Tag Archives: US

Faith and Credit

or: Do We Believe in Magic…

or: One Coin to Rule Them All…

or: I guess I’d better post this before midnight tonight

or: Looks like there’s a deal so what you’re about to read is pointless. Read it anyway.

So it’s been a while (again) but I’ve been urged via the ol’ social network site to post something about the shutdown. But I’d rather not. The shutdown is no more than what it was when Clinton was in office – a temper tantrum thrown by grown men and women who haven’t gotten their way. (Though let’s face it; it’s mostly men – this is the Republican party we’re talking about.) What I’m saying is, temper tantrums don’t phase me – I’ve got a toddler. What does have my wheels turnin’ these days is the possibility (likelihood?) of default. Not so much because it’s going to send the global financial system into a tailspin (though there’s that too) but because it brings into focus my favorite thing about money: it’s worthless. Yep. Worthless. All of it. The euro, the franc, the pound, the dollar bill and even gold are all worthless.

Well… worthless with one rather large caveat.

If we agree something has value then it has value. But until then it’s just a piece of paper or some shiny metal. Big deal. Now, I’d go so far as to say the whole notion of value is a farce but I’m not a sociopath. Value exists in and emerges from human interaction – be it with each other or the material world. Trust bears value by strengthening bonds between people. Creativity bears value when it consoles and inspires the creator and consumer of art. And while value does not exist inherently in any material object, it does begin to take on a life of its own once embodied in our legal and cultural infrastructure. Money of course is the most tangible and universally accepted expression of the intangible life of value. And I suspect somewhere in its bodiless nature is the real reason we can’t just mint the damn coin.

Once a certain value has been assumed for long enough it takes on a very – for lack of a better term – real realness. And we believe in it much the same way that religious believers hold true to religious tenets. That is, our behavior reflects our assumptions about the value of currency the same way believers’ behavior reflects the assumptions built in to their faith. It’s weird to say but when thought of in this way, the entire global financial system rests on faith. Sure, that faith rests upon a particular Treasury bill that can of course be backed up by the world’s largest economy and and most powerful military. (The same can be said of the Catholic Church seven or eight-hundred years ago). But if everyone stopped believing in it, you can imagine the financial shitstorm that would follow.

Or would it?

Thanks to the current make up of the House of Representatives we might find out sooner than later. But again, that’s not what I want to talk about.

So back to the coin… err… I mean The Coin.

The Treasury has the legal authority to mint a platinum gold coin for whatever value it chooses. So legally(?) the treasury could mint a trillion dollar coin, deposit it with the Federal Reserve, and fund the government. This would allow the US to meet its financial obligations and render the House’s authority over the debt ceiling moot. But it would also state rather clearly that currency of any sort is only worth what those with the power to do so determine. And while we already know to be the case, like many other cultural fictions, the idea that paper given a certain color and made of particular fiber holds some inherent value is pervasive and not easily dismissed – which is part of its strength as currency. It’s value is simply assumed. Markets ebb and flow and sometimes inflate and crash. We go to the grocery store and buy what we need. And then we check our accounts. Sometimes we’re up. Sometimes we’re down. And while the value of a certain currency may go up or down relative to other currencies, we never question that it holds value of some sort.

But to say that a belief is pervasive is not the same as saying it is essential. So I guess what I’m asking is, “Can the global economy still function if backed up by one magic coin versus a deluge of magic treasury bills?”. Would we be able to believe in the “full faith and credit of the United States” if it rests on a single piece of shiny metal?

Sure, the trillion dollar coin seems like a slight of hand but, then again, isn’t all currency? And if we all come to terms with the idea that money is little more than a tangible abstraction of real value, why wouldn’t we continue to act in good faith (pun intended) on the debts of exchange in which we’ve already engaged? Sure, as demonstrated by the GOP over the last few years (decades?) some of us would not act in good faith. Could be that they’re simply not capable. But let me draw a parallel between the high priests of finance and the high priest of… well, I guess he’s just the high priest. It might be be a bit of a stretch but that’s what I do here at the ol’ JobSite Liberal blog.

Not too long ago Pope Francis gave an interview in which he called into question the idea of absolute truth saying, “I would not speak, not even for a believer, of ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense of absolute as disconnected, lacking any relationship”. In the same interview, he stated that following one’s conscience is of greater import than belonging to a particular faith, even if doing so leads a person towards atheism or agnosticism. Pretty sophisticated thinking for the Catholic Church I’d say. What he’s essentially saying is that he trusts people to act in good faith in relation to one another without the Church’s guidance. But he’s also saying your beliefs don’t determine what happens. Now suppose that this line of thinking about absolutes is applied to the almighty dolla dolla bill instead of uh, the Almighty.

Regardless of our ability to believe that a value of a trillion dollars can be summed up in one platinum coin, if there is a legal framework for it, and more importantly, if there are a variety of institutions able to continue the circulation of capital, then POOF, the global economy is held up by one magic coin. Yes, the coin is symbolic. But the legal and cultural infrastructure that support it are not. If only the masters of the economic universe were as savvy and sophisticated as the leader of the Catholic Church.

The Return of Discomustachio…

Occasionally I venture into areas of debate that are slightly out of my realm of expertise. This was certainly the case when I started drawing comparisons between the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” in this post. (My BA after all is in religious studies, not US history.) Lucky for me, I had just the guy to turn to for help in fleshing out my thoughts: my old buddy Discomustachio. He used to host a blog with a political bent similar to JSL called “Whydontyourelax”. It was funny and always informative and able to deliver a harsh reality in a matter-of-fact and digestible manner. About a year or so ago, he and I were out bar-hopping our way through Bridgeport and I was schooled (in the most welcome way) on the manner by which political remnants of the cold war still play a role in international policy. So clearly, when I started thinking about parallels between the Cold War and the War on Terror, I knew I had the guy to talk to. But rather than talking it out and regurgitating his thoughts, I asked him to write a guest post for me.  So here it is:

The Return of Discomustachio…

The Jobsite Liberal asked me some time ago to address the question of how our rights as citizens and our government’s ability to infringe on those rights have differed from the Cold War to the modern era. Due to the endless distractions that life throws at you I never really had any time to really devote to this. And then at work one day I got a fresh cup of coffee, decided to take a break (from working), and decided to have a “one-off” with this topic. So here’s a 20 minute ramble on a word doc…

In comparing the relationship of US citizens to their government and how it compares to different periods of our history deemed “crucial” or “special” it’s important to remember that, historically, this current period is like any other time in our history. The rights that we are allowed by our government and their willingness to infringe on those rights may differ depending on the threat but they will always try to balance the need to protect the nation with staying in keeping with the moral foundation of our nation’s commitment to liberty and justice. But ensuring the continuation of the system is always the mission – even if it means a certain percentage of citizens are rightfully or wrongfully denied their rights. Publicly the government may drone on about individual liberty and the rights of citizens. But in the end, as Dick Chenney once said, “Moral principle is meaningless if you lose,” (which may well be the only thing he’s ever said that I agree with).

So consider for a moment the threats we have faced over, say, the last 50 years. People in today’s world often forget that in the Cold War years the threat to the nation was complete. It was irreversible if realized. It was all encompassing and it was systemic. A nuclear war with the Soviets was something that could not be tolerated.  So, helping them was seen as the true measure of violating your relationship to your country if you were a citizen. From the government’s stand point, simply helping the Soviets could tip the balance of power, encourage them to choose general nuclear war if they felt they had a true first strike advantage, and render all principles the US supposedly adhered to meaningless as it crumbled under the weight of nuclear destruction. The need to curtail citizens’ rights were premised on preventing this eventuality; the balance needing to be struck between allowing citizens the power of constructive dissent all while ensuring the republic survives – primarily by keeping the global balance of power in place. Of course it was easy to misuse this understanding in order to further different agendas that may run counter to the spirit of allowing citizens their freedom. Consider the endless accusations by Segregationists in the American south calling MLK a Communist and arguing that his prevention from participating in public life was actually good for social order.  Back then the aim of Southern White Supremacists was to prevent Black Liberation.  Sure, it was ludicrous to infer that the Civil Rights movement actually aimed to make Alabama Kazakhstan – but the endless accusations that activists like MLK were “Communists” played all too well into the prejudices of those who were against Black Liberation in the first place. Tying Black Liberation with Communism played into the public at larges’ understanding over the world they lived in, the space that they inhabited, and the threats the world posed to them as citizens.  No one rightfully though that MLK or the Black Panthers would aid the Soviets in anything.  But the simple subconscious association with pairing the two ideologies helped opponents of Black rights continue to disrupt Black progress wherever they could.

Fast forward to today and the relationship between security and rights needs to be more intrusive and focused because the nature of the threat is entirely different. Now that the US is the only dominant power in the world – the modern day Rome – it’s entirely true to argue that destabilizing the international system is the real threat. We are the reserve currency. We are the military stabilization force for Global Corporatism. Our position on the globe just in terms of shear geography provide us with an advantage that no other nation can dream of. At the same time, the threat to that system is much more diffuse and doesn’t require our nations complete destruction to alter the balance of power. Consider the aim of Al-Qaida, which is primarily to weaken the United States enough to force it to retreat from the world, which would then, in their best case scenario, allow Muslim nations a much larger say in global affairs as they would be united under some sort of modern day Caliphate. In order make that reality possible one need not saturate North America with nuclear missiles. Our complete geographic destruction doesn’t play into it. Instead, the application of hostile force to our systemic weak points is what drives Islamic militant strategy. So, because an American born cleric who’s publicly declared war on his nation of birth (as Alwaki did before getting his ass blown in half by a predator drone) can post YouTube videos encouraging other Muslim born Americans to conduct attacks on the United States, he becomes a threat because the level of what the system can tolerate and still function has been greatly reduced in a world run by the US. In the Cold War days someone getting on YouTube (had there been one) and advocating for the Soviet Union to launch a premeditated nuclear strike against NATO, or any hostile military move, would have been deemed nuts and would have hardly been considered a threat because unless he worked in the military his ability to aid that attack was nil. He wasn’t even a pawn in that great game. But in a world in which 3 or 4 Islamist fanatics, or right wing Christian fanatics, or left wing anarchist fanatics, can launch a cyber attack that would cripple the power grid indefinitely and cause a complete destabilization of the United States and the global system along with it, “protecting the rights of citizens” has to be measured against the ability of one single solitary citizens ability to destroy our system of government, making US moral principles meaningless as we all shoot each other trying to get the last can of soup from the Jewel Osco everyone has raided in the ensuing chaos.

Of course, misusing the understanding of these threats continues today just as it did in any other “pivotal” era of this nation’s history.  Think of all of the times someone on Fox News screamed that liberals “wanted the terrorists to win” for simply questioning the rationale for invading Iraq, to say nothing of the evidence.  Think of every time MSNBC screamed that George W Bush was a “dictator” despite his never actually infringing on anyone’s rights en masse.  Sure, some folks got whisked off to Gitmo.  Some folks had the NSA listen to their phone calls to relatives in Yemen.  But those were not the actions of a dictator, just as killing American citizens who are actively aiding the terrorist enemy in Yemen via Predator drones is not dictatorial either (I’m talking to you, Rand “I love the sound of my own voice” Paul).

In the end, every individual citizen needs to figure out for themselves where they stand on issues regarding the rights of citizens vs. the need to protect the nation from those who wish for our destruction. To the individual citizen, the choice is clear. You want your rights protected and that’s the end.  Depending on your understanding of “freedom” you will rationalize what you feel is acceptable.  But that’s where the problem comes in doesn’t it?  You may feel that you should have the freedom to stockpile massive amounts of automatic weapons in some sort of need to satiate your fear of some unspecified apocalypse.  But, since you can take those weapons and give them to others who might want to conduct a mass casualty operation, like the Hutaree Militia in Michigan in 2010, are you not a threat to the system at that point?  Are you not equipped to strike at the very same weak points that groups like Al-Qaida might target?  The point is that whether or not you are some Christian Nationalist, or some hacker, or a US born Islamist, or just some guy, you have to reconcile the idea that we can’t live in a nation that protects the individual liberty of its citizenry in its entirety.  You simply can’t protect the system by protecting every single solitary citizen’s rights.  Those who are hostile to the system will take advantage of their rights in order to destabilize the system.  What one must accept is that we can either live in our imperfect society that is filled with injustice and Have’s vs. Have Not’s, or we can exist in anarchy in a world filled with injustice and Have’s vs. Have Not’s.  The difference between the two is simply that what the Haves and Have Not’s value in each system is drastically different.  You can either choose to bitch and moan on your computer in air conditioning or fight for that last can of soup at the Jewel-Osco.

I’m not spiritual but I’m a conspiracy theorist…

I’ve written once or twice about my frustration with conspiracy theorists so it’s important that I don’t sound like one in my posts. I do my damnedest to remain aware of my assumptions, implied or otherwise, in order to ensure that I don’t venture down those paths when thinking through whatever it is I’m thinking through. Guns, gold, and god; information technology, drones, and the war on terror; all lend themselves quite readily to some pretty heavy conspiracy-theorizing. But it’s not my style. The theories fit together too easily. Their general framework never really changes. Somehow, someway, they always manage to incorporate any new idea, storyline, or piece of evidence to the contrary and assimilate it into an already determined narrative. The circle of conspirators grows ever larger and, along with it, my frustration as I listen to someone close themselves into an all-too-comforting two-dimensional plane of discomfort. They amount to new age spirituality for hard economic times and I just can’t buy ’em (or, for that matter, new age spirituality but that’s a different post). They’re too neat in in a world that my experience has revealed to be pretty fuckin’ messy. (Which I guess is why I do my best to create stability and comfort for my family – so that I and we are best equipped to deal with the mess that the world – and we – can be from time to time (but that’s another post too and maybe even another blog)).

Fortunately the words I choose give a healthy assist in determining what my assumptions are. The words are imperfect. But, something I was reminded of when listening to Li Young Lee a couple weeks ago, imperfection might be their greatest strength. It’s their flaws that reveal to me what I’m thinking beneath my thoughts. For me and – I’m pretty sure – for most, the words are never quite right. They’re getting at an idea, pointing to an object, homing in on a feeling and never quite getting there – their imperfection the birthplace of art, music, and religion. This can occasionally make for some hard times in friendships, work relations, marriages and any number of other personal relationships. But what about the words we use to debate policy? The words that make up our legal structure? Our political campaigns? Maybe most significantly, what about the words that frame our campaigns of war, like the war on terror? (You didn’t think I was gonna post something apolitical, did ya?) Whether conceptual (like the wars on poverty and illiteracy) or concrete (like the wars in Iraq and Afganistan) or some amalgamation of the two (like like the war on terror), the word ‘war’ carries with it a number of assumptions. Good guy/bad guy for one. Prolonged conflict for another. Nation states and military. Killing and dying. Value and sacrifice. Protection and harm to name a few. But alongside these assumptions it also implies a coordinated attempt to overcome.

In the reading that I did for my last post I came across a piece in the generally unforgiving Counterpunch that really spoke to me when it comes to thinking about the United States’ military conflicts in Muslim countries – what we refer to in shorthand as the war on terror or as the Obama administration prefers, our “overseas contingency operations“. The author writes, “…the War on Terror is not a vast conspiracy perpetrated by those constituencies favored by it. It is, instead, a complex and confused assemblage of interlocking, overlapping, and contradictory policies, foreign and domestic. It’s a sputtering, jerry-rigged contraption with layers, scaffolding, tweaks and adjustments worthy of Rube Goldberg. Yes, we have secret memos, secret actions and secret courts. But the lion’s share of the War’s undercarriage and infrastructure grew out in the open. And thanks to Wikileaks, whistleblowers, and witnesses, we eventually come to know the secrets.”

Take a minute with that.

He goes on, “The War on Terror is a piquant stew of ideas and ideology that underwrites the vast, global deployment of American men, money, and machines. The War’s authors and enablers truly hope that Afghanistan will ‘stabilize’ sufficiently by 2014 to permit the withdrawal of most US troops. They hope that the mess they left behind in Iraq sorts itself out. They hope that air power is enough to ‘safeguard US interests’ in Libya and Mali. They believe what they say about ‘terrorist groups’ Hamas and Hezbollah. They genuinely hope that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia make the world safer for the United States and its allies. The problem before us then is not one of sincerity or intent but of results.”

Take another minute and ask yourself what the results might be over time.

More or fewer terrorists? Greater or less liberty? Security? I’m not sure we can know one way or the other. Nor am I sure that these questions are any more or less relevant now than they were, say, during the nuclear arms campaign conceptualized as the ‘cold war‘. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we don’t question, dissent, and protest. I’m just asking that we do so with an awareness of our assumptions and that we refrain from assuming that ours is somehow a time more laden with threats to our civil liberties than times past – that we refrain from framing our conflicts in apocalyptic terms unless we’re talking about something potentially apocalyptic like, say, global warming. The war on terror – be it the variety of military actions the phrase encompasses or the PR campaign that aims to make them legitimate – is deeply, deeply flawed. But like the words I choose, I find reason to hope in it’s flaws, it’s overreaches, it’s contradictions, and its secrets. I mean, we find out about them, don’t we? (I’m talking to you conspiracy theorists.) It’s messy and much of it is greater reason for shame than it is for pride but something must be working right if the war on terror continues to reveal it’s vile and vulnerable underbelly to us.