Friday, 28 October 2011

Policing OWS [Updated]

The New York Police Department has been getting some bad PR lately, all of it richly deserved. Here’s a roundup:

[from the NY Times]: ‘Eight current and former New York police officers were arrested on Tuesday and charged in federal court with accepting thousands of dollars in cash to drive a caravan of firearms into the state’. The laddies in blue were also accusedof organized cigarette smuggling, and from the sound of the wiretap quotes, pretty much anything else they could rip off and resell. These free-lance capitalist stalwarts in uniform have ties to a notorious neighborhood in Brooklyn that, um, tends to have a low incidence of street crime, wink wink.

In another case, a former police officer recently testified in court that he and his colleagues planted drugs on innocent (black) men to meet their arrest quotas and—believe it nor not—earn overtime. (One can imagine the camaraderie in the canteen: ‘Hey, Tony, let’s go frame a few [deleted] and charge the extra hours so we can make our boat payments.’) Hundreds of drug cases were then thrown out as the evidence was, quite reasonably, judged to be tainted and unreliable. The false-arrest lawsuits are just beginning.

The entire issue of arrest quotas was roundly denied by NYPD higher-ups when it first surfaced; then the Village Voice published a four-part series based on secret tape recordings of precinct meetings in which cops were ordered to meet their (non-existent) quotas. Oops!

Then there’s sexual assault, which is getting a lot of media attention here due to the serial gropers and rapists preying on women. Turns out one of them might be a cop—an active-duty officer got caught exactly one block from my Inwood apartment building using his service weapon to threaten and rape a schoolteacher, and detectives are trying to decide whether he was responsible for other assaults around town.

There’s more! Indictments were just handed down today in a gigantic ticket-fixing case in the Bronx where cops routinely made sure that friends and relatives never had to pay like other poor slobs without family connections to corrupt bureaucrats and their enforcers. Anyone who has to face the permanent agony of parking in this city will be dancing a jig in glee at the sudden appearance of Lady Justice.

Ironically, the big gun-running bust may have originated from a ticket-fixing investigation when the anti-corruption squad started listening in on cops to see who was involved and got an earful of their other activities. But the connection is less accidental than it may seem at first glance, and the discovery hardly serendipitous.

When the ticket-fixing scandal broke a while back, a disturbing number of commentators tended to brush it off as no big deal, Aw well, just a guy doing someone a favor. Patrick Lynch, the loathsome head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (who cheered the death of unarmed Sean Bell in a hail of police bullets—50 of them, to be exact—a few years ago) immediately criticized the investigation and insisted that ‘this thing’ should and could have been handled differently, i.e., in secret and with kid gloves, the way the cops are used to being treated.

But allowing cops to fiddle with parking tickets is extremely dangerous, and the city should be applauded for not tolerating it—finally. If the police force is allowed to evolve into a Mameluke-type caste of professional muscle beholden only to itself, it’s only a matter of time until a few rogue elements decide to take the next logical step and become a criminal syndicate. Why not? Who’s going to stop you if you’re the one who decides who gets arrested?

Only the naïve will believe that the ambitious gun-smuggling cop gang is the sole dubious operation inside the NYPD, despite all the stern finger-wagging from top officials. Aside from the overtly criminal scams, there is a much larger secret-handshake pact in force in the city, one that includes the real criminal masterminds: the thieves on Wall Street and the fancy cast of socialites who thrive on their loot.

OWS has astutely understood, in its amorphous, non-hierarchical way, that the NYPD’s constant stop-and-frisk practices are part and parcel of this control system. New York cops stopped 700,000 people last year, almost all of them black or Hispanic males. Willie Hazzard [right] has been harassed in this way 17 times while walking down the street, often with his two children. His Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn has recorded 14,000 cop stops—equivalent to one per resident. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there’s no arrest. The department insists there’s no racial profiling involved, an assertion some children under age 4 are thought to believe.

All this comes from the famous “Broken Window” crime-prevention theory associated with the Giuliani era, but the result is huge numbers of black and Latino kids busted for pot even though white youths smoke it more. Those arrested are then saddled with a criminal record for the rest of their lives, just the thing to keep them out of the ever-shrinking labor pool. Since we already have the largest prison population per capita in the developed world, the real unemployment rates are really much higher to start with.

Wall Street benefits from the huge pool, created by its system of organized looting, of nobodies deprived of a decent living, and the city’s cops cooperate by harassing minority youth squeezed into the economic margins with no prospects. So let us not be surprised as the city power structure finds new ways to besiege and repress OWS at the bidding of its banker friends. Today’s announcement that the fire department will inspect the encampment’s generators is a good example: pointless attention to formal rules in the service of the guys who wipe their asses with the law each morning before breakfast.

[Update]: I see that Lynch led a group of several hundred NYPD officers to the arraignment of the ticket-fixing colleagues and insisted that they should be let off because ‘taking care of your family’ and of people who ‘support police’ was NOT A CRIME.

So here are a few questions for Mr Lynch:

If it is okay to alter official police department documents to protect family members from parking violations, would it also be proper to do the same to protect them from, say, a breaking-and-entering charge? A rape charge? A hit-and-run charge?
If not, what are the criteria to determine the difference between what is NOT A CRIME (despite being listed as one in our statutes) and what should, in fact, be considered an actual crime?

Who should make that decision? You? Any NYPD officer? The precinct captain? Charlie Rose?

Those citizens of New York who are not related to police officials do not have their instant get-out-of-jail-free card available. You did mention similar benefits for those who ‘support police’? How does one go about obtaining that designation? Is there a membership card? How much are the dues? To whom should they be paid? Can I use a credit card, or do you prefer cash?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Vote with your feet

The disconnect between the electoral spectacle that embodies our formal democracy and life back on earth is becoming more stark by the day. Tunisia has shown us an excellent example of how to run a workable parliamentary system by shortening the campaign season to a few weeks, rather than than the 18 months of relentless abuse we are now subjected to, every bit as exasperating as subway harangues from wheedling beggars and screeching religious nutbags. (Tunisian turnout was an impressive 90 percent.)

But the most annoying part of the Chinese water torture known as election year hasn’t yet begun: the nonstop whining we are about to experience from appendages of the Democratic Party telling us what we ‘must’ do to stave off the greater GOP evil by dutifully lining up with the current team. One of the recurrent themes we will be hearing is that of the crucial importance of controlling nominations to the Supreme Court, which will fall to the K Street lobbyists if Obama does not return.

It’s true Obama’s nominations have been a rare bright spot, and Sotomayor and Kagan are holding the line admirably though without much effect so far. And therein lies the nub: the Supreme Court, being a political institution, is influenced by the currents and overall zeitgeist of the society in which it resides. To date, the radical ideologues put there by the Repubs have had clear sailing to do their will because opposition to their designs on our democracy are so toothless—starting with the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania.

FDR had a notoriously recalcitrant Supreme Court that kaboshed his New Deal innovations one after another. But he had the winds behind him, and eventually (despite or perhaps because of the dust-up over his 1937 court packing scheme) the Court buckled and stopped standing in the way of his reforms.

By contrast, the New York Times Magazine noted in August that Obama hasn’t even bothered to push his appointments to the federal bench, from which Supreme Court appointments usually emerge. Bush placed 13 of his guys on federal appellate courts during his two terms; Obama so far—zero. In fact, Obama has failed to insist on 80 vacancies to federal district and appeals courts, choosing instead to shy away from confirmation fights. Instead of fighting, he waits for his sworn enemies to make nice, and meanwhile we get awful decisions like Citizens United (that made corporations into persons with First Amendment bribery, er, advertising rights legal).

Occupy Wall Street is much more likely to influence the shape of future judicial decision-making than this or that Demo pol boosted into office with obscene sums of Wall Street and K Street cash. We can stand around debating whether people must vote for these jamokes or refuse to do so, and there will be consequences either way. But the actions we need today are not in the polling booth; they’re in the parks, the meeting halls and yes, the police precincts.

P.S. Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism demolishes the latest Obama mortgage relief scheme. She calls the plan ‘yet more proof that this Administration is not about to inconvenience banks to help homeowners and communities. It has tools in its power that would change the incentives for banks and make them far more willing to do what the overwhelming majority of mortgage investors would prefer, which is to provide deep principal mods for viable borrowers, [force] banks to write down seconds, and tak[e] an aggressive stance on foreclosure fraud. . . . But just as the banks and their captured governments in Europe seem intent on grinding down entire economies to extract their pound of flesh, so are banks in the U.S. continuing to operate a doomsday machine that grinds up housing with no regard for the economic and social costs’.

Does anyone seriously think the pushback on this ongoing scandal will come from Washington, rather than the streets?

Friday, 21 October 2011

Some perspective is in order

It’s too bad Khaddafy wasn’t captured alive and put on trial, both to educate Libyans and the entire world about exactly what took place under his rule as well as to start off the new regime with a display of respect for human rights as a universal norm and value. However, that’s probably asking a lot of people who have been terrorized for four decades and barely have a functioning military hierarchy among the rebel forces. So it’s a pity, but hardly surprising. And incidentally, it’s their revolution. Maybe they decided to follow the Obama example: when you find your enemy, you blast his effing head off (in the absence of a handy drone missile).

Nonetheless, it’s legitimate to express dismay at the execution-style killing of the dictator. Less acceptable is the constant undercurrent of doubt, pessimism and sniping at how the Libyans have handled their uprising from the start. Today’s Guardian wasted no time with this headline mere hours after the assassination: ‘Libya’s revolution has triumphed, but will democracy?’ A fair question, one that was never asked of, say, Czechoslovakia or Russia in the early 1990s. I wish I had assembled the more glaring examples in recent months, but a media historian ought to. They give off a faint whiff of racism from the Wise Ones of western punditry who apparently cannot fathom that an oppressed people not led by somebody who looks like them can pull off a revolution and then successfully and adequately organize their society for the well-being of its inhabitants. And just wait, we will soon hear about the skeery, dangerous Islamic politicians who may get a foothold now—not that anyone worried much about how the overthrow of communism empowered reactionary Polish Catholics or Hungarians nostalgic for Admiral Horthy.

Finally, why is it so hard to accept that NATO played a positive role in the outcome? The world is not comprised of the innocent and the evil locked in eternal combat, but of highly problematic bipeds whose motives are rarely free of ambiguity. NATO and Obama could have let Khaddafy’s tanks roll into Benghazi and his minions massacre tens of thousands, Bashir Assad-style. In that case certain knee-jerk elements would be accusing the U.S. of complicity in genocide and denouncing BP’s oil deals. You can never please some people. There are now 100 million Arabs living in three revolutionary regimes across North Africa. This is a good thing.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Against bipartisan looting

I can’t imagine who exactly watches things like the Republican presidential debate that seeped onto television last night from Las Vegas, but it’s curious that while that bizarre celebration of adolescent arrested development was happening, the Occupy Wall Street folks were hooting and catcalling—at a Democratic governor.

Naomi Wolf’s arrest outside snatched the headlines away from Andrew Cuomo’s award ceremony—sponsored by the Huffington Post, no less—and shifted the focus to the New York governor’s refusal to extend the extra income tax on millionaires that the state desperately needs. Cuomo ranks as a pretty good governor in the sorry crop of 50, but Huffpost badly misread the zeitgeist to focus on his admirable role in legalizing same-sex marriage and miss the fact that he’s asking for sacrifices from everyone but the 1%.

The state of New York is in trouble financially, surprise, surprise. State workers are being pressured for concessions with the sword of 3,500 job cuts hanging over their heads if they refuse. State university tuition is getting bumped up every year and will cross the $5000-mark soon. And on and on—nearly every state in the country is frantically looking for revenue, but the one with the largest crop of filthy rich, led by a ‘liberal’ Democrat, refuses not to impose a new tax but merely to extend an existing one.

Not only that but Cuomo had the bad taste to compare his stance with dad Mario’s Catholic-based opposition to the death penalty because in both cases polls showed people disagreed with the governor’s position.

So pandering to millionaires is now a point of quasi-religious dogma? Please, don’t answer that because I fear the reply. But it does tell us how far the remote and clueless Democratic establishment is from co-opting the OWS movement. Obama, Cuomo & gang seem to think OWS is a mere Democratic parallel to the Tea Party movement that helped Republicans in 2010, a wave they can ride in a similar fashion. The only parallel here is the universe they’re living in.

That ‘new person smell’ indeed.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Would you rather be murdered with a shovel or thrown off a tall building?

Two events occurred in the U.S. Congress this week that together speak volumes about the continued bankruptcy of our entire political class and also demonstrate, incidentally, that our deservedly maligned national legislature is not dysfunctional at all when it comes to producing yet more favors for the 1%.

First, Obama won passage of his trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that will provide new profit opportunities for the few and additional job losses for the many. These treaties are mistakenly called ‘free trade’ pacts in an act of ideological branding that further serves the ruling business elite when in fact they actually increase trade barriers in the form of patent and copyright protections for U.S. pharmaceutical other companies. They are also called ‘pacts’ rather than ‘treaties’, which is what they are for all intents and purposes. But treaties require a 2/3 vote of Congress, and our leading pols, as always when facing a problematic legal speed bump preventing juicy new benefits for the rich, promptly dismantled it.

The NY Times carried a minor story, read by few and ignored by all who matter, about the next round of job losses that this ‘free-trade’ pact will generate, this time among the tiny remnant of textile workers still producing specialty fabrics in a South Carolina factory. As anyone knows who wears clothes today, textile work long ago shifted to the sweatshops of China, Vietnam and Honduras thanks to many other ‘free-trade’ pacts that brought us cheap T-shirts and mass-produced ‘designer’ goods.

There is a particular irony in this development for me as I recall, as a reporter covering Capitol Hill in the early 1980s, an angry exchange in a Senate committee hearing between the old liberal warhorse from Ohio, Howard Metzenbaum, and an arrogant neo-Dixiecrat named Fritz Hollings of South Carolina. The two seemed to dislike each other heartily, and Hollings was ragging Metz by bragging about how his state had ‘pulled all those textile factories from up north’ down to his, not mentioning that the lack of labor unions was a principal motive. Metzenbaum sputtered and turned red in the face, but he was helpless in the face of the economic forces turning his (and my) home state into the Rust Belt. Industry had free rein to play off the states against one another and extort the best, tax-freest deal to be had, and so it went—the factories left the industrial north and headed to the Reaganite South and West.

But alas for Fritz Hollings and his happy non-union Carolinian workforce, that wasn’t good enough. If South Carolina workers were docile and cheap, wouldn’t a billion Communist Chinese be even cheaper, and needless to say, yet more docile by far? ‘Free-trade’ pacts globalized the whole process and returned the impoverished Palmettos to their previous de-industrialized state.

But I digress. Meanwhile, also in the U.S. Congress the Obama ‘Jobs Bill’ went down to ignominious defeat as could have been predicted by anyone paying attention. The silver lining is that Obama’s nefarious plan to undermine Social Security by removing its tax base is also postponed—though no doubt it will be back soon as part of the next legislative consensus between the two parties determined to impoverish us all.

With the two parties in joyful cahoots in this way, the 99% are left to own our, party-free devices. Today, the Occupy Wall Street movement adjourns to Times Square, and it will be interesting to watch the reactions of the assembled Nebraskans and other puzzled visitors at the idea of resistance to corporate looting.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Victory in Zucotti Park

Bloomberg tried and failed to sweep the popular protest against Wall Street out of Lower Manhattan this morning. When I arrived around 6.30 a.m., the crowd was just announcing (using their clever human-relay communications system) that the maintenance company would postpone their request to police to clear the Occupy Wall Street site for ‘cleaning’ after all. The sudden need for a clean park precisely at Zucotti was probably a ploy to clear the area and then ring-fence it to put an end to the permanent Tahrir Square-style occupation. The park is very ably maintained now by the protest movement and is tidier than most despite its air of a homeless encampment.

The city’s back-down was another example of people-power. Had there not been hundreds of supportive bystanders and a huge media presence, the occupiers might have been successfully bullied. As it was, the heavy-handed police tactics of the early days merely backfired, and there was a good chance any muscle applied to enforce ‘maintenance’ would have, too. As the police bosses constantly tell those of us uncomfortable with the ubiquitous surveillance cameras snooping at our lives, If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Now that everyone carries a videocamera in his pocket, that applies to the cops, too

Thursday, 13 October 2011

War-making as farce

Okay, so if this Iranian plot to blow up a Washington restaurant ‘reads like the pages of a Hollywood script,’ as stated by FBI Director Robert Mueller, under the walk-like-a-duck-sound-like-a-duck principle, it in fact is from the pages of a Hollywood script. Except that in Hollywood they sometimes write more believable screenplays.

Turns out that the main suspect, Mansour Arbabsiar, may have suffered brain damage in a near-fatal knife attack, was ‘comically absent-minded’ and generally incompetent in all his personal and commercial endeavors. This Washington Post background article quotes locals in Corpus Christi describing him as ‘goofy’, notes that he had a recent narcotics arrest and was nicknamed ‘Jack’ because he liked Jack Daniels bourbon a lot. He had failed at the restaurant business, a finance company and used car sales, and his second wife recently dumped him.

In short, Arbabsiar is a complete screw-up, and the idea that a sophisticated intelligence agency planning an audacious assassination in the middle of Washington, DC, would hire this bozo is side-splittingly unbelievable.

The guy who helped Arbabsiar cook up the plot is described as a Mexican drug dealer who was let off in exchange for cooperation. Well, he brought them the goods, so now he’s probably free to go rejoin the Zetas and hang journalists from highway overpasses with their guts hanging out. Nice partners Obama has teamed up with for this operation.

Obama and Hillary C obviously needed something to goose their campaign against Iran a little, but they should be ashamed of themselves for settling on this pathetic charade, which is already falling apart. With a few more details of this farce, the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment is going to become a laughing-stock.

But even more disturbing is the possibility that credibility is not a high priority for the Obama pranksters. They may simply be trying to whip up nationalistic spirit to boost their unsuccessful campaign to get the Iranians into doing their bidding. Careful, though: irrational fervor can quickly slip out of control of the happy demagogue who launches it. Obama wouldn’t be the first head of state to get himself boxed into a war he didn’t mean to launch but found himself powerless to stop.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

A most timely conspiracy

Here’s an excellent reason not to believe everything we’re being told about the Great Iranian Plot to Blow Up Washington:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration plans to leverage charges that Iran plotted to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States into a new global campaign to isolate the Islamic republic.

The fit is too neat. Maybe there was such a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador and slaughter a few random diners, and maybe somebody from Iran was involved. But, I’m sorry, the government that brought us the weapons-of-mass-destruction-that-never-were and caused a horrific war with that package of lies shoulders a very, very heavy burden of proof. We don’t believe what they say just because they say it.

Early commentators point out the gross amateurishness of the affair, starting with the use of an alert-triggering $100,000 bank transfer when spy agencies know to use cash instead. There will be more details today, and they should be interesting. But let us also note that the U.S. security services are now heavily engaged, as a matter of policy, in targeting supposed national enemies and generating plots to ensnare them.

A fascinating piece in a recent New York magazine [searching for link, stay tuned] outlined how it’s done: you infiltrate a mosque or a social club of the target ethnicity, talk about how much you hate U.S. policy in Israel or Afghanistan and then encourage whomever takes the bait to start planning a terrorist attack. Once you have a taker, you nurse the plot along, provide arms or money, record and videotape everything, and then bust the sap. The article cites law enforcement sources arguing that this procedure is necessary to pro-actively prevent terrorism even though the plots might never have come to fruition without the role of the security agency charged with frustrating them.

The wisdom and prudence of this policy is open to debate, but it seems entirely relevant when plots appear such as the Iranian Restaurant Caper that seamlessly dovetail with the long-term aims of U.S. foreign policy, especially with presidential election season approaching. Just two weeks ago we learned that the Obama Administration had provided Israel with several dozen 5,000-pound ‘bunker buster’ bombs that could be used to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. The transfer occurred in 2009, but the leak is recent—could we be seeing the beginning of a propaganda campaign to justify a new act of war? If so, the assassination plot is a godsend—or perhaps Zeus is a CIA asset.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Globalized oligopoly and its discontents

I stopped by Occupy Wall Street for a brief second look this evening and enjoyed the scene greatly. I would place a bet that there are more political and philosophical discussions taking place per square yard in Zucotti Park than in most Princeton seminar rooms. A few people are mugging for the cameras, but the fact that there are cameras recording the scene in the first place reflects the resilience of the occupation and the inability of city poo-bahs first, to ignore it, then to uproot it with heavy-handed police tactics. These kids are voicing the vast indignation of most of our society, the decent portion anyway, and despite Mayor Bloomberg’s annoyance, they’re going to continue to denounce his plutocrat friends for a good while. I’m just sorry I missed the march [above] past the grotesquely opulent East Side apartments of Messrs Dimon, Koch and Murdoch this afternoon where the monopolists and money-changers gather to congratulate each other after a long day at the office looting our productive economy.

On the way back, I chanced to read through an old copy of a Chilean weekly magazine (The Clinic) that reached me months late, and I was struck by the similarities between our version of bitter frustration and theirs, our shared sense of exclusion from what are ostensibly democracies. Editor Patricio Fernández, writing in April, commented on the country’s popular movements and the dissatisfaction they reflect 20 years after the departure of Pinochet from power. Specifically, Fernández described a nasty police overreaction to demonstrations against a highly unpopular hydroelectric plant recently imposed on the country that will ruin vast tracts of pristine forests in the far south. But his comments go deeper, to the malaise of a society that is producing economic growth and even creating plenty of miserable jobs (we should be so lucky), but remains in the hands of a select few:

‘There is a vacuum of leadership. Whole generations have detached themselves from public debates. Interpersonal networks have replaced political parties, unions, parishes, student associations. All the most successful mass actions arise out of nowhere, headless. The Transitional Government [read here, by way of parallel, Obama] has accepted, taken on and legitimized the exaggerated glorification of the market, economic growth as the supreme value, individual initiative as unquestionable, the State ashamed of itself’.

One article after another paints a vision of a society encrusted with obscure and corrupted power centers unresponsive to popular wishes, a ruling elite dating back centuries that continues to monopolize position, influence, status and, of course, wealth. This issue of The Clinic came out just before the student-led uprising that continues to paralyze Chile over demands to end Pinochet’s legacy of privatized education—which our friends Bloomberg, Obama, Gates and of course the entire right wing want to imitate here. That movement, 30 years in the making, was an explosion; a good part of the school year has been wrecked by strikes, and the sitting conservative government’s approval ratings are in the toilet.

Ill fares the land, as Tony Judt would and in fact did say: people are deeply disturbed, uneasy, outraged, fed up, in many cases desperate. I would add on the positive side, healthily skeptical, demanding answers and willing to hear new ideas. And sick to death of the chattering classes and their patronizing, dismissive bullshit. (Anything that gets David Brooks’ hair on fire is hitting its target.) Zucotti Park is the mere seed of a rebellion, but it has promise. I’ll be watching closely to see whether the attempts by the Democratic Party establishment to herd its energies into the 2012 elections enjoy any success—if they do not, we’re on our way.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The real danger from Mexico

It’s hard to keep up with the myriad ways in which our leadership is determined to help us shoot off our feet, but one of the most disturbing and potentially dangerous ones is the complete insanity dominating current immigration policy. In fact, ‘policy’ is an overly generous choice of words—what we have is vengeful Mexican-bashing parading as a novel idea.

The topic is close to my heart as I myself was an immigrant for over 20 years and understand something of the difficulties of adjusting to a foreign culture even when one has access to all the legal niceties and can earn more money than the average local resident, as was my case. First, let’s dispatch the b.s. about the lawfulness or lack of same that colors this whole discussion, e.g., the placards held by red-faced nativists at anti-Mexican rallies with phrases like, ‘What are part of illegal don’t you understand?’

What could be more reasonable than asking people to conform to the laws? Well, nothing much if it weren’t so glaringly selective. This complaint would hold a tad more weight if there were any comparable interest among these red-faced nativists in adherence to the rule of the rest of the laws in our increasingly arbitrary society. Instead, the masses, led by the celebrated gumballs in Don’t Tread on Me costumes, have distinguished themselves by virtually begging the state to abuse its powers and ignore legality. We permit it to snoop into every corner of our lives, read our library records, attach tracking devices to our cars, build databases on dissidents, encourage members of suspect groups to commit crimes so that they can be targeted, and generally conspire against anyone who dares to make trouble—all in the sacred name of Keeping Us Safe. (Not to mention, of course, torturing detainees.) When the hispano-baiters start objecting to the dismantling of the First, Fourth and Eighth Amendments, I’ll be interested in their opinions about immigration law.
Which is not to say that our borders should be thrown open willy-nilly or that laws governing who should come live here should not exist. Sensible management of immigrant flows is required and advisable—exactly what will not be occurring. Instead, we have punishment of the most vulnerable as in the latest ignoble act by the state of Alabama in denying schooling to Mexican children whose papers are not in order. No longer able to condemn black kids to permanent illiteracy, the noble fathers of Dixie can now exercise their eclipsed white supremacy with brown ones. This sign shown at the top of this post says it all. When Alabama needed cheap construction and chicken-farm workers, the holy statutes meant nothing; now that they’re expendable, the message is: We will make your lives hell.

While the local demagogues drive Hispanic residents further into the economic and social underground, no one seems to be paying much attention to the rise on our extensive southern border of a terrifying class of professional death-worshipers whose activities will soon spill over into the 50 states and no doubt already have. The activities and twisted beliefs of Mexican drug gangs are surely among the most frightening phenomena of our age. They play by no known rules and seem to delight in cruelty as a pastime. What can we say about an outfit that rolls the heads of its victims up to the front doors of elementary schools?

When I worked in the southern states for a Hispanic organization, I had the opportunity to speak to police officials and even a chief or two about the pressures on them to combine police work with the pursuit of immigration violators by doing things like demanding residency papers on traffic stops. These cops generally hated it, and the more astute ones openly opposed the mixing of duties because it converted them into the immigrant communities’ enemy.

A democratic society requires a sympathetic populace ready to lend a hand, cooperate and provide useful information—which raises the question of how much we are committed to maintaining one. Just wait until the drug gangs dig in deeply enough to be obvious, and the alarmed residents desperately want their local precincts to gather solid intelligence on their activities. Who among the badgered and terrified Mexicans, many of whose children are U.S. citizens, will volunteer for that?

Friday, 7 October 2011

I may cry

I feel terrible that the Yankees were ousted from the playoffs. No more games at the cool ‘home-run-friendly’ stadium we built for the richest sports franchise in the world with our helpful tax concessions. No more standing at attention in the 7th inning to salute the ‘brave men and women fighting for freedom in Iraq’. No more fawning news about ballplayers who could pay off the national debt. I am lost, heartbroken.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

"Sold out"

I hurried down to Occupy Wall Street after work today to observe and eventually join the march. It was organized and the permit granted rather quickly. I suspect that after the PR debacle of the heavy-handed police tactics at the Brooklyn Bridge march, the city poobahs decided on prudence. The tough stuff backfired in any case, and the new crowd was huge.

I was inspired by the crowd, which is far from automatic for a jaded old-timer like the undersigned. My Ohio friend and I stood along lower Broadway just south of City Hall Park and watched the steady stream of people file down to the encampment past a fairly relaxed phalanx of cops standing by their metal grates. What struck me the most was the large number of hand-lettered signs hurriedly drawn onto bits of cardboard. It said to me that this is an authentically spontaneous movement fueled by exasperation and outrage. Here are a few of the slogans:

“Lost My Job, Found an Occupation”
“Rutgers Faculty against Kleptocracy”
“Enough Greed”
“Class Warfare? You Betcha!”
“Danger: High Crimes Area”
“I’ll Believe Corporations Are People When Georgia Executes One”
“Money Talks Way Too Much”
“Democracy Not Plutocracy”
“I Never Met a Person Whose Name Ends in Inc.”
“Stop Rewarding Failure: Golden Showers Not Golden Parachutes”

There was a big labor presence and the usual left-wing sects, but mostly a lot of independents of all ages. The crowd wasn’t huge—one could actually circulate fairly easily, which meant no 50 thousand, but it was ten times bigger than the last one, and it took a good hour for the entire march to leave the staging area. Many signs sported the figure 99% meaning those getting the shaft to enrich the other 1%. The most popular chant was, ‘Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!’

I take that as a bad sign for both parties responsible for the current mess but particularly for Obama and his Democrats. This crowd’s ire at the filthy rich is quite bipartisan, and the widespread idea of a sellout implies that a deal was struck somewhere and later betrayed. That would be the election of 2008 even if no one said it openly. Nobody cares.

What a disconnect between the non-stop, breathless pud-stroking on our TV channels over the presidential horse race and the underlying indifference to the whole show among the people on the streets today. Whatever these folks may have in mind by way of a solution to the nation’s ills, it most certainly doesn’t have much to do with rearranging the backsides of whoever is occupying large chairs in Washington office buildings. That alone makes it encouraging.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Glug, glug. . . [updated]

When a bank’s stock drops by 10 percent in a single day, something is up. And this isn’t just Smoky Corners Savings & Loan, we’re talking the big guys, Bank of America, Citi, some Europeans, and so on. As some astute observers (whose views never seem to make it into the mainstream) have been saying for months, we are galloping toward a new banking crisis.

Wall Streeters have decided that they hate Obama’s guts, which is pretty ironic given that he saved them from being hung from lampposts by theirs in 2008 and may soon have to do so again. O has been the big banksters best friend since the day he took office—now he gets another chance to prove he’s got their back as the bloated vacuum cleaners of national wealth totter and again threaten collapse.

If BofA or some other ill-managed wreck does go belly up, Obama will have yet another opportunity to force the management out, tell stockholders they get bupkis (hey, that’s capitalism, you made a bad investment) and reorganize the whole sorry mess with the inevitable infusion of government, i.e. our, cash. But of course he won’t.

Far more likely, far more sad, and far more dangerous is this scenario: the Geithner-led Treasury will insist on throwing new trillions at these zombies while browbeating everyone that the economy will sink otherwise, and befuddled Democrats will go along with it while kissing their re-elections good-bye. Worse yet, the wacko brigade in Congress could easily block any action at all and fulfill their dreams of apocalypse, at which point Jesus of Nazareth will surely ride in on a fiery chariot to inaugurate the Last Days. Can’t wait.

[Update}: Watching the careening stock markets these days is such a vertigo-producing experience one should only attempt it after dosing with dramamine. A comment from some Important Person gooses the equities up; reality in the form of statistics on economic performance jerks them back down again as the Europeans try to keep their 17-nation currency zone afloat.

Some commentators are drawing a parallel between Europe’s tribulations today and those of the 13 newly independent American colonies when Alexander Hamilton struggled mightily to insist that the nascent republic had to absorb all revolutionary war debts, no matter who had issued them. Hamilton won and thus established the ‘full faith and credit’ concept by which the new U.S.A. stood behind these outstanding borrowings. However, Nouriel Roubini (‘Dr Doom’)—who turns out to be quite a wag—said that would work if Europe ‘were a country rather than a cacophony’. Har har, good one. Every time a message emerges from one end of that continent, someone contradicts it from the other end.

One important element of the current uncertainty is, well, the uncertainty. Banks on both sides of the Atlantic are getting slammed in part because no one has a good idea what is really on their books. This is one of the many ways by which the super-rich have managed to bite themselves in the ass—these mega-banks fought and whined and kicked and screamed so successfully against having to reveal their true net worth (shedding the ‘mark-to-market’ accounting of assets after the 2008 meltdown and winning permission from Obama/Geithner to get by on bluff) that now no one believes anything they say. Citibank, BofA, Morgan Stanley and no doubt others we haven’t heard of it are tanking badly, and they have no one to blame but themselves as investors dump their shares for safer havens.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

“Bad Bishop Brown” and the missing ideas

What could have softened the globalized blows to my sad old home village, the once thriving city of Galion, Ohio? [see post of 9/27 below, ‘Requiem for a Town’]. It has a charming physical landscape of gentle hills surrounded by solid-gold, Corn Belt farm lands, and it once was home to well-educated, industrious and civic-minded inhabitants, many of German Catholic or Calvinist origins, entirely disposed to remain there. But it was sent to the economic slaughterhouse by its own business elite, who built it up when times were good and shook its dust off their Gucci boots when it was time to jettison the place and seek profit elsewhere.

The local unions did grumble in the early stages of this dismantling, but there was no cultural or ideological foundation for unionism or social democratic/socialist politics upon which to construct real resistance. The Cold War was still in full force, and anything vaguely leftish was dangerously taboo—even everyday liberals were whispered about as suspect ‘pinkos’ during our ‘50s childhoods. The lasting symbol of this heretical radicalism was the abandoned downtown mansion of ‘Bad Bishop Brown’, the late Episcopal bishop who was drummed out the church and defrocked as a communist—which he was. In 1925 Brown had the distinction of being the first churchman tried for heresy since the Reformation, which he promptly turned into a book entitled, naturally, ‘My Heresy’.

We went to school next to this rambling, brick structure with an enclosed walkway to the old carriage house where a faint, eerie light always burned. For us kids the place was obviously haunted, and the idea that the last resident was a creepy old commie red meant that for sure he would snatch us from beyond the grave and do horrible things to us if we dared to get too close. I don’t remember anyone even making the suggestion that we try to get inside and roam the abandoned rooms. Our teachers said that since he had left his estate to the CP, the place was tied up in court, and so matters stood for decades.

Galion managed to acquire the Brown mansion, and the local historical society now runs a lovely museum there with fascinating material. Brown turns out to have been quite a character. He was such a charismatic preacher that the Episcopal hierarchy, impressed with the new converts he drew, made him a bishop and then sent him to Arkansas in 1899 for seven years—more on that later. But Brown had had a difficult and abusive childhood and cared about the downtrodden as his Christian faith instructed. He immediately sympathized with the Russian Revolution when it occurred, which of course meant trouble.

We had a tour of the place during the weekend of our class reunion, and the town seems to have made its peace with BBB’s ruby-red past, no doubt made easier by the demise of the Soviets he championed. The young lady curators can speak of ‘the Bishop’ respectfully and remind visitors, while viewing the hammer and sickle engraved on the floor tiles, that he handed out meal vouchers to hobos during the depression and was friends with Helen Keller and Eugene V. Debs. We even learned that our famed and acclaimed drama coach, the late Miriam Sayre, had read to the Bishop as a young girl when his eyesight failed, and we saw the study where this occurred, festooned with portraits of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Since Brown paid for Miss Sayre’s education at Ohio State, we also were beneficiaries of his largesse without knowing it.

Aside from the curiosities [such as the priceless item at right that the bishop authored], however, the museum exhibition doesn’t really answer the question of what turned a small-town Christian pastor into a sophisticated champion of socialist thought? I don’t know enough of the story, but I suspect the break occurred during his sojourn in the Jim Crow South as bishop of Arkansas. Eventually, he was politely invited to leave the state as his thinking did not square with that of the locals, and we can imagine that the experience of official racism lovingly embraced by his Christian institution must have rattled his cage profoundly. Brown wrote a pamphlet on ‘The crucial race question’ dated 1907, just after his return.

From there it might well have been a fairly easy leap to question the entire structure upon which his life previously had been built. Continuous reading, as evidenced by his book-lined studies, must have introduced him to the ferment of iconoclastic ideas circulating in the early decades of the century, and then the Bolshevik upheaval put the icing on the cake. It’s easy to see the folly of enthusiasm for old Joe Stalin from our post hoc perspective, but a strong-willed intellect seeking to understand his world—and change it—could have found a lot of answers in the radical currents of the times.

I linger on this history in part because I relived it in my own way, five decades later. We were hatched in the overheated crucible of the Cold War and believed what we were told, embraced the dazzling history delivered to us about America’s glorious triumph over Naziism and the ongoing battle against the next evil foe. Then came the disturbing challenges to segregation, the scenes of brutality from Birmingham and Hattiesburg, and finally the carnage of Vietnam, in which we were expected to participate ourselves. Suddenly, the narrative did not hang together quite so seamlessly.

In the reactive search for a more convincing explanation of this disorienting new information about our world, I too careened into naïve and overly simplistic visions. Much of it has left me healthily skeptical, but I also thank my lucky stars and my innate caution that I did not swallow whole any of the more extreme versions circulating in the wild and woolly ‘60s and ‘70s. Eventually, journalism gave me the discipline to look more closely and more deeply at a variety of situations and enabled me to realize that the truth is radical enough and usually needs little ideological embellishment.

And yet a structured framework for understanding is also essential to confront the whirlwinds of change, to make sense of phenomena and sort it into patterns. Bad Bishop Brown’s discovery of Karl M & Associates would have helped him see that the local captains of industry were not entirely free agents but just as buffeted by forces beyond their individual control as the workers laboring in the factories lining the Erie-Lackawanna tracks that I played along (despite strict prohibitions).

But Brown was dismissed as a dangerous nut, and his ideas suppressed. Galion is so much the worse—and yet now, with the town in ruins, the questions posed by the bad bishop about the nature of our economic system have never been more relevant. As one local lady said to me, ‘Maybe the bishop was just ahead of his time’.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Hooray for debit card fees

Bank of America, in perhaps one of its dying acts, has announced that debit card users will be hit with a five-dollar monthly fee. Despite the gross excess of the charge, this is a good thing. Instead of banks silently and almost secretly extracting value from retailers through their monopoly control of plastic, those customers utilizing the convenience now must see—and feel—its cost.

The ostensible source of the change is a new government limit to the banks’ gouge-per-swipe fees. As usual, the banksters are determined to howl with outrage over this feeble attempt to interfere with their looting of the productive economy. Its apologists are quick off the mark to blame Dodd-Frank, the new financial regulatory framework, for forcing them to assault their customers in this new way. They don’t want us to know that at 21 cents a swipe, they’re still reaching deep into the consumer pocket, just not quite as deeply as pre-Dodd-Frank when they collected on average 44 cents per debit.

The credit card industry is one of the most grotesque scams perpetrated on American consumers since the sale of snake oil for rheumatism. They were first offered as a convenience for travelers or large purchases to avoid the risks of carrying cash, but then we were seduced and encouraged to use them to buy toothpaste. Interest rates were supposed to reflect the minor costs of floating us the purchase price of our items for 30 days or for allowing us to pay off the merchandise in quotas, which also enabled stores to extend credit without the headache of pursuing deadbeats.

But then the hyper-inflationary 1970s gave banks permission to match the country’s sky-high overall interest rates as they climbed into the upper teens, and naturally once those fell back to earth, the credit card owners continued to charge at the peak while obtaining funds for a fraction. That turned the business into a gold mine as anyone who slipped behind on payments could easily be trapped in lucrative debt peonage. Not content to simply offer financial services, banks had found that they could insert a needle directly into the budgetary veins of working Americans and permanently siphon off their blood. Now that BOFA et al. have acquired the habit, the withdrawal symptoms are undoubtedly agonizing.

According to a consumer advocate interviewed on The News Hour Friday night, the cost of processing a debit card swipe is about 4 cents, so banks are still going to make a killing. That won’t stop them from screaming bloody murder and trying to shift customer outrage to government regulators who dared to moderate their pursuit of all the money, all the time. Count on the biggest banks to bump up their fees in tandem so that few mortals can escape the new regime by shifting their accounts to the competition.

A real innovation would be to allow retailers to offer discounts for cash payment, something the credit card monopoly furiously resists as they know that buyers would then realize that the ability to get instant credit has a cost. Under the current system banks get showers of gold while store owners and merchants, i.e., the real economy, are stuck with the golden showers, forced to fork over a hefty percentage of credit card sales for the privilege of offering plastic transactions.

This fight is far from over, and we cannot rely on the political establishment to hold the line against further bankster intimidation. Meanwhile, a shift back to broader use of cash for everyday payments looks like a healthy resistance tactic for consumers suddenly aware of this hidden cost benefiting no one but Uncle Scrooge.