Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Prodigal Mess

Foolish, foolish people, what have you done?

As the markets melted yesterday and billions in imaginary wealth evaportated, habitual debtors and idiot spendthrifts all over the country sat on their couches watching the numbers and quaking with fear. The party is over, and it's time for the children to metamorphose into adults.

This is assuming, of course, that they have the capacity to do so.

A few years ago I was working for a property appraiser in Bakersfield, and in that capacity frequently visited the city's newest upscale suburb, Haggin Oaks. Even though the American economy was chugging along at that time, I was appalled by what I saw in this fools' paradise, where the nouveau-riche were building enormous McMansions and imagining themselves the heirs of the Hapsburgs. Some of these piles were silly imitations of Renaissance French castles, with turrets and stained glass; others were incredibly tasteless examples of the style I call Vegas decadent. At the time I figured probably 90 percent of the owners of these ridiculous pretensions were in way over their heads.

One day as I got out of my car in a post office parking lot, I was nearly run over by a huge, red SUV. This thing was really enormous, and it disgorged a woman so tiny she had difficulty getting down from her high perch. She had her small boy child in the passenger seat, and was able to reach up and lift him out of this Sherman tank with some difficulty. But what do ease of access and egress matter when you're driving the monster everyone else envies? So don't bother me, we'll waste as much gas as we want! And I thought the same thought watching her that always popped into my head driving through Haggin Oaks.

"Who the hell do these people think they are?"

Andrew Bacevich, author of "The Limits of Power," was interviewed recently on PBS by Bill Moyers. Washington Post reviewer Robert G. Kaiser wrote that Bacevich's slender volume describes "an America beset by three crises: a crisis of profligacy, a crisis in politics and a crisis in the military. The profligacy is easily described: What was, even in the author's youth several decades ago, a thrifty society whose exports far outdistanced its imports has become a nation of debtors by every measure."

In his interview with Bacevich, Moyers quoted from the book: "The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the U.S. government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part of through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad."

This is the philosophy of fools, and it permeates American society from top to bottom and back again. It's at the top, however, that this foolishness, raised to a pitch of absolute hysteria, is at its worst. It has led us into the Middle East generally and Iraq specifically, in an idiotic attempt to secure the petroleum resources to continue a way of life that has no future -- a way of life Dick Cheney has called "non-negotiable."

At the bottom, where most of us live as what our capitalist masters insultingly refer to as "the consumers," it has led to bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger-box stores and endless vistas of strip malls, and unconscionable levels of frivolous and self-destructive debt. These debts have now matured, and borne a bitter fruit.

We've sold our souls and our Madisonian heritage for a pile of garbage.

All of this recalls the parable of the Prodigal Son, in Luke 15:11-32, and while that story ended happily, God only knows how our story of prodigality and foolishness will play out.

The Hieronymus Bosch-inspired painting of the Prodigal Son is by Russian-born Chicago artist Andrei Rabodzeenko.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A World Made by Hand

Are we ready to go back to small-scale enterprise? To more things made by artisans or by small factories? To a slower, smaller, less frenetic world?

We'd better be ready, because when the process of de-capitalization happening now has run its course, that's what kind of a world we'll find ourselves in.

As the great 700-billion-buck bailout sank like a stone today and the markets melted before our eyes, we could no longer doubt that the massive re-ordering of the capitalist domination of our lives is under way. It's going to be a rough transition, but it's not all bad.

The AOL financial news page ran an excellent (for a change) article describing eight specific examples of how our lives are changing today as a result of the collapse of mega-capital. These are worth commenting on one by one.

1. Credit Card Limits Reduced
Even if you have a high credit score and a blemish-free payment history, your credit limit may have been cut. American Express recently cut the credit for 10% of its cardholders, but most banks have reduced credit limits for some customers since last summer.

Smaller credit card limits mean that people won't load as much debt onto them. That's good, because credit card indebtedness right now is at critical mass. It has to be reduced for the sake of our economic health, and we need to re-learn the virtues of saving. You're going to see more and more of this from now on.

2. Student Loans Yanked
It's not just banks and mortgage lenders that are suffering. The student loan industry is in crisis. Private lenders are going under and some state agencies and large banks, including Bank of America and Wachovia, have stopped issuing student loans.

This is better than it looks. Others will disagree, but I've long considered the student loan industry as it's developed over the last 25 years little better than the great credit card swindle. Students in recent years have been borrowing unrealistic amounts of money when they could make do with a little less and work more to make up some of the difference. Excessive and prodigal borrowing for college isn't sacred just because it's for college. It's just like reckless borrowing for anything else, and another example of living for today and saying "To hell with tomorrow."

3. Money Market Mutual Funds Safer
To stave off investor panic after one prominent money market fund "broke the buck," or posted a small decline in value, the government has promised it would cover any losses. Not all funds are covered in the new program, so check with your fund company if you are worried.

Good call, gov. Because of the intimate connection between mutual funds and the retirement prospects of millions of workers, this protection is needed.

4. More Incentives to Open Bank Accounts
One result of the credit crisis is that banks are trying their darndest to attract more deposits. Chase is currently offering $125 (at least in New York City) to open an account with direct deposit. Citibank is beefing up its "Thank You" rewards program. Refer a friend, and Bank of America will give you both $25.

Yes! We need to learn how to save money, not spend it like there's no tomorrow, plus spend money we don't have. See comment appended to item #1 above.

5. Easier to Get a Loan With Good Credit
Don't forget, even in the current crisis, banks want to stay in business. So they are continuing to make loans to borrowers with with good credit records and plenty of assets.

6. Harder to Get Loan if You Have Weak Credit
If you have a tarnished credit history, don't expect to get a loan any time soon -- even if you're willing to pay high interest rates. Banks continue to tighten their lending standards as the credit crisis deepens.

So ex-management of WaMu, Lehman, etc., you guys standing there with your bare sterns, did you learn anything this time?

Numbers 5 and 6 are actually one number, and they're pretty much a no-brainer for any society that takes itself seriously and has any self-respect. These should be laws, not rules or principles.

7. More Store Deals Ahead of a Weak Holiday
With the economy slowing and family budgets tightening, retailers are anticipating a tough holiday sales season ahead. So they are layering on the deals early. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when the holiday shopping season kicks off, should provide a bonanza of deals. Consumer electronics will offer particularly good buys.

Yay! Let's go shopping at one of the big box stores that survives the collapse. But we're not spending too much! We'll set a strict limit before we go.

8. Investment Returns Are Down
The stock market has taken it on the chin in recent weeks. But sharp sell-offs on bad news have been followed by major relief rallies a day or two later. The worst thing you can do is panic and sell at the bottom.

Stocks are the big question mark for the future. Once the metdown is all melted down, I'd expect market activity to be drowsy and sluggish for years. The age of the capitalist pirates and their magic paper ships is over.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Devil

The Devil is an abstraction. He comes from us, which means in the end he is us. He's real, but not the same way God is real, God being our name for that which never changes.

The Devil is the worst part of human nature, and his face is in the faces of evil and degraded people. Did evil exist before there were humans? You can see the devil's eyes and mouth in the face of a sadistic bully, but could you ever see God's face?

All evil in the world is done by the Devil or caused by him. Most of the good in it is inherent. People under the Devil's sway are in bondage.

The Devil's enemies are first, anybody who rejects him, and secondly, St. Michael the Archangel, but he's another story and another day's blog.

Tarot card, XV - The Devil, by Catboxer.


These days even hard-core Republicans are questioning veep candidate Nimrhoda the Huntresses's qualifications for the job, or lack of them. Here's a little excerpt from Katie Couric's recent interview with this towel-mouthed loser:

Couric: You've cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?

Sarah Palin: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and, on our other side, the land-boundary that we have with Canada. It's funny that a comment like that was kinda made to … I don't know, you know … reporters.

Couric: Mocked?

Palin: Yeah, mocked, I guess that's the word, yeah.

Couric: Well, explain to me why that enhances your foreign-policy credentials.

Palin: Well, it certainly does, because our, our next-door neighbors are foreign countries, there in the state that I am the executive of. And there…

Couric: Have you ever been involved in any negotiations, for example, with the Russians?

Palin: We have trade missions back and forth, we do. It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there, they are right next to our state.

Aargh. Britney Spears visits the Brookings Institute for Foreign Policy Studies.

Besides exhibiting some confusion about how many heads Vladimir Putin has, this is a shocking display of ineptitude. It's embarrassing. Do we really want this braying jackass meeting with foreign heads of state?

Elsewhere, people are discussing whether Nimrhoda the Huntress is attractive. I find her to be singularly unattractive, in a way that's peculiar to loud, ignorant fanatics.

The question isn't whether anybody, even a primitive humanoid, can sit grunting in the Oval Office. Dubya proves that such a thing can indeed happen. What we need to ask instead is whether allowing that to happen is a good idea

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Non-Temptation of Unsaintly Catboxer

I'm pretty much alone here in the desert, kind of like St. Anthony, although my case is certainly less extreme than his was. The mercury still climbs past the 100 mark every day, even though it's *officially* fall, and there are very few people around. In the morning a golf cart goes by once in a while, but by the time the afternoon heat is at its peak there's not a soul to be seen, and the only sound is the wind in the palms. Even the birds are still.

Whether my solitude is by choice or necessity I can't really tell; Anthony's was self-imposed, because he wanted to be alone with God. Grace proved elusive, however, and was preceded by years of grueling mental torture, or "temptation" as Anthony's biographer Athanasius of Alexandria would have it. Alone in the Egyptian desert, isolated, and removed from any human habitation, Anthony was first afflicted with boredom, laziness, and incessant visions of naked women. These the saint overcame with constant intense prayer.

But the devil wasn't done with Anthony. Enraged that the hermit had neutralized his first attempt to break his will, the evil one attacked Anthony and beat him severely, mercilessly, and constantly.

The isolated psyche is the mind of a lunatic.

Local villagers who came to visit him in his cave found Anthony battered and unconscious, and carried him to the hamlet's church, where he spent some time recovering in the society of other humans.

Anthony refused to accept defeat, however, and returned to the desert, this time going even farther into the wilderness, and took up living in an abandoned Roman fort where he spent the next 20 years. There he was tortured by ferocious beasts, snakes, and scorpions, who threatened to rip him to pieces. But eventually he overcame all his trials, and found bliss.

I didn't ever plan to be alone in the desert, and don't intend to stay any longer than I have to. Any religious convictions I might have are considerably less intense than Anthony's, and even if they were more pronounced I don't think I'd be willing to undergo what he did to arrive at an unknown destination for unstated purposes.

I think I'll go back to civilization and hang out at coffee houses, where I can search for the meaning of life by conversing about it with other philosophically-inclined humans, preferably attractive, prosperous young females, although aging men of limited means like myself will certainly do as long as they're not idiots or blowhards. For I've experienced nothing here in the desert that could even remotely qualify as a temptation.

I think it was Aristotle who said that "In order to live in isolation, forsaking all human contact, one must either be a God or beast." This is another way of saying too much solitude makes us crazy.

Note: the oil painting painting "The Temptation of St. Anthony" is by Peter Howson. The saint's ordeals have been interpreted by many artists including Hieronymus Bosch (twice), Martin Schongauer, Matthias Grunewald, and Albrecht Durer, among others.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Galileo's Law of Falling Objects

When I look at the headlines I'm speechless. What is there to say about a collapse of this magnitude? A divided and disoriented government staggers and stumbles like a steer that's been hit a glancing blow with the death hammer.

I went to my bank's depositors' website today; the new owners greeted me warmly and assured me that it's safe to keep the money I live on from day to day flowing into my WaMu account via direct deposit -- the ghost of John Pierpont Morgan calmly telling me I'll still be able to buy bread and eggs and oranges in October. It's good enough for today.

Is there an upside to this mess? Maybe.

This may be the end of Pentagonia. The Empire is falling fast, and assuming that Galileo's law of falling objects, is as applicable to the social as it is to the physical sphere, it's falling a greater distance every day than it did six, twelve, or 36 months ago. If our mindless, destructive, and expensive project of ruling the world is truly at an end, there may be a glimmer of hope for both our economic survival and our democracy...

Scholars still debate the significance of economic factors in the collapse of the Roman Empire, with some arguing that the ancient giant was prosperous right until the very end. In the case of the American Empire, no such debate will ever occur.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Every Life Ends Badly

A middle-aged guy thought he had it made. He had a good job that brought in plenty of money, and he was respected in his chosen profession. The job wasn't always fun, but sometimes it was, and anyway everybody has to sometimes deal with the not-fun parts of working. That's why they call it work.

This fellow was married to a lovely woman who loved him above all else, or so he thought. She wasn't perfect, being a somewhat shallow and superficial person, but considering her physical beauty, her passionate nature, her devotion to him, her easygoing demeanor, and her steadfast faithfulness and stability, he couldn't have asked for more. Her parents spent more time "visiting" than he liked, which is to say, they were like a couple of unwanted props from central casting as far as he was concerned, but considering his wife's virtues and positive attributes, he was mostly willing to overlook that.

He was an accomplished musician, and in fact in his younger days had made a living in gin mills and beer troughs all up and down the west coast. But he gave that life up for something more respectable and reliable after he realized he'd been bitten by the alcohol bug, and besides, a bar musician's life is too unpredictable and peripatetic for any but the young.

He loved to drive by himself, and in his prime would take long, solitary overnight trips in the great Southwest desert, or three-day tours of selected California missions. He saved money for the future, but mostly lived for the moment. One golden moment followed another, with never an indication that the good times might abruptly come to an end.

He lived in a three-bedroom house he loved, even though it was in a bad neighborhood. Above all else he enjoyed sitting on the patio at night and smoking as he listened to the drone of traffic on the freeway, a mile's distance from his little paradise, recalling Jonathan Coulton's lyrics:

And as the freeway hums the cars go by;
The headlights roll across the sky;
Many miles away but I can see them speeding through the dark.

The truth is, it never really was paradise; it was an illusion. The house was an old, shabby, cheaply-built tract home, and the town he loved so well because it was just the right size and easy to live in is distinguished by alarming levels of air pollution. So as our guy who had it made sat smoking on his patio, his lungs were combining cigarette smoke and the chemicals from the fouled atmosphere like a pair of catalytic converters, and he was giving himself emphysema.

There were other elements of his ideal life as well that were not quite as ideal as they appeared on the surface.

Then he retired from his job, and thereafter, in very quick succession, lost his wife, his home, his prosperity, and his manhood, and found himself sitting in a travel trailer in a desert wilderness asking himself where his life had gone. He was old, sick, and alone.

Siddhartha, before he became the Buddha, left the palace he had grown up in for the first time, and took a day excursion, accompanied only by his charioteer. About a mile down the road, Siddhartha saw an old man. He had never seen one before, and his charioteer had to explain why the man looked the way he did. Siddhartha was horrified.

The next day they went out again and saw a sick man. Siddhartha was horrified. The day after that, the prince saw his first corpse. He realized that everyone gets old, gets sick, and dies. He wondered what was the point of life, seeing as how every life ends badly.

He spent the rest of his days trying to answer that question.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bad Bob on the Meltdown

I woke up this mornin' and all my shrimps was dead and gone;
I was thinkin' about you, baby, why you hear me weep and moan.

I got dead shrimps here, ooooh, someone fishin' in my pond...

Everything I do, you got your mouth stuck out,
And the hole where I used to fish, baby, you've got me posted out

I got dead shrimps here, 'n' someone fishin' in my pond...

Now you taken my shrimps, baby, you know you turned me down;
I couldn't do nothin' until I got myself unwound.

--Robert Johnson
"Dead Shrimps Blues"
Recorded in San Antonio, TX, 1936


A guy bought an old house in, let's say, upstate New York. He got it cheaply and sight unseen, knowing it was a fixer-upper.

As it turned out, "fixer-upper" was an overly optimistic euphemism. The main timbers, door surrounds, and window casings were dry rotted and mushy. Windows were cracked, broken, or warped, and the floor full of soft spots, rotted carpets, and loose boards. The roof was all patches and shambles; the brick fireplace and chimney crumbling.

But the foundation was solid, and in the end there was nothing to do but tear down the entire decrepit superstructure and have it hauled away. Starting with a time-tested and integral foundation, the property owner built a new, modest, but functioning house and lived in it the rest of his life.

If we look at the current incarnation of American government, how can anyone doubt that this enormous and rotten system of patronage and payoffs, this swollen bureaucracy of executive departments and do-nothing agencies (did you know the Fed has and Energy Department that's supposed to give it a handle and some control over our energy situation?), this gargantuan and parasitic war machine, this incipient dictatorship and secret police apparatus, needs to be demolished and utterly swept away, right down to its foundations.

Our foundation -- our Constitution -- is solid, and could serve as the basis for a new government. But it needs to be shored up by a constitutional convention which acknowledges and deals with new realities that didn't exist in 1787 -- the rise of big capital and of big capital's illegitimate, quasi-governmental power, and the advent of the ubiquitous electronic media that plutocratic rulers since Mussolini have eagerly employed to manipulate gullible and vulnerable populations with a relentless blanket of fascist propaganda.

This country was founded on the idea that the welfare of the people is the object of government, and that it exists to serve us. Jefferson believed, and so do I, that when a government to longer serves its own people and oppresses them instead, it needs to be demolished, and another government erected in its place.

We still have some valuable real estate (although its value has been undermined somewhat by the global warming enabled by this corrupt and now insolvent government). We still have a solid foundation. We still have an educated and skilled work force, willing and able to scrap the so-called "service economy" and return instead to making things of value for a living.

But we've reached the point where things absolutely must change fundamentally, and we can no longer tolerate the oppression and tyranny of this rotted and insolvent government of plutocrats, fascists, Wall Street swindlers, and terrorist warmongers.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Another Neocon Terrorist Attack

Nancy Pelsosi said today in so many words that she's not buying that piece of garbage that Paulson is faxing over from the Bush White House.

WASHINGTON -(Dow Jones)- U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday that Congress should not write a "blank check" to Wall Street in a bill to allow the U.S. to buy up distressed assets.

In a statement issued Sunday evening, Pelosi said a Treasury proposal received by Congress "does not include the necessary safeguards" and that congressional Democrats "will not simply hand over a $700 billion blank check to Wall Street and hope for a better outcome."

I hope she does as good as she talks. And some members of Congress are expressing themselves in even stronger terms. One Democratic House member whose name was not revealed sent this e-mail, obscenities and all:

Paulsen and congressional Republicans, or the few that will actually vote for this (most will be unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of their policies), have said that there can't be any "add ons," or addition provisions. Fuck that. I don't really want to trigger a world wide depression (that's not hyperbole, that's a distinct possibility), but I'm not voting for a blank check for $700 billion for those mother fuckers.

Nancy said she wanted to include the second "stimulus" package that the Bush Administration and congressional Republicans have blocked. I don't want to trade a $700 billion dollar giveaway to the most unsympathetic human beings on the planet for a few fucking bridges. I want reforms of the industry, and I want it to be as punitive as possible.

Henry Waxman has suggested corporate government reforms, including CEO compensation, as the price for this. Some members have publicly suggested allowing modification of mortgages in bankruptcy, and the House Judiciary Committee staff is also very interested in that...

And it goes on in a similar vein.

We need more lawmakers like that one, to get things done and shock Sarah Palin. We also need a bailout that's a two-way street, with lots of mortage contracts rewritten to reflect current house values and strict accountability for lenders, with appropriate punishments for rule breakers.

As usual, I gathered all this information from Atrios at Eschaton.

Bush and Paulson are trying to use the fact that Wall Street traders are still nervous and unpredictable to stampede Congress into rubber stamping their 700-billion-dollar taxpayers' bailout of finance "industry" pals and cronies.

Bush is using panic to try to blackmail us into robbing ourselves -- again.

Read this story in the New York Times about the Democratic response, then get ready this bright Monday morning for us to all ask Hank Paulson, loudly, and with one voice, "Are you out of your goddamn mind?"

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Asleep at the Wheel

It's four in the morning;
I'm on the road;
It's raining, it's cold,
and I'm all alone.

Peace is at hand, now;
Peace is at home,
forever wrapped up
Deep in your arms.

Miles behind me;
I'm all alone.
I'm cold, cold to the bone.
Asleep at the wheel,
Asleep at the wheel,
Asleep at the wheel,
Now you're gone

Red lights are flashing,
And the traffic moves slow.
I'm up on the shoulder;
They'll never know.

People will crowd you;
People you know;
They'll laugh; they'll always show.
Asleep at the wheel,
Asleep at the wheel,
Asleep at the wheel,
Now you're gone.

Asleep at the wheel,
Now that you're gone;
Asleep at the wheel,
I can't carry on;
Asleep at the wheel,
Now you're gone.

--Tom Hegarty
"Asleep at the Wheel"

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The New Stone Age

Barry Ritholtz is an economist who writes a blog, The Big Picture. Even though he's sophisticated, which is to say an actual expert in these matters, Ritholtz usually writes in a way and on topics that laypersons can comprehend, with a little effort.

"The Underlying Basis of Credit & Finance,"one of today's posts, is a must-read if you're at all interested in the financial meltdown, the collapse into insolvency of the United States, and the end of civilization as we know it. It's very short, by the way, and very precise about why we're where we are at this moment.

Ritholtz locates the causes of the present disaster in the years 2002-2007, the time of the Great Housing Boom. A sample:

Since real estate loans are at the bottom of all of our current credit woes, let's take mortgages as an example. The historical basis for making a loan for a home purchase was several simple factors: Employment history, Income, down payment, credit rating, assets, loan-to-value ratio of the property, and debt servicing ability. But for some crazy reason, those factors went away during the housing boom.

That may sound simple, but it becomes even more stark when viewed over a time line.


<-1 million B.C. --------------------------- (2002-07)2008->

Actually, that's about half of it. It's very much to the point.

So I guess all of us except the really super-duper rich are going to find out what One Million B.C. was like. Kind of takes you back to freshman anthropology class, doesn't it? and the voice of the old professor saying, "In those days they used Crude Stone Tools. But they were not as crude as they used to be because this was the New Stone Age."

Anybody reading this who knows how to knap flint, please post how-to instructions on the net somewhere before the plug gets pulled and we're all sitting here grunting at each other by candlelight.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Helter Skelter

What's scariest of all is the panicky herd behavior of investors and Wall Street playaz. The Dow's risen 700 points in the last two days just on the word from Treasury Guy Paulson that he's got a magic bullet.

The details of this plan haven't been revealed. Until we know the details, we don't have any idea who's going to be doing what to, and for, whom.

But just on the announcement that the high priests can work their paper magic and "fix the problem," the money crowd moves hysterically and in a mob, riding the roller coaster back to the top.

They're a bunch of mindless hysterics running first in one direction then the other.

So what happens when they find out there is no magic bullet? That you can't just make billions of dollars of bad paper disappear? That somebody has to pay? That this is not a "liquidity problem;" it's an insolvency problem?

This is the second time this has happened in fewer than 100 years (79 years exactly since the last one), and I'm telling you, this is no way to run an economy and a country. It's literally crazy and insane, when you consider those morons in nice suits, nearly all of them nothing but yes-men and yes-women, crazy I say to allow them to run a major world economy.

Capitalists never think. They're just bundles of reflexes and loose ends, and their economic cycle always follows the same pattern: a slow recovery, then boom, mania, panic, and collapse.

Some things have got to change.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Curtain Comes Down

Went to sleep last night, I was feeling fine,
Then I dreamed it was 1929.
The radio crackled with the buzz of doom
As the fog of despair filled living rooms.

The crumbling skyscrapers, the suburbs on fire;
Toxic landscapes stinking like burning tires,
And the toothless hag croaks, “Let’s make a deal,”
To has-beens trying to scrounge their next meal.

I dreamed the proud city was become
A wilderness. The shocked and numb
Victims watch the High Priests as they peel
Off the wax that holds fast the Seventh Seal.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Washington Mutual is in very big trouble, and it's America's biggest bank. This is a critical issue for me because I'm one of the millions of people who have money on deposit there; both a savings and a checking account in my case.

I never chose WaMu. I originally opened a checking account with First Interstate Bank, because they were the first to have branches in more than one state, and I traveled a lot at the time. This was 20 years ago.

First Interstate folded and became Home Savings. Then Home Savings was sold to WaMu. I became a WaMu customer by default, and now the default is about to screw millions of us.

I only learned about how severe this problem was by monitoring the tireless atrios, whose priorities are more balanced (as far as I'm concerned) than anybody else's.

Atrios links to the "financial infotainment" page Minyanville, which quotes a New York Post article saying federal regulators are discussing a possible buyout of WaMu with JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, among others, then notes ominously, "the issue for Washington Mutual remains this: will a buyer step up to prevent customers from withdrawing deposits?"


"At what price could an offer take place? Given the deteriorating situation in credit markets, it is very unlikely an offer would come at a premium to the current valuation and may even be offered at a steep discount. The reality, however, is that the board should consider whatever offer comes their way, even if it does come at a discount. Every day without a decision thus far has brought another day of shrinking value."

Washington Mutual stock is now trading at $2.01. A year ago it was $39.25. Standard and Poor's recently downgraded the bank to triple-B-minus, which is the worst kind of junk.

Even more distressing for WaMu depositors, Atrios links to an AP story which notes that Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's insurance fund "has slipped below the minimum target level set by Congress..." Keep in mind that we're talking about the nation's largest bank.

We're looking at the real possibility of systemic collapse. Welcome to 1931.

Anybody wanna call me "Chicken Little" now?

Atrios comments, "Assuming no buyer shows up, market wisdom suggests the strong likelihood that some upcoming Friday, at about 8PM EST, the FDIC will quietly add it to their failed bank list. And then the FDIC will probably need to be bailed out."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Desert Hot Springs in my Rear View Mirror

Every night I dream I'm seeing Desert Hot Springs in my rear view mirror.

God, I want to get home. Once I get there I'll never leave again.

My wife dragged me to this dreadful place, where life went sour and ugly. I somehow managed to forget that this is part of Southern California.

SoCal has no future. Everything is sprawled all over the map, and you have to drive enormous distances to get anywhere. Clean, breatheable air is a memory. In the long haul, there won't be enough water. Besides being a literal desert, it's a cultural desert.

Ugly is what it is. And for me, lonely, sad, and depressing. Please, God, get me out of this trailer park.

A friend of mine says she might have a buyer for me. Or she might not. Either way, I'm cleaning out the big shed today, getting it ready for the next owner.

I'll make one trip north with a vanload for storage. Then I'll return the van to Desert Hot Springs, pick up my car, the insecto amarillo, give the keys to whomever, and be gone from here -- "gone like a cool breeze" as the Chuck Berry song* says. I'll motor up the coast, into the fog and mist of Big Sur. I'll take it slow and easy, stop in San Fran to see my little girl, the belly dancer (the light of my life), and then ease on up 101. After the Oregon passage, I'll be home with Mom.

I'll be there for her departure.

I just can't wait to see Desert Hot Springs in my rear view mirror.

*"You Can't Catch Me"

Monday, September 15, 2008

Mattress Time

Wouldn't you know it took a British newspaper to report this. From the Financial Times of London, via Firedoglake, via Atrios:

The Fed added that it was suspending a rule that normally prohibits deposit-taking banks from using deposits to help finance their investment banking subsidiaries to allow them to fund activities normally funded in the repo market on a temporary basis until January 30 2009.

This sounds to me like the Fed giving permission to the banks to take our money and throw it into the breach. Trying to fill a nearly-infinite vacuum is what they're doing.

Atrios calls it "mattress time." He's right.

WaMu will fold

If you have money deposited at Washington Mutual, get it out. WaMu is going down, possibly in a matter of days. Today Standard and Poor's downgraded the huge investment bank to triple-B-minus. That's deep junk.

When this insolvent pile of garbage goes, the Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation are going to be caught between Scylla and Charybdis, as literary types like to say. I'm not sure they can "create" enough money to back insured deposits, because that bank is so huge. Technically they can, but if they do, they'll degrade the value of the dollar so severely that we might lose our medium of exchange, and they know that.

The Fed is on the hook for Fanny and Freddie, which together have 200 billions of assets, graciously supplied by the Fed, and six trillions in debt, much of it bad debt. So the Fed is already overextended. The action they take -- or don't -- when WaMu goes under may determine a) whether we still have a dollar by Christmas, or b) whether instead people like us with money deposited in the Washington Mutual bank will lose it all.


Ever wonder what it was like to be alive in 1931? You're about to find out.

"STOCKS PLUNGE AFTER LEHMAN FILES FOR BANKRUPTCY," screams the banner "breaking news" headline at the Yahoo! finance page this morning. "MERRILL LYNCH IS SOLD AND AIG SEEKS CAPITAL."

One big investor says that he thinks 1000 banks will fail over the next few months, and ghoulishly adds that this will "create opportunities for investors."

So do garage sales, asshole, and America has now become, as Jim Kunstler points out, "Garage Sale Nation."

"Everything is for sale and nobody has any money," he adds, not mentioning that credit is also just about impossible to find these days.

Those of us who are not high rollers and investment bankers don't know what comes next. Will it be hyperinflation, or will the bottom drop out of prices and rapid deflation be the order of the day?

One thing is for certain, however, and Kunstler is adamant about this: the Democrats and Barack Obama have now found their campaign slogan, if they're smart enough to use it and hammer on it:

"At least one thing ought to be clear," Kunstler says; "this has happened due to the negligence and misfeasance of the regulating authorities, namely the Republican Party, and that now all the hoopla surrounding Sarah Palin can be swept away revealing that group to be what they actually are: the party that wrecked America. I hope one or two Barack Obama campaign officials are reading this blog. You must commence the re-branding of the opposition right now. The Republicans must be clearly identified as, the party that wrecked America."

We're in for hard times for sure, but as the last Great Depression before this one showed, hard times energize people to act in their own best self-interest, and if the war machine, the Empire of the Pentagon, and the predatory banking-and-credit system that have ruined this country are casualties of the wreck, it will turn out to be a good thing in the long run.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Headline of the Week

"Hallucinogenic chocolates doom Berlin sweet shop"

(Lithograph, "Newsboy" by Carl G. Hill, 1938.)

Closer than You Think

I got into a conversation on a political discussion board with a guy who loves Republicans and hates Democrats. At one point I said:

I don't know why you persist in thinking the opposite of "Republican" is "Democrat."

It's kind of like thinking the opposite of "Coke" is "Pepsi."

Actually, the opposite of Coke AND Pepsi is clean water.

And the opposite of Republican and Democrat...I'll let you figure it out.

To which he replied:

That's because it WAS THE DEMOCRATIC LEANING INDEPENT people who reacted opposite of the Republican leaning independents.

I have no idea why I bother. I guess it meant something to him, though, and I guess everybody has to be somewhere.

At any rate, what I was driving at is that the opposite of Republican AND Democrat is something outside of, different from, and not kindly disposed toward our current political system. I'm talking about the whole political system -- Republicans and Democrats -- because the whole system is corrupted beyond redemption, and the government in Washington, no matter who's in control, has become a vast system of payoffs and patronage.

And here's something else: this dinosaur of a politico-economic-military system which rules us is closer to being overthrown than anyone realizes. For one thing, the system itself is very shaky. It's on the verge of insolvency, has an increasingly difficult time, in its swollen and bloated condition, just meeting day-to-day commitments, and is viewed by a growing majority of citizens with an active combination of contempt and hatred.

Plus, so many people are disgusted and angry with what's happened to them and to us as a country that it wouldn't take much for millions of them to take to the streets in our major cities. We might soon see a replay of the "velvet revolution" that exploded in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late '80's and early '90's and brought down the so-called "Evil Empire." All it would take would be a combination of a couple of things occurring simultaneously, say five-dollar gas and 25 percent inflation per month for a couple of months running, for many, many people to simply stop going to work and get out in the street and raise hell.

We're talking people who have been foreclosed after a fast-talking salesman sold them an adjustable-rate mortgage loan on the assurance their property would appreciate in value forever, people who have had to declare bankruptcy because of debt caused by medical bills, people who have been laid off and can't find work because the job market has dried up, people who have jobs but have to ride the bus home standing up and pregnant, with swollen ankles, wondering how they're going to make this month's gas and electric and phone bills after the house payment, truck drivers who support families, and who are seeing their profits eaten up by five-buck diesel fuel, and people like me who are simply disgusted with the direction the country has taken and with this corrupt political system which has enabled capitalist gangsters to bring us to ruin.

I'm talking people whose real wages, on average, have shrunk by $1175 a year in 2007 dollars over the last seven years, while their household expenses have risen by $4665, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That would be all of us.

These are the kind of people who are potential revolutionaries, whether they're aware of it today or not.

We have no idea what, if anything, will follow the overthrow of this rotten politico-economic-military system which rules us now. It could be a type of authoritarianism worse than we have now. It could be better (a restoration of the Republic!). Or we could go through a difficult period of transition, followed by gradually improving economic and social conditions. However, irrespective of what's going to happen, take a long, honest look at the system and you'll see that it's so extremely rotten that, like the old Soviet Union, it won't take that much of a push to topple it over.

The government of Republicans and Democrats, the economy of chattering advertisers and slick salesmen, and the military empire of weapons contractors and Pentagon bases in other people's countries will come down like a rotten, waterlogged pier under the pressure of a couple of vigorous shoves, because the system has lost confidence in itself, and it's losing its nerve.

And Democrats are not the opposite of Republicans. They're just not fascists. That's about the nicest thing I can think of to say about them.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Memory Hole, Part MDCCLXXVI

Okay, I see what's happening. Because Ms. Mooseburger tripped over her AK-47 on a fishing expedition-type question from Charlie Gibson re: The Bush Doctrine, the troglodytes on the radio and Fox and in other media are channeling the party line initiated by Teh Vampire, a.k.a. Charles Krauthammer, and trying to put the Bush Doctrine down George Orwell's memory hole.

The Bush Doctrine, promulgated in 2002, has become an inconvenience to The Party, so it doesn't exist. It never did exist! Thank you, George Orwell.

What blatant and shameless liars the trogs are!

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Disinformation hasn't done enough scrubbing. Winston Smith is lying down on the job.

And guess what? When I did a Yahoo! search for "Bush Doctrine," I was directed to (fanfare, please) the website whitehouse.gov, and the National Security Statement of 2002. The Bush Doctrine is embedded in it, and clearly articulated in the Introduction. The doctrine consists of several headings, none of which is emphasized as more important than another.

In layman's terms, the Bush Doctrine is "We can bomb whoever the hell we want and we don't need no stinking badges and you'd better not say nothing about it if you know what's good for you."

The Bush Doctrine is the Bullies' Creed.

But because Ms. Mooseburger, being as vacuous as a beach ball, didn't know this, it now has to be scrubbed from the media's collective memory in order to protect The Party's new media star, who's like an appealing combination of Britney Spears and Torquemada.

However, some of us remember these things, even though these days remembering information that is no longer "operative" is thoughtcrime. But we're not being imprisoned for this kind of thoughtcrime...yet.

"He who controls the past controls the future," said George Orwell. Well, they don't quite have complete control over it yet, but this I know: in spite of wars and occasional recessions, this used to be a pretty good country to live in until Bush and Cheney came along and decided to be pricks about everything.

Tax the Rich

They've got too much money anyway, and paying a bit of tax won't make any difference in their lifestyle, or lack of it.

McCain wants to cut taxes for everyone, at a time when the country is desperate for revenue, and its government needs to become adult enough to start thinking seriously about ways to reduce our debt load.

Otherwise the whole damn country is going to get foreclosed.

Obama wants to raise taxes for people making over half a million a year, and reduce them for those making under a quarter million. Under Obama's plan, one percent of taxpayers pay more; 95 percent of us pay less.

The exact figures, from WaPo via Bitch Ph.D. here;
Scroll down and click on the cool graphic to make it bigger.

If Obama should be elected (something I'm beginning to doubt) look for our national revenue situation to improve a bit.

Tax the rich! Then eat them!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Attack Ladies

Anybody who thought the interviewers on NBC's "The View" would throw marshmallows at John McCain were surprised this afternoon by the very tough and aggressive grilling he got from View regulars Joy Behar and Barbara Walters. I didn't see it because I don't have TV, but a writeup I saw said that at one point McCain was asked:

“There are ads running from your campaign… Now we know that those two ads are untrue, they are lies. And yet, you say at the end of it you ‘approve these messages.’ Do you really approve these?”

I don't know whether Behar or Walters asked that, but the important thing is, it Was asked.

McCain was also hard pressed by Walters cocerning his choice of Ms. Mooseburger for vice, and her anemic qualifications for the job.

CNN reports: Co-host Barbara Walters immediately questioned McCain about a remark he'd made that Palin might be the most "marvelous running mate" ever, asking, "That's not a little strong?"

"We politicians are never given to exaggerations or hyperbole, as you know," McCain joked, before praising Palin as the most "popular governor in America" and one who has united a "spark in America."

Yah Bob. I think either the CNN story or McCain, I'm not sure which, meant to say "ignited a spark" rather than "united a spark," but either way I'm calling Hockey Mama "Sparky" from now on. And if we don't watch out she might do like Dick Cheney did and spark another war.

Anyway, good going "The View," although I'm sure resident prom queen Elisabeth Hasselbeck stuck up for the old guy. And she had on the most fetching black-and-white outfit too.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Memory Hole

As soon as Winston had dealt with each of the messages, he clipped his speakwritten corrections to the appropriate copy of The Times and pushed them into the pneumatic tube. Then, with a movement which was as nearly as possible unconscious, he crumpled up the original message and any notes that he himself had made, and dropped them into the memory hole to be devoured by the flames.

--George Orwell

"Who controls the past controls the present," Orwell prophesied. The fulfillment of the prophecy was on display this morning at the White House, as reporters continued to dog administration spokeswoman Dana Perino about the regime's failure to capture Osama bin Laden.

It was then that Perino revised history and put bin Laden down the memory hole. Or tried to, anyway.

Repoter's Q: ...But Osama bin Laden is the one that — you keep talking about his lieutenants, and, yes, they are very important, but Osama bin Laden was the mastermind of 9/11 –

PERINO: No, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind of 9/11, and he’s sitting in jail right now.

Osama bin Laden doesn't exist. He's an unperson; he never did exist.

See video of this astonishing exchange.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Hurricane

Fascist absolutism came to rule the U.S.A. unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, in spite of our 33rd president's warnings to "guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." He added ominously, "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Eisenhower was the first to recognize that we had not so much defeated fascist Germany as taken over the franchise, and henceforth would have our turn at world domination, a fool's errand at which the Romans, the Turks, the French, the English, and the Germans had failed before us.

But the fact is, fascism has been with us for a long time; we just didn't notice, because authoritarian fascism existed alongside and in competition with the progressive tradition we inherited from FDR, the Kennedies, and Martin Luther King. "A house divided against itself cannot stand," said Abe Lincoln, and the fascism of empire and capital is incompatible with economic progressivism and social justice. After the late-60's youth protests against the war machine and the corporate domination of civic life, accompanied by the black liberation revolution, American fascists realized that progressivism had to be destroyed.

It's a work in progress, so to speak.

The great failing of the Democratic Party in all this has been their unwillingness to offer anything more than token opposition to the war machine. This failing was visibly manifest in the person of President Lyndon Johnson, who pushed cutting-edge progressive legislation through Congress at the same time he ramped up the Vietnam War. Conflicting tendencies and warring ideologies can't exist together in a unified country, much less in the same party, and the progressive weakness for "strong defense," emotional patriotism, and flag waving has made the fascist task of destroying them much easier.

On August 30, Jonathan Schwarz posted an essay called "Welcome to the Terrordome," which contains an economical and accurate overview of the ascendancy of fascism and the eclipse of progressivism:

When Goldwater captured the nomination in 1964 with some real psycho vibes, the liberal imperial mainstream could easily crush him—because the empire, then at its height, had the breathing room to offer lots of inducements to regular Americans. Then it was back to Nixon, a competent imperial manager.

The ascendancy of Reagan, who was just slightly less insane than Goldwater, indicated the system was under stress. Still, he was surrounded by people like George H.W. Bush and James Baker, who kept him from going off the deep end. Bush-Quayle and Clinton-Gore supervised a period of needed imperial retrenchment.

But over the past eight years, things have truly gone off the rails...

Full-blown authoritarian fascism burst over our heads with the arrival of the Iraq War. It was accompanied by an intensification of the vast and tireless propaganda apparatus that always accompanies ascendant fascism, and that produces a wall of incessant noise whose purpose is to drown out and submerge any and all contrary opinion in a tidal wave of indignant, shouted superpatriotism. From the pages of newspapers, television screens, radios, internet sites, the highly emotional (as opposed to rational or intellectual), appeal of fascism pours endlessly like hot lava from an erupting volcano. The braying jackasses of fascist talk radio, in particular, daily and hourly vomit out equal parts orgiastic exultation in the supremacy of the fascist state and crude threats, in a bullies' attempt to intimidate and silence any dissent.

Can I prove any of this? That's as easy as falling off a bridge. The United States in the last eight years has discarded large portions of its Constitution, now spies on its own citizens, and tortures people who have not been convicted of any crime. No amount of spinning these simple and obvious facts -- obvious to anyone with the capacity to be honest -- can change what they mean. Sieg Heil.

So far we've been able to say what we want about our situation and tell the truth as we understand it, as long as we don't take any concrete actions that seriously challenge the authority of the fascist regime and the iron rule of capital. But the arrests and manhandling of protesters and journalists by jack-booted thugs at the Republican Convention in St. Paul signals that the era of free speech may be coming to an end.

Some of us are placing our hopes on Barack Obama, but I think those who do will find themselves leaning on a very frail reed. The fascist noise machine is just now cranking itself up for the stretch run, and one way or the other, Obama will be crushed like a leaf.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Cul de Sac

"Shop Vac" by Jonathan Coulton

We took the freeway out of town;
We found a place to settle down.
We bought a driveway and a swingset and a dog.
You got your very own bathroom;
I got my very own workshop in the basement.

We sit around staring at the wall-to-wall,
Take field trips to our favorite mall,
Waiting for the day when all the kids grow up and leave us here.

If you need me
I'll be downstairs
With the shop vac.
You can call but I probably won't hear you,
Because it's loud with the shop vac on.
But you'll be OK,
Cause you'll be upstairs
With the TV;
You can cry and I probably won't hear you
Because it's loud with the shop vac on.

We hung a flag above the door;
Checked out the gourmet grocery store.
I bought a mower I can ride around the yard.
But we haven't got real friends,
And now even the fake ones have stopped calling

Maybe if you forget to hide the keys,
I'll take a ride to Applebee's;
I'll come home drunk on daiquiris and throw up on the neighbor's lawn.

If you need me
I'll be downstairs
With the shop vac.
You can call but I probably won't hear you,
Because it's loud with the shop vac on.
But you'll be OK,
Cause you'll be upstairs
With the TV;
You can cry and I probably won't hear you
Because it's loud with the shop vac on.

I like the Starbucks here that's better than the other one,
Because the other one's not as good.
They really need to put a light there cause it's hard to turn,
It's hard to make a left turn.

And when it's time to go to bed,
I'm still awake inside my head;
I'm floating up above the house and looking down.
I guess I gotta go back there;
I guess there never was any other answer.

And as the freeway hums the cars go by;
The headlights roll across the sky
Many miles away, but I can see them speeding through the dark.

If you need me
I'll be downstairs
With the shop vac.
You can call but I probably won't hear you,
Because it's loud with the shop vac on.
But you'll be OK,
Cause you'll be upstairs
With the TV;
You can cry and I probably won't hear you
Because it's loud with the shop vac on.

There are several versions of Jonathan Coulton performing his song "Shop Vac" on YouTube, however, the best version of the song was done in the studio and is available as a single on i-Tunes, or AOL music, or wherever you buy your 99-cent MP3's.

The painting,"Suburbia," is by Leonard Koscianski. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Thanks to Harry Shearer for turning me on to this song and to Jonathan Coulton.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Theological Disputes

I turned on my car radio yesterday morning and was treated to a theological discussion related to the presidential election. A reporter inerviewing the Dems' vice-presidential candidate, Joe Biden, asked him when he believes human life begins. Biden, a Catholic, gave a Catholic answer ("at conception"), adding that he didn't feel he had a right to impose his beliefs pertaining to abortion on other people.

Such is the State of the Union in 2008, when more voters are apparently concerned with the theological debate over the rights of Fetus-Americans than with things which have an impact on all our lives every day, such as, for example, all our wealth disappearing as the American economy unravels, or the Fed's weekend takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Citzens of the late Roman Empire were just like that. As the enemies Rome had created during her expansion grew stronger and began hacking off large chunks of the Empire, the consequent loss of revenue began to suck the capital city and the Empire's core dry. However, in spite of the barbarians at the gates, the question Roman citizens were most preoccupied with during this time was whether the Father and Son were of the same substance, or similar substance. The first Christian emperor, Constantine, convened the Conference of Nicea in 325 to settle the dispute, but even afterward this theological divide, at times nearly verging on civil war, remained hot, despite the official orthodoxy of "same substance" established by the bishops at Nicea.

In 476 the last emperor of Rome was swept aside effortlessly by Odoacer, the first barbarian king of Italy, and all that was left of the Roman Empire in the west was its religion, headed by the Pope in Rome.

Over the weekend the Fed announced it's taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We don't know what the long term consequences of a government bailout of these insolvent monstrosities will be. Together they own or guarantee some five trillions in mortgage loans, and I suppose the effect on the value of the dollar depends on just how many billions the Fed has to manufacture to keep them afloat. The relentlessly pessemistic James Howard Kunstler asks in his weekly blogpost at Clusterfuck Nation:

Why do the big deals always happen over the weekends? So the big boyz in government and finance can take off their neckties when they bargain with each other? So the markets will be closed and unable to register a response one way or another? So the shrinking fraction of the US public that pays attention to anything besides Nascar and pornography won't catch the news Saturday evening?

That's a little harsh, Jim. Besides its interest in Nascar and pornography, the U.S. public wants to know when God has decreed that a human is invested with its humanity: when it's conceived, or when it enters embryohood, or when it becomes a fetus, or when it becomes viable? You seem to think we're a bunch of lightweights, for Chrissake.

It's true that not many of us have the time or inclination to think about the consequences of the mortgage meltdown, or the energy crunch, or which candidate we think is better equipped to deal with those crises, or even how we're going to deal with the consequences of those catastrophes in our own lives. Those are complicated questions, and becoming informed about them requires study, discipline, and a rational, as opposed to an emotional approach to politics and daily living.

Better to concentrate on the stuff we know about -- the fact that Sarah Palin is a plucky, average Jill who's not intimidated by the big shots, and that God, in his infinite wisdom, knows exactly, precisely when our conjoined seeds become human, even if not all of us do.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Caffeine and Cannabis

Caffeine and Cannabis
Is all I ever need;
Got no use for heroin,
booze, cocaine, nor speed.

Caffeine and Cannabis,
It's all I ever use;
Don't worry, Mom and Dad
'Cause I don't abuse.

--Tom Hegarty
"Caffeine and Cannabis"

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Silly Season, Update I

In the middle of another idiotic presidential campaign -- idiotic largely due to the efforts of electronic media with too much time to sell to an incurious, slogan-addicted, and thrill-seeking public -- it's good to remember that the candidates really are smarter than they sound.

McCain's intelligence comes as something of a shock, what with all the "drill here, drill now" idiocy we've been hearing from him lately. And it's true that he's a bullet-headed little fascist who's never seen a military intervention he didn't like. But McCain actually knows stuff about peak oil and global warming, and even more surprising, he knows what policies would be effective remedies.

Writing in the New Yorker last month, Elizabeth Kolbert describes how McCain in 2003 "broke with the Bush Administration and co-introduced legislation to reduce carbon emissions, by, in effect, imposing a price on them. That same year, over strong White House opposition, he brought the bill to the Senate floor. (It was defeated, by a vote of fifty-five to forty-three.) In an interview with this magazine, he said that he regarded the opposition to his proposal, largely from members of his own party, as a scandal. 'I think it’s a dramatic example of the influence of special interests here in the Congress,' he said. 'It’s a combination of the utilities and the coal companies and automobile manufacturers—an unholy alliance of special interests that have made it a top priority to prevent any action being taken.' He went on to say that he wasn’t sure the American political system was up to dealing with the challenge of climate change. 'How much damage will have been done before we act?' he asked."

However, McCain is obviously more than willing to make accommodation with the very powers he condemned in the Kolbert interview, so the fact that he's smarter than he looks or sounds is cold comfort.

Obama's is a more complex case, because Obama is a more complex person than McCain. McCain is smart, but Obama is very deep, which is revealed by a close reading of his autobiography. Plus, Obama hasn't been going out of his way to sound dumb as McCain has, but he's definitely been hiding his light under a bushel.

That's what led him to throw out a sop to the Iranophobes and warheads who want to go after Putin in his acceptance speech. "I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan," Obama promised that night, then inexplicably added, "I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression."

He said this knowing full well that a military establishment as lavishly funded as ours is hardly needs rebuilding, and that we're not going to do anything about Russia's reassertion of its authority in the old Soviet Empire except complain about it. And most glaringly of all, I'm certain he's aware that Iran is not about to obtain a nuclear weapon because it has no nuclear weapons development program and hasn't had one, according to our own intelligence services, since 2003.

But that's history we've forgotten since the story broke a year ago. The mass media have forgotten, and the candidates of both parties pretend to have forgotten, and an incurious and frivolous public have forgotten that Iran doesn't have the capacity to make a bomb. The political system needs Iran to be a threat, and "who controls the past controls the present," as Mr. Orwell observed.

In his autobiography, Barack Obama reveals that he understands as well as anyone and better than most the uses and abuses of that history which has been thrown down the memory hole. When he was very young, Obama spent three years in Indonesia, shortly after the Indonesian military, in collusion with and encouraged by the CIA and the U.S. government, overthrew the Sukarno government. The coup was accompanied by one of the major bloodbaths of the last century.

Jon Schwarz at his blog "A Tiny Revolution" has read these portions of Obama's memoir and comments "...all in all, this is the kind of thing would-be presidents of the United States don't talk about. Thus, it's truly surprising that in his book Obama both (1) provides the history honestly, and (2) discusses how societies forget this kind of thing on purpose, and describes how this is a basic, terrifying aspect of power. According to Obama, 'history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth could soak up the rivers of blood.'"

The teen-ager never forgot the inside story his mother told him, a story she had learned through her association with American diplomatic and intelligence personnel through her job at the American Embassy.

Word was that the CIA had played a part in the coup, although nobody knew for sure. More certain was the fact that after the coup the military had swept the countryside for supposed Communist sympathizers. The death toll was anybody’s guess: a few hundred thousand, maybe; half a million. Even the smart guys at the Agency had lost count.

Innuendo, half-whispered asides; that’s how she found out that we had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times. The idea frightened her, the notion that history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth could soak up the rivers of blood that had once coursed through the streets; the way people could continue about their business beneath giant posters of the new president as if nothing had happened, a nation busy developing itself.

This is very heady stuff to read, especially right at this time, when this 21st-century nation of ours is busy undeveloping itself, falling apart at the seams. Obama understands this too, I'm sure, but he's not letting on how much he knows. Sometimes I wonder just how much truth he thinks we can handle.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Great Depression

Besides the unemployment stats this morning which show the jobless figure at 6.1 percent, the rate of disappearance of imaginary capital from banks and mortgage contract holders has set a new record (again).

Over nine percent of American mortgage holders in the U.S. are either seriously behind in their payments or in foreclosure.

The most recent wave of foreclosures has moved beyond the subprimes, which were the first to default, and is now harvesting a large crop of adjustable rate mortgages (ARM's). When the payment "resets" and balloons is when the default occurs, of course.

So the big shitpile got a lot bigger this summer. Now we're looking at a growing army of unemployed, most of whom have no prospects for employment any time soon because the jobs market is so tight, looking at an expanding big shitpile.

Factor in the prices of gas and food and we've got an explosive situation.

I got news for the optimists and deniers among us: these are hard numbers, and this is not "partly psychological."

She's the Best

This is another blatant brag on my daughter, who is the best in the world at what she does.

Video of her performance on the 17th of last month at the Amnesia Bar in San Francisco's Mission District is now up at YouTube.

The video is obviously not a professional job, since it was shot from someone's cell phone. But it was done from within the middle of the crowd -- a crush of people in that small space -- and captures the spirit of the event.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Don't Let the Kids See This

McCain is doing that creepy smile thing again. He's doing it on AOL and Yahoo! right now.

I guess he must have done it a lot during his big spitch.

It's weird, like he has a cactus in his drawers. It makes him look like Hannibal Lecter.

I don't want that dude anywhere near where they keep the black powder and matches, I can tell you that.

The Prophet

Grace Nearing links to Arthur Silber, a respected and sincere political blogger who, like the rest of us, eschews print and money and pursues this labor of love strictly on the internets, that mysterious and arcane series of tubes which puzzles Republican employees such as Ted Stevens and John McCain.

Arthur Silber, who writes passionately and eloquently, seems to have sunk into despair, and claims that both John McCain and Barack Obama are war criminals, McCain because he took an active part in launching the Iraq War; Obama because he is unwilling to assent to the steps necessary to put an end to it. Obama, Silber correctly perceives, is too busy accommodating himself to "political realities" to think about, say, impeachment.

Silber pointedly quotes Principle VII from the Principles of the Nuremburg Tribunal: "Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principles VI is a crime under international law." And Principle VI makes clear that an unprovoked attack, such as the one launched against Iraq by the U.S. in 2003, is just such a crime.

Then he quotes Barack Obama: "I believe if we began impeachment proceedings we will be engulfed in more of the politics that has made Washington dysfunction. We would once again, rather than attending to the people's business, be engaged in a tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, non-stop circus."

Silber concludes, "We have witnessed an ongoing series of monstrous war crimes, a genocide, countless lives destroyed forever -- but to hold even one person responsible would be to engage in 'a tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, non-stop circus.' In his speech tonight (the night he accepted his party's nomination), Barack Obama said not a word about holding anyone responsible for these crimes. But as noted above, how could he? He would have to hold himself responsible, too."

Yeah, well, you know the rules, Arthur. And the rules for Inner Party members state that you can say anything you want, and "view with alarm" the administration's "irresponsible" conduct of the war, whichever war it is the Empire is engaged in at the moment, but don't you dare take any concrete steps that might challenge the policy of permanent war.

Any Inner Party member who does that will be disappeared out of the Inner Party faster than you can say "Empire of the Pentagon, Inc."

Maybe I'm too old or maybe too jaded, but my first impulse is to write to Silber and ask, "So what else is new?" Maybe it's because I'm experiencing personal despair at the moment and don't have time or energy left to despair over the sorrows of empire. But I would like to say to Arthur, "Take it easy, man, and don't take it to heart so much. It's nothing new if you were around for Vietnam (and I was), and anyway, it was foretold by the prophet."

Barack Obama, John McCain, Joe Biden, Sarah Palin -- two of them are long-time Inner-Party old hands, and two have just recently broken into that charmed circle. But all are functionaries of the Inner Party, which has conveniently been divided into halves so the Outer Party functionaries and the proles can pretend there's a contest, sort of like a horse race. And we call them Chief Justice So-and-So, or President Thisandthat, or Senator What'shisface, but maybe we should just call them what they are -- employees -- and leave it at that.

What Arthur Silber fails to understand is that none of these employees is responsible for this war. Employee Bush was victimized by bad intelligence. Employee McCain was likewise proceeding on the basis of faulty information. Employee Obama disdains a "tit-for-tat, back-and-forth, non-stop circus." Nobody causes war in the Empire of the Pentagon; war happens. Arthur, 99-point-five percent of your fellow citizens understand this; why can't you?

Orwell wrote: "Even the humblest party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war."

Nobody's responsible. No human power can deal with these problems, because they are not the result of human activity. Some of us have known since the late sixties that what we're dealing with here is a machine, and it's totally out of control.

Members of the Inner Party like to pretend they have control of it. In fact, they actually believe they have control of it. At the same time, they're acutely aware of the fact that they exert no influence over it whatsoever. Orwell called this "doublethink."

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Buddha of the Weedpatch

I set the Buddha down among the weeds
(A generic Buddha from Lowe's Builders' Supply),
Thinking he might prove an anodyne
To the pain of tearing away, of separation.

O, durable hard plastic Buddha
Sitting among the creepers and the crabgrass,
Your awareness centered and focussed
On your durable hard plastic awareness,

Plastic Buddha, you cannot not help me.
I'm haunted by ghosts of a quarter-century,
Pursued by lost love's numb demons;
The Buddha watches with sightless eyes.

Oh, Rose, you have left me anchorless
With hot tears in my face.
I must go, I must leave, away from here;
I will turn my back on this place.

Keep Abortion Legal

I'm with Atrios. I wish Democrats, and especially Democratic women, didn't have such an aversion to the word
"abortion." They're always talking about some abstract "right to choose."

Right to choose what? Coke of Pepsi?

It's abortion that Republicans and social conservatives have been using as a political football for 40 years, and abortion that every woman needs to claim as an absolute and uncompromisable option she has a right to when circumstances she determines warrant it.

So this Obama ad Atrios quotes is on target: “Let me tell you: If Roe vs. Wade is overturned, the lives and health of women will be put at risk. That's why this election is so important,” says the nurse-practitioner who narrates Obama’s ad. “John McCain's out of touch with women today. McCain wants to take away our right to choose. That's what women need to understand. That's how high the stakes are.”

An announcer then claims that “as president, John McCain will make abortion illegal,” before playing an exchange on "Meet the Press" in which McCain told moderator Tim Russert that he favors “a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions.”

“We can't let John McCain take away our right to choose. We can't let him take us back,” says the ad.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Non-Conventional Responses

We've already digested the announcement from yesterday that neither Bush nor Cheney will attend their party's convention. They let out something to the effect that they'd be too busy responding to the hurricane to go.

Of course, the exact nature of this response remained a mystery.

Partly to dispel this mystery, the White House web site yesterday published photos of Bush dealing with the crisis. This is some pretty weird shit.

The best photo shows the president striking a stiff pose, holding an antique, twentieth-century telephone with a curly cord in one hand and a large, red folder marked "Classified" in the other. Presumably, this designation of the folder's contents indicates that the administration's response to Hurricane Gustav is a closely-guarded secret. In fact, it's so secret that even the administration itself doesn't know what it is.

Assuming there's something in that folder besides blank sheets of paper or random pages from the recycling basket, the classification might indicate, as Paul Krugman suggests in his column today in the New York Times, that the administration is about to declare a Global War on Weather.

This is just too strange, really. I see stuff like this and any more I can't even recognize the country I'm living in. It's too unfamiliar. But then, we've only been living under this form of government we're experiencing now less than a decade, and we're not used to it yet.

You may have noticed I did not provide a hyperlink for the Krugman column. It was late when I wrote this, and I wanted to go to bed. So if you're one of those people who needs to improve your browsing skills, your assignment for today is to find your own way to Paul Krugman's Monday piece in the New York Times.