Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Banks safe, millions to die

Economists and sometimes foreign policy wonks talk about ‘opportunity costs’, meaning the things one can’t do because of the decision to do something else. Crudely speaking, it refers to the fact that one can’t buy a product with cash already spent on other things. Nor can a state send its national guardsmen to put out a forest fire if they’re fighting a war halfway around the world. One can only buy a pencil or a gumdrop with the same nickel.

As World AIDS Day approaches (Dec. 1), the stark opportunity costs of a decade of war and the prioritization of banker profits can be observed with depressing clarity as the highly successful effort to slow down the epidemic is being systematically drained of support. The Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis just announced that its Round 11 of grant funding to the hardest-hit countries must be canceled as donor governments fail to honor their replenishment pledges. The big European development agencies, funded largely by their respective states, cannot commit the promised money as everyone is scrambling to backstop the shaky euro.

As Fund official Stephen Lewis remarked in a ringing denunciation of the donor governments’ collective failure, political leaders have made sure that Wells Fargo could make $4.1 billion this quarter, Bank of America $6.2 billion and JPMorganChase $4.6 billion despite having blown up the world economy. And why stop at banks? Oil companies like BP, Exxon and Shell, hustling us to doom with fossil fuels made $5.1 billion, $10.3 billion and $7 billion respectively. But the measly $1.2 billion needed by the Global Fund cannot be found anywhere, and these same corporate behemoths haven’t contributed a penny either while simultaneously joining the political assault on all governments so as to starve them of cash.

Among those governments reneging on their pledges of support to the Global Fund is good old Obama’s, which can find $1.9 billion per day to fund military activities, but not the promised $1.33 billion per year he promised to fight the three scourge diseases. It’s a rather excellent summary of how the economic system has become our master, indifferent to the fates of peoples, replacing the savage pharaohs and insular monarchies of prior eras.

Lewis acidly quotes all the pious phrases mouthed by Blair, Obama, Bush and many others when making these fine promises to much praise and fanfare (and headlines). But when it comes time to pony up, they’re nowhere to be seen. Keep that in mind when the flood of cynical b.s. comes raining down from on high tomorrow.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Has Obama's next war already begun?

The story around the ‘accidental’ attack on a Pakistani border post emits a foul smell not just because two dozen theoretically allied troops were killed, possibly in their sleep but because it has the markings of a deliberate massacre.

The NATO command’s quick promise to launch a ‘thorough investigation’ is reminiscent of Kissinger’s similar vow once he ‘learned’ of the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia, which in fact he and Nixon had ordered. While mistakes certainly can and do happen in war, the timing of this one immediately prompts a question, Is the U.S. at war in Pakistan or at war with Pakistan? Is all the breathless wanking about Iran just saber-rattling while the next front has already been opened?

The tone of comments from Washington about the state of affairs in that country has been increasingly belligerent. In September a top U.S. general said the so-called Haqqani network, responsible for many deadly attacks in Afghanistan, ‘acts as a veritable arm’ of the Pakistani intelligence service, and Obama’s spokesman didn’t contradict him. Hillary Clinton said during her October visit to Pakistan that the country had to shut down the ‘safe havens’ being used by this group in the border region, using language described as ‘unusually harsh’.

The usual anonymous State Department sources added that Clinton also had threatened that the U.S. would ‘act unilaterally’ against elements like the Haqqani network on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Did anyone assume such unilateral action included firing on the supposed allies’ own soldiers?

Clinton’s ringing statement of principles should win a prize for modernist irony with phrases like, ‘No one who targets innocent civilians of any nationality should be tolerated or protected’. The dozens of Afghan children wiped out in drone attacks should be grateful that they were not officially ‘targeted’ by the videogame drone runners at CIA headquarters. But lookout kids, Hillary’s patience has worn thin, said the commentariat, no doubt after the U.S. Embassy was besieged by the Taliban forces in downtown Kabul for nearly 24 hours. That would be annoying if you’d spent ten years and a trillion or so dollars ‘pacifying’ the place. But ignominious failure has not generated any enthusiasm for a wind-down of this endless and, with bin Laden dead, pointless war.

All these martial phrases recall the notorious threat reportedly issued by Bush-era official Richard Armitage just after 9/11, that the U.S. would gladly ‘bomb [Pakistan] back to the Stone Age’ if cooperation in the hunt for bin Laden were not immediately forthcoming. He denies it, but that’s less important than the constant citing of the apocryphal quote, which has the same intimidating effect. In any case, the message was pretty clear: do our bidding vis-à-vis Haqqani or else. Was two dozen soldiers bombed in their barracks the ‘or else’ part?

All this is nothing new. Obama distinguished himself during the 2008 campaign by taking a more warlike stance toward Pakistan even than hawkish Hillary, and his administration was barely a week in office when the drone attacks started up on Pakistani territory, an early sign of the Bush-Obama continuity on war.

Obama’s people always say that the Pakistani objections to the drone attacks are pro forma and understood by both sides as not to be taken seriously. That’s a convenient explanation. Another one is that Pakistan is too weak to do anything about it. India is more and more the U.S. favorite in the region—Obama visited Delhi in 2010 and snubbed Islamabad by not stopping by for tea—and the Chinese, Pakistan’s historical ally, don’t want trouble. Pakistan gets a billion and half dollars of aid annually from the U.S. and nowhere else to go for it.

Jeremy Scahill, who writes on military issues, says this about how Obama is ‘radically expanding’ the U.S. war in Afghanistan deeply into Pakistan’.

‘Whether it is through US military trainers (that’s what they were called in Vietnam too), drone attacks or commando raids inside the country, the U.S. is militarily entrenched in Pakistan. It makes Obama’s comment that “[W]e have no intention of sending U.S. troops into Pakistan” simply unbelievable’.

‘For a sense of how significant U.S. operations are and will continue to be for years and years to come, just look at the U.S. plan to build an almost $1 billion massive U.S. “embassy” in Islamabad, which is reportedly modeled after the imperial city they call a U.S. embassy in Baghdad. As we know very clearly from Iraq, such a complex will result in an immediate surge in the deployment of U.S. soldiers, mercenaries and other contractors’.

But there’s a big problem with this relentless expansion of the Afghan war into a country of 175 million increasingly hostile people. Although the U.S. can inflict a lot of pain, the long-term goals enunciated by Obama and Clinton may be impossible although we shouldn’t count on their uniformed advisors ever to admit it. In an era of non-stop budget slashing, we’ve already spent the farm on pacifying Afghanistan and succeeded in antagonizing 20 million people while propping up a corrupt nutcase president and his heroin-trafficking brother. Al-Qaeda and other like entities can be crushed, but new ones can also emerge. Does Obama plan for an even larger—and vastly more expensive—permanent occupation of Pakistan? Is that why our Social Security checks have to be slashed?

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The limits of shamelessness

I saw Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism on the PBS News Hour Thursday, an unusual showcase for someone so defiantly critical of both Democratic and Republican postures on economic topics. (Outfits like PBS usually permit ‘debate’ only when strictly bounded by the two major parties such that their differences, while often real, just as often mask deeper agreement on core issues. It is probably not an accident that Smith was invited onto a show sponsored by Bank of America on perhaps the least-viewed day of the year. But I digress.)

The subject was the lack of criminal prosecutions for fraud emerging from the financial crisis of 2008, whose aftereffects remain with us. Four experts were invited to comment, limiting them to two substantial comments each in the ten-minute segment. Three of the four trotted out lame excuses: the cases are SO complicated; the regulatory agencies have SO few staff; the requirement to prove intent is SO high a bar. Smith demolished those arguments to the extent possible in three minutes (the evidence of fraud is massive, the Nevada attorney general is prosecuting with a tiny operation, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires CEOs to sign off on the company’s books and attest to their accuracy).

But more significant, to my mind, was what was left unsaid. No one argued that the accusations of fraud are false, that the bank execs should be left alone, that they’re ‘doing God’s work’, as the inimitable Blankfein said, that the prosecutions are a partisan Democratic attack, that free markets should be left alone to function according to their inherent perfection, that attacking banks is an expression of foolish, Luddite anarchy. One of the four was a former Republican congressional aide and certainly would have gladly poured on those arguments had he dared. But he didn’t.

Contrast that silence with the active defense of torture, indefinite detention, military tribunals, and the wholesale stripping of our Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. While many objections to these abuses continued to be voiced, whole presidential campaigns are being mounted to actively defend such worthy acts as waterboarding and all the rest of it. My conclusion is that the banker class is extremely isolated, and this should have interesting consequences if another financial panic ensues, as appears more than likely given the ill winds blowing in from Europe.

P.S. One comment on Yves’ blog referred to the ‘Petroleum Broadcasting Network’, which given the steady stream of insufferable bullshit from Chevron featured there, strikes me as very fair.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The MFs at MF Global

MF Global Investments is the name of a rather fly-by-night hedge fund operation established on Wall Street fairly recently. It collapsed a few days ago and has been tentatively found to have lost between $600 million and $1.2 billion of its clients’ money in the course of throwing good money after bad. It did so, the investigators now swarming around its chaotic bookkeeping now believe, by illegally shifting the cash from client accounts into its casino trading operation. In short, it is alleged to have committed the same kind of crimes as the so-called ‘rogue traders’ that cost Barings, UBS and SocGen vast sums.

One notable difference is that the guy in charge of this no-longer-shocking rip-off was until recently the Democratic governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine [above]. Will he do time? After all, a billion bucks is rather more serious, you would think, than the three-dollar bottle of water looted by a guy in Britain during their recent riots—for which said thief received a six-month prison term. We need to resuscitate Victor Hugo and have him rework Les Misérables.

MF Global is another chapter in the ongoing destruction of the rule of law, but the bright side on this occasion is that certain powerful constituencies were ripped off. You know something is up when a leathery old dinosaur like Chuck Grassley is stirring his horny tail shingles over the latest debacle.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission should ‘do everything possible’ to get to the bottom of this, said Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa. Oh, you mean the Commission that you and your GOP buddies have done everything in your considerable power to intimidate, dismantle, starve, browbeat and harass into irrelevance since government cannot solve any problems, but rather is the problem? Good luck getting that entity moving on restoring the cash to your Iowa farmers who used MF Global to hedge future crop and livestock prices.

‘Unlike the big banks, the average farmer who lost money in this fiasco can’t afford to hire an attorney and attend proceedings in a Manhattan courtroom’, said Grassley in an insouciant display of cynicism.

Grassley’s Iowa is where a group of sell-out state attorneys-general periodically gather to find a way to give the TBTF banks a free pass over their looting and wrecking of the economy through mortgage chicanery. His state’s AG, Tom Miller, is at the heart of this scheme whereby the banks would pay a paltry fine in exchange for immunity from things like the robo-signing scandal, fraudulent foreclosures, document counterfeiting, and the mass crushing of homeowners now slipping into poverty. Obama and team are fully behind this plan to further entrench the 1% and reward criminality—the current White House version of ‘bipartisanship’.

Luckily, a few AGs are resisting, like our own Eric Schneiderman, whose election I am happy to have supported monetarily. Schneiderman and prosecutors from Delaware and Nevada are investigating and should be presenting some interesting civil and perhaps criminal cases in coming months. (Hilariously, Miller kicked Schneiderman off the negotiating team for objecting to the sell-out.)

Obama wants to bury all this fraud and ‘turn the page’ as he did with the torture scandal of the Bush era. Republicans are naturally silent because they’re fully complicit. But loyal capitalists, wherever they may be hiding, ought to be demanding a real clean-up with real consequences because, as the MF Global fiasco illustrates, the entire financial edifice requires trust. When clients cannot even be certain their cash deposits are protected from the Wall Streets gamblers, then the game is very close to up. I am already reading advice in the financial blogs that people should hoover up any assets they have and put them promptly into explicitly government-backed and -guaranteed securities because nothing is sacred, and nothing is safe.

Sunday, 20 November 2011


This remarkable video of the Occupy Davis incident—in which a line of armed cops responds to students sitting on the ground and refusing to leave by pepper spraying them as if they were insects—reveals the growing moral force of the popular movement and why the ruling elites are increasingly alarmed.

You can almost read the mind of this poor mook cop, guns and equipment dangling off him at every angle: uppity civilians are refusing to obey my order; therefore, I will assert my authority in the easiest, most effective possible way. No doubt he’s been at a dozen training courses sponsored by Homeland Security or the anti-terrorist network and long ago lost any sense of what policing is supposed to be about or how democratic societies are theoretically different from thug dictatorships.

The students, however, were not so easily intimidated and promptly performed what could become a defining moment of Occupy history. They began to chant, ‘Shame on you!’ and faced the cops down, even pushing them back. This was a brilliant, intuitive discovery of the moral force of righteousness, and Occupiers should replay it on the sides of buildings from coast to coast. The cops suddenly lose their bearings entirely: one moment they think they’re the revered guardians of public order; the next they’re exposed as bullies. Their faces tell it all: they don’t know if maybe the kids aren’t right.

I am reminded of a similar although much more vicious incident during my years reporting from Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Shortly after the notorious degollados murders (the word means, ‘those whose throats were cut’), there was a memorial ceremony in the main Santiago cemetery for the three victims. These were high-ranking Communist Party leaders who were snatched off the streets—in one case as the man was leaving his children at school—and later found dead in a field near the airport.

Memorials such as these were always swarming with heavily armed cops desperately trying to provoke any sort of incident so that they could start cracking heads and hauling people in. (The corrupt press would then blame the victims for starting ‘violence.’) Family members in attendance often had lost relatives to the torture dungeons of the regime or had them disappear never to be seen again. So the rage and resentment was right on the surface, and the attendees had to exercise enormous self-control to avoid giving the goons an excuse.

One of the dead men came from a well-known artist family, and his father, Roberto Parada, began to read a poem, which was entitled, ‘Ode to a Vile Bastard’ while his mother, the stage actress María Maluenda, and the widow, Estela Ortiz, looked on. The cops confidently circulated through the crowd, jostling the mourners and ready to pounce. But Parada just kept reading his screed against the regime and by extension those of its enforcers present, despite the vast imbalance of weaponry and ostensible power. It was an inspiring moment. Then Estela Ortiz then took the stage and let loose a volley of defiant denunciation that I only wish I had had the presence of mind to record. She was utterly fearless and directed her words right into the faces of the cops, cursing them as animals and cowardly thugs of a corrupt regime.

Little by little, the cops began to fall back. The looks on their faces were exactly what we see in the Davis video: surprise, then guilty shock. They suddenly saw themselves for what they were: armed goons harassing the mourning families of the civilian victims of the state that paid them.

Occupy’s radicalism is, in my opinion, precisely there: it is turning the tables on the smug exploiters and making it no longer cool for them to sit atop the pyramid flashing their filthy fortunes. Bankers are no longer the smartest, the hippest, the cleverest, the guys to meet, the A list with the hot babes—they are quickly becoming pariahs, and this, more than anything, will undermine their cozy get-rich-quick schemes.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Occupy = Vote (Not)

Our Mayor One-Percent’s crackdown on Zucotti Park may boomerang as soon as today. The Occupy movement could never thrive as an experiment in Utopian community while mobilizing against the greedy, ruling elite, and now there is a chance its attention will sharpen on the latter while issues of sleeping arrangements and where to find a potty become secondary. No doubt there was a certain creative spirit generated by maintaining a headquarters in the tiny plaza, but it was always temporary. I’ll be curious to see what ideas percolate up next about how to proceed, such as the suggestion that people in the neighborhood start to take in Occupiers so that they can sleep offsite and still stick around. Today’s demonstration should also give us an idea of the strength of the forces sympathetic to OWS and what they/we all have in mind.

A lot is being written about the nationwide coordination of the evictions and the role of Homeland Security, the FBI and probably the Obama Administration. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone not in a coma. The Occupy movement is a gigantic headache for the entire political class, and occasional pious bleatings of sympathy aside, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are eager to see it grow and coalesce further.

It’s a bit surprising to see even sophisticated observers like Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker miss the point in this regard as they gently urge OWSers to get back into the ‘political’ game and grasp—poor, innocent lambs that they are—that sooner or later it’s all about who wins elections. The Tea Party, these commentators point out, had a major success by channeling its energies into the 2010 elections and thereby imposing the current crew of lunatics on the entire country, despite their relatively low numbers. Or as Hertzberg wrote on Nov. 7, ‘Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics—the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have.’

But OWS and its larger constituency have better instincts than that. They know that the electoral game is rigged and that the promises made in November are easily shredded by Christmas. What better demonstration of that fact than the ongoing disgrace of the Obama Administration itself, which systematically marginalized the popular forces that got it into office and folded the uprising against the Bush-era crimes into an electoral machine that it promptly dismantled once the job was done. The right wing, especially the Christian conservative movement, refused to play along with the GOP in that way and kept its potency.

No, OWS is much more a cousin to the rebellions of the 60s and 70s, which is why its propaganda doesn’t even address who’s running for what nor declare itself either for or against any of those guys as candidates per se. Its denizens don’t denounce Obama; they just ignore him. Obvious enemies of the 99% like Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker get mic-checked and harassed, but that doesn’t reduce Occupy Chicago to a voter canvassing operation for his Democratic counterpart. The core of Occupy is direct action, disruption, denunciation, confrontation, and the like, not letter-writing campaigns nor patient tolerance of proxies, even the well-meaning ones, in city councils or state legislatures. That hasn’t worked, and there’s even less reason to believe in it now that corporations can buy that entire system out of their petty cash boxes. As for the ‘route to real change,’ we’ll see about that. I don’t think the civil rights, antiwar, or women’s movements suffered from Hertzberg’s poverty of vision.

Yes, Hendrik, people haven’t forgotten that electoral democracy is better than dictatorship, and no doubt many millions will head out to vote in primaries next year. But as elected European leaders are sidelined in one country after another in favor of ‘technocrats’ willing to do the bidding of the French and German bankers, why should anyone delude himself that the worthy custom of suffrage will save us from subversion at the top?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

"Occupy" the mind

I told someone just last night that the physical occupation part of the Occupy movement was not sustainable in the long run, but that if the authorities tried to smash it by force, they might well regret their decision. The movement can easily assume new forms that the 1% will find even harder to control, and now that Zucotti Park is being dismantled in the usual heavy-handed fashion—with an attempted news blackout to boot—the tactical skirmish is only going to get more interesting.

My neighborhood’s city councilman, Ydanis Rodríguez, is reportedly under arrest with a bleeding head wound. No doubt the cops decided he looked suspiciously Hispanic.

The stupidity of the 1%-defending powers has consistently stimulated the growth of the Occupy movement, and I don’t doubt this will be a further contribution.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Plumbing the depths of moral bankruptcy

Americans still capable of focusing on human decency rather than their own comfort should shudder with revulsion at the cheerleading for torture that occurred in the latest Republican presidential debate. These displays of willful ignorance and bloody-mindedness are farcical, but we scoff at our peril—history has too many examples of the vast damage that can be inflicted by buffoons.

For those who missed the spectacle, Bachmann openly welcomed torturing detainees in dungeons because it has worked so well to date. (Members of the audience stopped pulling the wings off butterflies and cheered wildly.) Cain said torture was bad but waterboarding doesn’t count as torture because he heard a general say so. Only Huntsman and Paul came out against drowning people repeatedly to make them talk—note their rank in the opinion polls.

This repugnant display will generate more ammunition for those voices obsessively convinced that we must save our republic by lining up behind Barack Obama. But Obama is the one individual who did most to enable Saturday’s celebration of viciousness. It was Obama who tried to close Guantánamo, met resistance and then dropped the subject. It was Obama who declared three months into his term that we must ‘look to the future’ and not even consider criminal investigations of ‘our’ torturers.

It was Obama who arranged for a new super-max facility to be built (in his home state of Illinois, no less) to house never-convicted detainees in inhuman conditions of isolation, even though they have been convicted of no crimes in any court.

The justification for this shredding of our 500-year-old system of legal protections for the accused, which dates from the resistance to the arbitrary power of the monarch, is that these particular accused are terrorist bad guys. How do we know? Someone in authority, preferably wearing a uniform, said so. Obama has done nothing to resist this mentality, and the argument that he was powerless in the face of right-wing fury is simply an excuse. We have no idea what would have happened if Obama had taken a firm stand against torture and lawlessness because he never did. And despite compromising away his principles, the attacks rain down upon him as a Muslim symp and a weakling anyway.

We have the worst of all worlds, and the torture regime is now an established part of our legal and political landscape with impunity for the perpetrators. The implications are chilling.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Glug, glug . . . [redux]

So Herman Cain, the implausible, yet real black cracker from Georgia, now passes into the dustbin of history hoist on his own excessively favored petard. The GOP seems cursed forever to relive in ever new ways its morbid fascination with the wanderings of the Clintonian phallus; it flails ineffectually at Obama, wishing that it could focus its hate through discovering a sexual offense in someone who seems contentedly married to a comely wife.

The disagreeably TMI details of Cain’s forays up the skirts of job-seekers (recalling Joan Rivers’ career-making joke on Carson: ‘Are men threatened by smart women? What guy ever reached up a woman’s dress looking for a library card?’) are unseemly, but no Fox commentator can condemn them as inappropriate. Kenneth Starr’s Monica-gate performance, his careful parsing of the trail of semen stains up a certain blue garment, remains within living memory. Our biped politics have always been driven by the exigencies of the male organ, but the modern politicization of the bedroom, stirred to life by the ‘60s and exaggerated beyond farce by the Christian ‘80s, now places it in our, um, faces far more immediately. There is no escape from its heavy-veined demands.

The end of Cain’s brief aurora borealis was yawningly predictable, but his success at Republican speed-dating, while it lasted, reflected some of that coven’s loony core values: contempt for the vulnerable, faux populism in grating tones, ignorance as virtue, the whole mythology of personal superiority reflected in access to ample supplies of cash. Even Cain’s groping was financed by siphoning expense money from a corrupt lobbying system in which luxury suites and high-end snatch were coin of the realm. Cain must be dumbfounded to suddenly realize that his participation in this business as usual is now the cause of his downfall.

The real tragedy for Cain, as outlined by a New York magazine commentator this week, is that his goal of becoming a Sarah Palin-like celebrity and cash in massively on the inspirational lecture circuit is now endangered. He has become a laughingstock while also exposed as a sleaze, probably a fatal combination. But his intuition was faultless: politics as spectacle, the New Hampshire primary as reality television. Maybe he can court Kim Kardashian, and put his hand up her dress live for the cameras.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

How dare these Greeks vote? [Updated]

The EU endgame is illustrating that we now live under not democracy nor even oligarchy but simple bankocracy. If we resuscitated Aristotle, he’d have to rewrite Politics entirely as rule-by-the-global-moneylenders surely never occurred to him as a possibility. No doubt he’d curse us for awakening him from a pleasant 2,500-year sleep for such vulgarity and refuse to enable the (ever more) Dismal Science as dignifying superstition and wizardry.

[cartoon by Martin Sutovec @Jack’s Political Cartoons]

It is remarkable how completely and utterly the core neoliberal presumptions have collapsed in the face of the European debacle: that democratic capitalism signaled the End of History, that this glorious final stage of human development would usher in a permanent state of blissful well-being based on the popular will, the primacy of markets and peace among (roughly similar) nations. But things haven’t quite worked out according to that plan.

As usual, it was biped hubris that monkeyed up the works. Had Merkel and Sarkozy been able to force their banker overlords to absorb the losses of an early Greek default a year or two ago, the rolling EU train wreck probably could have been avoided or at least postponed to more prosperous times (if those ever return again). But this is demanding passion fruits from a sycamore tree. The autistic brains who rule the financier universe, as wonderfully portrayed in the new film Margin Call, are incapable of the long view and want only more, more, more, preferably today but in any case no later than next week.

Geithner and Obama are now demanding of the European ‘allies’ that no peripheral Mediterranean upstarts be permitted to stiff Citibank and JP Morgan as U.S. banks are just as exposed to the new blood-letting as their European counterparts. No doubt Obama’s Democratic team concurs with Merkozy that any hint of putting the Greeks’ fate to a vote by themselves is anathema—another fine Greek word.

Uncertainty and instability have reigned for a good year now, and I read no convincing predictions of what will come next. But this shlumping along cannot go on forever, and I suspect some resolution is approaching, some defining event that, while not conclusive, emphatically points our fragile world in one direction or another. Outright Greek default, of course, is one possibility, an increasingly likely one given the disarray at the top in Greece and the danger that the replacement for the current mortally wounded government will be no government at all. That would cascade through the EU’s and the world’s banks with nasty consequences although it would probably focus the minds of our fractious leadership a good bit.

Another is some form of authoritarianism to get the unruly Greeks (and anyone else getting ideas) back in line. Francis Fukuyama notwithstanding, History has not in fact ended, and the fall-back position of ruling elites has been muscle from the times of australopithecus. One would have to be very innocent to suppose that that option is off the table. Meanwhile, silly assertions of popular sovereignty, like Papandreou’s plebiscite on the debt peonage deal, will not be tolerated.

[Update] I see the economics editor of The Guardian, Larry Elliott, agrees with me. The money quote:

‘The latest phase of Europe's sovereign debt crisis has exposed the quite flagrant contempt for voters, the people who are going to bear the full weight of the austerity programmes being cooked up by the political elites. . . . To the extent that governments had any power, it has been removed and placed in the hands of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. What matters to this group is what the financial markets think, not what voters might want. It is as if the democratic clock has been turned back to the days when France was ruled by the Bourbons.’

Elliott adds that this would be disturbing even if the austerity medicine being administered were working. It is not.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Who will police the police?

Police rallied outside a Bronx courthouse a few days ago to denounce the prosecutors who dared to indict their fellow officers for the ‘professional courtesy’ of fixing parking tickets. Gang leader Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, shouted and stamped his feet over the dastardly arrests since, as he insisted, ‘taking care of your family’ is not a crime.

This headline and story followed two days later: [bold highlights added]

‘Brooklyn Detective Convicted of Planting Drugs on Innocent People’

By TIM STELLOH, New York Daily News

The New York Police Department, already saddled with corruption scandals, saw its image further tainted on Tuesday with the conviction of a police detective for planting drugs on a woman and her boyfriend.

Before announcing the verdict, Justice Reichbach scolded the Police Department for what he described as a widespread culture of corruption endemic in its drug units.

“I thought I was not naïve,” he said.

“But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”

The case was rooted in a far larger tale of corruption in Police Department drug units: Several narcotics officers in Brooklyn have been caught mishandling drugs they seized as evidence, and hundreds of potentially tainted drug cases have been dismissed. The city has made payments to settle civil suits over wrongful incarcerations.

During the trial, prosecutors described the corruption within the Police Department drug units that Detective Jason Arbeeny worked for. One former detective, Stephen Anderson, who did not know the defendant, testified that officers in those units often planted drugs on innocent people.

The detective’s lawyer, Michael Elbaz, tried to discredit the most important prosecution witnesses, Yvelisse DeLeon and her boyfriend, Juan Figueroa. Ms. DeLeon had testified that the couple drove up to their apartment building in Coney Island and were approached by two plainclothes police officers. She said she then saw Detective Arbeeny remove a bag of powder from his pocket and place it in the vehicle.

“He brought out his pocket,” Ms. DeLeon told the court. “He said, ‘Look what I find.’ It looked like little powder in a little bag.”

In the department’s Brooklyn South narcotics unit, for instance, drugs seized as evidence are not counted or sealed until they reach the precinct and can be handled by multiple officers along the way, Justice Reichbach said, adding that such unacceptable practices “pale in significance” to the “cowboy culture” of the drug units.

Anything goes in the never-ending war on drugs, and a refusal to go along with questionable practices raise the specter of blacklisting and isolation,” he said.

The accused, 14-year veteran detective Jason Arbeeny, faces only four years in prison for ruining people’s lives with phony accusations, ironically far fewer than the terms he saddled his victims with.

But ‘anything goes’ in the war on drugs and, needless to say, its capitalized first cousin, the War on Terror, and that simple phrase illustrates how Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and all their little friends are playing not just with fire but a warehouse full of Roman candles in setting whole categories of their enforcers above the law. Police states don’t just appear overnight—they require careful preparation, indoctrination and coaching, and a populace complicit with its crimes. Ours is eager to the point of embarrassment.

Note the similarities between Detective Arbeeny’s tactics and those loved by our Homeland Security teams: you find a guilty party and then figure out how to create evidence around them. So far, the terrorist-hunters haven’t been accused of total fabrications, but what’s stopping them? The day they face NYPD-style quotas to keep their funding intact cannot be far off.

Incidentally, there is a direct line between these abuses of policing power and the criminal behavior of the still-untouched Wall Streeters and their collaborators, the money-churning mortgage packagers and servicers. The nearly dead mortgage market may, in fact, turn out to be the one place where impunity’s consequences most quickly become obvious for the indifferent masses as they see the value of their principal asset—home equity—go up in smoke. This already has happened to millions, but many, many more could suffer a similar fate unless the ongoing legal shenanigans are investigated, exposed, prosecuted and thereby stopped. The Obama/Geithner team’s insistence that all will be well if we just let the banks get away with all their crimes is going to end badly—how is the housing market ever going to recover if people cannot trust even the deeds to their own properties?