Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, June 30, 2008

America's Medicated Army

by Mark Thompson (June 05 2008)

Seven months after Sergeant Christopher LeJeune started scouting Baghdad's dangerous roads - acting as bait to lure insurgents into the open so his Army unit could kill them - he found himself growing increasingly despondent. "We'd been doing some heavy missions, and things were starting to bother me", LeJeune says. His unit had been protecting Iraqi police stations targeted by rocket-propelled grenades, hunting down mortars hidden in dark Baghdad basements and cleaning up its own messes. He recalls the order his unit got after a nighttime firefight to roll back out and collect the enemy dead. When LeJeune and his buddies arrived, they discovered that some of the bodies were still alive. "You don't always know who the bad guys are", he says. "When you search someone's house, you have it built up in your mind that these guys are terrorists, but when you go in, there's little bitty tiny shoes and toys on the floor - things like that started affecting me a lot more than I thought they would".

So LeJeune visited a military doctor in Iraq, who, after a quick session, diagnosed depression. The doctor sent him back to war armed with the antidepressant Zoloft and the antianxiety drug clonazepam. "It's not easy for soldiers to admit the problems that they're having over there for a variety of reasons", LeJeune says. "If they do admit it, then the only solution given is pills".

While the headline-grabbing weapons in this war have been high-tech wonders, like unmanned drones that drop Hellfire missiles on the enemy below, troops like LeJeune are going into battle with a different kind of weapon, one so stealthy that few Americans even know of its deployment. For the first time in history, a sizable and growing number of US combat troops are taking daily doses of antidepressants to calm nerves strained by repeated and lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The medicines are intended not only to help troops keep their cool but also to enable the already strapped Army to preserve its most precious resource: soldiers on the front lines. Data contained in the Army's fifth Mental Health Advisory Team report indicate that, according to an anonymous survey of US troops taken last fall, about twelve percent of combat troops in Iraq and seventeen percent of those in Afghanistan are taking prescription antidepressants or sleeping pills to help them cope. Escalating violence in Afghanistan and the more isolated mission have driven troops to rely more on medication there than in Iraq, military officials say.

At a Pentagon that keeps statistics on just about everything, there is no central clearinghouse for this kind of data, and the Army hasn't consistently asked about prescription-drug use, which makes it difficult to track. Given the traditional stigma associated with soldiers seeking mental help, the survey, released in March, probably underestimates antidepressant use. But if the Army numbers reflect those of other services - the Army has by far the most troops deployed to the war zones - about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq were on such medications last fall. The Army estimates that authorized drug use splits roughly fifty-fifty between troops taking antidepressants - largely the class of drugs that includes Prozac and Zoloft - and those taking prescription sleeping pills like Ambien.

In some ways, the prescriptions may seem unremarkable. Generals, history shows, have plied their troops with medicinal palliatives at least since George Washington ordered rum rations at Valley Forge. During World War II, the Nazis fueled their blitzkrieg into France and Poland with the help of an amphetamine known as Pervitin. The US Army also used amphetamines during the Vietnam War.

The military's rising use of antidepressants also reflects their prevalence in the civilian population. In 2004, the last year for which complete data for the US are available, doctors wrote 147 million prescriptions for antidepressants, according to IMS Health, a pharmaceutical-market-research firm. This number reflects in part the common practice of cycling through different medications to find the most effective drug. A 2006 federally funded study found that seventy percent of those taking antidepressants along with therapy experience some improvement in mood.

When it comes to fighting wars, though, troops have historically been barred from using such drugs in combat. And soldiers - who are younger and healthier on average than the general population - have been prescreened for mental illnesses before enlisting.

The increase in the use of medication among US troops suggests the heavy mental and psychological price being paid by soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon surveys show that while all soldiers deployed to a war zone will feel stressed, seventy percent will manage to bounce back to normalcy. But about twenty percent will suffer from what the military calls "temporary stress injuries", and ten percent will be afflicted with "stress illnesses". Such ailments, according to briefings commanders get before deploying, begin with mild anxiety and irritability, difficulty sleeping, and growing feelings of apathy and pessimism. As the condition worsens, the feelings last longer and can come to include panic, rage, uncontrolled shaking and temporary paralysis. The symptoms often continue back home, playing a key role in broken marriages, suicides and psychiatric breakdowns. The mental trauma has become so common that the Pentagon may expand the list of "qualifying wounds" for a Purple Heart - historically limited to those physically injured on the battlefield - to include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on May 2 that it's "clearly something" that needs to be considered, and the Pentagon is weighing the change.

Using drugs to cope with battlefield traumas is not discussed much outside the Army, but inside the service it has been the subject of debate for years. "No magic pill can erase the image of a best friend's shattered body or assuage the guilt from having traded duty with him that day", says Combat Stress Injury, a 2006 medical book edited by Charles Figley and William Nash that details how troops can be helped by such drugs. "Medication can, however, alleviate some debilitating and nearly intolerable symptoms of combat and operational stress injuries" and "help restore personnel to full functioning capacity".

Which means that any drug that keeps a soldier deployed and fighting also saves money on training and deploying replacements. But there is a downside: the number of soldiers requiring long-term mental-health services soars with repeated deployments and lengthy combat tours. If troops do not get sufficient time away from combat - both while in theater and during the "dwell time" at home before they go back to war - it's possible that antidepressants and sleeping aids will be used to stretch an already taut force even tighter. "This is what happens when you try to fight a long war with an army that wasn't designed for a long war", says Lawrence Korb, Pentagon personnel chief during the Reagan Administration.

Military families wonder about the change, according to Joyce Raezer of the private National Military Family Association. "Boy, it's really nice to have these drugs", she recalls a military doctor saying, "so we can keep people deployed". And professionals have their doubts. "Are we trying to bandage up what is essentially an insufficient fighting force?" asks Dr Frank Ochberg, a veteran psychiatrist and founding board member of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies.

Such questions have assumed greater urgency as more is revealed about the side effects of some mental-health medications. Last year the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urged the makers of antidepressants to expand a 2004 "black box" warning that the drugs may increase the risk of suicide in children and adolescents. The agency asked for - and got - an expanded warning that included young adults ages eighteen to 24, the age group at the heart of the Army. The question now is whether there is a link between the increased use of the drugs in the Iraqi and Afghan theaters and the rising suicide rate in those places. There have been 164 Army suicides in Afghanistan and Iraq from the wars' start through 2007, and the annual rate there is now double the service's 2001 rate.

At least 115 soldiers killed themselves last year, including 36 in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army said on May 29. That's the highest toll since it started keeping such records in 1980. Nearly forty percent of Army suicide victims in 2006 and 2007 took psychotropic drugs - overwhelmingly, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and Zoloft. While the Army cites failed relationships as the primary cause, some outside experts sense a link between suicides and prescription-drug use - though there is also no way of knowing how many suicide attempts the antidepressants may have prevented by improving a soldier's spirits. "The high percentage of US soldiers attempting suicide after taking SSRIs should raise serious concerns", says Dr Joseph Glenmullen, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "And there's no question they're using them to prop people up in difficult circumstances".

The Trauma of War

Before the advent of SSRIs - Lilly's Prozac was the first to be approved by the FDA, in 1987, followed by Zoloft from Pfizer, Paxil from GlaxoSmithKline, Celexa from Forest Pharmaceuticals and others - existing antidepressants had many disabling side effects. Impaired memory and judgment, dizziness, drowsiness and other complications made them ill suited for troops in combat. The newer drugs have fewer side effects and, unlike earlier drugs, are generally not addictive or toxic, even when taken in large quantities. They work by keeping neural connections bathed in a brain chemical known as serotonin. That amplifies serotonin's mood-brightening effect, at least for some people.

In 1994 then Major E Cameron Ritchie, an Army psychiatrist, was among the first to suggest that SSRIs should deploy with Army combat units. In a paper written and published after she returned from a combat deployment to Somalia, Ritchie noted that the sick-call chests used by military doctors "contain either outdated or no psychiatric medications". She concluded, "If depressive symptoms are moderate and manageable, medication may be preferable to medical evacuation".

By 1999, military docs were debating the matter among themselves. Nash, a Navy psychiatrist, wrote that Navy doctors - who also provide Marines with medical care - had "sharp differences of opinion" over letting troops in war zones use SSRIs. Skeptics argued that their "real safety" in combat had not been proved. Supporters countered that their use could "avoid depleting manpower resources and damaging individual careers through unnecessary removals from operational duty". Nash reviewed the medical literature and reported that SSRIs "can be safely administered to deploying and deployed personnel".

The trickle of new drugs became a flood after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Details of America's medicated wars come from the mental-health surveys the Army has conducted each year since the war began. If the surveys are right, many US soldiers experience a common but haunting mismatch in combat life: while nearly two-thirds of the soldiers surveyed in Iraq in 2006 knew someone who had been killed or wounded, fewer than fifteen percent knew for certain that they had actually killed a member of the enemy in return. That imbalance between seeing the price of war up close and yet not feeling able to do much about it, the survey suggests, contributes to feelings of "intense fear, helplessness or horror" that plant the seeds of mental distress. "A friend was liquefied in the driver's position on a tank, and I saw everything", was a typical comment. Another: "A huge f______ bomb blew my friend's head off like fifty meters from me". Such indelible scenes - and wondering when and where the next one will happen - are driving thousands of soldiers to take antidepressants, military psychiatrists say. It's not hard to imagine why.

Repeated deployments to the war zones also contribute to the onset of mental-health problems. Nearly thirty percent of troops on their third deployment suffer from serious mental-health problems, a top Army psychiatrist told Congress in March. The doctor, Colonel Charles Hoge, added that recent research has shown the current twelve months between combat tours "is insufficient time" for soldiers "to reset" and recover from the stress of a combat tour before heading back to war.

Colonel Joseph Horam says antidepressants have made "a striking difference" in the way troops are treated in war. A doctor in the Wyoming Army National Guard, Horam served in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War and has been deployed to Iraq twice during this war. "In the Persian Gulf War, we didn't have these medications, so our basic philosophy was 'three hots and a cot'" - giving stressed troops a little rest and relaxation to see if they improved. "If they didn't get better right away, they'd need to head to the rear and probably out of theater". But in his most recent stint in Baghdad in 2006, he treated a soldier who guarded Iraqi detainees. "He was distraught while he was having high-level interactions with detainees, having emotional confrontations with them - and carrying weapons", Horam says. "But he was part of a highly trained team, and we didn't want to lose him. So we put him on an SSRI, and within a week, he was a new person, and we got him back to full duty."

It wasn't until November 2006 that the Pentagon set a uniform policy for all the services. But the curious thing about it was that it didn't mention the new antidepressants. Instead, it simply barred troops from taking older drugs, including "lithium, anticonvulsants and antipsychotics". The goal, a participant in crafting the policy said, was to give SSRIs a "green light" without saying so. Last July, a paper published by three military psychiatrists in Military Medicine, the independent journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, urged military doctors headed for Afghanistan and Iraq to "request a considerable quantity of the SSRI they are most comfortable prescribing" for the "treatment of new-onset depressive disorders" once in the war zones. The medications, the doctors concluded, help "to 'conserve the fighting strength'", the motto of the Army Medical Corps.

These days Ritchie - now a colonel and a psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general - thinks the military's use of SSRIs has helped destigmatize mental problems. "What we're trying to do is make treating depression and PTSD - especially PTSD, which is quite common for soldiers now - fairly routine", she says. "We don't want to make it harder for folks to do their job and their mission by saying they can't use these medications". Ritchie, who communicates "six times a day" with her colleagues in the war zones, says she is unaware of "any bad outcomes" resulting from soldiers taking SSRIs.

William Winkenwerder Jr, who issued the 2006 policy as the Pentagon's top doctor before stepping down last year, says the new medicines are working well. "Combat presents some unique and important caveats - obviously, those who are being treated have access to firearms, and they may be under significant stress, so they need to be very carefully evaluated, and good clinical decisions need to be made", Winkenwerder tells TIME. "It's my belief that is happening".

"In a Total Daze"

And yet the battlefield seems an imperfect environment for widespread prescription of these medicines. LeJeune, who spent fifteen months in Iraq before returning home in May 2004, says many more troops need help - pharmaceutical or otherwise - but don't get it because of fears that it will hurt their chance for promotion. "They don't want to destroy their career or make everybody go in a convoy to pick up your prescription", says LeJeune, now 34 and living in Utah. "In the civilian world, when you have a problem, you go to the doctor, and you have therapy followed up by some medication. In Iraq, you see the doctor only once or twice, but you continue to get drugs constantly." LeJeune says the medications - combined with the war's other stressors - created unfit soldiers. "There were more than a few convoys going out in a total daze".

About a third of soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq say they can't see a mental-health professional when they need to. When the number of troops in Iraq surged by 30,000 last year, the number of Army mental-health workers remained the same - about 200 - making counseling and care even tougher to get.

"Burnout and compassion fatigue" are rising among such personnel, and there have been "recent psychiatric evacuations" of Army mental-health workers from Iraq, the 2007 survey says. Soldiers are often stationed at outposts so isolated that follow-up visits with counselors are difficult. "In a perfect world", admits Nash, who has just retired from the Navy, "you would not want to rely on medications as your first-line treatment, but in deployed settings, that is often all you have".

And just as more troops are taking these drugs, there are new doubts about the drugs' effectiveness. A pair of recent reports from Rand and the federal Institute of Medicine (iom) raise doubts about just how much the new medicines can do to alleviate PTSD. The Rand study, released in April, says the "overall effects for SSRIs, even in the largest clinical trials, are modest". Last October the iom concluded, "The evidence is inadequate to determine the efficacy of SSRIs in the treatment of PTSD".

Chris LeJeune could have told them that. When he returned home in May 2004, he remained on clonazepam and other drugs. He became one of 300,000 Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffer from PTSD or depression. "But PTSD isn't fixed by taking pills - it's just numbed", he claims now. "And I felt like I was drugged all the time". So a year ago, he simply stopped taking them. "I just started trying to fight my demons myself", he says, with help from VA counseling. He laughs when asked how he's doing. "I'd like to think", he says, "that I'm really damn close back to normal".

Copyright (c) 2008 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.,8599,1811858,00.html

Bill Totten

Mind-Forged Manacles

Crime is down, convictions are down, but the prisons are bursting. Why?

by George Monbiot

Published in the Guardian (June 24 2008)

Which of these countries has the most prisoners per head of population? Sudan, Syria, China, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe or England and Wales? We win, or rather lose: I have ranked these countries in reverse order {1}. On this measure, England and Wales have a more punitive judicial system than most of the world's dictatorships.

On Friday, the government released new figures for the prison population {2}. It broke all records, yet again. It has risen by 38% since Labour came to power {3}, and now stands at 83,181. What does the government intend to do about it? Lock more people up. It is building enough new cells to jail 96,000 people by 2014 {4}. At the beginning of this month it laid out its plans for Titan prisons: vast broiler units, which will each house 2,500 people {5}. But they'll be only just big enough: the government expects the number of cons to rise to 95,600 in six years {6}.

As ever, Britain appears to be chasing the United States. In both absolute and relative terms, the USA's prison population is the highest on earth: one percent of its adult population is behind bars{7}. This is five times our preposterous rate and six times Turkey's {8}. It is over twice the rate of the nearest contender, South Africa {9}. If you count the people under community supervision or on probation, the total rises to over 7 million, or 3.1% of the adult population {10}. Black men who failed to complete high school in the US have a sixty per cent chance of ending up in jail {11}. I feel I need to say that again: sixty per cent of unqualified black men go to prison. It's beginning to look as if the state has stopped imprisoning individuals and started locking up a social class. Is this what we aspire to?

To judge by the remonstrations of the tabloids, the answer is yes. But why? And why, in the United Kingdom, is imprisonment still rising? It's not because of rising crime. Last year crimes recorded by the police fell by two per cent, while the most serious violent offences fell by nine per cent {12}. Nor does it reflect the conviction rate. That fell by four per cent in 2006 (we don't yet have last year's figures) {13}. Stranger still, it is not connected to the rate of imprisonment either, which fell by nine per cent between 2004 and 2006 {14}.

The prison population is rising for one reason: people are being put away for longer {15}. Between 1997 and 2004, the average sentence rose from 15.7 months to 16.1 {16}. That tells only half the story: the actual time served rose as well, as a result of new laws the government introduced in 1998 and 2003 {17}. In 2004 the courts started handing down indeterminate sentences - prison terms without fixed limits. These will be partly responsible for the projected growth in imprisonment over the next six years {18}.

This exposes a remarkable contradiction in government policy. At the beginning of last year, the criminal justice ministers sent a begging letter to the courts asking them not to bang so many people up, as the prisons were bursting {19}. But they are bursting because of the mandatory life terms, indeterminate sentences and other stern measures it has forced the judges to pass. In 2002, England and Wales had more lifers (5268) than the whole of the rest of the EU put together (5046) {20}. I can't find a more recent comparison, and since the accession of the former communist states this is bound to have changed. But it gives you a rough idea of how weird this country is.

So why, when the number of crimes, especially serious violent crimes, is falling, are both the government and the courts imposing longer sentences? Why does the UK consistently rank in the top two places for imprisonment in western Europe? Why, as this country becomes more peacable, does it become more punitive? I don't know. Nor, it seems, does anyone else. But one thing I've noticed is that many of the states with the highest number of convicts are also those with the greatest differential between rich and poor. Within the OECD nations, the US has the second highest rate of inequality. Mexico, which is the most unequal, has the third-highest rate of imprisonment. In the EU, four of the five most unequal nations also rank among the top five jailers{21}. The correlation, though by no means exact, seems to apply across many of the rich countries.

This doesn't demonstrate a causal relationship. But there are three likely connections. The first is that inequality causes crime. This is what Anatole France referred to, when he claimed to admire "the majestic egalitarianism of the law, which forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread" {22}. But, while this has proved true at most times and in most places, crime is falling in England and Wales while inequality is rising. The second possible link is that prison causes inequality. The sociologist Bruce Western has shown that jail in the United States is a huge and hidden cause of deprivation {23}. When people are locked up, they can't acquire the skills and social contacts they need to get on outside. Employers are reluctant to take them on when they've been released, and they tend to be hired by the day or to get stuck in the casual economy, which is one of the reasons why so many return to crime. Among whites and Hispanics, wages for ex-cons are severely depressed. Among black people the effect is less marked: the "stigma of imprisonment", Western suggests, appears to have stuck to the entire black underclass {24}.

His ground-breaking research shows that US labour figures, which appeared to prove that the rising tide of the 1990s lifted all boats, were hopelessly skewed. The government's claim that the boom had enhanced everyone's job prospects - even those at the bottom of the heap - turns out to be an artefact of rising imprisonment: convicts aren't counted in household surveys. Western found that while general unemployment fell sharply in the 1990s, when prisoners were included, the rate among unqualified young black men rose to its highest level ever: a gobsmacking 65% {25}.

The third possible reason for a link between the two factors is that inequality causes imprisonment. I can't prove this, and it is hard to see how anyone could do so. But my untested hypothesis runs as follows: the greater the wealth the top echelons accrue, the more ferociously they demand protection from the rest of society. They have more to lose from crime and less to lose from punishment, which is less likely to strike the richer you become. The people who help to generate the public demand for long prison terms (newspaper proprietors and editors) and the people who mete it out (judges and magistrates) are drawn overwhelmingly from the property-owning classes. "Those who have built large fortunes", Max Hastings, who was once the editor of the Daily Telegraph, wrote of his former employer Conrad Black, "seldom lose their nervousness that some ill-wisher will find means to take their money away from them" {26}. Money breeds paranoia, and paranoia keeps people in prison.


1. King's College, London, 2008. World Prison Brief.

2. BBC Online, 20th June 2008. Prison population at record high.

3. National Statistics Office, viewed 23rd June 2008. Prison population: England and Wales.

4. Ministry of Justice, 1st February 2008. Minister opens first prison in government building programme. Press release.

5. Ministry of Justice, 5th June 2008. Titan prisons. Consultation Paper CP10/08.

6. Ministry of Justice, August 2007. Prison Population Projections 2007-2014. England and Wales.

7. Sky News, 29th February 2008. US Prison Population Reaches World High.,,30200-1307500,00.html

8. The US rate per 100,000 people is 751. UK: 152, Turkey: 127. King's College, ibid.

9. 347 per 100,000.

10. Bruce Western, 22nd June 2007. Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality - III. Who we Punish: the Carceral State.

11. ibid.

12. Home Office, July 2007. Crime in England and Wales 2006/07. Statistical Bulletin.

13. Ministry of Justice, November 2007. Criminal Statistics 2006: England and Wales.

14. ibid, Table 1.2.

15. Ministry of Justice, August 2007, ibid.

16. ibid.

17. The Ministry of Justice, August 2007, ibid, lists these factors as follows:
* greater numbers of offenders recalled to prison for breaking the conditions of
their licence, reflecting legislative changes in 1998 and 2003;
* increased use of indeterminate sentences following the introduction of
Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) in April 2005;
* the introduction of Suspended Sentence Orders in April 2005 for which
offenders in breach can be taken into custody; and
* inflation in the time certain types of offender remain in prison (particularly in
recent years) as the use of Home Detention Curfew for the early release of
offenders has diminished and the parole rate has fallen.

18. The Ministry of Justice, August 2007, ibid, states that "Much of the underlying growth in the High, Medium and Low scenarios can therefore be attributed to the use of IPP (Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection) sentences.

19. Ministry of Justice, 23rd January 2007. Statement from the Criminal Justice Ministers to the National Criminal Justice Board: Managing the Impact of Rapid Growth in the Prison Population.

20. Prison Reform Trust, March 2004. England and Wales, Europe's lifer capital.

21. I took the inequality stats (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) from the CIA's World Factbook:

22. Anatole France, 1894. The Red Lily.

23. Bruce Western, August 2002. The Impact of Incarceration on Wage Mobility and Inequality. American Sociological Review. Vol 67, No 4, pages 526-546.

24. ibid.

25. Bruce Western, 22nd June 2007. Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality - III. Who we Punish: the Carceral State.

26. Max Hastings, 2002. Editor: An Inside Story of Newspapers. Macmillan, London.

Bill Totten

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Younge on Racism

by Hassan Mahamdallie

Socialist Review (June 2006)

Radical journalist Gary Younge talks to Hassan Mahamdallie about his latest book Stranger In A Strange Land: Encounters In The Disunited States (The New Press, 2006)

HM: Your book Stranger In A Strange Land is divided into four sections - war, race, politics and culture. What are the overarching themes for you?

GY: One of the themes is division. I don't think people in Britain fully understand how divided the US is. The era of former US president Bill Clinton ended with one of the closest elections that we can remember - one that George Bush had to steal in the end. So Bush, and the way that he came to power, was an expression of division. Then for a brief moment, around 9/11, the country was united - partly in pain and grief, and partly in a form of superpower bellicosity.

Another division is race. That really came out after Hurricane Katrina. African-Americans and white people saw the same things on their TVs but understood completely different things. Another theme is that the US is not as exceptional and brilliant as some people in the US would have you believe - that "we're a great country, a generous people, a beautiful people, we're God's own country". But also, it's not exceptionally bad either. We shouldn't look at the US as being some kind of freakshow. When we do that, we cordon off all possibilities of solidarity with people in the US - there are large numbers of Americans who align themselves with us. There isn't a big left, but there is a large kind of liberal community which is really upset with what's going on.

Unlike us, the US had a revolution. The US has a constitution based on basic principles, and there are large numbers of people who believe that it is their mission to spread freedom - whatever they mean by that. That many regard themselves as a liberating force is a mixture of amnesia and historical ignorance about what the US has done.

While they sing "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave", we sing "God Save the Queen". In Britain we don't feel the same sense of ownership of our country as Americans do of theirs. For example, my wife is African-American. She was raised by parents who grew up in the civil rights era - they protested, and are dyed in the wool Democrats. Nevertheless, she grew up thinking that the US was the best place in the world, and that "America" and "democracy" were synonymous. I don't know about you, but I grew up black in Britain and I never thought Britain was the best place in the world.

In the US people go on anti-war demonstrations carrying the US flag, with signs saying "Peace is Patriotic, Peace is the American Way". Recently, I met Nichole, a 24 year old African-American woman who left her baby behind with friends to join the army.

She came back and found herself homeless. When I met her she was in a ramshackle place in Harlem - a real mess. She was really struggling and didn't have a job, but nevertheless she believed that if she worked really hard she could make it. And for me, that was the power of that idea - people want to believe it.

In your book you talked to the writer Maya Angelou. She said that things have changed for African-Americans, maybe not as much as you would want, but there have been changes which should be celebrated. What do you think of the changes she has referred to?

There is one way at looking at progress. It involves saying that black people now have the right to be as every bit vicious as white people, and in that sense progress has been made. Condoleezza Rice is killing brown people - that's not the equality I was after. Maya cites Condoleezza Rice as being an example of those advances. Of course, on one level it's important that black people have the right to fuck up and to be bad, but we have to separate progress of symbols and progress of substance.

At a symbolic level, Condoleezza Rice does represent some kind of progress, but if that's where we are going with this thing I'm getting off the train now. Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election, and that was great for Margaret Thatcher, but I'm not sure it did much for women. It didn't do much for the women in the pit communities, and, the fact that Rice is secretary of state didn't do much for the people of the Lower 9th ward in New Orleans.

I'm going to try to explain through my own life why I'm glad that I grew up in Britain. I grew up in a single parent family with two brothers. If we had been born in the US, one of my brothers would be dead, in prison, or on drugs. At eighteen years old I got my grades and I went to university, and it didn't cost my family any money - of course that's changed now, as we're going backwards - but that was my life. Then you reach a point in Britain when you can't go any further, because Britain doesn't know what to do with educated people who aren't white. That's to do with institutional racism. My experience of getting a job at the Guardian is all too rare. In the US there is a huge black middle class - better organised than the black working class - which has a place in the system.

In an article about Martin Luther King you point out that integration isn't the same as equality. But all the talk in Britain from government and policy-makers is "integrate, integrate, integrate" - with equality far behind. In the US the process of integration has been going on much longer. What lessons can we learn from there?

First, that integration in the US was always a chimera. The Southern states were always very integrated. African-American women breastfed white kids, white slave-owners slept with their slaves, and for the most part they lived in the same house, as most slave-owners didn't have much money. So it was never about whether black people could hang out with white people. It was on the basis of subservience, of white supremacy.

So with integration in the 1960s and 1970s, which was a step forward, you had the right to go into any burger shop in town, but you didn't have the money to buy that burger. So before integration you had "Whites Only" signs on the doors which kept you out, and after integration it's the menu that keeps you out, because you can't afford it. African-Americans were never fighting for the right to sit next to a white person in a restaurant - they wanted to be able to afford the menu. It is economics.

Britain is a highly integrated country in all sorts of ways. But integration has to be for a purpose. Unless we're moving towards equality, then it's all really pretty meaningless. When we have equality, integration will take care of itself.

Socialists and anti-racists have always looked for guidance to the US experience - the civil rights movement, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers. But reading what you have to say about black struggle in the US, I wonder whether or not that is the right thing to do any more.

I don't believe it is. During the 1960s the needs of African-Americans chimed with black people in the rest of the world - the fight for the vote, for a level of autonomy, for basic civil rights. Muhammad Ali could go to the Congo, James Brown could tour Africa, Maya Angelou could live in Ghana. But then the interests diverged, and the issues have changed.

Martin Luther King's dream was rooted in the American dream. But after African-Americans got the vote, you have to talk about economics, and that's a different subject. During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the most prominent African-American voice wasn't Jesse Jackson, it was rapper Kanye West, who said, "Bush doesn't care about black people. America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well off, as slow as possible."

The other thing is that being African-American is different to being black. African-Americans are people who come from particular experiences - slavery, segregation and integration. People from Africa or the Caribbean aren't necessarily part of that tradition. The racial landscape in Britain is far more ethnically mixed, and at certain moments it involves anyone who isn't white.

Regardless of whether that is actually a good or bad thing, I am grateful for it, because it means that our experience is not so ethnically particular. And, because we are attached to other people, it also means that our politics tend to be more internationalist.

For example, what happens at the World Trade Organisation affects my family, because it affects sugar and banana production in Barbados. Equally, what happens in south Asia affects young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. But African-Americans have been in America longer than anyone, except the Native Americans and a few pilgrims, so the attachment to the US is real and shouldn't be dismissed.

Do you think we've missed out in mapping the history of our black struggle in Britain?

Absolutely. It always troubles me when Black History Month comes around. We talk about Martin Luther King, but we don't talk about C L R James or even Mary Seacole. There is a tradition of black British organising that we should not only take pride in, but which is particular about our situation. We never had codified segregation, and as a result we never had a civil rights movement.

Our experience is very different to those in the US in all sorts of ways. For example, one in three African-Caribbean men is in a relationship with a white partner. We don't have areas that are specifically black, like the Lower 9th ward in New Orleans, which is 98 percent African-American. That gives us opportunities in creating alliances, but it also gives us problems if we try to organise on the basis of race.

You wrote an article a few days after the 7/7 attacks on London called "Blair's Blowback", where you argued there was a link between British foreign policy and what those young men did in London. What do you think of Blair's refusal to admit the link and his focus on the Muslim population?

It's weird to think you can declare war on terror and that terror won't bite back. I was abroad when 7/7 happened, and I was reading writers in all of the papers saying that this was nothing to do with the war on terror, that 9/11 happened before the war in Iraq, and so on. I wondered how they could sustain that argument. The answer was that they could only sustain it if they kept on repeating it.

So I wrote "Blair's Blowback", and of course I attracted a lot of flak. But there was an opinion poll a few days later which showed that most British people believed there was a link between the two things - and later, investigations showed there actually was a link. I described how British people felt, and how Iraqi people must be feeling when their country is being attacked.

What was interesting about 7/7, looking at it from the US, was how different people's responses were to those following 9/11. There was no big display of Union Jacks, and it didn't provoke a wave of nationalism. It did provoke some increase in Islamophobia - but it could have been a lot worse. This is where the anti-war movement came in. It had helped to create a level of political maturity. We should always remember that although we didn't stop the war, the world would look very different if we weren't here.

After the police killed Jean Charles de Menenez, the Brazilian electrician, I wrote about people whose response was, "Better safe than sorry". I asked, "Who's safe and who's sorry?" Someone from the US wrote to me and said, "God, I thought our country was bad - but if that had happened in the US, first there'd be a riot, then some people would have been suspended, then there would have been a report, then there would have been a whitewash. You guys just went straight to the whitewash. What is wrong with you people?"

Some people in Britain have a problem with Muslims organising themselves by taking part in the anti-war movement and in political formations such as Respect. Can we learn anything from the US civil rights movements about the relationship between religion and the politics of change?

The civil rights movement is a very good example. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan all came out of religion. It was the only base that black people could organise from. In the US you can see that religion can be used in a reactionary way. But it can also be used in an incredibly progressive way. If people are attacked on the basis of their religion, then they will partly organise their response on a basis of that religion.

Religion doesn't scare me. I'm not going to change my views on lesbian and gay rights to satisfy an imam, and I wouldn't have changed them to satisfy Martin Luther King either. But you choose to make connections on the basis of where people are, otherwise you are choosing not to connect with them at all.

With Muslims in Britain we have a group of people being attacked on the basis of their religion, and I'm going to make connections with them. I don't remember people saying about the Republican struggle in the north of Ireland, "Ooh, Catholics!" The Republican struggle was broadly a progressive struggle for national autonomy and was rightly supported. Any movement worth its salt should be making alliances. We made alliances in Nicaragua - we didn't turn them down because of the position of the Catholic church on abortion.

It worries me that some people have been incapable of understanding the response of the Muslim community in Britain. They can only critique what Muslims are doing through religion - not through race, not through class, not through internationalism, only through religion. What they are really looking at is a reflection of their own prejudices, which is a terrible way to go.

Gary Younge's new book, Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters In The Disunited States, is published by The New Press and is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848.

Bill Totten

The Game is Over

There Won't be a Rebound

An Interview with Michael Hudson on the Economy

by Mike Whitney (June 21/22 2008)

Mike Whitney: Fed chairman Bernanke has been on a spree lately, delivering three speeches in the last two weeks. Every chance he gets, he talks tough about the strong dollar and "holding the line" against inflation. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson even said that "intervention" in the currency markets was still an option. Is all of this jawboning just saber rattling to keep the dollar from plummeting, or is there a chance that Bernanke actually will raise rates at the Fed's August meeting?

Michael Hudson: The United States always has steered its monetary policy almost exclusively with domestic objectives in mind. This means ignoring the balance of payments. Like the domestic US economy itself, the global financial system also is all about getting a free lunch. When Europe and Asia receive excess dollars, these are turned over to their central banks, which have little alternative but to recycle these back to the United States by buying US Treasury bonds. Foreign governments - and their taxpayers - are thus financing the domestic US federal budget deficit, which itself stems largely from the war in Iraq that most foreign voters oppose.

Supporting the dollar's exchange rate by the traditional method of raising interest rates would have a very negative effect on the stock and bond markets - and on the mortgage market. This would lead foreign investors to sell US securities, and likely would end up hurting more than helping the US balance of payments and hence the dollar's exchange rate.

So Bernanke is merely being polite in not rubbing the faces of European and Asian governments in the fact that unless they are willing to make a structural break and change the world monetary system radically, they will remain powerless to avoid giving the United States a free ride - including a free ride for its military spending and war in the Near East.

Mike Whitney: How do you explain the soaring price of oil? Is it mainly a supply/demand issue or are speculators driving the prices up?

Michael Hudson: It's true that enormous amounts of speculative credit are going into commodity index funds. But bear in mind that as the dollar depreciates, OPEC countries have been holding back supply largely to stabilize their receipts in euros and to offset their losses on the dollar securities they have bought with their past export proceeds. For over thirty years they have been pressured to recycle their oil earnings into the US stock market and loans to US financial institutions. They have taken large losses on these investments (such as last year's money to bail out Citibank), and are trying to recoup them via the oil market. OPEC officials also have pointed to a political motive: They resent America's military intrusion in the Middle East, especially in view of how much it contributes to the nation's balance-of-payments deficit and federal budget deficit.

The US press prefers to blame Chinese, Indian and other foreign growth in demand for oil and raw materials. This demand has contributed to the price rise, no doubt about it. But the US oil majors are receiving a windfall "economic rent" on the price run-up, and are not at all unhappy to see it continue. By not building more refining and shipping capacity, they have created bottlenecks so that even if foreign countries did supply more crude oil, it would not be reflected in refined gasoline, kerosene or other downstream product prices.

Mike Whitney: The Fed has traded over $200 billion in US Treasuries with the big investment banks for a wide variety of dodgy collateral (mostly mortgage-backed securities). How can the banks possibly hope to repay the Fed when their main sources of revenue (structured investments) have been cut off? Are the banks secretly using the money they borrow via repos from the Fed to dabble in the carry trade or speculate in the futures markets?

Michael Hudson: The Fed's idea was merely to buy enough time for the banks to sell their junk mortgages to the proverbial "greater fool". But foreign investors no longer are playing this role, nor are domestic US pension funds. So the most likely result will be for the Fed simply to roll over its loans - as if the problem can be cured by yet more time.

But when a bubble bursts, time makes things worse. The financial sector has been living in the short run for quite a while now, and I suspect that a lot of money managers are planning to get out or be fired now that the game is over. And it really is over. The Treasury's attempt to reflate the real estate market has not worked, and it can't work. Mortgage arrears, defaults and foreclosures are rising, and much property has become unsaleable except at distress prices that leave homeowners with negative equity. This state of affairs prompts them to do just what Donald Trump would do in such a situation: to walk away from their property.

The banks are trying to win back their losses by arbitrage operations, borrowing from the Fed at a low interest rate and lending at a higher one, and gambling on options. But options and derivatives are a zero-sum game: one party's gain is another's loss. So the banks collectively are simply painting themselves into a deeper corner. They hope they can tell the Fed and Treasury to keep bailing them out or else they'll fail and cost the FDIC even more money to make good on insuring the "bad savings" that have been steered into these bad debts and bad gambles.

The Fed and Treasury certainly seem more willing to bail out the big financial institutions than to bail out savers, pensioners, social Security recipients and other small fry. They thus follow the traditional "Big fish eat little fish" principle of favoring the vested interests.

Mike Whitney: According to most estimates, the Fed has already gone through half or more of its $900 billion balance sheet. Also, according to the latest H.4.1 data "the current holdings of Treasury bills is $25 billion. This is down from some $250 billion a year ago, or a net reduction of ninety per cent." (figures from Market Ticker) Doesn't this suggest that the Fed is just about out of firepower when it comes to bailing out the struggling banking system? Where do we go from here? Will some of the larger banks be allowed to fail or will they be nationalized?

Michael Hudson: You need to look at what the Treasury as well as the Fed is doing. The Fed can monetize whatever it wants. And as you just pointed out in the preceding question, it has been buying junk securities in order to leave sound Treasury securities on the banking system's balance sheets. Government bailout credit will keep the big banks alive. But many small regional banks will go under and be merged into larger money-center banks - just as many brokerage firms in recent decades have been merged into larger conglomerates.

False reporting also will help financial institutions avoid the appearance of insolvency. They will seek more and more government guarantees, ostensibly to help middle-class depositors but actually favoring the big speculators who are their major clients.

What we are seeing is the creation of a highly concentrated financial oligarchy - precisely the power that the Glass-Steagall Act was designed to prevent. A combination of deregulation and "moral hazard" bailouts - for the top of the economic pyramid, not the bottom - will polarize the economy all the more.

Cities and states will preserve their credit ratings by annulling their pension obligations to public-sector workers, and raising excise taxes - but not property taxes. These already have fallen from about two-thirds of local budgets in 1930 to only about one-sixth today - that is, a decline of 75 percent, proportionally. While the debt burden and the squeeze in disposable personal income is pressuring workers, finance and property are using the crisis to get a bonanza of tax relief. Democrats in Congress are as far to the right as George Bush on this, as their base is local politics and real estate.

Mike Whitney: According to the Financial Times: "Analysts at Citigroup said a planned tightening of the rules regarding off-balance sheet vehicles would force banks to reconsider arrangements and could result in up to $5,000 billion of assets coming back on to the books. The off-balance sheet vehicles have been used by financial institutions to keep some assets off their balance sheets, thereby avoiding the need to hold regulatory capital against them." Is there any way the banks can find investors with "deep enough pockets" to provide the capital they need to meet the requirements on $5 trillion dollars? Are most of these off-balance sheets assets mortgage backed securities and other hard-to-value bonds?

Michael Hudson: The practice of off-balance-sheet accounting already has become quickly obsolete this year. The United States is going to adopt Europe's normal "covered bond" practice of bank head-office liability for mortgages and other loans. (The Wall Street Journal had a good article on this on June 17, anticipating that the US covered bond market might rise quickly to $1 trillion as early as next year.)

This coverage is what has given European banks protection. In view of the heavy losses of German banks in Saxony and Düsseldorf in the US subprime market last summer, it's unlikely that investors will buy mortgages that no major bank or government agency stands behind.

Regarding more investor bailouts, I don't see that it makes sense to lend money to a bank today without getting preferential treatment over existing holders, plus secure collateral. Government guarantees might help, especially for foreign investors. But then, the dollar's plunge is a problem here.

Mike Whitney: Many of the TV financial gurus - as well as Henry Paulson - keep assuring us that the worst is behind us, but I don't see it. Foreclosures are increasing, the dollar is falling, unemployment is rising, manufacturing is sluggish, food and fuel are soaring, and consumers are backed up on their credit cards, student loans and house payments. Where would you say we are in the present cycle? What will it take to rebound from the current slump? Will the stock market take a beating before all this is over? What do you think the greatest problem facing the economy is; inflation or deflation?

Michael Hudson: The idea that we're even in a business "cycle" is whistling in the dark. If we're in a cycle, then that implies there's an automatic recovery in store. This happy free-market idea was developed at the National Bureau of Economic Research by opponents of government regulatory policy. But the economy doesn't move by a sine curve. There is a slow buildup, and a sudden plunge, so the shape is ratchet-shaped. This is why 19th-century writers didn't speak of economic cycles, but rather of periodic financial crises.

Today's plunging real estate and stock market prices are not a self-correcting ebb and flow in which downturns set in motion automatic stabilizers that produce recovery. Each US recovery since World War II has started out from a higher level of debt. The result is like driving a car with the brakes pressed more and more tightly. Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve flooded the banking system with enough credit to enable debts to be carried by borrowing against the rising price of homes and office buildings, corporate stocks and bonds. In effect, the interest charge was simply added onto the debt balance.

But today, the prospects are dim for paying off debts out of further price gains for homes and real estate. Speculators have pulled out of the market - and as late as 2006 they accounted for about a sixth of new purchases. Asset-price inflation fueled by the Federal Reserve - is giving way to debt deflation. The United States and other countries have reached a limit in which scheduled interest and amortization absorb the entire economic surplus of so many individuals, companies and government bodies that new construction, investment and employment are grinding to a halt. Families, real estate investors and companies are obliged to use their entire disposable income to pay their creditors or face bankruptcy. This leaves them without enough money to sustain the living standards of recent years.

This means that there won't be a rebound, and it will take longer than 2009 to recover.

Mike Whitney: I read about eight or nine articles every day about the meltdown in housing. I always tell my wife that its like reading a Tom Clancy novel except the ending is less certain. As Yale economist Robert Schiller pointed out last month; the decline in prices is now greater than it was during the Great Depression. Will prices find a bottom in 2009 or will it take longer? If prices keep falling then how are the banks going to sell the hundreds of billions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities that they are presently holding?

Michael Hudson: Prices will keep going down, because they have been fed by plunging interest rates, zero-amortization mortgages and low or zero (or even negative) down payments in recent years. That world has ended.

It means that the banks can't sell their mortgage-backed securities - except to the government, at a loss except to insiders. The actual losses are much worse than the present price statistics show, because many people are frozen in with negative equity. So instead of price declines, we'll simply see many more foreclosures.

Mike Whitney: How serious is the current crisis in the financial markets and housing and what steps do you think Obama or McCain should take to stabilize the markets, reduce the deficits, strengthen the dollar, increase employment, and put the economy on solid footing? Is it possible to have a strong economy without policies that distribute the nation's wealth more equitably? As chief economic advisor to Representative Dennis Kucinich, what one bit of advice would you give to Obama to restore America's economic vitality and put the country on the right path again?

Michael Hudson: In academic economic terms, America has never been in as "optimum" a position as it is today. That's the bad news. An optimum position is, mathematically speaking, one in which you can't move without making your situation worse. That's the position we're now in. There's nowhere to move - at least within the existing structure. "The market" can't be stabilized, because it was artificial to begin with, based on fictitious prices. It's hard to impose fiction on reality for very long, and the rest of the world has woken up.

In times past, bankruptcy would have wiped out the bad debts. The problem with debt write-offs is that bad savings go by the boards too. But today, the very wealthy hold most of the savings, so the government doesn't want to have them take a loss. It would rather wipe out pensioners, consumers, workers, industrial companies and foreign investors. So debts will be kept on the books and the economy will slowly be strangled by debt deflation.

The US can't reduce the balance-of-payments deficit without scaling back its foreign military spending. Congress is refusing to let foreign governments invest in much besides overpriced junk here, so central banks are treating the dollar like a hot potato, trying to buy foreign assets that can play a role in their own future economic development.

I think that at some point Obama will have to tell the public the bad news that restoring vitality will take radical measures - probably ones that Congress will try to water down so much that things are going to get worse - much worse - before the needed reforms will be made. He can say this before taking office, blaming the Republicans for their regressive tax policies and at the same time bringing pressure on the new Democratic Congress to back a return to progressive taxation and serious financial restructuring. As president, he will have to do what FDR did, and challenge the financial oligarchy with new government regulatory agencies staffed with real regulators, not deregulators as under the Bush-Clinton-Bush regime.

He should make large depositors and "savers" take the losses on their bad bets. And he should repeal the Clinton repeal of Glass Steagall.

Most of all, he will have to make the tax system back progressive again if the domestic market is Social Security and medical care should be paid out of the general budget, not as user fees. And until this change is done, FICA withholding should be levied on total income, without an upper cutoff point. There should be a LOWER cut-off point, however: Only people who earn over $60,000 a year should contribute. This would end up being fairly revenue-neutral. President Obama should say that his policy is not to "soak the rich". It is to make them pay their way once again by favoring a strong middle class.

Unless he does this, what used to be a democracy will be turned into an oligarchy. And oligarchies historically are so short-sighted that they stifle the domestic economy, driving enterprise and emigration abroad. This threatens to reverse America's long-term affluence, which means literally a flowing-in - an inflow of capital, of skilled immigrants and other labor, of technology, and of foreign support. All this has now been put in danger by the policies pursued at least since 1980.


Michael Hudson is a former Wall Street economist specializing in the balance of payments and real estate at the Chase Manhattan Bank (now JPMorgan Chase & Company), Arthur Anderson, and later at the Hudson Institute (no relation). In 1990 he helped established the world's first sovereign debt fund for Scudder Stevens & Clark. Dr Hudson was Dennis Kucinich's Chief Economic Advisor in the recent Democratic primary presidential campaign, and has advised the US, Canadian, Mexican and Latvian governments, as well as the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). A Distinguished Research Professor at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC), he is the author of many books, including Super Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (new edition, Pluto Press, 2002) He can be reached via his website,

Bill Totten

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Silent Running Fallacy

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (June 25 2008)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

One of the privileges a wry providence has granted to the arts is that even their missteps have more to teach than the best productions of more sensible men. I was reminded of that a few days ago when a discussion among Druid friends turned to the 1972 SF movie classic Silent Running.

I have no idea how many of my readers remember that film, so I'll summarize it here. Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a geeky ecologist on Valley Forge, one of a fleet of orbiting space freighters with domes containing the last wild plants and animals from a future Earth where only human beings and their technologies remain. His fellow crew members simply want to get through their one-year tours and get back to a world where there is no more poverty or disease and it is always seventy degrees Fahrenheit everywhere, but the forest is Lowell's obsession and his life.

Then the order comes to jettison the domes, destroy them with nuclear charges, and return the freighters to commercial service. Lowell rebels, kills the other three crew members on his ship, and flees into the outer solar system with only the ship's robot drones for company. When Valley Forge's sister ship Berkshire locates him again months later, Lowell rigs lights in the last remaining dome to keep the forest viable, jettisons it on a course into interstellar space, and uses the last of the nuclear charges to blow up himself and his ship.

It's a powerful and profoundly moving film, and a favorite of mine for many years. Still, even the first time I watched it - I was ten years old at the time, dropping most of a week's allowance on a tall root beer and tickets to the Saturday matinee at the local movie house in suburban Federal Way, Washington - two of the movie's core plot elements gave me trouble. The first issue was a vague sense of doubt about the premise that there could be a world full of healthy, happy humans with no biosphere to support them. The second was more specific: when Lowell sent the dome into deep space, I wondered, where did the electricity for its lights come from?

It took me more than a decade to realize that these two points both pointed to the same common but disastrous misunderstanding which - with apologies to an excellent movie - I've named the Silent Running fallacy. Like most of the garbled thinking that has doomed our civilization and threatens the survival of our species just now, it's a simple error with profound consequences, and it's thus best approached indirectly.

Start with some details of the movie's premise, then. How much energy would it take to maintain the Earth's entire surface at a steady temperature of seventy degrees Fahrenheit? The Earth's atmosphere does a relatively efficient job of distributing heat from the sun around the planet via the intricate heat engine we call weather, but even so, the temperature on a hot day in the Sahara can differ from the temperature on the same day at the South Pole by more than two hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Balancing that out would be ferociously expensive in energy terms.

How much energy would it take to keep a planet full of people free from poverty? Our current industrial civilization hasn't even come close; average out today's income per capita over the population of the Earth and you get a Third World existence - and of course there's the hard question of just how long we can maintain today's profligate energy expenditure of 450 exajoules (that's 450,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules, for the prefix-challenged) per year.

The short answer to both of those questions, in other words, is "more than we've got". That's generally the answer when the question comes up about the costs of replacing any significant process in the biosphere by human means. When a working group headed by Robert Costanza tried a few years ago to work out the economic value of the free services provided to humanity by the Earth's biosphere, for example, the mid-range estimate they came up with was around three times the total value of all human economic activity. For every dollar of economic value you get, in other words, 25 cents was produced by human beings and the other 75 cents was produced by nature.

The reality of our dependence on living nature goes well beyond this, however. Consider the oxygen in the air we breathe. It doesn't just happen; it's put there, moment by moment, by complex ecological cycles centering on photosynthesis in green plants. If those cycles go away, so does the oxygen, and so do we. The Earth's supply of fresh water, similarly, is renewed by intricate biogeochemical cycles in which a wide range of living things play a part. The experiment of producing food by treating soil as an abiotic sponge into which petrochemicals are dumped is proving to be a long-term failure; here again, only natural cycles in which countless living things participate put food on our table and keep us all from starvation.

It's in this context that we can define the Silent Running fallacy; it's the mistaken belief that human industrial civilization can survive apart from nature. It's this fallacy that leads countless well-intentioned people to argue that nature is an amenity, and should be preserved because, basically, it's cute. That sort of argument invites the response, just as stereotyped and more appealing to our culture's governing narratives, that hard-headed practicality takes precedence over emotional appeals and nature can therefore be ravaged with impunity.

Yet nature is not an amenity, and the "practicality" that leads current political and business leaders to ignore the disastrous consequences of their own actions doesn't deserve the name. If anything, industrial civilization is the amenity, and it's not particularly cute, either. Nature can survive without industrial humanity, but industrial humanity cannot survive without nature - no matter how hard we pretend otherwise, or how enthusiastically we stuff our brains with science fiction fantasies of electronic reincarnation and the good life in deep space.

What makes this irony mordant is that nature is also a great deal more resilient than industrial humanity. A recent book on global warming, Six Degrees (2008) by Mark Lynas, argues that a global temperature rise of eleven degrees Fahrenheit or so would cause global catastrophe. It's a common claim these days, but Lynas apparently failed - as so many prophets of apocalyptic change have failed - to check his claims against the evidence of history.

A little more than 14,000 years ago, according to recent research on Greenland ice core samples, global average temperature jolted up 22 degrees Fahrenheit in some fifty years. A couple of thousand years later, it lurched back down a similar amount, only to pop back up again 1200 years later. Climate shifts like these are apparently fairly common in Earth's long history.

Does this mean that we have nothing to fear from global warming? Quite the contrary. We - meaning here human beings living in industrial societies - face dire consequences even from so modest a temperature shift as Lynas' six-degrees-Celsius rise. In such a future, widespread crop failures caused by unpredictable shifts in rain belts, and the drowning of half the world's largest cities due to the breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps, are likely events. Even without the other causes driving modern industrial society down the long ragged slope of catabolic collapse, a century or more of regular famines and rising sea levels would likely do the trick; added to the rest of the predicament of industrial society, they promise a harsh future with far less room for our species than we have come to expect.

In such a future, on the other hand, the living Earth will be fine. Temperature changes as large or larger than the one we are facing have happened countless times in the last 500 million years or so, and the planet we live on has flourished at much higher temperatures than our mismanagement can produce even in the most extreme scenario. From the perspective of deep time, it has to be remembered, the crises of the present are barely a blip on the planet's radar. They will pass, and so, in due time, will we.

We have all grown up, in other words, thinking of nature as an adorable, helpless bunny that some of us want to protect and others, motivated by the will to power that is the unmentionable driving force behind so much of contemporary culture, want to stomp into a bloody pulp just to show that they can. Both sides are mistaken, for what they have misidentified as a bunny is one paw of a sleeping grizzly bear who, if roused, is quite capable of tearing both sides limb from limb and feasting on their carcasses. The bear, it must be remembered, is bigger than we are, and stronger; it is also better adapted to survival in the world outside the fragile shell of our industrial society. We forget this at our desperate peril.

The stunningly beautiful final image of Silent Running shows the last of Earth's wild plants and animals, cradled in a dome of glass and steel, lit by artificial lights and tended by a robot drone, as it moves through deep space toward the stars. Brilliant cinematography though it is, it also makes a perfect image of the fallacy I've been outlining here. Long before the industrial civilization needed to build the dome, power the lights, and manufacture the robot can get around to stripping the Earth of its green fabric of life, that civilization will have been overwhelmed by the consequences of its own ecological mismanagement: as predicted in the Seventies, and as beginning to manifest around us right now.

Swap out nature for technology and vice versa in that final scene, in fact, and it becomes a good image of the best hope for what will be left of our industrial civilization in the future we're making for ourselves right now. In that image, a frail and vulnerable scrap of modern society, surrounded and supported by the strong arms of nature, moves forward through the starry void along with the rest of the living Earth. How that process might be set in motion will be central to the next few posts on this blog.

John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

Bill Totten

Obama's Rightward Lurch

What is to be Done?

by Gregory Kafoury (June 24 2008)

Barack Obama arrived on the political scene with a smile as beautiful as salvation itself, like a visitor from an idealized future, one where the races have combined to a golden hue, sent here to show us the way. Of course people fell in love with him. Yet now we see Obama drawn into the great room where the Democratic / Corporate establishment dwells, and the door is slowly closing behind him. This is not how it was supposed to be.

Obama has just opted out of public financing, the first presidential candidate to do so since 1972. NewsHour's Mark Shields, keeper of the flame for all that is good in the Democratic Party, called it "a flip-flop of epic proportions", noting that Obama's argument about a GOP financial advantage was "bogus". Shields even said it raised issues of Obama's "character". The New York Times editorialized that 2008 may now be "the year public financing died". In seizing a tactical advantage, Obama has handed an enormous strategic victory to corporate power.

Many progressives will argue that Obama, having raised huge amounts from small contributors, is akin to getting public financing, which liberates the candidate from dependence on corporate support. Yet just the opposite is happening. In the three weeks since Hillary Clinton fell upon her sword, Obama has lurched far to the right. Consider:

- Obama announced a new financial team of supply-side economists led by Jason Furman, famous for declaring that it would be "damaging to working people" if Wal-Mart were to raise its wages and benefits. Obama had recently criticized Clinton for serving on the Wal-Mart board, declaring, "I won't shop there". In the Audacity of Hope (2006), he sympathized with "Wal-Mart associates who hold their breath every single month in the hope they'll have enough money to support their children".

- When questioned in a Fortune interview about his promise to renegotiate NAFTA to protect workers and the environment, Obama replied, "Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified".

- In a close congressional primary race in Georgia, Obama endorsed a troglodyte incumbent - a "Bush enabler" - over an exemplary progressive insurgent.

- In a speech to the Israeli lobby, he moved to the right of Israel's government by ruling out negotiations with Hamas. A day earlier, Obama had told Cuban exile groups that he would only sit down with Raul Castro if the exiles had a seat at the table, a precondition that Cuba will never agree to.

- Obama refused to criticize recent Israeli war maneuvers and accompanying threats to launch massive air attacks on Iran. He failed to even urge restraint.

- Just as a move was growing in the Senate to strip the House-passed Telecom bill of its immunity provisions, Obama declared his support for the House version. Obama's opposition to immunity had been our best hope to learn whose phones and emails had been wiretapped by the Bush administration, and to punish those Telecom companies that assisted this massive criminal enterprise.

Is he lost to us? Was he ever ours to lose?

Progressives were all too eager to overlook the warning signs in Obama's brief career, his support for the Patriot Act, for nuclear power, his vote against limiting credit card interest to thirty percent, his calls for increased defense spending, and his equivocation on full withdrawal from Iraq. These decisions were mere matters of political expediency, we were assured, not to be taken seriously.

Yet how can political expediency explain Obama's retreat on NAFTA? Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are all in play - how many of those voters have been broken on the wheel of NAFTA? Those who contend that the real Obama will suddenly emerge after the election to overturn an imperial foreign policy and to bring justice to the home front, might be advised not to hold their breath.

Obama desperately needs pressure from the left, and he is amenable to pressure. Once we on the left agree that this analysis is correct, then we must choose the correct strategy.

So far, blind support of Obama has yielded the same kind of benefits that we got from John Kerry. With the united left in his pocket, Kerry went from a declared "anti-war" candidate to a thoroughly hawkish one, berating Bush for wimping out in the face of massive civilian casualties in Falluja, and promising to win the Iraq war. Unconditional support for the Democratic nominee is unconditional surrender, with all the utter powerlessness that the terms imply.

As one alternative, we can complain, write and blog, for all these have their place. But we are all too good at talking to ourselves, and disparate efforts without a focus are all too easily dismissed.

We must consider support for Ralph Nader's campaign. Nader has been as high as six percent in recent national polls, something he has achieved with only modest support from left intellectuals, and virtually no recognition by corporate media.

Yet Google has announced its intent to hold at least one presidential debate, and has set the bar at ten percent support. It is hard to imagine Obama or McCain snubbing Google, and the prospect of such a debate carries more promise than anything the left has seen in recent memory.

For those who claim that Nader can only hurt Obama, I suggest the opposite is true. Gore and Kerry were both doomed by the accurate perception that they were corporate to the core. People knew in their gut that these guys were not on their side. (In 2004, Kerry fled from a living wage initiative in Florida; it passed nearly three to one.) It must also be remembered that in 2000, when Nader was at five percent, a full fifteen percent believed he was the best candidate. More importantly, Nader's positions are not just majoritarian ones, most enjoy overwhelming public support. Full military and corporate withdrawal from Iraq, major reductions in the defense budget, a crackdown on corporate crime, single-payer health care, massive investment in renewable energy and conservation, a living wage - these would provide a platform that would send Obama to a historic victory, and all are available for the taking.

Those who insist we must work only within the Democratic Party have clearly failed to hold Obama to his promise. We must get outside the box. Obama needs a great big push, and we are the only ones who can give it to him.


Gregory Kafoury is a trial lawyer and political activist in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at

Bill Totten

Friday, June 27, 2008

Change, What Change?

CounterPunch Diary

by Alexander Cockburn (June 13-15 2008)

On Tuesday June 3 Barack Obama claimed the greatest prize the Democratic Party can offer, namely his nomination as its candidate for the presidency. The very next day the salesman of "change" raced from Minnesota back to Washington and publicly abased himself at the feet of an organization whose prime mission is to ensure that change unpalatable to the state of Israel will never be pressed by the United States government. The terms of Obama's surrender exploded like rhetorical cluster bombs across the Middle East. To Israel and its Arab neighbors it surely signaled that whoever moves into the White House next January, there will be no swerve from Bush's role as guarantor of Israeli intransigeance.

The conferences of the American Israel Public Committee have become showcases for the political clout of this lobbying group. The clout is real . A politician angering the Lobby can see campaign funds dry up and surprise challenges by well financed opponents. Back in September, 1991 President George Bush Sr, took on the Lobby pointing out that the US spends nearly $1,000 a year for every Israeli and suggested this was extortion at the hands of AIPAC. "I'm up against some powerful forces", he said at his press conference. "They've got something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy here doing it." He want [sic] that particular battle, but some count the resultant enmity of AIPAC as a serious factor in his defeat by Clinton the following year. If so, George Jr took the lesson to heart.

As US representatives and senators and their staffs crowded the back of the convention center, the audience of 7,000 from across the US cheered as politician after politician marched to the rostrum for the politically rewarding declarations of loyalty to Israel.

Before he began his drive to the nomination Obama took good care to get the support of influential American Jews in Chicago like the Crown family, associated with the aerospace firm, General Dynamics.

As I wrote here back in February, a notorious scandal of the Kennedy years was JFK's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, overruling all expert review and procurement recommendations and insisting that General Dynamics rather than Boeing make the disastrous F-111, at that time one of the largest procurement contracts in the Pentagon's history. The suspicion was that Henry Crown of Chicago was calling in some chits for his role in fixing the 1960 JFK vote in Cook County, Illinois, to the impotent fury of the teenage Hillary Clinton, who was a poll watcher for Nixon. Crown, of Chicago Sand and Gravel, had $300 million of the mob's money in General Dynamics' debentures, and after the disaster of the Convair, General Dynamics needed the F-111 to avoid going belly-up, taking the mob's $300 million with it.

Henry Crown has passed on to the great pork barrel in the sky, but his descendants in the Crown clan are devoted contributors to Obama, giving him tens of thousands of dollars, as a glance at the website of the Center for Responsive Politics swiftly attests. The Crown family is still deeply involved in the affairs of General Dynamics. Lester and James Crown have both had seats on the company's board in recent years. General Dynamics has ties to Israeli military contractors. A 2003 General Dynamics corporate handout cited by Chicago Indymedia proclaimed "a strategic alliance with Aeronautics Defense Systems, Ltd", an Israeli firm based in Yavne. Aeronautics Defense Systems Ltd is the firm that developed the Unmanned Multi-Application System (UMASa) aerial surveillance tool which the Israeli military uses to "provide a real-time 'bird's eye view' of the surveillance area to combatant commanders and airborne command posts". The Indymedia story quoted then-Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as saying the agreement between General Dynamics and Aeronautics Defense Systems to bring together "both companies' state-of-the art technologies in defense and homeland security" was "additional proof of the technological and commercial benefits that alliances between industries from the US and Israel can produce". An eye in the sky over Gaza ends up as a dollar in Obama's war chest.

On January 11 of this year, hot on the heels of an editorial praising Obama as a Friend of Israel in the rabidly Zionist New York Sun, Lester Crown circulated a testimonial through the Jewish community, expressing his eagerness "to share with you my confidence that Senator Barack Obama's stellar record on Israel gives me great comfort that, as President, he will be the friend to Israel that we all want to see in the White House - stalwart in his defense of Israel's security, and committed to helping Israel achieve peace with its neighbors. Few public figures inspire as much hope and optimism as Barack Obama. Please pass on this message to all who are interested."

Worried about rumors fanned by the Clinton campaign that he was still a secret Muslim, Obama insisted that before the April 22 primary in Pennsylvania, a state with a politically significant Jewish vote, his campaign start a Hebrew-language blog in Israel.

So Obama came to this year's AIPAC conference determined to dispel all remaining doubts that he's a Friend of Israel. "We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran", he assured AIPAC". I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Everything in my power. Everything and I mean everything." He swore he wouldn't talk to the elected representatives Palestinians, Hamas. To thunderous applause he declared, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided".

As Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli writer and peace activist expostulated here furiously in the wake of this last sentence: "Along comes Obama and retrieves from the junkyard the outworn slogan 'Undivided Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel for all Eternity'. Since Camp David, all Israeli governments have understood that this mantra constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to any peace process. It has disappeared - quietly, almost secretly - from the arsenal of official slogans. No Palestinian, no Arab, no Muslim will make peace with Israel if the Haram-al-Sharif compound (also called the Temple Mount), one of the three holiest places of Islam and the most outstanding symbol of Palestinian nationalism, is not transferred to Palestinian sovereignty. That is one of the core issues of the conflict. On that very issue, the Camp David conference of 2000 broke up".

Obama's foreign policy advisors were tearing their hair out and the next day his campaign issued a clarification. "Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties" as part of "an agreement that they both can live with". All the same, they insisted, Jerusalem in Obama's eyes must be the capital of Israel.

Obama's most egregious talent is the ability to adapt his rhetoric with ominous speed, to allay any suspicion among the powerful, that he really will rock the boat in a way they might not care for. Earlier in the campaign he was criticized for not wearing the American flag as a lapel pin. At the AIPAC event he wore a double lapel pin, with both the US and Israeli flags. Is there a "real Obama" waiting to emerge, once the messy business of pleasing the voters is over? Not really.The making of the "real" Obama is an ongoing project, ad the AIPAC an important marker in the evolution of "change".

Although Obama's groveling got wide coverage across the Middle East, the press here, from the New York Times to Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now" (see Muhammad Idrees Ahmad's piece on this site last week) kept silent. It was evidently taken as a given, unworthy of editorial remark, that a man who might very well be the next president, was de-activating the policy of "change" precisely where it is most needed at the behest of the men Jon Stewart edgily derided on his show as "the elders of Zion". Stewart fired off some pretty sharp comments about AIPAC, on the grovelfest, somewhat to my surprise, since I'm not a big Stewart fan, having found that it has become a cultic affair, devoted to the greater glory of Stewart, somewhat in the same manner as "Democracy Now" for Goodman's devotees, who approach her broadcasts as yet one more variety of religious experience.

The sequestration of the American people from important world news is one of the prime tasks of the press here. A couple of weeks ago Patrick Cockburn had two very important scoops - and - outlining the precise terms of the secret "agreement" the US is trying to ram down the throat of the Iraqis on permanent military bases. It was a huge political story in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq. It was covered in Europe. I found a detailed account of Patrick's scoops, with intelligent comment, in Trinidad's leading paper. But I found almost nothing here. Not in the New York Times, not in the Washington Post, not on the networks. On June 12 Goodman and Gonzalez did have Patrick on "Democracy Now" and did a useful interview with him. And on Friday June 13, CSPAN had Patrick on its Washington Journal program and CSPAN's viewers learned what their government is up to.

Asian Fury at Laura Bush

First Ladies are expected to pick an issue and make it their own. Ladybird Johnson toiled to make America more beautiful. Nancy Reagan said No to drugs. Laura Bush has taken Myanmar, aka Burma, to her heart. But now she's put her foot in it.

In the wake of the terrible cyclone the First Lady said the United States would consider sending relief assistance to Burma only if the Burmese military junta accepts a US disaster assistance response team to assess the scope of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis. Many in the region think the prime role of such a team would be to prep international opinion for "humanitarian intervention". "'The US first lady's political demands were inappropriate', said Aung Naing Oo, an exiled Burmese political analyst. 'This is a time when people are dying and suffering to a horrible degree, so if the US really wants to help, it can help without making political demands'."

The cynical way the US has responded to the killer cyclone and the resentment this has caused in Asia is the subject of Peter Lee's fascinating report in the new crackerjack edition of our newsletter.

Here also are terrific pieces by Kevin Alexander Gray and Jeffrey St Clair.

A taster from Kevin, on "Why Blacks Keep Quiet About Obama":

"Black people always have to navigate race fear; the long Democratic primary season has just underlined that. Joking, comedian Jon Stewart asked Obama, if elected, "Will you pull a bait and switch and enslave the white race?" Kinda funny. Except that's precisely the sentiment that underlies white race fear. I've heard the same thing said in seriousness by more than one white person. "If Obama gets the White House what will they want next?" Or, "if Obama wins, blacks will think they're running things" ... Give a listen to the corporate media, and it's pretty clear what tune black voices are supposed to be singing. Obama is constantly called on to swear allegiance to America - to prove he isn't swearing allegiance to blacks. The other way to say that is he's supposed to swear allegiance to white, not black, America. Meanwhile, the back end of that deal is that black Americans are required to substitute Obama for real structural racial progress. As in, "You got your nominee. See, we're not so racist or bad after all. Now shut up!"

Jeffrey St Clair writes on Los Angeles' weapon of mass destruction: air. By the time average LA-born kids reach eighteen, they will have breathed enough toxic air to place them 344 times over what the EPA considers an acceptable lifetime exposure to these contaminants.

All this in the new CounterPunch newsletter, for subscribers only.

Footnote: A shorter version of the first item in this Diary ran on The First Post last Friday.

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

Bill Totten