Friday, February 27, 2009

Nobody Asked Me, But...

1) Could this be Atlantis? No, not the resort, you knucklehead, the lost city! You know...
Knowing her fate, Atlantis sent out ships to all corners of the Earth.
On board were the Twelve:
The poet, the physician, the farmer, the scientist,
The magician and the other so-called Gods of our legends.
2)  Your fifteen minutes of fame are over, Santelli. Shut up and stop being so paranoid.
3) A see-through fish has been discovered and photographed. (see also item 8)
4) And then they wonder why they lost the election...
5) Of course, it's fun to watch Tucker Carlson be the voice of reason...
6) This CPAP, excuse me, CPAC conference is a bundle-o-laughs. When I read this, I immediately thought of Kevin Bacon in Animal House, getting run over by the panicked mob while begging them to remain calm.
7) Basically, the economy gave Bush a push out the door.
8) Bizarre aquatic animal news is not limited to transparent fish this week.
9) Apparently, there's a market for worn-out vaginas, in case, you know, you were wondering.
10) Run a $750 billion company into the groundand get paid $500 billion for the privilege. Accused of stealing $2 in bottle deposits, YOU'RE FIRED!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Way To Go!

A big shout out and "Attaboy!" to my good blogging buddy, Gort42 for being interviewed by a Dutch newspaper because he was all over the "locking up kids for cash" scandal in northeast Pennsylvania.

If you aren't aware of this story, go read up on it at Gort's place.

Greed Is God

This week seems to be my week to explore humanity and the emotional states underlying our current national crises of the economy and the political atmosphere.

So let's take this from a different perspective and try to tie them together.

Fortuitously, I was reading an article in National Geographic magazine about the burgeoning oil sand industry in Canada.

Lest you think that natural resource exploitation and the ravaging of native lands only happens in tropical climes, you need to read that article. However, it's this quote that caught my eye and got me thinking:
"It's my belief that when government attempts to manipulate the free market, bad things happen," Premier Stelmach told a gathering of oil industry executives that year. "The free-market system will solve this."

But the free market does not consider the effects of the mines on the river or the forest, or on the people who live there, unless it is forced to. Nor, left to itself, will it consider the effects of the oil sands on climate. Jim Boucher has collaborated with the oil sands industry in order to build a new economy for his people, to replace the one they lost, to provide a new future for kids who no longer hunt ptarmigan in the moonlight. But he is aware of the trade-offs. "It's a struggle to balance the needs of today and tomorrow when you look at the environment we're going to live in," he says. In northern Alberta the question of how to strike that balance has been left to the free market, and its answer has been to forget about tomorrow. Tomorrow is not its job. 

Today v. tomorrow. The now v. the then. Hmmmm...sounds familiar...

And this is the struggle that President Obama as well as every other world leader faces today, the juggling of the efficiencies of the free market against the need to protect the environment and the people, to state the general case.

There are no simple answers to be had here, as much as the conservatives would like you to believe. They want you to believe that because in an environment (pun intended) that is bereft of ideas, we cling to the past, to ideas that work sometimes if at all. The simple answer is to let the market sort it out.

I've said before that the power of the market, the real strength of it, is to weed out weakness, to promote a sort of economic evolution.

When it works well, it's extremely good at this. I don't think the market has worked well since the Reagan administration, and I'm not completely sure why.

Certainly, with Reagan, we saw the fledgling crony capitalist markets. The amount of money suddenly available in the junk bond market, the extraction of mythical valuations of "goodwill" and the raping of pension plans for the cash they contained, all combined to create barriers to entry in industries as diverse as banking and retail.

If you're wondering why Wal-Mart is ubiquitous, but you can't find an Alexander's or a Gimbel's (sorry, I'm Noo Yawk oriented), this is why: they were swept up in junk bond mania.

At first, this was an efficiency exercise. Truly there were companies that were wasting resources, paying, you know, salaries and pensions, among other things. The wave of mergers and acquisitions probably, at first, cut a lot of fat out of the marketplace, setting the stage for the enormous growth of the 1990s.

However, all good things become bad in due time, and the wolves howling at the door stopped wanting just fat and wanted the real meat.

The market, rather than be efficient, became cannibalistic.

We've seen this time and time again in America: they call it a "bubble" but in truth, it's the self-feeding cycle of cannibalism, developed through what Greenspan called "irrational exuberance".

Another Reagan-era monstrosity is the flow of corporate money into politics. A nonsensical and absurd ruling (1978 Boston v Bellotti) by the SCOTUS allowed that corporations, which are basically money magnets, have the same free speech rights as persons, and so should be allowed to contribute to politicians and to have a say in the running of the country.

All that money that had been paid out in dividends and re-invested in making the company more efficient and more responsive to their customers now became a cudgel to force legislators to bend the rules of commerce in their favor.

And now we have what we have: a Congress beholden to special interest groups, because the rewards of all that contributed money is more money to spend on advertising, which means the price of campaigning skyrockets, which means the only way a person can afford to run (even Obama) is to suckle at the teat of corporate America.

The Chinese have a saying: all feasts must have an end.

As well, governmental regulation has its good points, and its absurdities. Too much regulation can stifle creativity. Too little regulation, and you get salmonella in your peanut butter. The tendency in this swing of the pendulum is to enforce "just right sized" rules, but eventually, there will be too many and they will be too burdensome.

So which becomes the bigger burden? Too much regulation or too much money floating around?

Neither. Both. And there's the problem.

We'll continue this whipsaw back and forth until someone has the gumption to stand up and say "enough". No more corporate political contributions, get that stupid decision overturned and finally work for the people, the individuals, and not the aggolmerations of capital and political power that have worked to effectively disenfranchise the entire nation.

This is not a Republican issue (altho it tends to affect Republican administrations more than Democratic) or a Democratic issue, but a national issue.

Greed is god in this country, and it's time to tear down the idols and expose the feets of clay.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On The Clock

Each morning, I sit and read my e-mail in the bathroom.

This morning, at precisely six, ThumbPer meowed. He meowed the meow of a cat who was patiently waiting his turn. It was time to go meditate with a cup of coffee and a cat.

At precisely six. I wondered how he knew, what biological mechanism made his clock tick at that exact moment? Can he read a clock? Does he own a watch?

Then I began to think about the world. We're all run on clocks and calendars. Most people in this country, and many more in the world outside it, have to live by a clock. We log into work, we run to catch a train, our TV shows are on at a specific time.

And then I thought about my job, and something odd occured to me: the people who own the company, they aren't really beholden to clocks. Things get done when they want them to get done, on their schedule. Yes, to a degree, where necessary they have to genuflect to time.

But not as often as you might think.

All this leads me to some thoughts about Barack Obama's address last night:
[W]e have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day.

Well, that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.

He's right, you know, and he didn't single out anybody, didn't exempt you or me, the rich or the poor, the bankers or the brokers (well, maybe the bankers a little), or Democrats or Republicans.

We've all lived as though time was a renewable resource. But it's not. Time is the avenger. Time is what happens when you've lived one way, always looking in the other direction. Time is the wall you run into.

The most curious struggle within life is to balance two things: now and then.

We should all plan for the future and make contingencies for what happens then.

We should all "live in the now," as we say in acting classes.

Funny thing is, we've failed miserably at both.

We've had a thirty year headstart on renewable energy, a fairly simple, logical, and healthier alternative to burning mushed dinosaur soup. We import more of that goo than ever before.

We've had twenty years of warnings with respect to the rising costs of healthcare, and the declining wages to pay for them. Yet here we are, watching an American go bankrupt every thirty seconds because he or she can't afford to pay for the God-given gift of a healthy life.

We've had decades of warnings with respect to global warming and the twin disaster of sudden ice ages (and conservatives? These are not conflicting ideas. The earth can warm up as a whole while we plunge into an ice age in the northern and southern temperate zones), yet our planet is getting hotter and the warmest ten years on record have been the past ten.

And we've sat on our asses and did nothing, except mock Al Gore, mock Jimmy Carter and mock Hillary Clinton.

(Hm. Those are all Democrats! But I digress...)

The Obama stimulus package/budget announcement tries to reconcile these two aspects of time. The stimulus package is for the now. The budget is for the then.

It is a bold and grand vision, to be sure, and the real test comes in a year or two, when the economy has (we hope) recovered and the deficit inches down at first. Can Congress be mature enough to sit on its hands and continue to tinker with the deficit or will the special interests begin to ratchet up the rhetoric, which actually began with Bobby Jindal's amateurish and childish (Fox's words, not mine!)response to Obama's speech last night?

Time waits for no one, and it is on this basis that we, the people, must take control of our country again. It is we who must keep our Congresscritters responsible and it is we who must keep Barack Obama responsible (admittedly, I sense this will be the easier task). And it is we who must keep our local politicians responsible for the funds they receive from the Feds and from our tax dollars.

We have to get off our asses and own our time on this planet. Own the now. Own the then.

If the farm subsidy to Big Agra is about to be snuck through a late night session by the critters from the cornfields, then it's up to us to rally up the rest of the nation to put a stop to it.

If the Defense Department is insistent on buying yet another legacy weapon for a war they fought twenty years ago, it's up to us to call them on the carpet.

It's our future, not our elected officials, who, like my bosses, have forgotten what a clock really is.

A marker in the river of our lives that delineates the now from the then. We live on the clock. We need to act like it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On The Up Beat

Apropos of my column yesterday about denial and America comes this story:
President Obama's address Tuesday to a joint session of Congress will have a heavy emphasis on the economy and will try to strike an optimistic tone, aides said.

That's a sign Obama has heard the criticism, including from former President Clinton, that he needs to mix sober talk with an upbeat bottom line.

"He believes we will meet these challenges and lift ourselves out of this" recession, one top aide said. "He will say, 'The best days are ahead of us.' "

First, you'll note that this isn't being called a "State Of The Union" address. That will likely come later this year, once the stimulus package has begun to work its way through the economy (figure in May).

More important, comparisons have been drawn between Obama's recent doom-and-gloom speechifying and Jimmy Carter's, which has given a talking point to the mainstream media, beholden as it is to conservative talking points, owned as it is by conservative white men.

A President walks a difficult line, to be sure, which is why we will accept little white lies from him (or her). He can't appear too optimistic or too pessimistic.

Let's take Jimmy Carter as an example. Here was a man who truly was as honest as a President could afford to be. He spoke plainly about the need to conserve energy (the man was a visionary) and to analyze the country's mood, speaking to the general malaise we were suffering.

And got hammered for both.

In Obama's case, his emphasis on looking forward will be a tonic against the whining, mewling little children on the right wing, who talk about deficits and debt as if it was something they suddenly discovered after 8 years of Bush spending us into oblivion. After all, what's a trillion dollars to help your countrymen, when you spent at least that much on a nation 6,000 miles away that you will never visit populated by people who don't particularly like you much.

That's not to say that the deficit is nothing important...even if Dick Cheney said we could safely ignore it. It is, and Obama is correct to address the need to tighten belts.

There are, however, precious few places where one can cut spending much and have a measurable effect on the deficit as a whole. In 2008, entitlement spending, apart from Social Security and Medicare-- both of which are funded off-budget under their own trust funds, but which represent roughly 43% of tax revenues, about $1.3 trillion-- is roughly 27%, of which about 2/5 is mandatory. Interest on outstanding debt is another 10% (and rising).

Leaving defense spending of 21% (absent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have always been unbudgeted, until the Obama administration).

So factor in the defense budget of $626 billion, plus another $500 billion for the wars, and you see that defense spending rivals and might even exceed the budget for any other individual entitlement.

US defense spending is twice the combined defense spending of the rest of NATO. The US spends roughly 47% of the world's defense spending, meaning that if we avoid pissing the entire world off, we have more weapons than we could possibly need. Ever. Right now.

That's not to say that we should stop finding more and better means of defending ourselves. It just means that we can make do with what we have for a while, and do not need shiny new aircraft carriers every year or spanking new planes every quarter.

It means, in short, making Federal spending fall more into line with the actual revenues received from the various states. Fortunately, most of the governors who lined up against the stimulus package have been from states who net more in Federal spending than they contribute in taxes!

They don't want the money? Fine. No problem. We'll leave that money on the table, and cut defense spending, close bases and cancel contracts. I got no problem with that.

We are, quite literally, at a place where we can and must choose butter over guns. You can't eat a bullet, unless you intend, you know...

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Spoonful Of Sugar

Frank Rich has a column today which spells out the trouble with Americans and how that directly plays into the current economic crisis.
In a word, denial:

"I don't want to pretend that today marks the end of our economic problems," the president said on Tuesday at the signing ceremony in Denver. He added, hopefully: "But today does mark the beginning of the end."

Does it?

No one knows, of course, but a bigger question may be whether we really want to know. One of the most persistent cultural tics of the early 21st century is Americans' reluctance to absorb, let alone prepare for, bad news. We are plugged into more information sources than anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. The cruel ambush of 9/11 supposedly "changed everything," slapping us back to reality. Yet we are constantly shocked, shocked by the foreseeable. Obama's toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door.

"Shocked by the foreseeable" is a phrase I wish I had said. 
I'd give Americans more credit that Rich does, in that I'd go so far as to say they DO foresee the foreseeable, but get reassurances from the powers that be that things will be OK. The real trick comes in that, when the PTB are wrong, which happens with alarming frequency, they are also usually in control of enough of the mainstream media (including, I'm afraid, your own paper, Mr. Rich) that they manage to elide the rough patches, and keep people firmly convinced of their authority with doublespeak. 
The Bush administration was the master of elision. Even after your example, the WMDs in Iraq and the exposure of the fraud by Joe Wilson, enough people, particularly in the talking-head sector, bought the administration story that Wilson had an agenda, that his wife set up an anti-war sham of an investigation.
Which lasted until Katrina and the shameful embarrassment that was the Bush administration was finally uncovered. Suddenly, Joe Wilson looked like a saint in the eyes of America. Suddenly, Scooter Libby and by extension, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney looked like flim-flam men. 
Usually, you'd assume a President will lie, a little. Like a lie about a blow job. That we can live with. Or a lie about selling arms to Iran to gain the release of hostages. Again, not an unlivable lie, although that one's taking us into dark territory.
Here's the problem with the wholesale betraying of American trust: now we are in a position where we have no choice but to trust our President at a time when even he can't be sure what he's doing will work, at the most critical juncture in our nation's history since at least the Civil War.
Literally, this crisis could do what slavery could not: tear us asunder.
And you hear this unease with respect to Obama's hand on the wheel in the whines and gibes of both conservatives and bankers (a large overlap to be sure).
The Congressional Republicans who, to a man, boycotted any bipartisanship on the stimulus package and now speak of refusing funding from the bill are idiots, of course. The bill dropped specific provisions that the Republicans objected to, and if you look at the rest of what they were whining about, it amounted to a hill of beans in the overall cost of the bill. Meanwhile, many spoke with great pleasure at the money they were bringing home to their districts.
I mean, the Democrats were sending to their districts.
An artful compromise, to be sure, and yet the GOP conservatives are whining about it.
Similarly, as Rich points out, the bankers who are in denial about what they stand to lose (basically, everything they personally have at stake in their banks, which ain't much!) are worried about, well, nationalization.

Nevermind that what's best for the country might very well BE that nationalization, at least for the now. Nevermind that 310 million Americans stand to benefit from the security of knowing the government really will step in and help. This handful of a thousand, checkbooks open, pens at the ready, will attempt to wrest the good of the nation out of the greedy clutches of the people.
And that's sad.
There are harsh realities in the world, and that Pollyannas are at the helm of the minority party and their fiscal overlords is disturbing. That there's this belief that somehow Americans can be lulled back to sleep at this point seems unlikely, and yet, tax and spending cuts seem to be the order of the day, like yesterday's spaghetti which didn't quite sell well enough then might somehow become the staple of the thousands who walked past the diner yesterday.
Face it, Republicans, bankers, we've moved on.