Saturday, August 27, 2011

How We Stumble Into -- And Out Of -- Wars


This week I hope to provide a few sidelights on what exactly triggers our decisions to make war and make peace and how we deal with the consequences.  This approach was suggested by a piece by Robert Dallek in the current Newsweek, The Untold Story of the Bay of Pigs. The demons at The National Security Archive recently managed to tug loose part of the Agency's own treatment of this grotesque debacle.  When I was interviewing preparatory to writing The Old Boys I talked at length to Lyman Kirkpatrick, ex-CIA Inspector General, whose private and extremely scathing analysis of this historic debacle had started to leak.  I was already putting in dozens of hours overall with Richard Bissell, ex-CIA Chief of Operations and the primary planner of this historic setback, and he was unstinting when it came to blaming himself. See Chapter Twenty-One, The Last True Blowoff, in The Old Boys.

What I did not know, and would not pick up on until I was deep into the research and interviewing behind  my controversial treatment of the back-door Kennedy administration, Bobby and J. Edgar, was the extent to which the interests and prejudices of the Kennedy family itself contributed to its obsession with Cuba.  Once, queried as to his hesitation to support Jack Kennedy as a presidential candidate -- was it his Catholicism? -- , Harry Truman cracked: "It ain't the Pope, it's the Pop!" 

He meant, of course, Joseph P. Kennedy, whose gangland affiliations and propensity to put his pocketbook first --  as Ambassador to Great Britain Joe had speculated against the wavering Czech currency while England was trembling and Hitler's armies were marching into Prague -- were notorious in political circles.  Before Castro came into power Joe Kennedy reportedly maintained serious holdings in Cuba, from the Casino at the Hotel Nacional to the Coca Cola franchise for Havana.  During the runup to The Bay of Pigs, Joe had gotten involved personally in helping secure bases around the Caribbean at which the ill-fated 2506 Brigade could train, at one point hosting General Anastasia Somoza, the brother of the dictator in Nicaragua, in his Manhattan offices.

Even after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs the administration's determination, at any cost, that Communism would not survive "ninety miles from our shore" inspired one foolish gamble after the next.  Mafia bigwigs were paid off to murder Castro. A fruitless campaign of sabotage and propaganda against the island directed personally by Robert Kennedy, Operation Mongoose, ultimately came to nothing, although at great expense. The Soviets moved their missiles in as our threats turned defeaning.  The Kennedys were apparently preparing another assault by disenchanted Cubans, "C-Day," when JFK was gunned down, two developments not unconnected.  Perhaps when the Agency finally releases the last volume of its institutional workup of the Bay of Pigs we'll know our own history better.  It's only been fifty years.

Many years later, at a series of dinners in Moscow with several of the top generals in the KGB, I would discover how dangerous that game had become.  These officers were on the planning staff that was gaming the Soviet response if -- as our Joint Chiefs urged Kennedy -- we had simply obliterated the Soviet missile launching pads in Cuba.  The Russians all assured me that their military was under orders to take out all the cities of our East Coast with their Bison Bombers and atomic weaponry should we attack Cuba. Perhaps Jack Kennedy -- and Robert Kennedy -- performed their most enduring service in office by standing up to Curtis LeMay and the Strategic Air Command.

A lot of the pressure on the Kennedy brothers came out of the anti-Communist hysteria of the time.  The Republican Right, whipped up by treacherous blowhards like Senator Joseph McCarthy -- a protege of Joe Kennedy and a suitor for a time of his daughter Eunice -- had continued to castigate the Truman Administration for "Losing China."  Nobody wanted to "lose Cuba" or, shortly, Viet Nam. Yet what seems most remarkable about these costly and pointless adventures is how fast our ruling circles -- and almost all our citizens --  forget.  Fifty years have passed, and Castro's delapidated regime is still in place, largely ignored here.  Viet Nam -- Communist Viet Nam -- is one of our most valued trading partners.

Again:  Why are we in Afghanistan?  

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Jobs #2


Salutations.  As perhaps a few of my readers may remember, it has been my intention with this blog to chew away on subjects rarely dealt with in the media -- "What's Left Out" -- , and that hasn't changed.  I am returning here for one last -- I hope -- attempt to deal with what is only too hot a topic these days, Jobs, because it is so important and because a number of you have gotten back to me, mainly on e-mail, to agree with -- and challenge -- whatever conclusions I reached.

It seems to me that the intractability of the jobs numbers is the consequence of a number of rising trends and unattended if highly exploitive practices which now characterize what's left of our economy.  It is much trumpeted that the American corporations are doing very well despite the recurring recession.  This is attributed to their advances in "productivity."  But productivity, examined day by day, is achieved by firing employees in America and replacing them with machines or much cheaper workers overseas.  As the principal executive at Bain Capital, Mitt Romney specialized in profitably downsizing the work force in companies he and his partners bought out.  What might we expect from a Romney presidency?

But there are larger elements in play.  Howard Schultz, the head of Starbucks, noted on the air recently that there are now nine million Americans working in manufacturing and thirty million working for the government, local and federal, from mail carriers to four-star generals.  If this isn't de facto socialism, where would we find it?  As is increasingly noted, the result has been that the trade union movement has largely collapsed, the judiciary and the Congress is increasingly corrupted, and special interests continue to hollow out the laws and mythologize the easily verifiable -- Global Warming -- to our inevitable disaster.

Meanwhile, entire professions have disappeared overnight.  Outside the mansions of the superrich the category of backup work that once occupied millions of people -- maids, cooks, personal assistants -- has largely disappeared.  Clerical jobs have also thinned out -- even the most exalted communicate by e-mail, I myself carry on direct running exchanges on the internet with individuals who range from CEOs of giant corporations to a Saudi prince.  Old ladies wear electronic alert buttons around their necks and let their paid companions go.  Jobs, millions of jobs.  Joe Nocera opened a NY Times column on August 16 by observing that, during the 2008 financial crisis, German companies instituted a program known as Kurzarbeit, short work, and government subsidies helped by supplementing the workers' paychecks.  Imagine getting that one by the Teabaggers.

Special favors are destroying the federal revenue stream. To pump up profits for a handful of corporations we have diverted or cut off the revenue flow we will have to have to support the entitlements programs on which most Americans depend.  Trillions of uncollected tax dollars are sequestered in corporative accounts overseas, where they have shipped American jobs, while their executives engage in tantrums in the press, demanding another Bush-era "tax holiday" so they can repatriate the money and fatten their own remuneration packets.  Because this works for a handful of exporters, our tariff level vis-a-vis China is two percent, while the Chinese exact an eighteen percent tariff on American goods, which provides them a lot of cash with which to pile up American bonds.  The Koch Brothers continue to observe from the wings, writing checks and applauding.

Down in the American street, millions are washing into poverty.  One neighbor of mine, a roofer, has been so devastated by brutal property taxes and his effectively unregulated insurance requirements that he has given up his business.  He staved this off for a few years by picking up an adjustable-rate subprime mortgage on his house, but inevitably the interest rate was jacked up until it approached twenty percent and he is awaiting foreclosure.  His family has fallen apart, and there is no way out. Multiply his case by millions.

Meanwhile, we attempt to inflict what we call civilization on the angry tribesmen of Afghanistan at the American taxpayer's expense.  A trillion-dollar stealth fighter-bomber program we have been pursuing for decades has produced a plane that is unflyable.  But there is not going to be enough money in the federal treasury before long to continue with Medicaid.  What will be left to defend?

But you get the idea.  Cheers!



Saturday, August 13, 2011



First, and emphatically:  I'm no economist.  I've looked at the ideas of a good many economists over the years, from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman, and anybody who has immersed himself in contemporary history as I have can't remain completely oblivious to the underlying economic shifts, the tectonic plates which underlie the frenzy of politics.  Still, look elsewhere for professional comment.  For what they're worth, here are my ideas.

We may be passing -- and faster than we can deal with the upshots -- from one era during which certain economic arrangements kept things reasonably stable into another, a time when the implicit longstanding social and financial tradeoffs simply will not work going forward.  As a species we have done this before, as when we developed from migrating hunter-gatherers into farmers and ranchers, or feudal landlords into mercantilist adventurers.  Now -- riding on the explosive science and technology which are the great achievements and challenges of our time -- we may be attempting to contend politically with profound changes for which the old procedures are largely irrelevant, like people struggling to deal with a massive earthquake by passing a municipal ordinance.

The politics of our time is based on the interaction of different interest groups who elect public officials or influence public officials to give them the handouts they want. Everything we are fighting over -- the entitlement programs, subsidies for the oil boys, a bloated military and intelligence community and the constant itch to "project power" and rebuild other people's countries -- comes out of that.  Here in the United States we are living in the hollowed-out remains of a gigantic industrial and financial colossus that emerged from World War II, much of which we have relocated offshore or turned over to automated machinery.  Even in the white-collar professions, ambitious graduates get out of law school and find that the only jobs available are as unpaid interns, while underpaid clerks on the internet in New Delhi deal with the discovery research which once justified the American firms in taking on new associates.  Soon advanced computer programs will replace the flunkies in India. 

This sort of thing leaves a permanently underemployed and fast deteriorating middle class in America to find whatever existence it can on our economic margins, too often demanding public assistance. Because of radical advances in medicine our citizens are living perhaps twenty years longer -- assisted by expensive medical procedures -- and running up Social Security and Medicare obligations for the government.  Many trillions are now projected.  The fantastic profits resulting from these technological breakthroughs and the exploitation of world markets has drifted almost entirely into the hands of the most fortunate 5% -- some say 1% -- of our citizens, the most venal of whom utilize it to propagandise the susceptible masses, grab off more favorable treatment by their intimidated government, buy the Supreme Court, and stifle even the suggestion of a more equitable taxation pattern.

Liberal boilerplate, I know.  But all this is moving us toward revolution, quite possibly some sort of collectivist nightmare very few of us really want.  If radical change comes, the billionaires will go first.  Before that happens, perhaps we should think this through.  Why not a permanent, federally funded jobs program to rebuild our collapsing infrastructure and backstop the economy?  FDR did it. Why not a thirty-hour work week, like -- shudder! -- France?  If machines are increasingly doing the work, shouldn't the average citizen benefit to some extent?  There is quite probably a reason why the societies of Northern Europe -- which have let the public-private equation evolve while we have paralyzed our own political progress -- are excaping the current financial meltdown.  Not very long ago we went to the moon.  Today our bridges are collapsing.  When will we summon up the nerve to stop cannibalizing our young?



One last thing.  The reader who wanted me to validate a Ted Kennedy quote can reach me on my internet address,  I will reply.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

When Populism Goes Feral


Having neglected this blog to a certain extent while attacking the last chapters of the novel that has been throttling my summer the way a terrier does a rat, I hope to catch you all up now.  It's time to elaborate on my earlier elaborations.  Run for the exits, now, before the second paragraph heaves into view!

It may be that I was a little bit on edge about being termed a "lefty."  This was partly because I'm not, but it was also partly because I have spent a fair amount of time drifting around in societies ostensibly organized around "socialist" principles.  Starting in the nineteen fifties I began to drop into, cultivate friendships inside, hitchhike through, and in general draw my own conclusions  about what were called at the time the "Iron Curtain" communities.  These came to include East Berlin, Poland, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and -- this was after the Berlin Wall came down -- Moscow, which I was invited by several ex-KGB generals to visit as an intelligence journalist.

Very little I ran into persuaded me that pure socialism -- that is, communities in which, as Karl Marx put it, the government alone owned and operated the 'means of production,' (factories, mines, etc.) -- had much of a future, there or here.  What I kept encountering was unbelievable environmental degradation and pervasive thought control, police states with terrified and unproductive and increasingly restive populations.  "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work" was one prevalent explanation for the pitiful standard of living.

A section of the novel I just finished takes place in Cuba, which gave me the first opportunity to think about this fossilized remnant of what was once an egalitarian dream since dealing with the forces behind JFK's botched invasion of the island in Bobby and J. Edgar.  To understand what day-to-day life in the Pearl of the Antilles is about take a look at Havana Real by Yoani Sanchez, an gutsy and penetrating stay-behind  in rotting Havana.  Before Castro, under Fulgencio Batista, as Ben Corbett has written, "Soldiers shot and killed humans as if they were rodents.  The dinner conversation revolved around which politicians should be assassinated."

Nether Cuba holds much of an attraction, at least for me.  Both demonstrate what happens when one interest group in the population, whether an entrenched bureaucracy or a coalition of dominant property-holders, assumes all power and rules a society exclusively to advance its perceived immediate interests.   Reality gets blocked out -- Hitler was Stalin's soulmate in 1940, and Tea Party candidates like Michele Bachmann characterize global warming as a "hoax."

Only genuine pluralism, whether economic or political, in which competing ideas and interests can keep the process engaged enough to permit at least a minimum of truth to leak into our media, can give our flagging democracy a chance at survival.  Right-Wing think tanks are pushing model legislation on dumbed-down state governments which would outlaw collective bargaining and install right-to-work laws in much of the country.  What is left of the American labor union movement -- the historic counterpart to the corporate lobbying Leviathan -- is already a remnant, beaten to its knees and acceding to "two-track" contracts that undermine its surviving membership.  Wherever outsourcing isn't practical, robots do the heavy lifting.  The chairman at General Motors was pleased to point out the other day that labor costs have fallen to10% from  25-30% of the cost of most completed vehicles.

Where is this taking us?  Where are the jobs and the consumers supposed to come from?  Where will the middle class have gone?

If you know, by all means let me hear.


Monday, August 1, 2011

Socialist America


Again, another mile or so on the slow slog toward rationality.  I have just finished my electrifying new novel, so I am free to lecture you helpless victims about matters that ought to be obvious at this point.  Therefore:

Not long ago my wife's adventurous step-brother, John Townsend, commented on the way I bristled at being termed a "leftie" by Steve Mumford by suggesting that I had probably overreacted.  He himself was a little concerned that the Republican Hard Right was calling Obama a "socialist."  Socialism, after all, is anathema to the American Way.

As the astute Fareek Zakaria noted in a recent Sunday morning commentary on CNN, the fact is, federal agencies have always played a major -- very often a dominating --  role in America's economic development. From the first Land Grant and Homesteading Acts to the Louisiana Purchase to the underwriting of the transcontinental railroad to herding the Indians onto reservations to picking a fight with Mexico so we could acquire the Southwest to taking over heavy industry during both World Wars -- both times putting Bernard Baruch in charge -- to overseeing the production of the aircraft carriers and B-17s that destroyed the Japanese Navy and the Nazi industrial capacity (taking out Peenemunde alone ended German ball-bearing production, and grounded the Luftwaffe) -- all government initiatives and control, all vital to our survival and development.  More recently the Manhattan Project provided our Cold War atomic defense structure, NASA landed us on the moon, federal research produced the internet, the National Institute of Health has come up with most of the real breakthroughs in modern medicine.  And as for education, etc....

It would be hard to find a society this side of the old Iron Curtain in which governmental initiatives and collusive management have played a larger part historically.  By far the greatest beneficiaries of this overwhelming involvement of the public sector have been the lions of private industry, where the utilization of a wealth of patents and the enormously lucrative contracts and the world-wide protection of  both the American military and the intelligence services -- which have regularly functioned as collection agencies for threatened American corporations -- have produced generation after generation of augmented profit.
This arrangement goes back a number of generations.  In The Old Boys I went into detail as to how all this destroyed working democracies in Nicaragua and Iran, the sort of toxic collusion that Dwight Eisenhower was referring to in his late-day warnings about the intent of the "military-industrial complex." The stacked-up profits this strategic alliance have produced have increasingly been protected from federal taxes in foreign tax havens. Heavy federal subsidies have gone to influential companies, from coal and oil to airlines to agribusiness.  Jobs -- at first blue-collar and increasingly white-collar -- have gone off-shore by the millions.  A system of loopholes, lobbyists, and a stacked federal court has evolved to protect these privileges.

As the government's recent response in rescuing the banks and the auto companies would suggest, the protections of a Socialistic society will be extended automatically to the special interests after they have blundered into insolvency.  The rest of us -- prepare for legislated pauperization.  What little the "entitlements" have promised is on the legislative chopping block. The Trade Union Movement in America is all but destroyed.  Part of the Second World already, it's going to be a fight for us to hang onto even that.

Have I cheered you up?

Burton Hersh