Sunday, 23 November 2014

Are we heading toward a new era of open racial conflict?

Life in New York is a good metaphor for American society despite our city’s anomalous characteristics. We take for granted that the world is comprised of a variety of diverse peoples who look different from each other, wear particular if not peculiar clothes, speak a variety of languages (160-some at last count within the five boroughs) and generally carry with them a couple of extra identities on top of officer worker, husband, mom, or whatever. We think we get along pretty well and start from a default position of broad tolerance for the annoyances that spring from all these multitudinous approaches to existence. We know that not everyone agrees on how things should be done and for the most part just get on with it, with or without complaint.

But underneath that superficial togetherness is a profound gap in real empathy, a deceptive and self-deceptive liberalism that masks some pretty strong intolerance. This state or affairs may sound unfavorable, but it is probably the best we can hope for—mutual respect whatever one’s personal feelings about chadors, loud subway voices, gentrifiers, sagging trousers, or smug white people. If we conform to minimum standards governing our social behavior, no one is asking us to like everybody else or think they’re swell. It’s the subtle but essential difference between acceptance and respect—I insist on the latter even if my sex life, child-rearing practices, ideas, or personal habits are repugnant to you. And vice versa.

If all social groups and ethnicities shared more or less equally in the bounties of our economic and political system, these rough edges might theoretically fall away over time such that ensuing generations would be more similar than unique and habits of life and mind would became less conflictive, even potentially. But since that is far from the current case, any sudden strains are likely to exacerbate these latent tensions. That’s what I see bubbling to the surface on all sides.

The most glaring example is the relentless litany of race-tinged police abuses that keeps dominating our news cycles. The latest is the completely astounding cop killing of an unarmed guy who committed the suspicious act of walking down the stairway in his apartment building with his girlfriend. How even a rookie cop with an itchy trigger finger could have thought it appropriate to fire into a dark stairwell without the slightest provocation is a mystery even Bill O’Reilly would be hard pressed to justify.

Meanwhile, the Ferguson grand jury is about to emit its decision on the Michael Brown killing, and in advance all the usual pious voices are heard insisting that violent reactions are a big no-no. Never mind where the violence has come from to date and double-never mind that without sustained outrage from local residents, nobody would be paying the slightest attention to one more black kid dead on the sidewalk. Without outrage and threats, the white media wouldn’t give two shits about Ferguson. Now that we have outrage and threats, the outrage and threats—not Darrin Wilson’s acts—are the big CNN story. Shame.

You see the same phenomenon on message threads following any of the black-kid-dies, like the North Carolina teen found hanging in a playground under suspicious circumstances. Instead of accepting that there is a long history of lynching and excessive police force against young black males, indignant commentators insist that anyone highlighting the story is ‘race-baiting’. Close on their heels come the neo-klansmen insisting that the real victims are police officers and/or beseiged white people.

Beneath this steady rewrite lies the unconscious guilt complex of middle America that is convinced the distressing history of slavery ended in 1863 by magnanimous Abe Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Lynch mobs, the KKK, Jim Crow are all in the past, and African Americans should stop complaining and ‘take responsibility’ for their situations, just like everyone’s favorite granddad, Bill Cosby, always said (in between wine parties with young starlets). Never mind that incarceration rates are the highest in history (thanks, Bill Clinton, the ‘first black president’!), voting equality is being reversed all over the Confederacy, and six cops can choke Eric Garner to death in broad daylight.

As we build up evidence that late capitalism is incapable of providing the majority a decent living, distractions like race and ethnicity will be more and more important to the cozy and powerful who must deflect the attention away from their own privileges. Count on the captured corporate media to pump up white fears and rescript the ongoing assault on the powerless as something, anything else.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Who enables the murderers of Mexican youth?

Those people paying attention to things beyond the football stadia of America will have noticed that the police, drug gangs and the Mexican government recently conspired to kidnap, torture and slaughter 43 rural college students who dared to object to the way things are run in their country. Half the country is up in arms (metaphorically speaking, for now) over the horrific incident, one of many tens of thousands of cases of people disappearing or turning up dead in that country, with heads displayed in public thoroughfares, hanging from bridges, etc., etc.

Mexicans blame the profoundly corrupt political class for the sorry state of their nation and these crimes, as well they should. They also blame the police forces, known as the enforcement wings of a variety of narco gangs, and the military, which stands by placidly while the citizenry is chopped to pieces, not so metaphorically. Not much of all this reaches the pages of our newspapers or our iPhone screens, and until the slaughter reaches our own states—which, incidentally, I think will happen in due course—people will continue to think it’s something happening down there with which we have little to do.

But there is one key element of this story that is directly related to us, and I do not refer to our insatiable national appetite for the mind-altering substances whose sale constitutes the Mexican gangs’ most lucrative criminal activity. No, I refer to our banks’ essential role in laundering the profits.

The highly entertaining William Black, professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, lays out in tragicomic detail the latest of many episodes of bankster impunity, in this case the ongoing scandal of Standard Chartered’s bosses’ resistance to any punishment for their vast criminal enterprise. Standard Chartered was fined $667 million by New York State and federal regulators in 2012 for tens of thousands of felonious transactions in defiance of a U.S. ban on fund transfers to Iran and is now howling with offended outrage at this terrible persecution.

As Black notes, the reasonableness of the ban itself is ‘not within my areas of expertise.’ However, he continues,
I guarantee that Standard Chartered’s officers did not aid Iran in evading U.S. sanctions because they conducted an investigation and determined that that Iran was not actually seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The question is irrelevant to the bank’s behavior, says Black, because Standard Chartered’s officers’ conduct reveals to us that:
. . . they would enthusiastically aid any nation in violating sanctions in order to develop, deploy, and use weapons of mass destruction for genocidal purposes. If Iran isn’t that nation, then we will all have experienced immense luck that Standard Chartered’s officers’ crimes didn’t lead to massive losses of life.

But that doesn’t mean that bankster crimes haven’t led to ‘massive losses of life’ elsewhere, which brings us back to Mexico. It was no more than a year ago (January, 2014) that HSBC, the huge British-based bank, agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle—without criminal penalties—its long-standing cash-recycling services to the cartels. This follows the 2010 Wachovia wrist-slap for laundering a staggering $300-plus billion for the same friendly guys. Argentine journalist Andres Oppenheimer wrote about Citibank’s narco dry-cleaning operations 20 years ago, in which that U.S. bank got off scot-free.

In short, banks are and have always been complicit in the rise of the drug gangs, and as long as there is profit to be made and regulators to be bought off or intimidated, they always will. Without sustained and consistent prosecution of money laundering with severe criminal penalties applied to the perpetrators, including loss of their ill-gotten gains and prison terms, U.S. and other banks will happily do the narcos’ bidding and enjoy their slice of the proceeds in fancy London and Manhattan bars with hot babes on their arms. Or as Black says, quoting J.K. Galbraith, Do not confuse good tailoring with integrity.

The reason this will continue to occur is that the worst bank clients, i.e., kleptocrats, assassins and con artists, will pay the juiciest fees to bankers. If no one is minding the store at the government level, supervising banking activities and punishing crime when it is discovered, the worst bankers will rise to service these worst customers. It is painfully clear to anyone with a working brain that banking crimes are now considered part of the fun and that no real penalties will be extracted from those engaging in them. Moral opprobrium and ostracism, which once might have been feared by white-collar crooks, are now sufficiently old-fashioned that few need fear them—a possible exception might be for those who provide funds for the Islamic State, though we will have to wait and see on that.

Our banks are, in Black’s terse and descriptive phrase, ‘recidivist criminal enterprise[s],’ [plural mine]. They plundered us all through mortgage fraud, Libor and foreign exchange market rigging, and other crimes too numerous to list. No one engaging in these felonies is ever punished, and the responsibility for that, I regret to inform the Democratic faithful, lies at the feet of outoing Attorney General Eric Holder and his boss, one B. Obama.
Their failure to rein in the rampant criminality at the apex of our financial system makes them directly complicit with the horrible deaths of the 43 Mexican students and that country’s agony. Does that sound harsh?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

NSA v/s the ACA--who got the computer mojo?

It’s a little eerie to watch Citizen Four, the documentary about the handling of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the vast Peeping Tom network at the heart of our government, just as the Obamacare Web site is open for Year 2 of its sorry business.

On the one hand, Snowden’s revelations that we’ve now been reading about for a full year, demonstrate the enormous sophistication and reach of the electronic apparatus now in the hands of the shadow state, its creepy capacity to track our movements through metadata, know our buying habits, map out our social networks, pry into our financial affairs, and of course—as soon as they want to explore further—read our mail. The amorphous, ever-expanding, interlinked blob of “security” enterprises has turned information systems into a finely-honed tool to ‘collect it all’ in their own words, to amass every detail about us, to be called up and analyzed at the right moment—as determined by them.

Ostensibly, it is all to prevent terrorism. Practically and independently of the good intentions of this or that cog in the bureaucratic wheel, it can and will be used to crush dissent.

Meanwhile, the informatics in use for the Affordable Care Act, intended to provide certain millions of previously uninsured Americans with health coverage so that might have the minimum access to a doctor, is a pile of junk. Despite the embarrassing 2013 debacle and a full year of re-preparation (added to the four years since passage of the Act itself), the problems with the clunky and user-unfriendly system still are not fixed.

As Lambert Strether writes in Naked Capitalism under ‘The Crapified Magic of the ObamaCare Marketplace’ the awfulness of the front-end (interface, readily obvious) software is matched only by the awfulness of the back-end (resolution, not apparent until it goes wrong) software. Therefore, not only is navigation almost impossible for tech-savvy, knowledgeable and alert ‘consumers’ (an offensive term in itself as no one should have to ‘consume’ their way to the right to health), but also the likelihood is enormous that users eventually will experience a screw-up in coverage due to the federal health insurance exchange itself (i.e., not the insurance company policies’ predictably vast shortcomings), through miscommunication, wrongfully applied payments, coverage dating errors or any of the million details involved in the infernally complex Kafka-world of health insurance.

Anecdotally, of course, some people are having good experiences with their ACA policies, and good for them. In a program of this size, that’s inevitable. But because of the founding, neoliberal principles of Obama/ RomneyCare’s origins, designed to strengthen the role of financier intermediaries in health provision to help them extract more rent, such happy outcomes will be the exception rather than the rule.

When the state wants to snoop on us, it knows exactly how to do it. But when it is supposedly trying to provide its neediest citizens with a very modest boost in their wellbeing via the signature program of the Obama Administration, it hasn’t got an effing clue.

Bug or feature?

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cuomo knifes Working Families (Party)

You have to admire the glee with which our newly re-elected governor, Andrew Cuomo, displays his sleaze. (It’s no accident that he gets along quite well, thank you, with his New Jersey counterpart, the incomparable Chris Christie.) The spectacle of Cuomo’s easy win for another four-year term was better than a swords-and-sandals movie and had just as many bodies on the ground at the closing credits.

Cuomo ran on the usual right-wing platform now sold to us as “centrist”, featuring his opposition to taxes, a direct echo of the Republican concept that public services should be provided for free, preferably using slave labor. He is a big star among the LGBT groups for leading the charge on marriage equality, but he is notoriously friendlier to big business than to the labor unions that, like faithful Democrats, back him no matter what.

The Working Families Party is a fairly effective, leftish vehicle that has built a modest influence through campaigns or all sorts that combine organizing with strategic use of ballot clout. They often endorse Democrats but will sometimes run a competing candidate even when the split could favor a Republican victory.

They had a dilemma when the time came to decide what to do about Cuomo’s re-election, and at first they drafted the remarkable Zephyr Teachout to be their candidate, promptly dumping her when Cuomo held out a juicy deal. Cuomo promised to help push the recalcitrant state senate into the D column to eliminate the Republican veto over progressive legislation in exchange for WFP’s endorsement. They signed on for his campaign, and Cuomo immediately set out to destroy them.

Cuomo had a huge warchest for the campaign that he could have shared, but he did little or nothing to help Dem candidates around the state. Not content with reneging on his agreement, he went a step further and created (with the horrible, snake-like Christine Quinn’s assistance) the Women’s Equality Party to siphon votes away from Working Families and then trash-talked them as irrelevant radicals.

The outcome has been an historic disaster for WFP as Teachout ran a sterling campaign as an independent and garnered an amazing 35% in the primary against Cuomo, very possibly ruining his national ambitions. Had WFP stuck with her, they would now be seen as a group not to be trifled with; instead, WFP struggled to attract the votes needed to retain their fourth-place ballot line and were unceremoniously pushed into fifth by the Greens.

It’s going to get worse very soon as Cuomo has been waiting for the election to be over to re-authorize fracking, further deepening the outrage at this phony liberal. But the error may serve as a good lesson for WFP if it returns to its progressive roots and exercises greater skepticism when dealing, as it inevitably must, with ambitious thugs.

I’m sympathetic to them and have voted their line in the past. An independent third, fourth, or fifth party is good for the state and the city, and it’s helpful to have an organization that can both mount a picket line and compete on the ballot. WFP’s painful experience as an expendable concubine in the Cuomo harem will not soon be forgotten, and I’ll be interested to see how it reacts in coming months.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The pointless mid-term elections

Our network airwaves here in New York are full of the hateful, mind-numbing political ads that pop up as Election Day approaches and make any sane person hate “politics” as thus represented. The parade of clich├ęs is stunning: the winsome family portraits (with dog), the grainy images of the opponent with the horror-movie voiceover, the Mr. Sincerity shot of the candidate looking into the camera to recount what a reformer/upright guy/defender-of-all-that’s-right he is.

Like clockwork, our local politicians or their surrogates appear at the subway entrances as well, an activity they never engage in during the rest of the year when they are serving as our representatives. That’s because they have no interest in mobilizing us for collective well-being or raising our consciousness about issues (as opposed to about themselves). Sure, they’ll attend our civic activities and even support them—in exchange for a chance to get their hands on the microphone and remind us of their careers. But this is merely piggybacking on community mobilization that has already taken place.

At the national level there is a lot of election parsing among the increasingly narrow band of insiders who remain interested in electoral outcomes and care whether Mitch McConnell takes over from Harry Reid in the Senate. But the average voter, who may be fairly accused of apathy, ignorance and general selfish disinterest in the polity as a whole, also may correctly conclude that the differences on offer are not meaningful. The examples multiply.

For example, our supposedly liberal governor, Andrew Cuomo, has made lower taxes a centerpiece of his campaign. Tax demonization is key to the right-wing worldview: we should NOT pool our resources to help the weak but rather starve government and let nature take its course, i.e., the rich and powerful get to keep everything and toss crumbs to everyone else through charity. Obama has tracked this ideology faithfully by enabling the bankster mafia and “sequestering” non-defense spending, driving down progressive government activities as efficiently as any Reaganite. So Cuomo’s adoption of this rhetoric legitimizes the anti-state worldview—why should anyone rush out to support that?

Our turncoat Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman (whom I once admired), is showing ads of himself handing weaponry and equipment to the cops. This in a city plagued by repeated acts of police violence and deeply entrenched structural racism that turns every black kid into a ready target for arrest and saddles him with a criminal record as a matter of course. (A 20-something acquaintance was just jailed overnight for a cycling violation—something that would never happen to me.) Meanwhile, Schneiderman had a golden opportunity to use his office to go after Wall Street crimes left untouched by the Justice Department and the national Democrats, and if he had done so, he could have run on that.

But instead, he sold out for a seat next to Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address and a phony task force appointment that quickly disappeared down the memory hole. (Check out these fancy promises from 2012—did anything come of them?)

On pretty much any political issue of substance, the two parties manifest varying degrees of horribleness. In some cases the rhetoric from one side is superficially more reasonable until one stops to consider what those spouting it are actually doing. Inequality has suddenly become a big deal, and the Republicans are almost gleeful about it. But the Democrats have been much more efficient in actually generating the gross disparities in income and the financial sector’s seizure of growth gains. So would you rather be stabbed in the chest or drowned in a bathtub?

Nonetheless, I will exercise my right to universal suffrage because if there’s anything worse than electoral politics, it’s their complete absence, and I’ve experienced that, too. Elected officials ignore us, for the most part, and then bamboozle us when they are forced to pay attention. That’s in the nature of our rapidly collapsing system, but their biennial servile posturing, distasteful as it is, is one of the few ways they actually need us to do something, as opposed to passively watching them behave with impunity. It’s important to cling to this slight power, fragile as it is, and utilize it attentively.

[Next: my secret votes revealed!]