Sunday, August 22, 2010

"The Ghost Writer" and "The CIA in Academia"...

Warning: This is a plot spoiler review of Roman Polanksi's "The Ghost Writer"

Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" (Brosnan, McGregor,Williams,Cattrall, Belushi,Wilkinson and others) is now available as a rental at Film is Truth in Bellingham, WA. This is a thrilling, tantalizing, odd-angled political piece that is a something of a hybrid of Hitchcock's Torn Curtain (Newman, Andrews), The Thomas Crown Affair (Brosnan, Russo), and Polanksi's own brilliant 1999 effort The Ninth Gate (Depp, Olin). Film critics will recognize in this film certain structures and devices that create significant political drama. They will also recognize historical cinematic devices of both Hitchcock and Polanski. But something about this Polanski effort, based on Robert Harris' novel "The Ghost", is politically very daring. Perhaps very Bourne in its suppositions.

The "MacGuffin" of the film appears to be the printed autobiography of "Adam Lang". "Adam Lang" is a thinly veiled characterization of ex British Prime Minister Tony Blair played with muscularity by Pierce Brosnan. However,  the virtual "MacGuffin" or perhaps the  "deus ex machina" of the movie is the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency in academia. The presence of the Central Intelligence Agency in institutions of higher learning was once a much discussed topic (1,2,3,4) due to certain revelations from the Church Committee and others during the '60s and '70s.

How involved is the Central Intelligence Agency today in university life?  Commentators note that ex CIA directorates migrate openly from "the company" to university life these days, but there remains precious little discussion about recruiting, propaganda, and intelligence gathering at Colleges and Universities during the last ten years. We have an interesting picture of the CIA's involvement in the business world due to the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson trial and book, but where do we find a comprehensive picture of the CIA's involvement in American and foreign universities?

Polanski's "The Ghost Writer" begs further answers to this question.  But be forewarned, as the university asset/professor (played with insidiousness by Tom Wilkinson) warns Ewan McGregor: "Do you know how to get out from here? Turn right toward the end of the driveway and head toward the street. Turn left and you will travel deeper into the forest where you may never be heard of again."

"The Ghost Writer". Don't miss it. Especially if you live on campus.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cancer Rates in Whatcom County

Radius from the Y-Road Landfill Site Inspection

An accompanying paper for this post is "Cancer Rates in Whatcom County".  It contains screenshots from NCI's State Cancer Profiles, particularly their micromap section (java interactive), that back up my statistical assertions below. Also, St. Joseph's annual cancer reports are informative.

There are those subjects that few want to talk about in Whatcom County.  Our high cancer rate is one of them. Cancer rates in Washington state are significant. Regrettably, Whatcom County, helps lead the  way in such significance.  This isn't  a subject that gets much play here.  The "new" Bellingham of ex-urbans, WWU parents and students, and the professional classes really don't want to discuss the fact that they are quite possibly raising or sending their children to the cancer capital of the West Coast. As you might imagine, neither  the "development class" or their political supporters want this information well-known.  Indeed we have a first class cancer treatment center here at St. Joseph's, although much of the childhood cancer is treated in Seattle.

Talking about the high cancer rates in Whatcom County doesn't make you  friends with anyone: not families, not developers, not government officials. But we should talk about it more.  In the past five years, many people that we know have contracted cancer. Five of them lived within a thousand feet of our home. One was a middle-aged health professional. She had a vibrant family, involved professional husband, and she passed away several years ago after battling off her first round of breast cancer.  Another was a nurse (breast cancer-survived). Another a grandmother (intestinal-survived). And the most recent was a family friend - a bright, 12 year old girl seemingly with everything going well for her in life - a beautiful family in a beautiful home; their lives now turned upside down by childhood leukemia. No one who has actively tracked cancer stats in Whatcom County should be surprised about such evidence. Whatcom County (est 2009 pop ~200K) averaged 998 incidences of cancer per for each year between 2003 - 2007 according to the National Cancer Institute.  998!  Without using age or other quantification, this could be construed to mean each of us here  has a 1 in 200 chance of contracting cancer each year.

What are some of the possible causes of toxic pollution in Whatcom County? Take your pick:
  • pollutants in the water supply
  • oil refinery effluent from two refineries
  • agricultural pesticides
  • at least two "treated wood" facilities
  • an ex- pulp plant town
  • an ex-chlor-alklai factory town
  • a reputedly sordid  history of toxics disposal with
  • small scale toxic landfills reputedly dotted around the county
  • an ex naval ship building town (WWII mine-sweepers)
  • an ex-coal mining town 
  • heavy diesel soot from the thousands of big rigs running supplies (e.g. lumber) from B.C. to CA on I-5
  • native population with terribly low Vitamin D levels in their blood
  • lots of smoke particulate in the winter from families who burn for heat
In truth, Whatcom County and Bellingham have a  toxic history that they have been trying to unwind, cover-up, or cover over for quite awhile (1). What can we do about this now?  I don't know. For just a few examples, there may be more mercury buried in Bellingham Bay than any other spot in the nation (2). There is a potentially toxic dump that exists in our watershed  for which there is some very critical environmental testing! (3)   At this point, an enlightened government and populace would be addressing the problem as best they could with preventative care and open discussion. How you do that is unclear to me, although some people have had ideas.  At some point soon, I hope we find the courage to start talking about this subject more openly.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"How to Make an American Job"...

Andy Grove, the legendary electrical engineer, CEO and business philosopher of Intel Corporation, has a thought provoking article on creating American jobs posted on Bloomberg July 1st.  Grove, one of the true visionaries and heroes of Silicon Valley, is renowned among techies, industrialists, and his employees for his articulate and straight-forward talk about discipline, organization, business creativity and reality.  His discussion of "strategic inflection points" in "Only the Paranoid Survive" (1999) has inspired the top economic leaders throughout Silicon Valley and the World for over ten years now.

Grove gave the business world and silicon valley professionals a paradigm to understand economic crisis and change as a constant. Now he has some interesting thoughts on increasing employment that are not so oriented to the individual adaptation. Grove argues that startups and innovation are not the correct solutions to unemployment.  He is unnerved by the amount of Chinese investment capitol in Silicon Valley. He argues that the shift of production to China has functionally emasculated the American economy. Here are some of his thoughts:

"The underlying problem isn’t simply lower Asian costs. It’s our own misplaced faith in the power of startups to create U.S. jobs."

"You could say, as many do, that shipping jobs overseas is no big deal because the high-value work -- and much of the profits -- remain in the U.S. That may well be so. But what kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work -- and masses of unemployed?"

"Long term, we need a job-centric economic theory -- and job-centric political leadership -- to guide our plans and actions."

Grove argues that fundamental market efficiencies of Silicon Valley are leading to national economic destruction. He argues for a strong nationalist, protectionist and (essentially) socialist industrial policy that will protect American economy and industry.  Grove, a refugee of central economic planning of the Soviet Bloc, makes the surprisingly powerful argument that without greater centralized economic control and planning now, an economic revolution driven by unemployment will collapse our capitalist economy:

"The first task is to rebuild our industrial commons. We should develop a system of financial incentives: Levy an extra tax on the product of offshored labor. (If the result is a trade war, treat it like other wars -- fight to win.) Keep that money separate. Deposit it in the coffers of what we might call the Scaling Bank of the U.S. and make these sums available to companies that will scale their American operations. Such a system would be a daily reminder that while pursuing our company goals, all of us in business have a responsibility to maintain the industrial base on which we depend and the society whose adaptability -- and stability -- we may have taken for granted. 

I fled Hungary as a young man in 1956 to come to the U.S. Growing up in the Soviet bloc, I witnessed first-hand the perils of both government overreach and a stratified population. Most Americans probably aren’t aware that there was a time in this country when tanks and cavalry were massed on Pennsylvania Avenue to chase away the unemployed. It was 1932; thousands of jobless veterans were demonstrating outside the White House. Soldiers with fixed bayonets and live ammunition moved in on them, and herded them away from the White House. In America! Unemployment is corrosive. If what I’m suggesting sounds protectionist, so be it."

This is powerful use of economic logic from the mouth of America's most renowned businessman/logician. It espouses an economic path in opposition to  thinly disguised libertarian/capitalist logic that calls for less government control, taxes, etc. Grove details how we have sold out the American worker by outsourcing manufacturing and implementing as policy the type of advice scholars like  Alan H. Meltzer routinely offer:  less government spending and interference with "market forces". To use Grove's analogy, we have been "oiling our own guillotines" in the name of "economic efficiency". Grove calls for more protectionism of manufacturing and American employment.

American capitalism has stopped functioning to our benefit. The only real solutions are greater centralized economic planning, nationalization, and the redistribution of wealth.