Friday, January 28, 2011

XLV

My third Super Bowl post, second with the Pittsburgh Steelers making it to the big dance. This time they'll be playing the Green Bay Packers in Jerry Jones' almost-new gladiator arena down in Arlington, just outside Dallas, Texas. XLV sounds cool. As does Steelers-Packers which means we're in for a treat. The fewer Roman numerals there are the bigger deal the event seems to be and this one has a chance to live up to the hype. It might not be as big a deal as say I, X or XXX, but it sure beats the annoyingly large Roman numerals like XLIII, though my prediction in that one of a last-minute Steelers victory was bang on, Santonio Holmes in the corner of the endzone baby. One of the greatest Super Bowl catches ever along with David Tyree's for the Giants in XLII and Lynn Swan in X for the Steelers. Last year I picked the Colts in XLIV but I did say I'd take the Saints against the spread, so we would've collected in Vegas. My pick this year? If you're dying to know or suffering from TL;DR syndrome, you'll have to scroll way down to find out, otherwise, in case you missed it, here's a little recap of the season before we get to the good stuff.

2010/11 Season kick-off

Week 1 - The Detroit Lions Calvin Johnson makes a leaping, acrobatic catch in the back of the endzone in the dying moments to take the lead from the Chicago Bears. Upon video review, the play, which in anybody's world besides the NFL's rulebook is a catch, is ruled incomplete and the Bears win 19-14. Leap, grab, two feet down, ass on the ground yet incomplete pass. Yeah, NFL. You suck ass. Oh surprise, the Lions went on to a 6-10 record while the Bears made it to the conference championship. On the positive side for the Lions, the day featured the debut of probable Defensive Rookie of the Year, Ndamukong Suh who had a dominant year. Now if only they can figure out a way to keep last year's #1 pick Matthew Stafford healthy. Many a pundit's (including me) pick to be the first team to play for the Super Bowl at home, the Dallas Cowboys, saw a glimpse of how wrong they could be as inexplicable play selection at the end of the first half led to Tashard Choice's fumble being picked up and returned for a touchdown by DeAngelo Hall. Redskins win 13-7.

Week 2 - A year and a half out of prison after serving 23 months for his part in financing and operating the Bad Newz Kennels dogfighting ring, Michael Vick was the starting QB for the Philadelphia Eagles. After dealing 11-year starter Donovan McNabb to the Washington Redskins, the Eagles came into the year with Kevin Kolb as their #1 QB but he was knocked out of the first game of the season with a concussion. Thanks to new stricter rules implemented by the league forcing players to pass three distinct post-concussion tests, Kolb was unable to start against the hard luck Lions and Vick went on to enjoy his best season as a pro, be mentioned as an MVP candidate, get a little presidential praising and be the subject of endless debates over whether his contrition and time served merited forgiveness and a second chance. Prison cost him his Nike deal but now he's got Unequal Technologies and he even wants to own a dog again!

Week 3 - After three weeks, only three teams remained undefeated: the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Chicago Bears, all of whom went on to make the playoffs. In fact the Chiefs went on to win the AFC West as the favored San Diego Chargers couldn't muster a repeat of their 2009/10 stretch run. They did however earn my respect in their handling of WR Vincent Jackson's holdout, refusing to give in to the renegotiation demands of a player suspended for violating the leagues substance abuse policy! It seemed the Chargers would have to advertise for people off the street to catch the ball as in addition to missing Jackson their WRs were ravaged by injuries and even all-world tight end Antonio Gates missed time. Philip Rivers still managed to lead the league in passing yards with 4,710 which could earn him the Offensive Player of the Year Award.

Week 4 - While the Lions, Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills sitting at 0-4 wasn't a surprise, the San Francisco Niners being winless along with the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys sitting with 1-3 records a quarter of the way into the schedule was; all three teams would wind up firing their head coach before the year was up. Mike Singletary's Niners, heavily favored to win the NFC West, never found a way to compensate for the general crappiness of starting QB Alex Smith so Jim Harbaugh will lead the team next year; Brad Childress started the year sending a few players down to Mississippi to bring back Brett Favre and wound up being replaced by Leslie Frazier; Jerry's world was loaded with the talent to take home field advantage in the Super Bowl this year so when it fell apart Jones was forced to replace Wade Phillips with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Unsurprisingly all six teams missed the playoffs

End of the first quarter weather break: Storm Clouds Threaten XLVI

On March 3, 2011 the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL players and owners that was signed in 2006 expires which will result in an owners' lock out unless a deal is reached before then. In May 2008 the owners exercised their option and voted unanimously (32-0) to opt out of the present agreement which they had voted near-unanimously (30-2) to extend just two years before. At the time, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the owners acted early "to get talks rolling...We are not in dire straits. We've never said that. But the agreement isn't working, and we're looking to get a more fair and equitable deal." More realistically, NFL union (NFLPA) head Gene Upshaw responded with, "What a surprise ... All this means is that we will have football now until 2010 and not until 2012 ... We will move ahead. This just starts the clock ticking. If we can't reach agreement by 2010, then we go to no man's land, which is 2011." And here we are just over a month away from no man's land about to jump into the abyss.

As is all too often the case, negotiation has been almost non-existent with both sides seemingly more intent on seeding the fog of war. The owners' tactic has been to flood the press with stories of a challenging economic climate combined with player greed creating an untenable financial system exacerbated by high labor costs, particularly skyrocketing rookie contracts and the league's inability, through the interpretation of the courts, to recoup bonuses of players who subsequently breach their contract or refuse to perform. They posit that the proportion of revenue allocated to players must come down, extra revenue is needed through the addition of two more regular season games, an NBA style rookie wage scale implemented and cases such as Michael Vick keeping his $16.5 million in bonus money despite pleading guilty to federal dogfighting charges and being sentenced to 23 months in federal prison must end. Meanwhile, the union has been playing defense in the press, pleading for the owners to open their financial books and litigating in the courts. They point to the owners' refusal to come clean as proof that tricky accounting is shrouding the true share of revenues going to salaries and the fact the NFL is the only major sport without guaranteed contracts.

The CBA extension agreed to in 2006 was hammered out by then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw, who served as the NFLPA’s executive director for a quarter-century. The owners would like to portray that agreement as a sweet deal that Upshaw managed to sneak past a commissioner who was overly anxious to seal his reputation through a legacy of labor peace before he retired after a 17-year stint as boss. Sadly, Upshaw died from pancreatic cancer just 3-months after the deal was stuck, leaving us with a couple of rookie negotiators desperate to establish their credentials. In preparation for a lockout, new commissioner Roger Goodell has renegotiated TV contracts to ensure the owners will be paid in the event of a lockout. When this is combined with a lock out reducing operating expenses by 50% (an estimated $4.4 billion) via the elimination of player salaries and benefits and the temporary layoffs or salary reductions of various other employees, this means the owners are ready, willing and able to live without a season next year.

Before being voted Upshaw's successor, NFLPA boss DeMaurice Smith was a trial lawyer and litigation partner in an influential Washington firm. Unsurprisingly, this has led him to the courtroom in an attempt to thwart the owners. The so-called nuclear option, decertification of the union like in 1987, would open up anti-trust lawsuits but is risky so instead the union has filed a legal complaint with the Special Master appointed to resolve CBA disputes that challenges the structuring of the television deals. They have also made a collusion claim which, in short, alleges that NFL owners improperly conspired to not sign restricted free agents during the 2010 offseason, as only one restricted free agent out of 216 was signed to offer sheets during the offseason.

Looks like the second quarter of the season is about to start, so just a quick summary of where we stand. The owners are threatening to lockout the players and risk losing next season and perhaps beyond if the players don't agree to the owners' demands. Feeling they need to add revenue as well as cut expenses, the owners have also made the addition of two more regular season games in exchange for cutting two preseason games another prerequisite. Imagine a world in which your boss can opt out of your contract and demand that you work an extra hour a day (adding one to an eight hour work day is equal to the 12.5% increase in games from 16 to 18) while paying you less money (about 15%, more on the reduced size of the pie left for the players at halftime). Oh, but in exchange he's cutting your training seminar requirements. Thank you sir, may I have another!

Week 5 - Entering the week it seemed mediocrity was creeping into the league with 21 of 32 teams sitting at or below .500. Change was in the air though as not only did the Patriots trade Randy Moss to the Vikings, the week saw the NFL welcome back Steeler QB Ben Rape, I mean, Roethlisberger (whose six-game suspension was reduced to four which really meant five as the Steelers had a week 5 bye), Houston Texan linebacker Brian Cushing and New York Jets' off-season acquisition Santonio Holmes from various offenses proving the league can forgive and forget everything from rape to drugs and dog fighting in between. The week ended without an undefeated team left in the league.

Week 6 - Averageness continued to define the NFC in particular as every team finished the week with at least two losses. The Panic Bowl featuring the Vikings and Cowboys saw Minnesota temporarily right the ship, while in the AFC, the Jets, Steelers and Patriots were asserting themselves as the class of either league, all with only one loss. The Jets were propelled by LaDainian Tomlinson finding enough gas left in the tank to give the Jets one good year to possibly cap a brilliant career and put himself in the running with Michael Vick for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

Week 7 - Simmering for the first part of the season, the concussion issue seemed to boil over after a deluge of helmet-to-helmet hits, a flurry of league imposed fines and player outrage. James Harrison, who threatened to retire rather than tone down his aggression, along with Brandon Merriweather and Dunta Robinson received a total of $150,000 in fines. The NFL's new policy seemed as clear as mud but public relations required showing they were doing something, never mind that something was threatening to turn the game into the No Fun League. The league's new helmet to helmet policy was perhaps the biggest story of the year, a year that featured more concussions than ever. While some hits are egregiously vicious, they would be more effectively controlled with penalties and suspensions than the ridiculous policy of trying to impose fines for not following precise objective rules which are impossible to comply with when flying around a football field at full speed trying to hit a guy who is trying to avoid you or get his helmet lower than yours. The Cowboys lost Tony Romo for the season in their Monday night loss to the Giants to fall to 1-5 while the Cleveland Browns started rookie QB Colt McCoy for the first time as they beat the defending champ Saints 30-17. Even weirder, Oakland Raider RB Darren McFat, er, McFadden turned in a four touchdown, 165 rushing yard game in a 59-14 thrashing of the Denver Broncos.

Week 8 - Much of the league reached the halfway point in the season yet no team seemed capable of dominating the league. The Jets, coming off a bye with still the lone loss, hosted the Green Bay Packers and were beaten 9-0. If the season had ended that day, Clay Matthews would've been the shoe in for Defensive Player of the Year. It didn't and he faded a bit, so I'm taking Troy Polamalu. The Niners momentarily seemed to have found the answer with Troy Smith leading them to victory over the Broncos. Too bad for Mike Singletary they didn't get to play in London's Wembley Stadium every week. Mike Shannahan's entry for all-time lousy coaching decision came in Detroit with his Washington Redskins trailing the Lions 31-25 with the ball on their own 30-yard line and 1:48 left to play. The mystery of the Piri Reis map pales next to that of pulling QB Donovan McNabb for Rex Grossman. Predictably, Grossman's first play from scrimmage resulted in a fumble recovered by Ndamukong Suh and returned 17-yards for a touchdown to seal the deal.

Half Time show - The Stupid Bowl: Millionaires against Billionaires

With the American economy stuck in permanent under-performance thanks to the inequalities in power and income that have given rise to a bubble dependent growth environment, the NFL should be doing all it can to maintain their strong fan appeal. It has easily become the most popular sport in America thanks in part to baseball permanently losing a chunk of their fan base thanks to the same stupidity now threatening football. The NFL had 18 of the 20 highest rated TV shows during the regular season and 27 of the highest 50 during the calendar year, including eight of the top ten. People are hurting all across the country and will likely be quick to use the dispute as a focal point of their anger and simply give up on the game. Sure, most fans will come back, but many will be lost to the UFL or altogether but these people are so greedy they don't notice that even NASCAR is losing its popularity. Illogically, yet unsurprisingly, the NFL owners have decided to try to use the economic situation to their advantage.

Another caveat is that unlike the other football, the NFL is almost entirely dependent on the US market for its earnings, a market becoming increasing stressed as inequality rips the nation apart. Convincing enough people to buy ever more expensive tickets, hot dogs and beer will only get harder as the top 1% continue to game the system being unsatisfied with more wealth than the bottom 90%, further concentrating wealth in the sky boxes leaving less and less for the ticket buy public. Sure, the tough economic times have hit the owners' bottom line, in fact the average value of NFL franchises declined for the first time since they began being tracked by Forbes in 1998, but the average franchise is still worth $1.02 billion. Every team made Forbes most recent list of the 50 most valuable sporting franchises, with valuations ranging from $725 million to $1.8 billion. Not bad considering that the Giants franchise originally cost $500.

From 494 players on 13 teams in 1960, the NFL has grown to 32 teams and 1,696 player with an average salary of $1.7 million a season. In an America where official unemployment hovers around 10% (reality being about double that), the fourth quarter saw businesses reap the highest profits logged in over 60 years of government record keeping. This bears repeating: amid an epidemic of joblessness that is undermining standards of living for working Americans, corporations just had their best quarter ever. ESPN and the NFL are closing in on a new deal that would extend the network's rights to "Monday Night Football" beyond 2020 and pay the league nearly $2 billion per season. In May of last year, Anheuser-Busch knocked Coors out as the Official Beer of the NFL in a six-year, $1.2 billion deal that begins in 2011. Fans can't help but be turned off a little game of football in such an environment when billionaires start squabbling over money with millionaires.

Demand number one of the owners is to shrink the size of the pie from which the players' share is determined. League revenues are calculated to have been $9.3 billion in 2009, a 9% increase over 2008 which in turn was about 30% higher than 2005. The previous agreement allowed the owners to skim off about $1 billion before determining the split with players and are now demanding this be increased to $2.4 billion. The war of numbers is always the best way to either confuse people or just get them to tune out. An example is the constant owner and media claim that the players' salaries under the old deal was 60% of the revenue pie. Kindly put, this is misleading, more honestly, a baldfaced lie as the owners took a billion or so dollars off the top, reducing the size of the pie before cutting the players a slice. When definition of 'revenue' is contentious, you know there's a problem as you learn when you compare the players' percentage take between what the old CBA defined as "Total" Revenue and the actual total of all the revenue:

Year"Total" RevenueAll Revenue
200061.7%56.5%
200157.1%52.6%
200256.1%51.8%
200354.3%50.5%
200457.0%52.3%
200555.1%51.1%
200658.4%52.7%
200758.0%51.8%
200857.7%51.0%
200957.1%50.6%

Clearly there is a difference between reality and perception - Total revenue according to the CBA was all revenue minus owner expense deductions (a list can be found here). As the teams get ready to come back onto the field for the second half, the question that needs to be answered is how can we control the greed that seems to be driving some to kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

Week 9 - Peyton Hillis confirmed that Josh McDaniels was the worst coach in the NFL. See, the Bronco's McDaniels traded Hillis and a couple of draft picks to the Cleveland Browns prior to the season for a bag of nails. Hillis ran for 184 yards and 2 scores to lead his Browns past the Patriots who had the best record in the league coming into the week. The bag of nails turned out to be Brady Quinn who watched Kyle Orton and then Tim Tebow from the bench all year for the Broncos while Hillis turned into late draft round fantasy football gold, running for 11 touchdowns and 1,137 yards as well as making 61 grabs for 477 yards and a couple more TDs. Not surprisingly, McDaniels was another head coaching casualty by year's end. So much was still to change, heck, the best team in New York was the Giants.

Week 10 - The Randy Moss sideshow officially jumped the shark as the Vikings cut him loose and the only team in the league to put in a free agent claim was the Tennessee Titans. In eight weeks Moss had gone from super human touchdown freak to near-untouchable only to fall further into irrelevancy as he only hauled in six grabs in the final eight games of the season with the Titans; at $3.34 million, that's over half a million per catch (plus a $200,000 tax return). In Jacksonville, David Garrard's Hail Mary with no time remaining was corralled by David Thomas giving the Jaguars an upset victory over the Houston Texans who suffered through another disappointing year as the defense couldn't hold onto many wins for their high-powered offense. Fantasy pick of the year Arian Foster led the league in rushing with 1,606 yards and Matt Schaub stayed healthy enough to get the ball to the best receiver in the league Andre Johnson but the defense was atrocious. The Atlanta Falcons 27-21 win over the Baltimore Ravens served notice that the NFC wasn't dead yet while the Eagles' Michael Vick went rabid as Philadelphia trounced their former QB Donovan McNabb's new team, the Washington Redskins 59-28 in front of a nationwide audience on Monday Night Football. Just prior to kickoff the 'Skins had inked McNabb to an extension originally reported to guarantee $40 million only to turn out to be $3.6 million. The Buffalo Bills were the last team to come up with their first win, handing the hapless Lions a 14-6 loss in the game of the weak.

Week 11 - The standings finally started to come into focus as teams like the Bears and Jets kept winning ugly, the Eagles took care of the division rival Giants, Tom Brady beat Peyton Manning, and the Green Bay Packers 31-3 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings was the final nail in the coffin for coach Childress. The ugliest game of the week however was played by the Cincinnati Bengals as they were beat by the suddenly two-win Buffalo Bills 49-31 after leading 31-14 at the half.

Week 12 - Turkey day brought football to Thursday as the Patriots destroyed the Lions and the Cowboys put up a good fight before falling to the Saints. Sunday brought more surprises from the Chiefs as WR Dwayne Bowe established himself as something more than a cool fantasy team monicker (Somewhere Over Dwayne Bowe) hauling in three touchdown grabs, making 13 in seven weeks and a league leading total of 14. The Bears victory over the Eagles and the Falcons sneaking by the Packers went a long way toward them eventually locking up the top two spots in the NFC.

End of the third quarter - When Socialism Beats Capitalism

In the US, capitalism has turned corporations into people with all the same rights, yet unbeknownst to most Americans, they sit on the couch watching more socialism every Sunday than Marx could have dreamed of. Seriously, the NFL is an Ayn Rand nightmare as it has built a socialist success story that began when several franchises collapsed during the Depression. As opposed to the measures adopted in the latest financial crisis that have seen an enormous transfer of wealth from the bottom up, back then the league mirrored the policies of the New Deal. A core group of owners stuck together and began adopting measures to ensure that the weakest teams would prosper so the league could succeed. In 1936, the owners equalized the distribution of players through a collegiate draft, allowing the team with the worst record to pick first and the best team last. To stabilize the finances of smaller market teams in 1947, when clubs depended on ticket sales for revenue, the league awarded visiting teams 40% of the gate to protect weaker teams at home and help them on the road. Easier schedules for the next season were also given to teams that finished poorly.

Ever since recognizing the players' union in 1957, the league has gradually conceded more to the players while maintaining a level playing field between teams. Salary caps and revenue sharing has resulted in a league where everyone's a winner and every team can compete. For 2009, the final capped season played under the expiring agreement, the ceiling was $128 million per team, the floor $112 million. Since 1961 teams have agreed to divide television revenue equally so teams such as the Packers from Green Bay with a tiny market have taken in as much as the Bears or Giants from Chicago and New York. The NFL has done the same with merchandising and corporate sponsorships in contrast with baseball where the bulk of television revenue is locally derived resulting in the year-to-year dominance of teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. The league tried to take their socialist paradise one step too far last year by awarding a sole contract to Reebok to manufacture hats, T-shirts and other apparel bearing the logos of the leagues' teams. In a rare rational recent ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the NFL's bid for an exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act meaning the 32 individual teams aren't considered to be a single entity. They had sought this consideration as a single company cannot be guilty of conspiring with itself to harm consumers.

The media plays the owners tune by pumping up stories of players putting on pinstripe suits to visit lawmakers in Washington in a scandalous attempt to influence Congress while we condone politicking when it is old fashioned bribery, as it was owners who ramped up their political contributions in the run up to this labor dispute. Now in its 10th decade, the NFL has a commissioner in Roger Goodell who is nothing but a paid lackey for the owners playing a role similar to Timothy Geithner in the financial world. Some owners, such as the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones aren't happy sharing their money with the rest. He's not only unhappy about being told what percentage of revenues to give to his players, he has to share with other owners as the 17 lowest earning teams are subsidized by the top 15. Jones shelled out a billion of his own cash to build a stadium and has to give some of his take to owners of the likes of the Cardinals and Bengals who have favorable stadium deals that call for little or no expenditures. Remember, not only do the Jerrys of the league have to pay interest on their stadium debts, their income is based on a revenue sharing deal, not profit, so it can easily turn out that teams losing money are writing checks to profitable teams. Now tell me, does this sound like a problem caused by the players salaries?

The reason the owners won't open their books is the only ones we can see are those of the league's only publicly owned team, the Green Bay Packers, and their numbers support the owners' case as profits fell from $20.1 to $9.8 million last year. To get a picture of the rest of the league, our only choice is to examine Forbes.com numbers, the best approximation we have of league profitability. They show a drop from $1.0376 billion in 2004 to $568.4 in 2006 when the last CBA was signed and have since grown to $1.0688 billion, a near doubling. Sure, not all teams are making a profit but here again we can find arguments for increased sharing among teams. The Dolphins and Lions are the only two teams thought to be losing money $7.7 and $2.9 respectively. Looking at the Dolphins woes, while player costs increased from $123 to $134 million from '08 to '09, the real problem came from the activities on the business side. With help from our friends at Goldman Sachs the Dolphins refinanced stadium debt in a deal that contains a credit reserve that is significantly bigger than it otherwise would have been to account for the possibility of a work stoppage in 2011. Fans of parity, what's needed now is more sharing not less, the gap between the highest valued (Cowboys) and lowest valued (Jaguars) teams has passed a billion dollars.

The outcome won't be decided until the last play of the game. As we head into the fourth quarter it's clear that many of the owners have forgotten the same lessons as the country. The NFL outlasted the Depression, wars and rival leagues by building an enterprise based on collective interest over self-interest but is now in danger of giving into the greed of the few at the cost of the many.

Week 13 - Credit the league as the schedule had most teams playing three division rivals in the final five weeks meaning the playoffs started early for many. Little Danny Woodhead made Rex Ryan regret releasing him in the preseason as his new team beat his old as the Patriots thumped the Jets 45-3. McDaniels last game as Broncos head coach is a 10-6 loss to the Chiefs. Panic gripped Indianapolis as the Colts dropped their third straight, to the Cowboys no less, and Peyton Manning was looking very human in the process; worse, they fell to 6-6 and trailed the Jaguars in the playoff hunt. The San Diego Chargers loss to the Oakland Raiders was their first loss in December since 2005 and proved to be fatal to their playoff chances. The Packers victory over the woeful Niners was noteworthy as the league discovered rookie RB James Starks.

Week 14 - The Vikings and Giants were to play Sunday night until Minnesota's Metrodome collapsed just like the Vikings season, forcing the game to be played Monday night from Ford Field in Detroit. It was as if Mother Nature herself was trying to help extend Brett Favre's consecutive games started streak. Alas, the extra day wasn't enough to heal his 41-year old body so he watched his team from the bench for the first time in 19 years and 297 games. Yeah, Brett Favre managed to stay in the spotlight again right from the annual training camp saga of will he or won't he retire. Last year's un-retiring was almost worth it, as he played one his greatest seasons but this year he was awful on the field while stories of him being just as bad off the field surfaced from 2008. The Brett Favre Once Sent Me Cock Shots: Not a Love Story led to revelations he had sent text messages with dick pics to a Jet employee in some kind of bizarre new fangled flirting ritual unleashed upon the world by technology. Meanwhile Favre's original team, the Green Bay Packers, got a scare as Aaron Rogers was concussed resulting in them losing 7-3 to the Lions. It was Jay Feely day as the Arizona Cardinal kicker led his team over the Broncos. Not only did he score the first 22 points for his team on the way to 25, he also ran in a touchdown on a fake field goal. The Patriots were looking unstoppable as they pounded the Bears 36-7. In a glimpse of what the alternate reality season may have been, the Niners beat up on the Seahawks 40-21 while the Chargers shutout the Chiefs 31-0. Go figure.

Week 15 - About midway through the fourth quarter, the Giants were leading the Eagles 31-10 when suddenly went Michael Vick went dogsh#t in a good way and led a rabid comeback that brought his team back to even the score and apparently force overtime with 14 seconds remaining. Inexplicably, Giant punter Matt Dodge kicked to one of the leagues three fastest players (along with Mike Wallace and Chris Johnson), DeSean Jackson. As he curled up the goal line just before strutting into the endzone to finish a 65 yard return, the Giants path to the playoffs was suddenly in doubt. The Colts retook control of the AFC South beating the Jaguars 34-24, normally reliable kicker Dan Carpenter missed four field goals sealing the Miami Dolphins fate as they lost 17-14 to the Bills while the Arizona Cardinals, just two years removed from almost winning the Super Bowl lose the week's loser bowl 19-12 to the pathetically bad Carolina Panthers. What coach Ken Whisenhunt would have given for a QB that resembled retired Kurt Warner. Hell, he would've been satisfied if training camp starter Matt Leinhart had turned out to be Jake Plummer instead of being so bad he was released before the season even started. Other important games saw the Saints fall to the Ravens, the Jets get by the Steelers and the Lions beat the Bucs, significant as not only did Detroit put an end to the longest road losing streak in NFL history at 26 games but a Bucs win would've put them in the playoffs at the end of the year.

Week 16 - The Niners lost to the Rams meaning they couldn't make the playoffs and Singletary was out of a job. The Bears won in a shootout over the Jets assuring New York would only be a wildcard playoff team. The surprising Kansas City Chiefs clinched the AFC West with their win over the Titans combined with the Chargers proving that special teams do matter, falling to the lowly Bungles from Cincinnati. I haven't mentioned it yet, but Jamaal Charles is a beast. The Lions beat the Dolphins for their second road win in a row in Florida, the Ravens clinched a playoff birth and mother nature forced the postponement of another Vikings game when their Sunday night tilt against the Eagles was moved to Tuesday as snow storms in Philadelphia are now somehow a reason to not play football as we need to protect public safety, ha! More likely, it was a dirty trick played by the Eagles and Philly mayor to get a banged up Mike Vick another couple of days to heal. Or it was at NBC's request hoping to get a dog-killer against dong shot match-up on prime time TV as Favre got extra time to recover from a concussion. The bright side was that Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell said "We've become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything ... If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down ... It's an absolute joke. I was looking forward to this. It would have been a real experience. This is what football is all about. We're becoming a nation of wussies."

Week 17 - Seattle locks up the NFC West with a painfully boring victory over the probable Offensive Rookie of the Year QB Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams. They become the first team since realignment to qualify for the playoffs with a losing record at 7-9 while the Bucs and Giants, who both finished at 10-6, had to sit at home and watch the Seattle Seahawks secure a home field playoff game by winning the NFC West. Despite the disappointment of missing the playoffs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the most improved team in the league and are my early surprise pick for NFC representative in XLVI (Could they play the Chiefs, the most improved team in the AFC for 2010/11?). With rookies at both lead back and leading receiver along with a second year QB, the Bucs managed to finish with a 10-6 record, one would imagine in large part to my pick for NFL Coach of the Year Raheem Morris. Josh Freeman showed poise in the pocket guiding an offense helped by the breakout performances of LeGarrette Blount, high stepping, hurdling and twist leaping his way to 1,007 yards rushing in only seven starts (5.0 yards per carry) and the NFL leading rookie pass catcher Mike Williams, who just missed a grand with 964 yards receiving.

The Final Regular Season Whistle (maybe for awhile)

The owners and player's union haven't had a full meeting since November. The dysfunction of the American system will be encapsulated by the two sides failure to reach an agreement which will likely result in a lengthy lockout that could cost the entire 2011/12 season and even beyond. It's hard not to draw a parallel between the efforts of the owners to skew the balance that has proven so successful for the NFL and those of the corpocracy to mold public policy in their favor over the past 30-odd years in the pursuit of short term profits. The fact that the rent seeking parasites driven by reckless greed have managed to deflect any accountability and been allowed to move on to the next bubble has left the nation unable to accept the changed post-crash economic realities. The result is a public seething with pent up anger seeking a scapegoat to target their rage regardless of the facts which allows the spin doctors to manipulate many into blaming the unemployed instead of those who outsourced their jobs or in this case, the millionaires instead of the billionaires. The owners could hire scabs and play replacement games like they did in 1987 while many players will probably jump to the UFL, a league formed hoping to take advantage of just such a situation, so there will be football, but we will be cheated out of real football by the owners' avarice.

In order to decide who's right or wrong one needs to look at the facts, and since these are missing or being withheld in this case (those known and nasty unknown unknowns) we'll have to base our judgment on each sides' past actions. In this case it seems most of the available facts support the players side. Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney, sadly not a part of the negotiating committee working on the new CBA, said "We play enough games. We have a system that works. Why add [games]?'' In an era when concussions and injuries make it obvious that more games will dilute the product, such an idea should be dismissed out of hand. However, we're talking about a league that for years covered up the long-term damage done to the brain by a lifetime of lining up and hitting another human being head first over and over.

The NFL is still going to ridiculous lengths to keep the public deceived by acting concerned and fiddling with the rules after years of hiding the evidence of the effects of concussions on long-term health. Big Brother would be proud of their pressuring Toyota to change their commercials asking - and of course getting - them to remove any head to head collisions in an ad trying to spotlight the car maker's help in concussion research. Worse, the NFL has its officiating department watch every game and, whether or not the play drew a flag, keep a log of every play that violated a safety-related rule. The league then sends the list to its own media entities, like NFL Films and NFL Network, as well as advertisers, with the understanding that those plays may not be used in commercials or other promotional materials. Too bad you can't explain this kind of censorship to someone who doesn't believe the powerful control the gates of information and therefore public opinion.

One of the owners biggest beefs is rookie pay. They are upset that salaries that they have agreed to pay have gotten out of hand!?! In a Marxist effort to generate middle/lower-class resentment against players who earn exorbitant salaries to play a mere game, the owners had former player and now Green Bay Packer president Mark Murphy pen an article for the Washington Post to trumpet the 50 highest-paid American athletes article published by Sports Illustrated last year. They huff and puff that five 2009 NFL rookies were on the list, averaging nearly $21 million in income for their rookie year while every other athlete on the list was a proven veteran. Do you suppose they just forgot to mention that the rookie share of the salary cap has actually fallen from 6.86% in 1994, the first year of the cap, to 3.71% last year? Or that they haven't noticed that no one ever held a gun to an NFL owner's head making him sign these contracts or that last year the owners cleared a profit of over $1 billion. Instead of facts the owners rely on misinformation, claiming they want a rookie cap to shift outrageous sums paid to rookies to proven veterans and retired players. Yet when the union proposed the "Proven Performance Plan" which would do just that, the owners rejected the proposal as none of the $200 million in savings came back to them.

So what's going on when the size of the industry of taking apart American industry has surpassed what's left of the industrial base of the country after a 30 year sell off to the highest bidder leaving America with precious more than guns, Wal-Mart and the NFL? Indoctrination through disinformation and obfuscation has duped the population into cheerleading globalization and trade liberalization, deregulation that has stripped away consumer protection, financialization of everything from education to incarceration and deunionization of the working class population under the cover of a technology revolution that has led to stupidization through attention span deterioration. Curse the inculcation! While the American dream has been outsourced to Brazil and India, America has to bribe its rich in order to throw crumbs to its poor and is happily sustaining the vicious circle by forcing its future workers into a modern form of indentured servitude. In such a country, it will come as no surprise when the owners, with much of the public behind them, force through their demands. Even if a quick settlement is reached, with so many new head coaches and coordinators coming in, they will miss meetings, mincamps or training-camps necessary to install new systems on new teams, damaging the product. Just like the American economy, the billionaires may be able to squeeze out a few more good years but the rot will have set in. Guess Americans should just be happy that they play the other kind of football in Brazil.

Sure, unions have many pathologies and sometimes get in the way of market efficiency but that's what regulation used to be for. The rich and large corporations have their pathologies too and the only countervailing power left is what's left of unions thanks to deregulation and the world of Citizen United. A culture more averse to the financial risk of owner billionaires than the health risks to players without any job security and a future filled with health problems has lost its bearings and sadly deserve what they get. Well, even though they'll lose all their health benefits, at least those players who were on the NFL's drug testing program can smoke the peace pipe in peace until there's, well, labor peace.

The Playoffs

2010/11 AFC divisional winners: New England Patriots in the east, Pittsburgh Steelers in the north, Indianapolis Colts in the south and Kansas City Chiefs in the west. Wildcards: New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens
2010/11 NFC divisional winners: Atlanta Falcons in the south, Chicago Bears in the north, Philadelphia Eagles in the east and Seattle Seahawks in the west. Wildcards: Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints

Thanks in large part to their home-field advantage and a bizarrely great game by Matt Hasselback, those Sh#thawks beat last year's Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints 41-36 making this was the fifth straight year the defending champ didn't win a playoff game the following year. The first weekend of playoff action also saw the Jets take out the other finalist from last year as Mark Sanchez beat Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts 17-16. Mike Vick showed the effects of a season of getting knocked around and was taken out of the quest for a ring as the Packers scored 21 to the Eagles 16. The Baltimore Ravens played another first round Super Bowl caliber game as they crushed the upstart Chiefs in Kansas City 30-7.

The next week's divisional games saw both #1 seeds fall as the Atlanta Falcons along with the New England Patriots came off their first round playoff byes only to lose to the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets respectively. The Packers simply dominated the Falcons who lost for only the second time at home under Matt Ryan in his first three years 48-21, while the Jets ignored the fact the Patriots were the hottest team in football riding an eight game winning streak, absorbed the opening shots by likely league MVP Tom Brady and then wore them down 28-21. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers came back to beat the Baltimore Ravens 31-24 and the scoreboard made the Seahawks look good in their 35-24 loss to the Bears.

Given that they had faced each other 181 times, it was surprising to learn that this year's NFC championship game was only the second time the Chicago Bears had faced the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. The first came way back on December 14th, 1941 at Wrigley Field, two weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, a game the Bears won handily 33-14 before going on to beat the Giants 37-9 for their second consecutive NFL Championship. This time they met at Soldier Field for the George S. Halas Trophy and a shot at the Vince Lombardi trophy. Aaron Rogers and the Packers came out quick to take a 14-0 lead and for awhile it looked like it might end that way. Jay Cutler was brutal until a knee injury forced an ineffective Todd Collins into action until he was pulled for Caleb Hanie, who provided a spark to at least make the game interesting despite the BJ Raji interception touchdown. In the end, the Packers held on to win 21-14 to become the first #6 seed to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Oh, they are also the 10th different team to represent the NFC in the past 10 years, a side benefit to that CBA inspired parity.

What the AFC championship at Heinz Field may have lacked in history, it made up for in hype as the New York media descended on Pittsburgh. The Jets were looking to complete the road trifecta by taking out Manning, Brady and Rape, er Roethlisberger, the winning QBs of 6 of the past 9 Super Bowls, in consecutive weeks on the road. But in the first half it was the Steelers running game that cut through Rex Ryan's defense like a hot knife through butter while the Steel Curtain smothered Mark Sanchez and the Jets' offense. Appearing in their 15th championship game, Pittsburgh was dominant in building a 24-3 lead, moving up and down the field on offense and holding the Jets to 12 total yards until the final minute of the first half. You have to credit the Jets for not giving up as they tried to pull another miracle comeback out late but poor play calling at the goal line sealed their 24-19 loss. Seems they're still the same old Jets.

XLV

Besides maybe a Steelers-Cowboys showdown, football enthusiasts couldn't have asked for a Super Bowl pairing with more cache than the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers. There has been an NFL champion every year since 1920 but the way they've been decided has evolved over time. Until 1932, it was awarded to the team with the best win-loss record but a tie that year meant a playoff game was needed leading to the decision to hold an end of season championship game, a format that more or less held until 1966 when the league moved to an NFL-AFL showdown for the NFL championship which become known as the Super Bowl following the merger of the two leagues. In 1970 the Super Bowl trophy became known as the Vince Lombardi trophy in memory of the legendary Packers coach who led his team to the first two Super Bowl victories. Along with the various names that franchises have adopted over the years and movement between cities this creates a semantic nightmare in stating the number of championships teams have won over the years. Regardless, it's pretty safe to say these are two of the most storied teams in the NFL, the Packers have won 12 NFL championships while the Steelers have won the most Super Bowls in the modern era with six.

If the big game turns out anything like last time these two teams met at the end of the regular season last year, fans are in for a treat. The Steelers eked out a 37-36 thriller on a touchdown catch by Mike Wallace as time expired as Ben Rapelisberger set a franchise record with 503 passing yards. Packer QB Aaron Rodgers added 383 of his own for a combined 886 passing yards in four quarters. The Vegas bookmakers are betting on a close game as the opening line was the narrowest in 27 years, favoring the Packers by 2 1/2 points. Both teams endured a turbulent seasons as the Packers led all NFL teams this year with 15 players on injured reserve while the Steelers had to play four different quarterbacks and seven tackles thanks to suspension and injuries. These teams aren't the Colts and Saints of last year who were clearly the best teams in their conferences the entire season yet the ebbs turned to flows at the right time for both teams.

The two biggest question marks facing the Steelers are whether the high ankle sprain suffered early in the Jets game by first year Pro Bowl center Maukice Pouncey will heal in time for him to play and whether their cornerbacks, who were torched in the second half against the Jets, will be able to lock down possibly the league's best receiving corps. Pouncey's health could mean establishing the run with Rashard Mendenhaul who looked great against the Jets. Big Ben has targets to throw to as well, Hines Ward is as feisty as ever and Mike Wallace faster, but the key should be Heath Miller as the Pack has trouble covering tight ends or maybe one of the two rookies, Brown or Sanders. On defense the Steel Curtain is anchored by Troy Polamalu and James Harrison, the former getting help from two weeks for his ankle and Achilles to heal, the later from fellow linebackers James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in forming the best linebacking corps in football. Here's hoping defensive end Brett Keisel's beard gets a few close ups as well.

The Packers come in on a roll; they've basically won five playoff games in a row as they had to win the last two games of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs. Yes, the Packers finally found a spark to ignite their running game in rookie James Starks after struggling to run the ball all year after losing starter Ryan Grant in the first game of the season. Though he leads the playoffs in rushing, his power running game should be contained by the Steelers. Their key to victory is Aaron Rogers; if he finds his touch early, Vegas oddsmakers will likely have correctly predicted 33 of 45 Super Bowls. Much of the talk in Texas will center on how a Rogers victory will lift him into the elite circle of quarterbacks and officially vindicate the Packers decision not to bring back Brett Favre in 2008. He's got the receivers to help him with Greg Jennings, the leading playoff receiver after being fourth in the regular season, along with the ageless Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson. If tight end Jermichael Finley hadn't been injured in midseason, the aerial attack may have been unstoppable. Clay Matthews will get much of the media attention on the other side of the ball, but it's the play of the secondary that has put the Packers in the Super Bowl. The stellar play of Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, with three and two playoff interceptions respectively has freed up Charles Woodson to become some kind of hybrid defensive back/linebacker/pass rusher in Dom Capers defensive scheme causing opponents all kinds of matchup problems.

So, my pick, hmmm, well, I think, no, on second thought, maybe...sure, I'll take the Packers but in a squeaker, let's say 31-30 on a last minute Mason Crosby field goal. My advice, don't bet the house, in fact take the Steelers if you get more than two points in Vegas but more importantly, enjoy the game as it might be the last real NFL football we see for a long, long time.

Monday, January 17, 2011

From 50 Cent to $50 Billion and Beyond

As the world's economy continues to lurch forward and stumble backwards, I noticed a few stories this week that exemplify the intractability of our economic problems. Stock markets have been performing well, banks have long returned to profitability (along with their absurd bonuses) and retailers are reporting the predicted strong Christmas sales. Conversely, the price of oil has been steadily marching back towards 2008 levels, poverty levels are exploding and the mortgage crisis continues to throw millions of people into the street. Corporations and the wealthy have returned to health while the rest of us seem to be stuck in the cold, on the outside looking in. It's hard not to find three stories from the past week or so quite instructive in why this is, as Fifty Cent, Facebook and BP all made financial news in ways that demonstrate the growing divide between the haves and have-nots in the capitalism of today.

One way to get rich in America is to become a crack dealer at age twelve, turn to rap, get shot and then discovered by Eminem. Once you get famous, dabble in film and TV, lend your name to every product imaginable, from video games to deodorant and most importantly, get in early on investment opportunities. When those investments start to look bad, no problem, just order your followers to come to your aid via one of today's favorite lemming leading social media platforms, Twitter. Yep, appropriately enough, the man who added to the get rich or die trying mantra plaguing America, Curtis Jackson, AKA Fifty Cent has completed the morality full circle, going from drug pusher on the streets of the Bronx to penny stock pimping Wall Street promoter  Around the end of November, he invested $750,000 in the penny stock, H & H Imports, a company involved in the launching of his own version of headphones, Sleek by 50 Cent, an unapologetic rip-off of Dr. Dre's Beats.

In addition to the 30 million shares received in the private placement equity offering at the end of November, Fifty also picked up warrants for another 22.5 million shares at prices of $0.15, $0.25, and of course, $0.50. Predictably, as the company was operating at a loss and carrying a deficit of $3.3 million as of November 23rd with only $198,000 cash on hand, the shares plummeted from 17 cents to under 5. Fitty turned to his 3.8 million followers for help with the following tweets:
"HNHI is the stock symbol for TVG sleek by50 is one of the 15 products this year. If you get in technically I work for you. BIG MONEY”
“TVG’s stock went from 5cent to 10 in one day. You can double your money right now. Just get what you can afford.”
“HNHI is the stock symbol for TVG there launching 15 different products. they are no joke get in now.”
“You better get in now TVG I’m never saying this again. Watch how this company blows up.”
“Ok ok ok my friends just told me stop tweeting about HNHI so we can get all the money. Hahaha check it out its the real deal.
The result? An $8.3 million profit for 50 Cent as the stock price quadrupled, from 10 to 40 cents. Love the intentional (?) spelling error (there instead of they're) to save character space in the attention span deprived age of Twitter. Oh, and like his other tweets pimping the stock, all of them have been scrubbed, another word symbolic of our new doublespeak age. So far, no pump and dump has been proven yet and with the regulators at the SEC having to worry about the next private placement stock offerings we'll discuss, its seems no harm, no foul. Besides, if you're taking stock advice from a rapper, you deserve what you get, right?

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If you wanted to write a script bringing together three of the most evil characters imaginable, you couldn't do much better than the evil banking empire, the Russian investment firm and the megalomaniacal psychopath. Ok, maybe the Empire from Star Wars, Connery as Bond-era Russians and Blue Velvet's Frank Booth. In real life we've got Goldman Sachs and DST Global pumping $500 million into Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook, pushing its value up to $50 billion. This is supposed to be real life, yet these guys get to write their own script in the battle for wealth and eyeballs. Only in America could such a world exist, where problems are always made worse instead of being fixed.

In fact, we love these movies so much we choose to further empower the bad guys. As a reward for helping bring the world's economy to its knees, Goldman Sachs was given access to the Federal Reserves discount window. By converting itself into a commercial bank and member of the Federal Reserve system during the chaos at the onset of the financial crisis, Goldman can now borrow near-unlimited amounts of cash at near zero interest. Feeding what Matt Taibbi called "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money" zero cost of capital so they can turn around and give it to Facebook in order to better exploit our shrinking attention spans doesn't seem like a private placement equity offering good for the rest of us. Not only did they garner a $13 billion payout at one hundred cents on the dollar for its outstanding credit default swap contracts with AIG and $12.9 billion in direct bailout money, they now get practically free money from the FDIC Temporary Liquidity Guaranty Program. Goldman simply takes this money from us, gives it to Facebook in exchange for a slice of equity, then turns around and sells their piece of the $50 billion pie it just baked to chosen investors. Chosen meaning really rich, as in order to be invited to dessert and take part in Goldman's $1.5 billion private offering you need to be a multi-millionaire.

So, only Goldman and friends have a shot at the riches they've created by borrowing money from the public to create a company worth $50 billion. In exchange, Zuckerberg gets a two year window before he'll be forced to go public in an IPO (Initial Public Offering). Imagine that, forced to make a few more billion dollars at the cost of losing complete financial privacy as a public stock offering would entail opening up the books to public scrutiny. Poor Mark. Additionally, Goldman has virtually guaranteed themselves to be the lead bank in all the future IPO's that will be pumping up the next market bubble thanks to the spin-off of all Facebook's inter-connected businesses (more on them in the next paragraph). Told you the SEC was busy as this script has everything, aiding and abetting by the US government, a battle for billions of eyeballs and even a Russian angle. In fact it is the Russian company that brought Facebook and Goldman together that does a lot of the selling on Facebook already, Digital Sky Technologies and its co-founder, Yuri Milner.

DST has been investing early and aggressively in some of the biggest names in the latest tech bubble boom. They first invested in Facebook in May 2009, as well as Zynga (the company that makes Farmville for Facebook), and Groupon (the dudes that just turned down Google's $6 billion). DST also tried, but failed, to be lead investors in Twitter's latest financing round too, but don't worry there will be another shot. In case you missed it, in addition to his 10% share in Facebook, Yuri was in for a third of the $403 million owners' stake in the $876 million IPO for Mail.ru in November and still holds onto much of the company. Needless to say, all this buying and selling is done in a closed circuit of hedge funds billionaires for banker benefit. With over 500 million monthly users and the recent surge in popularity in Asia, Facebook's control over the second billion eyeballs may come even quicker, so who can blame people for climbing over each other to take part, bubble or not. Good thing we've got financial regulators making sure nothing improper is happening!?!

Some may have picked up on the similar role Goldman Sachs is playing in the promotion of this bubble to the last when they were at the center of creating the housing bubble. Looking to feed the next frenzy after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Goldman and other investment banks found a new gimmick, credit derivatives such as CDOs. To make mountains of moolah, all they had to do was stuff toxic subprime assets into pretty packages, chop them up and hawk them to the gullible, greed-driven Gordon Gecko wannabees of the world. It's like deja-vu all over again, as this time they are also raking in fees while pawning off overpriced goods in a market of their own creation. Goldman invested $75 million in Facebook early through one of its hedge funds at a low valuation in the same way they got CDOs rolling, this time making $60 million in up front fees from clamoring clients. Once again, the clients will have virtually no idea what they are getting while agreeing to give up over 5% of any possible gains on top of the 4% placement fee and 0.5% expense reserve fee. Yep, quite a privilege to be down 10% before the opening bell in a private company that won't have to disclose any financial information to investors or regulators for at least another 15 months while Goldman gets its guaranteed eight-digit windfall.

Best yet, they've shown that although they might not have learned any lessons about bubbles, they have learned to protect themselves as Goldman has reserved the right to cash out anytime they want right up front "without notice to the fund or investors in the fund". So, investors who must put up a minimum $2 million investment aren't allowed to sell until 2013 but will never know when Goldman starts betting against them. Goldman learned from the Abacus deal in which they shorted shares at the same time they were selling to clients and wound up costing them $550 million in fines. Their notice means this time the SEC can't touch them. CDOs were private, unregulated, overvalued, disclosure-lite, fee-intensive deals. The Facebook deal is private, unregulated, overvalued, disclosure-lite, and fee-intensive; insider trading in the public markets made upfront and legal here. As Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein infamously said, he's just "doing God's work".

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What do you get when you have the biggest country in the world, one with vast reserves of natural resources and without any qualms about doing what it takes to get what they want joining forces with a giant oil company with a history of destroying the environment in a relentless drive for short term corporate profits? One more bit of financial news sure to help in bringing about the end of the world. Now that the Gulf of Mexico has magically cleaned itself and BP has returned to profitability, it has turned its sights north toward the abundant resource riches of the Arctic. Yep, seeing as the world has already forgotten it's last catastrophic environmental disaster, BP has announced a partnership with Russian energy firm Rosneft, 80% owned by the Russian government. The deal announced Friday will give Rosneft 5% of BP's shares in exchange for approximately 9.5% of Rosneft's.

Uh huh, so? Well for starters we're talking about BP gaining access to the fragile Arctic ecosystem through the back door. The company who just half a year ago had the world glued to a video feed of the gateway to hell opened up by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. It cost them a few bucks in cleanup costs but BP's still worth three Facebooks, a cool $150 billion. This deal is needed to help get it back to its pre-Gulf of Mexico destruction value. In exchange for giving Russia, a country notorious for its capricious application of the rule of law, a piece of BP and its strategic US holdings (BP was the biggest petroleum supplier to the US military last year), world consumers will get a shot at what is estimated to be enough oil to meet global demand for more than four years. Russia's piece of the Arctic pie could be 51 billion tonnes of oil, but sucking it like a straw from under the Arctic will take BP's "expertise" at this type of work. With peak oil and prices approaching the $100/barrel mark on their way to the $143.37 it reached in July of 2008, there's no wonder the business press is pumping this deal too.

Both former BP CEO Tony Hayward, who was just sorry because he wanted his life back, and current boss Bob Dudley had ties to Russia in the past. Strangely, or not, Dudley was forced to flee Moscow in 2008 after the last BP venture into Putin's playground went bad. Dudley claims the Russian billionaire oligarch co-owners in the TNK-BP joint venture waged what he called a campaign of harassment. Of course the business press can't even read newspapers from 2008 to question why they then wrote that Dudley had been barred from working in Russian before they started running with his current song and dance that "this is a historic moment for BP". It is historic as the race for control of the Arctic shelf has been kicked up a notch, with another oil war coming clearer into focus. Our dependence on extracting as much oil as possible, regardless of the difficulties or dangers, is driving us ever faster to our doom. Yet, it is the companies like BP who drive part of this rise as prices mount partially thanks to the disasters they've brought which causes uncertainty about regulation and whether we've finally reached the limit of environmental degradation.

So, the deal is sold as a good thing that the firms will explore in three areas - known as EPNZ 1,2,3 - on the Russian Arctic continental shelf in an area that covers 125,000 square kilometres in the South Kara Sea. BP's technology matches with Russia's oligarchs or something like that. The cost of doing business is the possibility of Putin putting someone in jail or taking what he wants but BP's growth is dependent on Russia. Besides, it can't be any more environmentally damaging than the tar sands or fracking, so what the hell, let's burn more fossil fuels to heat things up faster to melt the ice caps to make it easier to get the oil. In a world where war, support for authoritarian regimes, oil company run governments and destruction of ecosystem and entire countries is acceptable in the pursuit of cheap power, why would we worry about a little thing like the Arctic? What's an addict to do?

The go-go 90's of Yeltsin's Russia resulted in transferring the wealth of the nation from the people to a selected few in a neoliberal wet dream. It created a billionaire aristocracy by handing over the economy's most important, profitable sectors, free of charge - literally granting a license to loot. Sure this resulted in huge inefficiencies with estimated losses to corruption of $318 billion annually but whatever kept the oil and gas flowing west was fine. Vladimir Putin's Russia still has the graft but is a slightly different place. Although the rule of law isn't applied evenly and basic rights such as political expression, freedom of speech and the press are often brutally repressed it has become a land where even the 16th wealthiest man in the world can find himself behind bars. Mikael Khodorkovsky and his oil company Yukos were the biggest winners of the unfettered markets created by the IMF in the 90's but the biggest losers in the power struggle with Putin in the oh-oh's. The 'liberal' western press decries arbitrary prosecutions at the whim of the Kremlin while ignoring the real story. The looting by the likes of Khodorkovsky was given a free pass in exchange for not challenging the government. As soon as he started funding and supporting opposition groups, that unspoken agreement was breached. You won't read in the NY Times about how Khodorkovsky used his Communist era position to enrich himself, stealing from the state and unwary investors enough to buy Yukos for $300 million in 1995. In 2003, its market value was $30 billion, a 100-fold ill-gotten gain.

In a dizzying about face, the media has gone from condemning Russia's business climate of fear three weeks ago when judges added six years to Khodorkovsky's eight year prison term, to jubilantly embracing the marriage of BP and the Russian government's Rosneft. The hypocrisy of western attitudes is revealed on multiple levels; defending predatory capitalism's rapaciousness and its own criminal class but attacking Russia's IMF-built system while giving its approval to the signing of business deals with them in the name of corporate growth. For decades, a government-corporate cabal has been shifting trillions in public wealth into private hands, specifically to omnipotent Wall Street. At issue is shielding them at all costs so corrupt practices can continue until everything worth owning is stolen. Of course the charges against Khodorkovsky are ludicrous and his trial was politically motivated but even more ludicrous is a world that sits back and cheers a company that was just shown to have caused the Gulf of Mexico disaster by cutting corners to boost profit being handed the keys to explore, exploit and extract resources in the most fragile ecosystem in the world. In the words of Britain's energy secretary Chris Huhne, "BP is very much open for business." Unfortunately for us, their business of stealing from humanity's commons to add value to their stock price can only end badly. BP, Beyond Petroleum, searching for petroleum so we can keep living beyond our means.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cattle Car Cronyism

Editor's note: Cross posted on the Polish student's site Kontra - thus the occasional Polish student reference and Polish links


Thanks to the internet and Orwell's Animal Farm, I've always thought of people being like sheep, sheeple having become a common blog buzzword and the tendency of people to move in flocks like, well, sheep. On the train somewhere between Warsaw and Poznań though I decided we're more cattle than sheeple. It was my fourth train of the holidays and second in which I'd paid for the pleasure of being transported hundreds of kilometers across Poland standing shoulder to shoulder with dozens of my fellow passengers. A nation's railways offers a physical manifestation of the building of its infrastructure and national unity and likewise offers a powerful symbol as society is broken up and sold off to the highest bidder. The trick of course is to make people think they want the changes so they practically drive themselves down the Chisholm Cattle Trail. Among the fifteen of us herded into the small space between the doors and the bathroom, there was strong evidence this battle has already been won, "PKP, (enter own expletive here)!" - no F-words of course like in the world without the N-word, just lots of k...a "peppered" about; or "This is the last time I'm ever taking a train, we're buying a car". Seems the "craving for bananas and pornography" that western capitalism promised to satisfy in exchange for the security and stability (more or less) guaranteed by the Communist regime wasn't so much a noble struggle for freedom and justice as a race to give it all away to the rich and powerful.

Faces squashed up against the window as a couple of ladies make a vain attempt to reach the bathroom - "Zamknięte!" Not only closed but it stayed that way the whole trip, four hours for me (scheduled three) but for all I know the whole width of Poland, a nine-plus hour odyssey from Białystok to Szczecin via Warsaw and Poznań. Catching glimpses of a similar scene in the next cattle car it was clear to see that the management of PKP had chosen to run a train which supplied about half of the demanded seating; six wagons would have served better than three. Passengers with tickets become branded bovines and the more heifers, bulls and calves squeezed in per car, the more money there is to be made. What was once a public utility to serve our needs has become a hideous hybrid of corporate/government control to serve one paymaster, profit. Under a European Union directive the state owned railway - Polskie Koleje Państwowe (PKP) - was splintered, dividing transport service from rail system management and founding separate companies able to sell their service outside the rail business.

While PKP SA remains the dominant company in PKP Group maintaining 100% share control and full responsibility for the component companies for the government, several of the pieces are now in private hands. This my friends results in Candide's nightmare, the worst of all possible worlds, where profits are privatized and losses are socialized. In other words, when gains are realized, they fall into the hands of the lucky few whereas when setbacks occur, we all have to pay. Not just in money but efficiency as the scheduling of trains must be coordinated among many parts with competing interests. The 2011 Polish Railway Timetable was to be published two weeks before implementation (making it hard to book a couple of months in advance for discounts) wasn't released until early December and even then still had significant differences between the times that the trains were running according to the printed timetables and the times that the trains actually run. In Germany they must and are published six weeks ahead of time. The chaos is predictable as it's impossible to figure out who's in charge of what when such an intricate web of station, platform, power, train owner/operators has been created to disguise the money flowing around the system.

Being so cramped, it was hard to turn around and get a look at everyone while trying to remain upright as there was even less foot space thanks to the holiday luggage lugged aboard. This forced me into the awkward lean over the bag onto the wall position for much of the trip, alternating between resting on my forehead and hands. An observer would laugh watching the contortions and dance steps required to be coordinated with overhead duffel bag passes as people tried to get off and on at each stop. Mostly off, thanks to the lack of space and our door guy. Of all the 14 people, I'll remember him and his girlfriend most fondly. When three people got off, he made sure only three got on. Plus his girlfriend and him looked right out of an American college; I'd have mistaken him for a quarterback and her for a cheerleader if they weren't speaking Polish, mostly about cars and school from what I could make out. There was the young lady left be-hind/side of me who insisted on reading almost the whole trip and the largish teenage girl to my back right who was more partial to eating.

Being poked in the ribs with a Carlos Ruiz Zafon hardcover while getting an earful of Snickers lip smacking couldn't be all that different than getting hoofed by Daisy while listening to Elsie chew her cud. We also had a couple of young guys just behind them into their phones and gadgets while further back a couple of older guys were more into their bottles of beer. Their ringtones mixed with the rest of the wagons' to mimic the lowing of cattle in my imagination while I tried not to think about how cattle feel standing in each other's excrement. That would have meant not wondering if the old-timers' livers were swollen enough to avoid needing to refill their bottles - nor about the other hundred or so people without access to a bathroom! A couple of older ladies around the bend next to the compartment door were the only other co-passengers who were with me the whole trip while dozens squeezed in and out temporarily staying or in transit. Of them I only caught their reading material, unsurprisingly gossip magazines filling their imaginations with stories of Hollywood stars, cows grazing in the pastures of ignorance while people filed by on and off, to and from the slaughterhouse.

In just twenty short years since the fall of communism, Polish society has made amazing gains. People needn't stand in day long lines to obtain the necessities of life and are free to join in the democratic process. Yet there seems to be little difference between this behavior under communist authoritarianism and that under market authoritarianism. Democracy gives us the right to vote in our leaders as long as we cross one of the offered boxes, thus putting in power someone who was in fact chosen for us. These leaders in turn determine which state assets should be sold off and how they are auctioned off in a process that buys off political and economic influence. Therefore the majority of those aforementioned gains have been disproportionately distributed in an economic system that favors the rich and powerful in such a way to make it easier for them to take an ever greater slice of the pie.

While most believe the most amazing feature of today's world is the speed at which technology is changing our lives, what dizzies me is how quickly things become normalized into culture. Just the last decade has brought an onslaught of both. Take the mobile phone (please!). People peering, tapping, listening and shouting into phones, sharing news and views with everyone within earshot and even more amazing, our ability to (try to) ignore it has become a normalized ritual; what's more we happily pay a slice of our earnings to have the device control our lives and need to lay out for an upgrade at least every couple years. To drink water we happily buy petroleum-based plastic bottles to add to our expanding landfills. It's normal to participate in an endless, unwinnable war by sending 2600 Polish troops to Afghanistan where they are "just kind of hanging around"; whatever, only 22 have been killed.

When people think of the loss of biodiversity over this time, most think about species extinction which makes losing a quarter billion (do the math) species somehow normal. Yet perhaps the most significant diversity loss, among our seeds to grow food, had been avoided thanks to the EU. Today the last barrier to a GMO world moves ever closer to devolving decisions to its member states to decide whether or not to complete the transition to a world where food is only grown with genetically modified seeds, a market 90% controlled by Monsanto. Like the war on brown people, another US government initiative, thanks Wikileaks. The country whose farmers are most in support of GM seeds? Poland. Not only should we worry, but don't, that we're increasingly relying on fewer strains of staple crops and driving Indian farmers to suicide but we should also remember some of their products from the past. Maybe you remember Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone and PCBs? And like Americans, when they take over, our choice will be taken away as we won't even know we're eating GMOs. Additionally, we not only use food like corn to produce ethanol but subsidize its production in a cycle of kickbacks. Anything to keep us burning fossil fuels. Heck, the decade even saw us increasingly believe oil company propaganda that scientists warning about climate change is simply fearmongering even as we completed the hottest decade on record while CO2 levels race past 390 parts per million. Did I mention the IPCC warnings in the past decade of increased climate volatility has normalized what's been happening from Moscow to Queensland?

Voices of complaint swearing it's the last time they'll take a train, they ARE buying a car. Everyone's happy, right? The train company can continue to increase their profit by stuffing the rest of us cattle, er, I mean losers without a car, into fewer and fewer wagons; the car companies get to sell another car and the oil companies sell more gas from which the government will earn some taxes; a financial institution, or two, maybe a bank and a specialized car financing firm, will also make money on the interest paid on the loan to buy the car. Little attention is paid to the fact god car costs more lives than even the other gods, a metal death box to cut them off from the rest of the world so as not to have to worry about the bikes they've forced off the road and pedestrians off the sidewalk so they can drive and park. Nor about the planet being forced to absorb and people having to breathe the noxious exhaust fumes or the soldiers and innocents dying in far away lands to ensure a steady supply of gas. The money spent by our government to maintain the infrastructure allowing them the pleasure to drive and park that could be put into alternate/public transportation. Think pedestrian over/underpasses, sidewalk snow removal and of course trams, buses and subways. This doesn't happen thanks to god car. EU directives forcing rail privatization are adhered to here in Poland while those requiring spending on a sustainable transportation infrastructure, 40% to rail and 6% to road, are ignored. Between 1998 and 2009 Poland spent about 108 billion zł on national roads and only 17.5 billion zł on the rail - 14% to 86%, easier math than counting cows, not crows, especially when they're falling dead out of the air everywhere, no matter how normal they tell us it is.

Privatization sounds great. Allowing capitalism and the invisible hand of the free market to make the world a better place. The problem is it doesn't always work; there are areas of the economy where the market delivers less efficient results than the state. These tend to be in areas where the public good delivered is greater than its monetary value such as health care, education and public transportation. Not even Margaret Thatcher, the iron lady scourge of state enterprise thought privatizing British Rail was a good idea. Its time had to wait until the neoliberal model was firmly entrenched, 1996, when British Rail was restructured into more than 100 separate businesses and sold off. A homogeneous bureaucratic structure became an interconnected array of contracts linking not only companies accountable to their shareholders but also to a complex regulatory framework set up to oversee the privatized system. With the private provision of infrastructure, however, there is a potential problem: introducing and maintaining competition. This potential problem can arise because of the so-called natural monopoly character of many infrastructure projects because a single firm can produce goods and services more cheaply than multiple firms (multiple ports, bridges, etc. at the "same" location are not economically feasible). Private monopolies must be controlled by public authority; but control means interference with private business, and interference begets corruption. Avarice inevitably leads to cases like the one in the UK where a privatized rail company was resold six months after being sold to investors. Nothing wrong with that, except the investors made a £300 million profit thanks to the government selling to friends for less than market value.

However, these are hard times financially. The lure of instant gratification is strong and there's a lot of cash to be made in these times of austerity, total proceeds to the UK government of the privatisation were UK£5.3billion. Yet one needs to look at the long range costs, not only in terms of service and comfort, but financial. Again in the UK, privatization has led to an increase in the cost of subsidies to keep the railways running, so much that the £5.3billion earned only paid for about three years of the increase! The theory seems to be that raising ticket prices will lower the subsidies as British rail passengers pay about 50% higher ticket prices than the rest of Europe which has led to a doubling in fares paid by the cattle since privatisation to £5 billion. But the total subsidy has risen even faster, reaching £6.3 billion by 2006, four times what British Rail received in a typical year when it was state owned. Other benefits seen: lower punctuality and reliability, neglected more dangerous stations, safety issues and possibly more rail crashes and deaths. Bring back British Rail, all is forgiven.

Now, what does an overcrowded train and the experience of British Rail have to do with Polish students today? Well, it could be nothing if one believes hard enough like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, or, more likely, it should serve as a warning of what's to come in Polish education, particularly as related to university fees. For those students in their second year or beyond, did you notice any change in your class sizes this year? Next year will bring even more students per class as the new normal of austerity takes hold and universities are forced to deal with dwindling funding. It won't take long for the national conversation to come around to the subject of charging tuition to attend state schools and once that taboo is broken, whispers of complete privatization won't be that far behind. Already, the growth in private higher education enrollment far outstrips that of public schools here in Poland. Again, the UK blazed a cattle trail for Poland to follow as with the release of the Dearing Report in 1997, their public universities introduced means tested tuition fees the following year. Fees were bumped a bit in 2004 and then the new Conservative government turned to John Browne, the former chairman of BP, apparently because they know so much about creating a sustainable future (!?!), for advice on the future of education. The Browne review led to a near tripling of fees to a maximum of £9,000; perhaps you saw something about this on the news last month as this sparked student riots in November and December that even, horror of horrors, saw Prince Charles' Rolls Royce get paint splashed on it. Remember, governments can afford to bail out banks but the cost of education is somehow beyond their reach.

Unsurprisingly, according to the 2010 Global Higher Education Rankings (PDF), in terms of affordability and accessibility Finland comes out first while the UK languished near the bottom even before the latest round of tuition increases. A once proud nation that offered free universal higher education, the UK will become an even more class-ridden society where somewhat ironically, only the rich are able to afford the education which is key to income mobility. Imagine that, a system designed to keep the rich rich and the poor, well, poor. I don't suppose you noticed the years when British Rail was privatized and tuition introduced to universities? 1996 and 1998. Hmmm, makes on wonder if one thing could have possibly had any bearing on the other. Or if the movement toward privatizing NHS in the UK is related to the whispering of hospital privatization here in Poland. Just underfund the hospitals forcing doctors to take bribes or stop working, then maybe the cattle will see the light and actually demand private health care so the corporations can get a shot at the billions to be bilked, or should I say milked. Even more ominously, British Education Secretary Michael Gove said the changes in his country amounted to the "fastest rate of education reform in English history" as the number of secondary schools with academy status has nearly doubled since the ConDem takeover last year, representing 11% of the nation's schools. Opening up teenage education to the profit motive should seem even stranger right after private firms demonstrated their ability to destroy the global economy just two years ago or how their drive for profits leads to corners being cut by companies like Mr. Browne's BP which are speeding up our destruction of the planet.

Unfortunately, the unsustainable gains of the past couple of decades may not only cost our future on this planet but have also created an equally unsustainable public debt which represents a theft of the financial future of today's youth. Paradoxically, we are more likely than ever to blame those who have fallen outside of mainstream life and contributed little to the threat for our economic problems while exalting the elites who have done the damage while receiving most of the benefits.With a tip of the hat to Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, it's past time to alert the cattle to the future they're being herded towards. Disasters, whether economic or environmental, man-made or natural, are the perfect cover for ideologues, be they neoliberal or neoconservative, to push through their policies while the public is distracted as they are forced to react to the conditions caused by upheavals. While Poland has been largely immune to the latest economic crisis, she has not only built up debt of her own but is also part of a larger unit, the EU, which is confronting a threat to its existence and therefore at the mercy of those who wish to gain from her plight.

We've been aware since at least Eisenhower's dire warnings of the industrial military complex of the threat posed to society when the public and corporate sphere collide and have only recently been hearing about a similar relationship between government and the financial industry. Yet we are still largely ignorant of the fact that society as a whole is becoming more and more subservient to corporate control through a growing symbiotic (or should I say parasitic) arrangement found everywhere we look in political and economic life. Milking us dry of the wealth that was built up by society and putting us more at risk; the snow removal problems in New York City underscores how reliance on contracting out work to private companies results in disaster. Even being aware of the growing influence, nothing is being done to halt the revolving door between the military and government contractors or the financial world and the policy makers so how are we to protect ourselves from the subtler shifts happening elsewhere? I'm not only talking about trains anymore, the technocrats are running the show and putting themselves and their buddies in place to be the only ones to profit on everything from the Euro 2012 football championships to the university classroom.

When Donald Tusk's PO party swept to power in 2007, one of the first things it promised to do was to embark on an ambitious privatization program. Their privatization plan for 2008-2011 came before the economic crisis hit the world, a crisis that saw Poland emerge as the soul European economy not to fall into recession. Yet the crisis has changed the playing field, capital available for investment has dried up thus lowering potential income to be earned from state sales while at the same time government finances have come under pressure. While other countries have opted for austerity, the Polish government seems to be aiming to improve its finances through growth and that means selling assets, no matter the price. It seems it only took a  global financial debt crisis for the country to trade its fear of Russia snapping up strategic assets for a fear of the financial debt sharks. Selling assets now, including last months successful stock float of PZU insurance company, Tauron energy and the Warsaw Stock Exchange, allows the government to temporarily plug the ballooning deficit gap which reached 7% this year. Being Poland, privatization still has a banana and pornography lure. Krzysztof Walenczak, chief economic advisor to Aleksander Grad, the Treasury minister who is spearheading the privatization campaign uses phrases like “it is about getting rid of the legacy of Communism” - “It is about completing our post-Communist revolution” and “It is about changing the economic ownership of the country, completing what Poland started 20 years ago.” The real question becomes, where does it all end? Once an asset is sold it's gone and while it may have temporarily fixed the problem, the budget deficit is still there so you've got to fix your finances or find something else to sell.

Worse, while the government is painting these sales with the brushstrokes of transparency, many are questioning just how clean the palette really is. While Poles may be enured to a process rife with corruption, they are told that if they really want to play in the international market they can't afford even the appearance that state-owned companies are being sold to firms controlled by politicians. Yet that is exactly what happened in the $1.3 billion initial public offer last year by power utility Tauron Polska Energia, during which state-controlled copper miner KGHM Polska Miedz bought 5% of the shares for an equivalent of $125 million. This was followed by the bid by state-controlled utility PGE to buy shares in its peer, Energa, for an equivalent of up to $2.5 billion. Recently, the Czech Republic's EP Holding offered the highest bid for a 51% stake in Enea SA, nevertheless, they have been eliminated from the process. German energy giant RWE, pulled out of talks, claiming that the price was too high while others expressed doubts about Poland's economic future after the country's government revealed that public debt was soaring.

Though Poland's economy seems to be thriving despite itself, posting a third quarter GDP gain of 4.2%, it's hard not to see that the country is careening towards the same economic disaster much of the rest of the world experienced just a couple of years ago. The headline in the newspaper heralds the 100,000 new investors who took part in the sale of the Warsaw Stock Exchange but forget to mention that their new investments only partially compensate for the New Year's Eve government resolution to shift private pension funds to social security in a "temporary" move to give more to the ZUS social insurance board. After all, the debt threat is like a bomb, tick, tick, tick. If you happen to be in the center of Warsaw you can even check out the new Polish debt clock.

Last year wasn't pretty for Polish transportation. The tragedy of Smolensk was the low point of a miserable year. It also saw the former Deputy Transport Minister, Eugeniusz Wróbel, most likely murdered by the hand of his son, dismembered, wrapped in wallpaper and thrown into the Zalew Rybnicki reservoir. We may never know as the case has been dropped against Grzegorz W., as he has been pronounced insane at the time of the murder. Less tragically, Deputy Infrastructure Minister Juliusz Engelhardt was dismissed by Prime Minister Tusk on December 21st which was quickly followed by the firing of the president of Polish Railways (PKP), Andrzej Wach on December 30th. Of course these moves won't do anything to stem the tide of privatization as we move towards a two-tier world of haves and have-nots. The profitable parts of the rail system will be sold off to friends and supporters while the rest of the system will be left to rot; babcia Krysia and wujek Józek traveling from Pcim Dolny to Wąchock will be out in the cold while the rich will be able to travel in high speed trains by the end of 2012 (just in time to miss the Euro championships). The 400 million price tag will be born by the tax payer but the benefits will surely accrue to the few. I've had the pleasure to watch this in Spain, where the introduction of the high speed AVE trains have had the side effect of pushing the cattle onto the buses as train ticket prices are now priced out of reach.

We seem to be caught in an Orwellian dystopia where we think we can turn off the telescreens but instead are constantly being sold the illusion of choice while our options have in fact been narrowed down to one. A tsunami of information is overwhelming our ability to process it all forcing us to shrink our field of vision and destroying our ability to concentrate. Private is more efficient than public, the unions are impossible to work with - only the corporations can save us money. Fundamentalists, both religious and the free market type, are the enemy of critical thought. We have been indoctrinated to believe that the free market, capitalism as it was once known, offers us more efficient results when in fact the opposite is often the result after adding in all the exorbitant salaries, bonuses, shareholder profits, marketing and political bribes that must be passed on to the taxpayer. These costs usually far exceed government waste, unless offset by egregiously low salaries that further harm the economy. In America, privatized Medicare Advantage costs taxpayers 17% more than government Medicare, which provides care to 80% of their seniors. Privatized Blackwater troops in the Mideast cost five times what U.S. troops cost. But Blackwater executives give campaign dollars and regular troops don’t, so what else would you expect?

Preying on our fears and manufactured desperation, the world is fast becoming a Market-State, where the public is being privatized, from the banks, energy and telecommunications to transportation and education. The rest is gifted to the global elite and the multinationals in the form of concessions from water rights to motorways. They’ll take state assets, say, roads, and lease them to a private company, which will then add tolls and recoup their investment in 10 years and pocket the profits thereafter. And part of those profits will go to the friendly politicians. Or the politicians will sell state-owned buildings and then lease them back so the private company can make the profits from the taxpayers. Monetizing every piece of our society's wealth for us to pay for, completely transforming the relationship between the citizen and State to citizen and the Market. A market absurdly composed in large part by the goods that the citizen was the owner - we are paying for structures and services that have already been paid for by us, our parents and our grandparents. The wranglers and night riders aren't jeans or talking cars but the corporate and government cattle herders driving us towards a future where we'll be choosing our firefighter and police services like our dry cleaners or take out pizza. The only escape is to muster the courage to completely change one's lifestyle and bolt from the herd which could be the flash of lightning, crackling of a stick or wolf's howl that starts the stampede. We better hurry though as we're being driven ever faster to the end of the cattle trail and I don't think we don't want to find out if ground beef tastes anything like Soylent Green.