December 5, 2014

Who We Really Are And What We Have Finally Become

Bruce Davidson
Couple embracing in the dark (from Brooklyn Gang), 1959

From December 11, 2014 through January 24, 2015, the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York will be exhibiting another diverse Staff Picks show.  Posted here are my thoughts and selections for the exhibition. 

. . . . . . . .  

The author and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig has written "He thinks of them at night alone with their advertised glamorous shoes and stockings and underclothes off, staring through the sooty windows at the grotesque shells revealed beyond them, when the poses weaken and the truth creeps in, the only truth that exists here, crying to heaven, God, there is nothing here but dead neon and cement and brick."  

The photographs I have selected by Bruce Davidson, Roy DeCarava, William Gedney, Dave Heath, and Saul Leiter all cut through the supposed darkness of the night.  It may be that only at this late hour will we learn firsthand who we really are and what we have finally become. 

- Pak So

Roy DeCarava
Man in Window, New York, 1978

William Gedney
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1975

Dave Heath
New York City, 1961

Saul Leiter
Untitled, 1950's

October 19, 2014

We Are Profoundly Sorry

Excerpts below from The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi, published by Spiegel & Grau, 2014:

At more or less exactly the same time that Tory Marone was being offered his deal to spend forty days at Rikers for half a joint that was all-the-way hidden in his pocket, the U.S. Department of Justice, in the person of still-assistant attorney general Lanny Breuer - (Eric) Holder's right-hand man, the head of the department's Criminal Division, and ostensibly still the top-crime-fighting official in the country - was making a historic announcement. ... 

... The bank (HSBC) admitted to laundering billions of dollars for drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia, washing money for terrorist connected organizations in the Middle East, allowing rogue states under formal sanctions by the U.S. government to move money freely by the tens of billions through its American subsidiary, letting Russian mobsters wash money on a grand scale using a see-no-evil traveler's checks program, and helping tax cheats and other crooks from Miami to Los Angeles to Peru hide hundreds of millions of dollars in nearly anonymous "bearer share" accounts.

Essentially, HSBC, as perhaps the biggest and most accessible "reputable" bank in Asia, Africa, Central America, and the Middle East, had enthusiastically opened its vaults, including its American vaults, for most every kind of antisocial and/or criminal organization on the planet, allowing mass murderers, human traffickers, and embezzlers unfettered access to the safety and comfort of U.S. dollars. ...

... So what was the penalty for laundering up to $7 billion for Central American drug cartels? For allowing Russian "used car dealers" to deposit $500,000 a day for years in U.S. banks using traveler's checks? For supplying the Al Rajhi Bank of Saudi Arabia, whose founder was revealed after 9/11 to have been one of the original twenty benefactors to al-Qaeda, with more than 1 billion U.S. dollars - a bank HSBC's own compliance officers recommended abandoning after it was caught supplying Chechen extremists with traveler's checks in 2005, but which it continued to do business with through 2010? For allowing 25,000 U.S. banking transactions totaling $19.4 billion with the sanctioned state of Iran over a six-year period, and allowing  similar transactions from prohibited locales like North Korea and the Sudan? ...

... Nothing. In terms of jail time, anyway, the penalty was nothing. No individual would be charged with anything or have to pay a dollar in fines. No person in any of HSBC's banks anywhere in the world had to have so much as a ticket on his record.

The only penalty was a settlement. It was a big fine: $1.9 billion, at the time the biggest such fine in history - which sounds impressive until you realize the sum equaled about five weeks of revenue for a bank that earned somewhere north of $22 billion a year. Oh, and HSBC had to partially - not fully but partially - defer some of its bonus payments to top executives.

And it had to apologize, which it did. "We are profoundly sorry," said CEO Stuart Gulliver.

The cops had let HSBC walk out of the park. ...

... "I don't think the banks got off easy," he (Breuer) said, adding, "We've held them very much accountable. I'm not sure you can find a more robust resolution."

But Breuer was standing less than a mile from a homeless drifter who at that very minute was getting a "more robust solution" for having half a joint in his pocket.

For aiding and abetting drug cartels suspected in more than twenty thousand murders, groups famous for creating the world's most gruesome torture videos - the Sinaloa Cartel in particular, with its style of high-volume reprisal killings and public chainsawings and disembowelings, makes al-Qaeda look like the Peace Corps - HSBC got a walk. Tory Marone, for smoking their product and passing out on a park bench, got sent to jail.

This meant the very lowest kind of offender in the illegal drug business, the retail consumer at the very bottom of the drug food chain, had received a far stiffer sentence than officials at HSBC who were hundreds of millions of dollars deep into the illegal drug business, not for any excusable reason but just to seek profits to pile on top of profits. ...

. . . . . . . . 

... But for all the criticism, and despite Breuer's odd performance at the HSBC presser, the actual policy that had guided the decision was still semidisguised. It would not be formally unveiled until a week later, at the next outrageous settlement, this one involving the Swiss banking giant UBS for its part in a worldwide price-fixing scandal known as the LIBOR affair. ...

... Involving thousands of transactions, hundreds of individuals, and somewhere between nine and sixteen of the world's biggest banks, the LIBOR affair at the heart of the UBS settlement was, numerically speaking, probably the biggest financial scandal ever. At the time, it was both the biggest antitrust case and the biggest price-fixing case ever to surface (some serious competitors have since reared their heads). By working together to rig global interest rates through their manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate - a projection of the rate at which banks charge one another to borrow and lend money - banks like UBS, Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and perhaps as many as six other companies (according to British regulators) impacted the price of hundreds of trillions of dollars of financial products, everything from mortgages to credit cards to municipal bonds to swaps and even currencies. ...

... For this incredible serious crime, which had consequences for nearly every person in the world who has money or buys or sells anything, ... the UBS parent company completely escaped prosecution. Its Japanese subsidiary was allowed to plead to a single felony count, while two former UBS employees were charged with crimes. But the parent company was affirmatively nonprosecuted and let off with a $1.5 billion fine. The bank didn't have to admit to anything in the deal, except the need to pay the government money to go away. ...

... The crowd of reporters was getting restless by now - Breuer was losing control. At this point, (Eric) Holder tagged Breuer out of the ring, smoothed his tie, and stepped to the lectern.

Thirteen years after authoring his Collateral Consequences memo, Holder was finally going to explain it, out in the open, to the entire world.

"I'm not talking about just this case, but in others that we have resolved, the impact on the stability of the financial markets around the world is something that we take into consideration," Holder began.

The room was suddenly very quiet.

"We reach out to experts outside of the Justice Department to talk about what are the consequences of actions that we might take," Holder explained, "[and] what would be the impact of those actions if we wanted to make a particular prosecutive [sic] decision or determination with regard to a particular institution."

The crowd of reporters listened in stunned silence to this speech.

"So that," Holder concluded, "factors into the kinds of decisions that we make."

The attorney general of the United States had just admitted in front of a room full of reporters, that he asks Wall Street for advice before he prosecutes Wall Street. ...

... Collateral Consequences was out of the bag. After years and years of mysterious nonprosecutions and expertly negotiated cost-of-doing business fines, we finally had the policy it all led to.

October 6, 2014

They Learn It Too Late

You Will Be Loved graffiti seen on 
Photograph courtesy Pak So and Anna Tan

Excerpts below from The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, published 2013 by W. W. Norton & Company:

... Our democracy, tilted as it may be, provides two routes by which reform might happen. Those in the 99 percent could come to realize that they have been duped by the 1 percent: that what is in the interest of the 1 percent is not in their interests.  The 1 percent has worked hard to convince the rest that the alternative world is not possible; that doing anything that the 1 percent doesn't want will inevitably harm the 99 percent.  Much of this book has been devoted to destroying this myth and to arguing that we could actually have a more dynamic and more efficient economy and a fairer society.

In 2011 we watched people take to the streets by the millions to protest political, economic, and social conditions in the oppressive societies they inhabit.  Governments toppled in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.  Protests erupted in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria.  The ruling families elsewhere in the region looked on nervously from their air-conditioned penthouses.  Will they be next?  They are right to worry.  These are societies where a minuscule fraction of the population - less than 1 percent - controls the lion's share of the wealth; where wealth is a main determinant of power, both political and economic; where entrenched corruption of one sort or another is a way of life; and where the wealthiest often stand actively in the way of policies that would improve the lives of people in general.  As we gaze out at the popular fervor in the streets, we might ask ourselves some questions.  When will it come to America?  When will it come to other countries of the West?  In important ways, our own country has become like one of these disturbed places, serving the interests of a tiny elite.  We have a big advantage - we live in a democracy - but it's a democracy that has increasingly not reflected the interests of large fractions of the population.  The people sense this - it's reflected in the low support they express for Congress and in the abysmally low voter turnout.

And that's the second way that reform could happen: the 1 percent could realize that what's been happening in the United States is not only inconsistent with our values but not even in the 1 percent's own interest.  Alexis de Tocqueville once described what he saw as a chief element of the peculiar genius of American society, something he called "self-interest properly understood."  The last two words were key.  Everyone possesses self-interest in a narrow sense: I want what's good for me right now!  Self-interest "properly understood" is different.  It means appreciating that paying attention to everyone else's self-interest - in other words, to the common welfare - is in fact a precondition for one's own ultimate well-being.  Tocqueville was not suggesting that there was anything noble or idealistic about this outlook.  Rather, he was suggesting the opposite: it was a mark of American pragmatism.  Those Americans understood a basic fact: looking out for the other guy isn't just good for the soul; it's good for business.

The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn't seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.  Throughout history, this has been something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn.  Often, however, they learn it too late.

September 28, 2014

This Is Our Responsibility

In an article titled Hong Kong students storm government HQ in challenge to Beijing in the September 26, 2014 edition of Reuters, James Pomfret and Yimou Lee report:

Student leader Joshua Wong was dragged away by police kicking, screaming and bleeding from his arm as protesters chanted and struggled to free him.

"Hong Kong's future belongs to you, you and you," Wong, a thin 17-year-old with dark-rimmed glasses and bowl-cut hair, told cheering supporters hours before he was taken away.

"I want to tell C.Y. Leung and Xi Jinping that the mission of fighting for universal suffrage does not rest upon the young people, it is everyone's responsibility," he shouted, referring to Hong Kong's and China's leaders.

"I don't want the fight for democracy to be passed down to the next generation.  This is our responsibility."

September 25, 2014

Stupid Obedience, Or Revolt

Thank you to Thomas Piketty for opening the door to Balzac's work. Excerpts below from Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, first published in 1834 with recent paperback edition published by Signet Classics, 2004:

"You'd very much like to know who I am, and what I've done, or what I do now, wouldn't you?" said Vautrin.  "You're too inquisitive, little man.  No, no, don't get upset.  I shall say far worse things than that!  I've had misfortunes.  Hear me first, and you can talk after.  I can tell you my previous history in a couple of words.  Who am I?  I'm Vautrin.  What do I do?  Whatever I like.  So let's get on.  You want to know about my character?  I'm good to people who are good to me, or whose hearts speak to mine.  I'll let them do anything to me; they can kick me on the shins, and I don't even say, 'Look out!'  But, by God, I'm like Satan with a man who crosses me, or doesn't suit me.  And I may as well warn you that I think about as much of killing a man as I do of that!"  And he spat forcefully on the ground. 

. . . . . . . . 

... "But I was a child at the time, I was your age, twenty-one.  I still believed in things: I believed in woman's love and all the rest of the nonsense you'll soon be getting mixed up in.  You wanted to fight me, didn't you?  Suppose you'd killed me?  Suppose I was in my grave?  Where would you be?  You'd have to clear out to Switzerland and live on papa's money; and he hasn't got very much.  I want to show you exactly the position you're in; to show you exactly how it looks to a man of experience who's examined the problems of the world and sees there are only two courses open to a man: stupid obedience, or revolt.  I take orders from no one: is that clear?  Do you know what you're going to need, to carry out your ideas?  A million; and straight-away.  Without that you might as well go and drown yourself, as others have done before you, to try and find out if there's a Supreme Being.

. . . . . . . . 

... And that's the crossroads of life, young man: choose.  But you have chosen. ...

. . . . . . . . 

"Work, as you understand it at the moment, lands you in your old age at Mamma Vauquer's in a room fit for old boys like Poiret.  The problem of quick success is the problem that fifty thousand young men in your position are trying to solve, at this very moment.  You are a single one in that battle.  Imagine the efforts you have to make; imagine the slaughter!  You'll have to eat each other like spiders in a teapot; for we all know there aren't fifty thousand places.  Do you know how people get on here?  Either by dazzling genius or by skillful corruption.  You must either cut through this mass of men like a cannon ball, or creep into it like a plague.  Honesty is no use at all.  Men bow before the power of genius.  They hate it, they try to throw mud at it, because what it takes it never shares; but they bow to it, if it perseveres.  In a word, men go down on their knees to it, if they haven't managed to trample it in the mud.  

"Corruption flourishes, talent is rare.  I mean that corruption is the weapon of countless nonentities, and you will feel it jabbing you everywhere. ...

"But what do you think an honest man is?  In Paris, an honest man is one who keeps his mouth shut, and takes and doesn't share.  I'm not referring to the poor drones who do the hard work everywhere without ever getting the slightest reward for their labors, the ones I call the Brotherhood of God's Down-at-Heels.  To be sure, that's virtue at the height of its stupidity; but it's poverty too.  I can just see the faces those fine people will pull if God plays us the dirty trick of not being there on Judgment Day.  So if you want quick success, you must either be rich to start with, or look as if you were.  To get rich, what you have to do here is play high.  Play low, and you're sunk!  In any one of the hundred professions you might enter, if there are a dozen men who get on rapidly, the public calls them thieves.  Draw your own conclusions.  That's life as it is.  It's no prettier than cooking, it smells as nasty, and you can't make a stew without getting your hands dirty.  What you have to know is how to wash them properly after - those are the ethics of our age.

"If I talk to you about society in this way, it's because I have the right to, I know it.  Do you think I'm complaining?  Not at all.  It's always been like that.  Moralists will never alter it.  Man is imperfect. ...

. . . . . . . . 

... And if I dare give you one more word of advice, my angel, it's precisely that: stick to your opinions as little as you stick to your words.  When they're asked for, sell them.  When a man boasts that he never changes his mind, he's taking it on himself always to go along one straight line, an ass who believes in infallibility.  Principles don't exist, only events.  Laws don't exist, only circumstances.  The intelligent man weds himself to them in order to control them.  If fixed principles and laws really existed, nations wouldn't keep changing them like shirts all the time.  A man can't be expected to be better behaved than a whole nation. ...

. . . . . . . . 

If there are exceptions to the draconian laws of the Parisian code, they are to be found in solitude, in men who ignore society completely and pass their lives near some clear, hidden, but ever-running brook; who are faithful to their green shades and content to listen to the language of the Infinite written all about them, which they rediscover in their own selves.  Such men can wait patiently for their heavenly wings and commiserate the earth-bound.

September 16, 2014

A Fiscal Revolution

Excerpt below from Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014:

Taxation is not a technical matter. It is preeminently a political and philosophical issue, perhaps the most important of all political issues. Without taxes, society has no common destiny, and collective action is impossible. This has always been true. At the heart of every major political upheaval lies a fiscal revolution. ...

June 11, 2014

We Must Make Our Choice

P.S.: Only Animals Pee Wherever They Want!!! 
sign seen in Elmhurst, Queens, NY
Photograph courtesy Pak So and Anna Tan

Excerpts below from Who Stole the American Dream by Hedrick Smith, published by Random House, 2012:

We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both. - Louis D. Brandeis, adviser to President Woodrow Wilson

. . . . . . . . 

The biggest failure that I've had and that Congress has had ... is the failure to slow the transfer of income up the income scale, which has left this a two-tiered society. ... The economic elite of this country has performed the biggest rip-off of the middle class in the history of the universe. - Former Representative David Obey, Wisconsin Democrat

. . . . . . . . 

But in spite of the wide peril it posed, Wall Street has escaped serious oversight. It has gotten its way in Washington to an extraordinary degree. It wields influence not only through lobbying power and lavish campaign donations, but even more through the tight symbiotic relationship it has built with official Washington.

The chieftains of the financial world have acted on the evident conviction that money spent on lobbying and political campaigns pays big policy dividends. In those terms, too, finance has no rival. In the 2009-10 election cycle, the financial sector poured roughly $318 million into congressional campaigns and spent another $946 million on lobbying - $1.25 billion in all. Most other high-profile sectors - oil, defense, pharmaceuticals - did less.

Even more striking than the flow of money is the steady flow of Wall Street luminaries and master financiers into the most important policy posts of government. At times, the line between government and banking has become blurred: Alan Greenspan, head of an elite New York financial consulting firm and board member at J.P. Morgan & Co., served as chairman of the Federal Reserve for twenty years; Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson, former top executives of Goldman Sachs, have run the Treasury for both Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush, respectively; so many Goldman alumni were recruited by Paulson to manage the taxpayer bailout for Wall Street banks that they were called "the Guys from Government Sachs"; former New York Fed president Tim Geithner, who for five years worked under a Fed board dominated by Wall Street bank CEOs, was chosen to head Treasury by President Barack Obama; and former Harvard president and economist Larry Summers, who was paid nearly $8 million in fees in 2008 by Wall Street firms and hedge funds, became the head of Obama's National Economic Council. Under Democrats as well as Republicans, Wall Street cornered the policy market.

What's more, the Washington - Wall Street axis works as a two-way street. Wall Street recruits its lobbying army from the ranks of government. During the battle over the 2010 law to regulate Wall Street, the financial services sector hired 1,447 former government officials as lobbyists - former members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers, or White House and Treasury Department policy makers as well as former high officials from other key agencies.

Finance had a lobbying team that included 73 former members of Congress, headed by two former House majority leaders, Democrat Dick Gephardt and Republican Dick Armey, and two former Republican Senate majority leaders, Bob Dole and Trent Lott. Less visible but no less influential were 115 former staff aides for the key House and Senate banking committees that were actually writing the financial reform bill. These staffers were inside experts who possessed not only intimate knowledge of the intricacies of the law, but also access to key members of Congress. Their job was to turn every conceivable subparagraph and semicolon to Wall Street's advantage.

Under The Atlantic's headline, "The finance industry has effectively captured our government," economist Simon Johnson observed "A whole generation of policy makers has been mesmerized by Wall Street .... The American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital - a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country."

What Johnson called "the Quiet Coup" was a matter not just of people, but of ideology. In the 1990s, with Greenspan chairing the Federal Reserve and Robert Rubin leading Treasury, Wall Street's laissez-faire market philosophy became Washington's conventional wisdom. Its "capture" of Washington was evident in practically every major financial policy battle under Clinton in the late 1990s and under Bush in the zero decade, and even into the battles of financial regulation under Obama.

May 11, 2014

Robbing What's Left

Life as seen on the ground at 76th Street and 
Photograph courtesy Pak So and Anna Tan

Excerpts below from Griftopia by Matt Taibbi, published by Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperback Edition, 2011:

Voters who throw their emotional weight into elections they know deep down inside won't produce real change in their lives are also indulging in a kind of fantasy. That's why voters still dream of politicians whose primary goal is to effectively govern and maintain a thriving first world society with great international ambitions. What voters don't realize, or don't want to realize, is that that dream was abandoned long ago by this country's leaders, who know the more prosaic reality and are looking beyond the fantasy, into the future, at an America plummeted into third world status.

These leaders are like the drug lords who ruled America's ghettos in the crack age, men (and some women) interested in just two things: staying in power, and hoovering up enough of what's left of the cash on their blocks to drive around in an Escalade or a 633i for however long they have left. Our leaders know we're turning into a giant ghetto and they're taking every last hubcap they can get their hands on before the rest of us wake up and realize what's happened. ...

... In the new American Ghetto, the nightmare engine is bubble economics, a kind of high-tech casino scam that kills neighborhoods just like dope does, only the product is credit, not crack or heroin. It concentrates the money of the population in just a few hands with brutal efficiency, just like narco-business, and just as in narco-business the product itself, debt, steadily demoralizes the customer to the point where he's unable to prevent himself from being continually dominated.

In the ghetto, nobody gets real dreams. What they get are short-term rip-off versions of real dreams. You don't get real wealth, with a home, credit, a yard, money for your kids' college - you get a fake symbol of wealth, a gold chain, a Fendi bag, a tricked-out car you bought with cash. Nobody gets to be really rich for long, but you do get to be pretend rich, for a few days, weeks, maybe even a few months. It makes you feel better to wear that gold, but when real criminals drive by on the overpass, they laugh.

It's the same in our new ghetto. We don't get real political movements and real change; what we get, instead, are crass show-business manipulations whose followers' aspirations are every bit as laughable and desperate as the wealth dreams of the street hustler with his gold rope. What we get, in other words, are moderates who don't question the corporate consensus dressed up as revolutionary leaders, like Barack Obama, and wonderfully captive opposition diversions like the Tea Party - the latter a fake movement for real peasants that was born that night in St. Paul, when Sarah Palin addressed her We.

. . . . . . . .

The new America, instead, is fast becoming a vast ghetto in which all of us, conservatives and progressives, are being bled dry by a relatively tiny oligarchy of extremely clever financial criminals and their castrato henchmen in government, whose main job is to be good actors on TV and put on a good show. This invisible hive of high-class thieves stays in business because when we're not completely distracted and exhausted by our work and entertainments, we prefer not to ponder the dilemma of why gasoline went over four dollars a gallon, why our pension funds just lost 20 percent of their value, or why when we do the right thing by saving money, we keep being punished by interest rates that hover near zero, while banks that have been the opposite of prudent get rewarded with free billions. In reality political power is simply taken from most of us by a grubby kind of fiat, in little fractions of a percent here and there each and every day, through a thousand separate transactions that take place in fine print and in the margins of a vast social mechanism that most of us are simply not conscious of. ...

... America's dirty little secret is that for this small group of plugged-in bubble lords, the political system works fine not just without elections, but without any political input from any people at all outside Manhattan. In bubble economics, actual human beings have only a few legitimate roles: they're either customers of the financial services industry (borrowers, investors, or depositors) or else they're wage earners whose taxes are used to provide both implicit and explicit investment insurance for the big casino-banks pushing the bubble scam. People aren't really needed for anything else in the Griftopia, but since Americans require the illusion of self-government, we have elections.

To make sure those elections are effectively meaningless as far as Wall Street is concerned, two things end up being true. One is that voters on both sides of the aisle are gradually weaned off that habit of having real expectations for their politicians, consuming the voting process entirely as culture-war entertainment. The other is that millions of tenuously middle-class voters are conned into pushing Wall Street's own twisted greed ethos as though it were their own. The Tea Party, with its weirdly binary view of society as being split up cleanly into competing groups of producers and parasites - that's just a cultural echo of the insane greed-is-good belief system on Wall Street that's provided the foundation/excuse for a generation of brilliantly complex thievery. Those beliefs have trickled down to the ex-middle-class suckers struggling to stay on top of their mortgages and their credit card bills, and the real joke is that those voters listen to CNBC and Fox and they genuinely believe they're the producers in this binary narrative. They don't get that somewhere way up above, there's a group of people who've been living the Atlas dream for real - and building a self-dealing financial bureaucracy in their own insane image.

. . . . . . . . 

Two other things are striking about the mortgage-scam era. One was that nobody in this vast rogues' gallery of characters was really engaged in building anything. If Wall Street makes its profits by moving money around from place to place and taking a cut here and there, in a sense this whole mess was a kind of giant welfare program the financial services industry simply willed into being for itself. It invented a mountain of money in the form of a few trillion dollars' worth of bogus mortgages and rolled it forward for a few years, until reality intervened - and suddenly it was announced that We the Taxpayer had to buy it from them, at what they called face value, for the good of the country.

In the meantime, and this is the second thing that's so amazing, almost everyone who touched that mountain turned out to be a crook of some kind. ...

... We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country - and still have enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

But we didn't do that, and we didn't spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we're no good anymore at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We're shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.

What are we good at? Robbing what's left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer. ...

February 17, 2014

Pig Nor Slave

Cotton picking, Pulaski County, Arkansas, 1935
Photograph by Ben Shahn

On December 26, 2013, The New York Times published an op-ed by Paul Krugman titled "The Fear Economy".

In the Readers Comments for the article, B. Appledorf of British Columbia wrote:

What kind of person works another as hard as possible for as little pay as possible to squeeze as much profit out of him or her as possible?

Neither role -- pig nor slave -- has ever appealed to me, and I have been looking over my shoulder for an uprising to sweep this model from the planet Earth for decades.

And it never comes.

January 8, 2014

The Crimes Of This Guilty Land

"Ignorance Is Bliss" scene from the 1999 film The Matrix 
YouTube video posted by imteddygammell

Excerpts below from Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen, published by Simon & Schuster, 2007:

"I had once believed that we were all masters of our fate - that we could mould our lives into any form we pleased. ... I had overcome deafness and blindness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life's struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to the advantages of my birth and environment. ... Now, however, I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone." - Helen Keller

. . . . . . . . 

This notion that "we" advanced peoples provided for the Natives, exactly the converse of the truth, is not benign. It reemerges time and again in our history to complicate race relations. For example, we are told that white plantation owners furnished food and medical care for their slaves, yet every shred of food, shelter, and clothing on the plantations was raised, built, woven, or paid for by black labor. Today Americans believe as part of our political understanding of the world that we are the most generous nation on earth in terms of foreign aid, overlooking the fact that the net dollar flow from almost every Third World nation runs toward the United States.

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This process of rationalization became unofficial national policy after the War of 1812. In 1845 William Gilmore Simms wrote, "Our blinding prejudices ... have been fostered as necessary to justify the reckless and unsparing hand with which we have smitten [American Indians] in their habitations and expelled them from their country." In 1871 Francis A. Walker, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, considered American Indians beneath morality: "When dealing with savage men, as with savage beasts, no question of national honor can arise." Whatever action the United States cared to take "is solely a question of expediency." Thus, cognitive dissonance destroyed our national idealism. From 1815 on, instead of spreading democracy, we exported the ideology of white supremacy. Gradually we sought American hegemony over Mexico, the Philippines, much of the Caribbean basin, and, indirectly, over other nations. Although European nations professed to be shocked by our actions on the western frontier, before long they were emulating us. Britain exterminated most Tasmanian aborigines; Germany pursued total war against the Herrero of Namibia. Most western nations have yet to face this history. Ironically, Adolf Hitler displayed more knowledge of how we treated Native Americans than American high schoolers today who rely on their textbooks. Hitler admired our concentration camps for American Indians in the west and according to John Toland, his biographer, "often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America's extermination - by starvation and uneven combat" as the model for his extermination of Jews and Gypsies (Rom people).

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"I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood." - John Brown

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... Thus schools have put into practice Woodrow Wilson's recommendation: "We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."

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Why leave our involvement open to question? Historians know that the CIA had earlier joined with ITT to try to defeat Allende in the 1970 elections. Failing this, the United States sought to disrupt the Chilean economy and bring down Allende's government. The United States blocked international loans to Chile, subsidized opposition newspapers, labor unions, and political parties, denied spare parts to industries, paid for and fomented a nationwide truckers' strike that paralyzed the Chilean economy, and trained and financed the military that staged the bloody coup in 1973 in which Allende was killed. The next year, CIA Director William Colby testified that "a secret high-level intelligence committee led by Kissinger himself had authorized CIA expenditures of over eight million dollars during the period 1970-73 to 'destabilize' the government of President Allende." Secretary of State Kissinger himself later explained, "I don't see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible." Since the Chilean people's "irresponsibility" consisted of voting for Allende, here Kissinger openly says that the United States should not and will not respect the electoral process or sovereignty of another country if the results do not please us.

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Even in the 1960s Hoover remained an avowed white supremacist who thought the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education was a terrible error. He helped Kentucky prosecute a Caucasian civil rights leader, Carl Braden, for selling a house in a white neighborhood to a black family. In August 1963 Hoover initiated a campaign to destroy Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement. With the approval of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he tapped the telephones of King's associates, bugged King's hotel rooms, and made tape recordings of King's conversations with and about women. The FBI then passed on the lurid details, including photographs, transcripts, and tapes, to Senator Strom Thurmond and other white supremacists, reporters, labor leaders, foundation administrators, and, of course, the president. In 1964 a high FBI administrator sent a tape recording of King having sex, along with an anonymous note suggesting that King kill himself, to the office of King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The FBI must have known that the incident might not actually persuade King to commit suicide; the bureau's intention was apparently to get Coretta Scott King to divorce her husband or to blackmail King into abandoning the civil rights movement. ...

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... My Lai was the most famous instance of what John Kerry, formerly of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, now U.S. senator, called "not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command." Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, Kerry said, "Over one hundred and fifty honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia." He went on to retell how American troops "had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam." All this was "in addition to the normal ravage of war," as Kerry pointed out in his testimony.

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... Even more important to understanding 9/11 were our actions in Iran. Chapter 8 tells of our repeated interventions on behalf of the shah, interventions that explain that country's enmity toward us today. The Iranian Revolution that overthrew the shah is key to the subsequent history of the Middle East. ... Just as we supported the shah in Iran in the 1970s, we cast our lot today with repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Uzbekistan, and elsewhere, which prompts most Arabs and many other Muslims to consider the United States "a great hypocrite," in the words of historian Scott Appleby. We preach democracy while supporting dictatorships.

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... Economics played an even more obvious role. Many of the Bush family's friends have long been involved in the construction of the oil industry and armed forces projects. In April 2003, the Bush administration put the international community on notice that U.S. companies and government agencies, not those of other nations, would rebuild Iraq. To no one's surprise, Vice President Cheney's former firm, Halliburton, has gotten more government money for this rebuilding than any other company - and has been charged with more fraud and malfeasance. Meanwhile, Cheney continues to receive $150,000 a year in deferred compensation from Halliburton and has stock options worth more than $18 million in it. Conversely, to help ensure Cheney's reelection and that of his allies, Halliburton funneled more than half a million dollars to the Republican Party.

... If anyone still doubted that oil played a key role, in 2007 Dow Jones announced that Iraq's puppet parliament was considering a law "which the U.S. government has been helping to craft" that would give giant Western oil companies thirty-year contracts to extract Iraqi oil. Moreover, 75 percent of the profits in the early years would go to the foreign companies, compared to an average of 10 percent in other oil-producing countries.

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... "If our sources of energy are not infinite, which seems likely since we live on a finite planet, then at some point we will run up against shortages." ... Given these circumstances, most social and natural scientists concluded from the 1973 energy crisis that we cannot blithely maintain our economic growth forever. "Anyone having the slightest familiarity with the physics of heat, energy, and matter," wrote Mishan in 1977, "will realize that, in terms of historical time, the end of economic growth, as we currently experience it, cannot be that far off." This is largely because of the awesome power of compound interest. Economic growth at 3 percent, a conventional standard, means that the economy doubles every quarter-century, typically doubling society's use of raw materials, expenditures of energy, and generation of waste.

The energy crises of 1973 and 1979 pointed to the difficulty that capitalism, a marvelous system of production, was never designed to accommodate shortage. ...

... Because the economy has become global, the commons now encompasses the entire planet. If we consider that around the world humans owned ten times as many cars in 1990 as 1950, no sane observer would predict that such a proportional increase could or should continue for another forty years. According to Jared Diamond, in 2005 the average American consumed thirty-two times as much of the world's largesse and produced thirty-two times as much pollution as the average Third World citizen. Our continued economic development coexists in some tension with the corollary of the archetype of progress: the notion that America's cause is the cause of all humankind. Thus, our economic leadership is very different from our political leadership. Politically, we can hope other nations will put in place our forms of democracy and respect for civil liberties. Economically, we can only hope other nations will never achieve our standard of living, for if they did, the earth would become a desert. Economically, we are the bane, not the hope of the world. Since the planet is finite, as we expand our economy we make it less likely that less developed nations can expand theirs.  Today, increasing demand for fuel for Chinese vehicles is already creating a worldwide oil shortage.