every member running amok trying to out-Ronald Reagan one another. Yet anyone who runs a business will tell you that cutting costs can only achieve so much and that, at some point, revenue has to increase proportionate to the growth of expenses. Theoretically that means these pro-business Republicans should recognize the need to increase revenue, i.e., taxes, and any increase in revenue should be ascribed to expenditures with no direct, offsetting revenue line.

Since the greatest single unfunded liability in America is defense and military spending, which accounts for 25 percent of the budget, this area seems like the most logical place to cut expenses. Instead, the Republican Party has waged an all-out assault on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which Americans have fully supported for decades. They demonize these programs, sullying them as “entitlements,” and deriding them as welfare-like benefits for ungrateful, undeserving idlers living off the government teat.

Entitlement programs don’t imply that people have some childish sense of entitlement as some Republicans would have us all believe; the programs are precisely referred to as such because we are entitled to receive them. Why? Because we have already paid for them. Check out your pay stub – it’s called FICA. Republicans are trying to terrify Americans with the misleading threats of disappearing future Social Security payments and dwindling Medicare coverage because they’re trying to obfuscate the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have cost the nation nearly $3 trillion between the direct cost of the engagements and subsequent social costs such as veteran care. There’s no pre-tax line item or fee for “Wars We Didn’t Ask For” on your paycheck. We have been giving the government the funding necessary to keep these programs alive for generations and they keep blowing money on conflicts we never wanted. Giving the American government Social Security and Medicare funding is like lending cash to your meth-addict uncle who promises he’s on the wagon and just needs a few bucks to get back on his feet. He’ll disappoint you every time.

And then there’s Reagan. True-blue Republicans who like to evoke imagery of the Gipper could use a refresher course and a reminder that when President Reagan cut taxes in the beginning of his administration, the jobless rate jumped above 10 percent (higher than under Obama) and the federal deficit grew to a then-unprecedented level. Desperate to get things under control he raised taxes seven times during his administration and increased federal spending so much that he left office with a tremendous deficit despite myriad tax hikes. Moreover, total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP was more under Reagan after his initial tax cuts than they are today and we just fought two, decade-long wars. Middle-class Republicans should also recall how Reagan nearly doubled the Social Security withdrawal (your money for “safe keeping” remember) but capped it at a certain income level. Or as Matt Taibbi writes in his recent book Griftopia: “That means that a married couple earning $100,000 total will pay roughly the same amount of Social Security taxes that Lloyd Blankfein or Bill Gates will.” This was nothing short of a heist on the middle-class in America, the memory of which is something today’s Republican leaders have entirely backwards.

Throughout the tenure of the Obama administration, Republicans, who are working to please Tea Party activists−the lowest common ideological denominator in the GOP−have continued to distort Reagan’s legacy and persist in blowing up America’s revenue line while adding unfunded liabilities on the expense line. Now they’re smashing our piggy banks to pay for their transgressions while continuing to extend the most favorable corporate tax environment in the history of the country.

Dig this. According to the Congressional Budget Office, corporate income tax accounts for only 1.3 percent of GDP (compared to individual income taxes, which are 6.2 percent of GDP). The last time it was this low was in 1983 when corporate tax was only 1.1 percent of GDP and the federal deficit was so big Reagan increased taxes every year thereafter. According to the Brookings Institute, the last time corporate income tax receipts were so low was in 1940. In the 1950’s, the golden era that Republicans really love to imagine reliving, the average was 4.76 percent of GDP. That’s quadruple what it is today. Shrinking corporate tax receipts is just one of a host of lopsided tax issues that favor corporations and wealthy Americans and force the government to borrow eye-popping sums of money.

The Democratic Party under the feckless and waffling leadership of Barack Obama has likewise capitulated to the right wing lunatic fringe. Because Democrats aren’t putting up a fight and caving to every unreasonable demand made by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party’s whipping boys, a corrosive new partisanship has emerged in America. Ignorant, ill-informed zealots running a government against the people have officially hijacked Abraham Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people and for the people.

 

Life After bin Laden

A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination.

Osama bin Laden's compound in PakistanAs a resident of Manhattan at the time of the 9/11 attacks, both the enormity and the proximity of this tragedy rendered me almost childlike in my response. There was no precedent in my life against which I could benchmark my feelings, nor any reservoir of wisdom wrought from similar circumstances that could place the unthinkable events of that day in any useful emotional context. The initial shock gave way to overwhelming emptiness on a scale wholly unfamiliar to me—feelings that left me bizarrely searching for some sort of parental guidance from our government. In the days, weeks and years that followed, there was plenty on hand.

The Bush administration, unfit on so many levels to direct the social and economic aspects of governance, was somehow uniquely suited to administering a punishing response to al-Qaida, the Taliban and all those who would defy America in our pursuit of justice. Judgment Day would be leveled upon our enemies with a medieval ferocity married with modern precision. Of this we were sure. And not only were we kept abreast of our military response with clarity and immediacy, but we were told how to feel. It was OK to be angry, for ours was a shared tragedy. Our sadness was collective and our resolve singular. One nation, under God.

Now the object of our malevolence is gone. When my wife awoke me on Sunday night to watch as President Obama informed the nation that an elite American force had finally located and killed Osama bin Laden, I was bleary-eyed and confused. This wasn’t at all how I imagined this moment would be. Frankly, I had lost faith that it would ever come. Osama bin Laden had almost ceased to be real, becoming some sort of metaphoric touchstone for the War on Terror. His deeds would always be perpetuated by our inability to capture him and our shame would grow with each passing day. Catching or killing the man that embodied our terror and consumed a nation with fear for the better part of a decade seemed distant and implausible. In many ways, I wasn’t sure it even mattered any longer—because so much had transpired since Sept. 11, 2001 that any sudden manifestation of the man himself would be almost too complicated and painful to contemplate. Osama bin Laden had officially become the bogeyman. His re-emergence or death would inspire too many questions and bring forward too many painful memories buried deep within our subconscious selves.

Americans are hard-wired in such a way that having a villain allows us to compartmentalize our emotions, thereby narrowing our actions and behaviors to a series of Pavlovian responses. A successful war effort, if ever there was one, has always been forged in the extreme premise of good versus evil; a supposition made ever clearer when an antithetical figure looms large in our national imagination. Figures such as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Osama bin Laden were so absolute in their contrast to the American zeitgeist that their very existence allowed America to tacitly define itself as their theoretical opposite. The specter of bin Laden, more than the man, allowed the Bush administration to define itself as the antidote to terror, thereby becoming the natural incarnation of liberty and the ultimate arbiter of any global conflict that challenged our notion of freedom, a right characterized less by what we stood for than by what we fought against.

As we awake, hung over from our 10-year drunken binge of warfare and rage, what are we to make of bin Laden’s death? Our youth has been so inculcated by the steady drumbeat of anti-terrorism messaging that many took to the streets in celebration immediately following the pronouncement of bin Laden’s demise. Inchoate explanations of his whereabouts all these years and our inability to locate him even with the most sophisticated technology and intelligence has left many Americans somewhat wary of the information given to us so abruptly. I believe this is because for the first time in nearly a decade the message was delivered absent the hyperbole that has typically accompanied news of bin Laden and the War on Terror. And so we are left on our own to digest and make sense of not only the news of his death, but the world that he forever altered and has now thankfully left behind.  

The innocent victims of 9/11 are avenged, to be sure. If ever there was one seminal event that would resemble closure, this is the moment. But the hardship and grief stemming from the two wars that ensued and the lives that were lost or forever changed cannot be assuaged by any one action. The men and women sickened from working on the “piles” for days and weeks, sifting through the toxic debris, cannot be healed. Our trust in Pakistani leadership has been shattered. Our reason for waging war cannot be easily explained away.

The near-simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were proffered to the American people as a sort of Sophie’s Choice. Osama bin Laden placed us in unforgiving territory where carnage seemed guaranteed by both inaction and war. Now we are faced with the realization that these decisions were made in a world gone mad, ushered in by a true madman who now rests in disgrace somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. And we are left to pick up the pieces, haunted by our actions, unsure of how to feel and forever mourning the victims of 9/11.

Senator Schumer Responds (and so do I…)

Senator Charles Schumer responds to last week’s column in which I claim he is responsible for the high price of oil. This is his full response along with some helpful commentary that illustrates the fact that he never actually answers the question. Welcome to Washington.

I'm not done. I have 400 other ways to not answer your question.

Last week I authored a rebuke of the financial regulatory system in the United States, particularly with respect to the rising cost of fossil fuels. Americans, and in fact all citizens of the world, are being fed what I consider to be utter nonsense from our elected officials, and the Wall Street puppeteers who control them, about the reasons behind the high oil prices.

My findings were published in my regular column, Off The Reservation in the Long Island Press and archived exclusively here, as always, on JedMorey.com. In it I concluded that because irresponsible deregulation spanning two decades is the most dominant factor in the price of oil, a responsible regulatory correction is the only solution to mitigate the current crisis. Further, because Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) sits on every governing body with the ability to restore accountability in the markets, he is therefore quite logically the one man on the planet responsible for the price of oil. This is not to say that he was responsible thus far, but that because control is within his ability and purview, it is therefore incumbent upon him to reverse this horrendous trend.

You are welcome to review my assertions and follow my logic in arriving at this conclusion by clicking here. Then, you can read the Senator’s response below. Here is my take (spoiler alert) on his rebuttal: It is exactly the type of benign platitudinous response Americans have been conditioned to accept from the people who occupy the highest offices in the land.  748 words of nothing designed to throw us all off the scent. This is what we refer to in the newsroom as “gorilla dust” whereby two gorillas face off against one another in a spectacle of chest-thumping and screaming, throwing dirt in the air to create a commotion for the purpose of actually avoiding an altercation.

With that said, below is Senator Schumer’s response to my column that appeared in the Letters section of the Press this week. You be the judge. (Oh, and I’ll help a little along the way…)

Dear Editor,

I know that with oil prices surging day after day, Americans are being squeezed at the pump and paying more for everything from groceries to plane tickets. The bottom line is, Americans need relief from soaring gas prices. (Yes we are. Thank you for acknowledging that.)

That’s why, as a short term solution, I’ve called on the administration to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). Established by the U.S. government in the wake of the 1970s Arab oil embargo, the reserve has been used since then to deal with crises that disrupt oil production. And it’s worked. When President Bill Clinton released 30 million barrels in 2000, in part because of my constant prodding, gasoline prices fell 10%. When President Bush released oil from the SPR in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, oil prices fell more than 9 percent. If accessed today, the reserve would not only provide much needed relief to New Yorkers and Americans across the country – but also help ensure that our economy doesn’t slip back into a decline. (Wait, what? The 70’s embargo was a forced supply crisis and Katrina was a natural disaster. Supply is at an all-time high and experts agree supply has nothing to do with prices.)

But we cannot rely on the SPR alone. We must do more over the long-term so we are not constantly at the whim of what happens in places like Libya, Iraq or Venezuela. The way to do that is by reducing our dependence on foreign oil and investing in clean energy. We can do that by: (Golly, I hate to be rude but Libya doesn’t supply the U.S., we pretty much took care of the whole Iraq thing – wouldn’t you say? – and Venezuela owns Citgo… Can’t force them out of business in America, can you?)

1)      Passing NOPEC, the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act. This legislation would prevent future price increases of gasoline by permitting the Department of Justice to bring actions against foreign states – such as members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) – for collusive practices in setting the price or limiting the production of oil.  (But I think it’s been established that they’re not setting the prices, the investment banks on our own commodities exchanges are. Sounds like gorilla dust to me… )

2)      Ending subsidies for oil companies and putting the money into renewable energy sources. We need to make sure that oil companies, that are currently making record profits, aren’t receiving billions of billions of dollars in subsidies. Astonishingly, that’s what’s happening. I’ve called for the elimination of these subsidizes to help reduce our deficit and stop wasting taxpayer money subsidizing oil companies that don’t need any help. This week, House Speaker John Boehner stated his openness to ending some taxpayer subsidies for oil and gas companies, and I am urging my Republican colleagues in the senate to follow his example. (Again, this has NOTHING to do with why prices are so high given the extraordinary supply. Fostering renewable energy is a great idea, but it’s a way to create an additional supply of energy, not mitigate the current price. Of course the subsidies are ridiculous but given that logic shouldn’t prices be lower because we’re subsidizing part of the cost of production through tax breaks Senator? Hmmm. Something doesn’t quite add up here.)

3)      Passing the Use It or Lose It legislation. Under current law, oil companies can lease possible oil reserves on Federal land regardless of whether they are producing oil on that land or have plans to produce oil there. In some cases, oil companies are leasing – but failing to develop – federal land in order to book more reserves on their balance sheet and inflate their stock price. This legislation would force companies to report how they plan to use millions of federal acres already under lease for energy exploration and innovation. (Um, okay. We’re not talking about land use or stock prices here. We’re talking about the price of oil TODAY. Hey, are you trying to change the subject?)

4)      Promoting renewable energy sources.  This month, I helped secure over $57 million dollars to support solar photovoltaic technologies at Albany University that will produce clean power from domestic renewable energy. Additionally, in 2008 I supported a two billion dollar investment in wind power for New York. We must build off these successes and continue to promote clean and renewable energy investments. (Wow. $57 million dollars. Here’s a fun fact… Did you know that ExxonMobil just released their first quarter earnings of more than $10billion in profit?! This section doesn’t fall under the category of gorilla dust. This is what we call ‘pissing in the ocean to warm it up’.)

5)      Promoting cleaner energy sources. Also this month, I helped to protect a $100 million loan guarantee to build the Taylor Biomass Energy facility in Orange County that uses a process called gasification to convert over 95% of the waste received at its facility into cleaner energy.  We must also promote and fund similar projects across the country. (“Gasification” I see. There’s only one thing spouting hot gas right now and it ain’t the Taylor Biomass Energy facility.) 

6)      Using new sources of oil in the US where we can and it is safe to do so. I was one of 6 Democrats to support expanding a portion of the east Gulf to oil exploration, so long as it’s safe, with the greatest environmental protections, and small businesses and workers are not put at a financial risk. (Ahhh. Drill baby drill. Where have I heard this before?)

In this still-recovering economy it is vital that we do everything we possibly can to help middle class families stretch their paychecks. Every additional dollar spent on filling the gas tank is a dollar that could go toward paying for college, a much-needed family vacation, or paying the grocery bill.  By focusing on long-term fixes to our dependence on foreign oil and immediate short-term relief at the pump, we can bring down the costs of gasoline now and finally end the stranglehold that oil producing countries have on the New York and Long Island economies.  

Sincerely,

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer

Well, there you have it. Hope my helpful cues along the way illustrated what an absolute load of “gasification” this response was. Pity. Like I said, I guess Chuck Schumer is responsible for the price of oil.

Iraq

The Iraq War has officially come to an end with the Iraqis celebrating their independence this past Tuesday. “Shock and Awe” has now faded to fizzle and yawn. Americans, satisfied with what can now be characterized as blanket retribution for 9/11, have moved on. In the end we fought two wars simultaneously and overthrew a regime—a ferocious display of might perhaps no other nation could manage without coming apart at the seams. 

It was one hell of a war, wasn’t it? Or was it?

There are parts of the world where fresh battle lines are continuously drawn over ancient disputes; the impermanence of Western culture allows us to forgive and forget and heal all wounds but not all of the wounded. But as the scene in Iraq fades to black, American media has lapsed back into reporting woes of the pocketbook, Gary Condit-like coverage of our politicians and news of tragic celebrity deaths. No shark attacks at the moment folks—we do have dolphins in the Long Island Sound.

As far as Iraq is concerned we’re left to simply ponder what the hell just happened. So let’s talk about it. What is ultimately in question will be the fate of the Bush Doctrine, the centerpiece of the Bush administration. Some may remember it simply as the question that flummoxed Sarah Palin during the now-infamous Katie Couric interview. It was a serious question that exposed a seriously unqualified candidate and one that will linger for decades.

Is the Bush Doctrine simply veiled imperialism at its worst or the righteous burden of a superpower? Is the world a better place without Saddam Hussein? Was it even our fight? Would it have made a difference if we uncovered weapons of mass destruction? Was Saddam with access to nuclear weaponry more of a danger than an unstable nuclear Pakistan or an unpredictable nuclear North Korea?

We now know that this was an unnecessary war as it relates to the proposed reasoning for entering into it. But was it necessarily unjust?

There have been some answers along the way and not all of them tragic. As Americans, we learned how to treat returning soldiers with the respect they deserve while maintaining our right to question their mission. We have learned that conventional warfare is over and that working with civilians is more important than leveling their society and dictating terms. We have also learned that those who run the departments that govern the military cannot necessarily run a war. That exercise is better left to the generals.

For better or for worse, the Bush Doctrine gave America something that it has been missing since the Cuban Missile Crisis—a little touch of crazy. This war proved that you can poke the bear one too many times. It showed that we will throw you out of your house, kill you in front of your friends, marry your wife and rename your kids. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it’s a lousy way to win friends and influence people. 

It will be years before the Iraq puzzle can be assembled objectively with the wisdom that only time can provide. Yet trying to determine whether a war was a “success” may be impossible. Can the lives of American soldiers or innocent foreign civilians really be quantified? Twenty nine soldiers from Long Island gave their lives to free Iraq and overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now consider that 397 Long Islanders have lost their lives to heroin in the same time period.

This correlation isn’t meant to minimize the wartime deaths but to challenge whether or not any war can truly be objectively quantified in terms of battles, casualties and borders. Today, heroin flows cheap and easy across the globe due to the overwhelming productivity of poppy fields in destabilized regions such as Afghanistan. Did our myopia in Iraq cause tributaries to pour dangerously in ways we have yet to contemplate? Will they empty into perilous seas that will someday be too difficult to navigate?

Countless questions. Seldom an absolute answer. And what do we ponder instead? What will become of MJ’s estate? Will Paul McCartney finally get the rights back to the Beatles? Will they freeze Michael next to Walt? Did Farrah get a proper send off? And who the hell is going to pitch OxiClean?

Asking questions is a good thing. Let’s just make them the right ones.