Chinese Puzzle

I posted recently about the international incident that was stirred up when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, of the NBA, dared to tweet that the Chinese people should be supported in their efforts to criticize their government. As a result the two teams that went to China to play an exhibition game were pretty much confined to quarters for much of a week while the public appearances that were scheduled were cancelled by the Chinese government. This is a big deal in that basketball is a very popular sport in China — especially NBA basketball. This may be the result of the fact that one of their players was a star in the NBA for years — Yao Ming by name.

In any event, upon their return to the United States the media in this country were eager to hear all about the kerfuffle in China and finally, after a day’s rest, LeBron James, who  plays for the Los Angles Lakers basketball team, spoke about the matter and in a rather long comment he said that in general we should not tweet about things without first being “educated” (his word, he should have said “well informed”) about the subject, and thinking about the consequences of those tweets in the international arena.

He was severely criticized on many fronts for siding with capitalism as over against “caring,” which is to say, worrying more about the profits that might come to the NBA as a result of good relations with China than he was about free speech which is much prized on this side of the Ocean — though not in China. We regard freedom of speech as a right, of course, though we fail to consider that rights are not absolute; on the contrary, they are always (even the right to bear arms) carefully circumscribed by restraints. We do not have the right to shout fire in a crowded theater, for example. Or, I would add, a right to bear automatic weapons designed for the military.

Now I am not a big fan of LeBron James. On the contrary I find his personality off-putting and I don’t particularly like his style of basketball, relying  much on his size and strength rather than the finesse I always associated with basketball. Moreover, I don’t see why he should regard himself as a qualified spokesperson for the NBA. But in this case I would like to defend him: I think he’s right. This was not a case of freedom of speech, it was a matter of common sense and awareness of the repercussions of the things we say and do. As he noted (and I really thought when he spoke that he was talking here to our President!) we need to think about the consequences of our words and actions. We, as a rule, tend not to do that, especially in this electronic age when buttons are pushed and we realize later what problems arose because of poor judgment and a too-quick thumb. I found that to be the case with at least one of my blogs. James is right: we need to think about the consequences of our words.

In and of itself, the incident is a tempest in a teapot as I noted in my previous post. But as a general trend and given the international repercussions of this seemingly insignificant  incident, we would do well to pause and think about the way we rush into things without taking the time to think about the consequences of our words and actions. That is good advice and in this case it was well intended; James was not denying our right to freedom of speech. He was simply urging us all (including those at the very top) to think before we tweet.

Tempest in a Teapot?

You have doubtless heard about the gigantic SNAFU resulting from a seeming harmless tweet that went out a few days ago. NO, not a tweet from Tweety Bird, but one from an NBA manager. CNN tells us:

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent what may be the most problematic and potentially damaging tweet in corporate America this year.

Morey set off an international firestorm over the weekend when he tweeted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” said the tweet, which has since been deleted.

Chinese authorities, challenged by months of protests in Hong Kong, have made it clear that business as usual with the league will cease until the NBA totally repudiates Morey’s statement.
The NBA has not “repudiated” the statement, which was cancelled very soon after it went out. In fact, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver supported Morey’s tweet thereby adding fuel to the fire and, of course, the President had to add his two cents worth. In any event, there’s a firestorm as China will now have nothing to do with the NBA and plans for pre-season games among a number of NBA teams that were scheduled in China, along with visits by the immensely popular players to various youth groups and charitable work among the throngs of people in China who find the NBA and its stars captivating have been cancelled.
There are a number of business repercussions as well, including the determination of a shoe company in China that was negotiating with several NBA players begging off and cutting ties with the NBA — under orders from the repressive regime in China, no doubt. In any event, this is a kerfuffle of immense importance in a day when our relations with China were already standing on the edge of a precipice.
I tend to agree with the NBA Commissioner who defended th right of Morey and anyone else to say what he or she may want to say. After all, our nation is founded on the right of free speech — among other rights.
But this never should have happened because it is not up to Morey — or anyone else in this country — to tell the Chinese how they should live their lives. Freedom of speech is one we all prize and rightly so. But the Chinese do not and to shout out in a tweet that the Chinese are justified to protest the actions of their government is iill-advised if not downright stupid. Especially, as I said, given the tottering relations with that nation resulting from numerous actions by our sitting President.
In a word, the right of folks to say what they want (within limits, I would think) is one we rightly pride ourselves on. But we cannot assume that other nations accept those rights — even if they should. And while the actions of a sports team on the other side of the earth may seem trivial in light of the many problems we face these days, it is simply adding fuel to a fire that had already been started when our President decided to impose tariffs on imports from that country not long ago.
We cannot possibly agree with the strictures laid down by the totalitarian regime in China, but it is a healthy reminder to those of us in this country who are faced with the growing possibility of an increasingly repressive government in this country that our freedoms are precious and there are those in this world who are not lucky enough to share them with us.
This is sad, and Morey was on solid ethical ground. But it was a political mistake and a lesson to us all.

Still A Dangerous Game

An ex-Marine recently “liked” a post of mine from last September and in light of the recent appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor to the president (a choice Jimmy Carter called “Trump’s greatest mistake”), I thought it timely to post it again. Bolton, it will be recalled, has said publicly that the president should order a “pre-emtive strike” against North Korea. Now, bearing in mind that China has said that it would retaliate if this were to happen, though they would not become involved if North Korea were to strike first, this is insanity of the first order. Carter is right. Nuclear war is no joke. And it is certainly not a game.

The posturing between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea would be mildly amusing it weren’t for the fact that both of these men seem to lack any sense of balance and both are marginally insane — and they sit on top of powder kegs playing with matches.

Their posturing ceased to be even slightly amusing when the North Korean foreign Minister recently cried “foul” and, not knowing that things don’t work this way, insisted that Trump has “declared war” on North Korea; they now have license to shoot down any American plane that ventures close enough to set off sparks. Meantime, the United States has chosen the moment to fly bombers with fighter escorts near the Korean border in a show of strength — at a time when the posturing needs to stop and clear heads need to take command — if there are any clear heads on either side of this preposterous battle of nit-wits. A recent story in Yahoo put in mildly when it was noted that:

The increasingly heated rhetoric between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is raising fears of a risk of a miscalculation by one side or the other that could have massive repercussions.

Someone really needs to break Trump’s thumbs or hide his phone so he cannot tweet the absurdities he seems determined to tweet at every possible opportunity. He really doesn’t get it. He operates inside his own head and has no sense that the things he says have consequences and the consequences in this case are of monumental proportion. Add to this the fact that a number of Congressmen on the Republican side of the aisle, led by the likes of Duncan Hunter, have decided to throw their weight, such as it is, behind the cry to bring North Korea to its knees at any cost and we have the makings of a truly serious international catastrophe. This is hubris, pure and simple. Or it is simple madness. Perhaps both. At some point someone needs to put a stop to all of this. It has already gone too far.

Before the nuclear age this sort of display of macho insolence would have been expected and even applauded by a great many of those among us who are convinced that “our side” (whichever side that happens to be) is always right in its perception of reality and morality and the only country fit to determine how everyone else in the world should live their lives. Chest thumping is not new. But this is the nuclear age and the fact that rhetoric can escalate out of control and bring about catastrophic consequences is a fact and a fact that needs to be taken to heart. “Massive repercussions,” indeed.

These two men remind me of two kids rattling their sabres to frighten one another. It is time they grew up, laid their sabres down and listened to the still, calm voice of reason. The problem, of course, is that neither of them would hear that voice even if it were shouting in his ear., They are both caught up in some sort of egomaniacal game of “chicken” and each wants to bring the other to his knees. It is incumbent on someone, anyone, to knock one or the other about the head and ears and make them realize that this game they are playing has incredibly high stakes: the lives of millions of people, not to mention the very planet itself.

Where are the clear heads when we need them? Or are there none either in Washington or in the whole of North Korea? I understand that most of the clear heads in that country have been silenced by a man who has total control of the political and military machines. In this country we are supposed to have checks and balances to maintain control of unfettered power gone mad. But those checks and balances seem to be tongue-tied and silent at a time when they need to speak up loudly and decisively.

I suspect that there are forces at work behind the scene, forces that are working to tone-down the rhetoric and make clear to both parties involved that they need to shut up and look for peaceful options to a resolution of the tensions between the two countries. But neither of these men seems inclined to listen to those who oppose him. We are not in a position to “take on” North Korea in a nuclear war since it has been made clear by the Chinese that if we start the war they will enter on the side of North Korea. And while North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons may be small and unreliable, that of China nearly equals our own. These weapons are  numerous enough to end the war in a few month’s time — with the casualties piled high in countless numbers and irreparable damage to the planet. Those at work behind the scene presumably are aware of this and will win the day. We can only hope.

So far this is a war of words. I used the term “game” in the title of this piece, but it is not a game at all — or if it is, it is one that no one can possibly win. As the Yahoo News Story suggests, miscalculations are likely — especially with each of the two men in charge of things determined to make the other back down. It is time for the clear heads to speak up and the nutters to tone down the rhetoric and go sit in the corner and cool off.

 

 

Poetic Justice?

Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by a coalition of reluctant countries led by a delusional United States chasing fictional WMD’s, you may recall that there were international sanctions against Iraq that were apparently crippling their economy — especially the export of oil from that oil-rich country. A cynic might suggest that the invasion was the brain child of Big Oil, since they were having difficulties getting their hands on that oil due to the sanctions, but I am not willing to make such an assertion. I say this even though I am aware that the first thing secured by the United States forces were the oil fields — not the museums where millions of dollars in treasures were pilfered and never found again. But, as I say, I am not cynical enough to suggest that Big Oil was behind the invasion — again, in spite of the fact that Bush and Cheney had (and still have) connections with Big Oil. I’m not sayin’ . . . .

In any event, as it happens, now that that abortive war is over and Iraq has been restored to relative calm and the oil fields are up and running America’s Big Oil maggots  magnates are now fuming because they still can’t get their greedy hands on all of that oil. In fact, the Iraqis are selling the bulk of it to China which had nothing whatever to do with the invasion of the country. But the Chinese are willing to pay top dollar for the oil because China is not being run by the oil maggots magnates; it is run by a government that is more concerned about getting hold of the oil than they are about the profits. Chinese oil companies are not privately owned by companies like Exxon/Mobil, which owns the lion’s share in one of the largest oil fields in Iraq; they are state-owned and the country needs the energy.  These companies do not have to answer to their shareholders, pay dividends, or even generate profits. The American oil maggots magnates want to buy the oil cheap and sell it high whereas the Chinese are willing to pay the Iraqis what they demand. Guess where the oil increasingly ends up? In China, of course — not the United States.

Not only are the Chinese buying the Iraqi oil at relatively high prices, they are pouring people and billions of dollars into Iraq to make sure the supply of oil continues for as long as possible and that they get a larger and larger percentage of the oil that is exported. As we are told in an article first published in the New York Times and written by Tim Arango and Clifford Krauss, former Defense Department official Michael Makovsky, who worked for the Bush administration, complains that “We lost out. The Chinese had nothing whatever to do with the war, but from an economic standpoint they are benefiting from it, and our Fifth Fleet and air forces are helping to assure their supply.”

It’s enough to restore one’s faith in the ancient notion of cosmic harmony — until you stop to think of all the killed, wounded, and displaced people that war cost.

Al Is Green

Al Gore puts his money where his mouth is and it has made him a very wealthy man. The Washington Post recently reported that his net worth these days is around $100 million — 50 times what it was after leaving the office of Vice President — mostly as a result of investments in clean energy. This gives the lie to those nay-sayers who insist that investing in clean energy will not pay dividends and that the government should ignore clean energy and continue to pursue such projects as the Keystone Oil pipeline while maintaining the $4 billion a year in tax subsidies to Big Oil.

Not only has Gore made it big investing in clean energy, others have as well — as the Huff Post reported recently:

Gore isn’t the only one who’s betting on green energy. The United States invested $51 billion in renewable energy in 2011, second only to China in a year where green investments hit a record high.

He also has to thank the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus package. The $80 to $90 billion worth of government investment in green energy has helped to grow many of the companies Gore and his renewable energy-based hedge fund Generation Investment Management have put the majority of their money in. In fact, nine of 11 companies that Gore endorsed during a 2008 presentation on fighting climate change received government investment, WaPo reports.

There have been failures in the clean energy field, of course, and these have been the focus of comments made during the current presidential campaign by Mitt Romney. Romney would also like to reduce or eliminate altogether future government investments in clean energy in spite of the fact that they are clearly paying off.

But the success rate of renewable energy companies may be far higher than some, particularly Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, would like to admit. During the first Presidential debate, Romney claimed that over half the green energy companies benefitting from stimulus dollars failed. In fact, just 1.4 percent of the U.S. dollars invested in green energy went to companies that had failed by the end of 2011, CleanTechnica reports.

Romney, and others of his persuasion, would like to point to the failures — such as the solar energy company Solyndra which went belly up as a result of the availability of cheap solar panels made in China which the Obama administration finally stopped by imposing tariffs — though too late to save Solyndra. In any event, the success stories greatly outweigh the failures in spite if what Mitt would have us believe.

The stimulus packages clearly help bring money into the clean energy industry, but why don’t both sides of the political aisle get foursquare behind the clean energy movement, help create jobs, boost the economy, and head in the direction of countries like Germany which will be nuclear and coal free within a few years? The answer requires some speculation, but it is fairly clear that the companies that make huge profits from the continued use of fossil fuels would prefer that we not wean ourselves from those sources of energy (despite the damage we are doing to the environment and the planet itself) and they pour large amounts of money into the pockets of politicians to see to it that it doesn’t happen. But the success stories continue to pop up from time to time and people like Al Gore still believe and their belief is clearly paying off.

Military Mystique

I recall seeing a photograph recently of President Obama sitting in a crowded room surrounded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in all their regalia. There they were fully uniformed, chests ablaze with ribbons representing courage, valor and years of experience defending the country in all parts of the world. And there was the skinny little President in his white shirt and tie looking very much out-of-place — and intimidated. They were considering how to wage war.

The photo made me reflect on an incident from my distant past when I taught at a private school in Katonah, New York and one Saturday we took a group of the boys to West Point for a basketball game. We were all dressed in our best bib and tucker and feeling very good about ourselves — until we started walking around the grounds of the academy. There were the cadets, ramrod straight and neatly pressed (not a wrinkle anywhere to be seen), eyes straight ahead, faces stern and heroic. I started to think myself shabbily dressed, even a bit of a slob — anything but “heroic.” I felt that way walking around Annapolis during my four years of college in that city standing next to a Midshipman as he ordered items from a sales person or walking next to him down the street.

What to make of this? I wonder if part of the reason why the President and the Congress are unwilling to take on the military is reflected in the subtle psychological messages blended into these impressions I recall here? We have a reverence for the military in this country that borders on worship: these are all our “heroes.” These feelings are reinforced every time a sports team hits the field, and our TVs remind us constantly how much we owe these heroes.  If one were to utter a criticism of any one of them it would be regarded as sacrilege. In fact, we have become a nation of military pageants and military presence. Ever since Viet Nam, it seems, the military is held up to us as a model of human achievement. I suspect it is by design. There are parades, fly overs, flags unfurled, uniforms galore, and the air filled with the strains of the National Anthem. It fills us with pride and a sense of awe and privilege. But it is also dangerous, it seems to me.

We need to beware of what I would call the “lure of the military mystique,” the sense that what these people say and do is always right, that they are the paradigm of all human excellence. I dare say that the politicians in this country are intimidated and awed by the presence in the room of a large man in uniform with ribbons agleam on his chest who has a “request” that simply cannot be ignored. It seems a bit of a stretch, but perhaps this is a small part of what Eisenhower was warning us about: some of the power of the military is assuredly wrapped up in the mystique and awe we all experience in the presence of men and women who represent courage, valor, and integrity. Who can say “no” to people like this?

As I say, it is a stretch, but one wonders why an ultra-conservative like Paul Ryan who is intent on slashing every social program in sight and leaving us all without a safety net in our old age would, at the same time (as Chair of the House Budget Committee), recommend increasing the military budget? Indeed, it is one of the oddities of this age that the Republicans generally who want to cut and slash the Federal budget refuse to consider any serious examination of the “defense” budget — much less cuts. And this in face of the fact that we spend 6 to 7 times as much on the military as China and more than the next 20 largest military spenders combined. In fact, this country spends over 40% of the total amount spent on the military in the entire world! Does it ultimately come down to a psychological trick that none of us is aware of: an inability to say “no” to those who are used to giving orders? I wonder.

In the meantime, while we mull this over, the military continues to amass power and spread its influence throughout the world as we continue to spend more on “defense” than any nation in the world and people go to sleep hungry and homeless in a country of vast wealth.

Drill, Baby, Drill!

While President Obama is starting to sound a bit like Sarah Palin in softening his stand on off-shore drilling and the Republicans are screaming “not enough!!” we begin to realize that another election year is upon us. But there seems to be more to this debate than merely higher prices of gasoline at the pumps that have gotten the American public in an uproar and the politicians quick to point fingers at one another. It would appear that we are much more solvent when it comes to energy supplies than we have been led to believe and are even discussing ways to radically change the way we do energy business — from one of the world’s largest importers of foreign oil to a major exporter of domestic oil, natural gas, and coal.

At the center of this controversy is the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast that Obama has given qualified approval to — amid the din from the Republican camp that this is a political ploy to stall for time and appease voters. I sincerely hope so, because of dire predictions such as the following: “A rupture in the Keystone XL pipeline could cause a BP style oil spill in America’s heartland, over the source of fresh drinking water for 2 million people. NASA’s top climate scientist says that fully developing the tar sands in Canada would mean ‘essentially game over’ for the climate.”

Though we already export tons of coal to China  and companies such as Enbridge and Transcanada are busy building natural gas lines to the West coast in order to export more natural gas, the exportation of crude oil to Central America and the East will further alter America’s energy policies. One would think we would want to keep the energy at home as that could lower energy prices here and reduce our dependence on OPEC, just as our national policies have urged us to do for four decades. On occasion, in fact, increased energy independence has been spoken of as a matter of national security. As one on-line source reports, “Reducing demand for oil is the best way to improve our energy security. U.S. demand for oil has been declining since 2007.  New fuel-efficiency standards mean that this trend will continue once the economy gets back on track.” In a word, at a time when we could increase our energy independence, the energy developers in this country are reducing it (and increasing our energy costs) by exporting much of our surplus energy. In doing so, of course, they increase their own profits — which is their only real concern.

As an editorial in the Great Falls Tribune by Professor Emeritus Tom Power of the University of Montana recently pointed out, “Although it is always dangerous to use present trends to forecast the future, the United States appears to be on the verge of shifting its energy demand-supply balance from being the world’s largest energy importer to being one of the world’s more significant energy exporters. . .The justification for this, of course, is that it will create relatively high paid jobs in the United States and help us reduce our trade deficit with the rest of the world. We will export raw materials to the rest of the world and import the goods they manufacture.”  The change in policy, as noted, is to help pay off some of the huge debt we owe to nations such as India and, especially, China. But this comes at the price of increased costs of energy at home while the energy producers watch their profits grow. As Professor Power notes, “Our energy companies seek to kill two domestic energy birds with one stone while increasing their profits.” What a deal!

In any event, this change in US policy flies in the face of the fact that our own clean energy industry is struggling. The US government has been reluctant to get behind that industry (which cannot possibly compete with the major oil companies in political spending) though it threw them a bone recently by imposing tariffs on the import of clean energy technology from China (yes, China), because that country was dumping such things as solar panels in this country at prices we could not match. But this didn’t save such companies as Evergreen Solar which went belly up before the tariffs were imposed. Too little too late.

So, in the end, we have voters worried about increasing energy costs at a time when they should be declining. Meanwhile, at the urging of the energy companies our government shifts its dirty energy policy from import to export and simultaneously continues to discourage America’s clean energy industry, keeping as many as 40,000 jobs hanging in suspense in that industry while insisting upon the Keystone pipeline in order to create an estimated 20,000 jobs.

If I were Alice I would be convinced I was in Wonderland.