Thursday, January 29, 2009

Endemic corruption

Blagojevich did acknowledge that the truth of his actions might not be flattering in some cases. He referred to taped conversations played earlier in the Senate trial. The tapes appeared to show Blagojevich linking legislation to campaign contributions.

He said that's something "all of us in politics do." (source)
I believe him. It's refreshing when you hear a politician actually tell the truth for once, isn't it?

Systemic police perjury addressed

Coming quickly on the heels of my post two weeks ago on police lying to gain search warrants, today's Wall Street Journal addresses the issue of police lying later in the process, at trial.

Though few officers will confess to lying -- after all, it's a crime -- work by researchers and a 1990s commission appointed to examine police corruption shows there's a tacit agreement among many officers that lying about how evidence is seized keeps criminals off the street.

To stem the problem, some criminal-justice researchers and academic experts have called for doing polygraphs on officers who take the stand or requiring officers to tape their searches.

A Supreme Court ruling this month, however, suggests that a simpler, though controversial, solution may be to weaken a longstanding part of U.S. law, known as the exclusionary rule. The 5-4 ruling in Herring v. U.S. that evidence obtained from certain unlawful arrests may nevertheless be used against a criminal defendant could indicate the U.S. is inching closer to a system in which officers might not be tempted to lie to prevent evidence from being thrown out.

Criminal-justice researchers say it's difficult to quantify how often perjury is being committed. According to a 1992 survey, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges in Chicago said they thought that, on average, perjury by police occurs 20% of the time in which defendants claim evidence was illegally seized.

"It is an open secret long shared by prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges that perjury is widespread among law enforcement officers," though it's difficult to detect in specific cases, said Alex Kozinski, a federal appeals-court judge, in the 1990s. That's because the exclusionary rule "sets up a great incentive for...police to lie."

So let me get this straight: everyone in the criminal justice system accepts that police routinely lie to help them gain convictions. Rather than realize that this means something is fundamentally flawed with our system, their solution is to remove the penalties associated with police misconduct? The exclusionary rule is one of the few protections afforded to defendants, and now we're going to weaken it because some cops feel pressured to lie to gain admission of the evidence? Exclusionary rule or not, I really am still stuck on the fact that a fifth of the police department routinely perjures themselves in court, and yet that is not the focus of this article. Let me put this another way: our police are committing criminal acts, and nobody is doing anything to stop it.

Throwing out evidence because of wrongful searches and arrests "is not an individual right and applies only where its deterrent effect outweighs the substantial cost of letting guilty and possibly dangerous defendants go free," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.

Civil liberties advocates and defense lawyers say losing the exclusionary rule would harm the public. "We'd risk far greater invasions of privacy because officers would have carte blanche to do outrageous activity and act on hunches all the time," says JaneAnne Murray, a criminal defense lawyer in New York.

Excluding illegally obtained evidence "is not an individual right and applies only where its deterrent effect outweighs the substantial cost of letting guilty and possibly dangerous defendants go free." Really? If we follow Justice Robert's statement to it's natural conclusion, then police can do whatever they want, as long as they actually catch some people that have drugs. And just what are these "substantial costs" associated with letting drug offenders go free? It seems to me that there are more substantial costs associated with incarcerating drug offenders than there are in letting them go free. As I write this, the federal and state governments combined have spent over $4.1 billion dollars in the first 29 days of 2009 on the drug war. Police arrested an estimated 872,720 persons for cannabis violations in 2007, the highest annual total ever recorded in the United States, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Of those charged with cannabis violations, approximately 89 percent, 775,137 Americans were charged with possession only. An American is now arrested for violating cannabis laws every 38 seconds.(source)

When do we admit that the drug was has been a total and abject failure?

Mercury contamination widespread in US Food Supply

Rather than simply presenting this story and ranting about it, I want to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate my way of critical thinking. I think that the way the news is reported does a tremendous disservice to the American public. I further believe that a large segment of the American population is losing, or has lost, their ability to think at any depth about the implications of the stories in the press. Read this article, then meet me below for commentary.

Studies Find Mercury in Much U.S. Corn Syrup

Corn Syrup Industry Attacks Findings, but Researchers Stick by Studies



Many common foods made using commercial high fructose corn syrup contain mercury as well, researchers reported on Tuesday, while another study suggested the corn syrup itself is contaminated.

Food processors and the corn syrup industry group attacked the findings as flawed and outdated, but the researchers said it was important for people to know about any potential sources of the toxic metal in their food.

In one study, published in the journal Environmental Health, former Food and Drug Administration scientist Renee Dufault and colleagues tested 20 samples of high fructose corn syrup and found detectable mercury in nine of the 20 samples.

Dufault said in a statement that she told the FDA about her findings but the agency did not follow up.

Dr. David Wallinga, a food safety researcher and activist at the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said he followed up on the report to find mercury in actual food.

"When I learned of that work, I said that is interesting but we don't just go out and eat a spoonful of high fructose corn syrup," Wallinga said in a telephone interview.

"We went and looked at supermarket samples where high fructose corn syrup was the first or second ingredient on the label," he said. These 55 different foods included barbecue sauce, jam, yogurt and chocolate syrup.

"We found about one out of three had mercury above the detection limit," Wallinga said.

The Corn Refiners Association challenged the findings.

"This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance," the group said in a statement.

Wallinga and colleagues said they believed the mercury got into the food during manufacture, at plants that use mercury-grade caustic soda produced in industrial chlorine plants, although his team was unable to show this.

"Our industry has used mercury-free versions of the two reagents mentioned in the study, hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, for several years," Audrae Erickson, president of the Corn Refiners Association, said in a statement.

Wallinga said the studies were based on samples taken in 2005, the most recent available.

Many studies have shown that fish can be high in mercury. Wallinga said consumers should know about other potential sources so they can limit how much they eat. "The best mercury exposure is no exposure at all," he said.

"Even at low levels methylmercury can harm the developing brain. The last thing we should intentionally do is add to it," Wallinga added.

He said his team did not test foods that did not contain corn syrup to see if they were also high in mercury.

OK, so pretty scary stuff, but if you read the article uncritically, you might be left with the impression that there is a dispute about whether mercury is in high fructose corn syrup (and the foods that contain HFCS) or not. But a critical reader notices what the corn industry actually said, which is "This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance." That's not a denial. If there really wasn't mercury in the syrup, then they would say something along the lines of "We have the highest processing standards and a rigorous quality control process. We are confident that there is no mercury in our products. However, to be absolutely certain, and in the interests of American consumers, we are submitting samples to a third-party lab for testing as well as inviting inspectors into our plants to monitor our processes and submit ideas for improvements." Ah, but that's not what they said, is it? Instead, they admitted that at one time their products contained mercury, and argued that even if they still do contain mercury, it's probably not really that significant anyway.

The next thing to do is to thing about the motivations of the people cited in the article. Who has a motivation to mislead? The scientists are doing science, and publishing their research. They might have an incentive to publish something like this which could be sensationalized, if it draws more attention to them. It could lead to a book deal, talk-show appearances, etc...

Alternatively, the corn industry also has a motivation to mislead. HFCS is in practically everything you purchase. If news that it was contaminated with mercury became widespread, then people may not purchase as much of their product, or lawsuits seeking damages may be initiated. Millions of dollars in lost sales, punitive damages, and impaired goodwill are not unforeseeable. So, if they can mislead people into thinking the studies are no good, that might just nip the problem in the bud.

So which is more likely to be misleading you? I don't know, but I suspect that it's the corn industry, especially in light of their non-denial statement. However, it could be both of them. And if you are reading an article that quotes a politician, all bets are off.

So there you have it, you're probably injesting a significantly higher amount of mercury than you were expecting. Welcome to the dysfunctional American food supply, would you like some salmonella peanut butter with that?

Friday, January 23, 2009

More news on the dollar

After yesterday's brief discussion on the future of the dollar, there are three major articles today on the subject.

First, the Wall Street Journal takes issue with the presumptive replacement for Tim Geithner at the New York Fed- a Mr. William Dudley.

One of the Fed's most important tasks in coming months will be deciding when to remove the oceans of liquidity that it has been pushing into the economy to fight off a deeper recession. Remove it too late once the recovery begins, and the Fed will risk creating new asset bubbles or a run on the dollar. Yet as chief economist for many years at Goldman Sachs, Mr. Dudley consistently supported a weak dollar in the name of reducing the U.S. trade deficit.

This is a dangerous message to send at any time, but in particular as the new Administration embarks on an epic spending spree that will require from $2 trillion to $3 trillion in new U.S. borrowing over the next two years. The world's creditors aren't likely to lend as much, or as cheaply, if they think their dollar assets will be debased as a matter of U.S. policy.
Reuter's provides a contrasting view- that Geithner and Obama face a daunting, but vital, task of persuading the world that they intend to maintain a strong-dollar policy.

"This time around the administration probably means it when it says it backs a strong dollar. They have to be dead serious about it," said Samarjit Shankar, a director for global strategy at the Bank of New York Mellon, in Boston.

"Trillions worth of U.S. debt is coming soon to the markets. Which foreign central bank or institution will buy this debt if they are not fully convinced the dollar will remain strong?" he added.

The challenge for Obama's team, analysts said, will be to support the dollar's value without direct manipulation in the markets, with the economy in recession, interest rates near zero, and a ballooning current account deficit.

Moreover, Washington will have to achieve all that without antagonizing China, the biggest holder of U.S. Treasury debt, the analysts said.

"It will be a real test. One thing is to finance a $450 billion deficit and another is to finance $2 trillion," said Chris Rupkey, a senior financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York.

And finally, a wonderful op-ed piece from Peter Schiff.

Barack Obama has spoken often of sacrifice. And as recently as a week ago, he said that to stave off the deepening recession Americans should be prepared to face "trillion dollar deficits for years to come."

But apart from a stirring call for volunteerism in his inaugural address, the only specific sacrifices the president has outlined thus far include lower taxes, millions of federally funded jobs, expanded corporate bailouts, and direct stimulus checks to consumers. Could this be described as sacrificial?

What he might have said was that the nations funding the majority of America's public debt -- most notably the Chinese, Japanese and the Saudis -- need to be prepared to sacrifice. They have to fund America's annual trillion-dollar deficits for the foreseeable future. These creditor nations, who already own trillions of dollars of U.S. government debt, are the only entities capable of underwriting the spending that Mr. Obama envisions and that U.S. citizens demand.

These nations, in other words, must never use the money to buy other assets or fund domestic spending initiatives for their own people. When the old Treasury bills mature, they can do nothing with the money except buy new ones. To do otherwise would implode the market for U.S. Treasurys (sending U.S. interest rates much higher) and start a run on the dollar. (If foreign central banks become net sellers of Treasurys, the demand for dollars needed to buy them would plummet.)

In sum, our creditors must give up all hope of accessing the principal, and may be compensated only by the paltry 2%-3% yield our bonds currently deliver.

As absurd as this may appear on the surface, it seems inconceivable to President Obama, or any respected economist for that matter, that our creditors may decline to sign on. Their confidence is derived from the fact that the arrangement has gone on for some time, and that our creditors would be unwilling to face the economic turbulence that would result from an interruption of the status quo.

But just because the game has lasted thus far does not mean that they will continue playing it indefinitely. Thanks to projected huge deficits, the U.S. government is severely raising the stakes. At the same time, the global economic contraction will make larger Treasury purchases by foreign central banks both economically and politically more difficult.

Embrace the cause of liberty!

Politics is the science of liberty: man's government of his fellow-man, no matter the name under which it lurks, is oppression: society's highest perfection lies in the marriage of order and anarchy.
The end of the old civilization is nigh: under a new sun, the face of the earth is going to be remade. Let us leave a generation to die out; let us leave the old prevaricators to perish in the desert--the blessed earth will not cover their bones. Young man, outraged by the corruption of the times and consumed by a yearning for justice--if you hold your country dear, and have any feeling for the interests of humanity--make bold and embrace the cause of liberty. Strip off your ancient selfishness and immerse yourself in the popular tide of nascent equality. There, your rehydrated soul can drink deep of a sap an an unknown vigor: your wit, gone flabby, will recover irrepressible energy; your heart--even now shriveled perhaps--will be rejuvenated. Your purified eyes will see everything in a new light: new sentiments will inspire new thoughts in you; religion, morality, poetry, art, language, will loom taller and more beautiful; and, certain then of your faith, thoughtfully enthusiastic, you will greet the dawning of universal regeneration.

Proudhon, from Property is Theft

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Theiving Merrill executives accelerated bonuses before BofA deal

Every time I think I've seen the lowest, most despicable, most brazen, unconscionable, outright theft, something like this comes along and proves me all wrong. When do we start seeing these fucking executives in handcuffs?

Merrill delivered bonuses before BofA deal
Merrill Lynch took the unusual step of accelerating bonus payments by a month last year, doling out billions of dollars to employees just three days before the closing of its sale to Bank of America.

The timing is notable because the money was paid as Merrill’s losses were mounting and Ken Lewis, BofA’s chief executive, was seeking additional funds from the government’s troubled asset recovery programme to help close the deal.

Merrill and BofA shareholders voted to approve the takeover on December 5. Three days later, Merrill’s compensation committee approved the bonuses, which were paid on December 29. In past years, Merrill had paid bonuses later – usually late January or early February, according to company officials.

Within days of the compensation committee meeting, BofA officials said they became aware that Merrill’s fourth-quarter losses would be greater than expected and began talks with the US Treasury on securing additional Tarp money.

Last week, BofA said it would be receiving $20bn in Tarp money, in addition to the $25bn that had been earmarked for it and Merrill last year. It was then revealed that Merrill had suffered a $21.5bn operating loss in the fourth quarter.

Despite the magnitude of the losses, Merrill had set aside $15bn for 2008 compensation, a sum that was only 6 per cent lower than the total in 2007, when the investment bank’s losses were smaller.

The bulk of $15bn in compensation was paid out as salary and benefits throughout the course of the year. A person familiar with the matter estimated that about $3bn to $4bn was paid out in bonuses in December.

Nancy Bush, an analyst with NAB Research, described the size of the 2008 Merrill bonus payments as “ridiculous”.

BofA said: “Merrill Lynch was an independent company until January 1 2009. John Thain (Merrill’s chief executive) decided to pay year-end incentives in December as opposed to their normal date in January. BofA was informed of his decision.”

BofA declined to specify when Mr Thain informed the bank of his decision.

A source familiar with the matter says Mr Thain, in the weeks leading up to the December 8 compensation committee meeting, had been weighing the possibility of requesting a bonus of at least $10m for himself before ultimately deciding against such a move.

So, if you're not clear what this means, let me break it down for you. Merrill decides they are too broke to function as an independent company, so they decide to sell themselves to Bank of America. Bank of America gets $25,000,000,000 (it seems like a bigger number if you use all the zeros instead of just saying "$25 billion") from the Paulson to make the deal work. Merrill decides a couple of days later that they've done a hell of a wonderful job and still deserve their bonuses, but they've got to hurry up and pay them out before BofA takes them over. In the meantime, BofA realizes that Merrill's eyeball deep in bad shit, and wants out of the deal. Paulson says, "no way", and kicks in another $20,000,000,000 and agrees to guarantee up to $118,000,000,000 in bad loans. Today, BofA says to John Thain (former CEO of Merrill Lynch) "your services are no longer needed."

In short: Merrill executives are fucking theives, and have perpetrated a massive heist on Bank of America, who passed the buck on to you, the taxpayer. How does that make you feel?

"They hate us because of our freedoms" or....

In September, 2001 former-president Bush (I love saying that) stood before Congress and the American public and provided his explanation for why we were attacked:

Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
The truth makes far more sense: they hate us because our foreign policy has, for years, killed them in cold blood. The Christian Science Monitor from 9/27/01:

But from Jakarta to Cairo, Muslims and Arabs say that on reflection, they are not surprised by it. And they do not share Mr. Bush's view that the perpetrators did what they did because "they hate our freedoms."

Rather, they say, a mood of resentment toward America and its behavior around the world has become so commonplace in their countries that it was bound to breed hostility, and even hatred.

And the buttons that Mr. bin Laden pushes in his statements and interviews - the injustice done to the Palestinians, the cruelty of continued sanctions against Iraq, the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia, the repressive and corrupt nature of US-backed Gulf governments - win a good deal of popular sympathy.

Specifically in regard to Israel:

From one end of the region to the other, the perception is that Israel can get away with murder - literally - and that Washington will turn a blind eye. Clearly, the US and Israel have compelling reasons for their actions. But little that US diplomats have done in recent years to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians has persuaded Arabs that the US is a fair-minded and equitable judge of Middle Eastern affairs.

Over the past year, Arab TV stations have broadcast countless pictures of Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinian youths, Israeli tanks plowing into Palestinian homes, Israeli helicopters rocketing Palestinian streets. And they know that the US sends more than $3 billion a year in military and economic aid to Israel.

"You see this every day, and what do you feel?" asks Rafiq Hariri, the portly prime minister of Lebanon, who is not an excitable man. "It hurts me a lot. But for hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Muslims, it drives them crazy. They feel humiliated."

It appears that we have not learned our lesson. Fast-forward to 2009, we see new threats from Al-Qaeda based on our unquestioning support for Israel:

A prominent Al-Qaeda figure, Abu Yahya al-Libi, on Thursday urged Islamist militants to launch attacks in the West, naming the United States and Britain, to avenge Israel's onslaught on Gaza.

"Sacrifice what you can to deliver to the capitals of the infidel West, the criminal America, and the agent tyrants a taste of what they deliver to our brothers and our oppressed brothers and people in Palestine," Libi said in a videotape posted on the Internet, according a translation by SITE monitoring group.

Our hypocritical and unwavering support for Israel is endangering us again. Where do you think Israel got all those advanced munitions, used in an illegal manner? Why from your tax dollars, of course!

The U.S. weapons systems used by the Israelis -- including F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, tactical missiles and a wide array of munitions -- have been provided by Washington mostly as outright military grants.

The administration of President George W. Bush alone has provided over 21 billion dollars in U.S. security assistance over the last eight years, including 19 billion dollars in direct military aid as freebies.

"Israel's intervention in the Gaza Strip has been fueled largely by U.S. supplied weapons paid for with U.S. tax dollars," says a background briefing released Thursday by the Arms and Security Initiative of the New York-based New America Foundation.

"The Bush administration has been unwilling to use its considerable influence -- as Israel's major military and political backer -- to dissuade the government in Tel Aviv from its pattern of claiming self-defence while perpetrating collective punishment, human rights violations and undertaking massively disproportionate attacks that harm and kill civilians," Frida Berrigan, senior programme associate at the New America Foundation, told IPS.

We can only hope that these policies will change under the Obama administration.

Cult of Personality

All excerpts from Wikipedia's entry for "Cult of Personality." All emphasis mine.

A cult of personality or personality cult arises when a country's leader uses mass media to create a heroic public image through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships.

Generally, personality cults are most common in regimes with totalitarian systems of government, that seek to radically alter or transform society according to (supposedly) revolutionary new ideas. Often, a single leader becomes associated with this revolutionary transformation, and comes to be treated as a benevolent "guide" for the nation, without whom the transformation to a better future cannot occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that arose in totalitarian societies of the 20th century, such as those of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

Dollar set to fall?

As I briefly mentioned yesterday, a dollar devaluation is not unforeseeable in the near-term. Many analysts suggest that it is highly unlikely due to its status as reserve currency, a viewpoint echoed in today's Wall Street Journal.

Unlike the pound, the dollar is being buttressed by its unique status as the world's reserve currency and the vehicle for transactions in U.S. financial markets, including Treasury bonds. That means investors often seek out the dollar as fears rise, sometimes in spite of their concerns about the U.S. economy.

Fair enough, for now. But consider the factors driving the devaluation of the pound:
The U.S. and the U.K. face very similar predicaments, from a deepening recession to a damaged financial system. Both are orchestrating massive bank bailouts and attempting to assist struggling homeowners. Both are ramping up government spending even as they rely on financing from overseas investors. And both countries have central banks that have slashed interest rates and opened the door to unconventional ways of stimulating the economy.
Essentially, a very real fear that the massive bailouts and spending in the UK will bankrupt the government itself. The UK government is dependent on financing from overseas investors to keep the government functioning, as is the US government. As the situation deteriorates in China, perhaps dumping the massive investment they have made in the US become an increasingly attractive option, especially as treasuries become riskier as the cost of the assorted bailouts and buyouts and loans and guarantees spirals. Again, from the Wall Street Journal:

While the dollar continues to benefit from its unique position in financial markets for now, it is far from clear that the resilience will last. "Right now the market is beating up on the pound, but at some point it will look for something else to pick on," says Paul Mackel, a currency strategist at HSBC in London.

The fact that the Federal Reserve stands ready to use a host of unconventional measures to flood the economy with liquidity in an effort to stimulate growth "could hurt the dollar quite badly" later this year, he says.

Fed Balance Sheet Decaying

Fed Balance Sheet Decaying

Does anyone talking about this "bad bank" realize that we already have one? It's the Federal Reserve, and it has already taken on trillions of dollars of worthless paper from banks. If you really think the bad bank is the way to solve the crisis, then just let the Fed keep doing what they're doing.

Scientists Find a Missing Link

Scientists Find a Missing Link | Popular Science: "Paleontologists have excavated a plethora of feathered dinosaurs in China over the past few years, but none of those dinosaurs had feathers like this. Scientists examining a news specimen of the dinosaur Beipiaosaurus have found imprints of a proto-feather that looks like the missing link between primitive downy feathers and the modern feathers seen on birds."

Suck it, young-earth creationists! Where's your god now?? Oh, you'll probably invent some other gap for him to hide in, right?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Millionaire Obama freezes pay of top millionaire staff

Obama vows new 'era of openness', freezes pay of top staff: "President Barack Obama Wednesday vowed to forge a new era of government openness and froze the pay of top staff earning more than 100,000 dollars to show Americans their leaders could also tighten their belts amid economic crisis."

Boy, I sure hope those top staffers will be OK if they don't get any more raises! I mean, to be limited to your $100,000+ salary must be pretty painful! Millionaire Barack Obama shows he really knows how to tighten the belt, by freezing the salaries of his (millionaire) staffers, including Rahm Emanuel (estimated net worth of between $5,023,020 and $13,171,000 in 2007). Most progressive bloggers are praising the move, saying that it shows Obama empathizes with ordinary Americans' struggles. But he's not actually reducing anyone's salary, so I don't see how it's proof that the White House has a new commitment to "do more with less". Maybe it's along the lines of congressional spending, which when you hear about "slashing spending" really means "reducing the rate at which spending is increasing".

I think Obama's doing some good things here, especially if his commitment to "openness" holds. I'm all for restraining lobbyist influence, but color me skeptical that the tens of thousands of lobbyists in Washington are suddenly going to be unemployed.

Riots continue in Iceland

As I noted here December 23rd, riots and violent protests were disrupting Iceland, a country not known for these types of actions. Admittedly, the economic situation there is much worse (currently) than in the United States, but perhaps not for long. The Icelandic current account deficit is currently 22% of GDP, vs. 7% for US; the Icelandic GDP is forecast to decline by 9.6% for 2009- a number nobody is contemplating for the US. Inflation in Iceland is rampant, while deflation has taken hold in America.

However, there are several parallels worth noting. Iceland is forecasting a rise in the unemployment rate to 7.8% in 2009 (a number the US would be lucky to maintain in the face of steeply mounting layoffs and business closures). Iceland's currency has lost more than half its value, which is certainly not unforeseeable in the future for the US. But more than just the numbers, the story certainly sounds familiar to those of us in the United States. From The Guardian:

The fault is clearly shared between the business elite and the government, which failed to regulate the newly privatised financial sector, allowing a few incompetent and egotistical business tycoons to gamble with the nation's fortune. And yet neither the government nor the bankers – who, by the way, seem to have disappeared into the cold thin air – see anything wrong with their own behaviour.

The governor of the central bank blames the risk-seeking bankers, the bankers blame the government and the prime minister attributes the whole crisis to the international credit crunch. This lack of any sense of responsibility has angered the Icelandic public to the extent that they have turned to the streets in greater numbers than ever before.

Sound familiar? Do you hear anyone in American politics or banking accepting responsibility?

From the Huffington Post:

Thomas Jefferson wrote in the American Declaration of Independence that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [and] whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government." As the protesters fight to enforce that right, in this county that has known no war for generations, that has not seen violent conflict among its citizens for centuries, we must ponder what could be.

Today, as the United States makes a fundamental shift in direction, Iceland is tearing itself apart. The peaceful transition of power we watched in Washington following a fiercely contested election is a symbol of hope to us. The competent confidence and inspiring rhetoric of Barack Obama have rallied the vast majority of Americans behind him to face the myriad challenges all around us. The arrogance and obliviousness of Iceland's ruling elite has had the opposite effect.

Once again, I sincerely hope that I am wrong about the direction we are headed. However, the way I see it, he stimulus package cannot stand up to the kind of fiscal devastation that has been unleashed around the planet, nor can the TARP (or TARP 2.0, 3.0, etc... which are surely going to be coming). Please consider what could happen here if the results that people expect from the incoming administration fail to live up to the expectations engendered by the utterly non-specific rhetoric of "hope", and "change", and "yes, we can". What happens if we simply cannot? Once more, from The Guardian:

It is the first time in Icelandic history that a young anarchist can well expect to meet his grandmother in the crowd demonstrating against the government and drumming with her kitchen knife on pots and pans. The government is surely hanging by a thin thread and might fall at any moment.

The Icelandic public fear that their country has virtually been stolen by the globetrotting business elite that spent more time rubbing shoulders with international high society than giving back to the society that enabled them to enjoy this privileged lifestyle. Now ordinary Icelanders are determined to take their country back.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Happy Inauguration Day

I stole the graphic from, a page run by an anarchist that has just renounced his American citizenship. Kudos to him! As a commenter there pointed out, perhaps "Stooge" isn't exactly the right word, given how complicit Obama is in being the ruling class, so make up your own mind.
As an atheist, I don't see why prayer has to be part of a government function at all, but as prayers go, this one is decent. I like a lot of the sentiments there, but asking an invisible skydaddy to give you tolerance, compassion, etc... tends to absolve one of the responsibility to research those things on your own.

You may have heard the controversy over the bigot Rick Warren being invited to give the invocation. Subsequently, Gene Robinson was invited to give a prayer to open the whole inaugural event, and here's what he prayed:

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Omaha conservatives speak out!

I really cannot fathom how people can still think Bush has done a good job. Here are two examples of letter to the editor in today's Omaha World Herald, apparently in response to a letter critical of Bush (link unavailable, sic throughout).


Evidently, MD Funk has never been in the position of responsibility when his best efforts were torpedoed by those whose only purpose was to destroy him with lies, untrue criticisms or deliberate sabotage.
It doesn't take a genius to see how President Bush was the bull's-eye for every unfair accusation, innuendo and plot to overthrow him by the ultraliberal establishment.
Unfortunately, the only ones left when this sinks in will be the enemies of all that's holy- the radical Muslims. I hope they enjoy the change to the new world order.

I swore I was not going to do this after the election, but MD Funk's letter changed my mind. Some people just cannot let it go. President-elect Obama won. Obama's supporters should be happy and let President Bush slide on out.
I want to thank Bush for keeping this country safe since 9/11. I know of no terror attacks on this country, and I suspect there have been many thwarted by our intelligence services.
I want to thank Bush for being the fall guy for every single lack of personal responsibility each American has shown for the past eight years-- from Freddi Mac to Fannie Mae to Hurricane Katrina to the auto industry going broke to the failure of the Bowl Championship Series to the lack of oversight by Wall Street.
Bush has been blamed and taken it without retort, although anyone would know that Bush has very little to do with how these things are run.
As far as blaming Bush or Cheney for what some consider torture, I say: if it saves one American life, who cares? Our enemy doesn't play by the rules and never will.

And my retort that I submitted today:

I would like to join the chorus of those thanking Bush for keeping our country safe from terrorism (except for 9/11). Thank goodness he was here to keep us safe from terrorists (except for 9/11) by starting several wars around the world. I'm so glad that he realized that we didn't really need those trillions of dollars that we are spending anyway. So what if we've killed nearly 100,000 civilians in Iraq? I wish people would realize that the president isn't responsible for everything! Luckily he had the foresight to pick out great deputies, like Dick Cheney or Henry Paulson, whom all will agree have been doing a wonderful job. So I say we should ignore those thousands of newspapers around the world that are saying Bush is the worst president ever. This is America, we don't need to listen to foreigners.

I think thanks are also in order to heads of all the major national banks for a job well done, except for the current banking crisis. I also agree that that the mainstream media has always been unfair- just look at how they blamed the whole Exxon Valdez oil spill on that one captain, while completely ignoring all the times he didn't crash!
It remains to be seen if the sarcasm is too subtle for its intended audience.

The Audacity of Hypocrisy

Barack Obama's inaugural address is expected to rely heavily on themes of sacrifice, of paring down the excesses, of hearkening back to a time when people were responsible for themselves, as well as for others in their communities.

Aides said the President-Elect's first words as president would hark back to John F Kennedy's plea to "ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country".

Rahm Emanuel, who will be chief of staff in the new White House, said: "We need that culture of responsibility, not just to be asked of the American people, but its leaders must also lead by example."

The address was mostly written a week ago, according to new press secretary Robert Gibbs, and will be "heavily infused with this notion of responsibility and getting our country back on track".

Just don't expect our overlords in Washington to set an examply of the sacrifice required. To ensure that the American people gets the message loud and clear, a estimated total of $150 million will be spent. Yes, these truly are perilous times: tens of millions unemployed, businesses closing their doors all around the country, millions facing foreclosure. Obama is showing how important it is to squarely face these challenges by having a big party that costs a shitload of money. Of course, the banking industry is suffering more than most, but they somehow still found it within their means to donate more than any other industry to the celebration. I guess all those billions of dollars we gave them weren't wasted after all. The phrase "fiddling while Rome burns" springs to mind.

jkerkez1 has written a brilliant diary on the subject over at DailyKos, please read the whole thing. If you can't, check out the final two paragraphs:

In my opinion, Barack Obama should have cancelled the inauguration celebration, re-directed all of the money set aside for the events to food banks around the nation, and modeled for the nation the sobering realities that we face. Instead he has chosen a grand and glorious wedding rather than a quiet marriage in front of a Justice of the Peace. He has opted for the ten thousand dollar wedding ring rather than weaving blades of grass together into a wedding band. He has baked a cake for a million wedding invitees, a lovely frosting-encased edifice that has no nutritional value for the country. And once the grand wedding is over, all of the drunk celebrants will return home and wake up on Wednesday morning with hangovers and less money in the bank and will scratch their heads and wonder what happens next.

Truth be known, I believe that in time the festivities of the inauguration will serve to undermine Obama's authority during this the most trying moment in American History. People will recall the smiles and good feelings and they will wonder aloud, "what the hell were we thinking?". Had Barack Obama opted for a more understated and somber inauguration, people may have been jolted out of their somnabulent complacency. Unfortunately, while the rest of the nation battens down the hatches, it's party time in Washington!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cynicism part II- "How's that 'change' working out?"

I praised David Sirota's reporting on the bailout earlier, here's a perfect example of what I mean:

The veto is the legislative equivalent of a nuclear warhead — a rarely used instrument of devastating force that singularly vaporizes the votes of 535 elected representatives. So when a president-elect issues a veto threat before being sworn into office, it sets off a particularly big explosion because it is a deliberate agenda-setting edict about priorities for the next four years. That's why every American who isn't a financial industry executive should be nervous.

After President Bush this week asked Congress to release the bank bailout fund's remaining $350 billion, Obama pledged to veto any bill rejecting the request, meaning he is beginning his presidency not by "turn[ing] the page on policies that have put the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street before the hard work and sacrifice of folks on Main Street," as he once pledged. Instead, he is promising a mushroom cloud unless lawmakers let taxpayer cash continue flowing to the biggest of Big Money interests.

Amid paeans to "new politics," we're watching old-school paybacks from a politician who raised more Wall Street dough than any other, a president-to-be whose inauguration festivities are being underwritten by the very bankers who are benefiting from the bailout largesse. Safely distanced from electoral pressure, Obama has appointed conservative economists to top White House positions; floated a tax cut for banks; and is now trying to preserve corporate welfare that almost exclusively benefits the political donor class.

This isn't much-ballyhooed "change"; it's money politics by a different name. How do we know? Because neither Obama nor anyone else is genuinely trying to justify the bailout on its merits — and understandably so. Even the most basic queries prove such merits don't exist.

Has the bailout increased bank lending, as was its stated objective? "Hundreds of billions of dollars have been injected into the marketplace with no demonstrable effects on lending," says a new report by the congressional panel charged with overseeing the money.

Do federal officials have a solid plan to improve the bailout? The report raises alarms about "the shifting explanations of its purposes," noting that the government has "not yet explained its strategy."

Is the cash being spent responsibly? The report says a lack of transparency means the public "still does not know what the banks are doing with taxpayer money."

But the most damning question isn't even being voiced: Is a bank bailout the best way to boost the economy?

Somehow, immediately releasing more bailout funds is being portrayed as a self-evident necessity, even though The New York Times reported this week that "the Treasury says there is no urgent need" for additional money. Somehow, the burden of proof is on bailout opponents who make these points, not on those who want to cut another blank check.

This bizarre dynamic is anything but the "pragmatism" Obama rhetorically fetishizes — and the anti-bailout majority knows it.

Cynicism and the electorate

David Sirota has done some really excellent reporting on the massive theft....errr... "bailout". Today he highlights one senator that criticized the bailout to get elected, then turned around and voted for it yesterday. Sirota opines:

When politicians campaign on populist themes, and then weeks later quite literally vote for the bills they attacked, it makes a mockery out of our democracy. It tells the American people that those representing us think representative democracy - with its campaigns, and promises to voters - is a laughingstock. And what we end up getting are policies that turn our economy into a laughingstock whereby those at the top guffaw their way to the bank, while the rest of us are the butt of the joke.

And so the reason to be disgusted with this kind of vote - whether it comes from Merkley, the Udall brothers or anyone else - has as much to do with the bailout being awful policy as it does with leaders defiling the very political process they are a part of. When that happens thousands of times over the course of many years (as it has in this last decade), it sows the kind of deep cynicism that erodes the public's foundational confidence in its own government.

The only question left is why do people keep voting? What recourse do you have now? As a voter, you thought you were getting someone who was going to vote the way he said he would- silly rabbit! Now you have to wait another 4 years before you can vote him out, and get someone else who is going to tell you appealing lies during the campaign, then ignore you once they are safely in office. Consider the following:
A central question that any voter who claims to wish to be informed must ask is: why is this man’s name on the ballot?

The standard answer is that he has a vision to fix the neighborhood, the city, or the country, and so he has nobly dedicated his life to public service, and needs your vote so that he can begin fixing the problem. He is a pragmatic idealist who knows that compromises must be made, but who can still make tangible improvements in your life.

Of course, this is all pure nonsense, as we can well see from the fact that things in a
democracy always get worse, not better. Standards of living decline, national debt explodes, household debt increases, educational achivements plummet, poverty rates increase, incarceration rates increase, unfunded liabilities skyrocket – and yet, election after election, the sheep run to the polls and feverishly scribble their hopes on to the ballots, certain that this time, everything will turn around! (For those reading this in the future, we are currently right in the middle of “Obama-mania.”)

The question remains – why is this man on the ballot?

We all know that it takes an enormous amount of money and influence to run for any kind of substantial office. The central question is, then: why do people give money to a candidate? I’m not talking about a national presidential campaign, where obviously people give a lot of money to the candidate in the hopes of giving him power to achieve some sort of shared goals and so on.

No, I mean: where does the money to get started even come from?

Why would pharmaceutical companies, aerospace companies, engineering companies,
manufacturing companies, farmers, and public-sector unions and so on give money and support to a candidate? Clearly, these groups are not handing out cash for purely idealistic reasons, since they are in the business of making money, at least for their members. Thus they must be giving money to potential candidates in return for political favors down the road – preferential treatment, tax breaks, tariff restrictions on competitors, government contracts etc.

In other words, any candidate that you get to vote for must have already been bought and paid for by others. Does this sound like an odd and cynical assertion? Perhaps – but it is very easy to figure out if a candidate has been bought and paid for.
Candidates will always talk in stirring tones about “sacrifice” and so on, but you surely must have noticed by now that no candidate ever talks specifically about the spending that he is going to cut. You never hear him say that he is going to balance the budget by cutting the spending of X, Y or Z. Everything is either couched in abstract terms, or specific promises to specific groups. (At the moment, the current fetish – in leftist circles – is to pretend that 47 million Americans can get “free” healthcare if the government lowers the tax breaks on a few billionaires.)

In other words, if you don’t see anyone else’s head on the chopping block, that is because it is your head on the chopping block. Of course, if the government really wanted to help the economy at the expense of some very rich people, it would simply annul the national debt – in effect, declare bankruptcy, and start all over again.
Why does it not do this? Why does it never even approach this topic? We have seen price controls on a variety of goods and services over the past few generations – why not simply place a moratorium on paying interest on the national debt, at least for the time being? Well, the simple answer is that the government simply cannot survive without a constant infusion of loans, largely from foreign lenders. This is a bit of a clue for you as to how important your vote really is, and how concerned your leaders are about your personal and particular issues – relative to, say, those of foreign lenders.

Ah, you might argue, but why would a pharmaceutical company, say, give money to a
potential candidate, since no deal can possibly be put down in writing, and that potential candidate might well take the money, and then just not take the calls from that pharmaceutical company when he or she gets into power?

Well, this is a distinct possibility, of course, but it has a relatively simple solution.
When a candidate is interested in taking a run at any reasonably high office, he goes around to various places and asks for money. When you ask someone for a few thousand dollars, naturally, his first question is going to be: “What are you going to do for me in return?”

Early on in any particular political race, there are quite a number of candidates. Anyone who wants to donate money to a political candidate in the hopes of gaining political favors down the road is only going to do so if he believes that the candidate will fulfill the unwritten obligation – the “anti-social contract,” if you like.
In politics, as in business, credibility is efficiency. Those who have built up reputations for keeping their promises end up being able to do business on a handshake, which keeps their costs down considerably. No new person entering a field will have the credibility or track record to be able to achieve this enviable efficiency, and so will have to earn it over the course of many years.

Thus we know for certain that when a company gives money to a political candidate, in the expectation of return favors in the future, that political candidate already has an excellent track record of doing just that. This kind of information will have been passed around certain communities – “Joe X is a man of his word!” – just as the reliability of a drug dealer and the quality of his product is passed around in certain other communities.

Thus we know that any candidate who receives significant funding from special interest groups is a man who has consistently proven his “integrity to corruptibility” in the past – for if he has no track record, or an inconsistent track record, no one will give him money to get started. (Just as a side note, this is a very interesting example of exactly why anarchism will work – we do not need the state to enforce contracts, since the state itself functions on implicit contracts that can never be legally enforced.)

In other words, whenever you see a name on the ballot, you can be completely certain that that name represents a man who has already been bought and paid for over the course of many years, and that those who have paid for him do not have, let us say, your best interests at heart.

But we can go one step further.

Since all the money that moves around in a political system must come from somewhere – the millions of dollars that are given to the sugar farmers must come from taxpayers – we can be sure that just about every benefit that special interest groups seek to gain comes at your expense. Pharmaceutical companies want an extension on their patents so they can charge you more money. Domestic steel companies want to increase barriers against imported steel so they can charge you more money. If a government union wants additional benefits, that will cost you. If the police want to expand the war on drugs, that will cost you security, safety and money. Whoever strives to benefit from the public purse has their hand groping towards your pocket.

Thus it is perfectly fair and reasonable to remind you that every name that you see on the ballot is diametrically opposed to your particular and personal interests, since they have been paid for by people who want to rob you blind.

Another aspect of “democricide” is the inevitable and constant escalation of public
spending necessary to achieve or maintain political power. Let us take the example of a mayor running for his second term. When he was running for his first term, sewage treatment workers donated $20,000 to his campaign, and in return he granted them a 10% raise. Now that he is running for his second term, and cannot give them another 10% raise, they have no reason to donate to his campaign. Thus he either has
to offer the sewage treatment workers some other benefit, or he has to create some new program or benefit which he can dangle in front of some new group, in order to secure their donations. This is why political candidates always announce new spending when they throw their hats into the ring – the new spending is the rather unsubtle promise of benefits which will be granted to those who donate to his campaign. A new stadium, a new convention center, a new bridge, a new arts program, new housing projects, highway expansions and so on – all of these inevitably and permanently raise the “high water mark” of governmental spending, and are an absolute requirement of running for office. Now, our aforementioned sewage treatment workers would of course prefer a permanent 10% raise rather than a one-time cash bonus. Thus they will always try to negotiate a permanent contract rather than continue to be at the mercy of the will and whim of their
political masters.

As this process continues, the proportion of non-discretionary spending in any political budget grows and grows. This is another reason why new spending initiatives must always be created in order to secure new donations. Money cannot be shifted from one area to another, because it has permanently been earmarked for a particular group in return for a one-time political contribution in the past.
If the mayor who is running for his second term decides to attempt to roll back the 10% raise, in order to free up money which he can then offer to someone else in return for campaign contributions, he would be committing political suicide. He would be breaking a freely-signed contract, sticking it to the working man, and provoking a very smelly strike – but for his own particular self-interest, the effects would be even worse.

Remember, people will donate to a political campaign based on an implicit contract of
future rewards from the public treasury. If a candidate attempts to “roll back” benefits that he has distributed previously in return for donations, not only will he incur the wrath of the existing special-interest group, but he will be revealed as a man who breaks his implicit and unenforceable “contracts.” Since this candidate can no longer be relied upon to give public money back to those who donate to his campaign, he will find that his campaign donations dry up almost immediately, and his political career comes to an abrupt end.

Of course, ex-politicians are highly prized as lobbyists as well, but if this mayor breaks faith with a donator, he will no longer be valuable in that capacity either, and will forego significant income in his post-political career.

Finally, any political candidate who has channeled public money to past donators faces the problem of blackmail. If he attempts to cross any of his prior supporters, mysterious leaks to the press will start to emerge, talking about the sleazy backroom deals that got him in power – thus also effectively ending his political career. All the other candidates will piously deride his cynical corruption, while of course making their own sleazy backroom deals in turn.
(It is highly instructive to note that two well-known fictional portrayals of the political campaign process – “The West Wing” and “The Wire” – repeatedly portray the candidate begging for money, but never once show why he receives it – the motives of his donors. The reason for this is simple: they wish to portray an idealistic politician, and so they cannot possibly reveal the reasons why people are giving him money. If the fictional story were to follow the inevitable “laws” of democracy, the storyline would be abruptly truncated, or the lead character would be revealed as far less sympathetic. The candidate would ask for money, and then the potential donor would indicate the favor he wanted in return. Then, the candidate would either refuse, thus ending his campaign for lack of funds – or he would
agree, thus ending any real sympathy we have for him. This basic truth – like so many in a statist society – can never be discussed, even on a show like “The Wire,” which has little problem revealing corruption everywhere else. A policeman can be shown breaking a child’s fingers, but the true nature of the political process must be forever hidden…)

Thus we can see that – at least at the level of economics – democracy is a sort of slowmotion suicide, in which you are told that it is the highest civic virtue to approve of those who want to rob you.

Wolf evolved to prey on other wolves...

...instead of the sheep, for once. New evidence has emerged showing that fraudster financier (is that redundant?) Bernie Madoff's fund never made a single trade. Not one. Never bought or sold a single share of stock. Which means that I'm a much better investor than Madoff- in two ways actually: I have actually traded stock and have not lost $50 billion dollars (at least, I haven't yet, but I'm young). However, he's a much better fraud than I am. And he's out on bail in one of his multi-million dollar homes, so I guess he's got me there. However, his puny $50 billion ponzi scheme is much smaller than the stock market at large, and therefore was not considered to be "too big to fail".

Oakland to fire 11 cops in search warrant case

Is it shocking to anyone that cops have been lying to obtain warrants? Especially in Oakland, California (site of the recent murder of unarmed and detained Oscar Grant at the hands of the police).

In this case, 2 sergeants and 9 officers are about to be terminated for lying to obtain search warrants. Is everyone clear what a lie is? It's when you tell something that isn't true. I only ask because the attorney for the cops apparently doesn't understand what the issue is here. Mary Sansen, the attorney for the officers, says they weren't trained on how to properly fill out an affidavit.

"The fact that I have anybody who's being terminated over this case is just simply outrageous," Sansen said. "Some of my officers have routinely been denied any form of training. I have clients who are writing search warrants who have never been to search-writing school, who have been expected to pick up as they go."

OK, I guess we're supposed to believe that training is the issue, it's not lying. When the cops told the judge that substances seized from suspects "had been identified by the Oakland police crime lab as narcotics", the judge gave them a warrant. But those statements were LIES. It doesn't matter if they didn't fill out the form correctly, what matters is that THEY WERE LYING. I don't care if they've never been to "seach-writing school", whatever the fuck that is, but I do care that THEY WERE DELIBERATELY LYING in order to get warrants that were not supported by the evidence.

Related Stories:
  • 98% of Emergency Room doctors believe they've treated patients who were victims of excessive force by police. Ninety-eight percent!?!?!!! That's a staggering number. 95% report treating injuries caused by fists and feet. "Unlike cases of suspected domestic violence, elderly abuse and child abuse, which doctors must report to authorities, physicians are not required to notify anyone of suspected excessive force by police." How convenient, one law for us, and no laws for them.
  • An Oakland man has stepped forward, saying that he is also a victim of police brutality at the hands of former-officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle was the pig who shot unarmed, defenseless, prostrate Oscar Grant in the back while another officer kneeled on his neck. Disturbing video of the execution can be seen here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How to understand billions... trillions....etc....

As the financial wheels keep on spinning over, I tried to give you an idea of the scale involved here. Most people have no conception of how large the difference is between millions, billions, trillions.

Time does a much better job helping people conceive of the size, using time instead of space.

The genius of our numbering system is that we can signify massive quantities in short spaces. One billion takes no longer to write than one million, points out Andrew Dilnot, an economist at Oxford University and author of The Numbers Game.

But that similarity trips us up when it comes time to imagine how those figures translate to the real world, where three more zeroes make all the difference. "My favorite way to think of it is in terms of seconds," says David Schwartz, a children's book author whose How Much Is A Million? tries to wrap young minds around the concept. "One million seconds comes out to be about 11 and a half days. A billion seconds is 32 years. And a trillion seconds is 32,000 years. I like to say that I have a pretty good idea what I'll be doing a million seconds from now, no idea what I'll be doing a billion seconds from now, and an excellent idea of what I'll be doing a trillion seconds from now."

So when we're talking about a deficit of $1.2 trillion dollars, if we counted those dollars at a rate of one per second, we'd get done counting in the year 40,409 (A.D., assuming humans still exist and are using the same calendar system).

Eliot Spitzer

I recently quoted from an article by Eliot Spitzer, the former Attorney General and Governor of New York. I remember being impressed with his stance on the bailout issue. It prompted me to re-examine his record, here are some highlights:

  • 2002: Global Settlement case. Spitzer sued several investment banks over various conflicts of interest. Ten banks were forced to pay $1.4 billion in compensation and fines- among them Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley.
  • 2003: Finds evidence that mutual funds were offering preferential services to certain clients. Secures more than $1 billion in fines.
  • 2005: Brings lawsuit against Maurice "Hank" Greenberg (then-chairman and CEO of AIG) and Howard Smith (ex-CFO of AIG), "alleging fraudulent business practice, securities fraud, common law fraud, and other violations of insurance and securities laws." Spitzer later dropped several of the charges, while AIG "announced in February [2006] that it would pay $1.64 billion to resolve allegations that it used deceptive accounting practices to mislead investors and regulatory agencies."
So what do we know based on the above? Spitzer had a track record of winning billion-dollar-plus settlements against the largest investment banks, as well as targeting the CEOs and other executives of those banks. His focus began to shift in the 2004-2005 to mortgage lending and related predatory lending practices by these banks, and named the Bush Administration as specifically blocking investigations into violations of predatory lending laws. Consumer affairs reported in June, 2005:

Spitzer said the OCC's claim "defies common sense and a century of joint state and federal oversight of the banking industry."

"This position, coming as it does after the OCC effort last year to shield nationally-chartered banks from enforcement of state consumer protection laws, is another indication that the Bush administration sides with corporate interests over consumer interests."

Spitzer noted that the OCC's efforts to protect banks has been opposed by all 50 state attorneys general and all 50 state banking superintendents. Numerous consumer groups also have voiced their opposition, as have the NAACP and AARP.

In recent testimony to Congress, New York State Banking Superintendent Diana Taylor said the OCC's actions "usurp the powers of the Congress, stifle state efforts to protect their citizens, and threaten not only the dual banking system but also public confidence in our financial services industry."

Spitzer ended up losing that case in October, 2005, on a jurisdictional basis. He spent 2006 running for governor, and took office in 2007. His time as governor was plagued with several other scandals, and he apparently didn't focus much on this issue until his editorial in February, 2008, entitled "Predatory Lenders' Partner in Crime: How the Bush Administration Stopped the States from Stepping In to Help Consumers." This prescient editorial ends with this paragraph:

When history tells the story of the subprime lending crisis and recounts its devastating effects on the lives of so many innocent homeowners, the Bush administration will not be judged favorably. The tale is still unfolding, but when the dust settles, it will be judged as a willing accomplice to the lenders who went to any lengths in their quest for profits. So willing, in fact, that it used the power of the federal government in an unprecedented assault on state legislatures, as well as on state attorneys general and anyone else on the side of consumers.

Less than a month after his editorial, he was forced to resign amid a prostitution scandal... an investigation that was "opened in the last few months" (as of March 2008).

Did his investigation begin to hit too close to home? I don't know, but consider a few other facts:
A known GOP "henchman", Roger Stone, tipped the FBI to Spitzer's penchant for prostitutes in late 2007, through a letter from Stone's attorney.
Stone's lawyer wrote to the FBI after investigators asked to speak with Stone, although they didn't specify for what purpose. He refused to talk to them, but sent the letter about Spitzer.
Obviously, something is missing there. If the FBI wants to talk to you, you can't ordinarily say "No, but here's some dirt on Eliot Spitzer!" Well, maybe you can if you're the eponymous author of "Stone's Rules": (Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.) But why would Stone go after Spitzer? Perhaps because Stone was thown overboard by his client (N.Y. state senate leader Joseph Bruno) after leaving this message for Spitzer's father:
This is a message for Bernard Spitzer. You will be subpoenaed to testify before the senate committee on investigations on your shady campaign loans. You will be compelled by the senate sergeant at arms. If you resist this subpoena, you will be arrested and brought to Albany--and there's not a goddamn thing your phony, psycho, piece of shit son can do about it. Bernie, your phony loans are about to catch up with you. You will be forced to tell the truth. The fact that your son is a pathological liar will be known to all.
So, a known GOP dirty-trickster throws some dirt around to save his own skin, and it works. I'll be the last person to argue that Spitzer didn't do it, or that he's clean. But at least he was trying to stand up on the side of consumers, against an all-powerful banking oligarchy and the Bush administration. What did he learn? You better have more dirt on them than they've got on you if you expect to win that fight.

Planet Atheism

Planet Atheism - aggregating blogs by non-believers and freethinkers