Tuesday, September 30, 2008
"The truly disgusting thing about Sarah Palin isn't that she's totally unqualified, or a religious zealot, or married to a secessionist, or unable to educate her own daughter about sex, or a fake conservative who raised taxes and horked up earmark millions every chance she got. No, the most disgusting thing about her is what she says about us: that you can ram us in the ass for eight solid years, and we'll not only THANK YOU for your trouble, we'll sign you up for eight more years, if only you promise to stroke us in the right spot for a few hours around election time."
PART II - Bad Sympathy:
"At the moment, all signs point to yes, as some strange bedfellows reveal that they have been feeling sorry for the vice-presidential candidate ever since she stopped speaking without the help of a teleprompter.
But just because I'm human, just because I can feel, just because I did say this weekend that I "almost feel sorry for her" doesn't mean, when I consider the situation rationally, that I do. Yes, as a feminist, it sucks -- hard -- to watch a woman, no matter how much I hate her politics, unable to answer questions about her running mate during a television interview. And perhaps it's because this experience pains me so much that I feel not sympathy but biting anger. At her, at John McCain, at the misogynistic political mash that has been made of what was otherwise a groundbreaking year for women in presidential politics.
In her piece, Judith Warner diagnoses Palin with a case of "Impostor Syndrome," positing that admirers who watched her sitting across from world leaders at the U.N. last week were recognizing that "she can't possibly do it all -- the kids, the special-needs baby, the big job, the big conversations with foreign leaders. And neither could they." Seriously? Do we have to drag out a list of women who miraculously have found a way to manage to balance many of these factors -- Hillary Clinton? Nancy Pelosi? Michelle Bachelet? -- and could still explain the Bush Doctrine without breaking into hives? This is not breaking my heart. It is breaking my spirit.
A woman governor with executive experience -- doesn't have to rely on any elder or any man to protect her and pull her ass out of the fire. She can make a decision all on her own. (Palin was more than happy to tell Charlie Gibson that she made her decision to join the McCain ticket without blinking.) The McCain camp was craven, sexist and disrespectful in its choice of Palin, but I don't agree that the Alaska governor was a passive victim of their Machiavellian plotting. A very successful woman, Palin has the wherewithal to move forward consciously. What she did was move forward thoughtlessly and overconfidently, without considering that her abilities or qualifications would ever be questioned.
Sarah Palin is no wilting flower. She is a politician who took the national stage and sneered at the work of community activists. She boldly tries to pass off incuriosity and lassitude as regular-people qualities, thereby doing a disservice to all those Americans who also work two jobs and do not come from families that hand out passports and backpacking trips, yet still manage to pick up a paper and read about their government and seek out experience and knowledge.
When you stage a train wreck of this magnitude -- trying to pass one underqualified chick off as another highly qualified chick with the lame hope that no one will notice -- well, then, I don't feel bad for you.
When you treat women as your toys, as gullible and insensate pawns in your Big Fat Presidential Bid -- or in Palin's case, in your Big Fat Chance to Be the First Woman Vice President Thanks to All the Cracks Hillary Put in the Ceiling -- I don't feel bad for you.
When you don't take your own career and reputation seriously enough to pause before striding onto a national stage and lying about your record of opposing a Bridge to Nowhere or using your special-needs child to garner the support of Americans in need of healthcare reform you don't support, I don't feel bad for you.
When you don't have enough regard for your country or its politics to cram effectively for the test -- a test that helps determine whether or not you get to run that country and participate in its politics -- I don't feel bad for you.
When your project is reliant on gaining the support of women whose reproductive rights you would limit, whose access to birth control and sex education you would curtail, whose healthcare options you would decrease, whose civil liberties you would take away and whose children and husbands and brothers (and sisters and daughters and friends) you would send to war in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and wherever else you saw fit without actually understanding international relations, I don't feel bad for you.
Shaking our heads and wringing our hands in sympathy with Sarah Palin is a disservice to every woman who has ever been unfairly dismissed based on her gender, because this is an utterly fair dismissal, based on an utter lack of ability and readiness. It's a disservice to minority populations of every stripe whose place in the political spectrum has been unfairly spotlighted as mere tokenism; it is a disservice to women throughout this country who have gone from watching a woman who -- love her or hate her -- was able to show us what female leadership could look like to squirming in front of their televisions as they watch the woman sent to replace her struggle to string a complete sentence together.
In fact, the only people I feel sorry for are Americans who invested in a hopeful, progressive vision of female leadership, but who are now stuck watching, verbatim, a "Saturday Night Live" skit. Palin is tough as nails. She will bite the head off a moose and move on. So, no, I don't feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for women who have to live with what she and her running mate have wrought."
-Matt Taibbi ( Part I-Excerpt: "The Scariest Thing About Sarah Palin Isn't How Unqualified She Is - It's What Her Candidacy Says About America," SmirkingChimp.com, 9.27.08. -Rebecca Traister, Part II- Excerpt: "The Sarah Palin Pity Party," Salon.com, 9.30.08. Image: Vintage Poison Label, Spookshows.com., 1900s).
VIOLETPLANET SAYS: Masterful propaganda engineering: " Educated people = elitist snobs. Ignorant people equal = Americans." Whose going to bail us out of this one?
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Since that meeting, Exxon has funneled $23 million into the climate-denial industry, according to Greenpeace, which combs the company's annual report each year. Since 2006, Exxon has cut off some of the worst offenders, but 28 climate-denial groups will still get funding this year.
Corporate America's media toadies continue to amplify Exxon's deceptive message. The company can count on its hand puppets -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, John Stossel and Glenn Beck -- to shamelessly mouth skepticism about man-made climate change and give political cover to the oil industry's indentured servants on Capitol Hill. Oklahoma's Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe calls global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public."
Now John McCain has chosen as his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a diligent student of Big Oil's crib sheets. She's something of a flat-earther who shares the current administration's contempt for science. Palin has expressed skepticism about evolution, putting it on par with "creationism," which posits that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago. She used to insist that human activities have nothing to do with climate change. "I'm not one ... who would attribute it to being man-made," she said in August. After she joined the GOP ticket, she magically reversed herself, to a point. "Man's activities certainly can be contributing to the issue of global warming," she told Charles Gibson two weeks ago.
Meanwhile, Alaska is melting before our eyes; entire villages erode as sea ice vanishes, glaciers are disappearing at a frightening clip, and "dancing forests" caused by disappearing permafrost astonish residents and tourists. Palin had to keep her head buried particularly deep in an oil well to ever have denied that humans are causing climate change.
But, as Upton Sinclair pointed out, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
Palin's enthusiastic embrace of Big Oil's agenda (if not always Big Oil itself) has been the platform of her hasty rise in Alaskan politics. In that sense she is as much a product of the oil industry as the current president and his vice president. Palin, whose husband is a production operator for BP on Alaska's North Slope, has sued the federal government over its listing of the polar bear as an endangered species threatened by global warming, and she has fought to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Alaska's coast to oil drilling.
When oil profits are at stake, her fantasy world appears to have no boundaries. About American's deadly oil dependence, she mused recently, "I beg to disagree with any candidate who would say we can't drill our way out of our problem." I guess the only difference between Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney is ... lipstick."
-Robert F. Kennedy Jr., ( Excerpt: “Palin's Big Oil infatuation,” The Capital Times-Wisconsin, 9.26.08. Image: -Hecataeus of Miletus (c. 550–c. 476 BC), named after the Greek goddess Hecate, was a Greek philosopher who flourished during the time of the Persian invasion. After having traveled extensively, he devoted his time to the composition of geographical and historical works. Hecataeus is the first known Greek historian and was one of the first classical writers to mention the Celtic people. "Reconstruction of Hecataeus' Map Of The (Flat) Habitable World," http://www.armenica.org, Date Unknown).
Saturday, September 27, 2008
I was floored. In his brief rebuttal, he blindly demonstrated overconfidence in his own ideas and the inability to consider how new facts might alter a presently cherished opinion. Worse, he seemed unaware of how irrational his response might appear to others. It's clear, I thought, that carefully constructed arguments and presentation of irrefutable evidence will not change this man's mind.
In the current presidential election, a major percentage of voters are already committed to "their candidate"; new arguments and evidence fall on deaf ears. And yet, if we, as a country, truly want change, we must be open-minded, flexible and willing to revise our opinions when new evidence warrants it. Most important, we must be able to recognize and acknowledge when we are wrong. Unfortunately, cognitive science offers some fairly sobering observations about our ability to judge ourselves and others.
Perhaps the single academic study most germane to the present election is the 1999 psychology paper by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments." The two Cornell psychologists began with the following assumptions.
- Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
- Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
- Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
On average, participants placed themselves in the 66th percentile, revealing that most of us tend to overestimate our skills somewhat. But those in the bottom 25 percent consistently overestimated their ability to the greatest extent. For example, in the logical reasoning section, individuals who scored in the 12th percentile believed that their general reasoning abilities fell at the 68th percentile, and that their overall scores would be in the 62nd percentile. The authors point out that the problem was not primarily underestimating how others had done; those in the bottom quartile overestimated the number of their correct answers by nearly 50 percent. Similarly, after seeing the answers of the best performers -- those in the top quartile -- those in the bottom quartile continued to believe that they had performed well.
The article's conclusion should be posted as a caveat under every political speech of those seeking office. And it should serve as the epitaph for the Bush administration: "People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognize competence, be it their own or anyone else's."
The converse also bears repeating. Despite the fact that students in the top quartile fairly accurately estimated how well they did, they also tended to overestimate the performance of others. In short, smart people tend to believe that everyone else "gets it." Incompetent people display both an increasing tendency to overestimate their cognitive abilities and a belief that they are smarter than the majority of those demonstrably sharper.
Closely allied with this unshakable self-confidence in one's decisions is a second separate aspect of meta-cognition, the feeling of being right. As I have pointed out in my recent book, "On Being Certain," feelings of conviction, certainty and other similar states of "knowing what we know" may feel like logical conclusions, but are in fact involuntary mental sensations that function independently of reason. At their most extreme, these are the spontaneous "aha" or "Eureka" sensations that tell you that you have made a major discovery. Lesser forms include gut feelings, hunches and vague intuitions of knowing something, as well as the standard "yes, that's right" feeling that you get when you solve a problem.
The evidence is substantial that these feelings do not correlate with the accuracy or quality of the thought. Indeed, these feelings can occur in the absence of any specific thought, such as with electrical and chemical brain stimulation. They can also occur spontaneously during so-called mystical or spiritual epiphanies in which the affected person senses an immediate William James described this phenomenon as "felt knowledge."
Feelings of absolute certainty and utter conviction are not rational deliberate conclusions; they are involuntary mental sensations generated by the brain. Like other powerful mental states such as love, anger and fear, they are extraordinarily difficult to dislodge through rational arguments. Just as it's nearly impossible to reason with someone who's enraged and combative, refuting or diminishing one's sense of certainty is extraordinarily difficult. Certainty is neither created by nor dispelled by reason.
Similarly, without access to objective evidence, we are terrible at determining whether a candidate is telling us the truth. Most large-scale psychological studies suggest that the average person is incapable of accurately predicting whether someone is lying. In most studies, our abilities to make such predictions, based on facial expressions and body language, are no greater than by chance alone -- hardly a recommendation for choosing a presidential candidate based upon a gut feeling that he or she is honest.
Worse, our ability to assess political candidates is particularly questionable when we have any strong feeling about them. An oft-quoted fMRI study by Emory psychologist Drew Westen illustrates how little conscious reason is involved in political decision-making.
Westen asked staunch party members from both sides to evaluate negative (defamatory) information about their 2004 presidential choice. Areas of the brain (prefrontal cortex) normally engaged during reasoning failed to show increased activation. Instead, the limbic system -- the center for emotional processing -- lit up dramatically. According to Westen, both Republicans and Democrats "reached totally biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted" (cognitive dissonance).
In other words, we are as bad at judging ourselves as we are at judging others. Most cognitive scientists now believe that the majority of our thoughts originate in the areas of the brain inaccessible to conscious introspection. These beginnings of thoughts arrive in consciousness already colored with inherent bias. No two people see the world alike. Each of our perceptions is filtered through our genetic predispositions, inherent biologic differences and idiosyncratic life experiences. Your red is not my red. These differences extend to the very building blocks of thoughts; each of us will look at any given question from his own predispositions. Thinking may be as idiosyncratic as fingerprints."
-Robert Burton (Excerpt: "My Candidate, Myself," Salon.com, 9.22.08. Image: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil: Gnomes, SidelineCreations.com, 2008).
Monday, September 22, 2008
“At the heart of this credit crunch mess is something called "derivatives." The Initiative for Policy Dialogue at Columbia University offers a good primer: "A derivative is a financial contract whose value is linked to the price of an underlying commodity, asset, rate, index or the occurrence or magnitude of an event. The term derivative refers to how the price of these contracts is derived from the price the underlying item."
It's kinda like playing craps at the casino, where instead of gamblers betting on the dice-roller to crap-out, with derivatives, investors are betting on whether a creditor is going to go under. But instead of buying chips, the lender buys risk-insurance and makes a "swap" with a third party. If the borrower doesn't pay the loan back, the lender loses the loan but collects the insurance. To make things even more confusing, there are different kinds of derivatives. Futures. Forwards. Swaps. Options.
Ever since Mesopotamians were writing on clay-tablets, derivatives have played a useful role. But, IPD cautions, "they also pose several dangers to the stability of financial markets and the overall economy" because they can be used "for unproductive purposes such as avoiding taxation, outflanking regulations designed to make financial markets safe and sound, and manipulating accounting rules, credit ratings and financial reports. Derivatives are also used to commit fraud and to manipulate markets."
I guess that's why Warren Buffet (in 2002, mind you), said derivatives were a "financial weapon of mass destruction." He was ridiculed at the time but now even John McCain is suggesting that people like Buffet and others tell us how to regulate the market.
According to Marketwatch, the derivatives market is somewhere around $500 trillion. No, that's not a typo. That's trillion. To put it in perspective, Marketwatch reminds us that the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) is about $15 trillion. The GDP of all nations combined is approximately $50 trillion. The total value of all the real estate in the world is estimated at $75 trillion and the total value of all the world's stocks and bonds is about $100 trillion. But there's a $500 trillion market in derivatives! If you find this all confusing, we're in good company. Because "what we are witnessing is essentially the breakdown of our modern-day banking system, a complex of leveraged lending so hard to understand that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke required a face-to-face refresher course from hedge fund managers in mid August," Bond fund giant Bill Gross told Marketwatch.
Marketwatch goes on to observe: "In short, not only Warren Buffett, but Gross, Bernanke, the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the rest of America's leaders can't 'figure out' the world's $516 trillion derivatives." That's because we're talking about a "shadow banking system," in which derivatives are not just risk management tools but "a new way of creating money outside the normal central bank liquidity rules. How? Because they're private contracts between two companies or institutions." Deregulation? Cutting taxes on the super rich? Arguing that government "hand-outs" are a "moral hazard" leading to "dependency" and welfare queendom? All of this unregulated free-market ideology that has dominated American politics and the GOP since the Reagan revolution has brought the country to its financial knees.”
THE PROBLEMS: Part II
“On September 9, 2008, CNBC’s popular financial show “Squawk Box Europe” interviewed Jim Rogers (CEO of Rogers Holding) on his view of the government takeover of Fannie and Freddie: “You can see that this is welfare for the rich. This is socialism for the rich. It’s bailing out the financiers, the banks, the Wall Streeters... This is outrageous. Who are these people who are taking our money and doing this and ruining America?"
On March 21, 2008, The August Review wrote, “As the global financial crisis unfolds, one thing is certain: The major investment and commercial banks who have wrecked our economy and financial system are now successfully sucking unlimited amounts of money from the people's Treasury to bail themselves out.” The August Review has demonstrated repeatedly that the net effect of the New International Economic Order (term coined by the Trilateral Commission in 1973) was to devise new and more effective ways to divert money from the public sector into certain private hands.
With their right hand, elite bankers, investors and brokers can well afford to take on all the risk they desire, knowing that their left hand can get into the U.S. treasury to bail themselves out when they hit the financial brick wall. And with the government takeover of Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, they have simply outdone themselves: The magnitude of this bailout is on an order higher than anything ever recorded in our planetary history. Of course, everyone in the financial elite are feigning shock and dismay at the tragic turn of events. Saving these companies, they say, will supposedly save our financial system from utter destruction. It’s an ultimatum: Pay up or collapse.
Is it all a smokescreen for yet another planned plundering of our Treasury?
In November 2005, Dr. Laurence J. Kotlikoff wrote a 23 page report titled, “Is the U.S. Bankrupt?” It was issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and quietly posted on their website – and it was totally ignored by the U.S. press. With irrefutable logic and statistical data, he concluded that “Countries can and do go bankrupt. The United States, with its $65 trillion fiscal gap, seems clearly headed down that path.” Being that the U.S. government is the only and exclusive banking client of the Federal Reserve, it is inconceivable that the Fed did not fully understand what Kotlikoff was saying. It is also inconceivable that the Fed would not take action to protect itself, its money, its private stockholders, and hence, to appoint a conservator.
A man for all seasons?
In May of 2006, former Treasury Secretary John Snow was sacked by the Bush administration and was simultaneously replaced by the chairman of Goldman Sachs, Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Paulson. Goldman Sachs is one of a dozen or so global institutions that are allowed to purchase Bills, Bonds and Notes directly from the Treasury, and is among the top five investment banks in the world. Conflict of interest, you say? Apparently, it is not to the Bush administration or to the Senate who unanimously confirmed his appointment.
If you follow financial news, you will have noticed that Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke are appearing together in public on a continual basis these days– joint testimony before the Congress, joint press conferences, meetings at the White House, etc. Headlines like these have been hot and heavy: “Paulson, Bernanke call on Congress to act”, “Bernanke, Paulson Push for New Regulatory Powers”, “Paulson, Bernanke Say Housing Woes May Last”, and “Paulson Meets with Bernanke, Fannie, Freddie Chiefs”.
Interesting. It never used to be this way.
On March 31, 2008, Paulson quietly released a 200 page document titled, “Blueprint for a Modernized Regulatory Structure,” that he and Bernanke are now actively pushing Congress to adopt. It basically calls for the complete restructuring of U.S. markets and their regulatory structures to meet new “global standards”. After all, our regulatory bodies have been created over the last 75 years and are not compatible with today’s financial challenges. In addition, the Blueprint calls for much more self-regulation by the banking/securities industry itself. The very people who brought us this financial chaos in the first place, want us to let them do whatever is in their self-perceived best interest to protect and increase their profits.
Meanwhile, Paulson recently demanded and received from Congress a blank check for the bailout of Fannie and Freddie. The alternative, he boldly claimed, was the further meltdown of the U.S. housing market and likely destruction of the economy.
Does this appear like a bankruptcy proceeding?
- The banker and the CFO (Paulson) make autocratic decisions
- The bankrupt company gets reorganized
- New capital or financing is secured to pay off creditors
U.S. citizens are getting hosed while banks, brokerages, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, wealthy investors, etc., are saved from trillions of dollars in well-deserved losses. By assuming the debts of Fannie and Freddie, the national debt virtually doubles overnight. Even worse, the government risks a downgrade to our existing debt, potentially pushing borrowing costs up by hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
Americans can and should demand that Congress let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fail like any other grossly mismanaged company. And in the process, they ought to investigate their senior management for malfeasance and cooking the books to cover it up. Let the free market provide new lenders who perhaps won’t be so greedy and ill-principled.
If a few more commercial or investment banks succumb in the process because of such action, let it serve as a warning to those survivors that they had better shape up or risk losing everything. Allowing Bernanke and Paulson to administrate our financial crisis is like giving an ax and frying pan to the foxes who were left in charge of the hen house.”
“Ralph Nader warned eight years ago that the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) were about to tank like the savings and loan industry of the 1980s and '90s. Because his warnings were ignored, taxpayers today face losing billions of dollars to cover these bad debts.
Nader, in a letter to Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox in 2006, criticized the exorbitant salaries of government-sponsored enterprise executives Jamie Gorelick, Daniel Mudd, Robert J. Levin and Timothy Howard. He noted in his letter that their financial incentives were in direct conflict with consumer financial security. A grave moral hazard was created by the accounting manipulations they sanctioned, Nader said. These manipulations benefited their personal wealth, yet there was no penalty for being caught.
Nader has called for an immediate halt to the increase in the national debt. He demands an end to corporate subsidies and unconditional taxpayer bailouts of corporations. And he has called for aggressive prosecution of corporate criminals.
"Given the contrast between the ‘free market' ideology of the Republicans and the corporate or state socialism that is their increasing practice, the time is ripe for full Congressional hearings next year on the organized power, greed and lack of regulation that is shaking the foundations of Wall Street," Nader said.
Nader has come up with 10 market reforms that he says need to be implemented immediately along with any bailout. These reforms are:
- 1. No bailouts without conditions and reciprocity in the form of stock warrants.
- 2. No more lobbying for any company that is bailed out.
- 3. No golden parachutes or get-out-of-jail-free cards for guilty executives.
- 4. No bailouts without public hearings.
- 5. Reduce the moral hazard in U.S. mortgage markets by introducing covered bonds for the majority of mortgage products, as is done in Western Europe. That gives institutions that finance mortgages an incentive to be prudent, because they cannot just unload them and wipe their hands clean of the liability, but are instead on the hook if the homeowner defaults.
- 6. Maintain neighborhood stability and housing security by passing a law with a sunset clause allowing below-median-value homeowners facing foreclosure the right to "rent to own" their homes at fair market value rates.
- 7. Avoid future housing bubbles by removing implicit government guarantees for new mortgages that exceed thresholds of greater than 15 to 20 times the annual fair market rent value of the home.
- 8. Make the Federal Reserve a Cabinet position, so it is accountable to Congress, as well as make sure all Federal Reserve Bank presidents are appointed by the president and answerable to Congress.
- 9. Reduce conflicts of interest by taking away power for auditor and rating agency selection from companies and placing it in the hands of the SEC to be administered on random assignment.
- 10. Implement a securities speculation tax, starting with derivatives, to deter casino-style capitalism.
PROBLEMS I & II: -Sean Gonsalves, “The Death of A Myth”, CommonDreams.org, 9.22.08, -Patrick Wood, (“Globalist Ultimatum: Pay up or Collapse,” The August Review, 9.10.08. SOLUTIONS: -Chris Hedges, Excerpt: “Fleecing What’s Left of the Treasury,” Truthdig,9.22.08. Image: "Hennessy Leroyle's Famous Success: Other People's Money" from Hoyt's Theater, New York : by E.O. Towne. U.S. Printing Co., 1889).
VIOLETPLANET SAYS: And let's not forget Phil Gramm & The Commodity Futures Modernization Act (see 9.19.08 post below). Unweaving this intricate capital web will take time. After all, this financial house of cards took 30 years to implement as did the Neo-Conservative philosophy in general. They're one in the same. Chief motivation: individual profits for the crony cabal...right under our noses yet... again.
Friday, September 19, 2008
"The saga of American wealth creation, both for the nation and for its enterprising capitalists, reached its apotheosis during the Gilded Age, a period roughly delimited by the end of Civil War and the beginning of World War I. The Gilded Age ended sometimes in the first third of the 20th century, Some cite the 15th of April 1912, the night when the ocean liner Titanic sank. Others mention World War I or the stock market crash of October 24, 1929. All these events certainly had an impact on the factors which put an end to the Age of Moguls in America. The Titanic disaster taught mankind that there were still limits to where it could go. World War I started a process in which the power of the federal government was increased against the power of the tycoons, a process which would be furthered by the depression which followed the stock market crash of 1929. But what really put an end to the Gilded Age or the age of the moguls, was the introduction of income and estate taxes during the Wilson administration. Corporate and income taxes rendered wealth accumulation slower and more difficult, whereas the estate taxes prevented the perpetuation of wealth in the hands of the founding families."
" How Did We Get Here This Time? That's pretty easy to answer, too. His name is Phil Gramm. A few days after the Supreme Court made George W. Bush president in 2000, Gramm stuck something called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act into the budget bill. Nobody knew that the Texas senator was slipping America a 262 page poison pill. The Gramm Guts America Act was designed to keep regulators from controlling new financial tools described as credit "swaps." These are instruments like sub-prime mortgages bundled up and sold as securities. Under the Gramm law, neither the SEC nor the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) were able to examine financial institutions like hedge funds or investment banks to guarantee they had the assets necessary to cover losses they were guaranteeing. This isn't small beer we are talking about here. The market for these fancy financial instruments they don't expect us little people to understand is estimated at $60 trillion annually, which amounts to almost four times the entire US stock market.
And Senator Phil Gramm wanted it completely unregulated. So did Alan Greenspan, who supported the legislation and is now running around to the talk shows jabbering about the horror of it all. Before the highly paid lobbyists were done slinging their gold card guts about the halls of congress, every one from hedge funds to banks were playing with fire for fun and profit."
"In fact, it really does look as if the foundations of US Capitalism have shattered.
"Nothing will be like it was before," said James Allroy, a broker who was brooding over his chai latte at a Starbucks on Wall Street. "The world as we know it is going down."
Many are drawing comparisons with the Great Depression, the national trauma that has been the benchmark for everything since. "I think it has the chance to be the worst period of time since 1929," financing legend Donald Trump told CNN. And the Wall Street Journal seconds that opinion, giving one story the title: "Worst Crisis Since '30s, With No End Yet in Sight."
The only thing that is certain is that the era of the unbridled free-market economy in the US has passed -- at least for now. The near nationalization of AIG, America's largest insurance company, with an $85 billion cash infusion -- a bill footed by taxpayers -- was a staggering move. The sum is three times as high as the guarantee provided by the Federal Reserve when Bear Stearns was sold to JPMorgan Chase in March.
The most breathtaking aspect about this week's crisis, though, is that the life raft -- which Washington had only previously used to bail out the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- is being handed out by a government whose party usually fights against any form of government intervention. The policy is anchored in its party platform.
"I fear the government has passed the point of no return," financial historian Ron Chernow told the New York Times. "We have the irony of a free-market administration doing things that the most liberal Democratic administration would never have been doing in its wildest dreams."
The Past: -Drew Caradine Shouter, ("A Classification of American Wealth: History and Genealogy of the Wealthy Families of America," 2008). The Present: -James Moore, ("A Nation of Village Idiots," Huffington Post, 9.18.08). The Future: -Marc Pitzke ('The World As We Know It Is Going Down,' Der Spiegel Online International, 9.18.08. Image: "Liberty Not Anarchy," 19th Century Labor Print, Southern Labor Archives, Special Collections, Georgia State University, Harper's Weekly, 9.4.1886).
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Nearly thirty years of supply-side, Reaganomics is coming home to roost. The real economy, the one the vast majority of Americans live in, has seen wages stagnate and fail to keep up with productivity since 1973. The parasitic economy, the one you see bubble heads on TV talking about is largely illusory. Full of "naked short sales", "spiders" and other speculative devices designed to steal money from the rest of us.
The unmitigated greed of the lords of this other economy, about 1% of the population, have harnessed the labor of the other 99% while at the same time infiltrating our government and slashing any and all regulation in order to make it even easier to steal. They've created trade deals in opposition to over two-hundred years of trade policy that have decimated our real economy. The economy of factories and steel mills. Our manufacturing base, the strength of our whole country is just gone in the name of Globalization. Just a little understanding of history reveals that this "globalization" isn't new. Something very similar was touted during the height of the British Empire; even down to the same justifications.
The speculative/parasitic economy is run on television for television by vast weapons manufacturers that also happen to own television. Cheap hucksters and just plain lying pricks like the guys from Enron who famously joked:
"Yeah, grandma Millie, man" "Yeah, now she wants her f-----g money back for all the power you've charged right up, jammed right up her a-- for f-----g $250 a megawatt hour" (gales of frat-boy laughter).
Voters have a clear choice.
• If you care about the economy you can choose between a guy who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard law school, who eschewed big money jobs on Wall St. to go work with the people on the south side of Chicago. Or you can choose a guy who graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the Annapolis Naval Academy who nevertheless was given a much coveted spot for training as a naval pilot, who during the last huge collapse in the financial sector in the late 80's, was a member of the Keating 5.
• If you care about foreign policy, you can choose a guy who voted to allow Bush to unilaterally invade Iraq in 2003. A guy who has voted with Bush nearly every chance he's gotten and who thinks the foreign policy we are currently engaged in is just great. Or they can choose a guy who was interviewed on November 11, 2002 where he said he would not have voted to authorize the Iraq war and who further went on to say that if the headlong rush to war was pressed; the issue would then become how to stabilize the region and how to get back out. Something he's been thinking about since Bush, McCain, et al. invaded in March 2003.
There's more, oh so much more, but we all know the arguments. The bottom line is, a vote for McCain in this election is indefensible, unjustifiable, and immoral.
- Sean Keenan, ("A Clear Choice," The Ojai Post, 9.16.08. Image: Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus
Rome, Bronze, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore MD, Julio-Claudian Period, ca. A.D. 50).
Sunday, September 14, 2008
In addition to the familiar left/right, back/forth and up/down, physicists have contemplated additional directions that are curled up to such a small size that they’ve so far eluded discovery.
For many years Einstein was a strong proponent of this idea. He had already shown that gravity was nothing but warps and curves in the familiar dimensions of space (and time); the new idea posited that nature’s other forces (for example, the electromagnetic force) amounted to warps and curves in additional, as yet unknown, spatial dimensions. Difficulties in applying the idea mathematically resulted in Einstein ultimately losing interest. But decades later, string theory revived it: the mathematics of string theory not only requires extra dimensions but has shown how to resolve the issues that flummoxed Einstein.
And now, remarkably, there’s a chance — albeit a small one — that the Large Hadron Collider may find evidence for the extra dimensions. Calculations show that some of the debris produced by the proton collisions may be ejected out of our familiar spatial dimensions and crammed into the others, a process we’d detect by an apparent loss of the energy the debris would carry.
The unknown is just how powerful the collisions need to be for this process to happen, a number itself determined by another unknown: just how small the extra dimensions, if they exist, actually are. The more tightly they’re curled, the harder it would be to cram anything in them and so the more energetic the required collisions.
Should the Large Hadron Collider have the power necessary to reveal extra dimensions of space — to overturn our belief that length, width and height are all there is — that would rank as one of the greatest upheavals in our understanding of the universe.
Finding what you don’t expect opens new vistas on the nature of reality. And that’s what humans, including those of us who happen to be physicists, live for."
-Brian Greene, (Excerpt: "The Origins of the Universe: A Crash Course," NY Times, 9.12.08. Image: -Max Brice, "The Large Hadron Collider's ALICE Inner Tracking System during its transport in the experimental cavern and its insertion into the Time Projection Chamber (TPC). ALICE will study the physics of ultrahigh-energy proton-proton and lead-lead collisions and will explore conditions in the first instants of the universe, a few microseconds after the Big Bang." The Boston Globe, 8.1.08).
Friday, September 12, 2008
The study shows how prone people are to "false memories", which the researchers say police and social workers must take into account when evaluating witness testimony or "recovered" memories of childhood abuse.
"Taken as a whole, this is further evidence that our memories are not perfect," said Dr James Ost, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth. "They are not like a videotape you can rewind and replay for perfect recall. Because of this, memory alone is not reliable enough to form the basis of legal decisions."
He gave questionnaires to 150 British students and 150 Swedish students on what they remembered of the Tavistock Square bomb three months after the attacks. None had seen the bomb first hand. He asked the students what they remembered about TV footage of the aftermath of the bomb and about CCTV images of the bus exploding and a computer reconstruction of the event.
Neither the CCTV or the computer reconstruction existed, but 40% and 28% of British respondents claimed to remember seeing them. The equivalent figures of the Swedish participants were 16% and 6%.
Some of the students embellished their accounts with details they could not have witnessed. One wrote: "The bus has stopped at a traffic light. There was a bright light and a loud bang and the top of the bus flew off." The study backs up previous research by Ost in which people claimed to have seen non-existent footage of the crash in Paris that killed Princess Diana."
-James Randerson, ("Study Shows How False Memories Rerun 7/7 Film That Never Existed," The GuardianUK, 9.10.08. Image: From the book, "The Mind and Its Education" 12.26.06).
Monday, September 8, 2008
said H.L. Mencken in the era of Babbitt and the Scopes "monkey" trial. Several generations later, one might speculate that no publisher has ever lost money with a book accusing Americans — particularly young ones — of being stupid.
The most influential book in that genre is surely Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), in which he argues that the American dislike for educational elitism derives from a number of interlocking cultural legacies, including religious fundamentalism, populism, the privileging of "common sense" over esoteric knowledge, the pragmatic values of business and science, and the cult of the self-made man. With some cyclical variation, Americans tend to distrust, resent, and even feel moral revulsion toward "intellectuals."
As an English professor, I can attest to the power of that element in American culture, as can just about anyone in any academic field without direct, practical applications. When a stranger asks me what I do, I usually just say, "I'm a teacher." The unfortunate follow-up remarks — usually about political bias in the classroom and sham apologies for their poor grammar meant to imply that I am a snob — usually make me wish I had said, "I sell hydraulic couplers," an answer more likely to produce hums of respectful incomprehension.
If the situation was bad in Hofstadter's time, it's grown steadily worse over the past 40 years. The anti-intellectual legacy he described has often been used by the political right — since at least the McCarthy era — to label any complication of the usual pieties of patriotism, religion, and capitalism as subversive, dangerous, and un-American. And, one might add, the left has its own mirror-image dogmas. Now, in the post-9/11 era, American anti-intellectualism has grown more powerful, pervasive, and dangerous than at any time in our history, and we have a duty — particularly as educators — to foster intelligence as a moral obligation.
For academics on the political left, the last eight years represent the sleep of reason producing the monsters of our time: suburban McMansions, gas-guzzling Hummers, pop evangelicalism, the triple-bacon cheeseburger, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?, creation science, waterboarding, environmental apocalypse, Miley Cyrus, and the Iraq War — all presided over by that twice-elected, self-satisfied, inarticulate avatar of American incuriosity and hubris: he who shall not be named.
Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter (2008), by Richard Shenkman, argues that the dumbing down of our political culture is linked to the decline of organized labor and local party politics, which kept members informed on matters of substance. Building on arguments put forward in books such as What's the Matter With Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), by Thomas Frank, Shenkman shows how the political right has been able to don the populist mantle even as it pursues policies that thwart the economic and social interests of the average voter.
Meanwhile, the political left is unable to argue that those average Americans are in some way responsible for their own exploitation because they are too shallow and misinformed — too stupid — to recognize their own interests. One of Shenkman's solutions is to require voters to pass a civics exam.
Former Vice President Al Gore obviously has a dog in this hunt, and his book The Assault on Reason (2007) argues that the fundamental principles of American freedom — descended from the Enlightenment — are being corrupted by the politics of fear, the abuse of faith, the power of an increasingly centralized media culture, and degradation of political checks and balances favoring an imperial presidency. The results of that perfect storm include the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the continuing threat of global warming, the squandering of respect and sympathy for the United States after 9/11, and the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (2008), by Naomi S. Baron, shows how the proliferation of electronic communication has impaired students' ability to write formal prose; moreover, it discourages direct communication, leading to isolation, self-absorption, and damaged relationships. Worst of all, the prevalence of multi-tasking — of always being partly distracted, doing several things at once — has diminished the quality of our thought, reflection, self-expression, and even, surprisingly, our productivity. Baron's solution is to turn off the distractions and focus on the task and people at hand.
Carr, author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google (2008), argues that daily use of the Internet may be rewiring our brains for skimming rather than for the sustained concentration that is required for reading books, listening to lectures, and writing long essays. Obviously, such rewiring is going to have the biggest impact on the rising generation appearing in our college classrooms: the "digital natives."
The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008), by Mark Bauerlein, provides alarming statistical support for the suspicion — widespread among professors (including me) — that young Americans are arriving at college with diminished verbal skills, an impaired work ethic, an inability to concentrate, and a lack of knowledge even as more and more money is spent on education.
It seems that our students are dumb and ignorant, but their self-esteem is high so they are impervious or hostile to criticism. Approaching his subject from the right, Bauerlein mentions the usual suspects — popular culture, pandering by educators, the culture war, etc. — but also reserves special attention for the digital technologies, which, for all their promise, have only more deeply immersed students in the peer obsessions of entertainment and fashion rather than encouraging more mature and sustained thought about politics, history, science, and the arts.
For Bauerlein, the future of American democracy "looks dim" unless we can counter the youth culture with respect for the knowledge of those over 30.
The most wide-ranging cultural study — extending Hofstadter's analysis up to the present — is Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason (2008), in which she argues that American anti-intellectualism has reached unprecedented heights thanks to the converging influences of junk science, fundamentalism, celebrity-obsessed media, identity politics, urban-gang culture, political correctness, declining academic standards, moral relativism, political pandering, and the weakening of investigative journalism, among other factors. Jacoby also supports the view that technology has damaged our ability to focus and think deeply. Her vision of the future is a nation that is unprepared for the global challenges we face.
As someone involved in education, I take the concerns of all of those writers quite seriously: The abilities and attitudes of students affect my life on a daily basis. It is my job, as I see it, to combat ignorance and foster the skills and knowledge needed to produce intelligent, ethical, and productive citizens. I see too many students who are:
*Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.
*Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.
*Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.
*Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)
*Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.
*Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).
*Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.
*Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.
*Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.
*Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.
On the other hand, I am not so pessimistic about the abilities of the "digital natives." Different generations have different ways of knowing — different configurations of multiple intelligences. Pick your era and your subject: How many of us know anything about farming anymore or how to read the changing of the seasons? How many of us know how to repair an automobile or make a cake from scratch?
Of course, we lament that the skills we have acquired at great pains can become lost to the next generation, but we can hardly reverse all of it. And it may be that the young are better adapted to what is coming than we are.
-Thomas H. Benton (Excerpt: "An Academic in America: On Stupidity," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 8.1.08. Image:"Fahrenheit 451" (based on the novel by Ray Bradbury) directed by Francois Truffaut, 1966).
Saturday, September 6, 2008
At a major conference last year in Las Vegas, in a scientific paper published last week and another due out this week, psychologists have argued that magicians, in their age-old quest for better ways to fool people, have been engaging in cutting-edge, if informal, research into how we see and comprehend the world around us. Just as studying the mechanisms of disease reveals the workings of our body's defenses, these psychologists believe that studying the ways a talented magician can short-circuit our perceptual system will allow us to better grasp how the system is put together.
"I think magicians and cognitive neuroscientists are getting at similar questions, but while neuroscientists have been looking at this for a few decades, magicians have been looking at this for centuries, millennia probably," says Susana Martinez-Conde, a neuroscientist at the Barrow Neurological Institute.
As magicians have long known and neuroscientists are increasingly discovering, human perception is a jury-rigged apparatus, full of gaps and easily manipulated. The collaboration between science and magic is still young, and the findings preliminary, but interest among scholars is only growing.
A great deal of the success of a piece of magic is simply getting the audience's attention and sending it to the wrong place - to a right hand flourishing a wand while the left secrets a ball away in a pocket or plucks a card from a sleeve. Magic shows are masterpieces of misdirection.
For years, cognitive scientists thought of perception as like a movie camera, something that reproduced the world in its panoply of detail. Over the past decade, though, that model has been increasingly questioned. For one thing, people have a pronounced tendency to miss things that are happening right in front of them. Daniel Simons, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, did a series of now-famous studies in the late 1990s that showed the extent of this cognitive blindness. In one, people were approached by someone asking them for directions, only to have, in the middle of the conversation, that person replaced by another. Only half
noticed the change.
In another study, people were shown a movie clip of two teams, one in black shirts and one in white, each passing a basketball around. The subjects were asked to count the number of passes one of the teams made. Half said afterward that they hadn't noticed the woman in a gorilla suit who, midway through the clip, strolled through, paused, and beat her chest.
Because of work like this, a new model has arisen over the past decade, in which visual cognition is understood not as a camera but something more like a flashlight beam sweeping a twilit landscape. At any particular instant, wecan only see detail and color in the small patch we are concentrating on. The rest we fill in through a combination of memory, prediction and a crude peripheral sight. We don't take in our surroundings so much as actively and constantly construct them.
"Our picture of the world is kind of a virtual reality," says Ronald A. Rensink, a professor of computer science and psychology at the University of British Columbia.
"It's a form of intelligent hallucination."
The benefit of these sorts of cognitive shortcuts is that they allow us to create a remarkably rich image of our environment despite the fact that our two optic nerves have roughly the resolution of cell-phone cameras. We don't have to waste time making out every car on the highway to understand that they are, indeed, cars, and to make sense of how they are moving - our minds can simply approximate from the thousands of cars we have already seen in our lives.
But because this method relies so heavily on expectation - not only to fill in the backdrop around us but to determine where to send what psychologists call our "attentional spotlight" - we are especially vulnerable to someone who knows our expectations and can manipulate them, someone like a magician.
Misdirection is, in a sense, the conjurer's tool that is easiest to understand - we miss things simply because we aren't looking at them. Other effects, though, are more befuddling. Often eye-tracking studies show that subjects can be looking right at an object without seeing it - car accident survivors report a similar paradox. Or, with just a little encouragement, a person can be made to see something where there's nothing.
The vanishing ball illusion is one of the most basic tricks a magician canlearn: a ball is thrown repeatedly into the air and caught. Then, on thefinal throw, it disappears in midair. In fact, the magician has merely mimed the last throw, following the ball's imagined upward trajectory with his eyes while keeping it hidden in his hand.
But if the technique is easily explained, the phenomenon itself is not. If done right, the trick actually makes observers see the ball rising into the air on the last toss and vanishing at its apex. As Rensink points out, this is something more powerful than merely getting someone to look in the wrong direction - it's a demonstration of how easy it is to nudge the brain into the realm of actual hallucination. And cognitive scientists still don't know exactly what's causing it to happen.
There's a value in simply coming to grips with the gaps and limits in our awareness. Like Robert-Houdin's audience, awed by a magnet, we are more easily manipulated and more likely to put ourselves in compromising situations if we don't know what we don't know. The main thing is knowing that you've got limitations.
"The fundamental thing we do every day is ascertain what is reality, it's this diagnosis of what the signals coming into our eyes are supposed to mean," Teller says. "We say, 'That's a fence, I must not walk into it,' or, 'Is that a car coming around the corner? How much can I see of it? Oh, no, it's only a bicycle.' "
What draws people to magic, he believes, is an appreciation of how slippery that seemingly simple diagnosis can be. "They realize that the best way to grasp the power of deception is to do it themselves."
-Drake Bennett, "How Magicians Control Your Mind," Boston Globe, 8.3.08. Image: " Magic Mirror; Op. 255" Sheet Music Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript & Special Collections Library, Duke University, 1910).
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Since Friday, local police and sheriffs, working with the FBI, conducted preemptive searches, seizures and arrests. Glenn Greenwald described the targeting of protestors by "teams of 25-30 officers in riot gear, with semi-automatic weapons drawn, entering homes of those suspected of planning protests, handcuffing and forcing them to lay on the floor, while law enforcement officers searched the homes, seizing computers, journals, and political pamphlets." Journalists were detained at gunpoint and lawyers representing detainees were handcuffed at the scene.
"I was personally present and saw officers with riot gear and assault rifles, pump action shotguns," said Bruce Nestor, the President of the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who is representing several of the protestors. "The neighbor of one of the houses had a gun pointed in her face when she walked out on her back porch to see what was going on. There were children in all of these houses, and children were held at gunpoint."
During Monday's demonstration, law enforcement officers used pepper spray, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and excessive force. At least 284 people were arrested, including Amy Goodman, the prominent host of Democracy Now!, as well as the show's producers, Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar. "St. Paul was the most militarized I have ever seen an American city to be," Greenwald wrote, "with troops of federal, state and local law enforcement agents marching around with riot gear, machine guns, and tear gas cannisters, shouting military chants and marching in military formations."
Bruce Nestor said the timing of the arrests was intended to stop protest activity, "to make people fearful of the protests, but also to discourage people from protesting." Nevertheless, 10,000 people, many opposed to the Iraq war, turned out to demonstrate on Monday. A legal team from the National Lawyers Guild has been working diligently to protect the constitutional rights of protestors."
- Marjorie Cohn (President of the National Lawyers Guild and a Professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, Excerpt: "Preemptive Strikes Against Protest at RNC," commondreams.org, 9.2.08 Image: American Fascism poster, lilith-ezine.com, 2008).
Monday, September 1, 2008
Open water now stretches all the way round the Arctic, making it possible for the first time in human history to circumnavigate the North Pole. New satellite images, taken only two days ago, show that melting ice last week opened up both the fabled North-west and North-east passages, in the most important geographical landmark to date to signal the unexpectedly rapid progress of global warming.
Last night Professor Mark Serreze, a sea ice specialist at the official US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), hailed the publication of the images – on an obscure website by scientists at the University of Bremen, Germany – as "a historic event", and said that it provided further evidence that the Arctic icecap may now have entered a "death spiral". Some scientists predict that it could vanish altogether in summer within five years, a process that would, in itself, greatly accelerate.
But Sarah Palin, John McCain's new running mate, holds that the scientific consensus that global warming is melting Arctic ice is unreliable.
The opening of the passages – eagerly awaited by shipping companies who hope to cut thousands of miles off their routes by sailing round the north of Canada and Russia – is only the greatest of a host of ominous signs this month of a gathering crisis in the Arctic. Early last week the NSDIC warned that, over the next few weeks, the total extent of sea ice in the Arctic may shrink to below the record low reached last year – itself a massive 200,000 square miles less than the previous worst year, 2005.
Four weeks ago, tourists had to be evacuated from Baffin Island's Auyuittuq National Park because of flooding from thawing glaciers. Auyuittuq means "land that never melts".
Two weeks later, in an unprecedented sighting, nine stranded polar bears were seen off Alaska trying to swim 400 miles north to the retreating icecap edge. Ten days ago massive cracking was reported in the Petermann glacier in the far north of Greenland, an area apparently previously unaffected by global warming.
But it is the simultaneous opening – for the first time in at least 125,000 years – of the North-west passage around Canada and the North-east passage around Russia that promises to deliver much the greatest shock. Until recently both had been blocked by ice since the beginning of the last Ice Age.
In 2005, the North-east passage opened, while the western one remained closed, and last year their positions were reversed. But the images, gathered by Nasa using microwave sensors that penetrate clouds, show that the North-west passage opened last weekend and that the last blockage on the north- eastern one – a tongue of ice stretching down to Russia across Siberia's Laptev Sea – dissolved a few days later.
"The passages are open," said Professor Serreze, though he cautioned that official bodies would be reluctant to confirm this for fear of lawsuits if ships encountered ice after being encouraged to enter them. "It's a historic event. We are going to see this more and more as the years go by."
Shipping companies are already getting ready to exploit the new routes. The Bremen-based Beluga Group says it will send the first ship through the North-east passage – cutting 4,000 nautical miles off the voyage from Germany to Japan – next year. And Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, last week announced that all foreign ships entering the North-west passage should report to his government – a move bound to be resisted by the US, which regards it as an international waterway. But scientists say that such disputes will soon become irrelevant if the ice continues to melt at present rates, making it possible to sail right across the North Pole. They have long regarded the disappearance of the icecap as inevitable as global warming takes hold, though until recently it was not expected until around 2070.
Many scientists now predict that the Arctic ocean will be ice-free in summer by 2030 – and a landmark study this year by Professor Wieslaw Maslowski at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, concluded that there will be no ice between mid-July and mid-September as early as 2013.
The tipping point, experts believe, was the record loss of ice last year, reaching a level not expected to occur until 2050. Sceptics then dismissed the unprecedented melting as a freak event, and it was indeed made worse by wind currents and other natural weather patterns. Conditions were better this year – it has been cooler, particularly last winter – and for a while it looked as if the ice loss would not be so bad. But this month the melting accelerated. Last week it shrank to below the 2005 level and the European Space Agency said: "A new record low could be reached in a matter of weeks."
Four weeks ago, a seven-year study at the University of Alberta reported that – besides shrinking in area – the thickness of the ice had dropped by half in just six years. It suggested that the region had "transitioned into a different climatic state where completely ice-free summers would soon become normal". The process feeds on itself. As white ice is replaced by sea, the dark surface absorbs more heat, warming the ocean and melting more ice.
-Geoffrey Lean, "For The First Time In Human History, The North Pole Can Be Circumnavigated,"
Independent.co.uk, 8.31.08. Image: -Admiral Robert Peary's Arctic Expedition. In the early morning hours a triumphant Peary and his team—now just two sleds and five companions—reached what they believed was the North Pole, 4.6.1909).