Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Prague/Damascus spring

Tanks rolled into the principal rebellious towns in Syria yesterday, and the regime’s goons are reportedly going house to house looking for opponents while snipers fire at anything that moves. Obama issued a critical statement—does this mean the U.S. will no longer use Syria as a rendition point and take advantage of its secret police’s torture skills in the Great War on Terror? [cartoon: Steve Bell, The Guardian]

The Soviet Union looked awfully hard to beat in 1968 when tanks occupied Czechoslovakia, and the democratic movement was crushed. Anyone associated with the yearning for freedom and a real life was punished and faced a lifetime of petty harassment. Two decades later, the regime that had staged that counterrevolution crumbled from the inside out.

Just sayin’.

Sunday, 24 April 2011


We creep ever nearer to lawlessness, and not just because most Americans have decided that their safety is more important to them than their liberty. A long investigative piece by Ed Vulliamy in The Guardian a few weeks ago about corruption in our midst has not had much play here, which is strange. I recommend digesting the whole thing here. It is utterly mind-boggling.

Vulliamy, the reporter who helped expose Serbian concentration camps during the 1990s Balkans wars, relates how the U. S. bank Wachovia merrily laundered hundreds of billions of dollars in Mexican narco-cash. Given the decades of hysteria in this country about the horrors of ‘drugs’, not to mention the 30 thousand-plus deaths in the narco wars south of the border, you’d think someone, somewhere, would have noticed that one of the largest banks in the country was complicit in the coke trade.

I mention this as a former client of Wachovia, now taken over by Wells Fargo, whose branch offices are popping up all over New York. Both these banks did not exactly distinguish themselves during the housing bubble that cost us our collective shirt. But who knew that they relied on drug lords’ cash to keep themselves afloat during the crucial panic months?

The amounts are staggering: for the three-year period from 2004-07, Wachovia admitting in writing to having processed $373 billion from Mexican money-changing houses and another $4.7 billion in cash’. Imagine a pile of 47 million 100-dollar bills—you’d need a football stadium just to house it.

Vulliamy quotes the UN drugs and crime agency head, Antonio Maria Costa, as suggesting that as the banking crisis developed in 2008, proceeds from drugs and crime were use to saved the giant banks teetering on the precipice: ‘Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade. There were signs that some banks were rescued that way’.

Wells Fargo acquired Wachovia as it foundered on the mortgage debacle, aided by $25 billion in taxpayer support. But the prosecutors who charged Wachovia—though none of its officers individually—settled for a measly $50 million fine, barely making a dent in its total 2009 profit of $12.3 billion.

As in the entire handling of the financial collapse that we continue to pay for, the federal authorities from Obama on down allow this rampant lawlessness to escape unpunished out of a convenient conviction that saving the banking sector requires winking at this sort of behavior. They then go to work for the firms they enabled and tell the rest of us that ‘change’ takes a long time to achieve, can’t be done overnight, etc.

In fact, real change could happen quite easily. You slap some charges on these bankers’ behinds and march them to jail. You forego juicy sinecures with the finance sector after your stint in government is over. You enjoy an honest job, earn an honest salary and go home to a modest domicile with no million-dollar paintings on the walls. You act like a public servant instead of a Wall Street hooker—no offense meant to hookers. Of course, anyone who tries to defend the public interest, as Vulliamy’s story points out, is immediately pilloried and persecuted for not being a team player.

One shudders to read of the terrifying violence spreading all over Mexico as the drug gangs crush one police entity after another, having long ago infiltrated the highest ranks of government. How long will it take for our deeply corrupted financial and political system to start showing signs that the Mexican virus has crept across the Rio Grande?

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Immoral and repugnant

This post is not about the 2012 elections. It is not about whether Republicans are better or worse than Democrats. It is not about which candidates for whom I might cast votes at some point in the future. (Balloting here remains secret, for now.) It is not a nuanced weighing of the pluses and minuses of our current leadership. It is about how I, a citizen, perceive the president, Barack Obama, for whose election I actively worked.

I am over him.

I am gladdened by the impact of the enormous pressure put upon him to stop the torture of Bradley Manning, to which I contributed by sending back an Obama bumper sticker to the Democratic National Committee, enclosing a note about the Manning case. (The campaign apparently started with an article by Lynn Parrimore at NewDeal20.) More persuasive, perhaps, was the letter sent by 250 constitutional scholars to Obama questioning whether ‘the commander in chief meets the fundamental standards of decency’. And the serenade by infiltrators to his merry fund-raising affair with rich people this week undoubtedly iced the cake.

As a result Manning was transferred away from the systematic campaign at Quantico to psychologically annihilate him organized by his military captors. Obama defended that torture at the time and then this week added the unusual statement that Manning ‘broke the law’.

This is extraordinary since Manning has not yet appeared in a court of law. But Obama, like Bush before him, knows who is guilty and who is not without the need for judges or testimony. It must be great to have lots of power and know, like a Middle Eastern satrap, who should be punished and for how long.

This is consistent with our national attitude toward our own laws since the early days of Guantánamo when eager recruits from Kansas solemnly informed us that the detainees were ‘the worst of the worst’. No one bothered to ask them how they knew this. Apparently, the act of being accused by an official of the U.S. military now constitutes proof.

Post-9/11 Americans needed to see people rounded up arrested for attacking us. It was not important then—and it is not important now—whether the individuals detained were actually guilty of those crimes or any crimes. We will some day come to regret this bipartisan, consensual toss of our civil protections into the trash bin out of self-indulgent, emotional reactions to that assault. Enormous sacrifice and great quantities of human pain will be required to retrieve them from the dumpster.

Bush moved, Obama seconded, motion passed. Rude, unforgiving dissent is now required.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

What's the Obama brand?

Obama’s starting position on the great budget debate sounds pretty okay from the text of his speech the other night, but what’s missing is any belly-fire to go with it. Like that displayed by Brian Schweitzer, the jovial governor from Montana [above] who publicly vetoed a bunch of silly laws sent to him by the Republican state legislature with a branding iron. It’s a stunt, but it shows that the guy believes in something, doesn’t suffer fools gladly and isn’t going to sit around ‘compromising’ about any old twaddle.

Obama, by contrast, is or pretends to be terminally incapable of calling something dumb and consigning it to the water closet where it belongs, including the issue of his own citizenship. His professiorial mien and icy reserve may reflect intellectual power, and that’s no small thing, especially considering our recent history and the current wave of celebratory idiocy. But we also need to feel that our leader is taking a real side rather than just assuming a negotiating posture, that he will stand up for something even if it goes down to defeat and won’t just hand over the store in pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of ‘unity’ and a deal.

Wisconsin has shown us how far the radical right means to take the nation if it gets its hands on the levers of power once more, and if the allegedly reasonable people that we chose to lead us in 2008 don’t match their seriousness with some similar gumption, all the sensible, dispassionate appeals to compromise and civility won’t mean diddly. These bullies are not in a compromising mood, and someone needs to stand up to them. At least the people of Wisconsin showed us how it’s done and didn’t wait for the rotting hulk of the Democratic Party apparatus to do it for them.

Obama’s opening position on reducing the deficit through a combination of taxing the rich, holding down medical costs and cutting outlays everywhere including the sacrosanct Pentagon is a worthy start and would be encouraging if he didn’t have such a miserable record in defending his better positions. (He quite adamant about his lousy ones, like keeping Guantánamo’s dungeons in operation.) But to get this package approved, he has to rally popular opinion, and to do that he can’t be a weakling. He’s not preparing a quiz for law students, and this is not a debating exercise. It’s leadership—let’s hope he gets better at it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

God is indeed occasionally great

Not all that often, but I suspect a few ‘Allahu Akbars’ rang out among Egyptians today upon hearing the news that Mubarak’s two oily sons, Gamal and Alaa, were under arrest at the prison where many powerless Egyptians had been tortured over three decades. Quite a comedown to be facing prosecutor questions about corruption and political violence in the world that they thought they owned when Daddy was pharaoh. Who knows if it will last, but it’s a great, uplifting moment for oppressed and abused people everywhere. Maybe the Mubaraks now wish they had permitted an independent judiciary to form and exercise the rule of law--now that they need it themselves.

Monday, 11 April 2011

This little PIGGY had a bad day in the markets

Portugal (P) has joined Ireland (I) and Greece (G) as the third country to seek a ‘bailout’ from the European Central Bank (ECB) after Lisbon’s erstwhile leaders admitted they could not refinance the country’s debt. Thus the ‘PIG’ at the European periphery is to be provided with lines of credit in hopes it will experience mere hunger rather than starvation and not drag down the whole EU farm.

Prosperous Germans, smug French and battered Britons all tut-tut in self-righteous fustian at the sight of this PIG feeding at their neat troughs. What is missing from the picture is that the German and French and English banks would be the ones to lose big euros were the three little PIGs to stop paying. Default, sovereign default no less, is the big bad wolf whose lungs the financial titans do not want to see exercised.

Therefore, the ECB has arranged hefty loan packages to these three nations to roll over their mountains of debt while everyone prays for betters days, especially for the Euro-PIG to remain a trio and not turn suddenly into a quartet with the addition of Spain (PIGS) or even Italy (PIIG). In exchange for this self-interested largesse, the working people of Ireland, Greece and Portugal are expected to abandon any thoughts of reducing unemployment, enjoying public benefits or having the state do much of anything ever again. Such sustained assaults on the domestic economies of these countries begs the question of how they are ever expected to grow fast enough to pay off all these debts, which are not being forgiven but merely kicked down the road. The short answer is that they are not really expected to do anything of the kind.

Of what does this remind us, those of us sporting a certain age? Why, it’s nothing but the Latin American Debt Crisis of the 1980s reappearing in the Old World, a sort of non-traditional export sent back to the mother countries along with the Chilean grapes, Argentine beef and Brazilian soybeans. Then too, countries borrowed excessively; external shocks ensued; national economies went down the crapper; and suits from the International Monetary Fund rode to the rescue bearing aloft the writ of Milton Friedman. The state sector was crippled, subsidies slashed, industries privatized; shock treatment was considered the only sure-fire cure, to pile the pain on the most vulnerable after the financial geniuses in charge had driven their countries into bankruptcy.

The Portuguese and the Irish today are being taught the same strict lesson by a similar convent of nasty monetarist nuns. But there is one big difference between the peoples crushed by the IMF in the 1980s and the Europeans expected to atone for the bankers’ sins today: dictatorship. Chile’s Pinochet, Argentina’s Videla and the Brazilian generals could crush opposition to these punishing policies with the threat of torture, disappearance and death, and they did. European political elites, by contrast, have fewer repressive tools to fall back upon, and plenty of Greeks and Portuguese are old enough to remember their own dictatorships and probably not at all keen on resuscitating them.

In the long run, it is hard to see how the downward debt spiral will end in anything but default just as occurred with the historic Argentine repudiation of its debt in the early 2000s. A lot of hand-wringing took place with cries of lamentation about how the apostate country would never bounce back from the heresy of stiffing international financiers, but then again they would say that, wouldn’t they? It turned out not to be true, and after a nasty year or so, Argentina recovered remarkably and has enjoyed healthy growth ever since.

The financial sector is so dominant in western capitalist societies today that no political leader would dare to impose these essential losses on them, so the inevitable solution is postponed and the situation allowed to worsen, as encapsulated in the marvelously telling phrase, ‘Extend and pretend’. This guarantees that the eventual impact will be much worse, but such are the unhappy results of whole nations handing over their butts to banks on a silver tray. We’ve just witnessed the same denouement here and no doubt will enjoy the same rewards sooner or later.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Class warfare

Speaking of the education ‘reform’ hustle [see below], my esteemed progenitors, both high school teachers, often scoffed when they were alive at the latest fads sweeping through the schoolroom and touted to be The Answer to the poor performance, sullen contempt and mental torpor rampant among the pupils in their charge. These periodic miracle cures were always cooked up by administrators and consultants and anointed by the district or state to be carried out by the beasts of burden in the classroom, no questions asked. Ha ha, they said, it’ll last one year and then be forgotten.

The latest education Kool-Aid being drunk nationwide, however, is more dangerous than the usual not-so-bright ideas tried out on puzzled youngsters. We’ve all heard the sudden consensus: schools are failing ‘our kids’; success or failure can be measured with test scores; the answer is charter schools led by charismatic innovators/entrepreneurs; old-fashioned public school teachers individually and collectively stand in the way of reasonable measures. And my personal favorite: we need to keep the ‘best’ teachers and get rid of the rest.

The best-known promoters of this line of thinking are our own Mayor Bloomberg; the witch of Washington, former schools superintendent Michelle Rhee; Bill Gates, his Foundation and several other philanthropies; and President Barack Obama via his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. Those last two names are the most lamentable because it gives what is essentially a right-wing program cover and confuses people who should be more wary about what’s on sale.

This fascinating account in Dissent outlines the vast influence the insanely rich Gates Foundation wields in this arena and demonstrates how easy it is for unelected billionaires to dictate policy in the name of ‘charity’. That is a most interesting digression, but for now we should take note of how Africans have chafed at being re-colonized through the overwhelming weight of ‘foreign aid’. We will soon know what they were talking about.

Diane Ravitch, who once bought the charter school solution and worked for Bush I to implement it, took apart the phony stats and ideological fervor behind the movement in a recent New York Review of Books article, which I recommend for anyone not already in the cult. Her conclusion is that overall they don’t work any better than public schools and their managers are not in fact channeling the ghost of John Dewey. I have no doubt the standardized testing craze will also collapse eventually under the weight of evidence of its shortcomings. But by that time, much damage will already have been done because teachers and the teaching profession will have been beaten into submission.

Historically, a teaching career was the path toward upward mobility, not just in the United States but pretty much everywhere, and it makes sense that it should be. A clever family member with academic aptitude often would head for a teachers college, usually the cheapest option, and patiently work toward a teaching certificate. In my rarely humble opinion, it is not an accident that this particular line of work is now under the gun from the combined forces of obscene wealth and organized, reactionary selfishness. A ruling elite in charge of an economy that relies on steadily stripping away our New Deal protections and that no longer generates opportunities for social mobility will benefit from turning the once respectable lower rung of the ladder into a booby prize.

Even better, the new stratified system within the teaching profession will fit smoothly with the neo-Reaganite competitive spirit encapsulated in the ‘Race to the Top’ philosophy. Youthful teachers fresh from college will be funneled into a horse race based on test scores, the cleverest will get juicy rewards and everyone else will sink back into the dung-heap where they are believed to belong. No unions will guarantee your pension or seniority rights, but the top scorers will get big rewards and probably graduate to a desk job after a few years anyway where they will wield the whip over low-test-score teachers in the manner of a Chinese sneaker factory manager. When the starting gun sounds, the race will be on for everyone, not just the tender pupils.

Not that things are marvelous in the public school realm by any means, and I don’t pretend to know what to do about it. But I do know that these technocratic models imported from the corporate world are doomed to failure. They run on imposed dicta from above, serial abuse of parents and teachers, and the usufruct of public goods for private gain.

In the long run, though, failure to achieve the supposed outcomes may be less important than clearing the path of any resistance from one of the last unionized workforces in the country.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Stumble en route to smashing teachers’ unions

The hilarious Cathie Black [above] is out as chancellor of the New York City school system, a job she could only have obtained in a society addicted to glitz as a substitute for content and run by billionaires like Mayor Bloomberg.

Black was a magazine editor who critics said had no clue about education or schools, and she proved them right in record time. According to a faintly devastating New York magazine profile, she worked her way up the Hearst food chain through a relentless focus on looking good in every sense and an ambition that could chew through metal plate. She was consistent in her exit interview, complaining to the New York Times today that the photos they used of her during her three-month tenure were unflattering.

Only a mayor in the grip of delusion could have thought that this high society babe, with kids in private schools and a summer home in the Hamptoms, was the right saleslady for his campaign to crush teachers and blot out opposition from pesky black and Latino parents who logically might also want the ‘best’ for their children’s education. Black was a p.r. disaster and an embarrassment, and according to the reports on her ouster, a lousy manager. She also moaned that learning about the mammoth city DOE was like a weekend course in speaking Russian, which prompts the question, Why did you take the job?

Her replacement, Dennis Walcott [behind Bloomie], immediately showed how the game is played by appearing for his first photo ops walking his cute grandson to school in Queens. But Walcott is a loyal Bloombergian and slipped in the code words about the ‘best teachers’ into his first mumblings. This is the wedge that is being aimed at teachers’ collective bargaining rights from sea to shining sea as displayed most dramatically in Wisconsin over the last few weeks.

Bloomberg’s ratings are in the toilet, and we can only hope that his weakness will cramp the nasty campaign to pin the city’s social ills on educators. But anyone expecting that other actors will be let into the dialogue about what to do with schools is dreaming.

Meanwhile, Michelle Rhee [right], the nasty piece of work and conservatives’ darling who tried to bulldoze her way Bloomberg-style through Washington, D.C.’s school system, was shocked, shocked, to find that some schools were falsifying test scores. After denouncing the messenger for this bad news, Rhee then backpedaled. Golly gee, who wudda thought someone whose livelihood depended entirely on their kids’ getting the answers right on a test would ever think to cheat?

Friday, 8 April 2011

The phony debate

There’s quite a lot of kabuki theatre in the great Government Shut-down Drama, but the playacting does show us the terms of the debate taking place above our heads: it’s now come down to whether women should get birth control or not, rather than whether filthy rich people should get more of our collective wealth shoveled at them.

One listens patiently for any rhetorical hint from the Harry Reids or the Dianne Feinsteins or Obama himself that the sorry state of federal finances stems directly from the bipartisan decision to liberate the comfortable from the annoyances of forced sharing via progressive taxation. Instead, Speaker Boner, browbeaten into submission by his own inflamed caucus, gets to appear as a noble conservative taking arms against the nefarious deficit rather than what he is—a loyal footsoldier in class warfare on the side of the obscenely well-off.

People are consistent, so I fully anticipate that the Democrats will find a way to throw Planned Parenthood under the bus and with it women’s access to contraception, poor women’s that is. (Middle-class women will find a way to buy it.) It may take a few funding cycles, but I see no reason for long-term optimism about the provision of reproductive health services with the federal dime.

How much easier the budgeting process would be (and this little dust-up is only the beginning) if we had a friendlier, less wacko Congress, if Obama had had the political acuity to limit last fall’s electoral massacre or at least to rally his one-time inspired troops to his side. But that would require having a side to rally to—Obama’s default position is to meet the enemy that hates his guts three-quarters of the way, then give up the farm and call it a deal.

Coincidentally, I have just received a letter, bumper sticker enclosed, from ‘Obama for America’ based in Chicago asking me to send cash to a certain re-election campaign because it ‘needs your voice’. Tee hee. This was the same voice Rahm Emanuel was so interested in responding to politely.

I wrote on the donation form ‘Stop torturing Bradley Manning’ and sent it back. I look forward to many more opportunities to engage in dialogue with the national Democratic Party apparatus.

I enclosed the bumper sticker.

Sunday, 3 April 2011


Baseball season has begun, and I devoutly wish that the New York Yankees lose as often as possible. This petition is a desire for vengeance in its purest form: I wish cosmic retaliation against the Yankees for their fleecing of the taxpayer in the construction of their shiny new $2 billion stadium in the Bronx. [Photo: Caleb Ferguson/New York Times]

Way back in 2005 cautious observers were sounding the alarms over the huge price tag this gaudy playground was going to cost even while Mayor Bloomberg was insisting it magically would pay for itself. Field of Schemes says we ponied up over a billion, and the non-partisan Tax Foundation criticized the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds for a private, profit-making activity. The ineffable Charlie Rangel was part of the lobbying effort that got the IRS to agree to this rip-off while coincidentally receiving big campaign contributions from the Yankee owners and lawyers.

So the stadium was built, and we will pay for it until the end of time. Meanwhile, the Yanks promised to replace the public park lands the stadium destroyed in the poorest borough of the city and the many baseball fields used by actual people (as opposed to the ambulatory corporations that wield bats on the professional diamonds). Guess what got delayed and is still not ready while the Yankees, the most valuable team in the majors, get ready to hit and score and win and jerk each other off in front of us for the next six months?

Friday, 1 April 2011

Qaddafy is beaten

I’ve been more interested in reading bits out of the flood of dramatic news and commentary on recent events rather than adding to it, especially because for once there are bipeds involved by whom even a profoundly cynical curmudgeon like me can be moved to inspiration bordering on awe. Our species does not frequently rise up as one to face down bullets and demand decency from its rulers, but when it does happen, you gotta show some respect.

Despite my underlying pessimism about our future on the planet, my default reaction to the blood-soaked daily chronicle of 2011 is one of cautious hopefulness. Even the very sad and terrible events taking place in Libya have, for me, a sanguine reading: I believe the western powers have decided that that regime cannot be redeemed and has to go, notwithstanding the many uncertainties about who or what will replace it. It may be done legally, or it may not, but Qaddafy, loose cannon of the desert, is going to eat sand.

The reason, I further believe, is Lockerbie. Despite the big show of kissing and making up with Qaddafy led by that prince of unctuousness, Tony Blair, no one has forgotten that somebody bombed a civilian airliner in the skies over Great Britain. If the intelligence agencies remain convinced that Qaddafy was involved (and were not just saying so to discredit him), his reaction to the popular uprising must have triggered a deep chill. Clearly a man vicious enough to give the order to fire live rounds into funeral crowds and to massacre his own officers who refused to participate in the slaughter was not joking when he threatened to disrupt commercial traffic in the Mediterranean. A Qaddafy wounded but still in power with restored oil billions at his disposal meant Europe would never be safe, and this state of affairs could not be tolerated.

In my view, the seesawing military fortunes on the ground in Libya are temporary inconveniences. In fact, it’s rather reassuring to see that the uprising against Qaddafy was so spontaneous and emotional that half the guys involved can’t find the business end of an assault rifle. But the struggle for control ultimately will not take place on the field of battle. Qaddafy’s regime will be throttled slowly, but I anticipate very effectively, by external forces, and yesterday’s flurry of ship-jumping by long-time collaborators like his foreign minister is a good sign that people on the inside can see that the game is up.

Critics of the creeping intervention are right, to a point, that the no-fly zone authorization is leading to mission creep, including direct aid to the rebel forces in all their ragtag glory. While the legality is certainly questionable, the broad consensus to be done with Qaddafy is quite real and marks an important difference from the criminal endeavors of the Bush years and the futile self-delusions of Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan. Mechanical denunciations of the Libyan intervention merely discredit much more substantive objections to the U.S. role in its other two current wars.

There will be plenty of time once the endgame arrives to worry about the nefarious and self-aggrandizing plans of western states, but meanwhile there is something to be said for liberating people from a murderous nutbag who threatens revenge on all of us. The precedents are worrisome, and the potential for abuse considerable. But this story just might have a happy ending.