Thursday, February 04, 2016

A Feeble and Horrible Year

The great and terrible irony of capitalism is that if left unfettered, it inexorably engineers its own demise, through either revolution or economic collapse.” Robert Scheer, The Great American Stickup

I’ve never set foot within Iowa’s boundaries. It’s the middle land, flat country, with an economy centered on agriculture and insurance; the highest point in the state is Hawkeye Point at 1,670 feet above sea level. Every presidential election cycle, Iowa takes a turn in the spotlight as the center of the American political universe, and then it returns to being, well, Iowa.

So maybe Hillary Clinton and the Clinton family political machine isn’t invincible after all. Until the Iowa Caucus, Hillary looked the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, a shoo-in with too many advantages for any other candidate to overcome, especially one like Bernie Sanders who proudly proclaims  himself a socialist. Americans are conditioned from birth to fear socialists and communists and Maoists, or any other doctrine that doesn’t exalt free market capitalism; calling yourself a socialist is normally a political death sentence.

I wrote Sanders off in these pages some time back -- not because his economic message doesn’t resonate, it does -- but because the political status quo is so difficult to beat. The truth is that I desperately want to believe that someone like Bernie Sanders can be elected President, but my doubts are as strong as my desperation. The ruling class will not go quietly or let go of its privileges easily; they are on a major winning streak and control nearly every gear of power. Hillary Clinton is an ally of the ruling elites, one of them, a Wall Street suckup if there ever was one, and she will do their bidding when push becomes shove. Same goes for the Pentagon. Hillary seems to enjoy saber rattling, and she will be unlikely to throw a lug wrench into the perpetual war machine. Sanders might, although he’s not completely averse to militarism.

Sanders did better in Iowa than I thought he would and I’m sure the Clinton camp is concerned that Madam is in a battle from which she may emerge bruised or bloodied.

The Clinton coronation is now behind schedule.

The nation is clearly unsettled and seething with anxiety. The middle class is battered. Young people face a diminished future, with many saddled by student loan debt and lousy job prospects. Middle-aged whites, particularly males, have seen their economic and social advantages eroded. They need a scapegoat, and Mexican immigrants, Muslims and other minorities make for inviting targets. Donald Trump speaks in a language these people understand at a subconscious level. Though a complete buffoon, a joke that no thinking person can take seriously, Trump understands how to connect with certain people on a gut level. Make America Great Again is a nice sounding slogan and looks good on a bumper sticker, but what does it mean? Trump says he will make “deals,” as if the political world is merely an extension of a corporate boardroom. It’s not. The world is frighteningly complex and dangerous, many times beyond the Donald’s ken.

I’m not surprised that Cruz won Iowa, although the victory over Trump and Rubio doesn’t make Cruz any less creepy. Past GOP winners of the Iowa Caucus include Mike Huckabee and crazy Michele Bachmann, so winning Iowa isn’t, frankly, that grand a prize. Cruz will pick up momentum on the GOP fringes, with Holy Book thumpers and mainstream media handicappers, but Teddy will also learn that with frontrunner status comes intense scrutiny. Ted has made many bizarre statements during his political career, and all those birds will flock home.

Rubio is still my pick for the GOP. When the dust settles, and Trump and Cruz have totally freaked the GOP mandarins out, Rubio’s youth and ethnicity might prove a realistic default.  This hardly means Rubio is presidential material. None of the GOP contenders are; it’s a weak and sorry bunch of nitwits and hacks.  

More and more Americans are aware that something is fundamentally out of kilter with the way our society is organized, that the American Dream is only available to a select few, and that the means to redress the situation are missing. Thus the appeal of a political outsider like Trump or an unusual voice like that of Bernie Sanders. Too much economic and political power has lodged in too few hands, and the Casino Economy offers more jagged edges than benefits for working people.

When it comes to ideas, the GOP offers nothing but more of the same. Sadly, the Democrats aren’t much better, though at least Sanders is talking about middle and working class issues like college tuition, Medicare for All, and increasing the contribution of the wealthy to the common good. Better still, Sanders is not a serial liar like Hillary Clinton.

If nothing else, that’s refreshing, and in this feeble and horrible political year we take what we can.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Under the Rainbow

There is nothing good in the world that does not have some filth in its origin.” Anton Chekov

It’s raining here on the Platinum Coast of California, a welcome occurrence in the midst of a horrendous drought. The trees and ground open wide. The gutters run. My old Honda Civic will be washed clean.

I haven’t written anything for several days. I wonder what is happening in Fukushima, Japan. How much contamination is flowing into the Pacific Ocean? Why doesn’t the media talk about Fukushima? What is going on with the cleanup effort and what has become of all the people who had to be relocated? I think about the photographs I saw of black bags filled with radioactive debris and soil. Where are those bags now?

In the US our attention is focused on Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Iowa caucuses, the halftime show at the Super Bowl, and whatever trivia the corporate media deems essential for us to know. Opinion matters but facts don’t count for much. Don’t like the hard cold facts? Simply ignore them.

Like all those black bags in Fukushima. Can we simply jam our heads in the sand and refuse to see or care? Sure, we do it all the time. We collectively forget, until the next time, and then we act surprised, like such a terrible thing has never happened before. The human species enjoys playing with fire, rolling the dice, betting heavy against long odds.

Rain falls, I think of my responsibilities and obligations, debts, errors, miscues, fuck-ups, folly and for some reason unknown to me I think of Henry Miller and Anton Chekov; I see Miller standing at the edge of a cliff in Big Sur, looking out on the Pacific with his hands on his hips. Chekov is sitting at his desk in a smoky, dimly lit room, a pen in his hand and a faraway look in his eyes. The artist shies neither from the beauty or the horror of the world. Miller turns from the cliff edge, Chekov puts pen to paper. Which is the stronger urge, to create or to destroy?

Navigate broken sidewalks, crumbling stairs, rickety scaffolding, peer through broken windows, step over a child’s shoe and a deck of cards, a syringe and a pile of cigarette butts. Rats scratch inside the walls, gnaw on wire and drywall. The rat, the cockroach and the crow are true survivors; when we are long gone, they will still be here, sorting through our detritus, running through our monuments, and taking up permanent residence in our holy places.

The wind gusts, yanking the eucalyptus trees in the yard this way and that, the wind chimes talk fast, and the sun ducks behind the clouds. There is a rainbow around here somewhere.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Obama Legacy

“We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1967

Obama has made his last State of the Union speech, and of course he reports that the union is strong. When was the last time an American president claimed otherwise? Obama might have told the truth and admitted that the union is troubled, unequal, and full of discontented, frightened citizens, but that would make him a leader rather than a politician dedicated to preserving the status quo.

And one key to preserving the status quo is to repeat myths, half-truths, and of course, outright, bald-faced lies. Thus, the state of our union is strong and the wars we wage are just; our enemies are evil, hell-bent on our destruction; the economy is humming along (even if all the gains go to the wealthy); Americans are the chosen people, the last best hope for the world, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good political speech (although I passed on this one) and without doubt Obama is a gifted orator. After all, his rhetorical gift is what brought him to  widespread attention in 2004, and his ability on the stump was one reason he captured the presidency only four years later. The problem with Obama is that his actions and policies rarely measure up to his rhetoric.

Obama began abandoning the voters who got him to the White House the minute his first Inaugural address was over. People forget that Obama surrounded himself with Clinton-era retreads, and awful, deceitful people like Timothy Geithner, or corporate workhorses like Eric Holder. This was a clear signal, very early on, about whose interests Obama was looking after.

The rich and powerful never had anything to fear from the Obama Administration.

I voted for the man, only the one time, and within a year was totally disillusioned. Like millions of others, I had been duped by the rhetoric.

How will history measure Obama’s presidency? That depends of course on who tells the tale. For instance, Obama is given credit by many mainstream types for being the president who got Osama bin Laden. Some accounts are so rah-rah they make it seem that it was Obama himself who stormed bin Laden’s compound and shot the arch terrorist dead. Let’s get real for a minute. The US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, quickly overran the Taliban and supposedly had bin Laden cornered in the Tora Bora mountains, only to see him escape into the hinterlands and vanish -- for ten years! -- despite being the most wanted man in the world, target #1 of the FBI, CIA, NSA, DIA, NSC and Naval Intelligence. And here’s the kicker: for much of those 10 years, bin Laden’s whereabouts were known to our staunch ally in the War on Terror, Pakistan. Why did this heroic execution take so long?

And how about Obama’s doublespeak when it comes to government transparency? He claimed that his administration would be the most open and transparent in history -- until information leaked and then Obama showed his true colors, unleashing the full force and power of the government against whistleblowers and journalists like Jeffrey Sterling and James Risen.

History will, or should, record that Obama was for a time Executioner in Chief, deciding who would die by remote-controlled drone strike in the badlands of Yemen, Afghanistan or Pakistan, without formal charges ever being filed, without trial or any kind of due process. Perhaps some of the selected targets were terrorists, but many were not, and in either case, innocents were murdered. If any nation on this planet (except Israel, of course, which can pretty much murder whoever it wants without consequence) arrogated to itself the right to murder people beyond its own borders, the United States would bellow to the heavens about international law and sovereign territory. In other words, we would have a shit fit.

Obama frittered away his congressional majorities in his first term. He had a window of time to act boldly, but he choose to act cautiously; he allowed his political opponents to seize control of the national agenda. And then he lost his majorities and with them any hope of getting much done against a dysfunctional Congress. Granted, Obama got the Affordable Care Act done, but if this doesn’t lead to a single-payer system like Medicare for all -- the only sensible, equitable, humane system --  Obama’s victory is hollow.

Since the nation is celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, it may be instructive to examine Obama’s accomplishments through the lens of the three evils MLK enumerated not long before he was gunned down: militarism, poverty, and racism. The War on Terror is now in its 15th year. Along with Iraq, Libya and Syria are in ruins. Obama has prosecuted the war with fervor, backpedaled on his promise to end the American occupation of Afghanistan (we’re still there) and as of this writing, failed to close our offshore penitentiary at Guantanamo. I will say that Obama deserves credit for negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran. While it seems hypocritical to me that Israel is allowed to stockpile nuclear weapons, and Iran is sanctioned for its peaceful nuclear program, it was right to engage Iran rather than isolate Iran.

Income inequality has not lessened under Obama, not that it could since he has essentially followed the same economic policies as his predecessor. The gap between wealthy and poor,  haves and have nots, continues to widen, with more and more wealth -- and power -- concentrating in fewer hands. The middle class is on life support. Although the government reports that millions of jobs have been created during Obama’s term, we should ask for details about those jobs. Are they permanent or temporary, full time or part time, do they provide fringe benefits, and what do they pay -- a living wage or a precarious one? 

Obama claimed early in his presidency that we had entered a post-racial era. Wrong. Racism is alive and well in America, and even Obama himself has been the target of racial animus and disrespect. The numbers of young African-American males shot and killed by white policemen on the streets of this country are striking. Black lives remain cheap and disposable; more often than not, despite evidence and testimony, white police officers walk away from fatal shootings, scot free.

From now until he leaves the White House for a financially lucrative post-residency, Obama and his people will devote themselves to burnishing his image. There will be a library and a foundation, books and speeches. The reality of Obama’s time in office will never measure up to the PR, and by MLK’s standards, his legacy is mixed indeed. 

Friday, January 08, 2016

Big Short, Big Shaft

“The right will always invoke an enemy within. They will insist on a distinction between real Americans and those who say they are but aren’t. This latter is your basic nativist amalgam of people of the wrong color, recent immigration or incorrect religious persuasion.” E.L. Doctorow, Notes on Art & Politics

My wife and I saw the Big Short a few days ago, a fine, clever film based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis about the collapse of the American housing market in 2008. This calamity, engineered by the unfettered greed of the big banks, legions of mortgage brokers and real estate hucksters, with assistance from the Federal Reserve, Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s, and gutted regulatory agencies, caused widespread misery in this country – homes, jobs, and savings obliterated practically overnight – that is still being felt today.  

The Big Short captures the exuberance of the gamblers – those clever and cunning people who figured out how to bet against the American housing market and win – as well as the rapacity of the financial industry. As we all know, or should, the major banks, along with AIG, received millions of taxpayer dollars to remain solvent. In fact, in a perverse twist that could only happen in a country held captive by its financial industry, some of the banks emerged larger and more powerful than they were before the collapse.

I remember thinking at the time how glorious it was to be an American banker. You billed yourself a capitalist, praised “free markets” and the glory of being unfettered by annoying government oversight and regulation; you made risky, even criminal wagers on complicated financial instruments, and then, when the house of straw imploded, took money from the government with both hands as if being rescued by the hapless taxpayers was your divine right.

Is this a magnificent country or what?

In another perverse irony, former executives from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms were tapped to lead the nation out of the wilderness. In a world flipped on its head, the thieves became the police. How they must have laughed as they shuttled from Wall Street boardrooms to the corridors of power in Washington.

It wasn’t so easy for folks in the states hammered hardest by the fraud, including Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and California. Mortgage loans were easy to obtain before the bubble burst, all you needed was a pulse and a signature and the home of your dreams was yours along with the expectation that its value would appreciate forever and ever. When reality reasserted itself, millions of people were ruined.

Eight years later, the crash is almost forgotten. Once the Occupy Movement was silenced, 2008 has been out of sight, out of mind. The Obama Administration and the mainstream media have pushed the narrative of recovery, of job creation and a rising stock market. Isn’t capitalism wonderful? Oh, how the invisible hand corrects itself. Try that line out on the man who lost his house, his job and his pension. What we have in America now is socialism for the wealthy and austerity for the rest, and when the wealthy and powerful fuck things up, the poor and weak pay for it.

Eight years on and an organization called Keep Your Home California still runs TV ads promising help for homeowners on the brink of foreclosure.

The Big Short might as easily been titled, The Big Shaft.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In Search of Wiser Heads & Hearts

A very few people owned most of the land and were keenly resented. Three percent of the population controlled 50 percent of the wealth. People were not stupid; there was general knowledge of the plunder, chicanery, favoritism, privilege of name and corruption of government officials that had created such inequity.” E.L. Doctorow, Notes on Art & Politics

What period of American history do you think E.L. Doctorow was referring to in the passage quoted above? It sounds like contemporary times, doesn’t it, when the members of the Forbes 400 congratulate themselves for owning more wealth than, well, almost all of the rest of us serfs, combined.

But Doctorow wasn’t writing about our times, he was writing about America the colony, before the revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Even back then, the elites ruled, and often by means of the same tactics employed by the wealthy today: plunder, chicanery, and that reliable old standby, corruption. Like the buying of influence with campaign contributions, or funding think tanks to churn out favorable policy analysis and positions, or hiring lobbyists to stroke and soothe and succor elected officials.

Chris Hedges, whose Truthdig column I read every week, sees a dire, dystopian future for America, full-scale social collapse, environmental devastation, and an internal crackdown on anyone who dares to buck the prevailing corporate-controlled order. For the sake of my children, I want to believe that Hedges is wrong and that wiser heads and hearts will put America right before it’s too late. But I also think we are running short on time, and that it’s unlikely a savior will rise from within the current broken two-party system.

We might be fucked. Look at the leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination, Donald Trump, and at the wing nut right behind him, Ted Cruz. Even if you’re not an American, these men should scare you. It’s not much better on the Democratic side. Democrats once stood for working people, the poor, the elderly and infirm, but that was years ago, before a certain charismatic governor from Arkansas figured out that Democrats could cut deals with big time corporate money men; his wife has the same jones for Wall Street.

Bernie Sanders is no more than window-dressing, a candidate with no purpose other than to hoodwink the electorate into thinking it has a choice. Sanders never had a chance in hell of securing the nomination, that’s not how the rules of the fixed game work. Because of Sanders, Dame Clinton may make populist noises, but once she has the nomination in her crooked fingers, and she will, any and all left-leaning positions she once espoused will be ditched faster than her hubby ever ditched a one-night stand.

The grim outlines that Chris Hedges writes about week after week are visible – if one looks behind and beyond the BS that passes for news in the corporate media.

The clock is winding down.