Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sorry

Could it be that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually has a point? There's been a lot of talk about the fact that Barack Obama gave his first interview to a foreign network, an Arab network no less. Of course the American networks felt slighted, with some, OK, one, the FOX "network" going so far as pretending to not be able to pronounce Al-Arabiya (check it out here, was she being ignorant or condescending?). As expected the right's response is to scream about being weak in the face of the enemy - remember talking and exchanging ideas is a Republican weakness - but I want to focus on the comments made by everyone's favourite Persian leader.

In his first public address since Obama's inauguration and interview, Ahmadinejad said:
"Those who say they want to make change, this is the change they should make: they should apologise to the Iranian nation and try to make up for their dark background and the crimes they have committed against the Iranian nation."

Here's the thing: he's right. While Obama took the first step by reaching out his hand, much of the Muslim world still sees that hand as a clenched fist. How could they not when one considers some of the things that the US has done to Iran and other countries over the years, most of which many Americans themselves have no idea about. If one wants to get a small idea of the propaganda and censorship that forms the world view of many Americans, this is a quick and easy start. Ahmadinejad listed some of the grievances of his people that he wishes an apology for, beginning with American support for the 1953 coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh and installed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who ruled until he was ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Also on the list is the shooting down of an Iran Air Airbus A300 by the United States Navy’s missile cruiser Vincennes over the Persian Gulf in 1988, killing 290 people. American military commanders said at the time that the passenger plane had been mistaken for an F-14 fighter jet, and they defended the warship’s actions.


Oh, and there was that little thing where the US backed Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the 1980's in the war against Iran leading to the deaths of over a million people. Of course over on FOX "news" (read story here), the only US 'crime' that is mentioned is trying to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. That's the only bad thing America has done, ever.

The truth is, without American intervention there would be no Ahmadinejads, Bin Ladens or Kim Jong-ils in this world and therefore not only owes the Iranian people, but the whole world a big sorry. Yes, the world also owes America a great big thank-you for all the good it's done as well. However, she must face up to the fact that much wrong has resulted from her actions. From genocide at home to Chile through Iraq, America has made it's share of errors (pretty good list here, CIA interventions here). The last eight years saw a dangerous shift in American foreign policy, specifically the pre-emptive war doctrine and increased support for Israel in their genocidal fight against the Palestinian people. The predictable result has been the increase in radicalism seen in the Muslim nations, making the world a much more dangerous place. Now there's news that the Obama administration is drafting a letter to the Iranian people in response to a letter of congratulations received after the election victory in November. What should the letter say? What tone should it strike? Should it be addressed directly to the people of Iran? All important questions, but I think one word would go a long way to healing the wounds: Sorry.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Davos Doldrums

Davos, Switzerland. Why does just the name conjure sickening images of Richard Branson in a shiny new ski outfit, maybe being lowered from a helicopter while juggling machetes? Oh yeah, because that's what happens; ever since 1971, world leaders have been meeting in this Swiss village to share ideas and promote capitalism. First the good news: the theme of this year's gathering is "Shaping the Post-Crisis World", meaning there's going to be an end to the crisis and a world to live in. The bad news: most of the people meeting are the very ones who have put us in the crisis to begin with!

Over 2,500 participants from 96 countries will gather in Davos for five days starting tomorrow. Over half are business leaders representing the 1,000 foremost companies from around the world and across economic sectors. More than 1,400 chief executives and chairpersons from the world’s leading companies are participating this year, the highest ever since the World Economic Forum was founded in 1971. Additionally, there will be 250 public figures, including 41 heads of state or government, 60 ministers, 30 heads or senior officials of international organizations and 10 ambassadors. Finally, more than 510 participants from civil society, including 50 heads or representatives of non-governmental organizations, 225 media leaders, 215 leaders from academic institutions and think tanks, 10 religious leaders of different faiths and 10 trade union leaders. We're talking about concentrated wealth and power.

When last they met in Davos a year ago the theme was "The Power of Collaborative Innovation". It seems like a pleasant memory now, doesn't it? Globalization and the financial masters were on the verge of lifting the world out of poverty by renewing their committment to the UN Millenium Development Goals - with a little prodding from Bono. Sure, the 'r' word was being bandied about, some mentioned the possibility of the US housing crisis spreading, but they we're just gathering storm clouds. Oh yeah, there was that little scandal involving the rogue French trader and $7.2 billion in losses breaking just then. Still, it wasn't enough to convince those gathered that a new way of regulating the financial system was necessary, self-regulation was still the best way to go according to 2/3 of the attendees. Sure credit was tightening, but the capital of the Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF) of the oil rich countries in the Middle East and Russia, along with the economic engines of China and India and the decoupling of the world and US economies would be more that enough to keep the global economy growing. Why, there was even talk of Russia joining the WTO by the end of the year!

A year on and the world has changed. Financial chaos has descended upon us, Russia is the bad guy again and it's being whispered that even the Chinese economy is beginning to follow the rest of the world's example of the past 12 months. Trade barriers are beginning to pop up as nations start to feel the pinch of double digit economic contraction. America has elected a new president and is printing money as fast as it can to slow the hemorrhaging, while Europe has seen everything from national bankruptcies to street riot protests. So, this year we're being told that we'll see a much more sober Davos gathering. They'll be no Lehman Brothers delegation, Goldman Sachs has cancelled their legendary party and of course Merrill Lynch's John Thane's power-breakfast scheduled for this Friday has been tossed in the garbage (no not the $1,200 one). More interesting than who will be there, the Angela Merckels and Gordon Browns, should be the conspicuous absence of conspicuousness. No Bono, Claudia Schiffer or Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt; even many Asian businessmen will be absent due to the timing coinciding with the Lunar New Year. Other no shows will be B. Ramalinga Raju, former chairman of India's Satyam Computer Services Ltd., who was to have been on a panel this year at the Forum, but instead is in jail, arrested in connection with a massive fraud. One banker scheduled to attend who won't be is Edgar de Picciotto, chairman of Union Bancaire Privée who lost big, to the tune of $700 million, for clients by investing in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

Speaking of conspicuous absences of conspicuousness, whatever happened to the legions of protesters that such economic summits once seemed to draw? Maybe we thought that Bono and Bill Gates were taking care of everyone's interests, so we just left it to them. Perhaps we've entered the post anti-globalization age, where we simply accept the new economic order of private profits and socialized losses. Most of the attendees in Davos have enriched themselves while driving the world economy into the ground, leaving a bill that tax-payers are now expected to pick up. The greed of the eighty's left us with such legacies as Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel. This time all we may have to show for it are memories of Russian oligarch billionaires' drunken parties and bankers hitting on Naomi Campbell. One thing's for sure this year in Davos, many of the bankers are staying home but more political leaders are going to be there, 40 heads of state, up from 27 last year, including the first Chinese leader to attend, Premier Wen Jiabao. German novelist Thomas Mann called Davos "The Magic Mountain" back when it was a center for tuberculosis cures, I somehow doubt it's where this new world order of politicians running the show will find the miracle medicine to end the financial crisis.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The wheels on the bus go...

'round and round, round and round. Just like the earth goes round the sun. This week the air felt clearer as if a weight had been lifted and the future once again bright. I was wondering what in the world many of us bloggers will write about now that our favourite target has retired to his ranch in Texas, when the light shone down and gave me a sign:

THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD
NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE


What started as a little British story more than half a year ago, then spread to the continent has made the jump across the pond. That's right, it's the atheist bus campaign. In a two pronged attack the British movement is taking hold alongside an American incarnation. The nation that has spent so much energy trying to spread her beliefs across the globe finally seems to be willing to take some lessons from the rest of the world.

Could it be that the land of free and the home of the brave is once again ready to put science before the bible? While the first signs out of the new Obama administration are positive, there's still many reasons to fear the fundamentalists (I mean the scary kind, the Christians). Watching the Obama inauguration, not only did we have to listen to Rick Warren's invocation, one had to hear the g word uttered far too many times for comfort. However, there was a tiny crack in the religious armor that appeared with Obama's words: "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers." That's right, even non-believers are citizens!

Two things flew in under the radar last week. One, the Texas Board of Education tentatively adopted new teaching standards that would make it more difficult to teach creationism in Lone Star state schools in an 8 to 7 vote. Even more importantly, President Obama lifted the ban on US funding for international organisations that offer advice or perform abortions, hoping to ease the suffering of millions of women worldwide. In a move that is sure to piss off a boatload of fundamentalists, he quietly rescinded what had become known as the "global gag order"- not the comedy kind of gag, the one where if you so much as think the word abortion, you lose your funding from the US government. Reagan created it, Clinton repealed it, Bush re-instated it and now Obama has continued the ping-pong rally between knowledge and faith. In fact, much like a mirror-image of Obama, Dubya re-instated the law in his first working day as president. After a campaign in which he said, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us...If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us. We've got to be humble and yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom." Then upon taking office, his first executive order imposed his way of thinking, the morality of the Christian Right, on the world. Of course, these were more innocent times, before the US was at war and there were more important things to worry about: (Get to about 1:20)


Yes, before 9/11 my friends, check out the date, June 14, 2001, ahh, those we're the days. One of the new president's biggest challenges is going to be overturning the ignorance that the Bush administration propagated and return his nation to the path of science.

Unlike the signing of the order to close Gitmo, this repeal was low-key. This follows the inauguration ceremony which featured a religious tightrope act by Obama involving the above mentioned Warren and the liberal appeasing invitation to Gene Robinson, the openly homosexual Episcopalian bishop. Someone from outside of America wouldn't understand the controversy surrounding the words "so help me G(g)od". The same could be said of the controversies around the Reverends Jeremiah Wright, Rod Parsley and John Hagee stories, strange doings in a strange land. Of course keeping people stupid has its advantages, especially for the big corporations, particularly big oil. A little learning might make us question why a nation would want to continue feeding a habit that directly supports and created the people who wants to destroy them. The only reason to deny that climate change is possibly created by mankind's actions and thereby avoid doing anything about it is the religious answer. Only God has the power to change the world, little ol' us couldn't possibly do any harm. They miss the point. Whether or not climate change is a dire threat, the solutions to it is primarily an energy problem. Reducing pollution is an energy problem, concerns about the global oil supply is an energy problem, reducing dependence on foreign oil is an energy problem, reducing the trade deficit is an energy problem, improving national security is, you guessed it, an energy problem.

Maybe we should capitalize the word Science. The window of opportunity is closing for America to change its ways, to become energy independent through smart investment in Science. Even one of the American dollar oil fed creation of Abu Dhabi is creating a zero-carbon city, heck it won't even have any cars, as the emirate can foresee a time when alternative energy is king. Yet, mention CO2 reduction as a good idea to a fundamentalist and the same old myths to protect their right to continue supporting the enemy in the 'war on terror' through the continued reliance on black gold spew forth. Maybe we should ask a Bulgarian if they think it's a good idea to continue to rely on Russian gas anymore. At a time when more effort needs to be focused on investing in education, specifically real Science, we shouldn't be wasting our energy arguing about whether or not intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution or if women should have access to all possible health information. It didn't seem to matter when it was far more important to get into business school and someday work on Wall Street, become a Master of the Universe by inventing a new financial derivative. The true Masters of the next century need to be the Science nerds who invent things we can use and once put a man on the moon. This time the work needs to be done closer to home, from the $1.6 trillion in needed infrastructure to the power grid to the means of producing that power. Time will tell if America can be guided off its course toward ignorance and hate, but reaffirming the division between church and state is a good place to start.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

True (well, not so true) to the End

The great mass of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one
-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf Vol. 1, Ch. 10

Why oh why do they keep lying and deceiving? Oh yeah, it's because a whole bunch of people eat this stuff up. Stumbled across another case in point of the smokescreen that is the Republican party and the wacky right, a little number released by the White House called the 'Highlights of Accomplishments and Results The Administration of President George W. Bush 2001-2009'. The legacy book is yet another example of the distorted way in which these people actually see the world. So, in celebration of the final moments of the Bush presidency let's try to once again for old time sakes to expose the truth by looking at this publication point by painful point.

The report has five main categories, the first of which is the claim that Dubya "Kept America Safe and Promoted Liberty Abroad". The four supporting arguments are that he waged the global war on terror, transformed the institutions and the tools of war, established the freedom agenda to spread hope through liberty and finally, established a new approach to international development. The first claim is based on the fact that US soil hasn't seen a terrorist attack against it since 9/11. True, but as I've read in many places, the previous 7 years hadn't seen one either. What's been swept under the rug and somehow forgotten is that it was on Bush's watch that 9/11 happened. Have we forgotten that Bush responded to the August 6, 2001 memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" by going on vacation? Or that he hardly paid any attention to the intelligence dating back to January 2001 which insisted that al-Qaeda was an "urgent" threat? The truth here is that the Bush administration has made America and the world a much less safe place, especially vis-a-vis terrorism. The neo-con strategy of spreading democracy through war has proved to be an abysmal failure. Yes, they transformed war by instituting a policy of pre-emptive war in Iraq and the tools were sharpened through the unsigning of the ICC and ignoring the Geneva Convention. The use of torture condoned by his cohorts has created a much more dangerous world for troops abroad. The State Department, traditionally the main tool of foreign policy, has become an afterthought, understaffed, underfunded and suffering from low morale. Reading about this 'freedom agenda' is confusing. If it's the measure introduced to but not passed by congress it represents some of the higher ideals of the Republican party. However, the more nebulous 'freedom agenda' held by Dubya and fellow neo-cons has truly been a disaster. Beyond Iraq, one need look no further than South America or central Asia, where American influence has waned considerably. As for the colour-coded revolutions, well, most have been revealed as nothing more than a smoke screen, whose initial success has faded away much like the smoke. Did I mention Afghanistan? Guess I forgot about it too...

Bush on the economy, another laugher. Section numero dos is headed: Lowered Taxes and Instituted Pro-Growth Policies. Should read: Made the rich richer and sold the rest down river. More than any one single reason for the financial crisis is the culture of lies and deceit that the Bush administration helped to perpetuate. If you aren't so philosophical and need concrete reasons for the crisis, luckily I've got a few. Doubling the national debt after inheriting a budget surplus, pushing for deregulation and the ever widening income gap are good starting points. A doubling of the nation's debt to over $11 trillion while today the richest 1% of Americans share of national income is 22.1% compared to 16.1% in 2002 with the bottom 50%'s share today being 12.5% compared to 14.2% six years ago. In 2007 real median household income dropped 1% while corporate profits jumped 68%. But really, one need only look at Bush's advice to the American consumer which basically boiled down to "go shopping!". Yes, that's right, declare a 'war on terror' and instead of asking the people to make sacrifices, ask them to mortgage their financial future - and of course that's what Joe and Sally did. In previous wars citizens were encouraged to invest in war bonds and the likes, Dubya told the people "to get down to Disney World". Imagine how bad things would be today if he'd had his way and Social Security had been privatized.

Next up, George the second apparently "Reformed Government to Better Serve Americans". The first subsection is about education and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, part of the Bush pledge in 2000 to improve education when he lamented, "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?". The results have been mixed with reading and math scores showing improvement but many questioning the neglect of other subjects; an overhaul awaits the Obama administration. On health care the report mentions the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. Whatever it's merits the cost represent another boldface lie told to the American people as the White House continually low-balled the price tag in order to ensure passage. Sound familiar? Refresher: Back in 2003 the Bush Administration wanted to put the price tag of a war in Iraq at around $50 billion. White House Economic Advisor Larry Lindsey was fired for suggesting it could be $100 to $200 billion, that's right, fired for stepping out of line. The real cost could come in somewhere around $5 trillion! Only missed that one by a factor of 100. Oh yeah, there are over 46 million Americans without any kind of health insurance today, an increase of more than 8 million since 2000. The next part is the creepy one for us small 'g' god people; Dubya's administration has "Improved lives by partnering with faith-based and community groups". Whether or not one supports the president's Faith-Based and Community Initiative (FBCI), what is undeniable is that it will be a part of the Bush legacy as it has changed the rules of the game. The Constitutional line between church and state has been blurred and a new way of handing out money to political allies was created, sound familiar? It should as cronyism is a central theme in the last section here, where Bush II "Provided unprecedented resources for those who defended our freedom". Yes, sending over 4000 folks to die in a war tends to put pressure on you to spend some money on the armed forces. The silver lining? Well, at least Dick Cheney and Haliburton got richer.

GWB "Set a Bright Course for America's Future" must be the most baffling section of the document. Apparently he advanced energy production, lessening America's dependence on oil. One almost has no words to argue against this, and I guess that's the point. But pointing to the success of ethanol subsidies when they have had a large hand in disrupting world commodity markets, threatening global famine? Maybe the authors missed out on the run up to near $150 a barrel oil last year. Or perhaps the report implicitly counts Iraqi oil production as being American now. Dubya has also protected the environment, damn, I almost can't write this stuff. An administration that has done all it can to perpetuate global warming deniers' claims while removing itself from the obligations of the Kyoto Protocol could one day be pointed at as the reason for the end of the world. Lastly in this section the administration "Reduced crime, lowered drug use, and protected vulnerable children". While having the authority to pardon crimes helped his family sleep at night while in office, it will be interesting to see how many within the inner-circle are brought to justice. Legalizing war crimes through the Military Commissions Act helped keep the streets crime free too, at least those in Washington, D.C.!

The final section is titled: Stood on Principle and Showed the Way Ahead. Thank you Mr. President for creating the environment we're in today, one where lying, deceit, greed and corruption have come together in a perfect storm that truly threatens to end the American way of life. Through it all though Dubya "promoted a culture of life", by which I guess it means for those who weren't killed in Iraq. In fact, the phrase is lifted from a speech given by Pope John Paul II on a tour of the US in 1993, and by the Vatican's standards, Dubya has sort of succeeded. The main points of this ideal are: opposition to abortion, check, opposition to capital punishment, oops, opposition to cloning, check, opposition to contraception, check, opposition to embryonic and stem cell research, check, opposition to euthanasia, check and opposition to unjust war, d'oh! Well, 5 outta 7 ain't bad I guess. Opposition to stem cell research "set research back five to six to seven years in this country," delaying potential treatments for a number of degenerative and life threatening diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. And guess what, those scientists that would have been working in the US are simply in other countries doing that same research. Next, George "Appointed judges committed to ruling by the letter of the law" is the shortest section of the document, quickly mentioning the appointment of Judges Samuel Alito and John Roberts. Funny how it skips over the whole Alberto Gonzales fiasco, assuming the public has already forgotten. Guess that's the point, most already have and won't even really know what is missing, much of their civil liberties. From wire tapping to political favouritism and approval of torture, (Gonzales called parts of the Geneva Convention 'quaint') Dubya and his gang chipped away at all that Americans supposedly hold sacred, their freedom, while proclaiming to be protecting and spreading it abroad.

None of this could have happened without three main factors, 9/11, Cheney and Rove. Cheney pushed for a radical rewriting of American policies on such critical issues as surveillance and detention of terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks, with virtually no oversight or input from Congress or the courts. Meanwhile Rove worked his black magic upon a sleep-walking nation, molding public opinion through his version of the truth with impunity. Before getting to the gripping "100 Things Americans Might Not Know" wrap-up, this legacy forming document proclaims that, "President Bush led with a hopeful vision, met complex and rapid-fire challenges with steady resolve, and based his decisions on principle." This seems to be the central theme of the Bush record defense, he was a victim of circumstances and he dealt with all the issues based on his principles. Herein lies the ultimate irony of the past eight years: If a man (or woman) with more sense than neo-con ideology had occupied the Oval Office to face those same challenges, America and the world would be a much better and safer place today. Instead of seeing 9/11 as an opportunity to reach out to the world, it was treated as a chance to settle scores and start wars, thereby fuelling extremism and creating legions of new terrorists. Evidence of moral corrosion can be found everywhere we look, from the financial scandals of Enron to Bernie Madoff, the humiliation of Saddam Hussein to Guantanamo Bay. Thank you Mr. President, we wish we never knew you.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Footballs and Bubbles

Dot-com bubble. Check. Housing bubble. Check. Commodity bubble. Check. What could be next, hmmm, let's look into the ol' crystal ball here... getting something, yeah, definitely getting clearer, but, no, it can't be, it just looks like a bunch of men chasing some kind of ball, not profit, this can't be the next financial bubble surely. Sadly, it could be sports fans, as the value of professional sports teams has grown exponentially in the last decade it has become a prime candidate for the next bubble to burst.

With the countdown to the NFL's Super Bowl (yeah that football, the American kind) down to just two weeks, there's a chance the opposing teams combined value will be under $2 billion - like the Arizona Cardinals a bit of a long shot in a league where 19 of the 30 teams are valued over a billion bucks. I'm picking the Eagles to end the Cardinals improbable run, but it'll be great watching the NFC Conference final in the desert on Sunday. If that happens along with the Steelers taking the Ravens in the AFC, the combined worth of the finalist will be almost exactly 2 bil, $1.92 billion.

There are 24 professional franchises worldwide valued in the ten digits; in 2004 there weren't any. Top spot worldwide goes to Manchester United. It's hard to put an exact figure on their worth, in many a Premiership fans' hearts as well as hard currency, but it's about $1.8 billion. Bubble buying in their league is exemplified by Manchester City's Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed. Spending boatloads on Robinho and now looking to land Kaka, he may wind up with a team relegated from the Premiership (note to US readers, the lowest and highest teams fall and jump to the next league each year). The sheik's family's only worth a trillion so I guess he can afford to do what he wants. Almost makes Chelsea's Roman Abramovich look poor. The professional sports teams perhaps hit the hardest by the crisis also plays in the Premiership, West Ham. Icelandic owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson lost hundreds of millions of pounds last fall due to the collapse of the banking industry, forcing the team to sell players to keep afloat. Malcolm Glazer's bold maneuverings to take control of Man U were so successful that he now fully owns the team. When he reached the 98% threshold of outstanding shares (causing a compulsory buyout of remaining shares in June of 2005 the final valuation made them worth 800 million pounds, or $1.5 billion at the time. Glazer also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL so you know, he only owns a couple billion dollars worth of professional sports teams.

His Bucs won a Super Bowl a few years back, the Cowboys have won five, helping Dallas, along with a new stadium for next year (and the all important new stadium deal!) to be worth $1.6 billion, the second highest valued sports franchise. The Steelers would be one win away from six rings with a win Sunday. I'm taking Pittsburgh to beat the Baltimore Ravens as the Steelers D shows who was number one this year and the Ravens will be tired and holes will appear in the league's number two defence. Think the Steelers may even run it up a bit, dare I say 30-10 provided steady rookie sensation Joe Flacco throws up a couple picks. Philadelphia takes care of the Cardinals 39-35 in a wild finish. Kurt Warner will put up 5 TDs in a losing cause: 2 to Anquan Boldin whose back this week to join fellow 1000 yard receivers Steve Breaston, who'll snag a touch, and Larry Fitzgerald, who looked like the best in the NFL last week, getting a couple.

Arizona plays their home games at the silly-ly named Sportsman's Park at Cardinal Stadium, sure to be renamed soon as there is huge money to be made. An unlikely number 10 on the world's richest list are the most recent NFL expansion team, the Texas Texans (another awful name) helped by the fact that their home field's name, Reliant Stadium, brought in $300 million. FedEx stadium, er, the Washington Redskins come in 3rd on the list at $1.5 billion, Gillette adds to the Patriots 3 recent Super Bowls, boosting New England's value to fourth at $1.32 billion. Next are the only baseball team in the top 10, unsurprisingly the New York Yankees - being worth $1.3 billion somehow allows them to throw over $400 million at 3 free agents this winter, um hello, crisis, what crisis? Real Madrid's $500 million in revenue, string of signings (remember Figo, Ronaldo, Beckham, Owen, Van Nistelrooy) and Santiago Bernabeu, the only stadium in this list I've seen a game at, despite shrinking from 120,000 to 80,000 max attendance in the past few year, make them 7th at $1.29. Emirates push Arsenal to 8th and $1.2 billion.

Rounding out the top ten are the two New York NFL teams, the Jets and last year's Super Bowl victors the Giants. If you've made it this far and don't like sports you may wonder how these kind of valuations are possible. Speculators thrive in environments where logic and value stop co-existing. Perhaps the first recorded speculative bubble was Tulip mania. Back in the 16th century the market for tulip bulbs exploded, you can't make this stuff up. A future's market in the bulbs was opened in 1636 and the price of bulbs skyrocketed amidst a bubonic plague outbreak. And you thought buying people mortgage's on future's markets wasn't a good idea. Talk about toxic assets, the flower's vivid colours and therefore value jumped partially because of a virus that many carried. In tulips, the virus caused flame like colouration to occur on the petals, while the financial system has suffered from the contagion of unbridled banker and investor greed causing it to crash, a la Phoenix.

So, could professional sports be another bubble? We've got oil wealth, real estate and the Russian mafia all bidding up prices for players and signing TV contracts to extreme prices, all in the irrational chase for paper profit. The last sports bubble was in trading cards of all things, where a Honus Wagner card is worth $2.8 million. Coincidentally Wayne Gretzky once owned this card along with Bruce McNall. His sale (I mean of the actual player Wayne Gretzky) to McNall's LA Kings from my hometown's Edmonton Oilers marked a new phase of growth in player salaries, league expansion and franchise values in 1988. The greatest player in the history of a sport was deemed worthy of sale for profit. The numbers don't shock today as they did then, but the deal involved a couple other players (with more talent coming the Oilers way) the Kings number one draft pick plus $15 million, putting his price tag near $20 million. Nowadays, a Kaka turns down 100 million pounds, the Yankees drop $400 million on 3 players and somehow value ratios are way out of whack. Value, yeah that's the kicker, many blame today's crisis on the loss of perspective of what constitutes value, the price is going up, so it must have value! I love sports but sadly see that the beginning of the end came the day they sold Gretzky.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Because I said so!

Interesting yet disturbing trend in the media, maybe it's not new, perhaps I'm just isolated enough out here in Poland to miss these things. I left North America when Fox just showed the Simpsons and football. Seems to be that if you say something loud enough and get a couple of people to repeat it, it becomes true, no matter how preposterous the statement. Better yet, bundle a whole bunch of lies together and throw them out there knowing that the public just doesn't have the patience to untangle them and extract the truth.

The most stunningly false I have heard of late is aimed at disabling president-elect Obama's economic recovery plan even before he takes office. It is that Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program didn't work and in fact worsened the Great Depression. Of course this is nothing but a pre-emptive attack on Obama's economic stimulus package, designed to soften up the opposition. This claim offends on two levels: first, it's a lie, and second, it follows the inept taxing a spending ways of the current Bush administration. Just say it, especially on TV, and it becomes reality for many. Oh look, here's one from "Fox" News:

Of course there is always a grain of truth to the lie. Not all of the New Deal policies were successful. Also, unemployment did rise momentarily when the economy hit another rough patch in 1937 and 1938, but the fact is that the unemployment rate dropped from 23.6% in 1932 to 14.6% in 1940, the largest percentage drop in history (before America entered the war; it would drop to 1.2% by 1944). Still, people can say things like this (jump to about 4:30 if you can't handle watching the whole thing):

"It's in the books!" I love it, and people eat it up, it must be true, he said it's in the books.

Of course it would be funny if it weren't so sad that all this talk falls on the heels of the greatest economic disaster that America (and maybe the world) has ever seen, the eight years of Bush II. Dubya inherited a budget surplus of $128 billion and a deficit of $5.7 trillion, the Congressional Budget office projected a $5.6 trillion surplus between 2002 and 2011; instead Obama will inherit at least a $10.6 trillion deficit and an impossible to exactly measure budget deficit, somewhere in the range of $750 billion. It's all really unknown though as the government's behavior in the last few months has been completely ad hoc, no one knows exactly what is owed anymore. Fanny May/Freddie Mac alone represent a debt of $5.4 trillion that the government has taken on in reality. Even before the latest craziness, the Bush administration successfully pushed through two massive, inequitable rounds of tax cuts and a 59% increase in spending. All this in a growing economy! Now, after round one of the economic 'plan' to pull the nation out of recession, the one where the banks and the rich benefit from $750 billion in expenditures, the neoliberals are preparing the ground to fight any further government spending which might help the rest of the population.

Now that I think about it, this isn't new at all, it's just a continuation of the lies from the last eight years. You can't blame the right I suppose, after all, it has worked for Dubya and his cronies. Based on the results of “uranium from Africa” you can eventually convince the public to go to war. Many people even still believe that Al-Qaeda was in Iraq prior to the occupation. You can open a torture funfair in Guantanamo as long as you keep repeating that "we don't torture". Say we've won a war by repeating "Mission Accomplished". Perfect the art of unsigning by removing yourself from the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol along with becoming the world champion signing statement signer (signing bills into law, but taking out the bits he didn't like). In a climate such as this has it been a surprise to anyone to see the whole house of cards that was the financial system come crashing down? Big government may not always be as efficient as the free market, but it's pretty pathetic to see the attempts of the right to discredit a plan that brought order to the chaos of the depression. The New Deal brought the FDIC, restoring faith in the banking system, the Glass-Steagall Act to regulate bank speculation (the repeal of which was a major contributor to the current crisis), the Federal Securities Act to require full disclosure of stocks being sold along with the creation of the SEC to regulate stocks purchased on margin - is any of this starting to sound familiar? It wasn't all spend, spend, spend either. Austerity measures such as the Economy Act actually saved money to help pay for some of the new programs. Of course there was more, most notably the creation of social security and the end of prohibition.

The parallels between today and 1929 are obvious. While the New Deal was an experiment, the biggest mistake made by FDR was that he didn't go far enough, allowing the economy to slip back into recession in 1937-38, creating the basis of the neoliberal argument that it wasn't the New Deal but WWII that brought about the end of the depression. Economic historian JK Galbraith argued that the US economy “in the twenties had opened its hospitable arms to an exceptional number of promoters, grafters, swindlers, impostors, and frauds. This, in the long history of such activities, was a kind of flood tide of corporate larceny.” It's all happening again and the right would have us stop at giving away money to the banks and the rich, when what America needs is a better New Deal not another World War.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Why the West Coast should fall in the Pacific

Quick thought. I'm a huge NFL football fan ( my picks are the Ravens, Steelers, Panthers and the Eagles this weekend). If the PST (and PDT for half the year), were to fall into the ocean due to an earthquake or something, games would be broadcast a couple hours earlier (I think the network would ignore mountain time to take more advantage of the east).

Defensive struggle, Ravens by a field goal. Cardinals in the playoffs? Craziness ends in the divisional round, but this is the highest scoring game of the weekend, an over lock as the Panthers win with a couple of Steve Smith TD's in a 40 to 31 game. Steelers will survive the frozen Heinz Field but the Chargers have caused the biggest chatter this week. Sproles can't repeat his LT replacement wonder of last week and 'Fast' Willie Parker (best nickname for a running back) outshines him. I also have a good feel about the Eagles to take care of the defending Super Bowl champ Giants. They killed my Cowboys coming into the playoffs and knocked Adrian Peterson and the Vikings out last week in the wildcard round.

Back to my original point, if LA, Ca and Victoria BC (sorry guys) were to fall in the sea, American national broadcasts would be on at least an hour earlier and these Saturday playoff games are starting late, especially out here in central Europe. Poland is in the same time zone as Spain, but it's still 6 hours after American eastern time. The starts are 10:30 pm and 2:15 am for me; I was up until 6 am last Saturday watching the Charger overtime win over the Colts, the game NBC won the ratings race with last week. Even if you didn't understand anything between the earthquake paragraphs, ratings are forcing me to stay awake later, greed ruins everything, even my sleep!

Whose Side Are They On?

Just when you start to wonder how it is that Israel can get away with doing some of the things it does, you get a little reminder. A couple of days ago Canada's still Conservative government blamed Hamas for the deaths (read murder) of at least 40 at a UN school in Gaza. Yep, that's right, you can read it right here. I really don't understand the way some people think, but at least this kind of propaganda helps explain why the Israelis are still able to muster enough international support to continue their genocidal killings. What seems to make matters worse is the ability that the Israeli state has to continually play the holocaust sympathy card in order to deflect honest criticism of their tactics. Cardinal Renato Martino, the president of the Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican, was quoted as saying, "Look at the conditions in Gaza: more and more, it resembles a big concentration camp", and for calling a spade a spade, the automatic knee jerk reaction is to cry foul for using language that recalls the atrocities committed against the Jews in WWII. Well, um, that's the point, Israel exists today because of those same atrocities, and now (ok, not now, but awhile ago) the state that was created out of sympathy has become oppressor.

In this bizarro world is it any wonder that the world stands by and watches the senseless slaughter of innocent civilians, including women and children. When the Catholic church is the most vocal defender of the Palestinians being massacred in Gaza you know they're in trouble. Why is it that in the more than 60 years since the creation of the nation of Israel the Palestinians still have no international rights? Well, the finger can't be pointed exclusively at the Israelis or even the US, in fact a large part of the problem lies at the feet of the Arab states and the Palestinian leadership.

UN Resolution 181 called for the partition of British ruled Palestine into two, a Jewish state and an Arab state. It passed by a vote of 33 to 13 with 10 abstentions. From the get go, the Arab and Muslim countries said no to a Palestinian state as Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Yemen were among the 13 'no' votes. Of course the Arab states went a step further than simply voting no to voice their disapproval, they attacked the newborn Israeli state the day after independence, May 17th, 1947 and were handed their first of to be many defeats by the Israeli army. Fast forward to October of 2000, in the waning days of the Clinton administration the Palestinians are once again offered nationhood only to once again refuse, ostensibly over the issues of Jerusalem and the right of return.

So, what of the 'Palestinians' who we're denied nationhood? Back in 1947 they were urged to leave the area by the Arab powers so that they wouldn't be caught in the crossfire of war; they would be able to return to their homes once the new Jewish nation had been destroyed. Alas, it didn't work out that way. It's estimated that from 540,000 to 720,000 Arabs fled their homes, many simply to the eastern portion of the country controlled by Jordan and many to other Arab nations. To this day, none of the diaspora that fled at the Arab nations urging has been granted citizenship by these same countries. Politically motivated maneuvering that reflects these same governments actions today has played a large role in keeping the Palestinians stateless and without any citizenship.

Again today, the Arab states are playing the self-interest card instead of doing anything to help their brethren in Gaza. An excellent article can be found here that helps explain the fears that many Arab nations have regarding Hamas. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria all have reasons for fearing Hamas and their governments actions have pushed Hamas into the arms of the only country willing to help, Iran. Sunni Hamas in bed with Shiite Iran has led to a situation of which Egypt's Hosni Mubarek said, “has led to Egypt, in practice, having a border with Iran.”

The bottom line is that it's in the interests of many parties, including Arab leaders, for the Israelis to take out Hamas. Of course there is a different story on the Arab street and as the divide between public opinion and government action continues to widen, things may reach a breaking point in countries like Egypt as people become more and more disillusioned with their governments. There's no question that Israel's actions are seeding more rage across the Muslim world, however it is the leaders of many of the Muslim states that may have to pay the price. The latest news is of an escalation in the Israeli offensive; it seems as though the lesson will never be learned, the more force you use, the more extremists you create.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Cheque's in the Mail

Waking up today was probably a little harder for most people than normal. Nothing like a New Year's hangover to keep you under the covers in bed for the day. Unless of course your waking up in the Ukraine, where there's an even better reason to fight your hangover from the warmth of your sheets. Once again the Russian giant Gazprom has "lowered pressure" in gas pipelines to the Ukraine, making for some awfully cold New Year's mornings.

Well, things might not be so dire. While Ukraine's state energy firm Naftogaz confirmed that supplies began dropping off at 7:00 am GMT they also said they had begun to pump supplies from their reserves which should be sufficient for 'several' months. It's no fun dealing with utility companies, but imagine dealing with a Russian gas company and that gas company is called Gazprom. The cheque's in the mail probably has a very familiar sound to it for many of us. So, is this just a case of someone not paying their gas bill? On one side, yes, as even if Kiev paid $1.5 billion to RosUkrEnergo - a Switzerland-registered gas trading company acting as an intermediary - which Gazprom denies, the late payment fees have piled up to the point where they now owe double this amount. However, dealing with Gazprom isn't like dealing with your local gas supplier, Gazprom is Russia. The last few years has witnessed a consolidation of power in the Russian gas industry to the point of re-nationalization. That being the case, this becomes more than just an unpaid bill.

Russia turned off the gas to Georgia a couple of years back, also in the dead of winter. Now, the effect of the Ukraine's support for Georgia in last September's conflict with Russia is being seen in Gazprom's response to late payment. Further complicating negotiations between the two is that a contract for 2009 supplies has yet to be signed, with Gazprom demanding a hefty rise in price. You want more complications? Well, much of the rest of Europe's supply of gas from Russia flows through the same pipes, and seeing as Europe depends on Russia for about a quarter of its needs, things could get pretty tense. A similar episode back in 2006 led to gas shortages throughout the continent. Oh yeah, let's not forget that the Ukraine is in the middle of yet another political crisis and the fact that Gazprom may actually need the cash, with $10.6 billion in debt to be repaid by June. In fact this whole mess is just too much for me to wrap my head around with this pounding hangover. Maybe I'll just get back under the covers.