Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why You Should Care About Subprime Loans

You've read a lot about the sub-prime mortgage market lately and how people from Ben Bernanke to the average shmoe with a few bucks stashed away in his 401(k) are worried, but all you've heard is a lot of reassuring talk amidst the smoke from a distant fire.

There's a reason the Fed chairman has had to reassure the public, twice now: he's protecting his cronies:
In good times, unsustainable loans still turned a profit; the lenders reaped short-term fees and quickly sold the loans to investment banks which chopped them up, repackaged them, and flipped the debt to hedge funds and institutional investors. Now the gravy-train is derailing, and as CFR’s Sebastian Mallaby argues in the Washington Post the investment banks could be exposed as the real scoundrels of the subprime blowup. The banking giants “bamboozled ratings agencies into assigning misleadingly high credit scores to some mortgage-backed bonds,” Mallaby says. This enabled them to pawn off bad debt, disguised as good debt, to unwitting investors.

How far will the damage extend? Bloomberg, in the article cited above, says subprime housing-loan woes could spill over into the auto-loan industry, where highly speculative loans are also prevalent. The issue has global ramifications as well: In late February, subprime concerns sent stock markets tumbling on fears of a U.S. economic slowdown. Even though subprime loans aren’t nearly as common internationally as they are in America, a U.S. credit crunch could still suck liquidity out of global financial markets. Testifying before Congress on March 28, the U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the subprime issue thus far has had only minimal effects on the broader U.S. economy. But some factors remain unknown. Perhaps the most frightening question is what happened to all that bad debt the investment banks pawned off. Hedge funds, the Financial Times’ Gillian Tett points out, are often masters at using tricky paperwork to cover up their losses. But somewhere, somebody is taking a heavy hit right now. Tett wonders: “Where are the bodies buried?”
The bodies, indeed.

As always in American history, there are parallels to be compared. In this instance, in our own lifetime, we have just such a parallel: the 1989 junk bond bust. Created by the Reagan administration tax cuts, which accelerated depreciation on assets purchased, and exacerbated by President Jimmy Carter's relaxation of regulations on the banking industry (Regulation Q), junk bonds became ubiquitous in the 1980s, through the efforts of investment bankers like Michael Milken, as a financing mechanism in mergers and acquisitions. In a leveraged buyout (LBO) an acquirer would issue junk bonds to help pay for an acquisition and then use the target's cash flow to help pay the debt over time. Basically, it became cost effective to borrow large sums of money at high interest, purchase the stock of a company, take it private, gut it, and all the while, make money (on a tax and cash basis) for the investors.

While screwing everyone else. Eventually this house of cards had to crumble.

Likewise with the sub-prime debacle, as the CFR article notes, enormous sums of money were made in a grand game of hot potato, where the loser is the one holding all the default mortgages at the end.

Namely, the US taxpayer. Remember, Republicans like to privatize profit while socializing losses. We will end up paying for this, just like we ended up paying for the savings and loan crisis (which was an ancillary impact of the junk bond market collapse). A good blogger would point out that a certain former Senator from Tenessee and former TV star with presidential aspirations worked as a lobbyist for the S&L industry. Didn't you, Senator Thompson?

That one was cheap: only $106 billion

There is $7 trillion in mortgages out there. Most of that is safe. But if even $1 trillion (not an unlikely number, since this crisis now spans some six years of mortgage lending before anyone took note and the annual mortgage market in the US is north of a trillion dollars a year, including refinancings and second mortgages), if even $1 trillion is at risk, that could create an economic collapse that would make the Great Depression look like a day at the beach.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Friday Music Blogging

Centerfield - John Fogerty

Best song about baseball. Ever.

Friday Kitten Blogging

Johnny One-Note On A Kazoo

As expected, the Democratic Congress has passsed a new budget. The $2.9 trillion dollar spending package restores several cuts that Republicans had shaved off in the past six years, including cuts to education and health care:
The House passed the fiscal 2008 budget on a largely party-line vote of 216-210. The nonbinding resolution would spend more money on health and education and other domestic spending programs that Democrats said have been ignored under six years of Republican control of Congress.

The budget sets spending and revenue goals, but it will be up to individual committees to act on specific legislation. The Senate has approved its version of the budget and the two chambers now have to work out their differences.

House Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat, said the spending blueprint for the fiscal year that begins October 1 sets the course for turning huge deficits over the last several years into a slight surplus by 2012.

Democrats criticized past Republican budgets and sought to deflect criticisms that their budget would raise taxes. "We have to return to fiscal sanity, we created a mess in the last six years," said Rep. Allen Boyd, a centrist Florida Democrat.
Now, you wouldn't expect the Republicans to voice full-throated support to a Democratic budget, of course, but can't they at least come up with a novel criticism?
Republican opponents called it a blueprint "for the largest tax increase in history," because the budget does not extend President George W. Bush's tax cuts, which are set to expire in 2010.
As if that's a bad thing. Look at the Federal Deficit, and look at how slowly these "magic tax cuts" have grown the economy, the very heart of supply-side economics: cut taxes, particularly on the rich, and the economy will boom.

As usual when it comes to Republican bromides, this is utter bullshit. The only time tax cuts created measurable growth without creating enormous deficits was back in the 1960s, when John Kennedy (who, it might be pointed out, was a liberal Democrat) cut the top marginal tax rate from 80%. This tax reform proposal created the biggest economic expansion in the nation's history, in world history, until the Clinton tax increase of 1993 created the economic boom that George Bush muffed with his series of failed tax cuts.

Cutting the fat is one thing: cutting muscle to lose weight is quite a different story, and we've seen over the past six years how miserably that's failed the people of the United States.

The funniest whine-without-cheese from the right, however, is this:
"They propose to control no spending. They propose to cut nothing," Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, said of the Democratic budget.
Right. Like Republicans have been the ones wielding the axe to spending and appropriations and pork.

The largest increases in budget deficits in world history have come at the hands of Republicans. We must make no mistake about the economic danger this party of economic royalists poses to this nations good and welfare.

So, really, guys, try to come up with some new talking points. Yours are boring and old, and for the most part, irrelevant, and soon your national party will go the way of the New York State GOP: just a bump in the road towards the future.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007


I have an axiom that I should live life with as few regrets as possible, which I've managed to do for the most part. That doesn't mean I've lived a sin-free life, but that I've lived a life that I could defend in any court of law, and maybe I'd be convicted in certain red states, but fuck 'em.

There is one regret I have, and one longing that I will never be able to fulfill.

The longing? To turn the clock back thirty years and get my ass to Florida and play major league baseball. As a kid, I was approached by more than one scout and even in my thirties, played well enough that I made a few scouting reports.

The regret? That thirty five years ago, I didn't tell my parents to shove it when they said I couldn't play sports. See, back then, sports were games. No one made a million bucks a year, nevermind a million bucks a game. Guys who played ball worked in the off-season, digging graves or took spots in the Army reserves to get college tuition.

My parents figured I'd make a better living using my massive manly brain. How little we knew. And even if they were right, did I lose a better life for the better living?

I say all this because in a few days, the 2007 baseball season will begin, with my Mets taking on the St. Louis Cardinals in a rematch of the 2006 League Championship series.

Baseball's an odd sport, to be sure. It doesn't have a clock. It doesn't have an offensive squad and a defensive squad. It's cerebral where most sports are physical. A fat guy can play baseball and be as successful as the most buff, steriod-using android in the world. It's a hard game to play, because it requires pinpoint skill to be really good at it: a centimeter can make the difference between a double and a long fly ball out. Tennis players hit balls at about the same speed as pitchers pitch them, but tennis players have quiet in the stands, not 40,000 screaming heads. Golfers have absolute quiet to sink a four foot putt. Hitters have to smack a ball around with people screaming for their heads.

And it's slow. To the point of being painful. I love playing the game. I like watching the game. But sometimes, even playing it, in a four hour marathon of bad fielding and worse pitching, it can be borrrrrrrrrrrrring.

Why do I love the game, then? I guess because in some very literal ways, it's pastoral. It's played in a pasture, not on a grid. Fields can last into infinity in a Sunday softball game in the park.

George Carlin really got the spirit of baseball in his famous routine:
Baseball is different from any other sport, very different. For instance, in most sports you score points or goals; in baseball you score runs. In most sports the ball, or object, is put in play by the offensive team; in baseball the defensive team puts the ball in play, and only the defense is allowed to touch the ball. In fact, in baseball if an offensive player touches the ball intentionally, he's out; sometimes unintentionally, he's out.

Also: in football,basketball, soccer, volleyball, and all sports played with a ball, you score with the ball and in baseball the ball prevents you from scoring.

In most sports the team is run by a coach; in baseball the team is run by a manager. And only in baseball does the manager or coach wear the same clothing the players do. If you'd ever seen John Madden in his Oakland Raiders uniform,you'd know the reason for this custom.

Now, I've mentioned football. Baseball & football are the two most popular spectator sports in this country. And as such, it seems they ought to be able to tell us something about ourselves and our values.

I enjoy comparing baseball and football:

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game.
Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park.The baseball park!
Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life.
Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.

In football you wear a helmet.
In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs - what down is it?
Baseball is concerned with ups - who's up?

In football you receive a penalty.
In baseball you make an error.

In football the specialist comes in to kick.
In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog...
In baseball, if it rains, we don't go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch.
Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don't know when it's gonna end - might have extra innings.
Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we've got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there's kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there's not too much unpleasantness.
In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you're capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!
He could have pointed out that in football, you brutally drive your opponent in the ground to stop his progress, but in baseball, you touch your opponent, "Tag! You're out!"

And moreover, baseball is poetic.

Casey At The Bat
by Ernest L. Thayer
The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day,
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair.
The rest clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast.
They thought, "if only Casey could but get a whack at that.
We'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat."

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake;
and the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake.

So upon that stricken multitude, grim melancholy sat;
for there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all.
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball.

And when the dust had lifted,
and men saw what had occurred,
there was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
it rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;

it pounded through on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat;
for Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place,
there was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile lit Casey's face.

And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
no stranger in the crowd could doubt t'was Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt.
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.

Then, while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
defiance flashed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
and Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.

Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped --
"That ain't my style," said Casey.

"Strike one!" the umpire said.
From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
like the beating of the storm waves on a stern and distant shore.

"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand,
and it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity, great Casey's visage shone,
he stilled the rising tumult, he bade the game go on.

He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew,
but Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two!"

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered "Fraud!"
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.

They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
and they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer has fled from Casey's lip, the teeth are clenched in hate.
He pounds, with cruel violence, his bat upon the plate.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
and now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And, somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout,

but there is no joy in Mudville --
mighty Casey has struck out.

What other sport has inspired the legions of artistry that baseball has?

Or, for that matter, perhaps the greatest monologue since Shakespeare?
Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.
I don't know a guy who hasn't cried when Ray finally gets to play catch with his father after their lifelong falling out, reaffirming the tradition of American backyards for 150 years and the bond between father and son.

I remember taking my dad to his last ballgame at Shea. It must have been twenty years ago, and I remember how proud I was that *I* could buy the beer, and finally prove I was an adult. How proud I was to introduce him to some of the players I knew, and a couple of scouts. The look on his face to this ultimate "fuck you, this could have been my life" said all I needed to know about our relationship.

We couldn't say jack to each other, except baseball could say it for us.

And now a new season starts and a new life begins for seven months. The garden springs up and blossoms, the aroma of leather gloves and new baseballs permeates like the thick smoke of a poker room.

Life is good.


America's Past. America's Future?

This nation was founded by elements of European society that were outcast, which is why our grand tradition of egalitarianism arose.

But our history is filled with instances of classism and caste systems. Take indentured servitude, where a destitute working class or impoverished person (usually male) would agree to work for a set period of time for a sponsor, who would then "loan" passage on a ship, along with room and board as this person worked off his debt.

In other words, it was a form of economic slavery, as opposed to actual slavery, which is the granddaddy of all caste systems, and gave aid and comfort to the so-called "genteel South" with its own classist societies.

Too, capitalism being what it is, there was always a submarket for slave-like workers. As slavery itself was being slowly eroded away in America, the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the 24 hour a day mills and factories cried out for a new source of cheap labour: children. Once that abhorrent stain on American corporatism was done away with, immigrants became (and still are) the source of cheap labour. First, legally, what without a minimum wage it was easy to find workers who made a pittance "over there" who felt that pennies a day was a goldmine.

And now, of course, illegally.

American corporatism has squeezed the lemon now, and it is running dry: if guest worker programs and unwanted refugees are eliminated by the current anti-immigrant sentiment, American corporations are going to have to find a new source of ubercheap labour.

I've written in the past about the dangers of the American economy of late, in particular as it pertains to returning Iraq veterans, mortgage defaults, lagging consumer spending, debt-laden American middle class members, stubborn underemployment figures, the Federal deficit, and just making ends meet for the average Joe.

The rumbles are there. Trouble looms on the horizon, and I suspect when all is said and done, given the new bankruptcy laws on the books, we'll be slaves to our debts.

Don't believe it could happen in a great democracy? Oh, it could. It is already. In the greatest democracy on the planet:
Ashok Kumar is one. He is a small, slim boy of 13, busy making delicate patterns in real gold thread along the borders of the sari.

Ashok says he has been weaving since he was nine. He sits working for 12 hours every day, seven days a week. He gets just one day off each month.

He is a bonded labourer, what is also known as a debt slave.

When Ashok's mother died, his father left home. The boy was abandoned with his grandmother. Desperate for money she took £12 ($25) from a loom owner and, in return, sold the boy's freedom.

Ashok is now bonded, forced to do this one job. He is not free to leave unless the debt is repaid. And he is paid just 15p (30 US cents) a day, so there is little hope he will ever do that.

Ashok's boss, Muthu Pereumal, can sell the boy to another employer, trade him like a commodity.

"He will stay here until he is 20 or 22," the boss tells me, standing by Ashok's loom, "or until someone else comes to buy him from me. He will never do anything else but this."
Now, far be it for me to suggest that this precise mechanism is at work here in America, but you can see the signs of some form of this type of "debt relief" coming into play here.

After all, the rise of the wealth of the wealthy is tailor-made for some form of indentured servitude: all that money lying around, all that work to be done. There is without a doubt the risk of economic slavery as people, desperate to be free of debt, sign a significant portion of their lives away in order to clear their consciences.

And indeed, if my inbox is any indication, rumblings of some form of this being implemented are already gathering. I see an awful lot of "get out of debt" spam and even some "Christian jubilee" spam, whereby, for a small commitment, a God-fearing organization will help you get rid of all your debts through Christ (and the goodness of predatory lenders, no doubt).

How widespread might this be? Hard to say. You'd like to think that people would shun this sort of arrangement like the plague, as stupid as it sounds right off the bat.

But people fall for the Nigerian e-mail scam often enough that it's still profitable to try and fleece more suckers.

People are greedy. Moreover, people are lazy and look for the quick fix to problems. And there's why I think we might actually see the day when workers will work for nothing, and it won't be called slavery.

In fact, we sort of see some of this process happening already (h/t MissC):
Circuit City Stores' (CC) decision to lay off 3,400 employees in order to hire lower-paid replacements is raising questions about the impact of severe cost-cutting on employee morale.
The consumer electronics retailer announced Wednesday that it was immediately firing store associates "who were paid well above the market-based salary range for their role." New workers will be paid less, although Circuit City did not reveal the pay of the workers.[...]

Those hourly workers who are laid off will get severance packages and can apply for open positions after 10 weeks.
Start the clock. You have ten weeks to replace your current salary, or take your old job with a smaller one.

Sound real fair, right?


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hump Day Comedy Blogging

Baseball Season Starts Sunday

Poking The Hornet's Nest With A Penis

Stories like this one tend to make me think there's some credence in the rather outré belief that the Bush Administration, despite this action flying in the face of logic and fact, might just be stupid enough to do a crazy thing: fight a war with Iran:
MANAMA (Reuters) - Mounting tensions between Iran and the West have accelerated war games the U.S. navy is conducting in the Gulf, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet said on Wednesday.

A second U.S. aircraft carrier began exercises in the Gulf on Tuesday -- the first time two such vessels have been sent to patrol Gulf waters since the U.S.-led war on Iraq in 2003.

The U.S. exercises come amid rising tension with Iran over its nuclear program and its capture of British sailors.

"The planning accelerated in conjunction with what was going on, but it was absolutely not the sole determinant ... We are here exercising every day," said Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in the Gulf island of Bahrain.
Translation: We had this in mind for when things calmed down in Iraq a little, but we believe in striking while the iron's hot

Which worries me. Iraq spoke the truth about WMDs before we invaded them. Iran has sent mixed messages about their nuclear enrichment program, but all signs point to cooler heads than Ahmadinejad running the negotiations.

Why do I say this? There's an offer on the table for immediate, nearly unfettered inspection access to Iranian facilities. There's civil unrest over Ahmadinejad's soapboxing. Granted, much of this has occured in the wake of US pressure on Iran, but it's probably more because China and Russia have taken the ayatollahs aside and told them to make inroads to peace.

Iran needs nuclear power, of that there can be no doubt. Iran hit peak oil production around the same time the United States did, and Iran is a modern economy, which means its energy needs have only expanded over the past thirty years. Iran makes enormous amounts of money off its sales to China, so it's not about to cut exports to slake its own crude thirst.

Too, by having an Iran that is weaned from fossil fuels, we could conceivably see an example of how the United States can successfully kick the oil habit as well.

"Trust, but verify," Reagan put it simply, and that philosophy had been a bulwark of American foreign policy through the Clinton administration and guess what? We only had to fight one war and even then, we had the backing of the world.

And it's not a bad philosophy, as simplistic bromides go. However, now we've lost the trust of the world that we would do the right thing as best as we could with this abomination that is our Iraq invasion, and we're paying a heavy price for it in the negotiations with Iran and to some extent, North Korea. Although we did just sign an agreement with them through the six party talks, if you examine that agreement carefully, it doesn't vary much from the agreement the Clinton administration signed, thirteen years ago.

When it mattered more.

Antagonistic actions like sending a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf region is not going to get Iran to the table any faster and may, in fact, bolster Ahmadinejad's faction: fear will do that, cause us to look to the strongest figure who is espousing the simplistic course of action that defends us at the expense of anything else.

How else do you think Bush was able to keep the 2004 election close enough that he could steal a win? Do you remember the bi-monthly "terror alert"?

I expect we'll see the equivalent response from Iran: trot out Ahmadinejad to spew some anti-western rhetoric, throw in a few hegemonic slogans, and end it with a vow to never give in.

The real test comes after that. What will the Iranian people say, with two aircraft carriers parked off the coast? I suspect they may be a bit more defiant of the west this time around, practically begging for the attack to come, if for no other reason than to stop living in uncertainty.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Moron More On Harriet "Hitman" Miers

The "nomination" of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court back in 2005 raised several eyebrows, not least of which for her fawning, almost schoolgirl devotion to the President.

We expect nominees to have at least some fealty to the person who's about to promote them, but one gets the distinct impression that, under other circumstances, she'd be drunk and in his backseat taking on the entire Cabinet.

Come Greg Palast to throw some light on her hatchetwork for Dumbya:
- Rigging the bidding on an already-won Texas lottery contract in order to favor a company called GTech.

- This bid-rig was a direct quid pro quo for Bush having dodged the draft and been given a plum Texas Air National Guard position by then-Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes.

- Ben Barnes subsequently went on from his government position into lobbying-- for GTech. In 1994, Barnes kept his mouth shut while Bush ran for governor and lied about the circumstances of his TANG appointment, that his father had not influenced the appointment.

- In 1997, Barnes and Bush made a deal, through an intermediary, to bid the Texas lottery contract to GTech. The lottery director, who had already chosen another firm, was fired and replaced by the person who fired her, Harriet Miers, who was chairwoman of the Lottery Commission.
OK, ready for the punchline?

This information has been sitting in the hands of the US Attorney for Texas since 1997, based on a memo Palast obtained. Why was nothing done about it? Two reasons: George W. Bush, Republican governor, and Lloyd Bentsen, Democratic icon:
An insider told BBC TV that the US Attorney’s office and Justice Department, though under Democratic control, never acted because they discovered that Barnes, a Democrat, had not only manipulated the system to get George Bush into the Texas Air Guard, Barnes did the same for the sons of Democratic big wigs including Congressman (later Senator) Lloyd Bentsen and Governor John Connolly.
John Connolly, you might recall, jumped from the Democrats to the Republicans, in large part because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tits On A Bull

There have been some overtures made in Iraq to form a general coalition against a certain terror network:
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. and Iraqi officials are in contact with representatives of some Sunni Arab insurgent groups to build an alliance against al Qaeda in Iraq, the outgoing U.S. ambassador said on Monday.

Zalmay Khalilzad also said he was cautiously optimistic that "success is possible" in Iraq, but urged leaders to act fast if they were to maintain the support of the impatient U.S. people amid growing pressure for a timetable to withdraw troops.

At his final news conference in Baghdad, he confirmed reports that U.S. embassy and military staff as well as Iraqi government officials had met representatives of insurgent-linked groups on several occasions.
Now, I'm all for jaw, jaw, jaw as opposed to war, war, war, as Churchill would have it, but the aim of those talks is ludicrous: Al Qaeda, although it would exploit the opportunity if presented, has no interest in doing anything in Iraq except foment trouble. This isn't about nation-building for them, ironically.

You see, they already have one: Talibanistan
The residents of Dara Adam Khel, a gunsmiths' village 30 miles south of Peshawar, Pakistan, awoke one morning last month to find their streets littered with pamphlets demanding that they observe Islamic law. Women were instructed to wear all-enveloping burqas and men to grow their beards. Music and television were banned. Then the jihadists really got serious. These days, dawn is often accompanied by the wailing of women as another beheaded corpse is found by the side of the road, a note pinned to the chest claiming that the victim was a spy for either the Americans or the Pakistani government. Beheadings are recorded and sold on DVD in the area's bazaars. "It's the knife that terrifies me," says Hafizullah, 40, a local arms smith. "Before they kill you, they sharpen the knife in front of you. They are worse than butchers."

Stories like these are being repeated across the tribal region of Pakistan, a rugged no-man's-land that forms the country's border with Afghanistan--and that is rapidly becoming home base for a new generation of potential terrorists. Fueled by zealotry and hardened by war, young religious extremists have overrun scores of towns and villages in the border areas, with the intention of imposing their strict interpretation of Islam on a population unable to fight back. Like the Taliban in the late 1990s in Afghanistan, the jihadists are believed to be providing leaders of al-Qaeda with the protection they need to regroup and train new operatives. U.S. intelligence officials think that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may have found refuge in these environs. And though 49,000 U.S. and NATO troops are stationed just across the border in Afghanistan, they aren't authorized to operate on the Pakistani side. Remote, tribal and deeply conservative, the border region is less a part of either country than a world unto itself, a lawless frontier so beyond the control of the West and its allies that it has earned a name of its own: Talibanistan.
This is why I've long felt that the US has played footsie with the wrong dictatorship in South Asia...I'd rather they didn't play footsie with ANY dictatorship, but situational ethics comes into play here.

The Time article goes on to talk about how Dick Cheney gave President Musharraf a stern talking to (although no wrist slap, you'll notice) about this territory and it's strategic significance to the "war on terror". It also points out that Musahrraf's hands are tied by the political minefield that is domestic Pakistani governance: he already has large factions very angry at him for siding with the US and his reliance on more moderate groups is slipping as he tightens his fist around Pakistan (all but disbanding the judiciary of the country). All he can really rely on is the Pakistani army, who support the Taliban (and by extension, Al Qaeda).

What's a dictator to do? I'll have more to say on this topic when I make my HUGEST ANNOUNCEMENT EVER in a few days.

Told you it would be huge. But I digress.

To create a coalition against Al Qaeda In Iraq at this point smacks of make-work, the kind of thing you do when you really need a vacation from yourself, but can't be seen away from your desk. You know, like filing.

It might provide an opening for a unifying conference for Sunni, Shi'a and Kurd factions to begin to form a nation, but in my recollection throughout history, those kind of collaborative governments rarely work without an overarching external threat (like, say, England during our revolution). Some loose confederations remain intact, like Indonesia, but there's a different kettle of fish involved: boundaries are fairly well-defined and more important, separate.

Still, I suppose we should be thankful they can find any common ground with the insurgency. Al Qaeda In Iraq was never particularly popular with the citizen-soldiers of the Iraqi insurgency, Sunni division, although there's much to be said of the "enemy of my enemy." Perhaps this will dissuade the Sunni insurgency in toto.

Then again, monkeys may fly out of my butt...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Subterranean Homesick BLues

Johnny's in the basement
Mixing up the medicine
I'm on the pavement
Thinking about the government
The Man in the trench coat
Badge out, laid off
Says he's got a bad cough
Wants to get it paid off
Look out kid
It's something you did

It's going to be hard to pin this on anti-war protestors as was so successfully done after Viet Nam:
Before he left for the war, reservist Karl Botkin's company threw him a going-away party. When he returned from Kuwait, his West Babylon firm changed his schedule to include weekends and withheld a raise he said he was due. Botkin, 50, walked away from his job.

Stephen Labate, a 39-year-old stock broker, expected to come back to Morgan Stanley and start right where he left off after nearly a year in Iraq -- his second extended tour as a reservist. But all the time away on active duty decimated his portfolio of brokerage accounts and he couldn't rebuild. So he left the company to look for another job. Unemployed for seven months, he felt having "reservist" on his resume was "radioactive" to most prospective employers.

And then there's Jonathan Bradfield of Medford, who came home from Iraq with shrapnel lodged in his back and post-traumatic stress disorder. After being back at work a little more than two years, he was fired -- and is now facing bankruptcy.
Sickening, isn't it?

The law is on their side, of course. The law essentially states that returning service members get their old positions back with the same salary and benefits plus any raises, promotions or bonuses they would have received had their work not been interrupted by military service. However, of the tens of thousands of soldiers we sent over there to fight this invasion on the cheap, less than one percent will likely avail themselves of this law, mostly because they don't find out about it until it is too late.
Botkin's commander and friends told him to file a USERRA claim. But the problem was in the details. The law required that he submit a letter to his employer, Commercial Driver Training in West Babylon, within 90 days of his intended return to work, saying he wanted his job back. But when he learned that, it was too late. He had already fought by phone with his boss and filed for unemployment.
You come home from a conflict, the last thing you want to do is start filing paperwork.

And of course, this being America, far be it from the employer to make any sort of sacrifice for an employee! After all, we were all told to go shopping to help out!:
Kim Carsten, the school's director, said the company abided by all applicable military employment law. She said the school now requires all instructors to work a weekend day and that Botkin would have received his raise after 30 days.

"We weren't trying to give him any heartache," Carsten said. "But we have a business to run, too, and we had to fill the position to be able to keep up with our training needs."

Worse, the bill collectors don't care if you're off fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here. The problem becomes, who "they" is, considering bill collectors can be even more terrorizing than terrorists themselves. I should know. I was one once, in a different lifetime many years ago.

I suspect we're going to see a wave of bankr-- uh oh, the new bankruptcy law will make it nearly impossible for these brave men and women to start over with a clean slate, won't it? They'll be spending decades working at jobs that pay much less than the ones they've lost, because once a reservist or Guardsman, always a reservist or Guardsman:
"Whether consciously or unconsciously, a lot of people look and see 'reservist' and put it in the bottom of the pile," [Stephen Labate] said of his resume. "They figure, you're going to be gone again. Most reservists these days don't even put it on their resume."

Labate, the father of twin infants, finally accepted a job as a banker at a JP Morgan/Chase branch near his home in Deer Park -- at a substantial pay cut.[...]

"The military have almost become aliens in the corporate world," said employment consultant Wesley Poriotis, of Wesley Brown and Bartle in Manhattan. He compares the divide between "the military's self perception and the business world's perception of the value they provide employers" to the Grand Canyon.
So we have men and women fighting a battle who will be coming home to an alien land, very different from the one they left years ago, a far harsher and less secure world.

This crisis, as unseen as it is, will make the Walter Reed Building 18 scandal look like socialized medicine. We didn't go to war with the army we had, or wished we had. We went to war with the army we could get on the cheap and we are asking them to sacrifice yet more in our hubris and cynicisms.

And this time, we're tag-teaming them between government and business, one of which is supposed to protect citizens from the other.