The Deep State

A powerful and concise description of a new, and fearsome, alignment in American politics. It comes via James Fallows’ blog, from former Republican Senate staffer Mike Lofgren:

Your posts go some way in explaining the current political situation, but by no means do they go the whole way. A more complete explanation has to acknowledge the paradox of the contemporary American state. On the procedural level that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly gridlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s; that is true. The objective of the GOP is, obviously, to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (and voter suppression laws in the GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish that result). As a consequence, Obama cannot get anything done; he cannot even get the most innocuous appointees in office.

Yet he can assassinate American citizens without due processes (Holder’s sophistry to the contrary, judicial process is due process); can detain prisoners indefinitely without charge; conduct surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant;  and engage in unprecedented – at least since the McCarthy era – witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called insider threat program). At home, this it is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal law enforcement agencies and their willing handmaidens at the state and local level. Abroad, Obama can start wars at will and pretty much engage in any other activity whatever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, to include just recently forcing down a plane containing a head of state. And not a peep from congressional Republicans, with the exception of an ineffectual gadfly like Rand Paul. Democrats, with the exception of a few like Ron Wyden, are not troubled, either – even to the extent of permitting obvious perjured congressional testimony by certain executive branch officials.

Clearly there is government, and then there is government. The former is the tip of the iceberg that the public who watches C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part is the Deep State, which operates on its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. The Deep State is a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies, key nodes of the judiciary (like FISC, the Eastern District of Virginia, and the Southern District of Manhattan); cleared contractors, Silicon Valley (whose cooperation is critical), and Wall Street.

This combination of procedural impotence on the one hand and unaccountable government by fiat on the other is clearly paradoxical, but any honest observer of the American state must attempt to come to grips with it. I will note in conclusion that in order for the Senate to pass major “social” legislation like immigration reform, it was necessary to grant an additional $38-billion tribute to Deep State elements, i.e., military and homeland security contractors. Clearly the GOP wanted it, but the Democrats didn’t object; the $38 billion had been an internal “wish list” of the Deep State node called the Department of Homeland Security.

This is an interesting way of breaking down our corporate state (it’s hard to call it “democracy” anymore), and usefully notes the powerful alignment between the national security universe and other important nodes of American power, like Wall Street. It’s also worth adding that the procedural gridlock the public reviles is also driven to a degree by some of the same interests at the heart of he Deep State.

It’s surprising and disheartening that there isn’t more public outrage and resistance to the corruption of our democracy by corporatism, fear, and the exploitation of fear by both the executive branch and private interests to consolidate power and profits. Maybe that’s what happens when the public is distracted by the desire to be constantly entertained, obsessed with celebrity, and mainlining a never-ending fix via social media, cable TV and the cineplex.

It’s a strange, dystopic, time.

Palm Oil Plague

Palm oil is so pervasive, it’s not easy to keep it (and dead orangutans, among other species that suffer when forests are cut down to grow palm plantations) out of your food.

It’s annoying that the food industry makes us work so hard to do no harm. But here’s the best set of guides I have seen so far if you want to make the effort to eat without a nagging, palm oil-soaked, conscience.

The guides are broken down in to different categories. For example, here is the guide to palm oil free soaps/shampoos/beauty products:

The Awareness/Meat-Eating Disconnect

Here’s a reader writing to Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog:

You’re completely correct about what will be viewed as the “barbarous and unimaginable” treatment of animals. Coming from the mind of perhaps one of the “new atheists” you’ve been profiling lately, I believe waste to be one of few true sins. It betrays a lack of appreciation, a failure to understand the interconnected nature of all things in the world, and a selfish hedonism that is driving our species (and others) towards some very unpleasant places. Furthermore, the careless waste of meat – of animals that (in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases) we ourselves brought into being only to live horrendous lives of invisible suffering and leave a trail of environmental damage, simply for our unthinking momentary pleasure – is especially disgraceful.

Excellent start, right?

But then comes this:

I’m not vegan/vegetarian, nor do I believe it is unethical to eat meat or to raise animals specifically for consumption. But I choose to eat meat judiciously, from better sources whenever possible, and more consciously. The current system is so profoundly wrong that I’m not sure it’s possible to be an honest and compassionate human being without changing our dietary behavior or to continue living with blinders on to the issue. We can, and must, do better.

Hmm. If the treatment is “barbarous and unimaginable” then how can ANY meat consumption be viewed as an ethical choice. I see this all the time: people (like Mark Bittman, for example) who appreciate the fact that our meat industry is built on animal suffering that is monstrous in scale (not to mention the environmental destruction), but can’t quite bring themselves to let go of meat. I guess the meat culture is that powerful.

That means a turn away from meat and meat production will be a long and frustrating process. Which will impose additional costs on animals, and the planet, and human health. But I do take encouragement from the fact that the consensus view of the meat industry increasingly is that it is horrific in its treatment of animals. Once that is completely understood and accepted as the reality, it is only a matter of time before even the most committed meat eater realizes that the only truly ethical response is to stop eating meat. Less meat is better, of course. But no meat is the only way to live in a way that doesn’t impose terrible suffering on nonhuman animals, or contribute enormous inputs of carbon to the climate change disaster.

Cycling To Nirvana

A thirtysomething suddenly realizes that he REALLY needs to cycle 7000 miles to Patagonia:

I just turned 30, and I’ve decided to use this year to radically shape the rest of my life. I am about to leave my job and ride a bicycle for seventeen months, from Oregon to Patagonia. The need to do it (and it really felt like a need) hit me about three years ago when I read a quote from famed naturalist John Muir.
“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” 
Now, I hardly make any money, and I don’t feel like this “trivial world of men” has nothing to teach me. But there was something about drawing close to 30 that felt like I was losing something. The newness of life and career and cities and friends began to find their comfortable patterns, and once you see the pattern, time speeds up. That’s why we hear old people always warning us of how fast life passes. It really doesn’t pass by any faster than those long childhood summers, but we just lose fascination, or I should say we lose wonder. We are no longer astonished by the way the world works.
A famous cure for that is travel.
Who can argue with that?


Nonhuman Rights Explained

Steve Wise, the founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, explains in the Dyson Lecture the legal context and strategy for establishing civil law rights for nonhuman animals:

I am an “animal slave lawyer.” I have been practicing “animal slave law” for thirty-five years. I do not want to practice “animal slave law” anymore; I want to practice “animal rights law.” When I teach, I do not teach “animal slave law,” I teach “animal rights jurisprudence.” This jurisprudence does not yet exist; it is a jurisprudence that is struggling to come into existence.

If you are just starting to catch up on this potentially game-changing movement, Wise details exactly what he is doing to try and make animal rights come into existence:

Dalai Lama’s Instructions For Life

You could do a lot worse than these:

1. Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
2. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.
3. Follow the three Rs:
—Respect for self
—Respect for others and
—Responsibility for all your actions. 
4. Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
6. Don’t let a little dispute injure a great friendship.
7. When you realise you’ve made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
8. Spend some time alone every day.
9. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.
10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
11. Live a good, honourable life. Then when you get older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a second time.
12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.
13. In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.
14. Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.
15. Be gentle with the earth.
16. Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.
17. Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.
18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.
19. Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.

There are a few I need to work on (naturally). I especially like #15, though I would add “Be sure to spend some time in nature every day,” and “Value all life as you value your own.” 

The Importance Of “Useless” Acts

Charles Eisenstein encounters a traditional boatbuilder, walks away with a sense of optimism, and ponders its meaning:

What reason had I to feel positive?

What good is a renaissance in traditional boat-building in the context of climate change, fracking, nuclear waste, forest death, neoliberalism, the security state, child hunger, human trafficking, sweatshop labor, juvenile incarceration, and all the other horrors sweeping our planet?…

…When any of us meet someone who rejects dominant norms and values, we feel a little less crazy for doing the same. Any act of rebellion or non-participation, even on a very small scale, is therefore a political act. Building boats by hand is a political act. That is not to say that the banking industry, Monsanto, the military-industrial complex, and so forth would magically change their ways if only more of us built boats. It is that boat-building and other kinds of change-making come from the same place.

It wasn’t because he thought it would change the world that the boatbuilder chose his path. If we condition our choices on what could practically change the world, we are often paralyzed, because the changes that must happen today are so enormous that we have no idea how to practically accomplish them. Every plan is impractical and every hope is naïve.

The cynic thinks that he is being practical and that the hopeful person is not. It is actually the other way around. Cynicism is paralyzing, while the naïve person tries what the cynic says is impossible and sometimes succeeds.

Paradoxically, it is through the totality of billions of useless acts that the world will change.

This is essentially where I come down. To find meaning and beauty in boatbuilding is to live according to values that have little to do with the the predominant values–of success, achievement, material gain–that are at the root of most global problems. Measuring personal action against the seemingly impossible goal of changing the world, and changing the predominant culture, leads you into a black hole. But making ethical choices and taking action according to your beliefs and values (even if, or especially if, those choices and actions are a radical rejection of the status quo), can inspire happiness and a sense of purpose and meaning.

Those qualities are infectious. No one can really calculate their impact over time.

Protecting Captive Chimps

This could be big:

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Tuesday to bring captive chimpanzees under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, a move that would create one more major barrier to conducting invasive medical research on the animals for human diseases.

If the proposal is enacted, permits will be required for any experiment that harms chimps, and both public and privately financed researchers will have to show that the experiment contributes to the survival of chimps that remain in the wild. The recommendation is now open to public comment for 60 days.

And this would be even bigger, and an interesting precedent for other captive species that are listed as endangered:

Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society, who praised the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, said his organization and others would use the comment period to pursue the issue of using chimps in entertainment.

While the argument for medical research has been that there is a compelling human need, he said there was no such argument for using young chimps in television advertisements, for example, which he described as “entirely frivolous.”

But under the Endangered Species Act, only uses that are considered harmful or harassing require permits. And use in entertainment has not traditionally been considered to be in the same class as taking blood or other invasive procedures.

In separate interviews, Mr. Pacelle and Dr. Goodall said chimps who are trained for entertainment are taken away from their social group when they are young, which is very harmful to them.

The New Wall Street Dream

The determined face of Jason Trigg, Wall Street revolutionary.

Just when you are convinced that Wall Street is eviscerating our future by sucking up the best talent in the country with the lure of mega-wealth, along comes a small movement of whiz-kids who are not going to Wall Street simply because they want to live like the 1 %:

Jason Trigg went into finance because he is after money — as much as he can earn.

The 25-year-old certainly had other career options. An MIT computer science graduate, he could be writing software for the next tech giant. Or he might have gone into academia in computing or applied math or even biology. He could literally be working to cure cancer.

Instead, he goes to work each morning for a high-frequency trading firm. It’s a hedge fund on steroids. He writes software that turns a lot of money into even more money. For his labors, he reaps an uptown salary — and over time his earning potential is unbounded. It’s all part of the plan.

Why this compulsion? It’s not for fast cars or fancy houses. Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.

He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

In another generation, giving something back might have more commonly led to a missionary stint digging wells in Kenya. This generation, perhaps more comfortable with data than labor, is leveraging its wealth for a better end. Instead of digging wells, it’s paying so that more wells are dug….[snip]

…While some of his peers have shunned Wall Street as the land of the morally bankrupt, Trigg’s moral code steered him there. And he’s not alone. To an emerging class of young professionals in America and Britain, making gobs of money is the surest way to save the world. When you ask Trigg where he got the idea, his answer is a common refrain among this crowd: “I feel like I’d read stuff by Peter Singer.”

It’s sort of like Bill Gates and his Giving Pledge, except these guys aren’t bothering to stockpile billions, or live rich, before giving most of it away. So you gotta love Peter Singer (and hope that the money rolling in doesn’t corrupt the idealism of the enterprise). Because if every young trader and hedgie played the Wall Street game like this, it would be an excellent mechanism for transferring wealth from the richest among us to the neediest among us. Though it wouldn’t be entirely sustainable because Wall Street would no longer be gushing 1 percenters (because they would be giving all their money away first). Not that Trigg (or many others) would mind.

Ben Bernanke might have been channeling Trigg and his cohort in his address to the Princeton commencement. Among other things, he said:  “A career decision based only on money and not on love of the work or a desire to make a difference is a recipe for unhappiness.”

If that insight becomes conventional wisdom, and future generations start to live by that code rather than the code of wealth and celebrity that currently dominates our culture, maybe there is hope.

Seabird Slaughter

Fisheries don’t just kill fish:

Evidence for the horrific impact of fishing gear on seabirds has been revealed by the closure of Canadian fisheries after fish stocks collapsed in the early 1990s.

Biologists have long worried that diving birds can become entangled in gillnets, which are anchored in fixed positions at sea. Designed to snare fish by the gills, these nets can also trap and drown birds.

This has been graphically demonstrated by finds of birds enmeshed in nets, but a quantitative assessment of the effects of such ‘by-catch’ on seabird populations has been hard to come by.

Now, that hard evidence has come from a careful study of seabird populations off the eastern coast of Canada, where cod and salmon fisheries were closed and gillnets removed in 1992. This work comes just weeks after another report estimated that hundreds of thousands of birds die each year in gillnets around the world.

Ecologists Paul Regular and William Montevecchi of the Memorial University of Newfoundland in St John’s and their colleagues examined data on various marine birds at five major Canadian seabird reserves in Newfoundland and Labrador between 1968 and 2012. They then compared bird population trends with data on gillnet use between 1987 and 2009.

The team found that populations of diving birds such as murres and gannets, which are vulnerable to entanglement in nets, increased after the ban. But in the same period, the numbers of gulls and other surface-feeding scavengers that benefit from unwanted fish thrown away by fisheries decreased, the researchers report in Biology Letters. Although the gull populations declined, these species are not at risk of extinction and it is likely their numbers are returning to more natural levels with the reduced influence of human activity.

Hard numbers
“Based on previous estimates of tens of thousands of murres killed each year in regional gillnet fishes, clearly significant numbers of breeding murres have survived that wouldn’t have otherwise,” say Regular and Montevecchi. The data ”support the widely held but rarely documented contention that by-catch mortality affects seabird populations”.

Just one more reason to not eat fish–even if you can convince yourself that the fish themselves are being fished “sustainably.”

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