Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lessons on Killing the Golden Goose

Wake up, this is important I say!
If you were listening closely on Thursday you might have heard the collective yawn of 300 million Americans as the US Census Bureau released its 2009 report on poverty in America. Meh, so what if 1 in 7 people and 1 in 5 children in the world's richest country are destitute with ever diminishing chances of climbing out of the cesspool of want. 4 million more people than the year before failed to surpass the threshold of despair, there are now more poor people in the US than people in Argentina (look out Tanzania, your next). It kinda reminded me of standing in front of around fifteen 22-year-old Polish university students lecturing about inequality in those same United States. There I was going over chart after chart showing how the distribution of income in the US hasn't been so unequal since the beginning of the last century and trying to get them to come up with ideas about why it was happening and what repercussions it might have. I mean, what was I thinking? Better yet, what we're they thinking? A few possibilities:
"I can't wait to get home and stream last night's Desperate Housewives!"
"Did he just say 'annual stimulus'?"
"I wonder how my tomatoes are growing in Farmville?"
You see, I'd forgotten the golden rule of giving a lecture. Know your audience. These kids are the first generation born and raised from birth completely free of communism. Equality is the last thing they want, all they want is to be living in a country just like America. If they only knew that if we had been in America, most of them wouldn't have the opportunity of sitting in a classroom such as that one. Well, unfortunately what is happening in America isn't happening in isolation and it has repercussions for us all.

Just to be fair, I suppose I should do to my readers as I did to my poor students and put you all through a little inequality 101 primer:

The first decades of the 20th century were a time of crisis for capitalism in America. No one had tried to measure income inequality as measuring income was impossible before the introduction of federal income tax in 1913 but it was clearly a problem. It was the time of the robber barons and Standard Oil. Vanderbilt, Astor, Rockefeller, Carnegie and J.P Morgan showed the world how unrestrained markets led to accumulated wealth, monopolistic behaviour and distorted markets that retarded growth. The ideas of Marx were mixing in a potent cocktail of labour unrest. Something was wrong with capitalism. When in 1915 a statistician at the University of Wisconsin named Willford I. King published The Wealth and Income of the People of the United States he was astounded to find that the top 1% of the population accounted for about 15% of the income. That figure was to climb to a peak of 23.9% in 1928. Coincidentally, the next year saw Black Tuesday as the stock market crashed on October 29th kicking off the Great Depression.

The effects of the depression combined with progressive taxation, the New Deal and World War II to usher in an era of dwindling income disparity, referred to by some economists as the Great Compression. Provided you were a white, Christian male of non-drafting age, this period of time could be viewed by many as the golden age of American life. There was no better time to be a middle-class American and the numbers grew and grew in a virtuous cycle. America had won the war and they were tasked with powering the global economy. Foreign competition was minimal, resources were abundant, each decade added a year to average educational attainment and unions ensured workers earned a salary that allowed them to purchase their employers products. The gap between rich and poor reached it's historic low in the 1970s as the top 1% was taking in about 9% of total income, a little over a third of what it had been 45 years earlier.
Oh, this is the top 0.01%. Not bad!
Then, something happened causing what Paul Krugman has termed the Great Divergence. The trend completely reversed itself and we've seen a growing disparity between rich and poor, rich and richer along with poor and poorer ever since, to the point where the top percentile's income share reached 23.5% in 2008. Notice any similarity between that number and the one eighty years ago, you know, right before the Great Depression? Correlation isn't causation and all that, but do you think the fact that a smaller piece of the pie being available to the majority of the population could have something to do with a slowdown in economic activity? I'm no economist, but...

Ok, so what's my point? Well, that's my point. It's not just my classroom that was bored to tears with these numbers. Imagine Faux 'news' trying to go through these facts with its viewers. Ha! Just mention the word inequality and the next thing you know you'd probably be shouted down for being a socialist-communist-terrorist pedophile with an evil plot to turn the country into a government controlled death camp in preparation for an alien invasion. Or something like that. Americans truly believe that what has made their country great is the independent/innovative/entrepreneurial spirit of its population facilitated by having a small, unobtrusive government. They've been brainwashed into believing that the only economic prescription for tough times is to cut taxes and liberalize the market. Funny they don't seem to remember that it was government policies that created the conditions for growth (and a couple of little World Wars that knocked out the manufacturing capacity of much of the world) seen in the 20th century. Anti-trust legislation, the minimum wage, social security, the 16th and 17th amendments, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Glass-Steagall. Oops, see, we've gotta be vigilant or the next thing you know these things could be gone.

So, before figuring a way out, or even if we need to, the first question is, what happened? Economists have variously pointed fingers at race, gender, the breakdown of the nuclear family, immigration, technology, Republicans, the demise of organized labour, globalization, federal policy, and the decline of K-12 education. Well, I blame it on the 1970s. No, not disco (well, a little bit), nor the designated hitter rule, the Big Mac or the Bicentennial. Why were the seventies such a turning point? The oil crisis, Vietnam and Nixon closing the gold window to allow for an unchecked expansion of the money supply led to stagflation. At the same time American corporations were just figuring out that the rebellion against conformity of the previous decade wasn't a threat but in fact their greatest opportunity. Value and lifestyle marketing. It was in the corporations interest to encourage people to feel they were unique individuals and then sell them ways to express that individuality. America's (and the developed economies) were rescued by the self-actualizing individuals who became the motor of what became known as the new economy. Consumerism became the path to self-actualization. This was not only observed and practiced in the market for goods and services but politics too. New individualism was leading an attack on fifty years of government interference in people's lives. Well, we know where that led to now. Reagan/Thatcher ushered in an era of deregulation at the same time as the right-wingnut mantra chant became the only correct way to think: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem. Products and false idols allowed people to express what they felt was their individuality. "The generation that once rebelled against the conformity imposed by consumerism now embraced it because it helped them to be themselves." (Do watch the whole series, this is the 3rd of 4 parts)

Middle America's recent embrace of the Tea Party and their populist slogans really isn't that surprising. Anything that allows the mind to shift the burden of blame away from itself is much easier than looking within, finding the errors of one's ways and correcting them. No matter how much they yell and scream about the 'Obamanation' that they see as the cause of their ills, there's no escaping the fact that it is in fact us who are too blame. We allowed the mass marketing gurus to convince us that the road to happiness could be found in the modern day houses of prayer, the strip malls, that sprung up all around them and powered the new economy for 30 years. As the economy grew however, our wages didn't keep pace, the median male worker earns less today than he did in 1980, so we adapted in order to be able to continue to sate our unlimited desire to buy new things. How? Women continued to stream into the workforce making the two-income family the norm. In 1966 only 24% of mothers with young children worked outside the home; by the late nineties that figure had reached 60%. When this wasn't enough, we all worked longer hours, and not just in America - by the middle of the oh-ohs (2000s) the average male worker was working 100 more hours a year than two decades previously (almost 2 more hours a week! - the typical female was working 200 more hours!). Is it any wonder that no one was able to notice what was happening around us? With less and less time people came to rely more and more on opinion instead of news. Why bother to read and learn about a subject when it's much easier and quicker to simply digest what your told to believe as quickly as possible while scanning your iPad/Phone/Blackberry for news and updates on Facebook. Oh internet, you had so much promise! The worse was yet to come for Jack and Jill Average though as they found they still couldn't keep up with the Jones' next door (or at least what all those Lifestyle's of the Rich and Famous types the boob tube kept telling them were so much better than they were). When Jack and Jill found they had charged up their Visa cards over the limit, they discovered they could use their homes as credit cards. Oh, the joy they had in going up the hill, as housing prices always went up, right? So nothing could ever go wrong, could it? From 2002 to 2007, American households extracted $2.3 trillion from their homes leading to a tumble that has broken more than our crown.

Meanwhile their corporate masters took a growing slice of a stagnant pie (untasty!). They allowed the post-Reagan acolytes to dismantle their only defense against this onslaught, the unions, first smashing the air-traffic controllers union in a display of might and power, then slowly removing market stability legislation that had been in place since the New Deal. Today, organized labour is down to about 7% of the private workforce. While the workers were losing their voice, the plutocrats were just finding theirs. With all the hoopla surrounding bankers' pay last year it was somehow missed that this isn't an anomaly but a trend. In 1970 US CEOs were paid 28 times more than the average worker; by the oh-ohs this figure was hovering around 500 to 1, peaking at 548. Do you think their jobs got twenty times more difficult, twenty times more stressful, twenty times more demanding or they did a twenty times better job? Ha! Cough! Yike! The fact is the Friedmans of finance, those gurus of GDP, gods of globalization, have used every crisis over the past few decades to tighten the screws a little bit tighter on Joe Sixpack (yes, Jack and Jill's neighbour whose home is also under water), reducing benefits, outsourcing labour and increasing the profit margin. The rise of lobbyists and PACs has meant that those with the most money have the loudest voice in forming public policy, ensuring that every piece of legislation, from health care to financial reform, will have one intended winner, not the people but the Masters of the Universe. The Citizen United Supreme Court ruling making corporations people will only serve to make a bad situation worse as money becomes not only speech but also the only words those in power will bother to listen to. There's a reason politicians are vastly more responsive to the views of affluent constituents than those of modest means, they know who butters their bread. As Larry Bartels notes in his study on income inequality and political representation, what we are seeing is a "debilitating feedback cycle linking the economic and political realms: increasing economic inequality may produce increasing inequality in political responsiveness, which in turn produces public policies increasingly detrimental to the interests of poor citizens, which in turn produces even greater economic inequality, and so on".

Money poured into "think tanks" and "research centres" in an effort to mold a new and unchallenged economic model. Industrial dynasties have spent not insignificant parts of their fortunes on the conservative agenda. In the1980s , the Olin family, which owns a chemicals-and-manufacturing conglomerate, became known for funding right-leaning thinking in academia, particularly in law schools. And during the nineties Richard Mellon Scaife, a descendant of Andrew Mellon, spent millions attempting to discredit President Bill Clinton. But the real wizards behind the curtain are the Kochs. Only the brothers know precisely how much they have spent on politics. Public tax records show that between 1998 and 2008 the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation spent more than 48 million dollars. The Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, which is controlled by Charles Koch and his wife, spent more than 28 million. The David H. Koch Charitable Foundation spent more than a 120 million. Meanwhile, since 1998 Koch Industries has spent more than fifty million dollars on lobbying. Separately, the company’s political-action committee, Koch has donated some eight million dollars to political campaigns, more than eighty per cent of it to Republicans. So far in 2010, Koch Industries leads all other energy companies in political contributions, as it has since 2006. In addition, during the past dozen years the Kochs and other family members have personally spent more than two million dollars on political contributions. In the second quarter of 2010, David Koch was the biggest individual contributor to the Republican Governors Association, with a million-dollar donation. Other gifts by the Kochs may be untraceable; federal tax law permits anonymous personal donations to politically active nonprofit groups.

Have you heard of the Cato Institute? Heritage Foundation? The Hudson Institute? The Independent Women’s Forum (seriously!)? The Mercatus Center (yeah, part of George Mason Univerity, publicly funded but fighting to end public funding)? Citizens For a Sound Economy? Citizens For the Environment (with no citizen membership)? Economic Education Trust or Triad Management? Remember the climategate kerfuffle over the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia. Wonder why formaldehyde isn't listed as a "known carcinogen to humans" substance by the EPA? Confused as to why “voters believe there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community”? All are Koch created or funded, their main purpose helping ensure the maintenance of the status quo, the one that enriches them while raping the planet. Their activities and goals dovetail menacingly with the secret 1971 memo that then Virginia attorney Lewis Powell wrote two months before being nominated to the Supreme Court. The antiwar movement had turned its anger on defense contractors such as Dow Chemical and Ralph Nader was leading a public-interest crusade against corporations. Powell, writing a report for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urged American companies to fight back. The greatest threat to free enterprise, he warned, was not Communism or the New Left but, rather, “respectable elements of society" - intellectuals, journalists, and scientists. To defeat them, he wrote, business leaders needed to wage a long-term, unified campaign to change public opinion.

Convincing people to oppose action to save the world!

Um, did I mention so what? Why should we care that equality is not only increasing, but set to get worse even faster. Simple. Inequality is/was the major cause of the Great Recession. No, I'm not only pointing to the fact that income inequality was at similar levels just prior to the Great Depression and it's less powerfully named sibling, the Great Recession. After all, then I'd have commentators screaming that correlation is not causality. There's too much else going on here. Bank failures tend to coincide (notice the influence of financial deregulation) with times of growing income inequality. The growth of household debt has followed a pattern strikingly similar to the growth in income inequality. Finally, inequality has a substantial negative impact on overall consumption by creating a drag on effective demand. This is intuitive as well as scientific as it is obvious that the rich spend a lower percentage of their income than the rest of us thus robbing the economy of the demand it needs to keep growing and creating jobs. Worse yet, the rich don't necessarily spend their earnings and savings on and in their own country, being far more likely to spend it where they will get the highest returns, whether in a tax haven such as the Caymans or a holiday on the French Riviera. Remember that top 1% of earners? Well from 1980 to 2005 they took in more than 80% of the total increase in Americans' income. 80%! Leaving 20% to add to the spending power of the rest of us. Is there any wonder WalMart is so big?

You like graphs? We've got 'em!
A rising tide lifts all boats? What was once true is simply no longer the case. If you're born in rags, you're more likely to die in those same rags than those born in previous generations. Let's take a look at the most obviously method of perpetuating a plutocratic society. Estate taxes had been used for much of the century to help distribute wealth from top to bottom. There's no question that it should be everyone's right to pass on what they have created in their lifetime to their children. The question is how much is enough while trying to encourage a society in which members can move up and down the social ladder based on their knowledge, contribution and a little bit of luck. Once upon a time, this movement, let's call it social mobility, was fluid in the United States. Over the past 30 years however (why does that number keep coming up?) we have seen a dramatic calcification of this process. No matter, if you have a lot of money, you're happy with the new reality and therefore want your children to carry the mantle, after all meritocracy is so overrated. We need to eliminate the estate tax. Enter the right-wingnut spin doctor. Abracadabra, alakazam, poof - the estate tax becomes a 'death tax'. Fun with words! "No one likes a death tax! Let's get rid of it". And it was so, a one year moratorium that Republicans now want to make permanent, give to the rich and pass the costs on to the rest. Never mind that the estate tax was the most progressive and meritocratic tax in the country with the first $3.5 million being tax free impacting only the richest 0.3% of estates. We can always continue to misquote Alexis de Toqueville: "America is the best country in the world to be poor". That way we can delude ourselves into believing that Horatio Alger still exists. Sorry folks, "It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."

Finally, income inequality is one of the worst diseases a society can have. People in more equal societies simply live longer, healthier, and happier lives than people in more unequal societies. And not just poor people in these societies - all people. In a project intended to solve the reason why health within a population gets progressively worse the further one moves down the social scale, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett accidentally made a discovery big enough to change political thinking. It is no wonder rightwingnuts have been so vehement in their condemnation and more fantastical than usual in their attempts to discredit Wilkinson and Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. What they found was that in states and countries where there is a big gap between the incomes of rich and poor, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity and teenage pregnancy are more common, the homicide rate is higher, life expectancy is shorter, and children's educational performance and literacy scores are worse. Unsurprisingly, the Scandinavian countries and Japan consistently come at the positive end of this spectrum having the smallest differences between higher and lower incomes and the resultant best record of psycho-social health. Those nations with the widest gulf between rich and poor come out worse and have the most health and social problems - Portugal, Great Britain and of course the United States of America. Oh, it's not only the poor who suffer from the negative effects, everyone does. For example, rates of mental illness are five times higher across the whole population in the most unequal societies.

Instead of facing reality and looking in the mirror, the rich will attempt to keep the the status quo while trying to maintain the belief of the plebs in the false gods of market liberalization and tax cuts by stoking the populist anger at the heart of groups such as the Tea Party. Their success has been breathtaking, twisting the truth to suit their purposes. From climate change to death panels and tax policy, misinformation has been the key to their success in controlling the media's agenda. Take the economic stimulus package, instead of acknowledging its limited success, limited by the fact it was too small, the right-wingnuts have managed to turn it into a dirty word. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it reduced unemployment by somewhere between 0.8 and 1.7 per cent in recent months. Economists at various Wall Street houses suggest that it boosted GDP by more than two per cent. And a recent study by Mark Zandi and Alan Blinder, economists from, respectively, Moody’s and Princeton, argues that, in the absence of the stimulus, unemployment would have risen above eleven per cent and that GDP. would have been almost half a trillion dollars lower. Yet polls show that a sizable majority of voters think that the stimulus either did nothing to help or actively hurt the economy, and most people say that they’re opposed to a new stimulus plan. The hostility has numerous sources. Many voters conflate the stimulus bill with the highly unpopular bailouts of the banking sector and the auto industry; Republicans have done a good job of encouraging such misconceptions, as when Representative Mike Pence, of Indiana, referred to the “bailout stimulus.”

No, it is much easier to attack and criticize than reflect and offer solutions. The battle over the upcoming expiry of the Bush tax cuts will be instructive as to the direction America chooses to go. Does it want to continue to perpetuate a broken system, one in which California has built only one new college since 1984, but 21 new prisons, or will she decide to heal herself by implementing policies to guide us back to sanity. Things don't look good with money not only pouring in from special interest groups but ever more staggering amounts are also being spent by candidates themselves. At times I find myself wanting to see the Tea Party lead the Republicans to victory in the mid-term elections and ride the wave of misinformation through 2012 to usher in the era of Palin just to see how bad it gets but I know we'd all be swept away by the ensuing tsunami. Instead of letting ourselves be tricked into chasing bogeymen who are figments of our imagination we need to go about fixing the problems that we're faced with. The economic progress made over the past couple of centuries since the days of Adam Smith are undeniable, truly a goose laying golden eggs. Greed leads us to want to slice it open and grab all the gold today. A tool is only as good as its user, and capitalism, no matter how superior an economic system, is just that, a tool. We have to remember the users here are little different than monkeys and we all know what happens when monkeys are given tools.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Wait is Over!

That's right, I'm baaack! Time to cross another summer off the calender as fake Labo(u)r Day has passed meaning the days are growing shorter and colder here in the northern hemisphere, I've returned from vacation and most importantly, the NFL season is about to kickoff. This year feels a little different than usual, having spent the last few months making my first return visit home to Canada in five years along with a couple stops in Spain and Italy, but a post on my impressions of home after such a long absence will just have to wait (hint: How are Canada and brussel sprouts similar? They're both green and bland). After all, just because the world of politics, the economy and the environment seem to be stuck in some kind of eerie holding pattern, that doesn't mean a new season of football won't have a bagful of surprises in store for us. So here are some pithy observations, prognostications, witticisms, criticisms and picks for the 2010/11 NFL season.

NFC South - Chumps to Champs and the American Dream?

"I'm going to Disneyland!"
In case you missed it, last year's season ended with those New Orleans Saints lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time in their history. Yep, it was the feel good story of the year as America once again provided a poster child for the rags to riches story that is the American Dream. The narrative of a team that rose from 'Aints to Who Dat?! in parallel with its city rising from the hurricane Katrina disaster to recovery was spoon fed to the nation, helping everyone believe once again that Horatio Alger stories still come true. Ah, cruel fate, if only happily ever after existed in real life. This summer saw the BP oil spew disaster kick the Louisiana coastline, the Gulf of Mexico and the entire world in its environmental balls. At the same time evidence that the economy will be providing good news anytime soon has failed to materialize. In fact, thanks to the demon spawns of corporate greed and capital market liberalization - neoliberalism, globalization and now the perpetual Great Recession - the rich have gotten richer while the poor, well, poorer as the insatiable appetites of 'free' markets destroy livelihoods, slashing jobs and benefits, privatizing core services and convincing the masses its for the greater good, all the while socializing any losses and keeping all the profits.

Oops, where was I? Oh yeah, football, New Orleans Saints, better look at their division. We should get much the same from the defending champs; a heavy dose of QB Drew Brees spreading the ball around to a multitude of weapons and an opportunistic defense which bends but doesn't break. The Atlanta Falcons look to have the best shot at unseating last year's NFC South division winning Saints. A better year from Matt Ryan seems likely with the return of a healthier Michael Turner to boost the running game. WR Roddy White is back along with TE Tony Gonzalez (999 career receptions - about to become the first tight end to 1000) to provide Matt the necessary targets. Unfortunately they also boasted the 28th best, or should I say 5th worst, pass defense in the league, meaning Brees and co in New Orleans should stay on top. In Carolina, the Matt Moore era at QB means the Panthers won't be able to claw to the top with or without the real Steve Smith back from a broken arm. Which leaves us with the Bucs. Since their Super Bowl victory in 2002, this has been a team in decline and this year won't be any different. Cadillac blows a tire by week three and not even Kareem Huggins' cool name at RB will be enough to pull them out of the cellar. Sorry Tampa Bay but Horatio Alger is just a fairy tale in 2010 America.
Predicted Finish: Saints 13-3; Falcons 10-6; Panthers 8-8; Buccaneers 3-13

NFC North - Favre and the more things don't change

The last time Brett Favre didn't start at quarterback for his team it was 1992, the Packers were 0-2, their starting QB was Don "the Magic Man" Majkowski and George Bush the elder was president. Tonight he plays his 287th consecutive game (310 counting playoffs) since that long lost September game brought Brett in to replace an injured Majkowski and throw two 4th quarter TD's to lead his team to a 24-23 come from behind victory.

What more can be written in the Brett Favre saga? Another summer of will he or won't he play has brought us back to where we were last year, the more things change, the more they do in fact stay the same. Diva? Drama queen? Sure, maybe, yet all seemed well in Purpleland when Brett Favre got off the plane with his three retrievers a couple of weeks ago. Not so fast I'm afraid. First, reigning offensive rookie of the year Percy Harvin pukes and collapses on the practice field and is taken away to hospital for observation due to a migraine problem that he has battled all his life. Then, out of the blue, team leading receiver Sidney Rice announces that he's having hip surgery and will miss at least the first half of the season. Suddenly, the players who caught 143 of the 377 passes completed by the Vikings last year were very much in doubt. Will Adrian Peterson be able to lose his bad case of fumbleitis and pick up the slack? Is that defensive line starting to crack?

Enter this year's sexy pick to win the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers. Seems that Favre guy was at least replaceable at Lambeau as Aaron Rogers has joined Drew Brees and Peyton Manning at the top of the league's QB chart. Targets aren't a problem with WRs Greg Jennings, perennial 1000 yarder Donald Driver and unmissable target, superfreak Jermichael Finley at tight end back for another year. Quietly efficient RB Ryan Grant is also back. Despite having given up 51 points in a loss to the Arizona Cardinals the last time the games meant something in the playoffs last year, the Pack D should be solid featuring last year's NFL defensive player of the year Charles Woodson. Which leaves us with Bears and Lions fighting to stay out of the basement. It may seem weird to pick a team that has won a grand total of two games over the same number of years but I've got a feeling about this edition of the Detroit Lions. Call me crazy, but I see Mathew Stafford picking up his game a notch and finding Megatron (WR Calvin Johnson) in the end zone more often than last year. The addition of WR Nate Burleson on the other side may free Johnson at least from triple coverage. If the teams two first round draft picks pan out, RB Jahvid Best adding a bit of flash to the backfield and DT Ndamukong Suh adding some teeth to the defensive line, Detroit just may squeeze by Chicago. Of course, you never know with QB Jay Cutler at the helm of a Mike Martz offense for the Bears, he may put up 40 touchdowns or throw 40 picks.
Predicted Finish: Packers 13-3, Vikings 10-6, Lions 6-10, Bears 6-10

NFC East - Of Stadiums, Debt and Wannabees

The Super Bowl is coming to Cowboy Stadium February 6, 2011. The question everyone seems to be asking is if the Cowboys will be on the field or if their shiny stadium will play host to a couple of interlopers. Jerry Jones got his brand new super-sized toilet bowl last year, a sparkling bauble that can host over 100,000 fans, and he hopes that Romo and the 'boys will bring him his first title since 1996. There's no question they've got the offensive firepower to do it with Miles Austin looking to build on his breakout season last year at WR, a rookie first-round pick (who hasn't played a competitive down in over a year) lining up on the other side in Dez Bryant, Jason Witten back at tight end and a trio of running backs who could all start in the NFL, Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Wait, isn't that Kim Kardashian in the stands? OMG, and who's that sitting beside her? It's Candice Crawford and her sister Chace. WTF, who gives a shit. Who are these people? If there's one team that embodies the vapidness of American culture, it's the Dallas Cowboys. With Tony Romo having moved on from Jessica Simpson to whoever the hell is Candice Crawford and Miles Austin dating the current queen of fame for no good reason, Kim Kardashian, fans will be just as interested in who's sitting in the wives and girlfriend seats as what's happening on the field. We all remember what Jessica Simpson did to Romo and the Cowboys the last time they were picked for the Super Bowl in the 2008 playoffs against the Giants.

Use the magnifying glass to clarify
Yep, nothing like a bit of mindless blather to keep the masses distracted. Speaking of those Giants, they too have a brand new stadium. Isn't it shiny, oh, and look at the pretty lights, never mind that it's in New Jersey. Oh, and never mind that while both the Giants and Jets will be playing in New Meadowlands Stadium this year, the taxpayers of New Jersey, yes New Jersey, are still on the hook for $110 million to pay for now 'old' Meadowlands Stadium. That one, Giant Stadium, is in fact now just a really expensive parking lot. I wonder how the people who are going to have to pay the bill feel about it? Oh, that's right, they don't care, and even if they did care, following the paper trail of debt back to its source is nearly impossible. But shouldn't the taxpayers in New Jersey - or King County around Seattle who are still paying more than $80 million for the Kingdome that was demolished in 2000, or Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Houston, Kansas City, Memphis or Pittsburgh where residents are paying for stadiums and arenas that were abandoned by the teams they were built for - care that they and their children are socializing the profits of wealthy billionaires? Um, er, well isn't that exactly what has happened to the "private" sector in the heretofore market economy of the capitalistic nirvana known as the United States of America. Yep. Meanwhile, public budgets are being slashed, schools closed, payrolls cut and essential services hired out to the highest, er, lowest, really, bidder. How? Attention distraction is in fact a weapon of mass financial destruction. The TV pumps out Jersey Shore making it cool to be a stupid slut, the internet lulls people into believing they control their information consumption and gadgets such as iPhones and Blackberries ensure that something is always keeping the frontal cortex firing so we can't actually think about the things that are being done for and to us.

Errr, right. Football. NFC East. The Cowboys hold onto their crown as those Giants, Eagles and Redskins nip at their heals. Dallas' preseason offensive woes will prove to be just that, preseason woes, as they're offense carries them to another title. The Giants contend as Eli continues to grow with his talented group of wideouts, they rely more on Ahmad Bradshaw than Brandon Jacobs to carry the rock and their defense becomes more Giant-like thanks to an outstanding pass rush and gives up less points than last years third worst total in the NFL. In Philadelphia the fans will rue losing their scapegoat as new starting QB Kevin Kolb has trouble in his first full year. Yep, the Eagles let Donovan McNabb go and he signed with the divisional rival Redskins where he'll join fellow newcomer head coach Mike Shanahan in trying to overcome a decade of underachievement and the Albert Haynesworth saga. The October 3rd game between the Eagles and Redskins will go a long way in determining the basement dweller in the NFC Beast.
Predicted Finish: Cowboys 12-4; Giants 9-7; Eagles 8-8; Redskins 7-9

NFC West - The Ugly Sister

When the NFL went to the eight division format in 2002 the idea was to put more teams into the playoff picture at the end of the year to hold the fans interest a bit longer. Unfortunately a side effect of realignment has been a tendency for there to be a couple of stronger divisions where good teams miss the playoffs (see last years' 11-5 Patriots) and weaker divisions where otherwise crappy teams do make the playoffs (read: 2008/9 AFC West). This years leading contender for stinker division is the NFC West. Tops in the division last year, the Phoenix Cardinals, seem poised to take the biggest nosedive in the NFL. The loss of Kurt Warner to retirement seemed to mean that Matt Leinhart would finally get a chance to prove his worth as a former first round draft choice but alas, his California surfer boy attitude proved too much for the desert and he was cut, meaning lifetime 52.9% completion rate (and 44.5% last year) QB Derek Anderson will be tasked with trying to get the ball to all-world wideout Larry Fitzgerald.

This means the door is wide open for a new division champ and the only team that seems to come anywhere near being half-decent here is the San Francisco 49ers. Coach Mike Singletary seems on the verge of completing the transformation of this team from West Coast lightweight into a reflection of his smashmouth playing days with the Chicago Bears. As long as Alex Smith is able to take the next step in his second year as starter behind centre, Vernon Davis has anywhere near as good a year as last at TE, Frank Gore stays healthy and 2nd year WR Michael Crabtree sheds his primadonna rep, the offense should be good enough to compliment what may be the NFL's second best defense. What? There's two more teams in the division? Really, the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks both have all the ingredients to be champs of NFL Europe. Oh wait, what's that you say? The league folded in 2007. Yes, they just might be able to win a defunct league. Overall #1 2010 draft pick QB Sam Bradford takes the reins in St. Louis only to find there's no one to throw the ball to and therefore will hand the ball off a new league record 400 times to Steven Jackson whose spine fuses on the last day of the season while the Shithawks will be forced to throw uniforms on a few homeless people in order to fill out their roster after cutting half the team. Regardless of whether or not you can find pity in your heart for new coach Pete Carroll, the Seahawks are a good argument against expanding the regular season to 18 games.
Predicted finish: 49ers 10-6; Cardinals 7-9; Seahawks 3-13; Rams 2-14

AFC South - The More Things Don't Change II?

It was almost surreal. The Super Bowl. 3:24 left in the 4th quarter. Trailing 24-17 Peyton Manning takes the snap from centre. It wasn't supposed to turn out the way it did with Tracy Porter picking off his pass intended for Reggie Wayne and taking it to the house, sealing the Saints first Super Bowl win. But it did and now we'll see if Peyton and his Indianapolis Colts can rebound from that improbable end to last year. Odds are they will with most of the same pieces from their offensive juggernaut back in place for another year. WRs Reggie Wayne, Pierre where's my cedilla Garcon and Austin Collie will be joined by Anthony Gonzalez after sitting out last year along with perhaps the best tight end in the league, Dwight Clark. If Joseph Addai breaks down at running back, Donald Brown is ready to step in while their offensive line looks set to open holes and keep Peyton upright. Wait. Check that. The offensive line is in a mess and it was the Colts failure to establish any kind of running attack that ultimately lost them the last game of the year. Not the interception or even the onside kick. That as much as their own vaunted offensive attack is what gives the Texas Texans (the worst team name in the NFL) a fighting chance to stop the Colts, who have won every AFC South crown but one.

I was burned by the Texans last year, picking them to unseat the Colts, but I won't repeat the call this year. Although they've got the weapons with QB Matt Schaub and all-world WR Andre Johnson, their lack of depth may hurt them. RB Arian Foster may be this year's fantasy football Ray Rice, Jacoby Jones may step up and become a legitimate number two receiver and TE Owen Daniels may bounce back from last year's season ending torn ACL, but they may not. Along with the fact that too many question marks on defense, particularly at corner, plays to the Colts advantage. Oh yeah, the division also features CJ2K. Tennessee's Chris Johnson will once again challenge the 2000 yard rushing mark but I need to see a mentally stable QB Vince Young for a full season and a return to glory for the D before the Titans contend again. Rounding out the division are the miserable Jacksonville Jaguars. Sure they've got Maurice Jones-Drew, but there are even question marks flying around about MJD as a mysterious knee ailment has slowed him down during preseason. Quick, name a non-hyphenated Jaguar player. Tarps can cover up the empty seats at newly-named EverBank Field but they won't mask the lack of talent on the field. I hear they need a team in Los Angeles...
Predicted Finish: Colts 13-3; Texans 10-6; Titans 8-8; Jaguars 3-13

AFC North - Tales of Big Ben's Little Ben

No other name this off-season better exemplified the NFL's off-field problems than Ben Roethlisberger. From a football perspective, his actions may cost his Pittsburgh Steelers a few games and the division title but the larger picture is that of a league with a diseased culture. Following the high profile cases of Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's hand was forced into meting out some sort of punishment to the two-time Super Bowl champion Steeler quarterback after the tabloid treatment given to allegations of his alcohol assisted unwanted plucking of a Georgia peach. If the league hadn't done something, the Steelers would have had to after having traded WR Santonio Holmes for a measly fifth round draft choice after being suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Any perception of a double standard for a white QB couldn't be risked and therefore a six game suspension was originally handed down by Goodell (while reduced to four games last week it still amounts to five games as the Steelers have a week 5 bye). Oh, while charges were never pursued, payments were probably made. Just like they were after the Lake Tahoe incident. This is the kind of guy who doesn't learn, remember when he had a near fatal motorbike accident a couple of years back riding without a valid license or helmet? Yeah, well he said he would do it again - um, yeah, without a helmet.

The loss of their starting QB and star wideout means the Steelers won't reclaim the division title, but I don't think the Bengals will repeat. Sure they've added another loud-mouthed WR in the form of Terrell Owens to play opposite Ochocinco but unfortunately NFL games aren't decided by Twitter followers or reality show appearances. As long as Carson Palmer's arm allows him to throw the out, Cincinnati may reduce Cedric Benson's rushing workload giving them a more balanced attack to go along with a strong D but it won't be enough to hold off the Ravens. Baltimore is looking to make a move after a couple of WR acquisitions of their own in the form of Anquan Boldin and ugh, TJ Houshmandzadeh. Ray Rice should put up over 2000 combined rushing and receiving yards as well to help put QB Joe Flacco and the offense over the top while the ageless Ray Lewis once again leads a powerful Raven defense. Oh, and the Browns. Yeah, while Mike Holmgren may have been a winner once in Green Bay, the taint of the Shithawks is on him from his stint in Seattle which doesn't bode well for his tenure as team president in Cleveland. Quick, name a Brown player.
Predicted Finish: Ravens 12-4; Steelers 9-7; Bengals 9-7; Browns 5-11

AFC East - Welcome to Fantasy Island

I couldn't have put it better myself, Tattoo. Today and most every other day unfortunately it's not only Tattoo who has decided to be selfish. Our me first world ensures the only way to make problems go away is to roll in a wheelbarrow full of cash - guaranteed. Thanks to $32 million of the guaranteed kind of cash out of a total of $46 for four years, New York Jets opponents will be getting episodes of Revis Island once again this year. That an another a plane trip a la Favre, this time featuring reality TV star/Jets head coach Rex Ryan flying down to Florida to help convince his favourite player to end his 36-day hold out seems a little bit weird to me. Yeah, I understand that players careers are short and they have to get what they can, when they can, but Darrelle was in the wrong. The Jets had already paid him top 10 money after taking him number 14 in the draft in 2007, signing him to a contract that still had three years and $21 million remaining on it. Well, Woody Johnson blinked, Hard Knocks got a happy finale (was it really any good? worth finding online?), and the Jets a fighting chance to overcome a challenging opening to the season, facing the Ravens, Vikings and division rival Patriots, Dolphins and Bills in the first five weeks. Well, of course there is the rest of the team, you know, a second year QB and RB in Mark Sanchez Shonn Greene that need to prove they're for real.

Isn't it funny how suspect the Patriots defense is now that Bill Belichik isn't allowed to cheat? Not even Tom Brady to Randy Moss and Wes Welker can overcome the porous D in New England. Hopes are high in Miami but there a too many question marks for me to pick them to overtake the Jets or Pats. (When) Will former Bronco WR Brandon Marshall return to form, do something stupid and ruin his new team's chemistry? Can QB Chad Henne take a big step forward in his second year as the starter? How will the defense play without longtime standouts Jason Taylor and Joey Porter? No matter, at least they don't have to worry much about becoming cellar dwellers as those perpetually bad Buffalo Bills will be back to fill that bill. Head coach Chan Gailey may have come to town with a playbook filled with razzle-dazzle but when your QBs name is Trent Edwards and it looks like your only offensive threat is a rookie RB, namely CJ Spiller, there's sure to be a lot of long, cold Sunday afternoons again in Orchard Park.
Predicted Finish: Jets 11-5, Patriots 10-6, Dolphins 8-8, Bills 3-13

AFC West - Billionaires versus Millionaires

Where better than here in the AFC West to remind readers and football fans of the best reason to enjoy this NFL year as much as possible. Ready? There might not be any football to watch next year. The reason is best personified in a man known to some as V Jax, San Diego Charger wide receiver Vincent Jackson. This is a man so sure of his worth that after getting a league imposed three game suspension for substance abuse (yes, I know, sounds familiar) he decided he should holdout to force his team and owner to renegotiate his contract and pay him more money. Ok, ok, maybe it wasn't specifically Jackson's chutzpah that caused the owners to vote unanimously at the end of the 2008 season to suspend the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) March 2011, but for me he has become the poster boy for why I might actually be in the billionaire owners' corner for their upcoming battle against the millionaires in the players union. Too many variables to go into now, I'm sure an upcoming post will cover it; for now, this is a good run down on the situation

With or without their star receiver the Chargers will remain the class of the division. If this year's early favourite for rookie offensive player of the year Ryan Mathews manages to fill the rather large shoes left by his predecessor at running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, QB Philip Rivers, TE Antonio Gates and Jackson light, WR Malcom Floyd, should provide enough of a spark to power the Chargers offense to the division title. I've got a feeling that the Kansas Chiefs just might be able to turn things around this year to sneak into second. Charlie Weiss' team has a QB unburdened by the unreasonable expectations put upon him last year in Matt Cassel to divvy the ball between the best running back in the league at the end of last year, Jamaal Charles, breakout candidate WR Dwayne Bowe and my favourite new name in the league and multi-purpose threat, rookie WR/RB Dexter McCluster. Meanwhile the Broncos have lost their best pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, a RB Knowshon Moreno with a hamstring ready to end his season on any play and a Royal and a Jabar for their mediocre QB Kyle Orton to throw to thanks to losing Marshall to the Dolphins and their #1 draft pick Demaryius Thomas to injury. Oh, and thanks to bumbleheaded coach Josh McDaniels the team has managed to trade and waste away a treasure trove of draft picks received in the Jay Cutler deal (well, they did manage to pick up a god loving bench warmer) which may help Oakland climb out of the basement next year, next year Raider fans, next year.
Predicted Finish: Chargers 11-5, Chiefs 10-6, Broncos 8-8, Raiders 6-10

Uh-huh. So where does that lead us?

So, the NFC gives us the Saints, Packers, Cowboys and 49ers as divisional champs along with my two wildcard picks, the Falcons and the Vikings. In the AFC, the Colts, Ravens, Jets and Chargers take the divisional crowns while the wildcards will be the Pats and Texans. The long road to Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas will only be completed by two teams, the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens with my Cowboys lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

A few more quick hits here before the season kicks off in an hour or so...the Detroit Lions sweep the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of they Year, Jahvid Best and Ndamukong Suh; 49er Patrick Willis wins Defensive Player of the Year while Raven Ray Rice takes the Offensive award; and the league MVP is Aaron Rodgers as he passes for 5,000 yards.

So who cares if the past year hasn't taught us anything. The BP spew, Russian heatwave, ice sheets breaking off of Greenland or floods in Pakistan have nothing to do with the way we live, apparently it's all happened before. Ditto the ever increasing gap between rich and poor, been there done that. It's easy to predict that we'll keep driving our cars in circles and handing ever greater amounts of wealth and control to the rich and powerful but it's impossible to guess what the new NFL season will bring. So I've got just one more question for you. Are you ready for some football?!?!