Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dr. B to the Super Rich: When will you be rich enough?

. . .The huge bonuses over the last decade or so skimmed off about 300 billion dollars into private pockets. Now what can those people do with that money? How many yachts can you own? How many homes can you own? How many planes can you own? It's that level of income which could, I think, make a contribution to class solidarity rather than be the cause of class hatred and social hatred, [and] Class warfare, eventually.
Dr. Zbiginiew Brzeznski, Morning Joe, March 26, 2009

One day last week I woke up to a bit of remarkable television--and it was on "Morning Joe". Seriously. If, before I turned on the TV, Joe was his usual puffy-chested, when-I-was-in-congress blowhard, I missed it. If Mika was her usual schizo hand-wringing, sorry-for-even-existing, here-comes-tough-mommy self, I didn't see it. If Jim Cramer did a freaky voodoo dance (he was a guest that morning), I didn't see that, either.

What I saw was Dr. Zbiginiew Brzeznski--Mika's father--giving the clearest, harshest, most insightful lecture to the super rich I've ever even dreamed of witnessing. (Mika makes no bones about the fact that he is the most intimidating figure she's ever known. Yes, I could see that. But the thing is--he's on our side. I love that about him. Even though he'd scare me to death, too.)

The most amazing thing about the segment with Zbiginiew--among many amazing things--is that it went on for over 17 minutes with barely an interruption. He began by talking about Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan (interesting stuff there, too) and then, at about 7:26 on the video, Joe changed the subject by saying, "Dr. Brzeznski, you've talked about the danger of runaway populism. (Eds note: ???) Some mocked you. Over the past two weeks we've seen your predictions unfold, from Capitol Hill to Wall Street to Main Street."

That was it. Joe shut up and let Dr. Brzeznski talk. (Remember when Zbig called Joe "stunningly superficial" a while back? That might have been why.)

"There is a growing anger in this country," Dr B said, "a growing sense of resentment. There is a feeling of fundamental unfairness. . .We saw a list of people who have made more than a billion dollars in one year. A billion is a thousand million. Can you imagine making more than a thousand million a year? And how were most of those funds made? They didn't make them by creating new jobs, building new factories, making new technological innovations which then cumulatively enriched America. They made it by complex financial transactions which few people understand. Which, in effect, just sort of swooshed off money into private pockets. . .It's almost like a huge national ponzi scheme."

Here I thought I heard some slight whimpers of protest, but the good doctor was on a roll:
"Now, what gets me really is in this situation of anger and resentment and the growing risk of class hatred, no one from the private sector has stepped forward and said 'Let's organize a national solidarity fund in which the people who made so much money. . .money which is difficult to understand and to even justify, [should] contribute, to help, to pull us together'. The taxpayers are contributing. The president has urged us to pull this together, and we're doing it. You're doing it, I'm doing it, and a lot of much poorer people than us are doing it.
Where are the rich people who have made hundreds of millions, thousands of millions in some cases? Why don't they step forward? We have the names of some who are returning the bonuses; what about the others who are not?
There should be social pressure and if some major figures from the public sector with great reputations who have made a lot of money but who are generous in philanthropy stood forward. . .maybe there would be a movement to do something about social rehabilitation, social reconciliation, social solidarity. I think this is very much needed."

(Did you see the CEOs coming out of the White House meeting yesterday? What was the one thing they all said they agreed on with the president? "We're all in this together." Something tells me either Zbigniew was in the room with them or the specter of Zbigniew was in the room.)

Finally, Jim Kramer spoke--softly, a little petulantly, with head down though not in full kowtow position. He said, " . . .These hedge fund managers who made money are- a lot of them grew up regular, normal people who grew up in America and managed to just win big. We don't want to discourage people from winning big who are from normal origins, who are not silver spoon people."

To which Dr B., refraining admirably from slapping the little wanker upside the head, said, "Well, that's fair but. . .there's also a limit to what 'win big' really means in a society in which there are still a lot of people who are very poor--who are not winning big but losing much. Do you really need billions of dollars to be happy? What can you do with them? At some point it seems to me that social responsibility comes to play. . ."

He talked almost non-stop on the subject, without commercial interruption, for over 10 minutes. He pointed out the obvious: "If you made 500 million dollars and you gave away 250, I think you would still be left with enough to enjoy. The point is, there has to be some demonstrable response to this sense of crisis today from the rich people, rather than have them hide, or hire security guards, or insist that they stay anonymous."

Mike Barnicle came in then, and told a poignant story about the mill town in Massachusetts where he grew up . He talked about the "big winners\ who had more or less raped that town and other towns like it":
"Made millions for themselves, and yet the factories that they bought and sold that enriched them are now closed. They didn't build any new factories. They didn't create any new jobs. They left behind the skeletal remains of a city that was once vibrant and they've moved on to their big billion dollar salaries and this, I think, is part of the Bunsen burner, the fuel that is igniting this incipient class warfare in America."
It wasn't because the town had gone bad or the workers didn't work. It wasn't because people didn't pray hard enough or sing loudly enough. It wasn't a case of "tried but failed". It was because those lousy SOBs rode into town with premeditated plunder on their minds. (This is not Barnicle talking. This is me interpreting what I saw on his face and heard in his voice.)

There was much more, of course. I've probably already violated some copyright law by transcribing almost word for word a large portion of this conversation. (I'm doing it mainly for those who still have slow dial-up. They can't watch those streaming videos without having to wander off for a fortnight or two until the damn things finally reach the end.)

When Dr. Brzeznski was finished, I had visions of  the Morning Bunch finally getting with it, bursting into "Hoo Rahs", doing fist bumps and cheers. They did rise up from their seats a little and made muffled noises of assent, but of course they couldn't let themselves go that far, considering who they are and what they've either advocated or ignored in the past.

Mika, bless her heart, had the final word after those long minutes of having to huddle in the shadow of her father's brilliance:  
"In America we don't think about--actually, I'm sorry, but there is a certain way of thinking--greed--put it on credit. We just don't think of--I'm sorry, we just don't think this way."

Is that priceless? Could you, in all honesty, turn it off after that?

Yeah, me too.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Watch out for Big Business Watching Out for You

After co-sponsoring the original labor bill in 2005, and wholeheartedly endorsing the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007 (the only Republican senator to do so), Arlen Specter has now reneged and will vote against it for what he wants us to believe are the purest of reasons:

"On the merits [of voting against the bill], the issue which has emerged at the top of the list for me is the elimination of the secret ballot which is the cornerstone of how contests are decided in a democratic society. The bill’s requirement for compulsory arbitration if an agreement is not reached within 120 days may subject the employer to a deal he or she cannot live with. Such arbitration runs contrary to the basic tenet of the Wagner Act for collective bargaining which makes the employer liable only for a deal he or she agrees to. The arbitration provision could be substantially improved by the last best offer procedure which would limit the arbitrator’s discretion and prompt the parties to move to more reasonable positions. "

This is phony. The secret ballot is the second step to voting in a union. The first step is getting 50% of the workforce to agree to holding an election. In most, if not all, instances that's done by signing cards indicating you either want or don't want to have a vote on union representation.

Specter says, "The problems of the recession make this a particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice legislation. Employers understandably complain that adding a burden would result in further job losses."

What burden? According to Specter and all the others who oppose the EFCA, it's not necessary anyway. Any employee group who wants a union is free to hold secret ballot elections now. That's true, isn't it?

No, it's not. Of course it's not. Employers can and do thwart any inclination to bring in unions. Specter talks about "intimidation" by those mythical union thugs who, if they knew your name, would come pounding on your door at all hours to get you to sign, but barely mentions the very real pressures employers put on their employees if even a hint of the word "union" wafts through their doors.

So a recession isn't a good time to be talking about forming unions. How about when times were good and Big Business was raking in the dough? When CEOs and COOS and stockholders were sitting on their satin cushions singing the praises of Free Market capitalism? When American jobs were being outsourced to third world countries, paying the lowest possible wages so that profits could go toward living the lavish life and not toward anything as mundane as sharing? Could they talk about forming unions then?

Let's get some real numbers in here. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership in 2008 was a mere 12.4% of the workforce. Within that percentage, the union membership rate for public sector workers (36.8 percent) was substantially higher than the rate for private industry workers (7.6 percent).

So who is cheering the loudest now that Specter has caved? The Chamber of Commerce is positively giddy over it. So is the National Association of Manufacturers. And this is where it gets personal for me.

John Engler, former Republican governor of Michigan, is now the president of the National Association of Manufacturers. (They must feel like the Maytag repairman here in America)

This is what Engler said about Specter's decision: "I am very pleased that Senator Arlen Specter has decided to vote against cloture on the EFCA. EFCA is a flawed piece of legislation that will destroy jobs and prolong the current economic recession. Manufacturers stand behind Senator Specter's decision to vote against EFCA and appreciate this decision to put working men and women, the economy and the nation first."

Now, before you get all dewy-eyed about this, let me just warn you. I know John Engler and he's no FDR. He's no Warren Buffett, either. Trust me.

When John Engler was governor of Michigan, my Michigan, darkness fell across the villages in LiberalLand. We never had a chance. Reaganism, Big Business boosterism, and the nonsense called "Trickle Down" were still very much in vogue.

The governor's mission, at one point, (after he had already done away with poverty programs) was to kill any state funding for the Arts. The Arts are always the wretched stepchildren whenever belts need tightening (after programs for the poor, of course), and we should have seen it coming.

In the early 1990s I applied for and received a state grant to work on a lengthy writing project. I was thrilled beyond belief when my application was accepted, but foolish, foolish me. . .I completely forgot who we were dealing with. Most of the grantees--the smart ones--took their money and ran. Some of them chose to leave their grant money in the state's coffers until the next year, but I was one of those who chose to take half of the grant in one year and leave the other half for the next.

Even before the next year rolled around, Engler was already making noises about Arts excesses, and in spite of petitions and marches to the Capitol steps and pleas to our legislative and congressional leaders, any grant monies we were supposed to receive were taken away. Gone. For good.

We had contracts. We had it in writing. It was promised to us. And the contracts were not honored.

Now, that might not seem like such a sad story, given what is happening in Michigan today, but I offer it here as an example of how easily The Powers can ignore honorable contracts whenever they think they have the right.

We should know by now that without watchdogs, without binding equity, without the force of numbers, the masses in this country will never come out ahead. If the past eight to 12 years haven't shown us what happens when the Chamber of Commerce and all its attendant abettors run the show, I don't know what it's going to take to make it any clearer.

They'll get away with this phony attack against the unions and the EFCA if we let them. Big Business in America doesn't deserve even a moment of hesitation, of let-up now. Write your congresspeople, write our president, blog this issue to death. Do whatever it takes to send the message that American workers made this country and American workers deserve to share in the riches. It's so fundamental, it shouldn't even be an issue. So again I ask: How the hell did we let this happen? And when are we going to do something about it?


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Obama, It's Krugman. Please Pick Up

I'm usually the last one to panic when things go from haywire to havoc. I'm the one who's out there directing traffic, shushing, patting shoulders, plumping pillows, digging in my pockets for chocolate--whatever it takes.

I don't see the tunnel, I see the light at the end. If there's a rainbow in the sky, I'll look past the dark clouds and find it. Pollyanna and I are almost BFFs, for God's sake. But when I see a Nobel-laureate in Economics practically self-immolating on the White House lawn in order to be heard, I'm not just scared, I'm petrified.

I don't know if Paul Krugman is right when he says the White House is going about this banking debacle all wrong, and that we're near the edge of the Cliff of Doom. One misstep, he seems to be saying, and it's all over. He's not the only one saying it, of course. If he were, I might go back to singing my comfort songs and handing out bonbons.

There are two camps now, each of them filled with "experts", each of them plucking ideas out of thin air and calling them "solutions". Their voices are ringing across a battleground, over our heads. We hear them shouting in a strange, incomprehensible language: "TARP bailout" "Zombie banks", "toxic assets", "Cash for Trash". . .

We want at least one of them to come over to our side and give us a heads up. What the hell is going on? What's going to happen? Are we or aren't we doomed?

This was the week it all hit the fan. Lots of voices out there shouting messages to Obama, and Obama, strangely, answers back with his version of "Heck of a job, Brownie". On "60 Minutes" last Sunday there was this exchange with Steve Kroft:
    Kroft:Your Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, has been under a lot of pressure this week, and there have been people in Congress calling for his head. Have there been discussions in the White House about replacing him?
    President Obama: No.
    Kroft: Has he volunteered to or come to you and said, “Do you think I should step down?”
    President Obama: No, and he shouldn’t. And if he were to come to me, I’d say, “Sorry, buddy, you still got the job.” But look, he’s got a lot of stuff on his plate, and he is doing a terrific job. And I take responsibility for not, I think, having given him as much help as he needs.
That was wince-worthy and I was wincing. One of those could-come-back-to haunt sound bite traps that Obama should know better than to fall into .

On Monday Paul Krugman wrote a piece in the NYT called "Financial Policy Despair" He said, " If the reports are correct, Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, has persuaded President Obama to recycle Bush administration policy — specifically, the “cash for trash” plan proposed, then abandoned, six months ago by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair. "

That can't be good.

Non-economist Frank Rich wrote a column this week called "Has a 'Katrina Moment' arrived?". He said, "Bob Schieffer of CBS [asked Larry Summers] the simple question that has haunted the American public since the bailouts began last fall: “Do you know, Dr. Summers, what the banks have done with all of this money that has been funneled to them through these bailouts?” What followed was a monologue of evasion that, translated into English, amounted to: Not really, but you little folk needn’t worry about it. Yet even as Summers spoke, A.I.G. was belatedly confirming what he would not. "It has, in essence, been laundering its $170 billion in taxpayers’ money by paying off its reckless partners in gambling and greed, from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup on Wall Street to Société Générale and Deutsche Bank abroad."

(Money-laundering? Isn't that illegal?)

Even-handed Eugene Robinson--no economist, either, it must be said--doesn't think we've quite reached the cliff edge yet, but he's not ruling out the possibility. In the Washington Post today he wrote a column called, "The Repairman's Burden". He said, "Geithner's plan offers private investors the opportunity to reap relatively big gains by taking relatively small risks. Some of the risk is assumed by taxpayers. Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, said over the weekend that these private firms will be doing the government a favor by participating in the program. But that's wrong. Investors will participate because they think they can make money. The only entity that's doing anyone a favor -- make that doing everyone a favor -- is the government of the United States. "

Romer: "private firms doing the Government a favor". Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

When they're talking about billions and trillions they're talking way over my head. I barely understand the concept of millions. I don't understand economics, or banking, or bailouts, or almost anything to do with Big Money. But what I'm hearing these days is panic and frustration among the cognoscenti. They see things that we don't see, and we're counting on them to make sure we get this right.

Somebody has to have a handle on this crisis. So far, nobody does. I don't know about you, but I would feel a whole lot better if I knew that President Obama was at least willing to listen to those whose opinions differ from his chosen few. His Washington insider choices for top cabinet positions made little old me nervous right from the start. When the new "Change" president puts former Big Business people in charge of regulating Big Business, even the dumbest among us sees trouble ahead.

So give a little listen, Mr. President. It can't hurt. These are your friends, remember. They're all talking about you, anyway. Better to have them in front of you than behind your back.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

Shades of Dr. Phil! Pop Psych at HuffPo, and AIG is the patient

Today is Sunday and I started my day by reading Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, and Tom Friedman. They all talked about AIG and the current money crisis, and I have to say--the wheelings and dealings and sheer dollar amounts are so beyond me I don't even pretend to understand. I just take their superbly-written words for it. Those jackals screwed us, we let them, and now we're in so much trouble we may all have to go back to living in caves and foraging for food. It's scary, I tell you. . .

Then I moved over to the Huffington Post to see what they had to say about it all. (I started reading the HuffPo on its very first day online (before it became HuffPo), and I can almost always find something worthwhile to read there. I admit I cringed a little when they added an Entertainment section, and I absolutely hated their screaming Tabloid headlines last week when they reported hour-by-hour the latest on Natasha Richardson's skiing accident and subsequent death. Disgusting ("She is brain-dead!") and more than gagworthy.)

After reading that triad of truth-seekers , I was ready for bear. But I saw a headline for an article called, "How Corporate America can Earn Forgiveness and Rebuild Trust", and decided to take a little humor break before I went hunting again. Arianna often has comedians or humorists giving their takes on politics, and after that whole Jon Stewart thing in the last couple of weeks, I could hardly wait.

But here's the weird part. I think the guy who wrote this was serious!

I don't know the author, Mark Goulston, and again, I'm no expert, but after reading those NYT columnists I'm having a hard time making a connection between what those AIG crooks have done so far and the notion that they're now humbled enough to work on earning forgiveness and rebuilding trust.

But the good doctor (He's an MD) seems to think that if they will just follow his "Four Hs" and his "Four Rs" (We'll get to that) all will be well in Dizzyland and there will be no more need for tent cities or snaking unemployment lines. (He doesn't actually say that, but it's implied.)

He starts off like this: To err is human; To admit and accept complete responsibility for it, divine.

Really. That was "erring"?

He goes on:
"There is a way to repair the damage wrought by corporate transgressions. Be forewarned. This solution is not for the faint of heart or the uncommitted.
When a company, CEO or Board of Directors commits an unethical, if not immoral act, it triggers Four H's in investors, shareholders, employees, and the public at large:
  • HURT
  • HATE
Uh huh. But wait--the Good Doc has thought this all out and there's a solution. The Four Rs:

The corrective responses to the Four H's are the Four R's: Remorse, Restitution, Rehabilitation and Request for Forgiveness. If you are the CEO or part of the team responsible for guiding your company or industry through such a crisis, these are the steps you will need to take, (You is used to describe an individual, management team or company).
Remember now, he's writing this for all those execs who've conned, are conning and will continue to con. But there's apparently hope for them--which means there's hope for us. Here's what the Doctor ordered:
"Delivering the 3 R's of Remorse, Restitution and Rehabilitation may not prevent the injured from holding on to their resentment. If that's the case, you will need to exercise the 4th R -to Request Forgiveness. Make this request only after you have demonstrated a track record of remorse, restitution and rehabilitation for at least six months (and perhaps even as long as the length of the transgression). Forgiveness, like trust is something that must be earned. One hopeful point to keep in mind: If you demonstrate a solid track record of Remorse, Restitution and Rehabilitation, and then Request Forgiveness and are not forgiven, it is not you that is unforgivable. Your investors, shareholders and employees are unforgiving. You cannot control other's feelings. You can only be true to and control yourself."
Oh my God. "It is not you who is unforgivable"???

And NOW he tells them to control themselves. Where was he when all this was going on? Probably delivering homilies to Oscar the Grouch in hopes of turning a frown upside down.
This is pop psychology at the kindergarten level--the very reason we came up with "psychobabble" . Here is Dr. Goulston's last word to those naughty execs:
"Your ability to handle this crisis may be the lifesaver they've been reaching for, and the lift needed that will finally allow them to believe in you and more importantly to begin to believe in corporate America again."
Have you ever believed in Corporate America?  No, neither have I. So here's my last word: You want an "R"? I'll give you an "R". How about "Revenge"?

(The REST of this story: I tried to leave a comment at the bottom of Gouldston's article and it was rejected! I mentioned some of the same things I wrote about here, but I did it in a polite way. Really. I might have said "You've got to be kidding!" and maybe I mentioned "kindergarten stuff" and I think I might have sounded like I was scoffing a little, but is that reason enough to just delete me? I don't know what's going on over there at HuffPo. Who's running that show, anyway?  But I got a blog post out of it, which wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been--I'll just say it--rejected.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

There's Chutzpah and Then There's A.I.G

"While the American International Group [AIG] comes under fire from Congress over executive bonuses, it is quietly fighting the federal government for the return of $306 million in tax payments, some related to deals that were conducted through offshore tax havens."

Lynnley Browning, NYT 3/19/09
Can you believe this? I couldn't either, but there it is. I'm going to assume this wasn't just a figment of Lynnley Browning's imagination, because it did appear in the New York Times, but where else was it yesterday? Today? Nowhere to be found. I wasn't exactly glued to my television set, but I watched it enough to see plenty about President Obama's appearance on the Leno Show last night. Now there's some news.

AIG, that insurance company that turned out not to really insure anything; that company that is now almost wholly owned by the government (that's us--or so they tell us when they want us to pay for something); that same company that still wants to pay out $165,000,000 in bonuses because they're so good; yes that company--they now want--you ready for this? They want us to give back $306,000,000 because they think they overpaid their taxes!!

And (sputter, spit, stammer, scream. . .) they're not only suing us, they're expecting us--the taxpayers--to foot the bill for their. . .aarghh. . .lawsuit!! Against us!!!

Really. Here it is:

"A.I.G. sued the government last month in a bid to force it to return the payments, which stemmed in large part from its use of aggressive tax deals, some involving entities controlled by the company’s financial products unit in the Cayman Islands, Ireland, the Dutch Antilles and other offshore havens.

A.I.G. is effectively suing its majority owner, the government, which has an 80 percent stake and has poured nearly $200 billion into the insurer in a bid to avert its collapse and avoid troubling the global financial markets. The company is in effect asking for even more money, in the form of tax refunds. The suit also suggests that A.I.G. is spending taxpayer money to pursue its case, something it is legally entitled to do. Its initial claim was denied by the Internal Revenue Service last year."

Browning goes on: "United States tax law allows American companies to claim a credit for any taxes paid to a foreign government. But the I.R.S. denied A.I.G.’s refund claims in 2008, saying that it had improperly calculated the credits. The I.R.S. has identified so-called foreign tax-credit generators as an area of abuse that it is increasingly monitoring.

The remainder of A.I.G.’s claim, for $244 million, concerns net operating loss carry-backs, capital loss carry-backs, a general refund claim and claims for refunds of other tax-related payments that A.I.G. says it made to the I.R.S. but are now owed back. The claim also covers $119 million in penalties and interest that A.I.G. says it is due back from the government.

In part, A.I.G. says it overpaid its federal income taxes after a 2004 accounting scandal that caused it to restate its financial records. A.I.G. says in part that it is entitled to a refund of $33 million that SICO paid in 1997 as compensation to employees, which it now says should be characterized as a deductible expense."

(Hang on a second, I feel another scream coming on. . .)

"Asked about the lawsuit, Mark Herr, an A.I.G. spokesman, said Thursday that 'A.I.G. is taking this action to ensure that it is not required to pay more than its fair share of taxes.'"

Fair. Let's think about that word "fair". And that word "share". Then let's think about AIG. Do you see the connection? Neither do I.

So that's it. Nothing we can do. But before we say goodbye, let me just leave you with this:

Citigroup Plans Big Bonuses Despite Rules Against Them

This is what happens when you treat corporations like royalty. They actually begin to think they're entitled. And why not? The leaders of the land are their humble servants, and the rest of us are out there in the latrines with slop buckets.

I'm going to ask this, but I really don't expect an answer:
Where is the America that never would have allowed this to happen?


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Our Money? Since when?

Does anybody believe that the money we shell out in taxes is anything other than an absolute giveaway? Do I have control over it once it leaves my hands? No, I don't. Do you? The truth is, as much as we want to feel good when The Powers say, "This is your money. . ." or "We owe it to the taxpayers. . . ", it's nothing more than a soothing murmur, a perfunctory pat on the head, as they pocket it all and head for their far-off moated castles.

Make no mistake. We are not "partners" in this great country of ours. We're the serfs, the peasants, the "folk", and our sole function is to fill the coffers, to provide services and succor to the gentry--and to do it with no questions asked and great gushes of gratitude.

In the mid- to-latter part of the last century we, the people, had it pretty good. We made things--remember? A good portion of the working class brought home paychecks large enough to actually buy things without mortgaging their entire lives. Mothers could even be home with their children.

But then a plague called "Reaganomics" descended upon the land, and over the years the Robber Barons were given the gift that keeps on giving: Deregulation. Talk about glee! The Free markets shall reign! Long live the Free Marketeers!

But peasants, never fear--Reaganomics will be good for us. They've come up with something called "trickle down". Yes, the rich will get richer. Of course! But they're going to share. No really--they're Americans. They wouldn't sell us down the river. Or across the sea.

Remember that? Has the trickle gotten to you yet? Nope, me neither. I see gushers of gold going to the already monied, but nary a drop coming this way. Not even a shiny damp spot. None to be seen.

I'm going to skip over the dreaded Bush Years here. You already know what happened. Talk about your horrible nightmares come true. Longest eight years of my life. But we're on the other side now, and while I doubt we'll ever look back on any of it and laugh, even after all we've been through we were still able to muster enough energy to boot the thugs out and bring in a shiny-armored knight. That was good.

But the trouble with knights? When they remove all that glitter, underneath they're just--you or me. All the power, apparently, is in the heavy metal.

So today, when we peasants were hearing about $165,000,000 worth of bonuses paid or promised to executives who dragged their company, AIG, to the edge of the cliff, where we peasants, AKA taxpayers, threw out a safety net and rescued just this bunch alone to the tune of 170 billion dollars (We must have done it in our sleep because when we finally woke up whole storehouses full of money had disappeared), a cry went over the land that the shiny-armored knight is beginning to tarnish.

The re-birth of this nation is still in its infancy. The knights are just leaving the Round Table, getting ready to do battle. There are marauders all along the way, and let's face it--they're good at doing dastardly. They've had a lot of practice.

So get out the damned Tarn-X or whatever it takes. Shine up that suit. Wipe the mist from the man's eyes so he can see more clearly now. He's got promises to keep and daunting tasks ahead. And the peasants, in case you haven't noticed, are on the move.

(Any pigs at the trough? Your days are numbered. We mean it this time, so enjoy it while you can.)


Monday, March 16, 2009

A contract is a contract--WHEN??

The real scandal of AIG isn't just that American taxpayers have so far committed $170 billion to the giant insurer because it is thought to be too big to fail -- the most money ever funneled to a single company by a government since the dawn of capitalism -- nor even that AIG's notoriously failing executives, at the very unit responsible for the catastrophic credit-default swaps at the very center of the debacle, are planning to give themselves over $100 million in bonuses. The scandal is that even at this late date, even in a new administration dedicated to doing it all differently, Americans still have so little say over what is happening with our money.
Robert Reich

I'm going to make this short because I want to go off and think about that number, $170 BILLION.  I might have to get out my handy calculator again, but from right here, right now that looks like a whole hell of a lot of money.

I guess we're supposed to feel good about the $100 million worth of bonuses going to those needy, worthy AIG execs, since it's nowhere near $170 BILLION.

I guess we should all feel good about honoring contracts. After all, these same people have always been so good about honoring contracts with their workers. Doesn't Big Business enter into contracts with ALL workers? Don't they promise, at the hiring of those workers, that if they do their jobs they'll be entitled to job security, pay raises, reasonable benefits--and best of all, down the road, a bankable, safe retirement fund that'll take them happily and healthily into their Golden Years?

What? They don't? They haven't? I'm shocked.  I thought all those other figures--more than 600,000 workers losing jobs EVERY MONTH--were just more socialist propaganda.

Those unemployment lines? Pshaw! They're people who really don't want to work and would rather collect checks from the government. (See Erin Burnett's "maybe, possibly, some people say, let's look at China" here.)

Seven hundred out-of-work Americans standing in line for a handful of jobs? Grand-standers, actors even,  probably hired by the Democrats to make a pathetic point.

A Bailout LOAN for GM? Ridiculous! The unions must die. . .

But let's, in the name of all that's holy, save those CEO bonuses. We will not survive as a civilization without them. We can't let AIG fail!!

But wait. . .that was yesterday. This is today. Is there anybody today, besides Erin Burnett, who believes that taxpayers should be paying huge multi-million dollar bonuses to AIG execs? Erin, dearheart, was just on Morning Joe claiming that if AIG doesn't honor those contracts, they'll end up paying twice that amount to some upstanding businessmen in London who are obviously entitled. To which Mort Zuckerman, sitting on the set, said, Outrageous! It's a rogue operation in London. AIG should never have had dealings with them. (How come Erin didn't know that?)

So can we all agree now that if we're going to own 80% of AIG we should have a say in who gets what? Thank you. Now can we, the taxpayers, light a fire under our leaders and get them to do what they promised to do when we gave them all of the power?

I think we can. The calculator can wait. Those number are too big for my little mind, anyway. I'm going after my congressmen instead. I've got their numbers and I know how to use them.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sliding Toward a More Social Union

"There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."
Warren Buffett

Throughout the entire reign of the devastating Bush years, and even during the pro-business Clinton years, (when we all watched Bill Clinton cozy up to the Republicans in a misguided and futile attempt to make them stop their incessant bullying), I felt like the lone voice whimpering that you just can't let raging Capitalism take hold without allowing social consciousness to follow in its wake, caring for the inevitable battered and bloodied.

Capitalism, by its very nature, rewards greed. Greed, by its very nature, rewards selfishness. A country that claims to be By the People, For the People, and Of the People can't afford to give Greed its day.

If you want to call a recognition of the need for social programs "Socialism", fine with me. I've argued for a long time that Capitalism has to get in bed with Socialism in order to survive. I've argued, too, that Socialism has to suck up to Capitalism in order to--okay--get its programs funded.

Michael Winship wrote a piece in Bill Moyers' Journal's The Blog yesterday called, "Oh, what a lovely class war!". He starts it this way:
"My goodness, how they howl when the proverbial shoe is on the proverbial other foot. You’d think the Red Army had just left Moscow and was preparing a frontal assault on the Federal Reserve.
So what are conservatives, Wall Street and financial television commentators shouting? Socialists! That's right. Spread the word: Socialists are swarming over our nation's capitol, and making off with the means of production, otherwise known as campaign contributions and the Federal budget. You got trouble, my friends."

To Michelle Malkin the opposite of Socialism is apparently "individual responsibility". Is that what we've seen for the past eight to twelve years? Individual responsibility? Which individuals were responsible for screwing the American people out of their livelihoods, out of their homes, out of any chance at getting quality health care? How exactly does this individual responsibility work? Every person is an island? We don't need no lousy handouts? Tell that to the Fat Cats who not only had their hands out, they had their vaults open, ready to be filled with OUR money.

North Carolina senator Jim DeMint doesn't want a thing to do with nationalizing banks, and he uses the threat of "socialism" to make his argument: "I think the idea of nationalization is the same idea as socialization," DeMint said. "I think we need to do everything we can to make the private markets work and not use this as an excuse to expand government into owning banks and other companies."A little late for that, Jim. The private markets blew it. That's why we're where we are now. If even the slightest hint of regulation had been in the mix, we might not now be looking at having to own the banks in order to make them do right by us. (Or we might not be watching Bernie Madoff this very day do the perp walk to face the thousands he swindled out of billions without fear of detection.)

We're in a mess now, and the people who put us there want a chance to mess it up again. We can't let them. We must allow this administration to bring in their interpretation of a New Deal. The Reaganites are wrong when they say the best government is no government. Barack Obama is right when he says the best government is good government. And right now good government is BIG government--like it or not.

What we're hearing now is the bleating sounds of sheep dying a hard death. Pay no attention. We don't have time for them.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

This is not a Battle, it's a Snit

Open letter to J.B. Poerch, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee:

Yesterday you sent me an email asking me to "join [you] in telling Senate Republicans to go on record and declare their independence from Rush Limbaugh." You asked me to "click here to join the DSCC in demanding that Senate Republicans reject the disgraceful words of Rush Limbaugh and declare their independence from the divisive politics of the past." You even asked me for money to help your cause.

Now, J.B, I don't know you but I'm going to assume you're an okay person. And, considering that our entire country is facing near-devastation at the moment, I'm also reasonably sure you think you have our best interests at heart.

But (come closer now because I only want to say this once), ARE YOU NUTS??

With all that we've had to endure, with all the work that has to be done, this is the cause your committee has chosen as the ultimate threat to our country? Bringing Republican toadies to their knees for saying "All Hail" to Rush Limbaugh?

You say, "For years, Republicans have been taking their marching orders from Limbaugh. In 1994, they named him an honorary member of Congress. Leading national Republicans have called him, "a great leader," "a great American," and "the number one voice for conservatism in our country."

I say, "Yeah? So what else is new?"

You say, "Lately, Limbaugh has grown so powerful that two leading Republicans have had to ask for Rush's forgiveness after they dared to criticize him."

I say, "Did you ever see such a sorry spectacle?"

You say, "Rush Limbaugh is free to say whatever he wants."

I say, "That's America for you."

Then you say, in big bold letters, "But when people like Limbaugh start dictating the behavior of Senate Republicans and begin jeopardizing the future of America; it is time for an intervention."

And I say, "Hogwash".

The behavior of Senate Republicans would be the same with or without Rush. They've always been obstructionist blowhards. Last I looked, Limbaugh never ran for office and has never won an election. He's a radio talk show host and nothing more. Though he styles himself after Joe McCarthy, he'll never get there. He doesn't have that kind of power. He can't write legislation, he can't hold committee hearings, he can't collude with the Army or the FBI, and he can't ruin people's lives.

You say, "Click here to sign the DCSS's petition--which will be sent to Republican leaders--demanding that they reject the disgraceful words of Rush Limbaugh and start working with President Obama on real solutions for the American people."

And I say, "No way." I don't say this because I'm a fan of Rush's. If you knew me at all, you would know I find him just as loathsome as the majority of the country. But here's why I won't sign your petition and I won't send you money:

In your own words: "America can't afford this childish posturing anymore. We are in crisis -- and President Obama needs everyone in Washington -- including Republicans -- to work on constructive solutions to get America moving again."

Exactly. Didn't you read your own words? You're feeding a beast whose middle name is Gluttony. Get off of this moronic bandwagon and use your considerable resources for the real battles ahead.

Now go sit in the corner and think about what you've done. I'll get back to you later.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Here We Go Again. . .

"We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace — business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. ... Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me. And I welcome their hatred!"
FDR, Madison Square Garden, October 31, 1936


"The bear market would no doubt have magically turned around by now, and those failing geniuses at the helm of our flat-lined megacorporations would no doubt be busy manufacturing new profits and putting people back to work — if only Mr. Obama had solved the banking crisis, had lowered taxes on the rich, had refused to consider running up those giant deficits (a difficult thing to do at the same time that you are saving banks and lowering taxes), and had abandoned any inclination that he might have had to reform health care and make it a little easier for ordinary American kids to get a better education."
Bob Herbert, NYT, March 7, 2009


"Americans all over this country hope for change. They hope the corruption, earmarking and pork-barrel practices will stop. What are we giving them? We are giving them a slap in the face, that is what we are giving them ... So much for the promise of change."
John McCain, Senate floor, March 2, 2009
(41 days after Obama's Inauguration)

Oh, that Grand Old Party. . .don't you just love them? Is there a former regime anywhere in the world more under-appreciated than they are? Why won't we listen?? Yeah, they've done some things in the past--some things that might have caused a tiny bit of the problems we're facing today--but if we just give them one more chance they promise to change their ways. Because, after all, they are the party of change. . .

Before we turn all those billionaires into mere millionaires, and before we do something as drastic as create jobs for the great unwashed, and before we make the whole damned country healthy, could we please, please just listen to what they have to say??

You know, there was a time when I might have indulged them--a very long, long time ago--but you give an inch with those people and they'll take a mile. I'm listening again to FDR's famous Madison Square Gardens speech, given in October 1936, and it sickens me that it's the same speech Barack Obama should be giving today.

How have we come to this again? Where was everybody? Oh, there were voices raised against the current Right Wing machine--many millions of them--but again, for way too long, we were treated as quaint, foolish Chicken Littles: "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!"

So now that the sky has fallen, can we please get back to reality? Can we not give another moment's breath to the GOP's pompous hate mongers, their selfish twits, their holier-than-thous? If President Obama ever wants to get us on the right track again, he has to turn against them in order to be for us. That's his job. Hold him to it.

As Bob Herbert said today, in yet another smack dab, right on column, "I don’t know whether President Obama’s ultimate rescue plan for the financial industry will work. He is a thoughtful man running a thoughtful administration and the plan, a staggeringly complex and difficult work in progress, hasn’t been revealed yet.

What I know is that the renegade clowns who ruined this economy, the Republican right in alliance with big business and a fair number of feckless Democrats — all working in opposition to the interests of working families — have no credible basis for waging war against
serious efforts to get us out of their mess."


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Harsh Realities in a Country gone Mad with Greed

This is one of those stories that will seem so unbelievable, so beyond the pale, so, well, un-American, you might be tempted to either disregard it completely or cast it in a fictional light in order to escape the obvious conclusion: There are horrors perpetrated on human beings in this country that rival those in the worst of the worst of any third-world country.

Everything that happens in this story happens because the ones with the power could not, would not, control their greed. Everything that happened to these people happened because there was nobody looking out for them. The perpetrators knew they were living in an era where laborers were a dime a dozen. If one died off, there were plenty more where they came from. And the best part of their scheme was that, because most of these people were here illegally, nobody would be the wiser. Nobody would care. Least of all, the government.

This is the story of the cruel exploitation of produce pickers, but it didn't happen in the 1930s of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" or in the "Harvest of Shame" 1950s-60s, before Cesar Chavez began to organize migrant farm workers. It happened--and is happening--right here, right now, under our watch, in the 21st Century.

In an article published yesterday, Barry Estabrook writes this:
Immokalee is the tomato capital of the United States. Between December and May, as much as 90 percent of the fresh domestic tomatoes we eat come from south Florida, and Immokalee is home to one of the area’s largest communities of farmworkers. According to Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney based in Fort Myers, Immokalee has another claim to fame: It is “ground zero for modern slavery.”

Working at breakneck speed, you might be able to pick a ton of tomatoes on a good day, netting about $50 at 45 cents per 32-pound basket. But a lot can go wrong.
The beige stucco house at 209 South Seventh Street is remarkable only because it is in better repair than most Immokalee dwellings. For two and a half years, beginning in April 2005, Mariano Lucas Domingo, along with several other men, was held as a slave at that address. At f
irst, the deal must have seemed reasonable. Lucas, a Guatemalan in his thirties, had slipped across the border to make money to send home for the care of an ailing parent. He expected to earn about $200 a week in the fields. Cesar Navarrete, then a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, agreed to provide room and board at his family’s home on South Seventh Street and extend credit to cover the periods when there were no tomatoes to pick.

Lucas’s “room” turned out to be the back of a box truck in the junk-strewn yard, shared with two or three other workers. It lacked running water and a toilet, so occupants urinated and defecated in a corner. For that, Navarrete docked Lucas’s pay by $20 a week. According to court papers, he also charged Lucas for two meager meals a day: eggs, beans, rice, tortillas, and, occasionally, some sort of meat. Cold showers from a garden hose in the backyard were $5 each. Everything had a price. Lucas was soon $300 in debt. After a month of ten-hour workdays, he figured he should have paid that debt off.

But when Lucas—slightly built and standing less than five and a half feet tall—inq
uired about the balance, Navarrete threatened to beat him should he ever try to leave. Instead of providing an accounting, Navarrete took Lucas’s paychecks, cashed them, and randomly doled out pocket money, $20 some weeks, other weeks $50. Over the years, Navarrete and members of his extended family deprived Lucas of $55,000.

Taking a day off was not an option. If Lucas became ill or was too exhausted to work, he was kicked in the head, beaten, and locked in the back of the truck. Other members of Navarrete’s dozen-man crew were slashed with knives, tied to posts, and shackled in chains. On November 18, 2007, Lucas was again locked inside the truck. As dawn broke, he noticed a faint light shining through a hole in the roof. Jumping up, he secured a hand hold and punched himself through. He was free. 

This is not somebody's hysterical hyperbole designed to bring out the Socialist in us. This is journalism at its best, drawn from information obtained through government, union, and other reliable sources. This particular article--this superb piece of investigative journalism--came from. . .are you ready. . .?

. . .Gourmet Magazine.

This has been an on-going public story for a few years now, but despite the best efforts of Douglas Molloy, the CIW (click to read about six other cases of slavery in Florida since 1997), The Campaign for Fair Food, and the Collier County Sheriff's Office, who in the mainstream media has picked up on it and kept it going? Has Fox News reported on it? "Morning Joe"? Charles Gibson? Katie Couric?

I found the story at Common Dreams first, but it's been out there in one form or another for a long time. This is how networking works best. We find these things that the MSM deems Not Worthy of Big Splash and we spread it around until it gains momentum. It's been Blogged and Digged and Facebooked and Tweeted and soon enough the story will be big enough and out there enough so that those Mainstreamers will look foolish if they continue to ignore it.

No, it'll never be big enough to supplant the really big stories--like who's the latest of the Limbaugh kowtowers to have to apologize to their Rightful Wing Leader. (Ed. note: Oh, the mighty--how they have fallen.)

Mark Rodrigues and Rebecca Smith wrote about it more than a month ago in The Huffington Post. They wrote:
In December 2008, federal prosecutors from the Department of Justice wrapped up yet another farm labor slavery case in Florida, a case the Chief Assistant US Attorney called one of Southwest Florida's biggest and ugliest slavery cases ever, according to the Ft. Myers News-Press. When the defendants were indicted a year ago, US Attorney Doug Molloy called the case "slavery, plain and simple."
This latest case in which, according to court documents, workers were chained to poles, locked inside trucks, beaten, and robbed of their pay, was the seventh such case in just over a decade. Indeed, so shameful is Florida's record of farm labor abuse that a federal prosecutor involved in one of the slavery prosecutions told the New Yorker magazine, "What you get with agriculture is a pattern of exploitation that can be understood only as a system of human-rights abuses."
Charlie Crist, Florida's Governor, knows about it. He recieved a petition with thousands of names on it last month, so any day now we should be hearing cries of outrage from the Governor's Mansion over these abuses.

On February 28, 2005, Evelyn Nieves wrote a piece about the organizing of the Immokalee migrant workers called "Florida Tomato Pickers still reap 'Harvest of Shame'." At the very end of the piece, she wrote this:
No one disputes that Immokalee farm workers have been subjected to the most extreme injustice. The coalition has uncovered several slavery rings in Immokalee-area farms. In one case, based on two years of undercover work and investigation by the coalition in 2002, three Florida-based farm bosses were convicted in federal court of slavery, extortion and weapons charges and sentenced to nearly 35 years in prison. They were also ordered to forfeit more than $3 million in assets. The bosses had threatened more than 700 farm workers with death if they tried to leave and assaulted passenger van service drivers who gave rides to farm workers.
In a 2000 case, a farm contractor was convicted of holding more than 30 tomato pickers under armed watch in two trailers in an isolated swamp near Immokalee. When three workers escaped, the employer tracked them down, running one of them down with his car.
The coalition's work uncovering slavery garnered Benitez, of Guerrero, Mexico, and two other workers the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 2003. The coalition is working with a federal task force that continues to investigate slavery rings.
Benitez said he hoped publicity for the Taco Bell boycott would help inform more people about the slavery, along with the general conditions of farm workers.
That was four years ago. Four years ago. And today I'm reading about the Immokalee slaves as if it were a brand new story. There has been a breakdown in investigative reporting in this country that is beyond frightening. Were we living in a police state the past eight years? How could this happen?

I'm going to do my best to keep this story going. I hope you will, too. Please use the links above to read the entire story, and then pass it on wherever you can. Let's be Tom Joads. Let's be there:

Tom: I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.

This is one horrific example of what unchecked greed does. The victims are human beings, and this is America. This is not how we Americans are supposed to be.