Saturday, August 30

A Note: Read Raed  

Just a quick note for now, but I will write more later. Take a look at Salam Pax's account of how the Empire's soldiers treated his family. He gives some insight into how the US forces are hunting down terror cells in Iraq. It is well worth reading.

Tuesday, August 19

Dark days... 

One of my favourite Torontonian bloggers recently touched on how the terrible mess of semi-privitization of hydro (or electricity, to my Southern readers) may have led to the recent blackout.   Although there are widly differing perspectives in the debate over privitization (both for and against) everyone seems to agree that the current situation in Ontario is not a good one.  Nor is this issue limited to local Canadian politics.  The craze for privatizing is a hallmark of the American Empire -- be it federal jobs, Air Traffic Controllers, national parks, the military, or even Iraq's public sector.  

Personally, and I'm sure this will come as a surprise to no one, I think most public utilities (like hydro) should be public for two major reasons.
  1. Too many people stand to suffer drastic harm should they fail.
  2. The motive of demonstrating quarterly profits is antithetical to maintaining necessary services for the public good.
Even Roman Emperors saw the practial benefits of maintaining some public utilities, of a sort.  Given that the concept of economics had not yet been developed, their failure to develop an articulated economic strategy is understandable (as is the difficulty economic historians have in analyzing the Roman economy).  Nevertheless, the importance of maintaining a minimum level of social services -- namely bread and water -- was sufficiently evident that all the emperors, even the rather nutty ones like Caliguala and Nero, maintained it at their own expense.  

The Emperors distributed bread to the poor of Rome, initially at a fixed price, then later for free.  For water people relied upon the aquaducts, which emperors made a point of building and naming after themselves, although they were hardly the first to do so.  If necessary, they could use the army to maintain the massive structures.  On a grander scale, all the emperors went to considerable legnths to maintain their personal control over Egypt, because it was one of the major sources of the grain they needed to make the bread.

Ironically, such pragmatic concern for the populace's welfare is now denigraded as bleeding-heart liberalism, or even worse socialism, within the American Empire.  Oh Nero, that bleeding-heart liberal!  That Socialist Tiberius!  That such tyrants can be lauded in these terms paints a very grim picture of the priorities of this modern empire.  

Whether the power grid holds or not, it looks like we're in for dark days ahead. 

Friday, August 15

Gibbon revisited? 

One of my gentle readers drew my attention to this op-ed by Kristof, in the New York Times, which points out that according to polls, "Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent)."  The rise of evangelical Christianity, and the strength of religious belief in the American Empire is a topic I have already touched upon, but which bears repeating since it appears to go hand in hand with educational, or cultural, decline.  After all, evolution is a pretty funadamental scientific concept.

Gibbon flagged Christianity as the cause for the Roman Empire's fall.  That view is now rather discredited (although The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is still well worth reading), but the change in religious mentality from polytheism to monotheism certainly played an important role in shaping the culture of late antiquity.  Indeed, most historians shy away from even saying that Rome "fell," but rather embrace a model in which it simply changed into something completely different (the Byzantine empire in the Eastern Mediterranean, and a chaotic mix of small kingdoms in the West).  Yet, whatever the semantics, Western European society in the fifth century was less civilized that it had been four hundered years earlier -- there was much less stability, less urbanization, less centralized power, less trade, less literacy, and much less artistic production.  Roman civilization never vanished (there's still a lot of it about), but "Fall" or no, the nature of life certainly changed a lot in the West.

And one of the big changes was the official adoption of a religion that tolerated no other forms of belief.  A religion that is still going strong. So it is particularly disturbing to see that, just as the American Empire's self-image fits better with those of less developed nations, so too do its religious beliefs. turning to religion in a manner more characteristic of less developed nations.  According to a PEW poll:
Among Wealthy Nations U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion -- Religion is much more important to Americans than to people living in other wealthy nations. Six-in-ten (59%) people in the U.S. say religion plays a very important role in their lives. This is roughly twice the percentage of self-avowed religious people in Canada (30%), and an even higher proportion when compared with Japan and Western Europe. Americans’ views are closer to people in developing nations than to the publics of developed nations.
And with that religious fervor comes religious intolerance.  A more recent poll indicates that there has been an almost 20% increase in the number of Americans who believe that Islam is more likely "to encourage violence among its believers," from 25% last year to 44% this year.  There has been a 13% increase in the numbers of Americans who believe that Muslims are inherently anti-American, and a steady decrease in those who believe that "their own religion has a lot in common with Islam."

Nor is that intolerance limited to Islam (a religion which has 5-7 million apparently invisible followers in the US).  According to the CIA factbook (which omits any mention of muslim Americans) fully 10% of Americans have "no religion" -- and that they may be even more discriminated against.  The same poll revealed that while 38% of Americans would not vote for a muslim presidential candidate, 50% refused to vote for an Atheist.

These are dark days, dark days...

Tuesday, August 12

Economic disconnect? 

The US government's failed proposal to create a "terrorism futures market" is old news.  But this morning on the CBC they asked whether it was such a bad idea after all, which got me to thinking.  My initial reaction when I heard about the proposal was that this was nothing more or less than gambling on the lives and welfare of others.  It was clearly a callous gesture by the Empire, and extremely unlikely to have any positive impact in the war against terror.  There are arguments that it might have been effective, working from the premise that futures markets have been good indices of future events in other spheres.  Without entering into a diatribe about economic theory, these struck me as fallacious.  After all, the market is notoriously stupid in many ways (witness the recent, and ongoing, slide of the stock market that was predicted to never stop rising).  The programming principle of "Garbage in, garbage out" applies.  Why would traders possess any good knowledge about future terrorist attacks?  Attacks which, by their very nature, are incredibly difficult to predict, since they are known about by very very few people in advance.  

But what struck me most about this whole debate was what it demonstrated about the way in which we conceive of the economy in the Empire (and I'm including Canada here).  That the "terrorism futures" market will continue, in the form of online gambling, strikes at the heart of the matter.  Making predictions about whether somebody will successfully strap explosives to himself and set them off in a public place (unless you are that person, in which case you probably have other motives than making a buck) is indeed nothing less than gambling.  Issues of compassion aside, it seems an problematic investing strategy.

Investment almost always (probably always always) entails some uncertainty, of course.  It is a form of gambling, like poker -- although you cannot control what you will be dealt, you can minimize losses by sound strategy and skill.  The good poker player will always make money off of the poorer one, at least in the medium run.  Likewise, traditionally, the investor weighed the strengths and weaknesses of companies in which he or she wanted to invest and acted accordingly.  One did not buy or sell stock on a hunch, but rather upon information.  Futures markets, on the other hand, have always been more like a crap shoot.  The only wise investors were those with insider information.

In the past decade two changes in the financial world have undermined the model of sage investment.  First, as the market continued to rise, more and more people began investing.  People who knew nothing about investing found that they could make large amounts of money.  So a whole new group of investors was born, who imagined that they grew rich through their skill, rather than the current nature of the market.  Of course, when the market crashed, they got burned.  Then there were the accounting scandals, Enron and company.  These served, not only to destabilize the market, but also to cast serious doubts upon the reliability of the information experienced investors relied upon.

Consequently, both novice and experienced investor is now more prone to view the financial markets as a form of gambling.  And it is this attitude towards the financial markets that leads people to embrace "terrorism futures,"  which unlike other futures (like Orange Juice) produces no actual product with inherent value (however variable).

Aside from the moral implications of a terrorism market, the signs of increasing divide between the acquisition of wealth and the production of any actual good should alarm people.  The Roman Empire's economy may have been slave based, it may have had enormous distinctions between the haves and the have-nots (the latter were even judged by different laws), but at least it was founded on tangible products.  The man of status possessed land that provided produce that allowed him to live.  There is evidence that there were speculative markets even then, but they were viewed as sordid.  Now the new Empire would make them the foundation of its national security...  O tempora!  O mores!

August is the slowest month.... 

Just thought I should post a brief word about why there have been so few posts recently. As you know, August is a slow news month. Right.

What really happens is that the CBC (or news outlet of your choice) starts playing reruns and almost all their top reporters go on holiday. Hence, instead of any attempt at investigative journalism, we are almost entirely spoon-fed press releases of dubious merit. Consequently Cassandra hears less news, and gets less worked up about how the whole world is going to Hell in a handbasket.

Also, let's face it, it's summer. And after last winter I feel a certain impetus to get outside and enjoy the warm weather.

But perhaps the main reason has been that, in following current events, Cassandra has felt a certain amount of despair. It is rather depressing to see all of one's predictions come true. The American Empire has embroiled itself, and the rest of the world, in a terrible mess in Iraq, and the Middle East in general. People are dying, both Americans and Iraqis, and it is hard to feel smug about that, even if you did see it coming. And it is hard to think of something new to say about such a morass of greed and destruction, save for to deplore it, again and again.

(Or maybe it's just been Bloggers Block).

Saturday, August 2

The Uses of Morality 

The current bruhaha over the proposed legality of same-sex marriages highlights an imprtant difference between Canda and its Southern neighbor.  For those who have not been reading the news, the Pope has come out with a condemnation against the legalization of Gay marriage, leading the Bishop of Calgary to threaten the Catholic Prime Minister of Canada with damnation for supporting the bill:
"He doesn't understand what it means to be a good Catholic," Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary told the Globe and Mail on Wednesday. "He's putting at risk his eternal salvation. I pray for the Prime Minister because I think his eternal salvation is in jeopardy. He is making a morally grave error and he's not being accountable to God."

The federal government has drafted legislation that redefines marriage as "the lawful union of two persons," after two provincial courts ruled it is unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. The Supreme Court is reviewing the legislation after which a free vote will be held in Parliament.
Yet in Canada it appears clear that, whatever the personal religious views of politicians, there is separation of Church and State:

"For me, we have a Charter of Rights, there is evolution in society and according to the interpretation of the courts, they concluded these unions should be legal in Canada," the Prime Minister said when he announced his Liberal government would not appeal an Ontario court ruling that struck down a federal ban on gay marriage in June.

In the past, the Prime Minister has described himself as a good Catholic, but he has said he firmly believes politicians should not use government to impose their religious beliefs on others.

This is a distinction which is less clear down South, where the situation appears inverted.  In the US, the Emperor is considering creating a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages, and the Gay rights group GLAAD notes:
It is equally important that the media carefully scrutinize and hold up for debate President Bush's invocation of religion as the fundamental rationale for his policy of excluding same-sex couples and families from the protections of marriage. By saying he has charged government attorneys to explore ways to 'codify' the 'sanctity of marriage,' and through numerous biblical references in his discussion about this issue, the president is clearly signaling his conviction that his personal religious beliefs should be the basis for governing law. In a country where the separation of church and state is a founding principle, this mix of personal beliefs and his administration's public policy needs to be examined critically by the media.
Of course, "Bush has never been shy about injecting his faith into the public arena."  And it is this point that summons historical comparison.  

I should note that the Roman Empire was, by and large, extremely tolerant of relgious beliefs and practices.  While human sacrifice was deemed unacceptable, and everyone was expected to do homage to the imperial cult as a manifestation of political loyalty (although this caused some moral dilemnas for the monotheists of the Empire, namely the Jews and later the Christians), there was relatively little political intervention in the religious sphere.  Nevertheless, the first great Emperor, Augustus, did not hesistate to use religion for political ends.  Although it is clear that he had not pursued an especially high-minded life prior to becoming emperor (he was, among other things guilty of killing rather large numbers of Romans and taking their ancestral lands) he was quick to present himself as a restorer of "the good old ways."  To read his own account of his deeds, it is clear that he expended considerable effort, enacting moral laws, building temples, and restoring "neglected" religious rites.  Why?  

Most historians argue that he did all this to reinforce his claims of legitimacy in the minds of Romans (since he had seized power, more or less, by commanding the largest army).  He presented himself as the restorer of old values, instead of the creator of a very new system of government.

Do you see any paralells with the American Empire today?  Hmmm.....