Saturday, January 30, 2010

Corpocracy and the Seven

When a legislator no longer represents our beliefs, we can vote them out of office; likewise, when presidents screw up, the people can kick them out the next time they go to the polls (or they can even be impeached by the legislators); but what do we do when the third branch of government messes things up by issuing rulings that will ultimately steer the nation in the wrong direction? Well, if you're Pat Robertson (yes, he of the Haitian deal with the devil quote), you can have a chat with your god to get things changed; if your the Ecuadorian Congress, you can just replace the whole lot; maybe you'll get lucky and they'll be convicted of, "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" deemed serious enough by Congress to constitute impeachment; but most likely all we can do is wait until they retire or die. Almost no matter how bad they mess up, they've got jobs for life.

While this job security is supposed to insulate them from the temporary passions of the public, it has also had the effect of allowing them to assert their ideological beliefs in making decisions which have had disastrous results. Perhaps the most infamous case was that of Dred Scott in which the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS from here on) ruled that people of African descent imported into the United States and held as slaves, or their descendants, whether or not they were slaves, were not protected by the Constitution and could never be citizens of the United States. The decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney is regarded as the single worst decision in the history of the court, ruining the reputation of the Chief Justice and leading the nation to the Civil War. As recently as 2000 SCOTUS decided to put an idiot king in the White House, with the same predictable result, war. Ironically, that 2000 decision may have been motivated by soon to be retiring Sandra Day O'Connor wanting to have her replacement named by a Republican president, thus maintaining the conservative composition of the court we still have today. Now that's powerful, better than 4 out of 5 dentist recommend testimonial propaganda! Chief Justice Taney died a vilified, penniless and broken man for his role in keeping the Republic under the control of slaveholders and bitterly dividing the nation; only time will tell if today's Chief Justice, John Roberts Jr. will also go down in infamy as the man who completed the transformation of his nation into a corpocracy.

In a 5-4 decision the court ruled in favor of Citizen United and overturned a variety of campaign finance laws enacted over the past century. For example, it nullifies part of a century-old statute known as the Tillman Act (1907), which barred corporations from using treasury funds to engage in the political process. It also vitiated similar prohibitions imposed on unions after World War II. Moreover, the decision invalidates part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (McCain-Feingold) that prohibited certain types of ads within 60 days of a general election and 30 days from a primary. (Supreme Court Opinion). Bottom line: Both corporations and labor unions may now use their general treasury funds to pay for unlimited independent expenditures, including advertisements, for or against candidates at any time. Free speechers cheered while civil liberty advocates jeered. The reason that those happy with the ruling are so rests on three premises, all of which we can intuit or show to be false.

One: Corporations are people and are therefore entitled to free speech protection. An odd  transfer propaganda technique but still easy to argue away, both intuitively (duh, um, people die, love, shit, breathe, have a conscience and compassion; corporations, not so much) and legally. The legal basis rests on a ruling made by the SCOTUS in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company in 1886. While the court's actual ruling in the case was uncontroversial, (something about fences along train tracks - seriously) the court reporter added his own thoughts to the headnote. Wackiness, begin your work:

Headnotes are a short summary of the opinions, facts and arguments of each case the court rules on that precede the United States Reports (the books that tell the legal community about the courts decisions). These headnotes are "not the work of the Court, but are simply the work of the Reporter, giving his understanding of the decision, prepared for the convenience of the profession". The court reporter that day, J.C. Bancroft Davis, a former railway president (hellooo? conflict of interest anyone!) wrote in part: "The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does." Voila, while the court specifically didn't want to make a ruling on the 14th amendment, any mention of which is absent from the ruling itself, corporations have enjoyed the same rights as people under the 14th ever since. Not being a constitutional scholar maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like a pretty flimsy thin basis for corporate personhood.

Two: Money is speech. Really? Do I have to tell you why it isn't? OK, here goes. It should be enough that it sounds like something an amphetamine junkie like Ayn Rand would say but it goes deeper and unfortunately once again turns on a constitutional SCOTUS ruling. It was 1976 and this time it was Buckley v. Valeo in which the SCOTUS upheld a federal law which set limits on campaign contributions, but ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, and struck down portions of the law. The court also stated candidates can give unlimited amounts of money to their own campaigns (thus your Ross Perots, Michael Bloombergs, Mitt Romneys and their ilk). The suit arose after the first serious attempt by Congress to regulate campaign contributions and spending after the Nixon impeachment passed  despite a Ford veto. The plaintiffs claimed the legislation was in violation of the 1st and 5th Amendment rights to freedom of expression and due process, respectively. The court agreed. Again, easy to show how this is wrong on so many levels.

To those ideologues who would champion this decision as protecting the free speech I can only ask: "What can possibly be the purpose of the First Amendment other than to allow all voices to be heard in the marketplace of ideas?" With their vast resources, corporations will now be able to dominate that marketplace, ensuring that theirs is the loudest voice, effectively silencing opposing voices - precisely what the First Amendment was designed to foil. Even more egregiously, when we're not talking about corporations or the rich the court has no problem limiting speech. In the last few decades, the conservative justices dominating the court have limited speech rights for demonstrators, students, and whistle blowers; you still famously can't scream Rush is a fat, latinboyOxyContinlovingprick in a crowded theater, or fire; while they may be more annoying than political ads, Hare Krishnas had their right to distribute leaflets taken away. Try to exercise your right to speech in America without spending dollars and you'll often times find yourself behind bars. Repeatedly, the court has told us that some speech is more important than others.

Three: In their ruling, the majority somehow clung to the emperor's new clothes contention that corporate campaign cash has had no pernicious impact on public policy. "Independent (political) expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority in the recent ruling. Alice in Wonderland had nothing on this corporations are just plain folks propagandist thinking. While the delusional will argue to the contrary, the evidence clearly indicates that money influences the way elected officials vote, so by giving those with more money the ability to 'speak' in unlimited amounts, they are ipso facto being given a more powerful vote than the poor.

Maybe they didn't notice the whole Wall Street bailout, it was pretty easy when "they [the banks] frankly own the place [congress]". House members who voted for the $700 billion bank bailout received 54 percent more campaign contributions from banks and securities firms than House members voting against the bailout. That is an average of $231,877 in bank contributions received by each House member voting "Yes", $150,982 for each member voting "No." Is there any wonder that big oil is already one step ahead of any sustainable energy project? Want to keep the National Weather Service from sharing the weather forecasts with the people? It'll cost about $7,750 to get a senator to introduce a bill to end "socialized weather" so that private firms like Accuweather can repackage government data and sell it to the public. Wanna influence the health care bill? It's pretty cheap and easy jedi reverse-Reagan name-calling propaganda, with the Cadillac name change from welfare queen to insurance plan. Well, that or about $400 million over the first 9 months of last year would buy you as much influence as the health care lobby. If only we could visually see the influence of 'speech' on the outcome of legislation? Or perhaps we tire of health care, cough, telecom immunity, where House Democrats who flipped their positions to favor immunity for telecom firms received an average of 68 percent more money from ATT's, Verizon's and Sprint's political action committees, compared with Democrats who remained opposed to immunity. That's $4,987 to each Democrat who opposed immunity and $8,359 to each Democrat who flipped positions to favor telecom firms. The brainwashed are sold that this latest ruling will encourage 'transparency' and 'leveling the playing field', some wishful card stacking propaganda, as if by some luck the market will distribute the money to candidates and lawmakers equitably. Or, maybe the Supremes have an ulterior motive: they want to show the world what happens in the extreme case by opening the floodgates to the highest bidder wins in order to how evil it is in order to justify the coming end of business buying government through a constitutional amendment. Yeah, and I've got some real estate in Florida to sell you.

Learn more here and here and here, then raise your voice "NO"

It truly makes one wonder what the effect of 30 years of the Reagan revolution has had on the brain of most conservatives who are lauding this decision as a victory for free speech. It was a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who was so worried about the power of the trusts (yes, corporations were mere trusts of states then) that he called for public financing of elections and told Congress, "All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law." He didn't get all he wanted but he did get the Tillman Act which has now been gutted. Founder and fourth Chief Justice John Marshall once referred to the corporation as an "artificial being, invisible, intangible"; and Thomas Jefferson, warned almost two centuries ago that America must "crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

In order to catch a glimpse of the Pandora's Box that this ruling has opened, one need look no further than the connections to the case; the people who brought it to the court and what they have done in the past:

And a taste of a couple of the adds these men have made offer a sneak peak of what's to come this November:

Or, this one. Um, I guess we'll call that the fear of our propaganda septet.

So, as we enter the age where we'll no longer have the senator from Iowa or the congressman from North Dakota, but the senator from Wal-Mart and the congressman from Goldman Sachs, a couple more small details. No limits exist to prevent foreign corporations from contributing to the kitty, nothing to prevent one of Osama bin Laden's relatives running any anti-energy self-sufficiency ad they want, as long as it's clearly labeled brought to you by Freemont Group. Lastly, and most ominous of all, what I see happening is that more often than not, corporations won't even have to spend a penny, as the mere threat of launching attack ads will be enough to influence members of Congress to behave like the good patsies they have been paid for to be, legalization of what will in fact become weapons of blackmail and bribery in the hands of the lobbyists of the greedy and powerful. Oh, and before we in the rest of the world begin to feel too smug about the superiority and cleanliness of our democratic systems, a couple of caveats. The Prime Minister of Canada, the one who can't really be as creepy as he appears, Stephen Harper, tried himself to loosen the financial restrictions for political campaigns in the true north strong and free just a few years ago. The rest of us, well, we shouldn't forget that for the past few decades, instead of looking inwards at what's wrong with the country, the US usually looks for scapegoats (usually using the bandwagon propaganda technique to drum up support) and decide that they don't like us practicing our own kind of government. (Sorry, look at me using the glittering generality and seventh technique)

If you made it all the way here, pssst, here's where I got the Dred Scott idea, from where else, duh?

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Pact With Which Devil?

"Good fortune will elevate even petty minds, and give them the appearance of a certain greatness and stateliness, as from their high place they look down upon the world; but the truly noble and resolved spirit raises itself, and becomes more conspicuous in times of disaster and ill fortune."
- Plutarch
Well, it took just over 206 years, but Haiti has finally climbed to the top of the world's most cursed nation charts. Ever since rising up and defeating the forces of Napoleon to become the first nation to grow out of a slave revolt, gaining independence on January 1st 1804, it has become a place where the apocalypse wears the trappings of the norm. It's one of those places that seems to be dealt one disaster after the other. The big question is how can the death-toll resulting from a 7.0 earthquake that stuck near Port-au-Prince, the same magnitude that hit Northern California in 1989 killing 63 people, be well on it's way to surpassing 100,000?  Is it as Pat Robertson said because the Haitian people "got together and swore a pact to the devil"? Why is it that Rush Limbaugh is forced to vacation on the eastern half of Hispaniola to find luxury resorts and not worry about getting AIDS from young boys? The truth of why we owe the poorest nation in the western hemisphere all the help we can is written in the pages of history and unfortunately is indeed a witches' brew of politics, economics and natural disaster.

While Rush claims the latest disaster in Haiti is simply a made to order excuse for Obama to improve his image with the "light-skinned and dark-skinned black community", comments such as his are intended to obfuscate the problem of racism that has been the cause of much of Haiti's ills. There is good reason why much of the world owes Haiti more than just their taxes . It's hard to imagine, but at the end of the 18th century Haiti, or Saint-Domingue as it was known then, was considered by many to be the most valuable colonial possession in the Americas, referred to as the Pearl of the Antilles. Unfortunately for the French, their revolution in 1789 also resonated throughout the Caribbean. The Jacobins' cry of "liberty, equality and fraternity" was taken up by rebels on the island and the "Black Jacobins" were born as the slaves rose up in 1791.
"My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Saint Domingue (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block for ever the march of the blacks in the world."
- Napoleon Bonaparte
The Haitian Revolution didn't follow a standard script. Out of the uprising came a self-educated slave named Toussaint L'Ouverture who emerged as the revolution's leader through skill on both the battlefield and in the complexities of politics. Realizing the greed of the competing imperial powers and that the ongoing European war would drain their strength, L'Ouverture consistently outflanked his adversaries. In a complex web of emancipation, guerrilla warfare, alliances and broken promises involving the three major colonial powers, France, Spain and England, the end result was Tousaint dead in a French jail in the Jura, having been tricked by Napoleon and 100,000 of the 500,000 blacks and 24,000 of the 40,000 whites inhabitants dead. The new leader of the rebels, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, proclaimed the nation's independence January 1, 1804 after defeating Napoleon's brother in law General Charles Leclerc and 43,000 French troops at the Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803 and reverted the name to its former native monkier - Haiti; it became the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.
"Dear me, think of it? Niggers speaking French"
- US Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan
And what was America's role in all this? Well, nothing short of the Louisiana Purchase. America's 3rd president was in office, Thomas Jefferson, a man afraid of his own shadow due to its dark appearance (though he had no problem with the darker female outline). Regarding the prospect of a free black nation he said: "If something is not done, and soon done we shall be the murderers of our own children." Alarmed that a slave uprising may spread north he threw his support behind the upstart French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, in his quest to reassert French rule of his prized Caribbean possession. So when Napoleon asked Jefferson if the United States would help a French army traveling by sea to St. Domingue, Jefferson replied that "nothing will be easier than to furnish your army and fleet with everything and reduce Toussaint [L’Ouverture] to starvation." Of course his word proved to be as worthless as his morals when he learned that Napoleon planned on moving his forces to the North American mainland, basing a new French empire in New Orleans and settling the vast territory west of the Mississippi River. The rest is, as they say, history, without resupply and dealing with a determined enemy as well as an hitherto unknown threat, a pesky female mosquito carrying yellow fever (taking Leclerc's life along with 20,000 of his men), Napoleon's forces were routed and he was eventually forced to sell the Louisiana territories for a song in order to raise a new army to deal with the British.

So, it seems America, France, Spain and Britain owe the impoverished nation a little help, but why does Venezuela seem so prepared to lend a hand? It must be an evil plot to establish a foothold for Chavez' anti-American screed outside of Cuba in the area, right? Nope, it's called historical debt, debt for their freedom from slavery in which Haiti played a crucial role. After initial success in New Grenada (Colombia today) and Venezuela, Simon Bolivar was eventually pushed out by royalist forces in his quest to liberate South America from the Spanish oppressors. After first being denied help in Jamaica, El Liberator found support from Haiti and its president Alexandre Petion who granted him asylum and helped in outfitting him for his triumphant return to Caracas on his way to becoming the liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and founder of Bolivia. In return for six schooners and a sloop - 250 men, mostly officers, and arms for 6,000 troops, Petion's only request of Bolivar was the freedom of all slaves in the countries that Bolivar was going to set free.

Sadly, independence hasn't been a smooth ride for Haiti. One wonders how different things may have turned out if Tousaint L'Ouverture had been allowed to lead the nation into its new era, perhaps they may have even achieved some sort of stability. Instead, Haiti has lurched from one leader to the next, suffering 32 coups, along with one disaster followed by another - in the span of 30 days in the fall of 2008, Haiti was hit by four hurricanes and tropical storms. The newborn nation quickly learned that being the first free black state wasn't exactly a passport to diplomatic acceptance. Isolated internationally during its national infancy, Haiti wasn't recognized by the Vatican until 1860 or the US until 1861; even Simon Bolivar turned his back on them, refusing to invite Haiti to the Congress of Panama, saying "The government regards with repugnance the idea of treating Haiti with the same etiquette generally maintained between civilized nations". In order to gain conditional French recognition and to gain relief from the embargo enforced along with Britain, Spain and the US, Haiti was forced to pay reparations of 150 million francs in gold (about $20 billion today) and a 50% reduction in import duties in 1825 to compensate for French slave losses. By the turn of the 20th century, 80% of the national budget was going to pay off the loan and its interest - the country was locked into the role of perpetual debtor nation.
"I wrote Haiti's Constitution myself, and if I do say it, it was a pretty good little Constitution."
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Meddling in internal Haitian affairs has continued unabated to the present day. Beginning in 1860, the waters around Haiti were the home for over 50 years of gunboat diplomacy as Germany, France, England and the U.S. competed for influence. Between 1849 and 1913, US Navy ships entered Haitian waters 24 times to "protect American lives and property". This led to the first US invasion and ensuing occupation of the island in the early days of WWI in 1915 on the pretext of subduing bandits threatening American property and fears that Germany might occupy the island. The result turned out to be 19 years of often brutal occupation. While there, the assistant secretary of the Navy in the Wilson administration, a certain Franklin D. Roosevelt, took the opportunity to write a constitution for the people of Haiti. It only got worse post WWII as the US threw its support behind Haiti’s (and one of the world's) most notorious president, Francois Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, in the 1950's through to his son, Jean-Claude, or Baby Doc, in the 70's. The evil perpetrated by their regime with their Tonton Macoutes is almost beyond compare. "During his first four – and bloodiest — years in power, Papa Doc received $40 million from Washington, much of it in the form of outright gifts. The U.S. even went so far as to send Marines to protect this regime from any popular movement that might threaten its rule." Oh, and then we come to Aristide.

Who knows if the US directly orchestrated the coups (yes, plural) to remove the twice-elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, winner of the first free and fair election, what is important is to view the events in context. The nation had survived 30 years of brutality under the Duvalier family, a time that witnessed around 30,000 political opponents eliminated. Enter Aristides, a slum priest in a land of right-wing death squads, trumpeting a message of liberation theology, a message the Reagan brain trust declared less Christian than Communist. "US policy," they said, "must begin to counter (not react against) . . . the 'liberation theology' clergy."

The moment Aristides won over 2/3 of the vote on December 16th,1990 in a field of 12 represented the second great shift away from imperial power in Haiti and therefore the wheels of regime change turned their focus once again to the western third of Hispaniola. The administration of Bush I turned to funding the opposition and the military. Declassified records now make it clear that the CIA and other US groups helped to create and fund a paramilitary group called FRAPH, which rose to prominence after the first military coup that ousted Aristide in September 1991, six months into his five year term. A more brutal version of the Macoutes rose, known as the zinglando, terrorizing in an era when thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled overseas or across the border into the Dominican Republic.

For the next three years Haiti was run by military-civilian juntas as ruthless as the Duvaliers. With the nation immersed in anarchy and violence, and a flood of refugees trying to float stateside, the Clinton administration had Aristides reinstalled with the help of 20,000 marines in 1994. Moving quickly this time, Aristides abolished the army who had overthrown him. Yet, before much else could be accomplished, fate once again stepped in. Events outside of Haiti's power once again moved against the country as Republicans gained control of Congress that same year, sealing her doom as the senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman was now Jesse Helms and House Speaker Newt Gingrich ensuring that the flow of US help would slow to a drip. Even though previously promised aid dried up, the country managed to limp to a successful transition of power when Aristide's 5-year term expired as Rene Preval was elected in December 1995. Future catastrophe was foreshadowed as Aristides was accused of rigging parliamentary elections, something frowned upon by the US if your name isn't Karzai, and encouraging armed groups of his supporters in the absence of an army.

In 2000 he became president once again in elections boycotted by the opposition. Amid all the accusations of abuse the country was once again hit by a triple whammy from the outside world: the UN cut back its mission, the EU suspended its aid program and of course Dubya came to power in the US. The new administration blocked all forms of assistance, including World Bank loans, a policy of economic strangulation that reflected the longstanding anti-Aristide views of the Republican Congress. The result was disastrous. From 2000-04, Haitians sank deeper into poverty, and their government became dysfunctional setting the scene for yet another coup. The example of the four promised loans from the Inter-American Development Bank (the IDB) for health, education, drinking water and road improvement paints a picture of the politicization of aid. The US asked to block the loans until the electoral disputes had been resolved. Yet even after all eight of the senators in question were out of office, the freeze on aid remained in place throughout Aristide's tenure. The State Department later claimed that the freeze was decided on by a consensus of the members of the Organisation of American States in something called the Declaration of Quebec City. Yet somehow the declaration is dated April 22nd 2001, and the letter from the US representative asking that the loans not be disbursed was dated April 8th. To quote the conclusion of one of the few journalists to find this scandal worthy of inquiry, ‘it would seem that the effort became concerted after it was made.’

The officially disbanded army along with murderous paramilitary groups seized control of much of the country forcing Aristides to request international aid. France agreed to help on the condition he step aside while the US declined to help in the absence of a "political solution". By failing to send troops earlier, the United States effectively gave a green light to the second coup d'etat against Aristides, despite having intervened a decade earlier to reverse the first one. Finally, on the night of February 29th, 2004, a team of US Navy Seals kidnapped him and his wife and they woke up 20 hours later in Africa, where they remain in exile, trapped without passports, to this day.

Of course this latest natural disaster would have occurred no matter what happened in the past. Yet, it is the economic policies of the rich towards the impoverished half island which have exacerbated the situation in Haiti - as always, it comes down to the dollar. Remember as you watch the relief efforts controlled at gunpoint by a foreign aggressor army that Haiti had been reduced to dependence on aid organizations for almost every function usually paid for and controlled by the government. 10,000 private organizations perform supposedly humanitarian missions in Haiti, however many projects seem to serve the people administering the projects as much of the money flows back stateside and American pockets. A nation is made to be dependent in may ways.

Rice, that most basic of foodstuffs provides the clearest example. Haitian import of US grown rice increased from 0 to 200,000 tons between 1980 and 2000 making the nation of 7 million the 4th largest importer of US rice. Coincidentally, per capita income has dropped from around $600 in 1980 to $369 today over the same time. Why? Under IMF tutelage, the nation learned it is better to have farmers move into the slums of Port-au-Prince to fight with laid-off government employees for 30 cent-an-hour jobs in sweatshops owned by U.S. clothing manufacturers. Additionally, through a series of structural adjustment programs, beginning in the 1980s, the IMF encouraged Haiti to adopt some of the lowest tariffs in the Caribbean. The predictable outcome was an explosion of urban slums such as Cité Soleil, Bel Air and Martissant, scenes of food riots in April 2008 (resulting in another ousted prime minister), where building conditions helped amplify the death toll of the past week to tsunami-like numbers. In November 2008, after a school collapsed in the wealthy district of Pétionville, the Mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated that 60 per cent of the city's buildings were shoddily built and unsafe. If the presidential palace couldn't hold up, it was clear what would happen to shacks built on the hillsides. Free market theories of comparative advantage were applied to justify the structural changes in the economy causing massive human suffering while American rice growers receive subsidies through a wide variety of mechanisms. Well, at least American Rice Inc. got rich.

In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of the black liberty in St-Domingue - it will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.
- Toussaint L’Ouverture
For the same reason American soldiers disappeared from Haiti after 9/11, the world's attention has been drawn to the prosecution of the 'global war on terror'. Therefore no one even notice the story in 2006 when it was claimed that the US had caused the 2004 coup. (Read the 11-pages that we all missed in the NY Times!). While trying to impose democracy as far away as Afghanistan and Iraq, Dubya did another finish-what-daddy-started, this time in Haiti, mostly with the help of groups like the International Republican Institute playing the Haitian role of Blackwater. While the head of Blackwater just had his men rape and kill, the Institute's leader in Haiti, Stanley Lucas, an avowed Aristide opponent from the Haitian elite, was a little more subtle, counseling the opposition not to work with Aristides, fermenting the inevitable coup. Active in 60 countries they saw their federal financing nearly triple in three years, from $26 million in 2003 to $75 million in 2005. Meanwhile, there is never any slack in the financial noose tightened tag team style as the $125 million that Haiti gets each year from the States (as of 2000) is contingent on a passing grade from the IMF. Again, context: Haiti's government, which serves 8 million people, has an annual budget of about $300 million, comparable with a US city of just over 100,000.

Yet, at a time when the focus after a natural disaster should be on relieving suffering and curing the political and economic ills that have plagued Haiti since its inception, it'll be voodoo and the devil that has gotten Haiti in the minds of many. Of course if by voodoo you mean racism and the devil the western powers you couldn't be more on target. It's not just wacky billionaire American televangelists blaming these demons, it's also Spanish clergymen (sorry, Spanish only), Archbishops of York, and NY Times journalists. Limbaugh will spew hate to turn the tables of blame on those that look to help a persecuted people and all the while Naomi Klein's prophesized Shock Doctrine will be used as a tool to further entrench failed neoliberal economic therapy. The Heritage Foundation wasted no time in issuing a statement calling for economic 'reform' in Haiti to be tied to the aid now flowing into the country (the original has since been taken down and replaced with this lighter version). Well, I've seen a memo for the financial elite who are to blame for making this disaster a thousand times worse than it needed to be: Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase combined have set aside $47 billion for bonuses; Haiti's annual gross domestic product in nominal terms - $7 billion.

Well, that's it, a bonus for those of you who made it this far, Stewart ripping on some real devils. Don't forget to check the Amazon stripe on the side, I've updated it with some works by Haitians and a Chomsky about Haiti. Plus a little music to carry you to the next post.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Beat The Drum Loudly

'Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-laaa. Seriously, if you're a banker this week is like Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Ramadan all rolled into one. Yep, it's bonus week on Wall Street and I've got a prediction that will hopefully redeem my woeful 2 for 4 performance this weekend in the NFL wildcard games; the big guys, specifically your Citigroup, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, will announce astronomical bonuses for their employees, the public will be scandalized, there will be an outcry in the media, people will call for heads to roll, even Obama will be forced to make a statement, then, it'll all be forgotten again. However, there is a silver lining as Providence has blessed us with coincidence. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), whose task it is to root out the "cause" of the financial crisis of 2008-09, is to hold its first public session today (Wednesday) - and if it's only a shadow of it's Depression era predecessor, the Pecora Commision, some good may come of the financial crisis after all.

What is our obsession with creating forces that are hell bent on destroying us? While the financial terrorists don't bring the bang to the party that the jihad kind do, or at least try to, the bankers' methods are far more insidious. Much like a parasite eating away at their host, no check that, more like a parasitoid, the financial industry is slowly sucking the life out of the western capitalist system that has run the world for a couple hundred years. Finance doesn't produce anything, its job is simply to efficiently allocate capital. As Paul Volcker said "I wish someone would give me one shred of neutral evidence that financial innovation has led to economic growth — one shred of evidence". Yet the industry's share of pretax profits in the American economy rose from 13% in 1980 to 27% in 2007 (it maxed out at almost 40%). Now we have seen the result, crisis, financial weapons of mass destruction, call it what you will. Additionally, we see less being produced, as energy, both monetary and human, is sapped  from other industries to support bankers, who now have a taste for the high life to sate. Take the example of General Electric. In 1980, GE garnered 92% of its profit from manufacturing. In the first quarter [of 2007], profit from GE's financial businesses, which extend credit from personal loans to factory purchases, represented 56% of profit.

So, how does a bank increase its profits when, after all, it's a simple business when done the right way? Just like all investing - the casino kind done by the boys upstairs - you simply increase the risk tolerance in your calculations. Fortunately for bankers in the last 20 years we've had a large percentage of the population, what was the middle-class before so much of the economy was taken over by finance, who have aspired to live like those in the top 1% of society. In order for them to attain it, banks were there to supply them with the necessary credit. As luck would have it, government was pleased with this arrangement, so pleased in fact they encouraged lending to people who couldn't afford it (check this out from '96), otherwise people wouldn't be able to buy huge homes and flat-screen TV's and might have to pay attention to the real world.

After a down year in 2008, Goldman Sachs set aside $16.7 billion for compensation in the first nine months of 2009. In good years, the firm dedicates about three-quarters of its compensation budget to year-end bonuses. Thanks to tax payer help, this'll be a great year, the firm is expected to report later this month what could be record profit of about $12 billion for 2009, according to analysts’ estimates, compared with $11.7 billion in 2007. Knowing the public will be pissed, they are already planning their disinformation barrage, with things like charity give aways and selling the fact that bonuses will be more stock (which they'll equate to employees having a stake in long-term success - can you say meme?) option heavy. Even if the public is convinced that something must be done, in the end they know they've got the ace up their sleeve - complete control of the government.

In the UK, the government's decision to impose a one-off supertax on bankers' bonuses has been met with a spit in the face from the big banks. Most British banks, polled in an anonymous survey, said they would absorb all or part of the cost of the one-off 50% tax by inflating their bonus pools, even at the risk of irritating the government and their own shareholders. Yep, that's right, instead of using the extra cash they earned off using tax payer support to rebuild their precarious capital positions - the reason they needed to be bailed out just over a year ago - they'll just use it to double the bonuses of the workers who created the crisis.

Of course the rational for paying these clowns Bozo-sized money is that these banks need to retain talent, as they may bolt to another team, I mean bank. You see, as Bill George, a director of Goldman Sach said, "The shareholder value is made up in people and you need the people there to do the job. If you don’t pay them for their performance, you’ll lose them. It’s much like professional athletes and movie stars." Oh, that's why they deserve bonuses that will average $595,000, with most of the executives earning seven-figures along with some eights. (Yes, I know Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein didn't take a bonus last year, but he did get $67 million the year before). Dude, Hollywood would make a lot more Ishtars and sports would have a bunch of JaMarcus Russell clones if all crappy movies and players were rewarded for failure. If a Major League baseball player had a batting average to compare with the past record of guys running the show like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, they'd be hitting below the Mendoza Line, definitely not making my fantasy team. Rubin's only real achievement was to make the formation of the TBTF Citigroup (Citibank+Travelers Group) possible by playing a key role in having Glass Steagall abrogated. Well, good for him at least as he did become a main executive officer there, of course before the US government gave them over $300 billion to play with at the end of '08 - a decision which he of course helped to make being one of Obama's main advisors.

Where was I? Oh yes, the good that can come, but only with everyone's help. Get pissed off. Populist anger sounds ugly with it teabagger baggage but as long as the torches are lit and pitchforks sharpened, bankers scare easily. Mention this stuff whenever you can, to whoever is listening. Obama and his inner circle of financial advisers must be made to understand that we're not happy and the only way to regain our trust is to get on the anger bandwagon and make sure something is done. Get your money out of any bank that is 'Too big to fail', put in your community bank or a credit union. Not only have these TBTF 'banks' made their profits on the back of government loans and asset guarantees, we've allowed these casinos to reclassify themselves as banks, even though they are doing the same gambling once only done in investment firms, so they can borrow money practically for free to play the tables. This creates rent seeking behaviour, it's only human nature. By increasing the risk of trades and investments, one can increase the size of both profits and of course the inevitable losses that will also come. Profits equal bonuses for the workers, losses simply means more government money, so which investment method would a rational individual choose? Tell me as you describe efficient markets that function with perfect information.

The odds all seem to be against the FCIC, the big guns of banker lobbyists lined up against an $8 million budget, c'mon, their website is still under construction! Much has been made of the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington that exists to the point where political staffers and lobbyists are indistinguishable, theare all working towards the big bank payday. At the same time, the US Supreme Court is loosening restrictions on corporate election financing which is sure to increase the influence of political contributors. The committee charged with making the banking rules, the Senate Banking Committees, is known as a money committee for good reason. It's a place to put rookie senators who need help raising funds for the next election. Hmmm, I wonder if taking contributions from banks makes politicians beholden to them? Worse yet, the chairman of the committee, Chris Dodd, is stepping down, likely to be replaced by Tim Johnson. Oh, he represents South Dakota, where Citi has it's credit card division, and, surprise, he's come out against bank legislation. The foxes are truly running the henhouse.

Yet somehow in 1933 Ferdinand Pecora was able to stir a nation by making them interested in obscure financial details at a time when the industry arguably had even more power than today. Thanks to his intense questioning, the hearings of the Senate Banking and Currency Committee led to many of the financial reforms implemented in that era, setting the stage for unprecedented economic growth as America secured its place as a world superpower. For a salary of $255 a month and with a staff of only three, his grilling of the biggest and richest names of finance led to revelations of misdoings that caused a turnaround in the public's perception from that of respected bankers to equating them with gangsters, and thus becoming banksters. In a time before television, as well as one where the public and bankers believed they deserved to be placed on a higher pedestal, Pecora turned the proceedings into an exhibit of fraud, greed and manipulation which brought the masters of the universe down to Earth and therefore under control. Chairman of today's FCIC, Phil Angelides, has a mountainous task ahead of him, but one that must get done, and we should all get behind him.  At a time when America's preeminent position on the globe is being challenged and questioned, many of the practices that must come to light mirror the financial misdeeds of the Pecora era. We have a system where the incentive is to pump up the risk in order to increase rewards without fear of the negative consequences. The voices in favour of taking action against the banks are growing, Paul Volcker, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Simon Johnson to name a few while at the same time that the window of opportunity is closing as we are being presented with our last best opportunity. We need more than parsed apologies, we need to know exactly how trillions of dollars of wealth was gambled away and to achieve true reform as a result. Finance, much like America, needs to be saved from itself but it will only happen if we all get out there and beat the drum loudly.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Snow, Cold...Football

The snow is blowing across Central Europe as it is across the top half of North America (except the west coast my dad tells me), that means it's time for some playoff football. The American kind of course, the NFL. As much as I can understand those who hate the game, from the box-like padded players to the rah-rah go America go, F-16 fly-by garishness, at least they play in this weather. In England they had to cancel most of the Premiership games because of a bit of snow and cold again this weekend.

Quick overview: This weekend sees the New York Jets kick it off against the Cincinnati Bungles, oops, Bengals it seems this year, followed by the Philadelphia Eagles travelling to the lone star state to visit Jerry Jones' shiny, futuristic toilet bowl and my Dallas Cowboys tonight. Tomorrow it'll be the Baltimore Ravens facing the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers at the Arizona Cardinals.

No Steelers as the defending champs couldn't make it to the dance with a 9-7 record. Other picks I screwed up at the beginning of the year were the Texans (yes, I called the Indianapolis Colts to only get a wild card), Bengals and the umm, Seattle Seahawks, oops, I mean Shithawks. Plus I also called the NFC East backwards as the Cowboys won the division with the Eagles grabbing the wildcard while I called the reverse. Did I also mention I predicted the Chicago Bears to be a wildcard, nothing to see here, move along. Not too bad though, only missed the Vikings, Saints and Bengals - got nine of the twelve playoff teams.

The last weekend of the regular season featured a scheduling quirk that saw a preview of three of this weekend's games, as the Cowboys, Jets and Packers all beat their wildcard game rivals - all three in blowout victories. While I gotta love the way my 'boys look coming in after such a dominating victory, I think all three losers last week were holding back and we'll see different games this time around. The Jets were playing for a playoff spot as well so...whatever, I'm gonna sticking with the Cowboys, but I'm thinking the Cardinals and Bengals reverse last weekends losses. I'm also looking for Tom Brady to find his stroke and win the best game of the weekend over the Ravens.

Next weekend (yes, I'm gonna look into the mists of the diminishing probability future) the Colts and San Diego Chargers look too good to lose in the AFC, while the NFC is a real crapshoot, let's say the Cowboys and Saints come through. The conference finals will have the Chargers upsetting the Colts and the Saints exacting revenge on the Cowboys for wrecking their perfect season last month. And, drum roll please, the San Diego Chargers win their first Super Bowl of the NFL's 44 come February 7th.

Enjoy the game while you can folks, I've got a feeling big changes are coming; in case you missed it, concussions have become the big story of the year, overshadowing Chris Johnson's 2000 yard rushing effort, or Brett Favre's 40-year-old come back, come back heroics (no, I'm not stuttering). Seems they just figured out that smashing heads hundreds of times a year over a couple of decades actually causes long term damage, even changing the return-to-play-rules mid-season (exaggerated gasp here)! Big name players were forced to take a couple of games off to give the old sponge in their skulls time to heal, Kurt Warner and even Ben Roesthlisberger (although Brian Westbrook came back too early...long term effects of back-to-back concussions anyone?). Lucky he wasn't playing for Texas Tech, where they lock guys in closets when they whine about concussions or not. Regardless, get back on the field and play is definitely gonna go away - and it better before the safety police take the game from us completely, or worse yet, it goes the way of boxing!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Prorogue 2: Electric Boogaloo

Yes, I know, I used the theme for a previous post title, but this time it's so much more fitting; the most ridiculous movie title ever together with the most ridiculous "democratic" trick ever. Maybe "Prorocracy" would be better? Doesn't really work as a snappy title, does it? Whatever, kinda proves a point though, as the words prorogue and democracy don't go together. Democrogue? Nope, neither. Except of course if you live in the Great White North where that wonderful leader who isn't at all creepy, Stephen Harper, has once again decided that the country works a lot better without all those elected people around trying to run the government. Yes, Prime Minister Harper has progrogued Parliament for the second time in two years.

What's a prorogue? Well, I guess you missed it a little over a year ago when Harper prorogued Parliament to avoid losing power and I wrote a post where I compared the Prime Minister to Robert Mugabe. Well it seems I was being a little harsh on Robert, at least he's pretending to get along with the 'unity' government. Canada, will once again be without any kind for a couple of months as Harper has suspended the parliamentary session. Sure, the prorogue has been used in the past when the legislative work of the session has been completed and everyone wants a little more holiday time. However, this move comes at a time when only half the work is done and much that had been begun will have to be restarted. Obviously, if you are Stephen Harper, King Charles I, Napoleon, Victoriano Huerta, Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco or Augusto Pinochet, you've probably got a more devious motive than simple vacation time. A year ago, Harper did it to maintain power; a truly Machiavellian ideal. This year it seems so much more mundane, he simply wants to hide the truth from the people and above all avoid embarrassing questions while the world's spotlight is on Canada for the Olympics. Oh, and stack the senate while he's got a bit of extra time.

Once again, it's all about torture, this time in Afghanistan. When will we learn not to mess with that place? The strange part about the story is that it's not about Canadians torturing, it's simply about ignoring the facts and choosing not to do anything about it, eventually putting yourself in a position of being forced to either lie or shut the voices off. The key to Harper's move is that this procedure will also shut down parliamentary committees, from which a few questions are sure to be raised about Canadian troops handing over detainees to Afghan officials to be tortured. In late November diplomat Richard Colvin made the accusation, which was followed by the predictable shoot the messenger playbook - the old 'this guy is crazy or a terrorist or worse yet a liberal trying to get in the elected governments way'. Unfortunately for Harper and the rest of his theocratic leadership, Richard Colvin turns out to be one of those guys we should all admire. I mean heres a diplomatic staffer who volunteered to go into Afghanistan as a civilian representative with Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar after the previous worker had been killed by a suicide car bomber. Instead of retreating under a barrage of personal attacks from the government, he responded with a 16-page letter discrediting claims that the politburo hadn't known anything about the situation one by one. So, what's the deal, why not just fess up, wash their hands, fix the oversight error and move on?

Herein lies the heart of darkness or some alternate reality Three's Company plot. Yes, it could be as simple as non-competence which led to mistakes that have spun out of control to the point where they fear being embarrassed under the international spotlight during the Olympics. Yes, the Olympics, the timing of the announcement of prorogation even smells of Olympic fever. Not only did Harper hope that no one would be paying attention between Christmas and New Year, he made the announcement on the day when the Canadian national Olympic hockey team was announced. For all the non-Canadian readers, this is slightly more important than the announcement of the Nobel peace prize, the English World Cup squad and the Academy Award nominations all rolled into one, so Harper knew which story would lead the news that night.

Yet, still the campaign of misinformation along with the flood of talking points from "support our troops" to needing an elected senate (which we do need) and now the stalling tactics of the prorogation taken all together smell of something more insidious. Ranging from the banal - simply knowing the lemming-like, 'lead us to economic growth', apathetic populace will have forgotten everything come March, to the truly disturbing - that the maple leaf is being used as a tool to promote hatred in the Muslim world to help ensure the global "war on terror" (how do you have a war against an idea?) will continue indefinitely. Voters are more likely to care that a psychic has foretold a Conservative majority this year than the fact that the government is turning a blind eye to the Canadian contribution to the perpetual war on terror. In Mr. Colvin's own words, "Instead of winning hearts and minds, we caused Kandaharis to fear the foreigners. Canada's detainee practices alienated us from the population and strengthened the insurgency." Imagine being an Afghani, knowing that if you run into a maple leaf you may wind up being turned over to be tortured and, unfortunately, the Canadians did a lot of torture delivery for the Afghans - six times the British and twenty times the Dutch (yeah, not exactly high value targets: "They were picked up ... during routine military operations, and on the basis typically not of intelligence [reports] but suspicion or unproven denunciation."). What would your feeling be toward the occupying soldiers from the nation turning you over to be tortured? What would your friends and family think? The district...the nation. Once you begin thinking this way, maybe then you can begin to understand how not fixing this problem is but a small cog in the machine that ensures this "war on terror" continues forever (well, that or someone gets their hands on a bomb, or the west financially implodes - Osama's plan all along).

But when added to the Maher Arar story you don't need to be an Amnesty International worker to worry about how far we fallen so fast. Similar story, smaller scale but it demonstrates the shift in morals that has occurred over the past decade - the acceptance of torture. Oh, yeah, Maher Arar, you may have forgotten the Canadian citizen that the RCMP set  up to be sent to be tortured for over a year, yawn, didn't a US federal appeals court just rule that he had no rights? oh, but Omar Khadr, zzzzzz, the others? The population has become desensitized to the topic to the point they've simply turned off, at least while it's only brown people being tortured. In the 'war on terror' the question's no longer whether or not it's acceptable, which it hasn't been since everyone signed the Geneva Conventions, but where is the line, or who's doing it.

Who would have thought ten years ago that democratic nations would even be discussing their role in torture? It's truly frightening to see the moral decay that has eaten away at our core values, debating the semantics of torture; is this torture or that? is it our fault if we were only complicit in knowing about it? when can it be justified? there's more important things to worry about, like saving banks and growing the economy. While the Canadian electorate has been sleeping, their government has mutated into a truly Cheney-esque monstrosity. Sabotaging progress on climate change negotiations while creating the largest man-made ecological disaster in the world, moving to eliminate the national gun registry implemented to prevent massacres like this, an anti-drug strategy aiming at a US style prison culture, a new citizenship guide that rebrands Canada away from peacekeeping and diversity toward intolerance and hate. No, no and no.

Canada's situation is perhaps even more perilous than  it's southern neighbour's. Imagine if the tea party fringe of the conservative party were in charge, yeah, you get the picture. Still spending like drunken soldiers on important things like killing brown people, but also shaving taxes. Now, by the time Parliament sits again in March, yes, after the Olympics, Harper will have had time to pass Michaëlle Jean the names of five new senators, giving the Tories a majority in the upper house of the unelected senate, meaning the gestapo will be in full control. Actually, seeing as Harper only needed to call Jean to suspend democracy, maybe the senate choices will be posted on Jean's Facebook wall, after all it's the only forum poor Canadians seem to have these days. This will give the Conservatives the elusive majority in the upper house and thus a majority on the newly formed Senate committees and greater control for passing their own legislation, which means Harper won't have any roadblocks to implementing his agenda, yippee! If it weren't so predictably sad and dangerous it would be funny. It's almost hard not to feel sorry for my Canuck brethren, they don't really have a choice. Last time Harper prorogued, he did it because he feared the opposition taking power, this time he can do it because he doesn't fear them, there is no credible opposition to challenge him in the next election.

The country has become some kind of alternate reality version of America without the Barack Obama show to help them at least pretend that they're good guys, not meaning to hurt anyone. Ain't no thing, we're just less than halfway through our workload for the parliamentary session, it's best if we shut things down and get the Crown speech and budget ready, everybody go home, or more likely, stay in Arizona, California or your Mexico whatever it may be. Yeah, blame Canada, and France and the US and Poland and you name it, just consider us lucky that at least reporters can tell us what's really happening above the 49th...oh yeah, forgot about that Amy Goodman detention at the Peace Arch a month ago, even made MSNBC apparently:

I wouldn't worry though, it seems to be just the Olympics they're worried about, so as long as you're not coming to ask about the quality of the ice or question the hockey team selection you should be OK. Careful though, I dunno where they draw the line on issues surrounding the games, environmental destruction around Whistler, development on indigenous land? Canada's going into lock down for the Winter Games, only the right kind of people or stories are wanted. It makes perfect sense that it's all about the Olympics, after all the games capture the holy trinity of the right wing mantra - greed, fear and prejudice. Again, all I can say is: Canada! Canada! Canada!