Thursday, June 16, 2011

70% Income Tax Rate

I take this to be a hopeful sign: Alan Reynolds, one of those useful idiots that pollute the public discourse on behalf of the plutocracy, devotes a column -- in the Wall Street Journal! -- to fighting against a proposal for a 70% tax bracket.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

no utility whatsoever

Gretchen Morgenson reports in the NY Times: In an interview, Mr. Hosier [an investor who received $17 million punitive damages as part of an arbitration against Citibank] said the experience had opened his eyes to the disturbing ways of Wall Street.

“Instead of the financial world being the lubricant for business, they are out there manufacturing products with no utility whatsoever except for generating fees,” he said. “Somebody’s got to do something about Wall Street. It is destroying the country.”

The dysfunction of the financial system culminated in a major financial crisis in 2008, and the political response was to mortgage the country to preserve the dysfunction. The political elite simply refuses to understand. And, yet, there it is.

Compare the clear-eyed Hosier, an investor who was wronged, to the pompous but powerful Larry Summers, Director of the White House National Economic Council for President Barack Obama until late 2010, Charles W. Eliot Professor at Harvard, Secretary of the Treasury at the end of the Clinton Administration.

Stephan Richter reports on Larry Summers response, when asked a pertinent question:
For example, when the irrepressible Yves Smith asked Larry Summers about whether banking risks in the United States could not be helpfully diminished if its large institutions were run (read: compensated at the top) more like utility companies, he immediately aborted any effort at an intellectually honest answer by making it sound as if she were proposing to bring state socialism to banking.

Indeed, the tape shows him suggesting that if we went "down the path" of increased public intermediation, "we would still have U.S. Steel as one of our flagship companies and we would not have seen the kind of dynamism that we've seen".

I'd like to think that Summers is merely dodging the question, so to speak, as Richter suggests, but a more likely explanation is that he is so completely corrupt and arrogant, so little concerned by critical challenge, that he simply does not see the irony of celebrating the "dynamism" of financial crisis and rapid economic decline.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Imperial Decline

Tom Engelhardt, Sleepwalking Into the Imperial Dark

. . . The United States is, of course, an imperial power, however much we might prefer not to utter the word. We still have our globe-spanning array of semi-client states; our military continues to garrison much of the planet; and we are waging war abroad more continuously than at any time in memory. Yet who doesn't sense that the sun is now setting on us?

Not so many years ago, we were proud enough of our global strength to regularly refer to ourselves as the Earth’s "sole superpower." In those years, our president and his top officials dreamed of establishing a worldwide 'Pax Americana', while making speeches and issuing official documents proclaiming that the United States would be militarily "beyond challenge" by any and all powers for eons to come. So little time has passed and yet who speaks like that today? Who could?

. . . Disillusionment, depression, and dismay flow ever more strongly through the American bloodstream. Just look at any polling data on whether this country, once the quintessential land of optimists, is heading in "the right direction" or on "the wrong track", and you'll find that the "wrong track" numbers are staggering, and growing by the month. On the rare occasions when Americans have been asked by pollsters whether they think the country is "in decline," the figures have been similarly over the top.

It’s not hard to see why. A loss of faith in the American political system is palpable. For many Americans, it's no longer "our government" but "the bureaucracy." Washington is visibly in gridlock and incapable of doing much of significance, while state governments, facing the "steepest decline in state tax receipts on record," are, along with local governments, staggering under massive deficits and cutting back in areas -- education, policing, firefighting -- that matter to daily life. . . the United States looks increasingly incapable of coping. It no longer invests in its young, or plans effectively for the future, or sets off on new paths. It literally can't do. And this is not just a domestic crisis, but part of imperial decline.

If you doubt this, just pull into your nearest gas station and fill up the tank. Of course, who doesn't know that this country, once such a generator of wealth, is now living with unemployment figures not seen since the Great Depression, as well as unheard of levels of debt, that it's hooked on foreign energy (and like most addicts has next to no capacity for planning how to get off that drug), or that it's living through the worst period of income inequality in modern history? And who doesn't know that a crew of financial fabulists, corporate honchos, lobbyists, and politicians have been fattening themselves off the faltering body politic?

And if you don't think any of this has anything to do with imperial power in decline, ask yourself why the options for our country so often seem to have shrunk to what our military is capable of, or that the only significant part of the government whose budget is still on the rise is the Pentagon. Or why, when something is needed, this administration, like its predecessor, regularly turns to that same military.

Tom Engelhardt goes on to point out the absurdity of sending the military on "humanitarian" missions, and the remarkable proofs of military impotence in Iraq, Afganistan and Libya, as the same failed tactics are applied again and again.

America, sclerotic empire, stumbling toward collapse. As Englehardrt says, first and last, "this will not end well".


john c halasz has taught me a new word, weltschmerz

Wikipedia says, weltschmerz
denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind. . . . It is also used to denote the feeling of sadness when thinking about the evils of the world.

The modern meaning of Weltschmerz . . . is the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing that someone's own weaknesses are caused by the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and (physical and social) circumstances.

Friday, April 8, 2011


If the so-called "independents" -- or some of them, at least -- know little about politics, and blow in the prevailing winds, the dedicated partisans pose the opposite problem: they know a lot more about politics, but tend to a "my party, right or wrong, but my party" attitude, that knows loyalty, but no principle.  Or, it knows a consistent fear of the greater evil of the other party, but, in the case of the Democrats and their liberal base if not Republicans and their wingnut base, remains powerless to influence the course actually adopted by their Party leadership.

Glenn Greenwald puzzles over how to change the dynamic:
. . . whatever else is true, one thing is for certain: dedicated partisans who pledge their unbreakable, eternally loyal support for any Party or politician are going to be steadfastly ignored (or worse) by that Party or politician, and rightfully so. If you spend two years vehemently objecting that certain acts so profoundly offend your principles but then pledge unequivocal support no matter what almost two years in advance to the politicians who engage in them, why would you expect your objections to be heeded? Any rational person would ignore them, and stomp on your beliefs whenever doing so benefited them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"these independents"

what digby said,
It seems that the vaunted "independent" voters who allegedly believed that Obama had gone way too far by passing health care and the stimulus and so voted out the Democrats are unhappy with the Republicans now --- also for going too far. . . .
There's an epic political battle going on in this country and these independents don't seem to get that it won't be solved by "punishing" the party that's in office every two years when it does what it promised it was going to do.

If people really feel that the stimulus and health care plans are as radical and destructive as shutting down the government and destroying the safety net, then there's no getting through to them until we have a depression or worse. Until they actively engage and figure out what's what instead of mindlessly swinging back and forth like a pendulum, this will probably continue for some time.
Democracy cannot long survive the arbitrary ignorance of the "independent" voter.  The dominance of money, which has made our government responsive only to the plutocrats, rests, ultimately, not on direct bribes, but on "campaign contributions", which, in turn, go to finance the manipulation of these "independent voters" via mass media.
The great mass of the public does not pay enough attention to politics, does not have the time or capacity to make critical judgements, without the support of trustworthy tribunes among those with access to mass media, and those tribunes do not exist.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Will there be a fight?

Eleanor Heartney, art critic,
Art & Money:

I was very active in the effort to elect Obama, and like many others I feel let down — duped into thinking things could change by an administration that seems completely co-opted by the corporate class. I still believe that Obama’s basic instincts are good, but somehow that doesn’t seem to matter. Why is it so much easier to take things in oligarchic directions than in democratic ones? George W. Bush profoundly changed America, but restoring the nation’s democratic values seems virtually impossible.

But I’m still not willing to accept the argument that voting is futile or that everything is predetermined by a small group at the top. And oddly, the most encouraging signs these days have come from outside our borders — from the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia (the outcomes in Libya and Bahrain seem more uncertain) and in the faith that protesters in places like Iran and the Arab world place in the ideas of democracy. Here in this country the fight to preserve collective bargaining for state employees in Wisconsin appears to have failed (though at this writing a court has issued a stay on the law passed by the Republican lawmakers pending an examination of its constitutionality). Nevertheless, it is a small sign that people may be waking up to dangerous inequality that has been allowed to permeate this country.

Which leaves me with one final question. If there is to be a fight, which side will we be on?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lesson of the Week; Central Issue of Our Time

What digby said,

The big lesson of this past week of nuclear accidents and air strikes in the Middle East is obvious: we are entering a new phase of our ongoing energy crisis. With half of America now not believing in climate change and thinking everything can be solved with drill, baby, drill I'm not too optimistic. It's closely related to the plutocratic dominance of our political system and is the central issue of our time.

This strikes me as summing up the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, quite nicely.

When I began (the predecessor of) this blog, I actually naively believed that the country and the world might come to some positive, reasonable consciousness about the coincidence peak oil, climate change, ecological catastrophe. I thought the inevitable disasters (my "coming perfect storm") -- later manifest as Iraq, Katrina, the Global Financial Crisis -- would prompt a revolution of sorts, as the old elite and a discredited philosophy gave way to a new generation, and a new awareness. (Hah!)

Instead, the storm came, and what was revealed was that a predatory financial system had taken over the government, in league with big oil and the military-industrial complex. What was revealed was the incompetence of the elite, their sheer inability to prepare for, or deal sensibly, with any political or economic development.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Paul Krugman noted an instance of Obama rewriting Social Security history, and, of course, there was also the Amity-Schlaes-like smear of FDR, for sitting on his hands while Hoover did his lame duck waddle.

I was an early and enthusiastic Obama supporter, as well as a life-long Democrat; I'm very much aware both of "being taken" and of being trapped by the structure of our politics, which carries on a made-for-cable kabuki-cum-extortion play, featuring the threat of a ludicrously bad Republican as "the alternative" to re-electing Obama. It is interesting to me that so many commenters feel themselves committed to not-voting-for Obama; I feel the same way, but I wonder how many we are, and whether it can make any difference. Our powerlessness is the problem; if that powerlessness is as real and deep as it appears, voting is already an empty, pointless ritual.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Era of Responsibility

The LA Times reports:
Federal prosecutors have shelved a criminal investigation of Angelo R. Mozilo after determining that his actions in the mortgage meltdown — which led to $67.5-million settlement against him — did not amount to criminal wrongdoing.

As the former chairman of Countrywide Financial Corp., Mozilo helped fuel the boom in risky subprime loans that led to the crippling of the banking industry and the near-collapse of the financial system.

What was it, that Obama said in his inaugural, about beginning a new Era of Responsibility?

As Atrios says, "One would think that the people in charge could be held responsible, but as we've learned, the people in charge are never responsible."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Smart Play

A split developed in the Democratic Party, prompted by disappointment and disillusion in the Obama Presidency, and the limited achievements of the Democratic Congressional majorities in place, 2007-2010.

Ian Welsh noted it, in his observations on Netroots Nation convention in July 2010. As he explained it, one side sees Obama as little better than Bush, Part Deux, while the other side defends Obama as pragmatic.

This was never a stable divide. Each group forms a hypothesis, and revises its estimates, as new data emerge. More Obama was not going to confirm Democrats in their beliefs, in equal measure.

Digby notes the moving frontier on reaction Obama's Grand Bargain with the Republicans:
It appears that the Obama supporters in the political establishment have awakened to the fact that he really does want to enact a Grand Bargain and that it's highly likely that it will end up being a bad deal for Democrats.

Obama has an interesting political problem. On the one hand, he wants to serve the kleptocrats well enough that they do not turn to the Republican candidate in 2012. On the other, he is vulnerable to being deserted by his own Party. It is an asymmetric dilemma, because of "vote for the lesser evil" two-party system. Obama is actually aided with both the corporate center and its money, and with distressed Democrats, since both groups, for differing reasons, fear the worst from a crazy Republican.

Obama is likely to continue to do his best to serve the plutocracy, knowing that this keeps the smart money out of Republican politics, increasing the chances that the Republicans do the wild thang! Which, in turn, increases Obama's stranglehold on the Democrats, including the left of the Democratic Party, which has no alternative course of action, save to give up hope altogether.

Giving up hope might be the smart play.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Recognizing the plutocracy

Bob Herbert, NY Times:
While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.

When I started this blog, I thought that the failures of George W. Bush were likely to become evident in his second term on a grand scale, and, naively, I expected an equally grand political shift. I had great hopes for Obama as the leader of such a shift.

What I did not anticipate is that the great political storm would leave us recognizing -- not the failures of the Reagan Revolution and its long aftermath -- but, its enduring success.

The political shift in the country, among the politically aware Left, is the dawning recognition that liberal democracy in America is close to death.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Aftermath: Distraction

The political storm following George W. Bush's reign of error brought us not relief from the drought of reason, but Obama.

Now, the Republicans have become a clown show.  And, the reason is clearly to make Obama look good, by comparison, as the President and his party strip the country naked.  Avedon Carol explains all:

why [does] the entire media - not just the Murdoch and Moonie media - stay[] so focused on the right-wing crazies[?]. It's the circus that deflects attention from what's really going on while everyone is playing games like "Beck is crazy" and "Look - Sarah Palin!" Well, yes, they've pretty much consistently done that sort of thing for the last 20 years, but I mean going even deeper than that, to why it is so consistent - enough that even some of our best liberal, independent bloggers just can't seem to pull their eyes away sometimes. Somebody out there wants us to keep watching the clown show for an even bigger reason.
I've touched on this before, but I don't think people really get how tricky the game really is. If you listen to a lot of the things Limbaugh and Rush and even Palin say, they always carry enough of a grain of truth with them to make them compelling to their audience even while they also carry enough crazy to make it easy for everyone from Katarina to Dancin' Dave to even Bill Kristol point at them and say they are going overboard.
People are hurting and our economy is tanking and the White House keeps telling us how things are fine even though all the rest of us can see that they are not. And though they blame it all on Obama as if Bush and the GOP leadership had nothing to do with it, the fact is that Obama and the Dems spent two years in charge and absolutely refusing to do what Americans wanted them to do. And what Americans want them to do is get out of stupid wars (not just change the names from "combat troops" to something else), give them a better health care system (not just pass something called a health care bill), protect Social Security benefits (not just the existence of some program that still retains the name "Social Security"), and, yes, tax the rich a lot more than they tax people who actually have to work for a living. What Americans certainly didn't want them to do was protect cut-throat loan sharks who are stealing their money and their homes, and protect anti-American transnational corporations who are stealing their time and money and exporting their jobs.
And what has Obama chosen to do? What has Obama chosen to whip the Democrats into doing? Ask yourself who it was, exactly, who thought it would be a great idea to get Markos Moulitsas to go on TV and threaten to primary Dennis Kucinich, of all people, for trying to stand up for a the public option.
So Limbaugh and Beck aren't exactly wrong when they suggest that Obama is trying to wreck our way of life - because he is.
(Well, okay, maybe he doesn't realize that's what he's trying to do. Maybe he really does believe all that Reaganist crap he spouts, but it's as plain as the nose on my face that Reagan is the guy who put this train-wreck into high gear, and can he really be stupid enough not to have noticed? Did he hang out with the Chicago boys all that time without understanding what their underlying theory of elitism is? He's gotta know he's destroying our way of life.)
So I see a more important problem in the charade of having people like Bill Kristol or whoever this week's "serious" conservative/centrist is point to the Becks and Palins and Limbaughs and says this right-wing whacko or that one is over the top.
And that problem is that they are taking a lot of liberal/left criticism of Obama and wrapping it up in right-wing crazy, so that all criticism of Obama gets wrapped up with crazy. Anyone who suggests that the Obama administration doesn't have the best interests of the American people at heart (which it doesn't) must be one of those crazy birther types who believe the Caliphate is a scimitar pointed at the heart of Brownsville.
I probably quoted way too much.  My apologies to the copyright police and Avedon Carol.  It was too clearly articulated to edit down.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Following Libertarianism to Its Logical Conclusion

digby at Hullabaloo:
I was in rush hour the other observing some self-centered dude blocking four lanes and snarling traffic for blocks to spare himself a minor inconvenience and it occurred to me that the logical result of our recent embrace of vulgar libertarianism is a total breakdown of social order. Even in rush hour traffic where it's vital to everyone's survival that we observe certain norms, there always seems to be some entitled, selfish ass in an expensive car making it worse for everyone else these days.
Matthew Yglesias:

If you think about a well-functioning liberal society with a (constrained) market economy and political liberty, you’re relying on an awful lot of non-selfish behavior by people to make it work. One key issue here is corruption and the efficacy of the public sector. A wise republic needs to think about the incentives facing public officials and design structures accordingly. But at the end of the day, well-functioning public institutions all involve a certain esprit de corps and sense of obligation. It’s not a coincidence that the most market-oriented societies (the Anglophone and Nordic countries) are also the ones with the best-functioning public sectors. Another issue has to do with parenting and family more generally. For a liberal society to function over time parents need to adopt an attitude toward their children that I don’t think is well-captured by the idea of selfishness. But then again, you can’t have everything collapse into nepotism either.
The point is that a society actually governed by the dual pillars of self-interest and obedience to the law is very unlikely to come out as a liberal market economy.
What you’d get is a cesspool of rent-seeking and shakedowns. And I think that to the extent that the USA has become a society willing to accept an ethic of “greed is good” this is the direction we’ve headed in. 

 Ah, freedom!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The absence of imagination

What's driving preservationist reaction isn't expedience, per se, it is the absence of imagination.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Do we live in a time of pygmies?

Gideon Rachman had an interesting column in the Financial Times, wondering whether we live in a time bereft of intellectual giants.

Compare these lists, he created, of "greats" living in 1861, 1939 and 2011:

Darwin, Marx, Dickens,

John Stuart Mill, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky
Lincoln, Gladstone, Bismarck and Garibaldi

Einstein, Keynes, TS Eliot, Picasso, Freud, 
Gandhi, Orwell, Churchill, Hayek, Sartre

Nouriel Roubini, Joseph Stiglitz, Christopher Hitchens, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Mandelbaum, Maria Vargas Llosa, Abdolkarim Soroush, Hu Shuli, Jacques Attali

Even allowing for historical perspective to have done its job of sorting out, it is kind of startling to realize how few are the giants, if any.  And, what does that say of the quality and relevance of intellectual life in politics, economics, or literature?

Think about it in terms of the previous post: the lack of imagination we bring to bear to the problems of a collapsing system.

Mr. Rachman suggests that it may be that it may be largely a matter of heroic narratives of the individual being supplanted by what are, now, large, networked collaborations.  Christopher Columbus v. Neal Armstrong, so to speak.

I think it may also be that we fail to see the acceleration of technical progress, because we don't seem to need new concepts -- we can re-use the old ones.  My great-great-grandfather saw the coming of the railroad, the telegraph, the steamship, cheap steel, cheap oil, cheap newspapers, and the industrial corporation.  Each was a novelty.  My grandmother saw, in her lifetime, the telephone, the airplane, the automobile, the movies, radio and television, electrical light and electrical appliances, the zipper and velcro.  Each was a novelty.

That progress continues and accelerates, but the conceptual novelties are absent: cellphones are still phones.  The only reason I know that progress is accelerating is because things are disappearing.  The telegraph is gone.  The newspaper may soon be gone.  The phonograph.  Film cameras.  The letter.  Bank checks.  Books?  My generation is measuring technical progress by the disappearance of things.

We are at the end of things, in many ways, and progress by disappearance accentuates that experience.  It doesn't promote a vision of what is to come.

In the Lee of the Storm: A Lack of Imagination

The Perfect Storm came and went two years ago, and the System that failed, was preserved and stumbles onward.  It is difficult to know what to make of this failure to make good use of failure.

One thought is that politicians are "sell-outs" to the plutocracy.  Lots of truth in that, I suppose, but it seems to be a bit of a buyers' market. “Sell-out” was a real category, circa 1965; there were actually people imagining better, and selling out, then.  Not now.

Between grief and nothing, I’ll take grief, says the resigned cynic.

The preservationist instinct is born of a deep lack of imagination, as well as the absence of moral integrity.
Facing the collapse of a system that was manifestly not-really-working for quite some time, and to respond by trying to preserve and restore it, as if imagining and building an alternative that actually works, is beyond our poor powers — whatever that is, is certainly distressing, but it is not fully captured in the phrase, “selling-out”.

We are so far, now, from the visionaries, who were the architects of the systems now crumbling about us, that we act almost like children, whose faith in the constancy of their environment is built on one-part ignorance of the young, and one-part neurotic compulsion to deny the obvious risks. This generation of leaders has had no idea that they were creating crisis, with their neo-liberal (or neo-conservative) magical incantations. And, the crisis comes, and they have no idea how to make use of the crisis. They don’t see themselves as responsible for the immediate past, or the immediate future; they are just along for the ride, but these things happen, and we do the best in the circumstances, and we should strive to be prepared to do better, the next time something like this happens, as it inevitably (nod sagely) will. Things happen, and these leaders see their job as coping and reacting and patching things together — it is a childlike response in many ways, the response of a creature with little sense of control or power.
In the short run, it may be rewarded by more than just gratuities from the grateful, plutocratic winners. A large body of reactionaries of more modest means but greater numbers (at least in the U.S.) lack the imagination to reward creative restructuring reliably. They are preoccupied by their resentment at lacking the opportunity to continue in the pursuit of the oil-fueled pursuit of the American dream, classic distant suburb edition. The ex-urb SUV driver resents mass transit, CFL light fixtures, global warming and hates $3/g gas and liberals.

We lack the imagination to conceive of better institutions, both at the leadership level and at the followership level. Politicians are genuinely afraid of the power and responsibility that comes with architectural design, and not just petty, piecemeal reform. And, they are, of course, afraid of making acute and immediate enemies, in exchange for dubious and resentful and mournful friends: breaking the old system will make break someone’s yolk, and that someone will know who did him harm; founding a new system will lead a lot of people into a period of mourning for what was lost, which may go on for quite a while, before any joy can be felt in the new.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

What Happened? was shutdown by the Google bots as a spam blog, and despite many requests to restore it, I've heard nothing from Google to indicate that a human has reviewed that decision, or ever will review it.

I did have a backup, through August, and have restored that, here.  Still, I feel the loss, though I had posted only sporadically, of late.

I'd really like to know what prompted Google's actions.

At the time the blog was taken down, I also lost access to my email account, which had to be re-verified.  But, again, I have no clue what about my blog would cause the bots to think it was a spam blog, or what triggered Google to want to verify the legitimacy of my email address.