Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Michigan Votes Today

I had hoped to finish out my life without writing words like: "It is not enough to stop killing black kids and throwing them in jail."  But the economic and social repression of black Americans, the intentional destruction of black America that began in earnest with Ronald Reagan, continues to this day, in spite of the eight-year presidency of a bi-racial American who identifies himself as black.  If it is true that on every important economic measure black Americans are worse off now than when Barack Obama took office in 2008, are we to believe that it's because he doesn't care about black people?  Or is the simpler, more compelling truth that the forces of repression are so entrenched in the political establishment at every level that only a political revolution can improve the lives of all working Americans, including black Americans?

We have free public elementary schools and high schools that have been theoretically and legally desegregated since 1954.  Segregated housing is also against the law.  And yet, I sit on the white side of a river and directly across from me, on the black side of the river, there is a high school from which only a few graduates went on to college last year.  The lead in the water my family drinks is only 2 ppb, while the lead in the drinking water of the families on the black side of the river is 12 ppb. Unemployment on my side of the river is low, unemployment on the other side of the river is devastatingly high.  Is the quality of life on the other side of the river so low because the people there are black?  No.  It's because they are poor.

So far, support for Bernie Sanders in the black community has been very low. If that doesn't change, we will be looking at a continuation of the Obama presidency. While that may be consoling to some, it will alter nothing in the real world.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Is The Iowa Caucus Important?

I think it is. 

National political campaigns have to do a few things well.  They have to have an electable candidate and a clear message.  They have to raise money.  They have to have a media campaign.  They have to have a ground game that gets the vote out.  And they have to bring all of that together in a way that produces votes, whether they're caucus votes, primary votes or general election votes, in fifty states and five territories.

The Iowa caucus is the first test of the Sanders campaign's ability to do that.  At 5:45 PM CST today, the Des Moines Register will release it's annual pre-caucus poll, predicting how well Sanders is doing.  Depending on the results of the poll, the campaign will swing into high gear to defend their lead or to catch up to Clinton by Monday night.

And, on Monday night, the Sanders donors will get their first look at how well Sanders has used the 3 million individual contributions they have invested in him.  Specifically, has he come up with a message, a media campaign and a ground game that can turn out the millennial vote in Iowa?  A lot is riding on the answer to that question.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The One Per Cent At Work

Take a look at the 11:10 mark in this video.  That's when Hillary gives her take on who was to blame for the housing mortgage crisis and implicates homeowners in the meltdown.

This is the speech she claims she made to tell Wall Street to "cut it out." You judge for yourself.  I think it's less about what she says than about the cozy, collegiate atmosphere of the event.  Definitely the One Per Cent at work.

She probably thinks she gave them hell.  She has a habit of investing events with emotion and drama.  And that's probably the way she remembers them.  Troubling to say the least.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The One Per Cent At Work And Play

Who are these people?  Where did they come from?  Where are they going?

The Sad Obsession of Paul Krugman

Most of the time, I find myself scribbling here to maintain some semblance of sanity.  Anyone who has given any thought at all to the disaster known as American health insurance knows that a phased extension of Medicare is the right solution to this country's health insurance problem.

I suspect Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner and NYT columnist, knows that as well as anyone.  And yet, Mr. Krugman's sad obsession with the Council of Economic Advisers, a role that has escaped him time after time, has him coming down on the side of Hillary Clinton and the kludge known as the Affordable Care Act.

Now Mr. Krugman knows that the Affordable Care Act was written by the insurance industry.  And he knows that the so-called Public Option, which might have been a tiny step toward single-payer was intentionally torpedoed by Barack Obama, but he is so obsessed with the idea that Hillary Clinton might actually put him on her Council of Economic Advisers, maybe even give him the chair, that he will say anything to get the job.

Krugman is a rich and famous man, and it is silly to pity him.  But I do.

It will be interesting to see if Hillary comes through if she gets elected.  Most experienced whores know you should settle on the price before you go to the room.  Has Hillary agreed to the price, or is Krugman giving her a freebie?  That's a pretty desperate act.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Lesser Of Two Weevils

In his historical novel, The Fortune of War, the great British author, Patrick O'Brian, created an exchange between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin that featured a pun on the comparative sizes of two weevils.  After forcing Maturin to choose between a fat weevil and a lesser weevil, well, you get it.

And it looks like that's what we Democrats are up against this election.  Choosing a weevil.  We can pick the slick, fat, well-fed, well-oiled and famous weevil, or the less well-known old weevil, who has, perhaps, tied his own shoe strings together.  And the object of the exercise is to avoid the unthinkable, the November 2016 victory of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

Now, you might suppose that in making this choice the Democratic Establishment would choose the weevil who polls tell us has the best chance of beating Trump or Cruz.  And, actually, that would be the lesser of the two weevils.  However, it is the greater weevil the Establishment supports, because the lesser weevil to us is the greater weevil to them.  Sanders is the one candidate for President that no Establishment, be it Republican or Democratic, can or will ever allow us to elect.  Not if they can help it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Inside Job (2010) The First Day Of School

I wrote this five years ago, right after Charles Ferguson won his Academy Award.  I think I have a pretty good idea now of what Wall Street planned to package and sell next.

Inside Job (2010), Charles Ferguson's exposé of the takeover of American government by greedy financiers, is full of information.  It adds important details to the history of the worldwide financial disaster that triggered the Great Recession, and, even when Ferguson is being redundant, recounting facts that are generally well-known, he's entertaining.  Sunday night, Ferguson won an Academy Award.

The question is:  How relevant is the history of a ponzi scheme that caused a global financial disaster back in 2008, now that the folks Inside Job calls our "Wall Street government" have moved on to undermining civil liberties, torpedoing single-payer health insurance, busting unions and generally shredding the safety net we cobbled together during the Great Depression?

Inside Job (2010) Economic Crisis Film LLC

Will Charles Ferguson's documentary film bring down the Wall Street government?  Will it even break their stride?

I have no doubt, that Inside Job will do what film and art are uniquely suited to do.  It will change the way we look at the world.  I don't think anyone who sees Inside Job will ever look at bankers and the finance industry, academia, our government, or the history of America over the last 30 years in the same way again.

Inside Job unfolds like a criminal trial, with Ferguson carefully building a case against the most prominent financial figures in America, many of whom are now in the Obama administration.  By the end of the trial, the verdict of history -- or at least of the historian, Ferguson -- is clear.  The finance industry and the government, on purpose, wrecked the world economy and destroyed millions of lives.

Ferguson's explanation of how subprime mortages were bundled as derivatives, called Collateralized Debt Obligations -- CDOs for short -- and sold in unregulated markets along with Credit Default Swaps -- insurance policies that paid off when borrowers defaulted on the subprime loans in a CDO -- is easy to follow.  Because anyone could buy a Credit Default Swap against a CDO, whether they owned the CDO or not, firms like Goldman Sachs could sell CDOs and bet against them at the same time.  AIG, the main writer of Credit Default Swaps, collapsed -- and got bailed out -- when it couldn't pay off on the Credit Default Swaps it had written.   The financiers held on to the commissions and bonuses they made selling the CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, even after the bubble burst.  The taxpayers held on to the dirty end of the stick.

Ferguson is a skillfull interviewer who balances skepticism with naiveté and knows how to follow-up when he gets an opening.  The big names in finance and government were smart to dodge his interviews.  He is especially savage when he unmasks the academics -- the professors of economics and finance -- who sold out to the finance industry, covered up for crooks, and even invented economic theories to justify and defend Credit Default Swaps.

Inside Job is a film in the tradition of documentaries like Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's Harvest of Shame (1960).  It combines interviews and narration with archival video and photographs to make a point.  It's not particularly filmic, but the cinematography of Svetlana Cvetko and Kalyanee Mam is crisp and sophisticated.  It fits the subject.  The settings for the interviews are well chosen.  A fast-moving montage of mansions, yachts, jets, drugs and whores -- but where were the male prostitutes? -- adds a dimension to the history of the meltdown that was missing from the Congressional hearings on C-SPAN.  To his credit, Ferguson sees Wall Street's obsession with wealth and its use of drugs and prostitutes more as character issues than as moral ones.  And he's not without humor.  The irony of Eliot Spitzer being reluctant to use the personal vices of Wall Street underlings to force them to flip on their overlords is not lost on him, or on us.  Equally ironic is the Bush administration's sacrifice of Lehman Brothers to "calm the markets," like Greeks, sacrificing to Poseidon to calm the seas.  If Inside Job has a weakness, it's in the way Ferguson brings the pain of the financial crisis down to the individual level.  Why interview workers in China when so many workers in the Midwest had lost their jobs?

Inside Job won the Academy Award for Best Documentary this year, but, in spite of Matt Damon's sappy reminder -- delivered as we gaze at the Statue of Liberty -- that "some things are worth fighting for," Inside Job may not accomplish as much as Ferguson hopes.

What we -- the survivors -- need now, instead of warnings and history, are tools.  We need to know how to get on down this Cormac McCarthy kind of road, past the charred, asphalt-covered bodies of the refugees who died when the death ray caught them pushing shopping carts, burdened with their last belongings, along the interstate.  We need stuff we can use.

And we need to know what the overlords -- the financiers who are, as Ferguson reminds us, still in power -- are going to do next.  What will they package and sell to create the next bubble?  Maybe we can get in on the ground floor.

A link to the complete film is here at YouTube.

The New York Times Editorial Board

The New York Times editorial board is composed of 19 journalists with wide-ranging areas of expertise, the Times says. Their primary responsibility is to write The Times’s editorials, which represent the voice of the board, its editor and the publisher. The board is part of The Times’s editorial department, which is operated separately from The Times’s newsroom, and includes the Letters to the Editor and Op-Ed sections.

Andrew Rosenthal is in charge of the paper's opinion pages, both in the newspaper and online. He oversees the editorial board, the Letters and Op-Ed departments, as well as the Editorial and Op-Ed sections of NYTimes.com. The editorial department of the paper is completely separate from the news operations and Mr. Rosenthal answers directly to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

In other words, the editorial board, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, is Mr. Sulzberger Jr.'s public voice.  The full makeup of the board is here.

I wonder what the annual incomes and net worth of these 20 people, Mr. Sulzberger Jr. included, are.  An estimate of  Mr. Sulzberger Jr.'s income from the Times is readily available on the web.  In fiscal year 2014, he was scheduled to net $6.8 million. 

Yesterday, Mr. Sulzberger Jr., speaking through his editorial board, delivered the first of a perfectly timed and devastating combination of punches, intended to floor Bernie Sanders, when he gave Hillary Clinton a prime time Op-Ed slot to roll out her plan to limit the power of the Wall Street Government.  The second blow of the combination was delivered by Elizabeth Warren, who immediately endorsed the Clinton plan on Twitter, stopping just short of endorsing Clinton herself.

Wall Street Government abides.  But wait.  I thought their mouthpiece was the Wall Street Journal.  The question now is whether or not the Times is a major player in Democratic party politics anymore.  They're certainly trying to be.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Bush Doctrine 2.0

About 20 years ago, we entered a new era, characterized by quasi-nationalist movements in the Middle East, terrorist attacks on soft targets in the United States, and retaliation by the United States, aimed at killing terrorists, eliminating their bases, safe havens and training camps, and at disrupting their communications and finances. Like a couple of boxers, the United States and Middle Eastern terrorists stand toe to toe, trading jabs, and neither fighter expects to win by a knockout.

The Bush doctrine, established after 9/11 is well understood.  The United States has the absolute right to project force anywhere in the world to capture or kill anyone we identify as a terrorist, without regard for the sovereignty of any other nation.  This right is limited only by our capability to exercise it. There can be no legal or moral limits at all. 

Unfortunately, both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's application of this principle has been flawed by their obsession with regime change.  That obsession has led to failed occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the death of an American ambassador in Libya, and to a continuing disaster in Syria.

It's inevitable that, as it evolves, Bush Doctrine 2.0 will explicitly reject regime change and occupation as viable tactics in the Middle East, and abandon the notion that terrorism and terrorist attacks on the United States can be eliminated.  A long, long war of attrition lies ahead.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Fundamental Notions Of The Hive

The quality of our lives matters.

We don't have the political clout to change economic policy in our favor.  We have to adapt to economic conditions that will favor the rich for a long time.  If we can't become wealthy ourselves, we have to learn to think like the wealthy think, to anticipate their moves.

Debt is not a good thing to have.

Find a cheap, warm place to live.  Stay close to clean water.

Cooperate.  Contribute.  Serve.  Hold fast.  Don't fall through the cracks.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Time Travel In The '60s

Compared to the action-packed super-realism of time travel films like the Terminator series and 12 Monkeys, the black-and-white video technology of The Star Wagon, a 1966 television play, written by Maxwell Anderson and directed by Karl Genus, is archaic. But Genus’ direction and the relaxed and intimate acting of a cast that includes Orson Bean, Joan Lorring, Eileen Brennan and Dustin Hoffman make The Star Wagon one of the most entertaining attempts to use the idea of time travel to dramatize the tension between free will and destiny I’ve seen.

The Star Wagon, produced for WNET and NET Playhouse at the time that National Educational Television was evolving into the Public Broadcasting System, is one of the television plays available from distributors like Broadway Theatre Archive who specialize in early television productions. It’s also available as a rental from Netflix.

Taped mainly on location, The Star Wagon follows Bean, a dreamy inventor, and his earthy sidekick, Hoffman, as they try to reverse their fortunes by turning back time. If the outcome of their journey through time seems sappy and predictable nowadays, that may say more about the cynicism of the 21st Century than it does about the naiveté of television audiences in the '60s, who were comfortable with Hollywood endings, the triumph of good over evil and the idea that innocence, lost in time, can be restored. And some of Anderson’s themes — that there are no great men, that nothing matters more than freedom, and that the business of business is the fleecing of the unwary – seem, in this age of Ponzi schemes and bailouts, downright timeless.

Television is an intimate medium, suited for low-key performances, and Genus’ cast, led by Bean and Lorring in the role of Bean’s long-suffering wife, deliver the kind of casual intimacy seldom seen in film. Genus uses his performers and the low resolution images of early black-and-white video to create a unique mix of impressionism and naturalism. The high contrast images of Genus’ actors, overexposed to the extent that the actors’ bodies seem to glow, are painterly and impressionistic, but the performances Genus and his actors create are natural and realistic.

Genus’ cast has a remarkable ability to be with one another, to be with Maxwell Anderson’s script, and to demonstrate that good acting is, in fact, reacting. The result is a kind of naturalness that even directors like John Cassavetes, who were completely committed to naturalism and improvisation, never achieved. Cassavetes was able to use improvisation to structure his films by creating realistic situations, but the dialogue his actors improvised seldom matched Anderson’s ear for small talk, flip comments, and the kind of gentle razzing we see in The Star Wagon.

Anderson and Genus deliver poetry, as well. Standing on the star wagon, Hoffman looks like an angel with one good wing. There is a dreamlike, druggy quality to Bean and Hoffman’s laughter as they launch themselves back through time. Bean moves effortlessly from innocence, as he rehearses a hymn, The Holy City, with Lorring, to funny sexuality as Eileen Brennan digs in his front pocket for candy at a picnic; and Bean’s dark and violent rebirth leaves the impression of opera, of voices singing together to reveal the dark underside of Anderson’s comedy before Hoffman yanks Bean from the river to begin life over, half-drowned and miserable, lying in the mud with his head in Brennan’s wet lap.

Technically, these scenes of Bean’s death and rebirth by the river are as advanced as any experimental cinema of the Sixties. Bean’s passage begins with the sound of Hoffman pushing Brennan out to the way and jumping into the river, but we aren’t allowed to see Hoffman pull Bean out of the water until we enter the drowning Bean’s thoughts and contemplate nothing less than the meaning of life.

It is possible to think of life as a long series of paths not taken, doors opened or not opened, decisions made one way instead of another. It is a convention of most time travel films that the journey back through time will either change nothing, or it will change everything. The art of the film is to show why this should be so, to explain in a satisfying way why history had to happen exactly as it did happen. In The Star Wagon, Anderson breaks with that convention. He raises the possibility of changing history by going back in time, and then rejects that possibility as an act of will. Orson Bean’s Stephen returns to the present tense of his life as we found him, not because he has to, but because he wants to. But he is better for having made the journey, even if the world is not, and, watching the film, I felt the sweetness of life in a way I had not felt it since those summer evenings long ago, when I was a boy and I waited nervously at shortstop for our pitcher to deliver his first pitch.

At the end of the play, Stephen tells us his time machine is just a way of remembering the past. Karl Genus’ The Star Wagon is as good a way as any of remembering some of broadcast television’s best years. And that’s something, in my view, upon which it is worth spending some time.