Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pope likens saving gays to saving the rainforest


"Pope Benedict said on Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction."

Are you fucking kidding me? Look, pope, I get it: you hate gays (a lot). But you cannot seriously say that stopping two loving people (or for that manner, ANY number of people) from knocking boots is even remotely on par with stopping the destruction of the rainforests, and still expect to be taken seriously. Well, maybe that's it, he's given up on being serious. I mean, nobody really believes that communion thing REALLY is flesh & blood, right? And I don't even have the energy to make fun of that red hat, and imply that the pope (who wears fancy, frilly, lacy robes and carries a staff and hangs out with a bunch of other dudes all the time) might not be the best guy to hate on gays. Ok, other than that last sentence, I don't have the energy.

Another Anarchist tidbit

"Anarchism, more than any other social theory, values human life above things. All Anarchists agree with Tolstoy in this fundamental truth: if the production of any commodity necessitates the sacrifice of human life, society should do without that commodity, but it can not do without that life. That, however, nowise indicates that Anarchism teaches submission. How can it, when it knows that all suffering, all misery, all ills result from the evil of submission?
Has not some American ancestor said, many years ago, that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God? And he was not an Anarchist even. I would say that resistance to tyranny is man's highest ideal. So long as tyranny exists, in whatever form, man's deepest aspiration must resist it as inevitably as man must breathe."

--Emma Goldman

Riots: Coming to America? Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, rising levels of inequality in the US are feeding a growing sense of discontent. Bloomberg.com had a couple of items on the front page mirroring what I'm talking about.

The first discusses the hatred for billionaire Stephen Feinberg, founder of Cerberus Capital-- the company that's in the news lately for trying to give away their share of Chrysler for free. (So far, there are no takers).

As CEO of a $26 billion company, Feinberg has a net worth of about $1 billion, according to Forbes Magazine’s 2008 list. Brukardt made $24 an hour, or about $80,000 last year including overtime. Brukardt said he owes $160,000 on the mortgage for his five-bedroom duplex on College Avenue in Appleton, Wisconsin, and he doesn’t know how long he can keep making payments.

Sound's like a classic example of the type of inequality we're discussing.

“There’s a pent-up anger wherever I travel,” said Leo Gerard, president of the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers, which represents 1.2 million members, including the Kimberly mill workers. “People feel very much like they’re being screwed. I really think you’ll see tens of thousands of people if not hundreds of thousands taking to the streets and protesting across the country.”


As unemployment grows, displaced workers are starting to protest. In Chicago, employees of Republic Windows & Doors occupied a factory earlier this month after Bank of America Corp. of Charlotte, North Carolina, forced the company out of business by cutting its credit line. Bank of America and New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co., a part-owner of Republic Windows, agreed Dec. 10 to a $1.75 million loan to cover the severance pay of 240 employees.

“With nothing left to lose, militancy gave them their one hope,” said Harley Shaikin, a labor relations professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’ll see more rather than less of this.”

The second article focuses on Iceland, where the banking collapse is stirring unrest:

The fallout in Iceland may presage civil disruptions elsewhere, as job losses multiply and credit bills come due. Few nations can count themselves safe, says Ian Bremmer, president of the New York-based Eurasia Group, which analyzes political risk for businesses.

“As people have their expectations changed radically, you can have protests come out of nowhere,” even in developed countries, Bremmer said.

Riots in Greece this month, sparked by the police shooting of a teenager, became tinged with economic dissension. A group of Kuwaiti equity traders marched on the emir’s office in October to demand the closing of the stock exchange to stem losses. Even in U.S. cities, civil disorder is “conceivable” if unemployment rises above 10 percent from November’s 6.7 percent, Bremmer says.

Hauksdottir, the owner of a Reykjavik witchcraft shop, says over a cup of thyme and juniper tea that only civil disobedience can force banks to stop collecting debts that people can’t pay.

“We’ll use our voices, and then if we have to we’ll use our hands, and maybe axes,” Hauksdottir says.


The protests may escalate as bills come due and severance pay runs out for those who lost jobs at the three biggest lenders, including Landsbanki, the second-largest, says Stefan Palsson, a historian. He once led the Campaign Against Militarism, opposing NATO bases in the 1960s.

He said he’s surprised ordinary people are backing activists once considered “hooligans.” There was public outrage three years ago when environmentalists poured yogurt over aluminum representatives to protest a new plant.

“Now you have protesters kicking down doors at police stations, and respectable elderly people saying ‘Well, they’re young and full of enthusiasm, and anyway, they’re right!’” he said.

Riots: coming to America?

If you thought yesterday's post on the possiblity of civil disorder was outside the realm of possibilities, Freakonomics blog is discussing (for the second time this year) the possibility of economy-related riots in the US. The Freakonomics authors cite an article in the Atlantic by Robert Kaplan where he writes

It’s tempting to dismiss this as a purely Greek affair that carries little significance to the outside world. But the global economic crisis will take different forms in different places in the way that it ignites political unrest. Yes, youth alienation in Greece is influenced by a particular local history that I’ve very briefly outlined here. But it is also influenced by sweeping international trends of uneven development, in which the uncontrolled surges and declines of capitalism have left haves and bitter have-nots, who, in Europe, often tend to be young people. And these young people now have the ability to instantaneously organize themselves through text messages and other new media, without waiting passively to be informed by traditional newspapers and television. Technology has empowered the crowd—or the mob if you will.

Pay close attention to Greece; at a time of world-wide economic upheaval, it might eerily presage disturbances elsewhere in 2009.

So consider, whether in the United States, the "uncontrolled surges and declines of capitalism [that] have left haves and bitter have-nots". Wikipedia ranks Greece as having less economic inequality than the United States. The Gini coefficient is a statistical measure of the inequality within a given country, where the lower the number, the more equality exists. Greece has a Gini coefficient of 34.3, while the US is 40.8 (equally ranked with Ghana and Turkmenistan). Once people wake up and realize the true measure of inequality in this country, it will be hard to keep them satisfied with platitudes about the vagaries of the free market.

Monday, December 22, 2008

How far does a billion dollars go?

It's only shocking if you haven't been paying attention. Two new bailout items of interest today, but honestly I'm getting tired of talking about this. Nobody cares. Trillions of dollars are being wasted, but nobody cares.

Have we forgotten what these numbers mean? I know they sound the same.... "million, billion, trillion..." But because they rhyme, it's easy to forget how much money that actually is. Think of it in terms of miles traveled. A dollar bill is about 6" wide. A million dollars laid end-to-end would go about 94.7 miles. A billion dollars would go about 94,697 miles, almost enough to go four times around the earth at the equator. A trillion is a thousand times larger than that. A trillion dollars is 94,696,969.7 miles, which is enough to travel to the moon and back to earth about 198 times. Does that give you an idea of the scale here?

Where'd the bailout money go? Here are some of the actual answers from bankers:

  • "We've lent some of it. We've not lent some of it. We've not given any accounting of, 'Here's how we're doing it.' We have not disclosed that to the public. We're declining to."
  • "We're not providing dollar-in, dollar-out tracking."
  • "We're choosing not to disclose that."
  • "We're not sharing any other details. We're just not at this time."
  • "We are going to decline to comment on your story."
And my favorite quotation is
  • "I just would prefer if you wouldn't say that we're not going to discuss those details."
In other words, "I'm not telling you how we're spending it, and please don't report the fact that we're not telling you." Of course, they can't really come out and say that it's going to bonuses can they?

AP Reports $1.6 billion went to bailed-out execs. That's enough for more than 6 trips around the earth with dollar bills laid end-to-end. The median income in the US in 2007 was $50,233 in 2007, enough to travel 4.75 miles. The CEO of Goldman Sachs made $54,000,000 last year, enough to travel 5113 miles. It's just obscene.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Paulson flips (again)

Paulson Tuesday, 12/16:

Paulson also said he has no current plans to ask Congress to make the second half of the $700 billion financial rescue fund available before the Bush administration leaves office on Jan. 20.

Paulson, Friday, 12/19:
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Friday that Congress will need to release the last half of the $700 billion rescue fund because the first $350 billion has been committed.
Any questions?

The myth of electoral accountability

DailyKos and Open Left especially have been making an issue of "progressive accountability", or ways to ensure progressive priorities on the campaign trail are translated into action. This typically takes one of two forms- first, by complaining that Democrats as a party tend to be overly willing to accede to demands of the Republican (minority) party (see here, here, and here for examples), or secondly by seeking strategies to ensure that Democrats are forced to be more responsive to progressives (see here and here).

This type of discussion has usually been restricted to progressive dissatisfaction with Obama's cabinet selections, which makes sense given that he has yet to advance any specific policy positions. However, in the wake of Obama's decision to have Rick Warren offer the invocation at the inauguration, the issue appears to be at a boiling point. Rachel Maddow called it "a lose-lose proposition" and "the first big mistake of his post-election politicking." However, Obama has defended his selection as his attempt to "create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans." This attitude seems to match well with that of his White House Chief of Staff selection, Rahm Emanuel, whose attitude seems to be that it's OK to piss off the progressives since it makes the new administration "look bipartisan."

What the progressive commenters here are missing is the same thing that they've been missing all along. Namely, that neither of the two major parties will ever be more interested in what progressives say than what big business says. Markos at the DailyKos even disparaged Nader supporters, saying

Fuck Ralph Nader, and fuck his supporters. If the past eight years hasn't smacked any sense into their addled brains, then nothing will. This site caters to the reality-based community. No one else need apply.
So at what point do you start to question your repeated (and failed) attempts to pursue your strategy, Markos? Well, it appears he's on the right track:
So you either tear your hair out and go mad at the rank idiocy of it all, or you laugh. And let me tell you, the number of times we've gone through this crap makes laughing about it increasingly difficult.
Welcome to the true reality-based community here, Markos. Maybe you have a few more years of disappointment ahead before some sense gets smacked into your addled brain, but I think sooner or later you'll come around.

Military urges preparations for widespread civil disorder

(source, see also here for some stunning photos)

(T)here are some risks to national security which . . . can be conceived, but not predicted or fully anticipated. Because they cannot be anticipated, such events are very difficult to plan for effectively. At least two reasons apply. First, by their very nature, these events alter the international system by their reversal of significant trends, thereby undermining the facts upon which future planning is built. Second, many of these events fall outside the scope of traditional or permitted defense planning.
Sam J. Tangredi (p. 4)

The above quotation was cited in a new report from the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Institute entitled "Known Unknowns: Unconventional “STRATEGIC SHOCKS” in Defense Strategy Development", authored by (Ret.) Lt. Col. Nathan Freir. In the report, Freir "targets the incoming senior defense team" (p.2) and urges preparations for "strategic shocks", defined as
events that, if they occur, would make a big difference to the future, force decisionmakers to challenge their own assumptions of how the world works, and require hard choices today. (p. 5)
Frankly, I'm terrified at the implications in the report, especially given the rapid build-up of combat troops within our borders, as well as the increasingly frequent speculations that the U.S. may be facing new wars for secession or some other revolutionary action (including food riots). The Washington Post reports that the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is warning "in only slightly veiled terms that violent protest may erupt on a global scale if governments continue to provide inadequate or confused responses to what could quickly become 'a global depression' in 2009. "(emphasis mine). In fact, Strauss-Kahn explicitly included "advanced economies" in his warning.

Riots have already broken out in Greece, Russia, China, and the situation looks increasingly unstable elsewhere. An internal Citigroup memo obtained by The Telegraph urges clients to buy gold and speculates that the steps taken by the world's financial authorities are a "gamble" and "likely to end in one of two extreme ways: with either a resurgence of inflation; or a downward spiral into depression, civil disorder, and possibly wars." (Telegraph's phrasing, not in the original memo). Police and Sheriff's Departments in Arizona say they're prepared for civil disorder, Janet Napolitano's (Obama's pick for head of Homeland Security) office declined to comment.

Perhaps this type of civil unrest in the US seems improbable now, but Obama is promising that things "will get worse before it gets better" and recovery "will take longer than any of us would like -- years, not months." In the same article, Biden is quoted as saying "There is no short run other than keeping the economy from absolutely tanking. That's the only short run." I genuinely and sincerely hope that they have answers to solve this crisis that have so far eluded governments around the world. But if they don't, and unemployment goes to 15%, 20%, or 25%, or if China dumps their foreign reserves (as they are starting to threaten, and which would cause the dollar to become essentially worthless), or if the trillions of dollars being helicoptered into the economy are not withdrawn in time and massive inflation takes hold (again, making the dollar essentially worthless), then it's not too hard to imagine that millions of people that are suddenly unable to buy food, or medicine, or anything would take to the streets to demand the government start to take care of them for a change.

Consider the following quotations from the report (all emphases mine):

The current administration confronted a game-changing “strategic shock” inside its first 8 months in office. The next administration would be well-advised to expect the same during the course of its first term. p.2

Unconventional security challenges lie substantially outside the realm of traditional warfighting. They are routinely nonmilitary in origin and character. Yet, nonmilitary, in this context, does not necessarily mean nonviolent, nonstate, or disordered and unorganized. p.3

Indeed, future purposeful shocks are likeliest to come when state and nonstate competitors learn to effectively circumvent traditional U.S. military overmatch, employing non-military means as war. They will leverage politics, economics, hostile social action, and discriminating nonmilitary violence in innovative combinations. As a result, traditional U.S. military advantages will be sidelined not by breakthrough military technology or concepts, but by the simple absence of a legitimate causus belli. p.16 [sic- casus belli or "justification for acts of war"]

The most challenging defense-relevant shocks might emerge from adverse conditions endemic to the environment itself. This is made more certain by the unguided forces of globalization, toxic populism, identity politics, underdevelopment, human/natural disaster, and disease. In the end, shocks emerging from contextual threats might challenge core U.S. interests more fundamentally than any number of prospective purposeful shocks. This is especially true given the degree to which threats of context remain unconsidered or, at a minimum, undervalued in contemporary defense planning and decisionmaking. p. 16

Threats of context might include but are not limited to contagious un- and under-governance; civil violence; the swift catastrophic onset of consequential natural, environmental, and/or human disaster; a rapidly expanding and uncontrolled transregional epidemic; and the sudden crippling instability or collapse of a large and important state. Indeed, pushing at the boundaries of current convention, it would be prudent to add catastrophic dislocation inside the United States or homegrown domestic civil disorder and/or violence to this category as well. p. 17

By way of example, realist calculation indicates that epidemics and widespread civil violence might be tolerable in some parts of the world. Shock would result if these occurred inside the United States or inside a key strategic partner to such an extent that they forced DoD to radically re-role for domestic security, population control, consequence management, and stabilization. p. 18

Violent, Strategic Dislocation Inside the United States.
As a community, the defense establishment swears to protect and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. DoD’s role in combating “domestic enemies” has never been thoughtfully examined. Thus, there is perhaps no greater source of strategic shock for DoD than operationalizing that component of the oath of service in a widespread domestic emergency that entails rapid dissolution of public order in all or significant parts of the United States.
While likely not an immediate prospect, this is clearly a “Black Swan” that merits some visibility inside DoD and the Department of Homeland Security. To the extent events like this involve organized violence against local, state, and national authorities and exceed the capacity of the former two to restore public order and protect vulnerable populations, DoD would be required to fill the gap. This is largely uncharted strategic territory.
Widespread civil violence inside the United States would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security. Deliberate employment of weapons of mass destruction or other catastrophic capabilities, unforeseen economic collapse, loss of functioning political and legal order, purposeful domestic resistance or insurgency, pervasive public health emergencies, and catastrophic natural and human disasters are all paths to disruptive domestic shock.
An American government and defense establishment lulled into complacency by a long-secure domestic order would be forced to rapidly divest some or most external security commitments in order to address rapidly expanding human insecurity at home. Already predisposed to defer to the primacy of civilian authorities in instances of domestic security and divest all but the most extreme demands in areas like civil support and consequence management, DoD might be forced by circumstances to put its broad resources at the disposal of civil authorities to contain and
reverse violent threats to domestic tranquility. Under the most extreme circumstances, this might include use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States. Further, DoD would be, by necessity, an essential enabling hub for the continuity of political authority in a multi-state or nationwide civil conflict or disturbance.
A whole host of long-standing defense conventions would be severely tested. Under these conditions and at their most violent extreme, civilian authorities, on advice of the defense establishment, would need to rapidly determine the parameters defining the legitimate use of military force inside the United States. Further still, the whole concept of conflict termination and/or transition to the primacy of civilian security institutions would be uncharted ground. DoD is already challenged by stabilization abroad. Imagine the challenges associated with doing so on a massive scale at home. p. 31-33

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Goldman moves profits offshore: taxes go from 6 billion to 14 million

The hits just keep coming:

Goldman Sachs cuts taxes to one percent by moving profits offshore

Texas Democrat Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Goldman, like other banks, shifted income to countries with lower taxes to reduce its tax burden.

"This problem is larger than Goldman Sachs," Doggett told Bloomberg. "With the right hand out begging for bailout money, the left is hiding it offshore."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Still asking: where's the credit crunch?

As I first reported here on November 18, the available data indicate that there was, in fact, no national credit crisis. Kudos to David Sirota for the reporting there, and apparently he's been keeping up on it in the meantime- read the whole report here, entitled "Did America get punked on the bailout? Yes, now here's what to do".

If you don't believe him (I must admit that even I was skeptical), check out the source data. It comes from the Federal Reserve's own numbers, as reported by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis' Research Division. Their main working paper is here, and the technical details are here. He also quotes from a Reuter's story which says

"It is startling that many of (Federal Reserve) Chairman (Ben) Bernanke and (Treasury) Secretary (Henry) Paulson's remarks are not supported or are flatly contradicted by the data provided by the very organizations they lead," said the report.
Did you get that? The stories they are telling you are contradicted by their own data! So there are two possibilites:
  1. Bush, Paulson, Bernanke & Co. are stupid. Extremely stupid. So incredibly stupid that they cannot understand what a column of basic numbers are telling them. So stupid they frequently have to stop and wipe the drool from their slack jaws as they stumble incoherently about. So stupid they are in danger of drowning if they look at the sky when it's raining.
  2. They are group of utterly brazen thieves, that have (so far) managed to extort trillions of dollars from .
And I don't think they're that stupid.

Freakonomics:The Fiendish Genius of Credit-Card Minimum Payments

From the Freakonomics blog:

New research finds that credit-card holders pay down their debts more slowly when their statements suggest a minimum monthly installment.
I don't think anyone is shocked by that. The credit card industry has long had bare minimum payments, enough to keep their consumers solvent. The interesting part of the study they cite is that even for customers that tend to pay more than the minimum payment, the existence of a stated minimum payment acts as a kind of "anchor" on what they actually pay. That is, if you were inclined to pay $100 on your balance this month, and then you see the statement and it only carries a minimum payment of $48, you're likely to pay far less than the $100 you intended and then rationalize that you are still paying more than the minimum.

Say you’re a credit card company. You make money every time one of your card holders carries a balance at the end of the month, because you charge interest on that debt. A lot of interest. The longer your card holder carries debt, the more money you make.

But if that debt tips out of control, and the card holder defaults, you lose everything.

So you want to find a middle road, a strategy that will keep your card holder’s debt manageable, but that will stretch out repayment as far into the future as possible, maximizing your profits.

I thought I remembered some changes to the minimum payment structure as a part of the bankruptcy overhaul from a few years ago, and I was right.

In the past, credit card companies required customers to pay an average of just 2 percent of their total credit card balance, which meant constant debt for many consumers. The 2 percent minimum payment only covered interest and other fees, so it often could take a lifetime to pay off the principal balance.

By the end of 2005, new banking guidelines went into effect in an effort to save consumers from themselves. Banking regulators issued the guidelines that pressured credit card companies to boost minimum payments so debts would be paid off in a reasonable time. For many banks, that has translated into new rules requiring monthly minimums to cover interest, any fees or extra charges and at least 1 percent of the principal amount.

Some overhaul... now instead of just paying interest and fees, you have to pay interest and fees, plus 1% of your principal.

Paulson doesn't expect any more major firms to fail during crisis

Paulson doesn't expect any more major firms to fail during crisis

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Tuesday that he did not expect any more major financial institutions to fail during the current credit crisis.

Paulson also said he had no plans to ask Congress to make the second half of the $700 billion financial rescue fund available before the administration of President George W. Bush leaves office on Jan. 20.

I had to double-check the dateline on this piece, seems like I'd heard it all somewhere before. Oh yeah, it was in the New York Times, November 17, 2008, where Paulson said:

As policymakers face the difficult challenges ahead, they will begin with two considerable advantages: a significantly more stable banking system, one where the failure of a major bank is no longer a pressing concern; and the resources, authority and potential programs available to deal with the future capital and liquidity needs of credit providers.

I suppose if you want to be extraordinarily technical, he was correct. Citigroup didn't "fail", they were bailed out on November 23rd, less than a week after the Paulson said that "the failure of a major bank is no longer a pressing concern." I mocked him for that statement on 11/18, where I said:

"The failure of a bank is no longer a pressing concern"??? So what will he say once Citigroup goes belly up? Oh, that won't be a "failure", because the government will either dump a bunch of money into them, or help them become acquired.
I like being right, but sometimes I just wish I were wrong.

Burning the village to save it?

"I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system," Bush told CNN.

Seems to me that's awfully similar to the logic used in Vietnam, where it was said that "We had to burn the village in order to save it." In any case, it's quite a striking use of Orwellian doublethink- that is, holding two contradictory thoughts in one's head simultaneously, while believing them both to be true. Listen as he stammers some more:

"I feel a sense of obligation to my successor to make sure there is not a, you know, a huge economic crisis. Look, we're in a crisis now. I mean, this is -- we're in a huge recession, but I don't want to make it even worse."
I think he's trying to say that things are bad, and he knows that anything he does will probably make it worse, but he's going to try anyway! That's the kind of can-do attitude to be expected from a mediocre student cum worst-president-ever.


Also, try this surprisingly entertaining flash game where you throw virtual shoes at Bush.

Corporate raiders turning to seeds of life

There's a tremedously important diary over at DailyKos. Please take some time and consider if you want the Monsanto corporation to literally control every seed for any food plant that's commercially available. I, for one, do not. As I argued here, there are some things that are simply too important to be left to monopoly corporations.

RAID on seeds (Life, itself) ... by Monsanto

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Al-Zaidi faces up to 15 years in prison for hurling shoes at Bush.

It's not just 15 years, it's also a wicked beating and possibly torture. And yet Bush faces no consequences at all for his war crimes. If Bush really wanted to do something decent here, he should stand up and say, "No harm, no foul." Instead, he's saying to let the Iraqis handle it however they want.

Al-Zaidi faces up to 15 years in prison for hurling shoes at Bush.
Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, appeared before a judge today in Baghdad and admitted to “the action he carried out.” Reuters reports that “the court decided to keep Zaidi in custody” and that after an investigation is completed, “the court may send him for trial under a clause in the Iraqi penal code that makes it an offense to attempt to murder Iraqi or foreign presidents.” Abdul Satar Birqadr, a spokesman for Iraq’s High Judicial Council said that al-Zaidi faces up to 15 years in prison.

The Onion: $700 Billion Bailout Celebrated With Lavish $800 Billion Executive Party

The Onion, they nail it again. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. See also their special video commentary: "Should the Government stop dumping money into a giant hole?"

GEORGE TOWN, CAYMAN ISLANDS—Amid the bleak backdrop of imminent economic collapse, worried observers got some good news last October when executives from the nation's top 10 failing companies celebrated the historic $700 billion government bailout with an ultra- extravagant $800 billion party aimed at restoring confidence and bolstering their resolve.

"It's never ideal for private corporations to rely on public funding, but we would not have been able to survive another week without letting loose and throwing this massive bash," Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain said aboard his newly purchased $22 million yacht, the Excelsior. "We can only hope it's not a case of too little too late."

Three thousand guests were reportedly flown on 750 separate private jets to the Caribbean, where they commemorated the last-minute financial aid package—which saved their companies from the subprime mortgage crisis that has left thousands of Americans without homes—with 4-tons of Beluga caviar, $250,000 bottles of vintage Dom PĂ©rignon served over precious gems, a 36-hour fireworks display, an additional loan of $200 billion to cover the costs of the gala, and a private concert for each attendee with rock legend Rod Stewart.

Held October 4–7 on all three of the Cayman Islands, the historic economic-stimulus celebration, spokespeople said, sent an important signal to the world that Wall Street was weathering the crisis in style.

"I'm glad we were all humble enough to recognize that we couldn't do this on our own," said AIG CEO Edward Liddy, sitting in a hot tub filled with Cristal and seven dozen endangered-quail eggs. "Having come so close to disaster, it is crucial that I eat these 24-karat-gold-leaf-wrapped chocolate truffles to boost stockholder morale and show all the critics and naysayers that we are carrying on just as we always have."

"Do not worry, America," Liddy added. "It's business as usual at AIG."

In a sign of the new era of financial responsibility ushered in by the bailout, the CEOs estimated that they came in a full $100 billion under the party's projected $900 billion budget—a windfall they immediately reinvested in their companies' ailing executive-Christmas-bonus divisions.

Priest Sentenced For Embezzling From Churches

Coming from my hometown, our very own priest scandal. It is just me, or is this guy getting a total pass, just because he's a priest? I mean, he nets $60 grand and only gets probation? And maybe I'm not following enough sentencing hearings, but how often do you see the defense setting up a restitution account for anyone that wants to help pay the restitution?

Priest Sentenced For Embezzling From Churches "OMAHA, Neb. -- An Omaha priest who stole more than $83,000 from an Omaha parish has received probation.

Judge Russell Bowie sentenced Rodney Adams to three to five years of probation. Adams must also pay $23,000 in restitution over the next five years. The defense has established a restitution account at Wells Fargo bank for anyone who wants to help Adams pay back the church. He also must complete 500 hours of community service."

The Raw Story | Whistleblower exposed NSA wiretapping because 'this is crazy'

Thomas Tamm was a lawyer for the Justice Department, until he became a whistleblower that exposed the illegal warrantless wiretapping program that the Bush Administration pursued as a part of the broader war on personal liberty. Listen to the emotions here as he explains, "My entire life, really, was based on trying to enforce the law ... and I believed that the law was being broken in the place where I was working."

Whistleblower exposed NSA wiretapping because 'this is crazy': "'I just stepped back and said, 'This is crazy,'' Tamm told [MSNBC's Rachel] Maddow. 'This is not what the Department of Justice is all about. This is not what the Constitution is about.'

Tamm would now like to see serious consideration of prosecutions for these crimes. 'It offends me that we feel we're not strong enough as a country, that our laws are not strong enough, that our Congress is not strong enough, that our courts are not strong enough to protect us,' he stated. 'And I personally -- I'm a prosecutor ... I think it should be looked at very seriously.'"

Goldman Sachs slashes compensation: now only $363,654

Boo-fucking-hoo. But can anyone explain to me why wage concessions from workers (not executives) is part of the proposed automaker bailout, but we're not requiring any salary caps or executive compensation limits as part of the great Wall Street Bailout of '08?

Bloomberg.com: Worldwide: "Dec. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Goldman Sachs Group Inc. eliminated 2,500 jobs in the fourth quarter and slashed average pay per worker 45 percent to $363,654 as the firm posted the first quarterly loss since going public almost a decade ago."

But how will those poor bastards survive on only $363,654 apiece? Well, it's time for us as a nation to pull together, I guess we all have our burdens to bear, right?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Big Brother is listening! And watching...

Is the government listening to you? How would you know? As it turns out, you wouldn't.

The U.S. Commerce Department's security office warns that "a cellular telephone can be turned into a microphone and transmitter for the purpose of listening to conversations in the vicinity of the phone." An article in the Financial Times last year said mobile providers can "remotely install a piece of software on to any handset, without the owner's knowledge, which will activate the microphone even when its owner is not making a call."

Nextel and Samsung handsets and the Motorola Razr are especially vulnerable to software downloads that activate their microphones, said James Atkinson, a counter-surveillance consultant who has worked closely with government agencies. "They can be remotely accessed and made to transmit room audio all the time," he said. "You can do that without having physical access to the phone."

Because modern handsets are miniature computers, downloaded software could modify the usual interface that always displays when a call is in progress. The spyware could then place a call to the FBI and activate the microphone--all without the owner knowing it happened. (The FBI declined to comment on Friday.)

"If a phone has in fact been modified to act as a bug, the only way to counteract that is to either have a bugsweeper follow you around 24-7, which is not practical, or to peel the battery off the phone," Atkinson said. Security-conscious corporate executives routinely remove the batteries from their cell phones, he added.

I am uncomfortable with this technology, mostly because of the incremental way in which these changes come. At first, we are assured that it's only to be used against criminals and terrorists, but then we find out that it's used against everyone: soldiers, journalists, aid workers, even foreign leaders. Those on the right will argue, "If you're not doing anything wrong, then you shouldn't have anything to hide." Everyone else realizes that it's a clear example of the government overstepping the boundaries that once prevented us from calling our government "tyrannical". Sadly, since the advent of the Patriot Act, those boundaries are mostly gone.

It's not only cell-phones by the way. This surveillance is possible everywhere, making George Orwell's 1984 frighteningly prescient. Does your vehicle come with On-star? If so, it also comes with FBI. Does your computer have a webcam? How about the internet- ever use that? Walk down any street and keep a count of how many surveillance cameras you see. Do you have a passport? Have you ever made statements critical of governmental policy? Then you may find yourself in a situation like these Americans- entered into a database of terrorism suspects. And for nothing more than being outspoken against the death penalty, being anti-war, and/or being pro-environment. Regardless of how you feel about those issues, think about how it would apply in your case. Because unless you consistently agree with the government, then you are a potential target. These are not violent criminals being surveilled, they are ordinary citizens that disagree with the government and are expressing their dissent under the protections of the First Amendment.

I've mentioned elsewhere the legal prohibitions against the military performing law enforcement duties at home, largely ignored. And in the wake of the political conventions this year, we find out that spy satellites, military, as well as the major telecom companies were involved in "pre-emptive policing". In other words, arresting people before they've committed a crime.

Incidentally, notice in the article where they point out that, "Security-conscious corporate executives routinely remove the batteries from their cell phones." This implies one of three things:
  • Corporate executives are concerned about being surveilled by the government due to criminal wrongdoing.
  • Executives are worried about being surveilled by the government, even though there has been no criminal wrongdoing.
  • The power to do this type of surveillance is already used by people other than the government, despite assurances from the telecoms.
None of these options are very palatable, but it's food for thought anyway.

UPDATE: A federal appeals court has made the right decision, and overturned part of the Patriot Act.
Because of the ruling, the government will now be forced to justify individual gag orders before a court, instead of casually wielding the power of a blanket gag as the Bush administration has done since the blindingly fast passage of the Patriot Act in Oct. 2001.

In Sept. 2007, a federal judge ruled unconstitutional provisions within the Patriot Act which allowed the government to obtain search warrants without probable cause.

Executive compensation-- Part II

Dean Baker has got a very credible alternative theory. Maybe Paulson's not a lone gunman here, Congress may also be to blame. Rather than actually limiting executive compensation, just tell everyone you limited it.

Let me suggest an alternative hypothesis. Perhaps Congress really did not want to cut executive compensation on Wall Street. After all, word has it that members of Congress gets lots of campaign contributions from very high paid Wall Street executives.

Of course, giving taxpayer dollars to the richest people in the country is not very popular with ordinary taxpayers. So, it might be in the interest of members of Congress to appear to be trying to rein in executive compensation on Wall Street, even if this is not their real intention. In other words, the restrictions of executive compensation put in the bailout bill were just a charade for the kids.

No limits on executive pay, after all

Henry Paulson
Paulson says, "All your dollars are belong to us!"
Photo: AP

On September 24th, the New York Times reported Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as saying "The American people are angry about executive compensation, and rightfully so. Many of you cite this as a serious problem, and I agree. We must find a way to address this in legislation without undermining the effectiveness of the program.” Paulson was ostensibly arguing that banks would rather go bankrupt than face these limits on the compensation paid to their top executives.

Soon thereafter, he capitulated and agreed to the limits, one of the few sticking points in Congress for a massively unpopular bailout bill. It seemed to me at the time that he agreed fairly quickly to this condition, but I chalked it up to his stated desire to get the bailout done with unprecedented speed. Turns out, he agreed to it because they had already figured out a way around the limits.

Today's Washington Post reports that during the tense bailout negotiations, a seemingly minor change took place:

But at the last minute, the Bush administration insisted on a one-sentence change to the provision, congressional aides said. The change stipulated that the penalty would apply only to firms that received bailout funds by selling troubled assets to the government in an auction, which was the way the Treasury Department had said it planned to use the money.

Now, however, the small change looks more like a giant loophole, according to lawmakers and legal experts. In a reversal, the Bush administration has not used auctions for any of the $335 billion committed so far from the rescue package, nor does it plan to use them in the future. Lawmakers and legal experts say the change has effectively repealed the only enforcement mechanism in the law dealing with lavish pay for top executives.

Is anyone even surprised with these revelations anymore? So now we know why Paulson decided not to use the auction mechanism after all, in favor of just giving the money directly to the banks. If there were auctions, then the big guys wouldn't get paid as much. Paulson couldn't do that to his old pals (who made $39 BILLION in bonuses alone last year), so he had to change the entire way the program worked. Luckily Congress gave him a bill that let him do whatever he wanted! As Barry Grey remarked during the original debate over executive compensation:
The universal mantra is the need for all Americans to “come together,” put aside their partisan differences and personal interests and accept the need for “sacrifice” in support of the common good—which just happens to coincide with the interests of Wall Street and the multi-millionaires and billionaires who control it.

But Paulson, in his weekend television appearances, was obliged to implicitly acknowledge that there is one segment of society that is not prepared to sacrifice a dime and will not hesitate to throw the country into a depression, if the alternative is the slightest diminution in its seven- and eight-figure compensation packages.

In spite of his intentions, Paulson’s comments demonstrate the utter fraud of the claims that the plan to place the national wealth at the disposal of Wall Street is driven by concerns for the well-being of the American people. His remarks reveal the most basic truth about American society: The interests of the overwhelming majority of the people are entirely subordinated to the money-mad strivings of a financial aristocracy.

The plutocrats call the shots. They determine public policy. They exercise an absolute veto on all decisions taken by the government, which is, in the final analysis, an instrument for the defense and advancement of their narrow and socially destructive interests.

The constant invocations of patriotism are purely for public consumption—a means of blinding the people to the class relations that dominate America.

Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches

Bad Times Draw Bigger Crowds to Churches:

"...since September, pastors nationwide say they have seen such a burst of new interest that they find themselves contending with powerful conflicting emotions — deep empathy and quiet excitement — as they re-encounter an old piece of religious lore:

Bad times are good for evangelical churches."

Guess which emotion they feel more- "deep empathy" or not-so-"quiet excitement?" Consider these quotations from the article:

  • “It’s a wonderful time, a great evangelistic opportunity for us."
  • “I found it very exciting, and I called up that fellow to tell him so. We need to leverage this moment, because every Christian revival in this country’s history has come off a period of rampant greed and fear. That’s what we’re in today — the time of fear and greed."
So the message is that it's wonderful that there's massive unemployment, millions of people in foreclosure, and not enough food; it's all part of God's plan to bring people back to church. Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again- if this kind of sick and twisted god actually exists, I still would not worship him. Hunger and homelessness are up in a big way, and what god wants is your ass back in the seat? That sounds like extortion- not at all an admirable trait in a deity.

Instead of praying for better times, why not donate to a food bank, or do some other sort of charitable giving? It's like prayer because it helps you feel better, but it also has the added advantage of actually doing something to make the situation better.

Friday, December 12, 2008

We told you

He's exactly right.

We told you: "Please, forgive me for saying it. I know it's a tad annoying, but it has to be said to America's ruling class in this humble column space. Because if it's not said here you can bet it won't be said anywhere else in the media, and it needs to be said somewhere on behalf of the millions of citizens who were right.

We told you so.

In the slow-motion train wreck that became the current economic meltdown, our bipartisan political Establishment and the sycophantic punditburo have been wrong over and over and over again. They told us that eviscerating consumer protections would unleash the markets benevolent power and boost the economy. They told us that a trillion-dollar Wall Street bailout would solve a credit crisis. They told us that bailout would be subjected to intense oversight and scrutiny.

Wrong, wrong and wrong — and when critics predicted just that, sneering commentators and congressional leaders berated us as know-nothing Luddites, conspiracy theorists, or both.

But with the release of three new reports, there's no debate anymore about who was correct and who wasn't. The studies prove that the critics were right and the ideologues of Washington were wrong.

When in 2005 Congress overwhelmingly passed a credit card industry-written bill gutting bankruptcy laws, progressives were right to try to stop it — and not just because it was an immoral move to legalize usury. We were right because as the New York Federal Reserve Bank reports, the bill played an integral role in the recent foreclosure surge that crushed the economy.

In the past, bankruptcy laws made sure debtors first and foremost continued paying their mortgages so that they could stay in their home. But the 2005 legislation effectively compels debtors to first pay off their credit cards, meaning many then have no money left to pay their mortgage. The Feds report estimates that the bankruptcy bill is causing 32,000 more foreclosures per quarter than the economy would have already generated.

We told you so. When almost every media voice in America was sounding the alarm of financial panic and demanding a Wall Street bailout plan; when bailout opponents were roundly ridiculed as "irresponsible" by politician and pundit alike — those opponents were nonetheless right to say then what a study from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank says now: that the case hadn't been made.

While reporters and the Bush administration frantically insisted that bank-to-business lending had ceased, inter-bank lending had stopped, and short-term "commercial paper" loans had dried up, the Minneapolis researchers tell us that "all three claims were false" and continue to be false; that "nobody has explained how the money system has frozen when the data says it has not"; and that "a trillion dollar intervention warrant(ed) a bit more serious analysis."

We told you so.

When lawmakers said the bailout included strict oversight measures, skeptics were right to say that claim was patently untrue. According to a new analysis by federal officials at the Government Accountability Office, virtually nonexistent oversight of the bailout means "taxpayers may not be adequately protected" and that the bailout's stated goal of fixing the economy "may not be achieved in an efficient and effective manner."

Yes, we told you so.

And so now, even though these damning reports have garnered scant news coverage, perhaps there will be a change. As we — the pragmatic progressive majority demand tough new financial regulations; job-creating investments in public infrastructure; labor law reforms; universal health care; revised international trade policies; a repeal of the odious bankruptcy bill and an end to Wall Street welfare maybe, just maybe, our humiliated rulers will start listening.

A visual guide to the bailout

From Mint:

What do you do if you don’t have the money to pay a debt? If you are like most of us, you borrow. The US Government is no different. In order to pay for the $700 billion bailout, it will have to borrow more money, increasing the national debt. But who will pay for this massive bailout? If you are a US taxpayer, you will.

Here is a visual guide to understanding how the bailout is funded and a couple of financial experts’ take on how it could be funded. (click to embiggen)

How's this for "Transparency"?

Remember the early days, when the bailout was first sprung upon an unsuspecting public? We were treated to lies like this:

Henry Paulson: "We need oversight. We need transparency. I want it. We all want it."

Seemed pretty clear right? Of course, the only reason he said that was because people actually read his original three-page proposal which revealed what he really wanted (this is the full text of Section 8):

Sec. 8. Review.

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

So now, is anyone really shocked that not even a lawsuit will force them to be transparent?
The Federal Reserve refused a request by Bloomberg News to disclose the recipients of more than $2 trillion of emergency loans from U.S. taxpayers and the assets the central bank is accepting as collateral.

Bloomberg filed suit Nov. 7 under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act requesting details about the terms of 11 Fed lending programs, most created during the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression.


“There has to be something they can tell the public because we have a right to know what they are doing,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “It would really be a shame if we have to find this out 10 years from now after some really nasty class-action suit and our financial system has completely collapsed.”

Consider also:

Bipartisan coalition of 75+ groups demand bailout transparency.

The three layers of oversight promised in the original bill is still not in place, despite spending almost all of the first $350 billion.

Economist: Paulson plan "truly idiotic"; shows a "complete leadership failure in Congress and the administration".

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blagojevich and the Pendulum of Public Distrust

Ordinarily, I like much of what Robert Reich has to say. In this case, however, he's vastly oversimplified what's happened.

Throughout its history, America has cycled back and forth between two distinct targets of distrust -- big business (including Wall Street), and government. In periods when big business is most distrusted, Americans seek protection from it, and reluctantly give government authority to expand its scope. When big government is most distrusted, Americans want less of it, and give big business greater leeway.

Bur what happens if business and government are one and the same, indivisible? If it were anyone else, I could let this comment slide, but Reich should know better. As I quoted him just the other day,

Supercapitalism has triumphed as power has shifted to consumers and investors. They now have more choice than ever before, and can switch ever more easily to better deals. And competition among companies to lure and keep them continues to intensify. This means better and cheaper products, and higher returns. Yet as supercapitalism has triumphed, its negative social consequences have also loomed larger. These include widening inequality as most gains from economic growth go to the very top, reduced job security, instability of or loss of community, environmental degradation, violations of human rights abroad, and a plethora of products and services pandering to our basest desires. These consequences are larger in the United States than in other advanced economies because America has moved deeper into supercapitalism. Other econoimes, following closely behind, have begun to experience many of the same things.

Democracy is the appropriate vehicle for responding to such social consequences. That's where citizen values are supposed to be expressed, where choices are supposed to be made between what we want for ourselves as consumers and investors, and what we want to achieve together. But the same competition that has fueled supercapitalism has spilled over into the political process. Large companies have hired platoons of lobbyists, lawyers, experts, and public relations specialists, and devoted more and more money to electoral campaigns. The result has been to drown out voices and values of citizens. As all of this has transpired, the old institutions through which citizen values had been expressed in the Not Quite Golden Age-- industry-wide labor unions, local citizen-based groups, "corporate statesmen" responding to all stakeholders, and regulator agencies-- have been largely blown away by the gusts of supercapitalism.

George Bush bible comment shocked evangelicals

I've been debating with myself for quite some time this question: Is George Bush the dumbest person ever to have lived, or simply one of the worst people ever to have lived?

Bush Bible comment shocked evangelicals

Bush made the controversial statement during a Monday interview on ABC's Nightline. When asked whether he thinks the Bible is literally true, he replied, "Probably not. No, I'm not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it."

Bush further stated in the interview, "I think that God created the Earth ... and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution."
So, he's got that going for him. Since he's not so stupid as to believe the bible is literally true, or that evolution is "just a theory", then that makes him smarter than most fundamentalist Christians. However, that pushes him closer towards the "worst person ever to have lived" category.

Corruption, horse-trading, or politics as usual?

The country seems to be shocked at the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, and his allegedly corrupt practices and subsequent arrest earlier this week. I would like to suggest that the only reason we call him corrupt is that he was doing it for money. Political horse-trading like this goes on all the time, but the only time we call a spade a spade is when there are large sums of money involved. As Chris Bowers at Open Left pointed out, there are several examples of Democrats offering to vote a certain way in order to get something that they desire in exchange.

While it is not illegal to threaten to switch voting habits if certain demands are not met, it is just as unprincipled as selling a Senate seat for money. In both cases, power is for sale for its own sake, prior beliefs and values be damned. Lieberman was threatening to start voting with Republicans on a number of issues that he previously did not if he was not granted more power. The same appears to be the case for these three Senate Democrats in New York. Power trumps values. Like Blagojevich, they are all demanding certain amounts of power before they will support your ideas.

And that's why the government is broken. There are no principles anymore, there is only "what can you do for me?" Moreover, corruption of the Blagojevich scale is not even that rare anymore, he was just dumber than most in getting caught on tape. As John Stewart pointed out on the Daily Show:
After noting in a segment 'for children' that 3 of the last 7 Illinois Governors have ended up in jail, Stewart explains that statistics show if you grow up to become the Governor of Illinois, you're more likely to go to jail than if you commit murder. Calling the job of Governor for the state of Illinois a "dead end" and "a ticket to nowheresville," he says if Blagojevich is convicted, that will total "50% who end up in jail" while "If you commit murder, only 48% end up in jail for their crime."
And all of this after running on an anti-corruption campaign.
Until his arrest Tuesday on federal corruption charges, the self-proclaimed "always lawful" Blagojevich had built a political career, in part, on fighting corruption. When he ran for governor, he touted his past as a state criminal prosecutor and promised to break away from politics as usual.

"A governor must be willing to take on the special interests, not carry their water," he said when he announced his candidacy for governor in 2001, at the North Side Chicago steel mill where his Serbian immigrant father once worked. "It means shaking up a system that serves itself instead of the people."

So I started thinking about others that have been accused or convicted of corruption or ethics problems in recent memory:
And that's where I got depressed and stopped thinking about it. I thought maybe I was overstating things, and decided to turn to Wikipedia and see what the data said. Turns out there's a survey known as the "Corruption Perceptions Index", which measures "the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians". Countries are scored on a 10-point score, with 10 being perceived as least-corrupt. If you scroll down, the USA is about 20th on the list, with a score of 7.2. Our score has also been sliding down, from 7.6 in 2002, indicating that the perception of corruption has been steadily increasing since that time.

I'm not saying Blago ought to be given a pass, what I am saying is far more revolutionary. Professional politicians do not have our best interests at heart. We have ceded far too much control over every aspect of our lives to political "leaders" that are utterly divorced from the views of those that they are supposed to represent. As Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." It's time for us to start taking some of our power back.

Church seeks 'Santa Claus will take you to hell' sign to accompany Nativity display

Can we all agree that this sign-in-the-capitol-to-be-inclusive-for-holidays is going a little too far? Why does the Capitol need any of these displays? Maybe the Capitol should reserve displays to those that are relevant to politics- not things outside its purview, such as religion? Call me crazy...

Church seeks 'Santa Claus will take you to hell' sign to accompany Nativity display
The "church" that picketed gay hate crime victim Matthew Shepard's funeral and blamed Iraq war deaths on US tolerance of gays has a new message: Screw Santa.The church has asked Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's office to put up a sign near its holiday display that says "Santa Claus will take you to hell" among other religious statements in the state capitol's hallway.

In an effort to be inclusive, the state has added signs mocking atheism, an atheist sign celebrating the winter solistice and a sign mocking religion as "myth and superstition" that enslaves minds alongside a more typical Nativity display.

"The Westboro request is under consideration by the state Department of General Administration, which also has a request for a display depicting 'The Spaghetti Monster' and 'a Christian woman in Bellevue who wants to erect a sign offering blessings on all people,'" the Daily Olympian's Brad Shannon noted Thursday. "'Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster' is a parody of the Kansas education-board decision to teach 'intelligent design' as an alternative to Darwinist evolutionary concepts in biology classes."

"Also under consideration is a request for a 'Festivus' pole," adds Sherman, "a reference to the mock holiday 'Festivus for the Rest of Us' popularized by Seinfeld in the late 1990s."

The Santa message is nothing if not outrageous, in the spirit of previous Westboro Baptist messages.

"You'd better watch out, get ready to cry, You'd better go hide, I'm telling you why 'cuz Santa Claus will take you to hell. He is your favorite idol, you worship at his feet, but when you stand before your God He won't help you take the heat," the proposed sign reads. "So get this fact straight: you're feeling God's hate, Santa's to blame for the economy's fate, Santa Claus will take you to hell."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some things are too important to be left to the "free market"

Amidst this implosion of financial markets, I think that it's critical to discuss a few ideas. Namely, that there are some things that are simply too important to be left to the vagaries of the market. Water and food, especially.

Since the days of Upton Sinclair, we've known that capital markets have been ineffective in guaranteeing food to consumers that is fair, clean and healthy. It's no different today- it seems as though there are new reports of tainted meat, tainted vegetables, or tainted milk.

But we are also still dealing with famine and food riots around the world. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization reported this week that another 40 million people have been pushed into hunger this year, bringing the worldwide total to a staggering 963 million. FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem:

For millions of people in developing countries, eating the minimum amount of food every day to live an active and healthy life is a distant dream. The structural problems of hunger, like the lack of access to land, credit and employment, combined with high food prices remain a dire reality.

Notice that he didn't implicate farming techniques, climate change, seed quality, or any other technological problems as the reason for hunger- the problems he cites are due to the failures of markets to ensure that people get fed. It's not just the UN either- Bloomberg news yesterday reported that the World Bank's consistent prioritization of free markets has been a "manmade recipe for famine [that] included corrupt governments and companies that profited on misery."

It's not just the World Bank, it's the World Bank working in concert with the IMF and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to create "open markets" that are increasingly unable to provide either farmers with a living, or consumers with food. At least 87,567 farmers in India committed suicide between 2002 and 2006, largely as a result of globalization of the food trade:

Analysts cite several factors for the suicides, including crop failure due to agrochemicals and climate change, lower prices due to U.S. farm subsidies, state restrictions on export trade, and the dumping of surplus crops in an oversaturated domestic market.

As the economic crisis is making us aware, capital markets to not always function properly in America either. Our food aid program has recently been implicated in starvation around the world, due largely to the influence of lobbyists and monopolistic corporations in charge of the food chain.

Increasingly, it's becoming clear that food and water are different. They should be basic human rights, completely independent upon one's ability to pay for them. I just hope we don't have to wait until billions are starving around the world before we figure that out.

Everyone should be unionized?

In the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, and massive unemployment I agree with the calls of some for greater unionization. It appears that Republic Window and Door workers will get what they have earned, as a result of their unionization and sit-in. This is one small demonstration of the power that exists when we, as workers, unite.

The workers are "very, very satisfied" with the agreement, said Mark Meinster of the United Electrical Workers union, which represents the employees.

"Hopefully this is an example for workers across the country that when things like this happen, you can step up, you can speak out, and you can win," he said.

The wealthy of this country have been exploiting us all for far too long, it's time that we finally start to demand some reciprocity, especially as they continue to get bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars. Some interesting tidbits:

* from 1980 to 2004, while U.S. gross domestic product per person rose by almost two-thirds, the wages of the average worker fell after adjusting for inflation. (source)
* Over the three decades from 1972 to 2001, the wages and salaries of even those Americans at the 90th percentile (those doing better than 90 percent of their fellow citizens) experienced income gains of only 1 percent a year on average. Those at the 99.9th percentile saw their income rise by 181 percent over these years (to an income averaging almost $1.7 million). Those at the 99.99th percentile had income growth of 497 percent. (source)
* Since 1969, the share of aggregate household income controlled by the lowest income quintile (one-fifth of the population) has decreased from 4.1 percent to 3.6 percent in 1997, while the share to the highest quintile increased from 43.0 percent to 49.4 percent. Most noticeably, the share of income controlled by the top 5 percent of households has increased from 16.6 percent to 21.7 percent.


  • To compensate for this loss of purchasing power, middle-class America has been forced more and more deeply into debt (see the chart above). Consumer debt has increased, and at an ever-faster pace. In 2003, revolving consumer debt was growing at 2.9% per year. By 2007, that number had more than doubled to a growth rate of 7.4%. This debt is part of the current crisis in which we find ourselves.
  • Noam Chomsky: [It's quite a long quotation, feel free to skip this and meet me below for some more analysis. That being said, it's definitely worth reading!] That's part of the driving force. The other part of the driving force is the Washington Consensus, the neoliberal policies that for the last 25 years have been one of the most dramatic disasters in economic history. It won't come as a surprise to anyone that has studied economic history since the industrial revolution, that it is very striking that where these neoliberal policies have been pursued, particularly in South America, there has been a rapid decline in virtually all macro-economic measures: rate of growth, rate of productivity, etc. And also a rise in inequality. The same can be said of the United States, where the measures have not been applied with the rigidity of Latin America, but they have, to some extent, been applied for the last 25 years. And this has been a bleak period in US economic history. For 25 years real wages have been in decline for the majority of the population. The United States is the richest country in the world and, as you would expect, 25 years ago had the highest wages and shortest working week of any industrialized country in the world. And now that's been reversed. Now it has the lowest wages and the longest working hours of any industrialized country in the world. Salaries have remained the same, but working hours have increased, and inequality has just soared.

    Throughout the first phase of post World War II history, the 1950s trough the 1970s, we had rapid growth, but we had egalitarian growth. And it was growth of social welfare and it resulted in a rise of all the social indicators. And there was a healthy society. That changed in the period of 1970 to 1975. The social indicators began to decline and growth fell very sharply and inequality fell back to what it was in the 1920s. And for most of the working population, it is one of the worst periods in economic history. That's been mirrored throughout the world. In the regions where these policies have been pursued, there has been a very sharp decline in comparison to the previous 25 years. There has been growth and development in the international economy during that period, but the social benefits have been seen in regions where these neoliberal policies have been ignored. South East Asia has been a striking example. Now the World Bank and other institutions, have figures that try to obscure these facts by putting together things that are quite unrelated. They put together participation in trade, with adherence to the Washington Consensus. So, for example China undergoes very high growth by violating the principles of the Washington Consensus. They ignore the total picture by making the claim that China has a high growth rate and never mentioning that it's a result of violating the principles of Washington Consensus. But, if you look at the World Bank figures and take them apart, then what you find is that adhering to these neoliberal policies has been economically harmful, in a surprisingly consistent way. The truth is that violating the principles of the Washington Consensus has often been associated with very high rates of growth, but that is rarely mentioned. It is similar to the first 25 years after World War II, often referred to as the "golden age".

    But that's only part of the story: these neoliberal measures, quiet apart from economic consequences, were virtually designed as an attack on democracy. There has been a dramatic decline throughout Latin America for support of democratic systems. Not that people don't want democracy, but support has fallen for the parliamentary systems as they exist. That's been a decline that has occurred parallel to the imposition of neoliberal polices. It was in the design of these policies, at every point, to undermine democracy. For example the imposition of financial liberalization is undermining democracy by taking away the capacity of governments to control things that will have an impact on the population. They took away governments' capacity to make public policy. Neoliberal policies create a virtual parliament of investors and landlords that is not democratic and is not under the control of the population in a democratic manner. Democracy existed before the neoliberal years, in the post-war period, because capital controls could be imposed by governments. And that was a way of exercising democracy. Capital controls were imposed not just as a way of controlling capital but also to give governments space to carry out the development programs that their populations wanted. That was a way to exercise democracy. Things have change in the last 25 years, and they have not changed in a democratic way. I should say that these are staples of economic theory and economic history. They are not obscure. They are in all of the economic text books.

    The same can be said about privatization. There is no empirical evidence that privatization has any economic benefits. The evidence is just the opposite, especially with health care and social services. But privatizations do have the effect of taking decisions and control out of the public realm. It takes things out of democratic control and puts them in the control of unaccountable private entities. "Services" includes just about everything that people care about; health, resources, education and the environment, all the things that people care about. These are called "services". And then there is "trade in services", when you add on trade. This means transferring all the things in life into the hands of private enterprises. They are unaccountable and they are taking things out of the public arena. When that happens you can have a formal democracy, but there is nothing left with which to make decisions. The same runs true trough the rest of the neoliberal package. And it is all of these factors, along with the rising inequality, that is driving people to call for change.

It seems like the "little guy" gets exploited at every turn. So what can be done? Increasingly, unions are becoming an attractive alternative. Starbucks workers have even organized (by the way, they need your support). Unionization of Walmart employees is slowly moving forward. Perhaps seeing the victory of the workers of Republic Window & Door in Chicago will help more of us to realize that the poor and middle-class have much more in common with each other than we will ever have with the ultra-wealthy.

It's worth remembering that WE are the true productive members of society. You can see that in the current disconnect between the financial crisis and the conditions on Main Street. Trillions of dollars have been wiped from the financial system, but those are speculative dollars, not real ones. We are the ones that pour your coffee, we fix your heater, we work on your car. We don't depend on speculative dollars, we live on real budgets that impact our real lives. We are not the ones that get hurt when credit default swaps go bad, or Collateralized Debt Obligations are not as well collateralized as the banksters thought. At least, if things were fair, we wouldn't be. We could continue on about our life, shaking our head at the folly of it all. Instead, they still get millions in bonuses, spa vacations, and billions of dollars in bailouts, all while we get pink slips. The only way to combat this is to demand better alternatives, to demand solutions that work for more than just those at the top. The time has come to demand justice for all of us.

Good Old-fashioned Christian marriage

Perhaps I was too hasty earlier as I advocated equal rights for homosexuals to marry and have long-term, loving, committed relationships. Maybe instead of pushing "equality" and "tolerance", I should have pointed out some of the common-sense rules that govern Christian marriage. Christians, please choose which forms of marriage you would like to see enacted as constitutional mandates, so we can get back to governing "God's way": (h/t DailyKos)

A. Marriage in the United States shall consist of a union between one man and one or more women. (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5)

B. Marriage shall not impede a man's right to take concubines in addition to his wife or wives. (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21)

C. A marriage shall be considered valid only if the wife is a virgin. If the wife is not a virgin, she shall be executed. (Deut 22:13-21)

D. Marriage of a believer and a non-believer shall be forbidden. (Gen 24:3; Num 25:1-9; Ezra 9:12; Neh 10:30)

E. Since marriage is for life, neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any State, nor any state or federal law, shall be construed to permit divorce. (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9)

F. If a married man dies without children, his brother shall marry the widow. If he refuses to marry his brother's widow or deliberately does not give her children, he shall pay a fine of one shoe and be otherwise punished in a manner to be determined by law. (Gen 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10)

G. In lieu of marriage, if there are no acceptable men in your town, it is required that you get your dad drunk and have sex with him (even if he had previously offered you up as a sex toy to men young and old), tag-teaming with any sisters you may have. Of course, this rule applies only if you are female. (Gen 19:31-36)

And it goes without saying that as a good Christian, you should make sure that you don't serve lobster, crab, prawns, at your wedding reception- your god hates those too!

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