Friday, 29 October 2010

Macaca glennbeckus provides proof evolution is real

A half-baboon, half-human organism, long sought by paleo-anthropologist Glenn Beck as the missing link between simians and homo sapiens, was positively identified in the town of Pleasant Plains, Arkansas this week, bringing a vigorous controversy about the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution to an indisputable close.

Scientists have yet to agree on a name for this entity, which responds to dog whistles and high-pitched clicking sounds vaguely resembling the name ‘Clint McCance, Clint McCance’. Following the usual practice among paleontologists, the creature will probably be dubbed ‘Macaca glennbeckus’.

The discovery has undermined completely any lingering doubts that bipeds and the simian genus are closely linked in an evolutionary chain. Still to resolve, however, is in which direction the evolution is occurring.

Some scientists are convinced that two-legged creatures continue to evolve into increasingly sophisticated social groups and eventually will develop complex colonies and even the basis for a civilization.

Others dispute that theory and point to the Macaca glennbeckus finding as evidence that the entire class of bipedal vertebrates is splitting into increasingly bizarre life forms, none of which will be capable of long-term survival or adaptation.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Very cheap thrills

Frederick Wiseman the cinema verité master was at the IFC Center last week as part of a program in which directors choose a favorite old film and then talk about it with the assembled movie freaks and film school students afterward. He chose Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers, which was prescient although not in the way he meant—I found Groucho’s aggressive humor more snarky than amusing. Everyone gets mocked and humiliated or their hat set on fire, and I remember that being funny when I was 8.

But the Marx Brothers are alive and well and not just because Fredonia’s motives for declaring war are no more flimsy than our own. Wiseman [below] was also promoting his new film, Boxing Gym, which is getting the usual raves for his technique of delicately allowing a place’s magic to unfold. You’d think all this praiseful attention would stimulate some of the new filmmakers to imitate his approach to documentary instead of the Harpo-Chico-Groucho, baseball-bat style we usually get.

If Charles Ferguson’s attempted takedown of the finance industry, Inside Job, is any indication, succeeding generations have missed completely Wiseman’s principal lesson, that things can be shown instead of described if you have the patience and the wit to watch closely. Ferguson mostly manages to take down himself as he obtrudes again and again into the predictable interviews with finance shills and prosperous economists [like the Bush-vintage suit below] to tell his subjects that they’re assholes.

They, not surprisingly, take offense as they’re meant to, and since we’ve already decided that anyone with ‘banker’ in his job description is an evil creep, we get to watch them squirm in the kleig lights. Ferguson could have shortened the film by just taking out a pair of scissors and clipping the guys’ ties.
I don’t know what Ferguson thinks he is accomplishing by this provocation routine, which isn’t even zany and faux-serious like Michael Moore’s. Moore at least lets us have some fun for our $12 while Ferguson’s background lessons on mortgage finance are old news, primitive and not even graphically interesting. The result is 90 minutes of reassurance that we are virtuous and the world is run by venal rich people, including Obama’s top economic advisors.

Given the perilous state of our polity, these self-indulgent exercises are just not good enough. The times call for serious thinking and principled opposition, not tweaking noses for a few cheap laughs.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Obama Sleeping Pill v/s the Bush Kool-Aid

As we head into the election stretch, the narrative on offer from Obama’s party is congealing and persuading some skeptical voters, perhaps enough to stave off total disaster. I, mercifully, am spared the sludge being generated on the airwaves in industrial quantities by not having a television, but the general content of this rather limp message seems to be comprised of the following:

1. We (Obama & Co.) have done a very decent job, and our main failing is working too hard and not communicating our achievements. We were distracted (so busy!) and inexperienced as political salespeople.
2. You people (our voting base) are so demanding, you’re never satisfied. Why, when we pass a historic health care reform, you bitch because it isn’t perfect.
3. A scary monster is inside that closet. If you don’t stick with us, it will come out and get hold of you. Don’t forget, we are the party of the people [unions, gays, women, minorities, the poor], not those venal, corrupt, corporate-serving other guys.

There are several problems with this campaign starting with the historical issue of our two-party duopoly, which leaves no way to register the kinds of dissent many, if not most of Obama’s original supporters feel. But aside from that structural obstacle, the Obama team IMHO is sowing the seeds of a longer-term debacle in two ways.

Its failure to put forth and hammer away at a compellingly combative counter-narrative to the Tea Party/Republican hysteria may put at risk even the modest achievements of the last two years. The health insurance rewrite is already under massive attack by right-wingers and some states who are determined to dismantle it piece by piece. Their success in restricting abortion access over the decades since it was declared a right by the Supreme Court should convince us that this is not an idle threat.

It wasn’t enough to simply pass a piece of legislation; we also needed to understand why it was the right thing to do so that it can be defended coherently. Obama’s team gets a big red ‘F’ on that especially considering the barn-sized targets that exist in the health insurance arena if anyone had cared to take aim at them.

One particular sign of weakness is the spectacle of Democratic candidates apologizing for supporting the thing in the first place.

Secondly, the campaign narrative is, in many very key aspects, a baldfaced lie. For example, Obama has not ridden to the defense of average homeowners but instead chucked them under the bus for the convenience of the megabanks. This sorry example is extremely telling because it shows how our white knight is invidiously strengthening and consolidating the corporate dominance over our lives that Bush advanced more openly.

A number of bloggers attended a private meeting at the Treasury Department a while back and have reported on the highly revealing conversation that took place with officials there. Here is an excerpt from an account by one of them:

On HAMP, officials were surprisingly candid. The program has gotten a lot of bad press in terms of its Kafka-esque qualification process and its limited success in generating mortgage modifications under which families become able and willing to pay their debt. Officials pointed out that what may have been an agonizing process for individuals was a useful palliative for the system as a whole. Even if most HAMP applicants ultimately default, the program prevented an outbreak of foreclosures exactly when the system could have handled it least.

This begins to sound like the Treasury officials—those guys appointed by Obama to defend the little people—used struggling homeowners as cannon fodder to stave off defeat, very much like the boss sends troops in the ‘volunteer’ army off to extend-and-pretend in Afghanistan. But it gets worse:

The program was successful in the sense that it kept the patient alive until it had begun to heal. And the patient of this metaphor was not a struggling homeowner, but the financial system, a.k.a. the banks. Policymakers openly judged HAMP to be a qualified success because it helped banks muddle through what might have been a fatal shock.

Now the indifference to Foreclosuregate from the Administration begins to make real sense. HAMP was not designed to actually help people work out easier terms and avoid getting thrown out onto the street. It was a bank-friendly program to give dangerously illiquid institutions, not citizens, a little breathing room. So abuses by servicers gouging out a few more months of payments and fees from families that are collapsing into destitution is a small price (for someone else) to pay. Or as the blogger puts it:

I’m sure they [Treasury] would have preferred if the program had worked out better for homeowners as well. But they have larger concerns, and from their perspective, HAMP has helped to address those.

So there we have it: Obama as the friendly face of a mortgage banking system determined to claw its way back from the precipice to which it had pushed itself and the rest of us, not to restore homeownership but to save its own sorry ass and grotesque privileges. Obama as Mr Nice, the biracial hope of the downtrodden, whose enforcers are blithely collaborating with the looting of middle-class families.

There may be other areas where the Obama government is playing a more humane role, and it would be nice to hear about them. But again and again, one is struck by how much seamless continuity has been stitched between the bad old Bush years and our disappointing present. So while it will be painful to see people turn in this electoral cycle to the cynical snakes on the other team, one cannot fail to sympathize with those who are sitting this one out on principle.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

A day at the races, Albany-style

New York state has been trying to install video slots at the Aqueduct Raceway near JFK airport for nearly a decade, gambling now being the default strategy for budget shortfalls as ours careen towards a California-like debacle. The state will get several hundred million in upfront fees from the franchise holder, but the saga of how we got to this point has been a classic lesson on Albany dysfunction.

I just finished reading the state Inspector General’s 316-page report on the chaotic bidding/lobbying war to win the juicy contract, and I don’t recommend the document to anyone suffering from melancholy or needing to reinforce his faith in bipeds to get up in the morning. The ‘process’ was a joke from start to finish, and the venality of the main players is outstripped only by their incompetence.

To understand how New York state (as distinguished from the city of the same name) works, all you need to know is the phrase ‘three men in a room’. Because of the perverse and blatantly undemocratic nature of the state government, the governor and the respective heads of the state senate and the assembly basically decide on everything, and the rest is window-dressing. Politicians regularly vow to effect some sort of reform, and voters would like to take pitchforks to the place. But nothing happens, and the state has competed with Louisiana for the title of most corrupt/least operative in the United States for a hundred years.

Contract bidding is ostensibly governed by a procurement system with some safeguards, but in this case former governor Eliot (‘I like high-price hookers in thigh boots’) Spitzer agreed that the video terminals franchise—the juiciest in state history with the potential to generate hundreds of millions in profits—was to use the Three Guys tradition. The fact that this non-procedure was written into statute, giving all three a veto, is particularly incredible given that we are talking about the gambling business for chrissake.

It was downhill from there. No one was in charge, no criteria were established, and at the opening whistle a free-for-all ensued with moneybags lobbyists and influence peddlers galore descending on anyone with a remote chance to affect the outcome, right down to the community board president in the Queens neighborhood that includes the racetrack.

Meanwhile, two of the three ‘men in a room’ changed: Spitzer was forced to resign and Joe Bruno, the long-time Republican Senate president, was indicted on corruption charges. The Democrats then won the Senate and went to war internally, resulting in a further rotation in the cast of characters. People at the state lottery board tried to establish ground rules, but staff working for our moronically incompetent interim governor promptly undermined them.

In January one of the least credible bidders, a consortium cobbled together by a guy with legal troubles in Australia (including bankruptcy no less), was actually awarded the franchise and then promptly disqualified, triggering the Inspector General’s investigation.
Not to left behind in this tale of snakery, long-time czar of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, a.k.a. the Rasputin of Albany, played his usual passive-aggressive game, pretended to have no position, let the other two show their hands, and then denounced the decision that he could have simply blocked by voting no. Silver, as usual, comes out on top while his counterparts in the Senate are discredited by their crude manipulation of the process and could face charges.

The release of the report is bad timing for the Democrats trying to get back in the saddle with a new governor, Andrew Cuomo, and save their senate majority. But the hit taken by the New York City-based Democratic machine already is substantial. It does not augur well for the idea that the problem with Albany was the venal Republicans, who are notorious for doing the same sort of thing but more cleverly.

Since hope spring eternal, we can fantasize that Cuomo might bring some expertise and probity to the bicameral house of horrors. Of course, there is no reason to think the next crop of solons will magically molt into honest brokers of the public interest, but the Spanish expression ‘Opportunity makes the thief’ is a reminder that well constructed administrative systems can go a long way to nudging the weak and amoral towards less destructive ways of milking their good fortune.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Juan Williams's "nappy-headed hos" moment [Updated]

Who wants to place a bet that NPR backs down on the Juan Williams incident? [see below]

Naturally Preppy Radio has never distinguished itself for courage in the face of pressure, and its desperate anxiousness to be part of the Beltway gang above all else has oozed from its every audio pore for decades. The sudden decision to can Williams is uncharacteristic, but the hilariously wrong justification utilized is completely in synch with the NPR approach.

Instead of saying Williams’s comments were racist and therefore unacceptable, NPR trotted out the flimsiest imaginable justification for canning him: violation of ‘impartiality’. Suddenly? Williams has faithfully played the liberal foil for the most screechingly partial medium in the history of broadcasting for years, which never bothered the public radioheads, half of whom would be delighted with a gig on Fox. True to form, NPR could not manage simply to say that racism was incompatible with its mission.

Williams then promptly showed how much of a ‘liberal’ he really is. Freed from the terrible constraints placed upon him by NPR, he penned an essay calling his dismissal ‘an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion’. Williams also rushed to remind us that he is black as if black people are somehow immune from having racist ideas.

Williams also accused NPR management of Stalinism, referring to the ‘one-party rule and one-sided thinking’ of NPR, which sounds pretty funny for someone now getting $2 million from the broadcast arm of the Republican Party. Williams even had to balls to compare his dismissal to ‘being sent to the gulag’, this from a guy now working for the outfit that engineered the recent Shirley Sherrod firing based on a speech she didn’t even give.

Okay, now let’s do a thought experiment: replace ‘Juan Williams’ with ‘Don Imus’, the guy who called black female basketball players from Rutgers ‘nappy-headed whores’. Run back through Williams complaint and put Imus in there instead. Would anyone be listening to this whiny shit? Or did Don Imus just have and express an unpopular ‘opinion’ that no one should get too upset about?

On top of Williams’s depressing defense of the racial demonizing of Muslims is the double standard quickly applied by one and all to the incident, including the New York Times, which stroked its grey-stubbled chin and mused about ‘competing views of journalism’ and the tension between ‘analysis’ and ‘reporting’.

Oh, please. Would the Times or any other major outlet have tolerated a reporter saying on national television that she is afraid to get on an airplane full of black men because one of them might molest her en route to the washroom? It’s an indication of how debased our public language has become that people can suppose their personal race-based stereotypes are someone else’s problem.

Not to be left behind, Time magazine echoed the ‘free-speech’ meme as if Williams were being sued or fired like Sherrod. So not only is it okay to trash a whole group of people as terrorists, but also any news outlet that doesn’t play along is undermining the Bill of Rights. What a twisted, helplessly bipedal state of affairs. No doubt it will get worse soon.

P.S. Who is going to get fired to failing to check subject-verb agreement in this cover-page headline?

[Update] Chortle, chortle.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Why can't Obama just do what's right?

What a classic Obama-in-government moment: the Pentagon announces that Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is now history, but the Administration doggedly pursues legal challenges to stave off what it says it wants to happen.

So after twenty years of targeting and harassment of gays and lesbians in the armed forces and all the attendant human suffering it caused—not to mention the massive shooting-self-in-foot loss of valuable talents—the government we elected to stand up for this minority group against the gay-baiters is the last visible defender of antigay discrimination while the Pentagon signals that it no longer cares.

What makes no sense is the political ineptness of it all—the Democrats get tagged as the defenders of gays (and Hispanics and blacks and immigrants and unions and teachers and federal employees) anyway, but they refuse to show any gumption and actually take the side of any of these groups except in the most weaseling, half-hearted, limp-wristed way, ever ready to throw their erstwhile allies under the first passing bus.

Let us not forget that it was Clinton who first buckled on the issue and allowed the Pentagon brass to bulldoze him with the phony DADT ‘compromise’ in the first place, which turned out—just as many advocates predicted—to herald a new wave of anti-gay persecution in the ranks. Nonetheless, Clinton and his ambitious wife both convinced gay political groups to stick with them in promise of better days to come.

So 20 years later, this is the result: once society has so totally absorbed the idea that gays and lesbians really are part of the new landscape and pretty much fit in everywhere, including the armed forces, the political establishment, the Clintons, the Obamas, the official liberals, now with nothing to lose, may eventually accept the inevitable, kicking and screaming. This is the ‘leadership’ we have come to expect from Obama and his party.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Lawlessness and collapse [UPDATED]

Foreclosure-gate is eerily familiar. Watching it unfold reminds me of the very early rumblings in 2007 when some obscure thingies known as mortgage-backed securities (MBS) appeared on the financial pages as the cause of some temporarily knotty problems involving distinguished Wall Street landmarks as steady as ocean liners by the name of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. Problems that will soon be resolved, tut tut.

Back then, an avid lay reader of business and financial news could begin to piece together a strange set of signals—something like what the old Kremlin-watchers would have spotted as they pored over the dense pages of Pravda and Izvestia just before the coup against Khrushchev, noting a new phrase here, an odd listing of party officials there for a hint of what was up.

In both cases the average citizen had no clue that an earthquake was about to occur given that poker-faced officialdom would emit a steady stream of reassuring banalities, along the lines of this quote from an anonymous Goldman Sachs source in today’s New York Observer:

‘Maybe there is sloppiness, but at the end of the day, people took out mortgages they can’t pay back. Now I worry that if anything, the government is making something that is just a clerical error into something that would be nefarious or whatever’.

The translation of this sleep-inducing paragraph is: ‘PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN!’ Do not get funny notions that because we bankers (1) cooked up unpayable mortgages to extract juicy fees from suckers; (2) did not do the proper, legally mandated paperwork to secure the loans with the properties; (3) are now engaged in wholesale affidavit falsification, shredding of records, document doctoring, breaking and entering, and all-around levels of fraud on the court that would put a mere mortal behind bars for all of this life and a sizable portion of the next—do not take any of that to suggest that we should suffer any serious consequences or that our business model is in the slightest danger of collapse.

The Goldman Sachs line, endlessly echoed in the cable business-news universe, is that irresponsible borrowers got themselves into houses too big for their incomes and now should get out. All the upheaval about phony notary signatures and rushed procedures, say the usual suspects, is mere detail while the real point is that people aren’t paying their mortgages. ‘Substantive errors’, in the Wall Street Journal’s phrase, are non-existent or so rare as to be meaningless.

So what does the wholesale trashing of legal procedures look like? Peruse if you will one rainy afternoon this deposition from Tammie Lou Kapusta, a former paralegal in a Florida ‘foreclosure mill’ law firm, a company that had 250 employees when she began and grew to 1100 in a single year with subsidiary operations in Guam and the Philippines. Kapusta’s tale is hair-raising but hardly unusual. She describes stacks of legal documents being cranked out under a daily quota system, signed by anyone with a working set of fingers, legalized with bulk notary seals and shipped to pliant judges for quick turn-around. Imagine getting caught in the maw of this legal bulldozer:

Q [deposing attorney] What if a homeowner made payment?
[Kapusta] That was never there [in the computerized foreclosure documents].
Q If that happened, it was never reflected?
A No. There was instances where the UPB
[unpaid balance] should have been different than what it was, but again that was a business decision made by Cheryl based on where we were at on the file. If we were ready to get judgment on it, she would just—
Q So there’s instances you’re aware of where the affidavit of indebtedness used to get the foreclosure was incorrect?
A Correct.

According to Ms Kapusta, if a paper was missing at a court hearing that might threaten to delay a foreclosure, the law firm had a back-up plan.

What would happen would be like if I had file A, and that one didn’t go to hearing because there was something wrong with it, but file B was going to hearing and it was the same bank, I would take the signature page from A and give it to B.

Easy! And ironically, how reminiscent of the descriptions of detainees trapped in the Kafakesque netherworld created by Bush and sustained by Obama as their lawyers slog their way through the rigged system trying to defend accused prisoners. In fact, the bankers’ response to complaints from homeowners being rolled by this system is exactly the same argument made by people who complained so throatily about giving accused terrorists legal due process or criminal trials—hey, ‘these people’ (a recurrent phrase used to describe delinquent home-owners, by the way) are obviously guilty, so the point is to get them off the streets and into jail. Enough of all this business of Miranda warnings and clever lawyers protecting the bad guys.

The apogee of this smug endorsement of dictatorship is, of course, Guantánamo and the torture debate. Terrorists don’t deserve due process. Keep us safe. Do whatever is necessary. We want revenge, not justice. How easy when you are on the dishing-out end and not the receiving end.

In short, fellow Americans, be careful what you wish for. When laws can be ignored at will by the powerful, little people like you and me get crushed under the wheels. Barack Obama and his team of banker shills won’t stand up for you either, and in this case, frankly, it’s hard not to snigger as the same populace that bayed for the dismantling of due process gets to experience a system that doesn’t care about it.

By the way, here is an aerial view of the home and boat of the owner of the law firm referred to above, David J. Stern. I gather he is paying his mortgage without any problems. The boat was allegedly to be called ‘Su Casa Es Mi Casa’, a indescribably perverse joke on the original Spanish phrase meaning, ‘Make yourself at home’.

[UPDATE] As an antidote to the coming onslaught of banker-fed spin ("This is merely a few technical errors that should not allow deadbeats to stay in homes they cannot afford"), here is an actual case from the state of Florida related by The Daily Caller:

In 2007, Deutsche Bank sued Patrick Jeffs for his home, which is a necessary step in the process of foreclosing on a homeowner in the state of Florida. Curiously, despite the fact that he immediately hired a law firm to defend his property when he found out about the foreclosure, neither Jeffs nor his attorneys were at the trial. That’s because it had already happened. Deutsche won by default because Jeffs wasn’t able to travel backwards in time to attend, even though the trial featured a signed affidavit indicating that he had been served his court summons.

The only problem with the summons Jeffs supposedly received was that it had been conjured out of thin air.

In June of this year, a Florida court ruled that the document was fraudulent, as the person who was supposed to make sure Jeffs was served had mysteriously received a copy of the summons before the lawsuit had even been filed, and Jeffs never even saw the copy. The text of that ruling was posted on various financial news websites in September. The lawyers that Jeffs hired to defend his case say that fraud such as this is not uncommon. It’s a widespread problem, and it has cost countless families their homes.

“I think it’s safe to say that 95% of the foreclosure cases in Florida involve some form of fraud on the part of the bank,” David Goldman of Apple Law Firm, PLLC told The Daily Caller in a phone interview. “It’s probably closer to 99%. And the court system is helping them get away with it.”

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Carl Palladino’s e-mails

Yes, this is one of the choice pictures forwarded by our REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE FOR GOVERNOR to a long list of professional associates a while back. This is the guy who took the pulpit last week in front of a congregation of Orthodox Jews to rail against homosexuality.

That the Tea Party, while crowing about how it represents decent, Christian America against the dangers of socialism, should have managed to elevate this baboon to within striking distance of the governorship leaves one speechless. And our friends in the news media, who would be having apoplectic fits were the candidate a dastardly liberal, treat the guy seriously.

Palladino’s notorious e-mails were well known before the primaries, but that didn’t stop the rabid faithful from nominating him, the better to enjoy his thuggish threats to ‘take a baseball bat’ to his political enemies.

We didn’t have to wait long for what that meant after the candidate publicly threatened to ‘take out’ a reporter he didn’t like—from the Murdoch-owned Post, no less. Equal opportunity for hit men.

Palladino is scum and will soon disappear forever unless the earth has shifted dangerously on its axis. But what is really unforgivable is these elements of Orthodox Jewish leadership pandering to this shit.

This has not been a normal week in New York. A young kid threw himself off the George Washington Bridge after being publicly humiliated by his college roommate for being gay. A horrific gang-based scene of systematic torture occurred in the Bronx when teenagers discovered that a potential member had had sexual contact with a guy.

That any Jews of any religious or ideological conviction should choose THIS moment, in the midst of frightful, hate-based physical assaults and deadly harassment, to join in attacks on the victims is appalling and morally bankrupt. Jews of all people should be capable of recalling what societies turn into when they allow minorities to be treated in this fashion.

Even the Catholic leadership, whose positions on sexual topics are well known, have not publicly joined hands with the loathsome Palladino, whose professes to be a member of their institution. But these rabbis--apparently outliers even among the orthodox--outdo the cardinals for arrogance and insensitivity.

All in all, a great week for the cause of agnosticism.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

My dog ate your mortgage

Two distinct and mutually exclusive narratives are taking shape around the latest round of the housing meltdown, this time involving slipshod, get-rich-quick record-keeping, leading to the now notorious affidavit mills and strong rumors of fraud. With one major bank or mortgage server after another announcing moratoria on foreclosures including the bombshell Friday from Bank of America covering all 50 states, the problem is no longer addressed as one of ‘mere’ technicalities.

However, a strong back-up thread is developing that attempts to convince us that the whole problem is overblown because, after all, the vast majority of these foreclosure procedures deal with mortgages that are seriously delinquent. Calculated Risk, for example, said last Thursday:

‘This will probably just be a delay. And the delays will mostly be in the judicial foreclosure states, . . .

Note, however, that a mere 24 hours later his comment about only the ‘judicial states’ being affected was belied by events.

An alternative view comes from Naked Capitalism whose author, Yves Smith, has been way out front on the topic for two weeks. She refuses to countenance any tut-tutting and says instead that:

‘. . . what is really at stake here. . . is the rule of law. Banks that were quick to defend unjustifiable pay deals by invoking “sanctity of contract” have no inhibition about ignoring their own contracts to pad their bottom line, and ultimately, the wallets of top executives. Rather than deal with the considerable consequences of these abuses, the banks are prepared to bulldoze well settled state laws to give them an easy way out. . . . The result is that we institutionalize kleptocracy while keeping largely gutted forms of due process as theater. The powers that be hope that the broad public will remain unaware of what is really at work’.

Paul Krugman at the NY Times compares this fast-and-loose operation by bankers with the sanctimonious reaction to other countries’ financial collapses.

‘After the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, it was often said that a key barrier to recovery was the uncertain state of property rights: so much debt had been run up during the boom, and there had been so many defaults in the bust, that it was no longer clear who owned anything. Plus, these countries lacked clear legal procedures, and in general suffered from insufficient rule of law. All this was said, of course, in a tone of superiority: we Americans had solved such problems’.

Does anyone else hear the faint echoes of a parallel breakdown that occurred under Bush and has been faithfully continued under Obama to the present day? I refer, of course, to the cavalier dismissal of the rule of criminal law and procedures in dealing with accused terrorists, including people who may spend the rest of their lives in cages at Guantámano because our society is too chicken-shit to give them a fair trial in a court of law.

Why should it surprise us that convenience and expediency, once allowed to trump our core democratic principles in the ‘War on Terror’, are dumped in precisely the same way when dealing with the property rights of defenseless, working Americans? After all, delinquent mortgage holders are all a bunch of deadbeats and scammers (‘the worst of the worst’, in the Bush-ite phrase), so they should get shoehorned out of the houses they can’t afford ASAP, right? Why let courtroom technicalities drummed up by their liberal lawyers stop the process?

And so the whirlygig of time brings its revenge. I hope to live long enough to see a Tea Party-er get thrown out of his suburban three-bedroom by a bank using phony documents so he can rail on Fox News against the unfairness of depriving him of his rights without a valid court proceeding and due process.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

A good choice, an excellent choice

Mario Vargas Llosa is finally a Nobel laureate and none too soon. As a non-native Spanish speaker and reader, I have always found his books among the most accessible and entertaining of modern Latin American and Iberian literature. While his enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher and other oddities of his political trajectory are distasteful and even bizarre, he has hewed to a consistent line in defense of democratic rule, which for a ring-winger on the continent he comes from is quite laudable.

We should be so lucky to have conservative spokespeople who do not want immediately to dump the rule of law and slaughter anything that moves. Imagine what we would be hearing in the U.S. if we had anything remotely comparable to the Shining Path guerrilla movement rampaging through the countryside spouting Maoist inanities and assassinating mayors. Vargas Llosa might not have done much better if he’d won the presidency of Peru in 1990, but he has been a critic of the scorched earth policy of the guy who won, the execrable Fujimori, who presided over the disappearance of more civilians than Pinochet in neighboring Chile.

And now, a highly personal and idiosyncratic review of his books in descending order of praise:

Conversation in the Cathedral (1969)—I read this while sitting in a hammock in Cozumel, Mexico, and was completely enchanted. It remains a mystery how anyone who understands his country so well can be such a neoliberal ideologue, but no matter, it’s a great book. BTW, the Cathedral is a bar.

Feast of the Goat (2000)—a fictionalized account of Trujillo who ruled the Dominican Republic for 30 frightening years. Chilling on multiple levels and utterly unforgettable. The portrait of the slimy Joaquín Balaguer who took over from Trujillo after decades of passive complicity with his crimes is a reminder that crime at the top usually does pay.

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta (1984)—most people call this a minor work, but it holds together beautifully as a fractured, multi-perspective take on this curious, semi-autobiographical character.

The Time of the Hero (1963)—his breakthrough work remains a great portrait of a military academy and was made into a very decent film in Peru. The Peruvian military hated it, always a good sign. How they got this English title out of La Ciudad y los Perros I'll never understand.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977)—I don’t know if anyone has ever outdone this howler in which the soap opera creator gets his plots mixed up. The weird coda about MVL’s affair and later marriage to his own aunt doesn’t belong in it, but I guess he had to get it out of his system. I see it was also made into a movie (Tune in Tomorrow), which must have bombed if I never heard of it.

Dissident alert: The War of the End of the World (1981)—never could see the point of this book, which winds on endlessly through the Amazonian war without creating a memorable character. Some people love it—I think it stinks.

Never read and should someday: The Green House (1965)—I even have a copy but never got around to it. They say it’s a marvel.

Never read and don’t intend to: Pantaleon and the Special Service (1973)—a comedy about prostitution in the jungle. I don’t think anyone who’s ever been close to the industry of prostitution as actually practiced in grubby frontier towns (I have) would find the topic very amusing.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

I apologize

Sorry for being so dense. Okay, let’s see: I should grow up, get out of my pajamas and rush out to support beleaguered Democrats running for office because horrible, frightening Palinites otherwise may win and will proceed to:

shill for big oil companies
dismantle our remaining civil liberties
pursue endless, aggressive, futile wars
try to undermine the health care reforms we fought so hard for
side with banks against struggling homeowners.

Okay, it’s all clear now. But I am such a slow learner, gosh, I feel like one of those ‘fucking retards’ Rahm Emanuel spoke of before jumping ship and getting out of town with one month to go to the elections. I apologize for my immaturity.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Remembering Nazi crimes

Film Forum here is showing the documentary Nuremberg, not starring Maximilian Schell, but the real thing with Nazi war criminals in the dock playing themselves. The U.S. suppressed the documentary after it was made—which in itself is undoubtedly material for another entire film—and it is a good corrective to the 1961 courtroom drama Judgment at Nuremberg created later by Stanley Kramer with a star-studded cast (including William Shatner, of all people).

Seeing the actual footage of the Nuremberg tribunal makes one realize how the sight of Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Burt Lancaster in the Hollywood version blunted the impact of the historical event. These are actual Nazis fresh from generating the slaughter of 50 million people, including millions of civilians via death chambers and intentional starvation (of which we see plenty).

What’s remarkable about the spectacle is how undramatic many of the creepy figures were in real life. When Otto Funk, the Nazi governor-general of Poland, apologizes from the witness stand you have to blink and slap yourself to recall that this is not a guy who got drunk and ran his car into the neighbor’s yard but the administrator of a territory that included Auschwitz.

Hannah Arendt outlined this phenomenon during the Eichmann trial 15 years later, pointing out that one of the worst criminals in history was little more than an ambitious bureaucrat with a moral blind spot. Her lesson, long since forgotten, is that any society can go nuts and that when atrocities become the new normal, plenty of people will step up to carry out its most heinous acts as soon as they get an impressive job title and a nice office.

Nuremberg also provides the uncomfortable reminder that a major portion of the indictment against the Nazi leadership was for ‘crimes against peace’. Justice Robert Jackson’s ringing accusation charged them with waging ‘aggressive war’ and explicitly stated that the Allied court was to provide a permanent warning to anyone else who tried it. Although war crimes such as murder of prisoners and ‘crimes against humanity’ were also included, the Nazis were sentenced, sometimes to death, for their conspiracy to engage in war for conquest. It isn’t hard to think of more recent examples in which the charges would stick just as easily.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


There is a slow-motion train wreck unfolding before us while attention is focused on whether Christine O’Donnell’s flirtation with Hare Krishna is interesting or not. Once again, it involves the nation’s cancerous house-building habits of recent years in which endless new suburbs were carved out of cornfields to stoke millions of American Dream lives and make gazillionaires in Wall Street. Like all addictions, it ended badly.

But the destruction may not be over by a long shot. Foreclosure mills have been churning out tens of thousands of ejections and repossessions because the sharpies who created the mess now want people out fast. (Forget trying to help people stay in these homes, which is official policy—that’s usually not convenient for the financial industry, which is still very much in charge.)

But it turns out that key aspects of the legal chain of ownership were ignored starting in the mid-00s, and now there is hell to pay. Huge banks like JPMorganChase and BOFA are shutting down their foreclosure actions, and despite the assurances that tut-tut, these are mere technicalities, there are now inklings of acknowledgment that the impact may be huge.

A NY Times article argued that this will be good for the housing market and even ‘lay the groundwork for recovery’ because it will boost prices by slowing down the foreclosure tsunami. But other, wiser heads in the econ-blog world have been saying for months now that what housing urgently needs is to hit bottom, to get to a true price level so that people wanting to enter the market will be assured that the value of the property won’t decline further.

Interruption of foreclosure where the household is hopelessly in the tank will not help this process, and meanwhile the banks and pension funds holding the rubbery mortgage security bonds cannot even liquidate the underlying properties. This could quickly aggravate the woozy state of bank solvency nationwide as the AFP piece today stated:

“It is bad for the finance market because the lenders can’t get their money for years. The losses for the banks will be much bigger.”

The latest round of revelations include the rather amazing fact that the foreclosure mills have been fabricating documents to be presented in court. That strikes us as, um, potentially quite annoying to, um, like, judges? Sounds as though any minimally alert homeowner about to get his sofa put on the sidewalk might have a good case for halting the process—imagine the ripple effect throughout the entire economy if it’s not clear who owns the country’s houses.