Friday, July 31, 2009

Jasper Johns's Flag

In 1954 the young New York artist Jasper Johns produced an image of the American flag after dreaming of it. He used encaustic, oil paint, and collage on fabric pasted on plywood. The resulting image is identical to the original but appears texturally different. These subtle differences lend meaning to Johns's image, but no one, incuding Johns himself, can say what that meaning is.

This is one of my favorite paintings of all time, and I'll always have a framed copy of it in my living space. I love the fact that it's the 48-star flag, which was the flag of my early youth, back before the fake states Alaska and Hawaii were added. How can they be states? They're not even connected to the rest.

In those days we spoke of "the 48 States" and said "One nation indivisible."

Today my Jasper Johns flag lives above the bathtub. When I'm in the tub I see it backward in the mirror, where it becomes the perfect symbol for our backward, semi-civilized nation, the only developed, fully industrialized country without comprehensive public health care.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dog Days

The dog days of summer are upon us. Yesterday even Seattle endured stale air and record-setting 100-plus-degree temperatures.

The dog days of politics are upon us as well. Thanks to congressional Democrats we are now going to get watered-down, immensely complicated, mostly meaningless health-care legislation to go along with Obama's continuation of the Mideast wars, warrantless wiretapping, and imprisonment of foreign detainees without charges or trial.

Having blown this last opportunity to redeem themselves, the Democrats can now unmistakably be seen for what they are -- completely useless tools of the corporate establishment, totally undeserving of anyone's loyalty or respect. Their only function, other than carrying water and chopping wood for health insurance companies and others like them, is to serve as a damper on the ever-louder craziness of the fascist party, kind of like acoustical tiles. They eat out of the same dish as their howling fascist colleagues.

There's no hope for any progress in this country until somebody comes up with a way to overthrow the regime of the lobbyists. Until then, I don't plan to think about it much. The current rotten and corrupted system will invariably produce the same kind of rotten and corrupted legislation.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


I'm taking a summer break and will return at the end of July. I'll continue posting frequently (but not daily) at Omnem.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Victory in Iraq and More Paper Magic

A writer who goes by the name "Sardine," one of the crew Atrios has brought in so he can take occasional breaks, has a stronger stomach than I do, because he or she still watches cable news sometimes. He watched yesterday and reports:

Twas another day of non-stop cable news coverage of Jackson and Palin. Not sure they covered anything else really. I get that the death of the "king of pop" and Palin's somewhat surprising decision not to run for re-election are newsworthy items, but 24 hours a day...for days now.

Apparently nothing else is happening in the world right now. Nothing at all.

Actually, there is some marginalia happening, and though not as newsworthy as our finally getting Michael Jackson in the ground or chronicling the latest absurdity to issue from Sarah Palin's moosemeat pie hole, Iraqi celebrations of America's great victory in their country, and Wall Street's creative, innovative, cutting-edge solution to the financial meltdown and ensuing recession merit a brief mention.

Sectarian violence in Iraq continues to escalate in the wake of U.S. troops withdrawing from that country's cities. In the northern town of Tal Afar, a pair of coordinated suicide bombings killed at least 34 yesterday. A couple of improvised explosives went off near a market in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City killing seven, and a dozen more died in a pair of car bombings near Shiite mosques in Mosul.

The New York Times has the full story. I'm sure the people of Iraq will be forever grateful to George W. Bush and his Merry Men plus Condoleezza for delivering them from the horrors they experienced under the regime of that brutal dictator Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, in other barely noticeable news, the Wall Street trading firm Morgan Stanley announced that it has come up with a partial solution for dealing with the enormous mountain of bad paper that caused the financial meltdown of '08, which precipitated the Great Recession. Lest anyone forget, all those worthless, mortgage-backed so-called "securities" are still on the banks' books as liabilities, are still effectively shutting down the credit market, and have stymied all government and private attempts to deal with them.

Morgan Stanley's solution is to repackage them and call them something else. Apparently this is intended to impart value to what are now totally worthless scraps of paper, and will enable Wall Street's Lords of Kapital to start working that old paper magic again, the same kind that gave us hallucinated affluence in the 90's and double-oughts, and has been our undoing.

The magical process by which this garbage, these collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps backed by mortgage loans made during the great real estate bubble, will be turned alchemically into gold, is very complicated, and I won't go into detail here. The pertinent paragraph from the Bloomberg story covering this development should be sufficient to convince the discerning reader that the work of the evil sorcerers in their enchanted skyscrapers continues, even as the federal government announces the advent of "reform."

Morgan Stanley is copying a financing structure known as Re-REMICs that bundle mortgage securities into new bonds that often offer investors an additional layer of protection, or collateral, from downgrades. Credit-rating cuts may sometimes force investors to sell the debt and cause financial institutions that own the bonds to increase capital.

Jennifer Sala, a spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley...declined to comment.

Things are not hopeless, though. I have a plan to solve both these worrisome situations at once -- we could hire all of Iraq's bombers, active and potential, and put them under contract to reform Wall Street.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Squeaky Wheel

Federal regulators are apparently considering limiting or ending the practice by oil traders of speculating and betting on the future price of crude oil.

According to a story posted at Bloomberg News Service this morning, "The Commodity Futures Trading Commission will hold hearings this month and next to explore the need for government-imposed restrictions on speculative trading in oil, gas and other energy markets, Chairman Gary Gensler said today in a statement."

The planned CFTC hearings are at least partly the result of public statements by Senators Bernie Sanders and Bart Stupak blaming speculators for last years rapid run-up of crude prices from $70 to nearly $150 a barrel, and their call for the CFTC to take action to prevent such occurrences in the future.

Sanders, an independent from Vermont, caucuses with the Democrats and is the only socialist in Congress. Stupak is a Michigan Democrat.

This is an idea whose time has come. Oil prices were bound to rise as the world became aware that the peak of global oil production is either imminent or already behind us, but wild oscillations in prices of the type we saw last year are purely the result of speculation, and they cause ordinary people to suffer unnecessarily.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Sarah Palin's Speech This Morning

Making a surprise and unannounced appearance on the plaza in front of Anchorage's Federal Building, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin spoke to a small gathering of supporters and local reporters this morning. In a brief speech whose purpose remains unclear, Palin said:

"Good morning, Alaskans! I'd like to welcome you all here this morning, the beginning of a new day for me and a new day for you to glimpse new horizons for Alaska. I've had to make some hard decisions recently, but I always keep my eye on the ball, and have faith that we're all going forward into the future, and working to make it better than the past.

"Ya know, some time before I'm over the hill and getting long in the tooth, there's something I'd like us all to see eye to eye on. I think you'd agree that would be the ticket. If there's one thing that gets me madder than a wet hen, it's people whose bark is bigger than their bite. And that's especially true if they have a really big bite.

"Now we all know that Rome wasn't built in a day, and you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube, even if you've been drinking the Kool Aid. You can bend over backwards and build a better mousetrap, but when the buck stops here you have to get out and beat the streets. If it's a tough day, you might even have to catch a falling knife.

"So what we need is a cash cow. But if we want to sweeten the pot, we're gonna have to swim with the sharks and run with the big dogs. Just watch out for the Trojan Horse. And remember, they won't be able to put one over on you if you always just think outside the box. So always get your foot in the door, and pick the low-hanging fruit.

"Now take Ronald Reagan, I have always wanted to follow in his footsteps, and ya know, the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree. And even though there have been times lately where I felt like a frog in a frying pan, one foot on a banana peel and the other in Lake Wasilla, it ain't over till the fat lady sings. So those in the media better say their prayers that I'm not going to make a last-ditch effort which will stick a fork in them, because all's well that ends well, and she who laughs last laughs best.

"Negative nay-sayers in the media would tell you there's not a glimmer of hope, but people who have eyes in their heads can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and if you wish upon a star you might just end up shooting for the moon. So let's stop grasping at straws and pin our hopes on a brighter day ahead and a more prosperous future for our children, because it's all about the children.

"Remember, what goes around comes around, and what's good for the goose is good for the gander. So in conclusion, thanks for coming out today, because there's no time like the present to read my lips."

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The P.T. Barnum School of Journalism

It was a holiday at CNN yesterday as it was everywhere else in the country, so Lou "Gordo" Dobbs had the day off, and Kitty Pilgrim was subbing for him. She was talking to Howard Kurtz and some other veck whom I've never heard of, and asked them if they thought there was too much media coverage of Michael Jackson's untimely departure and the funeral and a nation's grief and all that.

As it happened, CNN had just run a poll asking this same question a few minutes earlier and the results were up on the screen, so of course these two knew what they were supposed to say.

"Kitty, the coverage is out of control, and it's becoming an embarrassment to the news business -- the almost wall-to-wall cable coverage, led by CNN, particularly at night, the network morning shows, the prime time network specials," moaned Howard.

Then this other veck says, "All of this coverage is very little news. I mean, there's really one piece of data so far -- Michael Jackson died at the age of 50. The rest of it, so far, is speculation, retrospectives, reactions of people. And this is an awful lot of coverage for a very, very little bit of information. But you know, people are talking about this survey, 65 percent of the country says there is too much coverage."

So, what do you think they were showing as background footage while these two [i]mensos[/i] are going on and on about how it's sooo terrible that there's waaaay too much coverage of this event? Take a wild guess. Yep. You're right.

It reminds me of the line in that Jim Carrey movie, "Mask:" Somebody stop me!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

July 4th

To the unobservant, this July 4th holiday probably seems like any of the previous ones, just another midsummer honoring of our country, USA, aka Number One. To them the America of Barack Obama most likely seems just as powerful and great as the America of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The form of government and the influences on government are still the same, but what Edward Gibbon called "the animating health and vigor" have gone missing.

Many Americans, maybe even a majority, are discouraged and exhausted this July 4th because of our past and current history, now 30 years in the making, of a long, slow buildup of economic oppression, culminating in another round of recession, and this might be the round to end all rounds. Consequently, the discipline and energy of the work force, which till now has propped up the greatness of the nation even as its power waned in other areas, is demoralized and cynical, waiting for the next brick to fall.

I can't help but think of this country as a spent force, and this season I'm seeing it through the lens of the sudden and unanticipated death of another has been, Michael Jackson. I've only read a couple death notices of our beloved national one-man freak show worthy of passing along. One, by Bob Herbert of the New York Times, appeared today. The other, by the relentless critic of America's lifeways, James Howard Kunstler, is from last Monday. Be sure you've got your shinguards on before you read it.

I'll leave it to those with reason to celebrate to have a good time and eat a hot dog for me. This July 4th, reflective observers anxiously consider the history of the past few decades, and the uncertain future of our troubled country. I wonder what the chances are that our perennially flawed but once great nation can rise from its own ashes like the phoenix bird.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Life Among the Ruins

I keep telling people the way of life we've been living for the past 60 years is done and gone, and they keep ignoring me. Oh well. I'm used to it.

Now here's graphic evidence -- terrific pictures of the ruins of America by the young photographer Edgar Martins, arranged into a slide show in todays NY Times Magazine.

The McMansion is now a vanishing species. Condos aren't far behind.

The first picture is of luxury condo ruins in Phoenix (shown here). What devastation! I'm living in a luxury condo myself right now, and guess what? I'm going to have to stay here, because I can't sell the place and only just might be able to give it away. But then, people don't sympathize when I tell them I'm being held prisoner in paradise.

No part of the country has escaped the wrath of the avenging gods of bogus securities and fraudulent loans. There's devastation among the McMansions of Greenwich, Connecticut as there is in the high-end condos of Phoenix.

Perhaps the most dramatic pictures are of the half-finished Echelon Resort-Casino in Vegas. Boy, they really know how to do ruins in that town, now that the dreams of easy money are done, and everybody suddenly realizes there's no such thing as something for nothing.

Welcome to the Age of Aquarius, and remember, that rice and pinto beans with a little Spam you're eating is much better for you than that filet mignon ever was.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Big One II

The official unemployment rate -- what the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics calls U-3 -- is now at nine and a half percent, which is as bad as it's been since the end of World War II.

But a more realistic measure of unemployment and under-utilization of labor is the same bureau's U-6 figure, and that is now at 16 and a half percent. During the most intense years of the Great Depression of the 1930's, unemployment nationwide was between 20 and 25 percent, so the U.S. labor market is going to approach those levels before this current unwinding is done.

Unemployment measure U-3 is the total number of unemployed as a percentage of the civilian population. U-6 is "Total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force." The BLS explains further that "Marginally attached workers are persons who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the recent past. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not looking currently for a job. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule."

The Associated Press reports today that "Recession-weary employers in the U.S. slashed 467,000 jobs in June, the Labor Department reported, far worse than the 363,000 that economists expected and a grim signal that the path to recovery will be bumpy. The jobless rate rose to 9.5 percent from 9.4 percent in May." Another half million out of work, another half a percentage point added to the official unemployment tally.

Where is this "recovery" the print and broadcast media keep talking about. It seems awfully elusive, yet the newspaper pundits and talking heads seem convinced that it's real.

So does President Obama, who said today he's confident the economy will "turn around in the short term" and the nation will "prosper in the long term" despite today's bad unemployment news.

What's obvious to me is that neither Obama nor any of the experts in the media, and very few economists and financial gurus are willing to admit that our way of life is undergoing fundamental changes. The Great Depression II is a actually just a prelude to bigger changes than either Franklin Roosevelt or Barack Obama ever imagined.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Violent Rhetoric

It started while the election was still going on, with Sarah Palin accusing Obama of "palling around with terrorists." The "if you're not with us you're with the terrorists" stuff had been going on for years, though, so accusing people who disagree with you of treason is everyday stuff now, I guess.

But the wingers' lost cause of an election has made them even angrier than they were before, and the rhetoric has grown noticeably more violent lately. At a political discussion group I sometimes frequent (and which shall remain nameless here), the rhetoric coming from the right has gotten truly scary the past few days.

One guy snarled that "the libs here wouldn't know reality if they had it shoved up their anus," and added a few choice words about reality taking on the dimensions of fence posts. Another, just this morning said the leftists "on this site" wouldn't know reality "if it smacked them upside the head with a two-by-four."

Not only am I unamused by this kind of overt rage and hostility, I take it very seriously, as a threat. When a group of people with so little capacity for introspection as contemporary American reactionaries begins to hold their political adversaries responsible for their seething anger, I know something bad is going to happen. Very bad, very frightening, and ending in situations in which people are required to defend themselves.

It would be too much to expect that people whose perceptions are crippled by emotional dysfunction accept their diminished power and the changes in American society represented by Obama's election (among other things) and gracefully agree to disagree. I'm reminded of quotes I've seen from Mein Kampf in which Hitler, ten years before coming to power, said the Jews who had betrayed and continued to betray Germany should be "held under gas."

The thought is the father of the deed, and it would be a mistake to take violent language lightly.