Israel, not Congress, was Spied On

Published at 07:36 on 31 December 2015

So why did Obama “spy on Congress?” The short answer is he really didn’t.

He spied on Israel (for good reason; see the post immediately below), and in the process of spying on Israel caught Israeli officials communicating with Congressmen in an attempt to influence them to oppose the nuclear deal with Iran. In some cases, Israel passed classified information to Congress in an attempt to influence it.

So while this is a scandal involving a national leader, the scandalized national leader is Benjamin Netanyahu, not Barack Obama.

So, They’ve Restarted Bertha

Published at 08:53 on 25 December 2015

That’s the nickname of the giant tunnel-boring machine that’s attempting to excavate a new freeway tunnel under Downtown Seattle.

It had been stuck for two years after being damaged by striking a casing for a test well drilled for the very same project. Yes, that’s how much of a clusterfuck this thing has been. Already.

All these problems, and Bertha is only about 10% of the way home. Given all the above, what are the odds of some other major issue happening? It shouldn’t take a genius to be able to tell this project has major black clouds hanging over it. Moreover, what has already gone wrong pales in comparison to what could go wrong.

Consider another major Bertha breakdown, only this time deep underground beneath a block densly-covered with downtown buildings. There wouldn’t be any way to dig a rescue pit save by purchasing and demolishing some perfectly good buildings, perhaps very large perfectly good buildings. Even if that was done, the rescue pit would have to be so deep that it alone might be an impractical undertaking. Bertha would have to be abandoned in place and the project cancelled.

But it gets worse. The geological strata under Downtown include water-saturated clay and sand beds which are very difficult to tunnel in because they are under pressure and can liquefy when disturbed. Suppose that happens, and subsidence forces most of a downtown block to be hurriedly condemned. There might not even be time for workers to rescue computers, documents and furnishings from the affected buildings. The loss could easily run into the tens of billions of dollars.

Then there’s the matter of the existing viaduct. Excavation of the existing rescue pit has already caused enough subsidence to require a nearby water main to be replaced. The viaduct itself has sank by an amount which was previously decided to be unsafe, then retroactively proclaimed safe simply because they don’t want to close the viaduct before the tunnel opens.

In other words, according to best engineering practices, the viaduct is already unsafe and should have been condemned and closed over a year ago. Given all that, it’s not too hard to see it collapsing. Perhaps a minor to moderate earthquake will strike and do the deed. Or maybe everyone will luck out and there will just be a close call; a viaduct span will partially fail without undergoing a complete collapse and nobody will be killed.

Now, I’m not saying that any of the above will happen, only that there’s a very real chance that it might. In other words, this project is hardly out of the woods yet, not by a long shot.

One of Jack London’s Greatest Hits

Published at 11:07 on 20 December 2015

Is his dystopian novel The Iron Heel, written over 100 years ago. Consider how concisely London lays out the inevitability of class struggle (and by implication the hypocrisy of those who denounce demands of anyone who’s not a capitalist for more):

“Are you discussing the ideal man?” Ernest asked, “–unselfish and godlike, and so few in numbers as to be practically non-existent, or are you discussing the common and ordinary average man?”

“The common and ordinary man,” was the answer.

“Who is weak and fallible, prone to error?”

Bishop Morehouse nodded.

“And petty and selfish?”

Again he nodded.

“Watch out!” Ernest warned. “I said ‘selfish.'”

“The average man IS selfish,” the Bishop affirmed valiantly.

“Wants all he can get?”

“Wants all he can get–true but deplorable.”

“Then I’ve got you.” Ernest’s jaw snapped like a trap. “Let me show you. Here is a man who works on the street railways.”

“He couldn’t work if it weren’t for capital,” the Bishop interrupted.

“True, and you will grant that capital would perish if there were no labor to earn the dividends.”

The Bishop was silent.

“Won’t you?” Ernest insisted.

The Bishop nodded.

“Then our statements cancel each other,” Ernest said in a matter-of-fact tone, “and we are where we were. Now to begin again. The workingmen on the street railway furnish the labor. The stockholders furnish the capital. By the joint effort of the workingmen and the capital, money is earned.* They divide between them this money that is earned. Capital’s share is called ‘dividends.’ Labor’s share is called ‘wages.'”

* In those days, groups of predatory individuals controlled all the means of transportation, and for the use of same levied toll upon the public.

“Very good,” the Bishop interposed. “And there is no reason that the division should not be amicable.”

“You have already forgotten what we had agreed upon,” Ernest replied. “We agreed that the average man is selfish. He is the man that is. You have gone up in the air and are arranging a division between the kind of men that ought to be but are not. But to return to the earth, the workingman, being selfish, wants all he can get in the division. The capitalist, being selfish, wants all he can get in the division. When there is only so much of the same thing, and when two men want all they can get of the same thing, there is a conflict of interest between labor and capital. And it is an irreconcilable conflict. As long as workingmen and capitalists exist, they will continue to quarrel over the division. If you were in San Francisco this afternoon, you’d have to walk. There isn’t a street car running.”

The whole book is, by the way, now in the public domain and thus available for free.

Probably the first political work of London’s I encountered was What Life Means to Me, as a freshman or sophomore in college. It was I believe the first piece of socialist propaganda I had read which really resonated with me. (I had looked at Marx and found his prose mostly inscrutable; I still find his writing very heavy and difficult to parse.)

As an aside, in general, the writers who have the greatest influence on my beliefs have been not political theorists but authors of fiction who have also written political works, for the very reason that they do a better job of explaining things to those, like me, who are not academics in the field of political science.

Why the Polarization

Published at 07:45 on 5 December 2015

So, the other day I overheard on the ferry this guy, older than me and by all outer appearances quite educated, go on about how he sincerely believed Barack Obama is a secret Muslim who is set on destroying America.

How does one have a reasonable conversation with someone who believes such nutty things? Short answer: you can’t. So I didn’t even try.

If someone is running that much on deeply-felt gut beliefs that he or she will buy into some loopy theory for which there is absolutely no hard factual evidence, that individual is obviously in a mental space where facts and logic basically don’t matter anymore when it comes to the subject that belief falls into. As such, no basis exists anymore for having a reasonable discussion with someone who has differing political opinions.

Now switch to Congress. How does one achieve compromise is one side is dominated by individuals like that? Same answer: you can’t. For basically the same reason.

And that is why “gridlock” exists.

No, loopy theories don’t exclusively lie on one side of the political fence. When I was volunteering at a radical bookstore in Portland, one guy in the collective believed in a conspiracy involving shape-shifting aliens and several believed that 9/11 was all a vast, planned conspiracy by the Bush Administration.

But such beliefs are not equally spread across the spectrum, and it’s not the Left where they predominate. As an example, consider which of the two parties has denial of ample scientific evidence for human-caused global warming as a core part of its platform.

The political moderates’ dictum that all sides have an equally valid amount of input to offer is simply not a valid one; it is not always true. If you have an argument between one person who claims that 2 + 2 = 4, and another who insists 2 + 2 = 5, one does not obtain a correct answer by concluding therefore 2 + 2 = 4.5.