Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rich Narcissists Still Whining

I wrote an earlier post about hypocrites on Wall Street on August 31. The key take-away for me, other than the enormity of their plunder, was the extent to which Wall Streeters, especially the banks, felt put upon because President Obama has dared to scold them for ruining the economy with the most reckless and breathtaking display of greed and irresponsibility in the history of capitalism. And yet they are still walking around, rich and unindicted, while Obama bailed out their collective and undeserving ass, poured billions into the economy, oversaw a stock market recovery, which disproportionately benefited these same bankers and other wealthy elites, passed a luke warm financial reform bill that won't reform much of anything, and thus does little to slow down Wall Street's dominance, and then agreed to extend tax breaks to America's richest.

And still they whine. Many bankers got behind Republicans in '10, as is customary, after supporting Obama in '08, an especially ironic choice given that Wall Street has done very well under Democratic administrations. They just can't shake that unsupported belief that Republicans are somehow better for business than Democrats. As with so much in our modern political economy, and ever more so in what is becoming a post-factual society, identity trumps evidence.

The President met with a small group of CEOs recently, and none of the banking honchos was invited. So now they are having a snit about it. Ben White at Politico has a good take on a level of animosity towards Obama that, in view of banking's profits and privileges, is irrational and bizzarre.

John Amato, referencing Ben White's article, has his take on it as well.  As Amato says, "You can see how deluded these fat cat CEO's are. I mean a few words will make them cry. As I said, even though the President gave these Masters of Destruction virtually a free pass they will now go back to pumping their millions in the GOP."

Finally, watch the video of Sam Seder's interview with Matt Taibbi.

As Taibbi says, the attitudes of the bank CEOs are "unbelievably obnoxious."

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rick Scott Set to Descend on Florida

I had forgotten the extent to which Rick Scott had masterminded the teabaggers' Town Hall riots back in the summer of 2009. OK, I knew he threw a lot of his own money into the health care debate, such as it was, and I certainly knew he wanted to stop any reform that would undermine the healthcare industry's profits. But Scott has been a one-man wrecking crew.

You remember Rick Scott, yes? In a post on September 20, I wondered, as did others, what Scott's appeal was, given his extremely dubious past as a CEO of a demonstrably fraudulent health care insurer. It was all very public information, and yet he had the inside track as Florida's next governor.

He, of course, won the election and so he will be that state's next CEO come January 4th (what is it about people who think CEOs make good politicians? The jobs are so similar, don't you know?)

Madfloridan has an excellent post excoriating the press for recently raising a few good questions about Slick Rick, now that the election is over. He cites three sources.

One is The St. Petersburg Times, which writes, "Incoming Gov. Rick Scott's disdain for government regulation appears to be absolute — and absolutely irresponsible. The Times quotes Scott who declares, "What's the benefit of a regulation, other than delay?"

Yikes, and this after deregulation ran amuck on Wall Street. And the St Petes Times concern about this? As Madfloridian says, "So now they worry." At least the Times bothered to explain the value of regulation.

Meanwhile, Time magazine asks, "Is Florida ready for Governor Rick Scott?" As Time writes:
Florida has some of the broadest open-government laws in the country. So when Governor-elect Rick Scott held a number of behind-closed-doors meetings with business leaders earlier this month during a five-day jobs tour, many political observers fretted that he might not fully appreciate the Sunshine State's sunshine rules. "It would have been a nice gesture on his part to hold those meetings more in the open," says Ben Wilcox, Florida director of the government watchdog group Common Cause. "But Florida's sunshine laws are going to take some getting used to on his part, since just about all he's known is the corporate world."

The Miami Herald quotes a Scott advisor who doubts that Florida needs public hospitals. That's pretty rich. Scott says it's all about improving efficiency, which sounds reasonable. But he is part and parcel of the conservative obsession with privatizing everything in sight, an idea wrapped with the wholly-unsupported insistence that the private sector is inherently and always more effective than the public sector. What that ideology really means is that by privatizing, profit becomes the central focus. And that is precisely why health care in the US is so inadequate. For other industrialized countries, universal health care is first and foremost a public health care issue. For the US, health care is a profit center. The primary fiduciary duty of US corporations, including those in health, is to their shareholders, not their customers. The insurance industry's big pushback on President Obama's health care plan was not because it would not work. It was because they knew a public option would end their ability to continue gouging the American people. 

So I feel for Madfloridian, who says, "I fear for our state the next few years. This guy makes Jeb look saintly." That, of course, is Jeb, as in Jeb Bush.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Orszag Cashes In

Obama said he was going to change the way Washington works. Like more bipartisanship. OK, so he has tried to get along with Republicans who publicly admit they intend to obstruct everything they can. It's like trying to pet a rabid dog and constantly having your hand bit. Republicans have gnawed Obama's hand down to the wrist, but he keeps sticking it out there.

But other things in the current White House are far too familiar. The President loaded up his administration with neoliberals--the heart of the financial establishment--people whose interests, efforts, and expertise are devoted to Wall Street. These guys have Obama's ear just like they had Bush's and Clinton's. And those that moved on after serving in government almost always went to, or back to, Wall Street, where they invariably enriched themselves.

So it not really a surprise that White Houe Budget Director Peter Orszag has departed and is now at Citigroup as Vice Chairman of Global Banking. He had brief stints as a Distinguished Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and as a contributing columnist for the New York Times. Those positions were just a prelude, a decent interval, to the position at Citigroup, one for which he had been auditioning since day one at OMB.

Hey, he earned it. He may have headed OMB, but on occasion looked more like a Citigroup lobbyist, working to ensure that Citigroup received taxpayers largesse. In return, Orszag now has a plum job reportedly worth several million per year. Not bad for a few months of government work.

James Fallows wants to know why there is so little backlash on this. Conflict of interest anyone? Featherbedding? He knows, of course, and so do the rest of us. Society now accepts this kind of corrupt "descent from heaven," as the Japanese call it. American scolds will still shake their head and wag their fingers when they see it in China, or with some tin-pot dictator in Africa, but shrug their shoulders when it happens at home.

America has become irretrievably corrupt.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Road to Oligarchy

When you spend a lot of time studying a subject, or follow events closely, you may assume that the issue at hand has become common knowledge, or at least has the attention of most sentient beings. I learned long ago, and still have to remind myself, that this is usually not the case. Recently I was again surprised by a poll that showed that 94% of Americans do not know who John Boehner is. This is a man who is constantly in the news, and in front of a camera. People will learn more than they wanted to know when he becomes Speaker of the House in January.

For the same reason, I have to assume not many have kept up with this country's slide into oligarchy. The evidence is there, and so is the reportage. It is not comforting.

For a small sampling, see Robert Freeman's article, It's Official: Rich Declare War on the Middle Class. As Freeman relates, "... all of the income and wealth gains for middle Americans from the “golden years” between 1945 and 1975 have now been wiped out.  Or more accurately, have now been transferred to the very rich."

Andy Kroll's How the Oligarchs Took America notes how thoroughly conservative elites have captured institutions, including the court system, the media, and the minds of many Americans since Ronald Reagan (greed is good). He also refers to an excellent new book that happens to be on my ever-growing reading list, Winner-Take All Politics, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. As Kroll relates,
Unlike so many pundits, politicians, and academics, Hacker and Pierson resist blaming the usual suspects: globalization, the rise of an information-based economy, and the demise of manufacturing. The culprit in their crime drama is American politics itself over the last three decades. The clues to understanding the rise of an American oligarchy, they believe, won’t be found in New York or New Delhi, but on Capitol Hill, along Pennsylvania Avenue, and around K Street, that haven in a heartless world for Washington’s lobbyists.

And for an analysis on how our warrior class has assisted the transfer of wealth, see Gilbert Mercier's cheerily entitled The American Empire is Collapsing and Americans Will be the Last to Know. My only quibble is that many Americans do know (there I go again), but we are at a loss as to what we can do.

Monday, December 13, 2010

More on Wage Theft

On November 15, I wrote about the growing problem of wage theft. Others are also trying to raise media awareness on a practice that is illegal, immoral, and pervasive. You won't hear much about wage theft if you expect our corporate-owned media to tell the story.

David Love is hitting this story. In a blog post called Wage Theft: Thou Shall Not Steal From Your Workers, he references Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), a non-profit I noted in November was taking the lead on fighting wage theft. Among the depressing facts IWJ has uncovered, the average worker loses $2600 in unpaid wages every year. About 75% of low-wage workers who work 40+ hours per week are not receiving overtime pay, as federal law requires. And a great many people are incorrectly classified as independent contractors instead of employees because their employers avoid FICA, or payroll taxes, as well as minimum wage and overtime requirements. Avoiding FICA means the employer stiffs social security.
Kudos to Interfaith Worker Justice for caring enough to actually do something, and to David Love for raising awareness. Why does IWJ even have to fight this? It should be enough that IWJ points out a few infractions. Where are the government officials swooping in to stop this practice?

Where is our media? Isn't cheating workers out of their wages a sufficiently scandalous story? 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

European Dismay

In my last post I referred to Tom Friedman's article on how badly the US is polarized and how deeply it has affected our ability to function on even a basic level. Thanks in no small measure to Republican obfuscation, we have become a bizarre parody of ourselves. It is almost like a skit on Saturday Night Live, to which Republicans would whine about how they are being unfairly stereotyped as being in the pockets of the rich. "We will not try to balance the budget on the backs of the poor," I can hear them say.  Except that they are. Slash social security and threaten to shut down the government if Dems don't give tax breaks to the rich? They want that too. How painfully obvious does it have to get before we realize today's Republicans are no longer the party of Eisenhower?

Unfortunately, there are too many Democratics who seem either resigned to events, and are not fighting back, or are actively assisting our transition to oligarchy.

Americans don't take foreign opinion into proper account account very well. As a result, too many Americans have increasingly indefensible views on our international role and rank. And thanks to our deeply compromised media, few Americans are hearing what others think about us and our government, and why it should matter.  

Our recent elections, a giveaway to corporate America disguised as economic populism, has dismayed many in Europe just as it did many progressives here.  How can it be, they ask, that Americans can be so narrow and forgetful as to vote back into power the same corrupt party that helped put the economy in the ditch just before Obama's term began in January 2009?

Europeans, the same people who have national health care of one sort or another, and pay less for it, have no desire to adopt America's for-profit, pay-through-the-nose model designed to enrich the insurance industry. Europeans get more for less, and they know it. They see our recent protracted effort to adopt universal health coverage as symptomatic of American ineptitude. They could see, just we could, at least those of us who didn't watch Fox News, that very high majorities of us wanted a public option.

Yet we couldn't get it done, despite public opinion and Democratic control of the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. Support declined only when it became clear that we would end up with an unworkable compromise that enabled insurance companies to continue dominating the process.

Steven Hill has written more on the European reaction. In a recent post at Alternet, Hill relates his own experience:

"While participating in a conference in Budapest in September, where prominent conservative leaders and thinkers were in attendance, including the president of the European Parliament and two prime ministers, some of the most eye-opening comments had to do with new perceptions about America. One speaker, Christian Stoffaes, who is chairman of the Center for International Prospective Studies based in Paris, stated the “United States is in disarray, extremely polarized. It is practically a civil war there, and you can’t count on it.” This theme was echoed by others speakers, who went even further. One said “We need to shift our emphasis eastward (towards Asia) and not wait for the Obama administration.” I found these statements to be surprising, and even vaguely alarming, given the importance of the transatlantic relationship in the post-World War II era. But there was a widespread view that the US is being consumed by the severity of the Great Recession, brought on by a broken Wall Street capitalism, as well as by the quagmires of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and an inability to change course."
 Regarding the failed Copenhagen Summit on climate change, Europeans saw that the US was not serious about climate change. Calling it a real wakeup call for the Europeans, Hill notes a sudden European epiphany: wasn’t George W. Bush who was the problem, but something more profound about America’s broken political system that prevents any leader, even one as talented as Obama, from delivering.  That political system is marinated in money, is paralyzed by a “filibuster-gone-wild” Senate that has allowed a minority of Senators to obstruct all legislation, and is hamstrung by a sclerotic, winner-take-all, two-party electoral system that has left voters poorly represented and deeply frustrated." 
Ain't it just swell? Hill captures one more quotation that I must share here because it is a sentiment that many progressives share, including myself. German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schauble, says "...The USA lived off credit for too long, inflated its financial sector massively and neglected its industrial base."


Bear in mind this is the same Germany that has higher taxes and more regulations, higher wages and higher unionization, and health care for everyone. It has paid vacations for all, generous maternity leave, more generous pensions, and much greater job security. And wealth is much more evenly distributed because of taxes. All socialist programs.

Just what Republicans insist would destroy the US. Yet Germany has generally better demographics, such as lower homelessness, lower crime, higher literacy, and longer life expectancy.  

Germany also has a massive trade surplus. And It does not owe $ trillions to China.

Republicans have their arguments completely backwards. But at least we have more billionnaires.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Our Government is Paralyzed and Polarized

I don't always agree with Tom Friedman. He has, for example, been far too enthusiastic about the benefits of globalization. But I think he is spot-on in his recent rant in the New York Times. Taking a page from the recent Wikileaks dustup, Friedman imagines he is sharing with us a cable, intercepted if you will, between Beijing and the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. (You can read the whole article here).

The tone is one of satisfaction, even relief, because America is demonstrating a contemptible inability to face up to its challenges, especially those posed by China.  Here are some excerpts.

"Things are going well here for China. America remains a deeply politically polarized country, which is certainly helpful for our goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s most powerful economy and nation." 

"...There is a willful self-destructiveness in the air here as if America has all the time and money in the world for petty politics. They fight over things like — we are not making this up — how and where an airport security officer can touch them. They are fighting — we are happy to report — over the latest nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. It seems as if the Republicans are so interested in weakening President Obama that they are going to scuttle a treaty that would have fostered closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on issues like Iran. And since anything that brings Russia and America closer could end up isolating us, we are grateful to Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona for putting our interests ahead of America’s and blocking Senate ratification of the treaty...."

"...Americans just had what they call an 'election.' Best we could tell it involved one congressman trying to raise more money than the other (all from businesses they are supposed to be regulating) so he could tell bigger lies on TV more often about the other guy before the other guy could do it to him. This leaves us relieved. It means America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent."

"But the Americans are oblivious. They travel abroad so rarely that they don’t see how far they are falling behind... In foreign policy, we see no chance of Obama extricating U.S. forces from Afghanistan. He knows the Republicans will call him a wimp if he does, so America will keep hemorrhaging $190 million a day there."

"Most of the Republicans just elected to Congress do not believe what their scientists tell them about man-made climate change. America’s politicians are mostly lawyers — not engineers or scientists like ours — so they’ll just say crazy things about science and nobody calls them on it. It’s good. It means they will not support any bill to spur clean energy innovation, which is central to our next five-year plan. And this ensures that our efforts to dominate the wind, solar, nuclear and electric car industries will not be challenged by America."

...Thank goodness the Americans can’t read our diplomatic cables."

And that does not address what the Europeans think about us, our broken government, and our downward spiral to oligarchy. That will be another post.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Policy Preferences and Democratic Weakness

On Wednesday I shared a small taste of Bill Maher's skeptical attitude about American voters' understanding of issues and policies. He, of course, is not the only one who notes a wide and long-standing anti-scientific, anti-intellectual streak in this country.

Is it getting worse? It would seem so, in part because of a new level of right-wing aggressiveness, much of it associated with Sarah Palin and teabaggers. Palin sneers at those pointy-headed intellectuals, and the teabaggers eat it up. In her crowd, anti-science has become fashionable and, perversely, is viewed as virtuous.

And yet...  

RJ Eskow, a Senior Fellow with The Campaign for America's Future, cites many reasons to feel good about the wisdom of Americans, at least a majority of us. He has collected some impressive polling data, complete with compelling pie charts that show clear majorities of Americans prefer progressive legislation and policy choices. To wit:

     1.  A large majority opposes cuts to social security;
     2.  Seven in ten oppose raising the retirement age;
     3.  A plurality says to raise taxes on the wealthy;
     4.  Nearly 4 in 5 are against cuts in Medicare;
     5.  Nearly 2 in 3 oppose cuts in lending for college tuition;
     6.  About 6 in 10 say to do more to assist unemployed workers
     7.  4 in 5 say to do more to reduce poverty
     8.  Seven in 10 favor more regulation on Wall Street

Such clear preferences do not demonstrate that people actually understand the details or implications of their choices (3 in 10 don't favor Wall Street regulation?); but they do show that most people want government to help them, not get out of the way, as Republicans since Reagan have claimed. 

As I have posted before, it is essential that we understand the role of political identity. The polls Eskow cites suggest most American prefer, wait for it -- socialism -- a strong dollop of the European model, complete with much more equitable income distribution (say it ain't so Ayn Rand). Many gravitate towards Republicans because it suits their personalities. They want to see politicians project strength, conviction, and detemination. Republicans may have an unusual obsession with swagger, symbolism, and simplistic interpretations of complex issues, but nobody likes to see weakness in their elected officials. And that is what we have mostly seen in the last two years with Dems in the White House and Senate.

People want the Democrats to win, but they have no patience with any party that says it stands for the middle class and then repeatedly squanders its opportunities. Many Americans may be uninformed, many have short memories, and many are impatient, not realizing how long it takes to turn our economy around. Those are faults of the electorate that complicate governing in the US. But nobody is making Democratic politicians look weak except themselves.

Republicans write the script only because Dems let them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dogs And Teabaggers Sense Fear

Here is a video I meant to put up earlier. Bill Maher and Michael Moore capture much of the essence of teabagger mentality, and for that matter, much of what studies on authoritarian personalities have demonstrated long before anyone heard of teabaggers, Palin, or Glenn Beck.

Maher makes the point that many Americans are like dogs. That will get the right wing's assortment of serial resenters frothing, but he makes a cringe-worthy and accurate assertion that so many Americans are like dogs because they don't really understand what is being said; they look for voice inflection, style, symbolism, and attitude.

Ok, so dogs don't get symbolism, but Maher is right to emphasize fear as a motivator for dogs and teabaggers alike. Millions let their gut feelings be their guide, which is why, as Maher notes, so many seem impervious to rational discourse. On numerous issues wonkish progressives hold dear, teabaggers do not simply disagree with progressives, and offer a reasoned counter argument; they do not understand the issue in the first place. 

But listen carefully to Moore. He stresses a point you have heard me say before: Dems lost seats in November because the 18-24 crowd didn't bother to vote, while their parent and grandparents did. Moore says 70% of the 18-24 demographic voted for Obama, which sounds about right. However, while 23 million of them voted in '08, only 9 million did so in 2010. Yet Republicans only garnered 5 million more votes in 2010.

Do the math: it's all about voter turnout.