Thursday, 31 July 2014

End of the Koons economy?

Today’s economic news reflects the new looking-glass world we inhabit.

The Dow Jones sank a hefty 300 points on news that the economy may be rebounding at long last as reflected in the solid 4 percent quarterly growth rate increase and good job numbers.

Huh? Why would the supposed principal barometer of the nation’s material well-being move inversely to a strong economy? Shouldn’t indications of proper growth and job creation make the stocks of national companies worth more?

Tut, tut, innocent ones. This is the brave new financier world in which gains from assets are not based on anything real but rather on the possibilities of exploiting mathematical games and executing clever trades with the piles of cheap cash provided by the state.

And therein lies the motive for Wall Street’s sudden egg. It appears that the Federal Reserve may begin to turn off the tap on the oceans of liquidity that it has injected into world banks hoping to goose production by providing a wall of capital. The alternative, goosing production by stimulating demand via government deficits, is Not Done.

The result has been a run-up in assets to renewed bubble proportions, and it was just a matter of time before the inevitable pull of gravity kicked in. Today’s market debacle may or may not be the turning point, but according to Isaac Newton, is has to come eventually.

Reuters summarized the state of our new Jeff Koons economy—characterized by shiny baubles of sparklingly useless kitsch fakery produced with consummate skill. It reported thusly:

n after hours trade, shares of LinkedIn (LNKD.N) jumped 8.9 percent to $196.70 when the corporate networking site reported a 47 percent increase in quarterly revenue and forecast better-than-expected adjusted profit and revenue in the current quarter.
During the regular session, Kraft Foods Group (KRFT.O) shares fell 6.4 percent to $53.59. The stock was the biggest percentage decliner on the Nasdaq after Kraft late on Wednesday reported a scant rise in quarterly revenue.

And there you have it, our economic life in a nutshell: huge values accumulated by a magic Internet vehicle while a company that actually produces something (food, by some definitions), slumps.

No doubt the savvy investors are hoping that the economy returns to its prior state of crippled stagnation so that the Dow can restart its vertiginous, post-meltdown climb.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Culture of impunity

The Huffington Post has an excellent piece by reporters Matt Sledge and Saki Knafo on why the NYPD has such a dismayingly repetitive history of abuse. While they are constantly lionized on shows like New York Blue, Law & Order, CSI: New York and countless others, the untold story in those narratives is that these same cops have been getting away with murder for decades. The Eric Garner case (Staten Island chokehold) is merely the latest in a long series, and there is no guarantee that it will be the last.

The HuffPost duo discovered that the main cop in the spotlight for the death of Mr. Garner, one Daniel Pantaleo, already has a rap sheet of accusations for prior assaults on citizens. For example, the city paid $30,000 just two years ago in a settlement of a suit brought by Darren Collins who accused Pantaleo of pulling his pants down in public and fondling his genitals ‘looking for drugs’.

But it was, as always, the city that paid that settlement i.e., us; Pantaleo didn’t suffer a thing. Despite the constant, costly lawsuits the city faces for police behavior, the same patterns emerges:

As anyone who has been abused by the cops can tell you, the question of what should have happened to Pantaleo speaks to a larger problem: When police behave badly in New York, there’s not much that ordinary citizens can do to hold them accountable. . . .

Often, the city doesn’t even look into the claims behind the lawsuits. As Fay Leoussis, a city lawyer, acknowledged to Bloomberg [News Service] in 2012, New York has made a practice of silencing plaintiffs with settlement offers, a "risk-management" strategy designed to save the city money in the long run.

The article describes how the many levels of formal controls over police misconduct and abuse don’t work, in part because the prosecutors who might get tough are also beholden to cops to help them win their cases. Round after round of ‘reform’ measures churn out new citizen review boards and other internal and external checks on police powers but end up disappointingly ineffective.

But this isn’t good enough. We can’t just throw up our hands and say, Oh well, no one knows how to make the guardians of the rule of law actually obey it themselves. Impunity is accepted as an everlasting state of affairs; thus, cops know that they might get a slap on the wrist on the rare occasion that they get caught—or taped.

Meanwhile, chokehold complaints continue to pour in, and violating officers at most suffer a loss of vacation days. Even after the shocking Garner case, two more incidents involving the supposedly banned practice surfaced in recent days, demonstrating that the cops could give a crap what the city thinks of them.

In a way, the NYPD rank and file’s dismissal of any attempts to get them to do a good job without abusing people is reminiscent of post-financial-meltdown bankster arrogance. Just as in that case, Obama decided to let the guilty off the hook, and the plutocrats promptly told him to eat shit and die, that they were going to go right back to what they were doing and make even more money doing it.

Despite the decades of Reaganite celebration of old-fashioned values like personal responsibility, our culture is now dominated by people who believe the exact opposite, that they should be able to do whatever they want. Rules are for the little people. We have spawned a neo-feudal society in which your place in the system guarantees never having to say you’re sorry.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Winds shifting on police abuses

It’s fun to watch how the New York Daily News handles controversies here because the tabloid plays an intermediate role in the city’s political culture. We have in one corner the Murdochian Post pumping for the triumph of Satan and reacting to anything the liberal-ish Times might favor. The Daily News is opportunistically conservative and likes to trash Mayor DeBlasio, but when the zeitgeist is evolving, it’s the more flexible News that will reflect it first.

In the pictures above the News shows how contemporary wisdom on the NYPD is shifting. It signals, Enough. Cellphone videos have changed the game; everything is no longer permitted to the cops, and police culture, like it or not, has to change. The usual post-abuse tactic of charging victims with assaulting the officers who beat the crap out of you doesn’t float when you have citizen documentarians taping the incidents and displaying the proof. Ironically, the explosion of video cameras snooping on us everywhere has caught cops on tape bashing citizens when they thought no one was looking.

The News’ columnist Mike Lupica explains today how the paper will frame the problem: it’s not race, he says, but a cowboy-cop mentality, a few wild men. Lupica’s bad apple theory implies that once the violators are reined in, good policing will thrive.

Lupica’s argument is based on the race of some perpetrators of the most egregious examples: the three guys who shot up unarmed Sean Bell on his 2006 wedding night, for example, were all black and Hispanic. The police sergeant who placidly presided over a prone Eric Garner last week after he was choked unconscious by Staten Island cops was a black female. Therefore, says the News, the incidents weren’t racist.

There’s one big hole in that theory, though—all those victims and the vast majority of others are black. The fact that non-white officers are complicit in these abuses only means that the dominant institutional culture, historically very race-tinged, has incorporated them. It’s not hard to imagine how hard life on the force would be for a black or Hispanic officer who refuses to go along with the NYPD way—historically, a very race-tinged way.

DeBlasio and Bratton continue to say investigations are proceeding on the Garner case, and they went further this week, promising full cooperation to a federal probe if one should occur. The News has reported on the repeated complaints and out-of-court settlements of police abuse involving some of the same Staten Island cops responsible for the latest NYPD debacle. These are all signs that there is real momentum for putting a stop to free-lance thuggery in uniform, but it’s too early to know if real change will follow.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric is heating up, and when it comes from the News, Rambo cops should worry. Lupica:

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton says the first step is retraining our cops in the use of force.

But you only have to go to the videotapes to see that some cowboy cops need more than retraining.

They need to be fired. And if the evidence is as strong as it looks, these cowboy cops need to be indicted and put on trial.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Looting the commons for fun and profit

One more sign of the privatization of the nation’s soul is the impending demise of the U.S. Postal Service, one of the last concrete manifestations of the commons, the remnants of collectively-held property that embodies and cements our nationhood.

The fact that one can wander through the streets of any locality within the sovereign boundaries of the United States and drop a letter into a box addressed to any resident of the country is a reminder that we are an integral part of a united, whole something. We pay a standard rate for that privilege because it is, or was once, important to maintain that link, not because it accurately reflects the cost of making the delivery. If the price of the stamp is insufficient, we shoulder the expense jointly because we are joined together.

Thus I can write to my friend in Hawaii, one in New Hampshire and another in the Aleutians for the same price as I send a letter to the electric utility across the East River.

The new logic, however, is strictly commercial: can UPS or FedEx deliver my messages or bring me my goods more quickly and cheaply? If so, they should muscle the USPS out of the way. It should fade away and die as a relic of an old-fashioned, dying world where political relations outranked commercial ones.

Now the finance system furthers this Triumph of the Bill by empowering mega-corporations to wipe out competition and consolidate their vast powers. Amazon, the business press informs us, has just lost $126 million in the quarter ending in June, en route to new losses five times that figure in the current period, perhaps as much as $810 million. But no matter! Amazon can still wipe out the post office on borrowed cash, now available cheap from the Federal Reserve.

If you don’t have to make a profit, it’s easy to undercut the competition with price slashing and establish a monopoly. Not incidentally, Amazon rebutted the bad profit news with an announcement that it was introducing Sunday delivery to 25 percent of the U.S. population, just as the USPS warns us it must soon cut back to five days a week.
While the postal service is thus hobbled by unfair competition, any cost-cutting measures that could affect a congressman’s district are promptly kaboshed while the government entity is pilloried for mismanagement and waste. As Wolf Richter writes at Wolf Street,

The Postal Service, which had revenues of $16.7 billion in Q2, can’t even sneeze without Congress giving it prior approval. Shutting down unneeded post offices or dropping Saturday delivery? Addressing its huge pension obligations or switching to a pension plan of the kind Amazon has (LOL)? Forget it. In return for its valiant service as Congressional and public punching bag, USPS is allowed to perform financially about the same as Amazon: losses as far as they eye can see.

Nonetheless, Amazon still trades at $300 a share, provided happy lucre for Jeff Bezos, other top management and stock speculators. Its huge recent rally started around the time the Fed threw money at Wall Street to goose asset prices. Unlike Borders, which had to close when it lost money, Amazon is unfettered by the need to be a real business. But it can continue to undermine and wreck those that are. Richter:

Their big competitor [Amazon] has unlimited resources by being able to raise billions at practically no cost. It can always sell more of its inflated shares, a safety blanket if it runs out of money. . . . When Amazon needs additional money beyond that, it sells bonds that cost it, depending on maturity, less than the rate of inflation and are thus free money.

Amazon is Exhibit A of how the Fed’s policy of flooding Wall Street and corporate mastodons with nearly free money is destructive to the rest of the economy.

Consumers eagerly rush after the savings at Amazon, just as they helped Wal-Mart destroy local business. But then you have to live with the consequences: a post-capitalist landscape littered with wreckage, and the lousy service that inevitably comes with companies who have made themselves the only game in town.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Will drones threaten us?

Who fired that rocket?

The debate and accompanying theories, claims, ‘proofs’, accusations and generall, all-around confusion over the shooting down of Malaysian Air flight MH-17 may be a harbinger of things to come when drone technology spreads, as it inevitably will, around the globe.

The fact that the rocket used to down the civilian airliner was made in Russia has been quickly debunked as proof that the Russians did it. Not only do both sides have access to Russian military hardware, the point of manufacture of any weapon means virtually nothing in today’s global arms marketplace.

It’s not hard to foresee a time when drones start circulating through the skies regularly, especially as the manufacturers will be pushing intensively to open up sales for ‘civilian uses’. The parallel with atomic energy is almost too obvious—to soften up the public to the era of nuclear warfare as a permanent feature and the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that we lived through during the Cold War, policymakers quickly hit upon pumping up nukes as a wonderful way to provide cheap electricity.

That didn’t turn out so well, but it worked as a PR strategy despite the fact that one probably shouldn’t be eating fish from the Pacific Ocean these days. But imagine what will happen in coming years as the drone builders—Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin—start peddling their wares to one and all buyers.

Countries with whom the U.S. could conceivably have a hostile relationship at some point can now be sold as many drones as they want. The Guardian article linked to above says that there is no restriction on selling them. Legally, Kim Jong-un could line up to place an order.

If anyone gets nervous, I’m sure we’ll hear that drones have wonderful civilian uses like delivering your Amazon order direct from a slave laborer in one of their warehouses. Or maybe that will be the final nail in the U.S. Postal Service’s coffin—packages droned in 7 days a week, right to your mailbox.

But what happens when a militarized drone attacks a target, assassinates a citizen, blows up an arms depot, or even downs an airplane? How will anyone know where it came from, who programmed it, or who ordered it?

The United States has enjoyed a remarkable advantage over the centuries due to its placement between two oceans, thousands of miles from potential enemies. As a result, wars have been costly to its soldiers but, 9/11 notwithstanding, infrequently to its civilians—what other country on earth can say the same?

Drone technology, however, has the capacity to change all that and bring the wars home in unpleasant ways. If anyone in power had been thinking ahead, they might have counseled caution in setting some international guidelines or even laws for when and where these weapons can be used.

Obama, however, is expediency made flesh: he needed to get the troops out of harm’s way, so he went to the convenience of computerized assassination from afar. Some day, we may look up to the sky and wish he had deployed a little statesmanship instead of exploiting a short-lived monopoly on death-by-remote-control.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Notes on the Staten Island chokehold

To recap: a gaggle of cops arrest an unthreatening Eric Garner [above], known to sell contraband cigarettes—but not seen doing so on this occasion—who does not resist but complains loudly, is thrown to the ground, choked, strangled and killed. Emergency workers show up, manage not to notice that he isn’t breathing, stand around chatting, and the guys is DOA at the hospital. The whole thing is captured on cellphone video, so the usual fake stories about resisting arrest are not credible.

Notable facts: Bill Bratton, the new police chief, specifically mentioned that he is no longer interested in numbers, as in total arrests for things like marihuana possession, loitering, etc., as a sign that cops are working. This is a radical break from unofficial tradition, denied but proven by things like the Adrian Schoolcraft recordings of a precinct officer insisting that patrolmen get out there and score arrests. If cops are no longer pressured into harassing people to get write-ups, incidents like the chokehold killing may be less frequent.

Mayor De Blasio’s first comment included his confirmation of what any observer can see, that the cop appears to be using an unauthorized chokehold. He then defers to the inevitable ‘investigation’, but the shift from past practice of refusing to suggest any misconduct is significant.

Al Sharpton is asking for federal civil rights intervention given that the NYPD cannot be trusted to institute reforms on its own as evidenced by the chokehold that the NYPD itself has ostensibly forbidden. The Justice Department sounds interested (‘closely monitoring’ the probe). Bratton, though he can’t say so publicly, may well be happy to see them intervene to help him bring the department under control.

Al Sharpton isn’t everyone’s favorite guy, but aside from Jumaane Williams, the Brooklyn councilman [left], the city’s black politicians are pretty shy about standing next to the victims’ families to criticize the police. You don’t see any Charlie Rangel at these demonstrations or news conferences, despite his recent campaign for a 25th term in Congress as the friend of Harlem’s oppressed masses. It would be fair to assume that it’s not the way to get ahead in local politics.

Bratton’s appointment and De Blasio’s accession to the mayor’s job were supposed to usher in a new age of police-community relations. I went to a holds-hand-and-sing affair at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem a few days ago led by Leora Fulani where she put on a workshop-performance of her ‘Cops & Kids’ trainings, endorsed by Bratton who introduced her. It was well-meaning and probably useful and also pretty lame. It’s not likely to extinguish the renewed bitterness about how easy it is for cops to put a non-violent black guy to death.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Kabuki theatre on "corruption" - Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo isn’t like to face any serious electoral fallout from his recent embarrassing display of old-fashioned corruption. His GOP opponent this November is a non-entity in a state where for a Republican to stand a chance they either have to be celebrities or possess bank accounts in 11 figures.

But Cuomo’s plans to shine on the national stage took a serious hit this week with revelations that he systematically interfered with his own ha-ha ‘anti-corruption’ commission named in August, 2013, before finally pulling the plug on it entirely in April. While no one expects sainthood to emerge from Albany over the next, say, 100 years, there was a faint hope that Cuomo’s enormous popularity and mandate would perhaps lead to some bit of housecleaning in that notoriously putrid statehouse.

The litany of micromanagement and bullying reported by the Times this week is pretty appalling when we recall the gov’s own words when he announced with great bombast last year his decision to set up the commission in response to the steady parade of solons marching off to the courthouse and often prison. ‘Anything they want to look at, they can look at,’ said Cuomo at the time, ‘me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman,’ words that may yet disturb his sleep.

Cuomo didn’t clarify that his idea of ‘look at’ meant ‘admire from a distance’, sort of like touring the Statue of Liberty. Commission members mistakenly thought they were supposed to do something about what they saw.

There are vague noises about possible legal implications for Cuomo, and the federal prosecutor here in the city clearly can’t stand the guy. But the cozy system of paying-and-playing isn’t likely to be disturbed, and the governor sits on top of it. Former governor Spitzer, by contrast, might have actually had a chance to wreck it if he hadn’t shot himself in the, um, foot.

The brief rise and precipitously fall of yet one more attempt to rein in gross pocket-lining and opportunism by our elected (and appointed) officials is one more indicator of the pervasive cynicism and plummeting credibility of the entire system, which is reaching unheard-of levels. An anthropologist whose report I just read about (somewhere—sorry, no link), based on a ten-week tour of the U.S., concluded that across the political spectrum Americans believe their government is in the hands of an crass, greedy elite enriching itself, for which they feel profound contempt.

That doesn’t mean the pitchforks are coming out any time soon, but it does reflect a serious weakness of governability that our comfy rulers ought to take seriously but won’t. No one can predict where the increasingly stretched social fabric will rip apart, only that inevitably, eventually, it will.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Perhaps a guillotine would be more humane

Given the steady undermining of the Fourth (search and seizure) and the Fifth (due process of law) Amendments, it is not surprising that we now witness the demise of the Eighth (cruel and unusual punishment) in the hands of, even more fittingly, the State of Arizona—that place where 8-year-old refugees from gang impressment are considered public enemies.

The revolting spectacle of the torture by injection drugs of a convicted murderer is different only insofar as there were witnesses not intimidated into secrecy. One can only imagine the strong stomach required on the part of the Arizona Republic reporter who said he counted the prisoner gasping for breath 660 times. I guess hypnotic counting would be a good way to get through a situation like that without hurling breakfast.

As Albert Guillotin discovered to his dismay, attempts to find a ‘humane’ way to put another human being to death are doomed by the law of unintended consequences. In this case, secrecy reigned as usual because cruelty always has to be performed in the dark even when perpetrators insist they are justified. Attempts by the prisoner’s lawyers even to find out what drugs were going to be used were unsuccessful even though an appeals court had placed a stay on the execution. The Catholic-majority Supreme Court, otherwise eager to defend the sacred principle of fetal life, removed the stay without comment.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Time for a Car-Bike-Pedestrian social contract

I joined other members of the astute and tireless advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, last Saturday for part one of a citizens’ inspection tour of the Manhattan-Bronx bridges and surrounding neighborhoods to help them develop plans for pedestrian and cyclist safety. There were 40 participants on foot and bike for the two-hour on-site review, a testimony to TA’s organizing skill and capacity.

Their plan is to develop and submit recommendations to the area’s community boards, the appointed bodies with no formal powers but tremendous wallop. When the CBs declare their opposition to a zoning change, a liquor license or a street routing change, it’s pretty much dead. Conversely, CB support has been crucial to the growth of the city’s large network of bike lanes and other traffic control measures.

The context is that the city is witnessing a relentless toll of pedestrian fatalities and injuries, the latest occurring in the Zone of Death around the West 90s in the Upper West Side where someone seems to get wasted by a car or bus every week. Ironically, there was a serious accident involving a teen on 106th Street the day after our TA tour just a few blocks to the north.

As a cyclist who travels to pretty much all the areas in and around New York City, I can attest to the relative caution exercised by lower Manhattan drivers who, unlike their counterparts uptown and in the suburb-like further reaches of Queens, will not try to punch through yellow lights to speed past an intersection. Aggressive pedestrian traffic inhibits them as there are just too many distracted people on the streets risking life and limb.

Distracted being the operative word here—people are just not paying attention, and of course the cellphone phenomenon has made everything ten times worse. When cycling, I come close to ramming someone engrossed in a text at least once per hour, on average, many of whom have not yet realized that bike paths are not sidewalks but actual lanes of traffic with moving vehicles on them. Other bikers, especially but not exclusively delivery guys, ride against traffic on the lanes or one-way streets, dangerously jump red lights, detour to sidewalks and generally make life miserable for everyone. And drivers are hardly blameless though in fairness they tend to be pretty well behaved below 59th Street.

I have come to the conclusion that the entire city will have to relearn the use of our streets if we are to avoid continuing mayhem and permanent mutual annoyance, which is rising to dangerous levels. I see people becoming increasingly exasperated with the blithe disregard for basic street etiquette that has always been rampant here but is now getting out of hand. It won’t take much for a few individuals to be triggered by an incident into a meltdown with violent consequences.

Mayor De Blasio has called for a concerted effort to reduce traffic casualties, which he has named ‘Vision Zero’, meaning zero fatalities, and that’s an admirable start. But part of this vision has to include a recognition that the density of our city, its greatest asset, also means we have to learn and adopt a code of behavior, just as we subway veterans do when we board the MTA. It means putting the damn smartphone down when you’re on the street or stepping to one side when using it, taking seriously the concept behind a curb and a stoplight, and understanding that all kinds of machines can whiz past you whether you hear them coming or not.

New York led the way on getting tobacco use out of our bars and restaurants. Its time for us to get hip to another public health urgency: the need to move around our crowded urban spaces with a little sense and without the need to take the hand of adult.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

De Blasio appointments show he just may be for real

Our new mayor, Bill de Blasio, gets booed in Staten Island and has attracted the scorn of the Daily News for his intention to get rid of horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. His PR operation can be rickety; his statements aren’t always honed to poll-based precision to capture just the right calculated appeal to key constituencies. (Anthony Weiner would have been a genius at it.)

But when it comes to naming the right people for top jobs, de Blasio is looking like a truly progressive guy trying to get some work done rather than suck up to the already powerful. His schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, is a former teacher, not a tool of the privateers. His corporation counsel immediately reversed the city’s stubborn resistance to a settlement in the Central Park 5 case. At Human Resources, de Blasio named a public interest lawyer straight from Legal Aid.

One area I know intimately is the health department where de Blasio put my Columbia colleague, Mary Bassett, in the top spot. Bassett knows HIV from years working on the issue in Africa. She has now left many of us dumbfounded by naming Dr. Demetre Daskalakis to be her assistant commissioner for HIV prevention. This appointment is so disorientingly great I momentarily thought I was living in Finland.

Many of us know Demetre from his work in the nocturnal haunts that the city health department used to spend its energy shutting down. For years he has set up shop in the few remaining sex clubs and bath houses to offer HIV and STD testing right on site, a brilliant and winning strategy obvious to anyone but public health sex-proctors.

From the announcement:

After completing his training [Columbia, NYU, Harvard] and moving to New York City in 2005, Dr. Daskalakis established himself as a leader, innovator, and spokesperson for people living with HIV and gay and bisexual men. He pioneered programs that brought HIV testing, vaccination, and other vital medical care into bars, clubs, and bathhouses to reach men at risk of HIV and other infectious diseases. In 2013, he played a vital role in helping stop an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis among men who have sex with men, running community events that vaccinated over 2400 men, an estimated 10% of all men vaccinated in NYC as part of the outbreak response.

It’s breathtaking to think that someone who has spent years doing the patient work on the ground, rather than in any of the comfy desk jobs he could have had, will be in charge of formulating strategy. Deskalakis’s tenure at DoH could and should mean a radical new openness to try prevention approaches that actually work by taking into account the sex people are having rather than them the sex disease specialists think they should be having. We might actually have a chance to drive down new infections from the current figure of 3,000 a year (a goodly chunk of the 50,000 nationwide).

A friend recently predicted to me that De Blasio was heading for a single term, that the knives were out for him from the big power-players. His election may indeed have been a fluke that happened only because no one gave him a chance until the last minute and so couldn’t mobilize against him. But this brilliant appointment suggests that de Blasio and his team are interested in results more than their own careers. It’s refreshing, however long it lasts.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Australia leads biped dash for rocky cliffs

The ‘Conservative’ government of Australia just engineered the repeal of that country’s carbon tax, a late, weak attempt to stave off the destruction of our habitat. But as the measure was introduced as, and in fact is, a tax, i.e., a sin against all things righteous and profitable, inflamed opponents furiously campaigned against it from the outset. The Conservatives built their strategy for a return to power on eliminating it, and individual Australians were cheered by the idea of taking back a few dollars from hated gummint-led social engineering to spend on bungee jumping and lawn mowers.

Except that global warming will destroy Australians’ need for lawn mowers faster than anywhere else as they live on the earth’s dryest continent. This is an admirably stark and illustrative example of why my blog is titled as it is—one could call it a ‘textbook example’ except that that presumes someone will be around to read it.

The prior Labour government’s action to reduce greenhouse gases by making companies (and eventually their clients) pay a tax for the environmental damage they were causing—that was the truly conservative act of present-day prudence to guard against future disaster. Think of it: a tax on immediate gratification that can be avoided by postponing consumption or, alternatively, fixing the carbon footprint to stave off tough times in the future. But the self-styled ‘Conservatives’ appealed instead to people’s desire for more fun today, for fiddling like grasshoppers and mocking the industrious ants.

On all sides we see similar signs of our current system’s inability to stop itself from self-destructive behavior, a precise parallel with the addict’s helplessness in the face of their drug of choice. Economist Wolf Richter writes today that a major bank, UBS, is advising its ‘wealth management’ clients (i.e., the filthy rich) to get out of over-priced assets like stocks and junk bonds as the next financial panic approaches. Yet no one in the airy palaces of power can do anything to stop the onrushing train.

Wolfgang Streeck writes longform in New Left Review that capitalism itself may be putting its own head in the noose at long last by destroying the regulatory and redistributive limits that have kept it healthy. He argues that by winning all the battles and getting their way in everything, the moneybags have dismantled the very system that enabled them to grow and thrive. One need not be expert enough to judge the details to see the similarities in these accounts—that we are a species that doesn’t know when to quit.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

MH-17: Arming Favored Proxies

If war is ‘an area of uncertainty’, as Clausewitz famously said, then arming rump militias to go to war for you must be a formula for uncertainty times ten.

Some leftie sites are quick to float all sorts of conspiracy theories suggesting that a Russian-backed, separatist militia did not shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight #17. One guy whose observations I otherwise respect even asserts his conviction that it was the Ukrainian government itself.

This is the sort of stubborn monotheism that even astute dissidents are prone to slip into. I had a friend from Czechoslovakia years ago who said that when Pinochet staged his coup against Allende, all the liberal-minded people in her artsy set assumed it was a good thing since their own regime denounced it. A statement isn’t automatically false just because it was quoted on Fox News.

Putin probably thought things were going swimmingly for him given his successful snatching of Crimea and the ongoing chaos sown in the eastern Ukraine by his proxy irridentists, an imitation of his equally winning strategy in Georgia. You make sure your friends are armed and supported and can make permanent, militarized trouble for unfriendly governments, and you undermine their authority in quite satisfying ways.

In fact, it’s exactly what Reagan did by arming the contras and basing them in Honduras to weaken and finally smash the Nicaraguan revolution. But then there is this bitch of a thing called unintended consequences. We’re seeing it now with the flood of Honduran and Salvadoran refugee kids trying to escape from the hell our government left behind by pursuing its selfish, geopolitical aims.

Now Putin has to deal with the horrific embarassment of having enabled his version of the Tea Party border patrol with anti-aircraft missiles without encouraging them to learn the difference between a military and a civilian aircraft.

Our ‘security’ establishment is equally eager to arm local agents and set them off to move our chess pieces around the world map based on our supposed interests of the moment. Syrian rebels, anti-Khaddafy Libyans, anti-communist Afghan islamists, coke-dealing contras, you name it—everyone one looks, there are heavily armed agents of ours, theirs, or both at once. But hey, turns out it’s a lot easier to set them loose than to rein them in.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Hearing Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist who died yesterday at age 90, was the honored guest at a P.E.N. gathering in New York years ago that I attended in the 1980s, long before I moved here permanently. She talked about her four-year project writing The Burger’s Daughter, apartheid and the outlook for her country’s future, which at the time looked particularly bleak given the Reagan government’s open sympathy with the white racists.

I don’t remember much of what she said except that she was charming and amusing and looked so tiny and fragile that a strong wind would blow her over. But she did express great admiration for the leadership of the South African liberation movement, and when one questioner mixed them up with those of Zimbabwe, also experiencing an anti-colonial struggle, she corrected him. I can’t speak for the quality of leadership in that country, she said presciently, only in my own.

At the time, we thought all the fighters against settler colonialism in Africa were great guys, but Gordimer was on to something as we have seen since. Today, any comparison between Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe looks laughable.

I saw her speak a second time in Durban, South Africa, at the International Conference on AIDS in 2000, which I attended as the executive director of Chile’s first AIDS prevention and advocacy group, which we founded in 1988. She was on a luncheon program at a satellite meeting about South African youth and the HIV epidemic that was ravaging their ranks. (And is--the country still has the worst epidemic on earth in absolute terms, some 5 million+ infected citizens.) She shared the platform with Danny Glover.

Glover is a pretty good actor and apparently a wonderful guy with his heart in the right place. His remarks were incoherent—a string of rhetorical bombast about HIV (bad) and young people (good). The audience, dazzled by his celluloid fame and thus ready to proclaim him a prophet of Yahweh, stood and cheered deliriously.

Gordimer spoke of the AIDS prevention campaigns then current, the messages being drummed into the heads of South African youth about condom use as a protective measure. She commented on the impact of this, for her, rather startling deconstruction of the sexual act, what it meant for the mechanics of the conjoining of human bodies to be outlined in this way as if the dangers of the act of love could be reduced to the avoidance of a deadly virus.

Her meditation was challenging and, well, novel. It also flew directly out the windows, past the heads of the lunchers who stirred their salad forks lazily and clapped a bit at the end to be polite. Gordimer’s thoughts might interest eggheads like me, but Danny Glover was in the movies. It was a sobering moment for those of us who view the Nobel Prize in Literature with a certain awestruck veneration.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Comfy academic shills for continued bourgeois bliss

Yet another book about the financial crisis of 2008 is out, this one trying to sum up centrist contemporary wisdom in one easy volume. It is entitled, with painful predictability, The System Worked. Without having seen or heard of the author, one can easily conjure a vision of the chin-stroking Boston professor who sat in his book-lined study to pen this tome with a carefully built arsenal of selective evidence. Good for reviewer Jonathan Kirshner who has the patience to dismantle it in equivalent detail and pound a stake into its heart with this closing paragraph:

High finance, drunk on systemic risk, drove its Maserati ever more recklessly until it inevitably crashed, totaling the real economy. Inside the car, the seat belts held and the airbags deployed. Emergency crews rushed to the scene. Climbing from the wreck, finance dusted itself off and expressed regret about the unforeseeable accident. Its government-sponsored no-fault insurance promptly provided a shiny new replacement. As public officials tossed over the keys, they gently asked if a bit more care might be taken on the roads, a request barely audible over the sound of screeching tires. The system worked especially well—for some.

Yes, ‘The System’ scored a success in keeping the wheels turning and preserving the wealth and privilege of the wealthy and privileged. But the fact that it did not completely collapse last time does not mean that it will survive the next financier assault.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Goodbye to independence day

The brilliant Kara Walker exhibit at the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory on the Brooklyn waterfront closed yesterday, and I’m a bit sorry I didn’t go back to see it a second time over the July 4 weekend. The main holiday celebrating liberty and freedom is certainly a great occasion to be reminded of our slave history.
Walker called her installation “A Subtlety,” which is pretty hilarious given that the main piece was a 30-foot-tall sugar-coated statue of a slave mammy. And yet there were elements that seemed to escape viewers entirely.

The cavernous space, which once thrived on the labors of millions of doomed slaves in the Caribbean and Brazil (where the death rate among laborers was so appalling that slaves preferred the tender mercies of U.S. plantation life), is now empty except for a few rusty pieces of equipment.
Scattered throughout the hall on a more accessible scale were eerie slave boy sculptures made of molasses, which were slowly melting in the heat.

Some commentators have raised objections to the insensitive behavior of tourists snapping yuk-yuk selfies at the rear of the mammy, which prominently displays her massive vulva. But as all art students know (and this city’s full of them), how we react to a piece reveals us as much as the work. Some people thought slave women’s sexual availability was a big joke back then. ‘A Subtlety’ demonstrates it.

One approaches the sphinx-like mammy from a distance, and with all the cellphone cameras clicking away, . . .
it looked to me as if the entrants were raising their arms in worship.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Obama on the sidelines

The London Review of Books offers a refreshingly sour perspective on Obama’s foreign policy though the author, David Bromwich, does not characterize it as a ‘doctrine,’ which would suggest internal coherence. But Bromwich detects a pattern, and I suspect he is not only right about Obama’s approach to international affairs but to governing in general.

The author comments that Obama has suffered a string of bad luck in his second term (Obamacare rollout, VA scandal, Ukraine, Iraq) but, significantly, notes that he seemed ‘far from the scene, looking on, we were made to think, with concern and understanding’. Bromwich doesn’t rub it in too much, but he could easily have said, pace Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “That’s what you married me for!”

If we look back to the magical days of the 2008 campaign, it was precisely Obama’s vaguely soothing reassurances—emphasis on the ‘vaguely’—that gathered such force in his campaign to distinguish himself from Hillary the Inevitable, blow-dried Edwards and the raft of familiar Washington figures like Biden. Obama played on his role as the unusual (read black) guy, the outsider making a historical statement, to argue for a renovated American polity capable of overcoming historical tensions. By lucky accident, his campaign coincided with the meltdown of the catastrophic Bush II government with both Iraq and Wall Street collapsing in front of our eyes.

We didn’t realize until early into his actual administration that Obama’s hold-hands-and-sing rhetoric meant exactly that: he would wait for an elite consensus to develop while murmuring soft background notes, then dutifully carry it out. But he had no interest in, nor stomach for, the political art of confrontation and refused to contemplate the possibility that it might be required of a sitting president. In Obama’s world, the rich and mighty are never enemies, merely players on a variety of teams. He is not a coach driven to win, but a referee with a whistle.

Here’s how Bromwich sums it up:

Obama is adept at conveying benevolent feelings that his listeners want to share, feelings that could lead to benevolent actions. He has seemed in his element in the several grief-counseling speeches given in the wake of mass killings, not only in Newtown but in Aurora, at Fort Hood, in Tucson, in Boston after the marathon bombing; and in his meetings with bereft homeowners and local officials who were granted disaster funds in the aftermath of recent hurricanes. This president delivers compassion with a kind face and from a decorous and understated height. And that seems to be the role he prefers to play in the world, too. . . . Obama roots for the good cause but often ends up endorsing the acceptable evil on which the political class or the satisifed classes in society have agreed. He watches the world at its most important spectator.

The author illustrates this thesis with a telling example from the Ukrainian debacle: the role of a fairly minor State Department official named Victoria Nuland who became notorious after a tape recording was leaked (probably by the Russians) of her saying the EU could go fuck itself. Nuland is married to a known neocon and apparently had free rein to pump up the Maidan revolt with no particular supervision from her ostensible bosses in Washington. (One wonders if Hillary might have been paying more attention than goofy John Kerry.) Nuland and others like John McCain showed up in Kiev to hand out cookies to the protesters, which doesn’t look too smart in retrospect—imagine the feelings in Washington if Russian politicians were publicly running around Mexico City to pump up protests against NAFTA.

There’s also a long and shamelessly self-serving piece in the Washington Post of last week by an Iraqi-American Bushite operative that denounces the Obama team for ruining a perfectly good outcome in the Iraq debacle. The article is a disgrace, blaming Obama for not reining in Maliki when it was the author himself who created the guy and engineered his ascendance through the ranks to prime minister.

But the pattern described is the same one that Bromwich sees: a largely passive acceptance of whoever seems to be in charge, gentle prodding that is quickly abandoned in the face of resistance, rhetorical endorsement of the ideal outcome with no real strategy for achieving it, a permanent wait-and-see attitude that leads to incremental actions instead of quick and decisive ones, et cetera.

We had a huge opportunity in 2008 to make a clean and vigorous break with massive looting by the financier class and the war-making adventurism of the neocons. Obama had a huge mandate and comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress. We mandated a historic and transformative leader and instead got an Observer-in-Chief.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

My 4th

Though there isn’t much overtly patriotic about standing around watching colored explosives after a barbecue, celebrating the Fourth of July nonetheless stirs our rebellious hearts in some subtle ways. It’s almost impossible to think back on the audacity of our Founding Fathers and not ask ourselves how we are reacting to oppression and injustice today.

It’s also hard to accept that a person or a society is powerless to effect change when we look back at the weak and unorganized colonists daring to confront the mighty imperial power headquartered in the British Isles in 1776. And yet they did, and they won. Matter of fact, American imperial domination isn’t looking terribly hale today either, despite all that hardware and those many “boots on the ground.”

There is a spirit stirring throughout the land, and it is a Spirit of ’76. It is not terribly articulate, and it is not well organized. It is not a single thing, and the fissures and divisions within it are more obvious than the unifying threads. The manifestations of this spirit are not uniformly benign, and sober leadership is not immediately apparent. The ruling elites, to judge from their arrogance and crude displays of grotesque excess, are spectacularly insouciant about any threats to their continued pursuit of limitless greed.

What is missing is an emblematic incident, a case that symbolizes and embodies the unfairness baked deeper and deeper into our polity, something to electrify the vast majority that sees its conditions of life steadily deteriorate while the uber-rich accumulate power, wealth and kitschy art.

We await the Rosa Parks of the 99 percent.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Evil, lesser evil

After posturing as the friend of recent immigrants in 2012 when he needed the Hispanic vote, Obama is now scrambling to figure out how to speed up deportations as tens of thousands of minor children seek refuge from the horrendous violence plaguing their countries of origin.

The flood of kids braving nightmarish, months-long trips from Central America through lawless regions of Mexico to escape gang impressment, threats, murder and general hopelessness has exposed the conditions the U.S. is directly responsible for in those countries. Reagan openly boosted the neonazis in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s to stave off reform; Clinton wrecked the Mexican economy through NAFTA; and Obama winked at the right-wing coup in Honduras that hardly anyone noticed at the time. As long as U.S. interests were safeguarded, none of them gave a shit about the costs. Now we see them.

Today, all four countries’ principal export seems to be little kids trying to escape the open-air prison camps of Tegucigalpa and San Salvador or the relentless slaughter in Michoacán, Morelia, Juárez and Tampico. All this has been extensively documented and reported, should anyone care to examine the evidence.

Meanwhile, our Republican friends, predictably, are insisting that these little brown people should just go back where they came from. But surely a more humane proposal will be forthcoming from the reasonable, decent-minded Obama team. Right?

That would be the same Obama who has presided over record numbers of deportations during his time in office, some 2 million at last count. Now he has asked for special executive authority to “speed up” the onerous process of finding out if a given child really is facing violence, kidnapping, or death back home. Such a lot of work! USA Today reports:

Under that [current] law, most of the unaccompanied minors being caught by Border Patrol agents must be handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which coordinates care for them, finds them safe housing and helps advise them on their legal rights as their immigration cases are decided. The president is now asking Congress to amend the law in a way that would allow Border Patrol agents to render a deportation decision themselves and quickly deport the children back to their home country.

All righty, then! No need to worry about parentless, fleeing children who may be forced into a short, violent gang life once they’re sent back. Just “speed up” the process so that we aren’t inconvenienced. Then we can get back to the important stuff: shaping our electoral message for November so that the bad-guy Republicans get blamed for their mean attitudes toward Latinos. Vote for us! We’re not that bad!

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Hobby Lobby tradition

Everything about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case, from its name to the ruling itself, echoes the 1950s, a Father-Knows-Best fantasy world of small-town, white America where men went to the office and women kept house, with plenty of free time to stitch needlepoint pillows and pursue “accomplishments” like Jane Austen heroines. The Court majority, which ruled companies can object to healthcare packages on religious grounds, is determined to push us back there despite the anachronism, forgetting that Reagan smashed the postwar social contract that made the ‘50s possible.

Reagan made sure that corporations got all the rewards of growth without sharing any with its workforce and thereby propelled women into the labor force. He guaranteed that the stay-at-home mom would die out. Now, hobbies and leisure time of any sort are such a luxury that the women who sell the Green family’s stuff will have to save their hobbying dreams for old age.

Some commentators are pointing to the lousy science behind the court majority’s mistaken assumption that the contraceptive methods the Green family, in the form of its corporate personhood, objected to were abortifacients when they’re actually not. That misses the point. The right-wing crusade in defense of “life” is not really about abortion at all as the current attack on all birth control is illustrating with admirable precision: it’s about getting women back under control.

Underneath the assault on all women’s reproductive autonomy is a partially hidden primary target: black women. It was the Hyde Amendment to prohibit Medicaid financing of abortion that opened up that wedge in which reproductive concerns are separate from everything else. That division keeps growing year after year, and who is most inconvenienced by that? Women whose ancestors’ bodies used to be the repository of value for slaveowners who “bred” them and disposed of their human output for cash.

In those days, frequent pregnancy and childbearing was encouraged; as soon as slavery ended, black population growth had to be suppressed through the “Mississippi appendectomy” (involuntary sterilization) and other means. Now the fight has moved into new terrain, but the principle remains the same: as long as black and other poor women cannot determine when to bear children, they and their families can be dominated. The ideological vehicle with which to accomplish this control may need to vary with the times, but the rich don’t really care about sexual mores; they care about money.

Which is not to say that some individuals do not feel strongly about sex, birth control and abortion as well as gays, extramarital cohabitation and whatnot. But the sustained, right-wing attack over the “social issues,”which continues in this miserably politicized verdict, was first mounted to bring Christian conservatives into the Reaganite counter-revolution and enable him to reposition the rich at the top—which has now been accomplished quite handily. If they had needed to push in exactly the opposite direction and denounce motherhood as a commie plot, they would have done that, too.

The Green family was thought by some to be an example of those sincere objectors of conscience in the anti-choice movement. But then a tragicomically hilarious sign of the indifference of the Hobby Lobby owners to their own supposed core religious beliefs surfaced in this Mother Jones article from April outlining the investments made by the same allegedly pious types in all sorts of birth control products.

A columnist at Forbes picked up on the story and lambasted the Greens as world-class hypocrites.

While I may not agree with the legal position Hobby Lobby has taken in their lawsuit, I always stand in admiration of those willing to fight for their constitutional rights when they believe they are being taken. Hobby Lobby is entitled to no such admiration—only contempt. You simply can’t say that you will give your all in defense of your closely held beliefs when it suits you while seeking to make money in violation of those beliefs.