Friday, January 31, 2014

Brooks Whigs Out

(graphic by Kat Garcia)

David Brooks, concerned that the president he frequently canoodles with is in "stately decline," has a solution. Barack Obama can battle Lame Duck Syndrome by appointing commissions made up of the Davos/Aspen Ideas Festival crowd to lay out the framework for his successor's agenda! Obama
can become a Whig, and follow in the pragmatic footsteps of Lincoln! Never mind that Abe forsook Whiggery because of its regional factionalism and became a Republican. Brooks is counting on readers not to have boned up on any actual history.

In the world of David Brooks, Obama is finally at that point where he is free to transcend mere factionalism and pandering to Congress and voters and donors by allowing various outside influence peddlers (the Opportunity Coalition) to move in and dictate policy for the remainder of his term:
This means he will have the opportunity to build what he himself could have used over the past few years: An Opportunity Coalition. He’ll have the chance to organize bipartisan groups of mayors, business leaders, legislators, activists and donors into permanent alliances and institutions that will formulate, lobby for, fund and promote opportunity and social mobility agendas for decades to come. 
President Obama could travel the country modernizing the Whig impulse, questioning current divisions and eroding the rigid battle lines. More concretely, he could create a group of Simpson-Bowles-type commissions — with legislators, mayors, governors and others brought together to offer concrete proposals on mobility issues from the beginning to the end of the life span.
Brooks, in his usual roundabout mushy way, is giving the stamp of elite approval to an Obama agenda that already exists, and has existed since the beginning of the president's political career. Obama has always served the Masters of the Universe, who are currently trying to take cover from the Inequality Craze behind the gilded walls of their charitable-industrial complex and their various corporate-funded think tanks. He's always traveled the country in a frenzied non-stop campaign to prop up business. Obama already created his Simpson-Bowles Commission, his White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness made up of Forbes 400 billionaires. His Justice Department has already invited the Malefactors of Great Wealth to partner up in the Fight Against Criminal Accountability. Obama has always been a congenial host to the movers and shakers of the global oligarchy.

Brooks is being disingenuous when he suggests that Obama needs to set a new cooperative agenda for his successors, because Obama is merely the latest front man of the de facto oligarchy. These global power players got their start with RRRR (Ronald Reagan's Randian Revolution), continued their assault all through the centrist Clinton triangulation years, made a killing both literally and figuratively during the Bush Neocon era, and then saw their wealth skyrocket to dizzying heights under Obama's reign as the wealth gap widened to historic proportions.

Brooks telling Obama to play nice with the plutocrats is like calling Genghis Khan a couch potato, and to get on with the plundering already.

It's all part of the same old shell game of the media-political complex. 

And, oh so coincidentally timed with the advice in Brooks's column, the president invited a whole cabal of tax-phobic CEOs over to the White House so that they can "voluntarily" and magnanimously pledge to hire more long-term unemployed people, and try to placate the increasingly restive masses for yet another day via crumbs, phony pledges, (I got a pen, yo!) and photo-ops. The outlandishly wealthy are so rattled by the specter of pitchforks and torches that even such misanthropes as Rupert Murdoch and the Waltons are being forced to pretend to care. And to show how personally accomodating he is, Obama even invited the CEO of Bank of America over for Concern-Fest,right in the midst of the DOJ trying to extract a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud settlement from the bank.

  As Robert A. Isaak explains the strategy in his book "The Globalization Gap,"
The only ones who ultimately accept the power of the super-rich individual are other excessively wealthy people who perceive a common bond and, presumably, a network of interests for their own long term security. Yet the affluent need to have the poor be marginally successful economically for much the same reason that the farmer needs to fatten up the cows before taking them to market. Absolute poverty leads to greater uncertainty and absolute chaos.
Brooks is simply slapping new phraseology (neo-Whig) on the same old agenda of the never-ending class war. And by shilling for the neoliberal Clinton Global Initiative, he also seems to be doing his best to set the stage for Hillary's Coronation. My published Times comment to his latest obfuscatory epistle:
Just what we need: a permanently enthroned power structure of philanthropic plutocrats pretending to solve the same social and economic problems they had an intimate hand in creating.
The fat cats... oops, I mean "thought leaders" -- fresh from their paranoid sojourn in Davos, are feeling nervous about the ever-widening wealth gap and opinion polls showing that the masses are mad as hell about their station in the Feudalistic States of America.
And thus does Income Inequality, only lately touted as the "defining issue of our time" get bowdlerized into ephemeral "ladders of opportunity" to encourage us to dream big, work hard, and shut up.
David Brooks's neo-Whig Party is just another name for the plutocratic cult of centrism, in which the rich get richer, and the poor get a little training and the nirvana of a meager $10 minimum wage if they're lucky enough to score a McJob. This grotesque opportunity cult supposedly will make up for the recent unbelievably sadistic slashing of food stamps for hungry families with children, discontinuation of federal unemployment benefits, and retention of most of the cuts of the Sequester.
Instead of Simpson-Bowles Catfood commissions and gap-widening Clintonoid "initiatives" that feel our pain while throwing us to the curb, we need to expand Social Security, ensure Medicare for All, get the money out of politics, and give the pathological rich their own unique opportunity to experience the joy of progressive taxation.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

SOTU: A Classic of Cluelessness

Last night's SOTU address was a lot like an episode of Seinfeld -- great writing, great acting, pitch-perfect delivery, frequent grunts of laughter and even frequenter rounds of applause from an allegedly living audience. But in the end, it was a classic show about nothing.

At least the senile Uncle Leo character showed up only once to bitch about the deficit and generational theft. At least the pathologically cheap George Costanzo clone grudgingly agreed to raise the crappy pay of federal contract employees enough so they won't faint from starvation on the job. (although, as with most bait and switch come-ons, restrictions do apply. If you are currently a McWorker in the Pentagon, you will continue earning the same $7 or $8 an hour you've been making for the past decade. Now that your cheap-ass boss has to fork over an extravagant $10.10 an hour to the newbie, you're almost guaranteed to never get a raise. You will, however, be expected to train the new kid getting paid more than you.)

But not to worry. President Obama will make it easier for you to save for your retirement (or death, whichever comes first) through a nifty plan he calls MyRA. I suspect that it sounds like a TV ad for a rheumatoid arthritis drug for a reason.  It may come with a lot of side-effects, including serious infections, nervous system reactions, even death. If you begin to experience these symptoms, discontinue saving from your pitiful salary immediately and eat something, already! And then keep clamoring for the expansion of Social Security via scrapping the cap on contributions and raising the amount of monthly checks to help boost the economy.

Of course,  Barry's myRA is meant to help only the mythical "middle class" save for retirement. And Matt Yglesias suspects it's not a savings plan so much as it's a bond-selling gimmick. And cynic that I am, I can't help suspecting it's a backdoor way to eventually privatize Social Security. You know who else has been pushing for these private retirement savings accounts since forever? The tax-phobic billionaire plutocrats of Fix the Debt and the Business Roundtable, that's who! Since Inequality has all but pushed the New Deal-destroying Grand Betrayal off the table, myRa could be the consolation prize for the CEO crowd of political donors and bribers.

As soon as Obama mendaciously announced last night that fast track approval of the TransPacific Partnership* would help American entrepreneurs and small business owners create jobs for "folks," I tuned out. Along with Noam Chomsky's advice to run for the hills whenever you hear a politician utter the word folks, I would also urge you to be wary of his bucket full of dreaded "common-sense approaches". This weasel phrase paradoxically always seems to bode ill for the commons -- as in, common-sense deficit reduction, common-sense food stamp cuts, common-sense job-creating deregulation of fracking, and last night's promise of "common sense solutions to drone policy" -- or if you insist on being  blunt about it, the therapeutic assassinations of Muslim people by sane surgical hellfire missiles.

Barack Obama is simply using the old tried and true formula beloved of slick politicians since time immemorial. Check the polls, and determine what people are mad as hell about these days. (Hint: it's the failure of their government to protect them from the machinations of the pathologically wealthy.) Feel their pain for a minute. And then begin to oh-so-stealthily change the subject. Or, as the neoliberal elites say when they want to co-opt populist sentiment: "Shape their thinking" by changing the "terms of the debate."

And thus does the scourge and crime of unfettered capitalism and extreme wealth disparity become Obama's phony "ladders of opportunity" for increasingly desperate people to gain entry into Middle Class Nirvana. Save for retirement with your pennies. Play the trickle-down Promise Zone/charter school lottery. Work hard and play by their rules. Be afraid of terror. And above all, support the troops. Feel guilty about feeling your own sadness as the millionaires of Congress give a standing ovation to a maimed veteran who's suffered through a sadistic and unconscionable ten deployments to keep you safe and free and unquestioning. And don't forget pragmatic.

And if you do take it into your head to resist, a la Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and other government whistleblowers, along with thousands of Occupy protesters and anti-war activists, watch your dulcet-toned President turn into the Soup Nazi in a New York Minute. If you dare ask for bread to go along with your watered-down soup, you'll not only be refused. They'll raise the price even more before summarily kicking you to the curb.

*Update: This is a hopeful sign, but we mustn't let our guard down. These promises have a way of being broken in back room wheeling and dealing.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

R.I.P. Pete Seeger

If anyone ever personified the accolade "living legend," it was Pete Seeger. He was a man for the ages, a living slice of Americana, ageless and seemingly immortal. And that is why learning of his death at age 94 was still such a shock. 

Most of the world knew him, of course, as a folksinger. But to the locals in my Hudson Valley neck of the woods, he was known primarily as a social activist. I had the privilege of meeting and talking with Pete a couple of times. The first time was in the mid-70s, as part of a controversial effort to transform the national historic landmark Dutch Reformed Church in Newburgh, N.Y. into a performing arts center for the black community. This was during the time when that Hudson River city and other blighted urban areas nationwide were still reeling from racial and social unrest and when the Black Panthers were an active and activist presence in minority communities. In other words, a threat to the established order. So when a young African-American man named Curtis Stewart had the effrontery to take over a crumbling building and rename it the Hudson Valley Freedom Theater, it raised a lot of official hackles and derision and push-back from city fathers and poobahs.

And then Pete Seeger showed up to lend support, and the powers that be shut up for awhile. After another decade of legal wrangling and funding problems, title of the structure reverted to the city. Pete had a way of lending his voice to all kinds of causes, and they were usually the unpopular ones. 

For example, during the Reagan era, he only sold ten tickets to his benefit concert for the homeless.

He was already well-known locally for his efforts to clean up the Hudson River, long unfishable because of pollution with PCBs. G.E. finally began removal of the toxic waste decades after they dumped it. Pete led the effort to pass the Clean Water Act. He built the sloop Clearwater and hosted generations of schoolchildren on a floating classroom, teaching them a love and respect for the environment.

It's probably fitting that one of his last public appearances was in a march with Occupy Wall Street after a concert in 2011.

The New York Times has a fine obituary here. And here's a great piece by the late Mike Levine.

  Today I'm going to hunt down some of my old Weavers and Seeger solo albums and reinvigorate myself with the music of a fine giving man, a legend who can never really die.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Pablum Preview

From SuperPacs to Super Storms to Super-Soakers, we can now move on to Super-Speech: a/k/a the annual State of the Union (SOTU) harangue next week. You might call it the Superbowl of Presidential Addresses, delivered as it is to a joint session of Congress, some Supreme Court members, the First Lady in her royal box with a carefully selected entourage of human props, every last one of them dressed to kill, jockeying for prime TV camera position.

Although Barack Obama is designated the star quarterback for this particular political game, this year's edition will feature not one, but three, defensive stars from the Red Team. And let's not forget the star punditry analyzing every applause line, facial expression, and couture choice in the pre and post shows.

There is, of course, no halftime show. The SOTU is the halftime show. 

This year's theme had been rumored to  be Inequality. And New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who announced he has also been hired by CNN to provide some play-by-play commentary, is waving the pompoms at the pep rally as he writes in his latest column that "everybody should be cheering him (Obama) on":
 They won’t, of course. Instead, he will face two kinds of sniping. The usual suspects on the right will, as always when questions of income distribution comes up, shriek “Class warfare!” But there will also be seemingly more sober voices arguing that he has picked the wrong target, that jobs, not inequality, should be at the top of his agenda.
Wow. He totally neglected the rest of the "folks", who will be either doing something else, or booing, or just laughing hysterically.

The audience, Krugman writes, is more likely to "connect" with the president on the issue of inequality, and therefore Obama should stick with the populism schtick and try not to mention "deficit reduction" to balance himself out. And so, that most liberal, erudite, and well-respected New York Times columnist as much as admits that the whole purpose of Obama's rhetoric will be mere political point-scoring and Democratic Party-boosting. Sardonicky contributor Pearl Volkov called him out on it in her "TimesPick" comment:
 "But if we mainly hear about inequality and social justice, that’s O.K."
Dr. Krugman: even if the president mentions inequality and social justice in his speech it means nothing. His words arranged by a speechwriter remain the same since Day One and comparing all his speeches throughout the years will show this.
How long will the American people believe anything he says and how long will you recognize that any delicate comments you make hinting about what you think he should do in the years ahead fall on deaf ears.
I am surprised that you do not catch on to the reasons for his odd behavior and inability to apparently understand what the problems are.
He is a product of the system, and a great article in the paper today by a former worker on Wall Street titled "For the Love of Money" and what it represents describes his agenda. Only in that story the author recognizes where he is heading and changes course.
No, the presidency represents too much power, prestige and great future prospects to allow its use for the good of the people by an unscrupulous occupant. He made his choices long ago.

And here was my two cents:
If the president simultaneously talks about inequality and pushes for fast-track Congressional authority to shove the secretive, job-killing Trans-Pacific Partnership down our throats, he'll effectively be cancelling himself out.
But still, I'll be willing to give him a cheer if he uses his executive authority to raise the pay of low-wage federal contractors, some of whom walked off their Pentagon jobs in protest this week. Obama has the power to instantly lift millions of these hard-working people out of the slough of poverty.
Politely asking Congress to raise the minimum non-living wage to a paltry $10 doesn't cut it. His five years of getting away with speeches substituting for actions have run their course. His approval rating is at the same low level as Bush's at the same point in his second term. A new poll (AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs) reveals that fully 70% of us now lack confidence in government in general.
Wall Street continues to get backdoor bailouts and prosecution deferrals for its crimes against humanity, while food assistance for nearly 50 million people has been slashed. The millionaires of Congress don't have the money help the one in four children living in poverty, but billions to feed the paranoia of the war machine and the security state. We, the citizens, have been declared the enemy. We no longer live in a functioning democracy.
It really is asking a bit much that we applaud even one more empty hour of jingoism and platitudes.
In anticipation of Bullshit 2014 edition, I thought it would be fun (okay, so fun is a bit extreme) to go down Memory Lane and revisit some of the game highlights of SOTUs past.

The theme of his debut effort in 2010, after one year in office, was "Let's Get Serious." It was hard to select the memorable quotes that should have given his hordes of adoring fans their first clue that Obama is not so much a liberal as he is a free-market neoliberal. But here goes. I have inserted some helpful explanatory links into some of them. The others simply speak for themselves.
And we haven't raised income taxes by a single dime on a single person.  Not a single dime.  (Applause.)
Now, the true engine of job creation in this country will always be America's businesses.  (Applause.)  But government can create the conditions necessary for businesses to expand and hire more workers.
While we're at it, let's also eliminate all capital gains taxes on small business investment, and provide a tax incentive for all large businesses and all small businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.  (Applause.)
  Look, I am not interested in punishing banks.  I'm interested in protecting our economy.  A strong, healthy financial market makes it possible for businesses to access credit and create new jobs. It channels the savings of families into investments that raise incomes.
It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.  (Applause.)  
Third, we need to export more of our goods.  (Applause.)  Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America.  (Applause.) ....  If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores.  (Applause.)
 Now, this year, we've broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools.  And the idea here is simple:  Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success.  Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner city.  In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education.  (Applause.)
Our approach would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan.  It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses.  And according to the Congressional Budget Office -– the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress –- our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.  (Applause.) 
But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions.  The federal government should do the same.  (Applause.)  So tonight, I'm proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year.
Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. 
That's why I've called for a bipartisan fiscal commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad.  (Applause.)  This can't be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem.  The commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline. 
Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission.  So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans.  (Applause.)  And when the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason for why we had record surpluses in the 1990s.  Applause.) 
(Karen here: Mind you, Obama was pushing for Austerity when he still had a Super Majority in the Senate and a Majority in the House. Also, mind you that the clappers and guffawers in the room were likely laughing all the way to the bank. Half of Congress are now millionaires. So give two cheers and one cheer more to the well-dressed captain of The Pinafore, yo!)
 With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections.  (Applause.)  I don't think American elections should be bankrolled  by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.  (Applause.)  They should be decided by the American people.  And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.
 To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.  (Applause.)  
(Um. They ran for the hills (Beverly) and the valleys (Silicon.) And they danced in the street. (Wall.)

And now on to the 2011 speech, a/k/a "Win the Future," which could very easily have been delivered by Reagan, Bush, or Cheney. It is breathtaking in its bellicosity and cruelty. It was a full-on assault on the American people coated with a "Happy Days Are Here Again" veneer.  Obama celebrated the Republican "shellacking" of the midterms and pretended that normal, struggling Americans were all for bipartisan grand bargains to make their lives even more miserable. The austerity contributing to the worst income inequality would go on under his watch. Read the speech and you have proof from the words of the One himself that the current state of affairs he now pretends so smarmily to want to reverse, is a Lie for the Age. Highlights (or more accurately, low points):
We are poised for progress.  Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back.  Corporate profits are up.  The economy is growing again.
(no mention of stagnating wages.)
  We did that in December.  Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans’ paychecks are a little bigger today.  Every business can write off the full cost of new investments that they make this year.  And these steps, taken by Democrats and Republicans, will grow the economy and add to the more than one million private sector jobs created last year.
(Austerity as an economy-booster was soon exposed as a massive fraud, of course.)
Now, the final critical step in winning the future is to make sure we aren’t buried under a mountain of debt.
 We are living with a legacy of deficit spending that began almost a decade ago.  And in the wake of the financial crisis, some of that was necessary to keep credit flowing, save jobs, and put money in people’s pockets.
But now that the worst of the recession is over*, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in**.  That is not sustainable.  Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means.  They deserve a government that does the same.

(** Obama here sets the stage for the slew of phony fiscal crises and debt limit negotiations and government shutdowns.)
 So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.  (Applause.)  Now, this would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President.
This freeze will require painful cuts.  Already, we’ve frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years.  I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs.  The Secretary of Defense has also agreed to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without.  (Applause.).....
To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.  (Applause.)  We must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.  (Applause.)

He then went on from hating current seniors and the currently disabled to trumpeting American exceptionalism and superiority at a truly Cheneyesque level. Here's a snippet I found simultaneously chilling and hilarious in light of the recent revelations of his administration's secrecy fetish, his war on whistleblowers, his legalization of indefinite detention and assassinations, his suppression of journalism and human rights abuses:
We should have no illusions about the work ahead of us. Reforming our schools, changing the way we use energy, reducing our deficit –- none of this will be easy.  All of it will take time.  And it will be harder because we will argue about everything.  The costs.  The details.  The letter of every law.
 Of course, some countries don’t have this problem.  If the central government wants a railroad, they build a railroad, no matter how many homes get bulldozed.  If they don’t want a bad story in the newspaper, it doesn’t get written. 
  And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.  (Applause.) 
 We may have differences in policy, but we all believe in the rights enshrined in our Constitution.  We may have different opinions, but we believe in the same promise that says this is a place where you can make it if you try.  We may have different backgrounds, but we believe in the same dream that says this is a country where anything is possible.  No matter who you are.  No matter where you come from.
No matter who or where you are, The Shadow Knows.

Had enough yet? Me too. However, if you're even more of a glutton for punishment than I am, you can find the more recent SOTUs here and here. But speaking just for myself, if I needed any more examples of doubletalk and Newspeak, I do have the complete editions of Kafka and Orwell at my fingertips, right here in my library. They are among the many antidotes available to help keep us sane, giving us the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the voices to protest.

Or if you prefer your flavor bland, there's always Paul Krugman and Obama's Google hangouts.

Update: After posting this, I checked my in-box, and there was a note addressed to "Hey" from White House factotum Dan Pfeiffer giving me, Hey, a preview of the speech. And yeah, they're openly referring to it as a sporting event. And no, inequality is not being mentioned. It's been neoliberalized into 0pportunity.
Hey --
Every year it's the same old same old: In the days leading up to the State of the Union, the phone rings off the hook with inside-the-Beltway hacks everyone trying to figure out what will be in the President's address.
We're now just four days out -- and the President wanted Hey you to get the first preview of what this speech is all about. As always, he'll be working on it right up until game time, but three words sum up the President's message on Tuesday night: opportunity, action, and optimism. (0A0, pronounced Owwwww!)
The core idea is as corporatist American as they come: If you are a compliant little citizen who works for low wages till you drop work hard and play by the rules, you might should have the opportunity to survive succeed. Your ability to breathe get ahead should be based on your can-do, pull-yourself-up- by-your-bootstraps Horatio Alger spirit hard work and lust for wealth ambition and who you want to be, not just the raw circumstance of who you are when you're born to loser single moms.
On Tuesday night, the President will lay out a set of real, wet concrete, market-based practical proposals to grow the financial services industry economy, strengthen the upper middle class, and hypnotize empower all who hope against hope to join it.
In this year of action, the President will seek out as many market-based opportunities as possible to work with the Ayn Rand cult in Congress in a bipartisan way. But when American jobs and CEO livelihoods depend on getting something done, he will not wait for Congress.
President Obama has a pen and he has a phone, and he will use them to fund-raise for Democrats take executive action and enlist every American -- oligarchs and their trusty serfs business owners and workers, mayors named Rahm Emanuel and state legislators, young people, veterans, and folks in communities from across the country -- in posing as human backdrops for his speeches the project to immortalize the myth of trickle-down economics to restore equality opportunity for all.
It will be a rah-rah an optimistic speech. Thanks to his ability to fool you into thinking he's sympathetic the grit and determination of citizens like Hey you, America has a hard-earned right to that optimism but not a hard-earned right to representation by politicians.  Five years after the President is presiding over inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,  our businesses have created more than eight million new low-paying jobs in the past 46 months, and they're primed to create more misery for you and wealth for themselves.
With minimal some action on the PTB's all our parts, we can pretend to help more jobseekers find work, and more working Americans find the economic security they deserve. That's why, in the week following the speech, President Obama will continue campaign-style bullshitting travel to communities across the country -- including Prince George’s County Maryland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Nashville, before returning to the White House to head-fake on outline new efforts to placate help the long-term unemployed as a wedge issue to elect more Democrats.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

It's a Small World, Uber Alles

The crypto-fascist transformation is complete. The corruption is right there, out in the open for all to see. Living, breathing human beings have now been formally declared mere appendages to the piles upon piles upon piles of cold hard cash dictating policy in America, and elsewhere.

The blaring headline in today's New York Times makes it official:

Biggest Liberal SuperPac to Fund Possible Clinton Bid.

If you think they got it back-asswards, then you got it right. It appears that candidates don't even have to formally announce their own candidacies any more. The Big Money is doing it for them. Since Big Money is effectively running the country already, then it's Big Humanoid Money that's officially asking for your useless vote. How precious. From the Times:

The move marks perhaps the earliest-ever start to big-dollar fund-raising in support of a nonincumbent presidential candidate, providing a fund-raising portal for wealthy Clinton supporters eager to help her White House prospects — and to the legions of others eager to ingratiate themselves with Mrs. Clinton and her inner circle.
Jim Messina, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager in 2012, who has forged close ties with many Democratic donors, will serve as co-chairman of the revamped super PAC and an affiliated nonprofit, along with Jennifer M. Granholm, the former governor of Michigan who is among the most persistent voices calling for Mrs. Clinton to enter the 2016 race.

That Jim Messina sure is one busy multi-tasker, having just hired himself out to also advise Britain's arch-conservative austerian P.M., David Cameron. And that's on top of running the Obama legacy-burnishing retirement account known as Organizing for Action. So, the fact that Messina is now also in charge of what amounts to a phantom Hillary campaign does tend to lend credence to the theory that global rule in the wake of a transnational corporate coup is already pretty much a done deal. Plutocrats Without Borders, if you will.

Or as Barack Obama himself would probably explain: "There are no red countries, there are no blue countries. There is only the United Oligarchy of the World United Against You, the Citizen Terrorists. Nations, schmations."

And speaking of Cameron, and police states and corporate rule, British police officials are so paranoid about possible protests against government austerity measures that they're seeking permission to use water cannons against unruly starving people. The Guardian explains the need for anti-citizen weaponry:

It (the police report) adds that although the debate on water cannon was sparked by the riots in London in 2011, there was also serious disorder in many major cities and towns "of an intensity and scale where water cannon potentially could have offered an operational advantage to public order commanders".
The Acpo report reveals that the model of water cannon most likely to be used, the Ziegler Wasserwerfer 9000, can get through its 9,000 litres in just five minutes if it is running at full pressure, although it adds that operating for this length of time would be difficult to justify in terms of use of force.
It also discloses that the water within the water cannon tank will have to kept at 5C to "prevent the onset of medical conditions associated with the shock of being exposed to cold water".
So, it's heartening to know that the police state will be careful not to actually kill you as it shocks and drowns you.  It sounds very similar to the enhanced interrogation technique known as water-boarding, conducted only under the humane supervision of qualified medical personnel.

Coming soon to a depleted food bank near you:

But am I digressing here, or what? From election-buying Plutocrats, to Hillary, to Obama, to Messina, to Cameron to.... police state water cannons? Nah. It's no digression at all. Everything's connected. It looks something like this:


Speaking of interconnectedness, here's my response to Gail Collins's very funny column about the Pope meeting the President next month, and how Republicans' heads are exploding from the populism craze, the American embassy in the Vatican being moved, and other insults:

Could it finally be Karma time for the GOP and the wealthy patrons keeping it on life support? A populist Pope not only debunks austerity, he has the gall to show up (by proxy) at the annual Davos confab to remind the partying plutocrats to share the wealth. Are you listening, Ken Langone and Paul Ryan?
As if the Pope needed help, Oxfam came out with a stunning new report showing that the 85 richest people in the world have more wealth than half the entire planet. So share it, already!
And as Davos opened, the rich people left behind in the Upper East Side were shocked to discover accumulating snowflakes on their streets. A Twitter eruption ensued, the petulance of the unplowed elites broadcast to the world. One peevish missive published in Rupert Murdoch's anti-Pope/anti-De Blasio NY Post was, appropriately enough, from the author (Molly Jong-Fast) of "The Social Climber's Handbook."
And then "MoBo" (the former Virginia governor and his wife) were indicted for criminal social-climbing, a k a grifting. Sensing an opening, Gov. Cuomo formally announced on the radio that homophobes aren't welcome in New York. And poor Cardinal Dolan, no doubt exhausted from his full-time job of assuring rich grifters that God loves them too, now has to go back on TV to yell at Cuomo and defend homophobes.
And meanwhile, Chris Christie is still melting down like a malevolent Frosty the Snowman.
And no, it's not a sin to indulge in a little Schadenfreude.
And here's the one I wrote to Charles Blow about how he learned to love books as a child:

I was in second grade when I picked up L. Frank Baum's "Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and discovered a feast, amazed that the book was so much more engrossing than the movie version I'd just seen on TV. Books have been a constant presence in my life ever since. When I had children of my own, I discovered the joy of reading both old favorites and new classics out loud to them at bedtime.
I feel sorry for people who don't read. Maybe they just prefer TV and movies, maybe they're tired working too many hours, maybe their municipal libraries have reduced hours or closed altogether due to the epidemic of cruel austerity. It's probably a whole combination of things.
The ongoing assault on public education certainly isn't helping. Teaching to the test not only does not inculcate a love of reading for the pure pleasure of it, it probably discourages reading. You can't blame kids for wanting fresh air and entertainment after a long day of Drill Baby Drill. There is way too much emphasis on preparing children to be good little technocratic consumers for those low-paying jobs of the future.
Reading leads to independent thought and the questioning of authority -- a dangerous thing in a rising plutocracy whose survival depends on keeping citizens compliant and uncreative. When was the last time you heard a politician espousing more instruction in literature, the humanities, and the arts?
Oh, and in some places, they've even banned Oz because of its "godlessness."
And a reader named "Alierius" remarked, "My mother had a collection of the Oz books and wow, some of them are seriously weird, LSD trip weird, like when the Tin Woodsman meets his 'meat' head, still in the cupboard of the tinsmith who made him. I have them now, and my daughter and I will read them together, in a few years..."

Ah, hope is not lost. As long as future generations can still read about the Tin Woodman's decapitated head in the cupboard, we can survive any onslaught, banding together in solidarity against SuperStorms, SuperPacs and SuperSoakers.

Meanwhile, though, we open up our cupboards and get assaulted with this New York Times Magazine cover:

Too Tin Woodman-creepy for you? Then do check out these alternatives at Buzzfeed.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Veruca Salt Rules the World

Veruca Salt, you may remember, was the obnoxious little hellion who sang "I Want the World, I Want the Whole World, and I Want it Now!" before she literally flew down the garbage chute to hell in a candy factory.

Imagine, if you will, Veruca Salt multiplied by 85. Then imagine that there are no Willy Wonka governments around to rein in her greed, let alone sentence her to her just desserts.  In fact, 85 nonfictional Veruca Salts* are on a rampage, and they've already sucked up half the wealth of the entire planet. And they've made it perfectly clear that they're still hungry. They won't be satisfied until they've glommed up every last chocolate to put in their pocket. And those chocolates, of course, include entire governments, entire countries, entire gross domestic products.

A stunning report released by Oxfam lays out all the proof we need that there's been a plutocratic coup, and it's far from over:

• The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.

• The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.

• Seven out of ten people live in countries where economic inequality has increased inthe last 30 years.

• The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.

• In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

It's no surprise that most of the 85 Veruca Salt clones reside in the U.S., where a new Gallup poll reveals that two-thirds of us are now royally ticked off about all of this gross wealth inequality. It kinda makes you wonder what the other third are smoking.  Hmm... so maybe that's why Barack Obama is suddenly "evolving" on pot legalization. A stoned populace is a malleable populace. A stoned populace won't pay attention as he frantically tries to win fast-track approval for the Veruca Salt Treaty Part III Trans-Pacific Partnership corporate coup.

Like Bob Dylan says, everybody must get stoned. And then you might not feel so all alone, as you join the rest of the Oompa Loompa serfs of the 99% foraging for crumbs and jostling for position for a slide down the factory farm chute.

Meanwhile, two of the biggest Veruca Salt clones of all, going by the aliases "Bill and Melinda Gates," have written an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to announce that global poverty as we know it will be coming to an end, thanks to their charitable-industrial complex. That is because when Bill and Melinda visited Mexico recently, they didn't notice any poor people on the streets. They gush:
Today, Mexico City is mind-blowingly different, boasting high-rise buildings, cleaner air, new roads and modern bridges. You still find pockets of poverty, but when we visit now, we think, "Wow—most people here are middle-class. What a miracle."

 ( Um... you think it's because the poor Mexicans just up and died from disease, starvation and murder at the hands of American-enabled drug cartels? The Veruca Salt clones either don't know and don't care, or they pretend not to know and still don't care.)

But here's where the real miracle can come into play: when more than two-thirds of the population says enough already and goes all Willy Wonka on the Veruca Clones. Precluding that eventuality, Oxfam offers some helpful suggestions to the greedheads and the goody-grubbers:

Stop dodging taxes in your countries and using tax havens! Stop bribing government officials! Be transparent about your obscene wealth! Support progressive tax policies! Challenge your elected officials to provide a social safety net and universal health care for all the citizens! Pay a living wage to the people you employ! Guilt-trip your fellow elites into compliance with all of the above!

But, since admonitions never stopped those genetically incapable of feeling shame, Oxfam next turns to government officials with another plea: Cut back on the Salt! It is harmful to human health. Regulate, tax, regulate some more, tax some more. Rinse and repeat as needed.

I looked and I looked, but nowhere in the Oxfam report did I see any calls for dissent, revolution, boycotts, pitchforks, or torches.

Perversely, the report is being presented to the very tax-evading elites now converging at the annual Veruca Salt Convention World Economic Forum in Davos. And that includes do-gooder billionaire Bill Gates, who will deliver his neoliberal Prosperity Is Just Around the Third World Corner talk to his peers. (cost per person for the privilege of concern-trolling extreme wealth inequality: $40,000.)

The elites have it all covered. As long as they're minding The Gap in the Swiss Alps, the other gap might as well not even exist because none are so blind as rich people who will not see what lies beneath them. And all is well with their Whole World.

* The Forbes List of the 100 wealthiest people is here.

Monday, January 20, 2014

In Remembrance

Now we must develop progress, or rather, a program—and I can't stay on this long—that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. Now, early in the century this proposal would have been greeted with ridicule and denunciation as destructive of initiative and responsibility. At that time economic status was considered the measure of the individual's abilities and talents. And in the thinking of that day, the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber. We've come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty.

That was Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August 1967. Fast forward to the next century, and we're right back in the dark ages. Rabid right-wingers are right back attacking poor people for a "want of industrious habits" as an explanation for our sputtering economy. Long-term unemployment insurance has been cut off with glee by Republicans and with smarmy resignation by Democrats. The almighty Market, a k a "The Economy" has risen anew to dislocate society for the common good in myriad places, leaving a twitching wreck in its wake. 

King continued:

The problem indicates that our emphasis must be twofold: We must create full employment, or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available. In 1879 Henry George anticipated this state of affairs when he wrote in Progress and Poverty:
The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves driven to their tasks either by the, that of a taskmaster or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.
Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problem of housing, education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor, transformed into purchasers, will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Purchasing power? That equals political power. And the current powers that be are terrified of any such thing in too many common hands.  Moises Velasquez-Manoff spells it all out in an excellent piece in the New York Times. The gist of it is that if you put cash directly into the hands of poor parents, their children will thrive. Struggling families do less well if only piecemeal "services" are provided. So if we can lessen the stress of parents, we automatically lessen the stress on children.You might call it emotional trickle-down. Of course, it was a Democrat named Bill Clinton who ended "welfare as we know it." And a Democrat named Barack Obama continues the deed while ostensibly making income inequality "the defining issue of our time."  (Of course, it depends on what his definition of defining is. Maybe what he meant to say was that inequality is the "deafening issue of our time." Because, all the booming, strident, appeasing "we feel your pain" rhetoric offset by their cynical lack of action just makes you want to cover your ears and turn them all off.) 
King concurred about the need for direct citizen action over listening to pretty political speeches.

Beyond these advantages, a host of positive psychological changes inevitably will result from widespread economic security. The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement. Personal conflicts between husband, wife, and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.

Now, our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth. [applause]

King delivered that speech in the heady first days of LBJ's War on Poverty. He wasn't about to take the politicians' word for it that they were on the side of regular people, of course. He wasn't about to be herded into any partisan veal pen. And filling the vacuum of his death came Nixon's Southern Strategy, and Ronald Reagan's mythical Cadillac Welfare Queen, and the New "era of big government is over" Democrats, and the War on Terror, and the Surveillance State, and Citizens United, and the assault on the Occupy movement.... and the rest, of course, is reactionary history. 

We honor King today, but the King we're supposed to celebrate is the bowdlerized version, whom  Barack Obama smarmily thanks for getting him where he is today as he self-righteously declares the Third Monday in January an innocuous "Day of Service" in which comfortable people deign to "give back." Standard photo-op faves for the elites are to pose serving the poor in soup kitchens, or getting down and dirty and painting an inner-city classroom for an hour or two. As of this posting, the White House had not yet announced where the Obamas would be going slumming today. But here they were last year:

 Because they don't want you to get any original ideas like this:

Or this:

One of the first MLK memorials after his 1968 assassination was the Poor People's March on Washington and the building of the Resurrection City shantytown on the National Mall. King's original aim was to shut down Washington entirely while demanding passage of an Economic Bill of Rights. The encampment of his grieving followers lasted for six weeks. Not only was the legislation never passed, but the original Bill of Rights seems to be passing into oblivion as well. MLK Sanitizer-in-Chief Obama did the official deed on the Fourth Amendment just three days ago.


Paul Krugman's column today debunked David Brooks and other champions of the obscene rich who are making it their personal business (via cherry-picked "sociology" and mangled numbers) to defend every last untaxed ill-gotten gain of the 21st Century Robber Barons. My response:

While apologists for the rich like David Brooks strain to find ways to blame the poor for every mess the rich ever made, maybe they should take a look at actual Strain Theory. This school of sociological thought holds that extreme wealth inequality is the result of failure of the political class to rein in the greed of the plutocrats. Perversely, the strain this causes only provokes the elites to inflict even more pain on everybody else. Witness their axing of unemployment insurance, slashing of SNAP, de-funding of regulatory agencies protecting both fiscal and physical public health. Witness the parallel bolstering of the war machine and the surveillance/police state. The rulers and the pundits who serve them are getting more paranoid by the day. They just can't quit their addiction to greed, so they're pre-empting blowback.
The recent toxic chemical spill in West Virginia is only one glaring example of what happens when a country veers off the right wing cliff. We Americans are taught early and often to be consumers instead of engaged, thinking, caring citizens. In America, Good is defined as profit, and Evil is defined as loss. And so the American Dream, predicated as it is on the pursuit of wealth at any cost, has already turned into a nightmare.
The solution is to change the culture. Make ethics and civics courses mandatory from K to college. Elect pols who value work more than they value wealth. And above all, tax wealth the same way we now tax work.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Love With the Proper Stalker

 "We don't spy on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security," Barack Obama double-negatively insisted today.

Translation/caveat: Since every man, woman and child on the face of the planet is considered a threat to the security of the United Stasi unless proven otherwise ex post facto, the spying and the cyber-stalking will continue.

Other Orwellian tidbits in the speech: The NSA probably maybe won't continue storing all your communications, but rest assured that all your communications will continue to be stored. The mystery bureaucracy storing all your communications is yet to be determined, and will no doubt be handsomely funded by a black budget free from Congressional oversight.

Oh, and there will be no more secrecy unless "we" determine that there is a need for secrecy.

As I commented on a New York Times preview of the president's speech,

Obama will "propose a new public advocate to represent privacy concerns at a secret intelligence court."
So, is this the new Orwellian definition of "public-private partnership?" Or is Obama simply playing the cynical role of the Gatekeeper in the remake of "Before the Law?" According to this parable by Kafka, the supplicant spends his entire life begging the Gatekeeper for access to the secret court, where he may or may not be on trial.
And just as the Gatekeeper keeps conning the litigant/defendant in Kafka's tale, Obama glibly keeps insisting that the welfare and safety of "the people" is his primary concern. Since he doesn't want you to revolt, he cordially invites you to hang around outside, listening to him wax rhapsodic about how transparent the whole system is. And maybe, someday, if you're really patient, you might be allowed in. Just not now. And anyway, Obama is only the first gatekeeper guarding other, bigger gatekeepers guarding still more gatekeepers guarding the "public advocate."
Obama's job, like any Gatekeeper's job, is to just keep stringing us along until we either give up or conveniently die.

And speaking of cynicism, people noticed that Obama chose to give his speech defending the "patriots" of the NSA on the 54th anniversary of Ike's famous farewell speech warning of the impending Military-Industrial Complex and urging citizens to be vigilant against the anti-democratic machinations of our leaders. It was quite telling that Obama urged no such thing on the citizens whom he  has the privilege of serving. His speech was strident, bellicose, defensive and paternalistic. 

Just as cynical
, in my view, is the fact that Obama delivered his creepy veiled threat of a speech mid-way through what he himself just proclaimed "National Stalking Awareness Month." Wrote the president:
Stalkers seek to intimidate their victims through repeated unwanted contact, including harassing phone calls, text messages, or emails. Cyberstalking is increasingly prevalent, with more than one quarter of stalking victims reporting being harassed through the Internet or electronically monitored. Many victims suffer from anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and some are forced to move or change jobs.....
 NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 2014 as National Stalking Awareness Month. I call upon all Americans to recognize the signs of stalking, acknowledge stalking as a serious crime, and urge those affected not to be afraid to speak out or ask for help. Let us also resolve to support victims and survivors, and to create communities that are secure and supportive for all Americans.
Thanks to Edward Snowden (whom Obama peevishly refused to talk about in his speech, other than to seemingly blame the Snowden revelations for his own inability to quit droning all those brown terrorist people to death), all Americans now recognize the unmistakable signs and evidence of their own government stalking them. (Not to mention the relatively innocuous but nonetheless annoying email spam from the White House Propaganda Shop, the constant intrusion of Barack Obama on our TV screens, the rampant spammy fund-raising appeals from the Organizing for Action Obama Legacy campaign.)

 A growing number of people are daring to acknowledge right out loud that the NSA is a criminal enterprise. Victims are suffering from anxiety as a result -- especially journalists and would-be whistleblowers. Like Snowden, the heroes exposing government crimes will be forced to move, chased and hounded by USA Mega-Stalker to the ends of the earth, till the end of their lives. There are even hit squads of Stalker Helpers who have publicly vowed to put a bullet in Snowden's brain.

So by all means, go ahead and believe Obama as he promises to create secure, supportive communities.... with a CCTV camera on every corner, antennae in every computer and beady little cyber-eyes on every last private email, medical report and bank statement.

The "Just Trust Me" Charm Offensive

And the lying continues right along with the harassment. Obama today once again claimed that the NSA "consistently follows protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people. They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails."

Ummm.... As ProPublica points out in an article, posted only hours before the latest mendacity outbreak,

In fact, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court [5] has reprimanded the NSA for abuses both in warrantless surveillance targeting people abroad, and in bulk domestic phone records collection.
In 2011, the FISA Court found [6] that for three years, the NSA had been collecting tens of thousands of domestic emails and other communications [7] in violation of the Fourth Amendment [8]. The court ordered the NSA to do more to filter out those communications. In a footnote, Judge John D. Bates also chastised the NSA for repeatedly misleading the court [9] about the extent of its surveillance. In 2009 – weeks after Obama took office – the court concluded the procedures designed to protect the privacy of American phone records had been “so frequently and systemically violated [10] that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall … regime has never functioned effectively.”
The NSA told the court those violations were unintentional [11] and a result of technological limitations [12]. But the NSA’s own inspector general has also documented some “willful” abuses: About a dozen NSA employees have used government surveillance to spy on their lovers and exes, a practice reportedly called “LOVEINT [13].”
The Stalker-in-Chief must get so damned frustrated trying to drill into our heads that there's any difference between the NSA Stalkers and the Bad Stalkers, who exist only to frighten and harrass the womenfolk on the mean streets of America  and throughout global cyberspace. If a civilian does it, it's a crime. If a spy does it, it's patriotism, with only the occasional, totally unintentional "mistake that was made" in the name of love. For your own good and protection, of course.
If you can't be with the Stalker you love, then love the Stalker you're with. If you like your Stalker, you can keep your Stalker. Sigh.