Sunday, December 1, 2013

Breaking Poorly

The big hit of the past TV season was Breaking Bad, so I’m told. This I only know second hand since I don’t do boob tube. In the past 50 years or so I’ve only lived with one for about 3 years. Even though I’ve never watched the show I can state with some confidence that it exemplifies the reasons why I can’t stand TV. It simply doesn’t know how to ring true or represent what’s actually happening in the real world. That’s in spite of the fact that it purports to be part of the new genre of ‘good’ TV.
The story revolves around a good guy who turns bad because of big financial problems. Being a chemistry teacher he uses his skills to cook meth to make up for going bankrupt, loosing his house and having a chronic disease, cancer I think. The entire premise of the show is unbelievable if not preposterous. While it is possible for a person to do meth on a regular basis and still retain their basic goodness, I might not believe it if I hadn’t personally known such a person, because speed freaks, not to mention meth cookers, tend to be on the bottom rung of low-lives. They’re tense, angry, nasty and short on basic humanity. Of all the illegal drugs, meth has the most damaging effect on personality and health.
In other words, if a ‘good’ guy goes into illegal drugs it wouldn’t be as a meth cooker, it’d be making LSD or Ecstasy or one of the other designer drugs or setting up an old fashioned marijuana grow operation. Back in the States recently talking to my 21-year-old grandson about the show I asked him if it was ever mentioned in the show how millions of people lost their homes because of the unconscionable greed of the banksters who crashed the economy while getting rich themselves. And how even as millions of common people were kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves, the banks and their CEOs got bailed out by the government. Needless to say, that was never spoken of since it’s not part of the corporate TV narrative. I expect the subject of foreclosures was dealt with as if people lose their houses all the time with no-one else to blame but themselves.
The other reason why Mr. Good guy turned Bad is a chronic illness so I queried my grandson further asking if the show ever mentioned that the US is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t provide universal health care, that doesn’t take care of all its citizens; thus the only rich country in which people go bankrupt because of health care costs. Of course not, that would be political, that would mean talking about the things that real people talk about. I’ve never seen a show in which the characters talked about the things I and my friends talk about. There’s never been a conversation on TV that reflected the feelings of real people, at least those who aren’t totally bought into the corporate program. It’s pap, time-filler, skim-the-surface thinking, meant to be clever while keeping watchers stupid, stupefied and uninformed. When asked if they approve of the Affordable Care Act, Americans say yes. When the same question is asked about Obamacare they say the opposite even though they are one and the same. People don’t get that clueless and stupid by accident. They have to be taught to be dunces.
It’s like during the recent government shut-down fiasco when corporate media framed the story as both sides not being willing to compromise as if both were at fault, when it was the Repugs trying to hold the government hostage to achieve their goals of repealing Obamacare when they were unable to do so through the ballot box, you know, democracy. For once, Obama found his guts and refused to go against the will of the people, who after all had just re-elected him. Too bad he didn’t bend to the common will when he designed Obamacare, his monumentally complicated gift to the insurance companies. All polling has consistently shown very large majorities for single-payer health care, Medicare for all Americans. (For you non-Americans, Medicare is socialized medicine for people over 65 and the disabled.) He was afraid if he didn’t get the insurance companies behind the plan he’d get nothing so in the end the American people got crap. The fact that it is significantly better than the extremely rotten system that came before in no way makes it less than crap.
For instance, people have a choice of plans that range from bronze to platinum. The bronze plan requires a 40% co-pay which, considering the extreme cost of all health care in America, is essentially worthless. It only makes sense when Medicaid, the subsidized health care for low income people is added. Those whose income is too high to qualify for Medicaid will still be forced into bankruptcy from co-pays. At the present time 60% of all health care related bankruptcies are from people who had health insurance.
Obamacare doesn’t do anything to tackle the high cost of medication. For instance, living in Cambodia where it’s almost always humid I invariably have a fungus growing between my toes and need a fungicide to keep it in check. Here I pay 62 cents for 10 grams of anti-fungal cream, which is manufactured in Malaysia, a middle income country. In the US, in a discount market, the same cream costs $6.30 for 1.5 grams: seventy times more. This is a common generic medication; there’s no research necessary and no patents involved and no reason other than greedy underhanded corporate dominance and high friends in government that can justify or explain, that discrepancy. Americans are getting ripped off, clear and simple.
For all his efforts to placate the insurance industry - Obamacare is modeled after a plan designed by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank - all he’s gotten is flack. For all the shit he’s had thrown at him, he should’ve done it right the first time and set up a single payer system. That could’ve included an opt-out provision for crazies who prefer private insurance to Medicare.
I had an opportunity while back in the States recently to use Medicare for the first time, and in fact got to use an Obamacare rule-change that only came into effect on October 1st this year. Now all insurance has to provide free preventative services and so I thought I ought to get a check up, since I don’t remember the last time. Previously, Medicare patients who didn’t pay $100 extra per month had to pay 20% of costs for everything including check-ups. Simple as it is, Medicare is more complicated than it should be. It should be free for everyone all the time.
Many people back there asked me about health care in Cambodia. If it has to do with medicine, it’s very cheap – a course of antibiotics is a dollar or two – and there’s no such thing as prescriptions. If they have it they’ll sell it to you with few exceptions. For instance, getting morphine isn’t always so easy unless you say, or they can see, that you are in terrible pain.
Treatment is also cheap enough, but also inferior. A friend broke his hand and had it put back together here in Kampot. It works, he can still play drums, but it’s offset sideways about a quarter-inch from where it should be. A serious fracture requires a trip to Vietnam or Thailand unless you want to come out all twisted out of shape.
Another friend had a serious hernia, size of an orange was how he described it. He didn’t trust Cambodia so went to a Thai border town. At first he went to a branch of a hospital chain that caters to foreigners. They wanted $3500. He decided that was too much and wandered around till he found a hospital for locals. Three nights in the hospital, doctors and all expenses included, cost $380. In America, probably 100 times as much, though there they’d probably kick him out of the hospital after one night and it’d only cost ten or twenty grand. I have a hernia issue myself. It’s a small bubble and if my guts start to pop out I can shove them back in – makes a strange squishy sound when I do that. Considering my friend’s experience, I can probably get mine fixed as an outpatient here for far less than the 20% share I’d have to pay on basic Medicare back in the states.
I know guys back in the States who, seemingly strong and healthy, had minor heart attacks. I’m not sure how that would get taken care of here, though there is a new teaching hospital started by a western doctor near the city. Would I get there in time to avoid complications? I don’t think about it much… whatever happens. I’ve been to see a doctor maybe 5 times in the past 50 years, take only recreational drugs and get plenty of exercise. I’m certainly getting creaky in places, but I’m not going to obsess or worry about it, just try to take care of it naturally. For instance, my toes tend to cramp up. When I asked a nurse friend about it five years ago, she said calcium deficiency. So now I drink milk – not all that much but for decades previously I only used it in coffee – and almost every time I cook I include a dark green vegetable which is the local equivalent of spinach and when I remember I take calcium supplements. My toes still seize up occasionally but nothing like before.
I can just imagine how decrepit I’d be if I didn’t exercise and eat healthy. My cholesterol is excellent and my liver and kidneys are working just fine. My blood pressure is higher than it should be, but still not in the problem area, and my lung capacity is a bit short, which is not surprising considering I’ve been smoking one thing or another for the last 60 years... I can still play sax, so it can’t be that bad. So, all in all still kicking at 72.
But like with my friends, health problems can hit you quite suddenly, so who knows what can happen? Worst comes to worst, I’d have to make a trip back there into the hands of Medicare and Medicaid and try to survive on $680 per month. Wow, that would be an awful fate.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Misplaced Displaced Outrage

Lately, I often seem to come across people who, though they may not see themselves as regressives, still dutifully parrot the wingnut party line in regards to slamming the ‘takers’, ‘moochers’, ‘freeloaders’,  ‘lazy welfare cheats’ who live off of the taxes paid by hard working people like themselves. Now that burns me, not because there aren’t lots of common people who’re gaming or trying to game the system, but rather because they find it so easy to pick on the little guy while being blind to the really big rip-off sleazeballs whose gaming not only involves billions, but often also crashes the whole system when their games don’t work out.
In the latest iteration a friend of a friend on facebook was snidely pointing out that individuals who’re about to lose $36 of their $657 monthly food stamp allotment will just have to get by with less beer and cigs. I had to point out that the figure he quoted was for a family of 4, not an individual. A big part of the problem is that many of these people have their information so wrong they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, not to mention that they’re so out of touch with reality, they actually believe the crap that comes out of their mouths. Anybody who thinks the government gives individuals more than six hundred dollars a month in food stamps might as well be living on a parallel universe.
Five billion dollars is being cut from the food stamp program to satisfy the Repugs new found crusade to reduce the deficit. New found because they love deficits and debt when they’re in power. Besides they’ve never come across a program that helps the bottom rung of society that they didn’t hate and it’s been that way since the first social programs were enacted in the 1930s Great Depression. Herbert Hoover, president when the depression began in 1929, was adamantly opposed to feeding the poor since it would ruin their self-reliance. Better to starve than depend on government handouts. The Dumbocrats are hardly blameless, since they love to capitulate to every petty demand of the Repugs.
47 million people are on food stamps; not surprising considering that unemployment is still very high and a lot of the new jobs being created pay so little that even many full time workers, such as those working for Mall*Wart and the fast food chains, qualify for benefits. McDonald’s website has a page devoted to helping its employees in their budgeting. One item is get a second job. Another is apply for food stamps. Another allocates $20 per month for health care.
But lets put that $5b food stamp cut into a little perspective. General Electric, one of the world’s largest, richest corporations, earned $14b last year. It not only didn’t pay any taxes but got a $3.5b refund from the IRS. The difference between what they should have paid at 35% and what actually happened was $8b. So, in essence, 47 million people take a hit so one corporation can enjoy just 60% of its corporate subsidy. Or how about the special tax breaks for Big Oil of another $8b per year. Exxon Mobile before 47 million Americans? Obviously top priority for the US government. Clearly doesn’t impact their self-reliance. They’re already so rich, the paltry $8b we throw at them doesn’t even amount to all that much when you consider just one of them has profits up around $50b annually.
Another much more egregious example of misunderstanding and/or manipulation and/or just plain ignorance, was a screed forwarded by a friend, in which the writer railed against the situation in New Orleans, in which welfare mothers receive $1500 per month per child. He then went on to tally up what a single mom with 9 kids would get; something like $16,000 per month. Now I’ve heard that places like New Zealand and the UK are quite generous with the dole, but the idea that anyone in their right mind could think that welfare pays that much in the US is hideously, ludicrously out of touch. And further, the idea that anyone with half a brain could think that that happens in Louisiana, probably the stingiest, meanest state in the country regarding welfare, is almost beyond comprehension; nobody could be that stupid or misinformed. Deceitful yes, but not that innocent of reality.
The family-values radical conservatives who pride themselves on their welfare stinginess think staying home and taking care of the babies is only valuable or important for middle class women. The single parents dependent on welfare are supposed to get a job, even though affordable child-care is rare and the jobs they might be qualified for don’t pay enough to live on. Nevertheless, they are the lazy takers sucking on the government’s tits whose only goal is to scam the system so they can live high and drive Cadillacs. $16,000 a month for nine kids, pretty good deal, huh?
A while back another government hater went on about how BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – paid its drivers $100,000 per year. As it happens, not long ago the BART drivers held a strike action and according to the news reports, drivers earn $60,000 not $100,000. Besides BART is not really a government, at best it’s a quasi-government, charged only with running the trains. At any rate the median house price in the San Francisco Bay Area is now about $550,000. Even the meanest, cheapest run-down shack is likely to cost in excess of $300,000 and with mortgage, taxes and insurance, not to mention upkeep, that ultimate fixer-upper will cost a minimum $3000 per month. Compare that to driver’s pay which is $5000 per month before taxes. $60,000 sounds like a lot of money to me, but in the Bay Area, it’s just barely getting by.
It’s all part of the drive on the part of conservatives to demonize public servants. They have it too easy, they’re living high off the public hog. Even while Wisconsin’s Repug governor was giving a $200m tax break for corporations he insisted it was important to reduce civil workers pay and strip them of any worker rights. Teachers earn about $50,000 in Wisconsin. Doable but hardly luxurious. Back in the 1950s and 60s, teacher pay was so low that only certain people could do that job. It was either those who were so dedicated to teaching they were willing to sacrifice their economic well-being to do something they loved, or the losers, people who couldn’t make it in the commercial world. They were decent enough people, but, for a variety of reasons, they happened to be lousy teachers. They were quirky or nervous or too strange to make in a corporation, but they passed the civil service test and had the qualifications and so got the jobs and besides the schools had no choice, the potentially good people didn’t want to make the personal sacrifice.
At that point the public realized how important is was to raise pay so that quality teachers would be attracted to the profession. One of the most important tasks a society has is to educate its children. Lately, plying the 1% with generous tax benefits, giving the banks $85b per month of free money, letting the corporations create offshore tax havens and other tax dodges so they don’t have to support the US government, leaving stock transactions untaxed so the big banks can play with their lighting fast trading schemes that have no social purpose whatever and are destructive besides, all those are (seemingly) more important than education, health and social welfare in the eyes of conservatives and their Dumbocrat enablers.
A recent study tried to gauge the happiness of the people of different nations. The high-tax welfare states of Scandinavia all came out on top. They are all highly productive, very wealthy countries so, evidently, sky-high taxes don’t necessarily stymie innovation and growth, but they do provide the security and benefits that let people enjoy life. They work fewer hours than Americans and are guaranteed a minimum 4 weeks vacation per year by the EU. I met a Dutch couple high up on a mountain in Nepal some years ago, both of whom worked in a bank. They got 7 weeks of vacation a year and said some of their co-workers thought that wasn’t enough. Americans are lucky to get 3 weeks after working the same job for 10 years.
When the rollout of automation in the 60s started reducing the need for workers many people believed or proposed that it could lead to shorter work hours and greater leisure time for workers. The industrialists hated that idea since it would lead to people earning and consuming less, so instead of working less Americans are now working more (those who have jobs at least). Amongst the benefits of a shorter work week, aside from the obvious spreading the work around, is that it would substantially reduce peak hour traffic. Whether it’s 6 hours 5 days a week or 8 hours 4 days a week traffic would ease up by about 20%. At any rate, that’s not where the US is headed.
Finally, you’ve heard that the US economy is growing, lately about 2.5% annually, and jobs are being created. Unfortunately, 95% of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1%, at least partly as a result of the FED printing free money for the banks and partly because most of the new jobs being created offer dismal pay. It wasn’t an accident. Maybe the policymakers who created the current conditions where almost everything goes to the top, didn’t realize that would happen, but nonetheless it was their policies that did it. Just as it was no accident, it’s also not inevitable, not engraved in stone, not dictated by the ‘free market’. In a democracy that truly represented the people rather than the elite that would not be happening. Meanwhile the fact that congress could hit on the bottom rung of Americans who’re getting food stamps for a measly $5b while keeping the position of the privileged sacrosanct, says we are a long way from fairness and decency… Mean-spiritedness Lives.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

NAFTA on Steroids

Maybe you’ve heard of the Trans Pacific Partnership. It’s a supersized trade pact that includes the US, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Chile. It probably doesn’t get much play in the corporate media. The negotiations have been in secret with the expectation that a finished product will be dealt to the participating countries who will be expected to ratify the treaty very quickly and without amendments – referred to as fast-tracking. Makes sense in a way, if everybody were allowed to offer lots of amendments, the negotiations might take forever.
Fast-tracking wouldn’t be quite as bad if the citizenry knew what was going on and had a voice in the preparation of the treaty. The only way we the people have caught a glimpse of the negotiations is through a leaker. The talks are so secret not even the US congress has been privy to their directions except for a few individual cases. The only people allowed at the table are the trade representatives from each country and 600 corporate lobbyists. Labor? Environment? Civil Society? No, impossible, just get in the way.
The main thrust of the talks is not lower tariffs, they’re already very low, it’s protection of corporate profits; that is, the ability to sue governments when its rules or regulations impact corporate profit potential. If the government where you decide to put your toxic waste dump says no way, you sue them and they either let you go ahead with your plans or they pay for your lost profits. That’s exactly what happened to a Mexican town near the border. It cost them $28 million to keep Metalclad corporation’s hazardous waste dump out of their town.
The tribunal that decides on these matters meets in secret and is made up entirely of corporate hacks; they decided against the environment the first 48 times such a matter was brought before them. In essence, in theory, I’m in favor of free trade, but what we usually get is unfair trade. For instance, when NAFTA came into effect Mexico was flooded with subsidized US corn which resulted in millions of poor Mexican farmers being driven off their land. Might’ve been acceptable in my mind had the US corn not been subsidized, but that’s not how it works.
Obama campaigned on a promise to renegotiate NAFTA; he is, in fact, renegotiating except it’s designed to make it worse for you and I, even smoother sailing for the corps.

The following is quoted from an article in

“For corporations, the TPP is a convenient back-door means of undermining public interest policies that they oppose but are not able to undermine through domestic legislation. If enacted, all existing and future US law would have to comply with the treaty, or the US could face trade sanctions. Environmental, health, food safety, human rights and Internet freedom protections could all be limited by the TPP. The deal could derail attempts to rein in Wall Street, making it impossible to regulate risky financial products, implement a “Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions or enforce size limits on big banks and capital controls.
Corporations, meanwhile, would gain vastly expanded privileges over federal, state and local government. A draft chapter leaked last year detailed the inclusion of a legal structure, called an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, that would essentially allow multinationals to sue a government if they believe a policy infringes on their rights. A tribunal unaccountable to any electorate would decide the case and the damages owed, with no option for appeal. Similar investor-state rules have been included in a number of other free-trade deals, including NAFTA, and cases are surging, as are the damages awarded. Last year corporations won 70 percent of disputes.”

Without the brave actions of another leaker, we would have no idea what’s being discussed. A recent article about the TPP in our local newspaper here in Cambodia, reprinted from a Japanese paper makes no mention of the disastrous impact the TPP could have on participating countries. Just another trade pact. Not to worry. Trust us, we have your best interest at heart.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Manning, Snowden, Assange for Nobel Peace Prize

After the disastrous and altogether premature decision to award Obama the peace prize in 2010 the Nobel committee owes us one. Who better than the above three brave people who’ve chosen to sacrifice their normal lives, not to mention the loss or possible loss of their freedom, and subject themselves to the potential of abuse and maniacal harassment, all for the sake of unveiling to the people of the world the web of secrecy, hypocrisy and deceit that surrounds the US and, as we’ve seen lately, the UK governments.
As a poignant indicator of how debased the US government has become in the eyes of the world, Eric Holder, America’s chief law enforcement officer, in his plea to Russia to have Snowden returned for prosecution, felt it necessary to assure Putin that Snowden would neither be tortured or abused and given a fair trial. After the government’s disgraceful treatment of Manning, his assurances beggar belief.
Thirty-five years in prison for embarrassing the US government. In spite of the constant hype, there’s not been a single incident in which actual harm was done to an individual in government by Manning’s leaks. He did, however, release diplomatic cables which provided information which helped to solidify the opposition to Abedine Ben-Ali of Tunisia and led to his ouster, amongst other important revelations. He also opened the world to US duplicity and hypocrisy. The American servicemen who recorded themselves murdering 14 innocent people including women, children and two Reuters journalists from their helicopter, seemingly just for fun, served no time, Manning who exposed their bloodlust, gets 35 years.
Manning couldn’t have known the degree of vengeance Obama would take out on him, including treatment tantamount to torture according to the UN, but Snowden certainly had that in mind before he outed the PRISM mass spying program. He reportedly knew about PRISM and agonized over blowing the whistle for five years before he took the plunge. He was under no illusions and knew that he would be hounded to the ends of the earth by the wounded-tiger US government. In an act of arrogance, hubris, chutzpah and bullying unparalleled in the modern world, a plane carrying Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, was forced to land in Austria because several European countries denied the plane the right to fly over their territory at the behest of the US because it was suspected that it might be carrying Snowden. Treated like a common criminal or drug mule, Morales, leader of a sovereign country, was forced to cool his heels for 12 hours while the plane was inspected for traces of Snowden.
If the shoes were on the other feet and a similar incident happened to Obama, it would be considered an act of war. But America is the exceptional and indispensable country and is so inherently good and righteous with intentions so pure and goals of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ so important to the world that it gets to play by its own rules. It can do no wrong. Paraphrasing Nixon when asked if a plan of his was constitutional, responded, if the president of the US does it, it must be legal, constitutional, wholesome and important. By extension, it’s okay for the US to kill ‘suspected’ terrorists; that is, people who were never convicted of a crime or given a chance to defend themselves, because the US can’t take a chance on people who ‘might’ cause it harm. And if innocents become collateral damage, that’s the price to pay for (our) freedom and security.
In Manning’s defense at the sentencing phase of his (for now, considering he/she still has all his man parts, I’m going to call him/her a he) trial, he groveled a bit. I don’t blame him at all for trying to minimize his time behind bars. After spending only a few days in jail (on a marijuana cultivation charge) I became a model of contrition: No your honor, I’ll never do that again. Yes your honor, I’ve learned my lesson. At any rate what he said was he had no intention of harming the US government and it was foolish to think a small person like himself could change the world. Yet he undoubtedly, unquestionably, did change the world. An ordinary person of such little physical stature, only 5’2”- 157cm, has become a moral giant. After the execrable treatment he received at the hands of the US military in the three years prior to his trial, essentially toughening up his moral resolve, the 11 or so years he’ll wind up serving, assuming time off for good behavior, will be a piece of cake: relatively speaking, that is, not even an hour behind bars is easy to do.
Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks who helped disseminate Manning’s leaks, now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than a year, is wanted for questioning related to a sexual harassment charge in Sweden. As I understand it, he did the deed without using a condom, against her wishes, in otherwise consensual sex. For that he too has been hounded. He’s not been indicted or charged, only wanted for questioning. He offered to be questioned in England. Somehow, though Sweden has questioned people outside its country in the past on much more serious charges, in this case Assange has to be in its grips for proper questioning. Assange offered to go to Sweden if that country made a commitment not to extradite him to the US, but they refused. Police business as usual? Hardly, the US is a vindictive bastard that’ll go to any length to snare prey it considers insolent and disobedient.
 Glenn Greenwald, reporter for the Guardian newspaper, has been the go-to guy for the Snowden leaks. In the latest iteration of security insanity, the UK held his partner David Miranda for nearly 9 hours – the legal limit without charging someone – under a terrorism statute and confiscated his computer equipment. He was en route in the UK, heading back to Rio where the two live, carrying hard drives and such pertaining to Edward Snowden’s leaks. The editor of the Guardian has recently revealed that two months earlier, the UKs version of the NSA came by to physically destroy – you know, using hammers – hard drives, etc., containing leaked info. Unfortunately for the security state, this isn’t 1954 anymore, and there undoubtedly are multiple copies of that data situated around the world. Snowden has made it clear that if anything happens to him an avalanche of leaks will hit the cybersphere. He has a right to be concerned for his safety. At this point the US is livid about his leaks and I wouldn’t put it past the CIA to give him the Bin Laden treatment – murdered on the spot and then his body dumped in the ocean - if they ever got their hands on him. Think of the friend of the Boston bombers who died while being questioned by the Feds. Somehow after several hours of questioning with as many as five agents in attendance, he suddenly became so dangerous they had to kill him.
 On a related topic, the CIA, in response to a Freedom of Information request, has finally admitted it had a role in ousting Mohammed Mosadegh, elected leader of Iran in 1953. Though it’s been common knowledge for decades, it’s good to hear it from the source and to see in unequivocal terms that it was his intention to nationalize Iran’s oil industry that spelled his doom. Not any fancy talk about freedom and democracy - he was after all Iran’s first popularly elected leader - but raw, cold and callous protection of corporate profits. The blowback is still blowing hurricane strength as Iranian leaders point out with regularity the CIAs role in his deposing. As for the Shah, his US authorized replacement, a picture reflecting his evil is seared into my memory: it showed a gathering of about 50 people with a man holding up his toddler son who’d had his arms cut off by the Shah’s police as punishment for the father’s transgressions.
Mosadegh was a progressive populist leader. Iranians are a highly educated people with a very long and proud history. Who’s to say where Iran would be today if the US hadn’t interfered in its affairs. When people see their democratic choices cretinously and illegally thwarted, they sometimes take up arms, bringing on revolutions. What other avenue do they have for obtaining justice and fairness?
The blood spilled at the hands of or as a result of US intervention for corporate control and profits is legion, not to mention demoralizing and disgusting. If anyone wants to delve deeply into the machinations of the CIA, I highly recommend a novel by Norman Mailer titled Harlot’s Ghost. It’s a novel but has an extensive bibliography. It’s also a very long book, about 1200 pages, but worth every minute of it.
Courageous people like Manning, Snowden and Assange who’ve sacrificed their personal well-being for the sake of exposing the duplicity and criminality of the US government deserve the highest praise, not decades in prison. In contrast to the terrible mistake of awarding the prize to Obama, the Nobel committee has often chosen dissidents, including people like Aung San Sue Kyi and Liu Xiaobo who weren’t allowed to receive their prizes because of opposition from their governments. Now it’s time for the committee to stand up to the USA and honor true peacemakers, the whistleblowers.

Monday, July 8, 2013

I've Got Nothing to Hide

I’m not concerned about PRISM, the massive illegal, unconstitutional secret spying program carried out by the NSA, because I have nothing to hide. I know the national security establishment sees environmentalists as threats and often places agents provocateurs amongst their midst, but I don’t care, I never attend environmental protests or demonstrations or sign petitions or do Facebook likes for those kinds of groups. Besides I trust that the government and corporations working together will always do their best to protect the environment.
Ditto with anti-war protesting. Since America’s $700b annual war budget is almost exclusively oriented towards the War on Terror (there are no state enemies of the US) it stands to reason that anti-warriors are also anti-America and unpatriotic. So why bother offering a target to the anti-terrorism police.
I don’t picket in solidarity with union strikers since there are always plainclothes cops taking pictures of everybody who attends. I don’t sign petitions proposing marijuana be legalized because even in states whose people have voted in favor of legal pot, the feds are out trying to bust people. Obama, America’s first president who has openly admitted to smoking pot and who stated clearly that he’s not going after potheads because he has ‘bigger fish to fry’, doesn’t seem to be able or willing to control the DEA. Hmmm, maybe I do have something to hide, but I’m a white, normal-looking geezer and cops never go after people like myself and maybe the whole War on Drugs paradigm will change before I get busted. I’ll just have to watch what I say and who I talk to and always be cryptic in my messages. Anyway that’s a small thing.
Of course, mistakes do happen, as in the case of Mahar Arar, a telecoms engineer who was returning home to Canada from a vacation in Tunis. He was detained en route in New York on false intelligence that he was connected to terrorism, held in isolation in NY for two weeks without access to a lawyer and then rendered to Syria where he was beaten and tortured for ten months until Syria realized he really didn’t have anything to hide. Our US government insists he was deported, not rendered but wouldn’t ship him forward to Canada whose passport he was traveling on and where he’d lived for the previous 15 years, but to Syria where he hadn’t set foot since he’d left 15 years earlier (He has a dual Canadian/Syrian citizenship only because Syria doesn’t allow people to renounce citizenship). After all, Canada wasn’t going to try to torture a confession out of him, so what good would that have been?
Mistakes do happen but that’s a small price to pay to keep America safe and not a good enough reason to honor basic human rights first declared in the 13th century Magna Carta and further enunciated in the US Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. Habeas Corpus, the requirement that government actually charge a person they wish to detain, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment; right to counsel, unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause, due process: all, paraphrasing the Bush administration: quaint relics of the past in an age where the specter of terrorism haunts every government action.
Maher Arar was told he didn’t have a right to a lawyer because he wasn’t an American citizen. That’s because other people don’t deserve the same rights as American citizens; that is, when we can even honor rights for Americans. You see, the War on Terrorism is so important that nobody can be afforded rights that might hold back our heroic efforts. That’s why our president must have the right to use drones to kill anybody, anywhere - US citizens included – who we suspect may be bad guys. We don’t have to be sure because that might let bad guys escape to do their nefarious deeds. Needless to say, Obama loses a lot of sleep over who goes on his kill list every time he makes that choice and he feels especially bad when large numbers of innocents are obliterated, as when whole wedding parties are bombed to smithereens, but they should know by now that gathering in large groups is suspicious activity and our government can’t take a chance in that situation. He also agonizes over incidents when first responders rushing to a bomb site with the idea of helping the injured are bombed in turn. But who, after all, is going to be there to help the bad guys except other bad guys?  Due process? Once again a quaint relic of a simpler past when our country is in such immediate danger.
The cost of the War on Terror may be great, but think of the 4000 or so Americans who’ve died at the hands of those bad guys over the last 20 years. Besides, if we don’t get every last one, something really bad might happen. So what if it costs $80 billion? – or some big amount anyway, it’s hard to know exactly with all the necessary secrecy which surrounds our efforts.
I know some people will question the wisdom of spending so much on anti-terror when only $565 million is spent on preventing industrial accidents which each year in the U.S. take the lives of 55,000 people and make sick or injure an additional 4 million or so, but that’s the breaks, you can’t really have a dynamic, healthy economy when there are too many regulations and there is too much surveillance. Moreover, workers don’t have to take those dangerous jobs, they can just work elsewhere. Anyway terror is a lot more frightening and galvanizing so it’s just natural it would garner hundreds of times the funding.
I know a lot of you will vehemently oppose what I’ve had to say and you’ve every right to express your opinions, but just between you and me, I’d hesitate to express those views anywhere on the internet or on telephone or anywhere in a public building or in proximity to a spy cam or whatever… you never know, you just never know.
Meanwhile, I have nothing to hide, or not much, and besides I trust the government will always be fair and reasonable and only use the information it’s gathering for good ends. Even if they make a mistake now and then and target and harass and torture or even kill a poor hapless innocent, I won’t hold it against them because it’s all for an important patriotic cause.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Race to the Bottom, Bangladesh and Cambodia

Race to the bottom refers to governments competing for jobs by offering corporate subsidies and in the case of poor countries, repressed workers who work cheap and don’t cause problems. It’s not a phenomenon that applies only to poor countries as US states and municipalities also lavish corporations with public money to lure their facilities. The competition that Boeing set up when it wished to move its corporate headquarters provides one of the most egregious examples. They didn’t look around for the best location, they searched out suitable locations and chose the one that offered the biggest subsidy. Did they really need to do that? Was the corporation going through hard times and requiring a handout? Was it really right for the people of Chicago where Boeing landed – many of whom are in difficult straits, not to mention the city itself which has mountainous social and financial problems - to spoon feed one of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations? And yet that’s where we’ve descended as a society – starve the poor to feed the rich. I’m not referring just to America here, but a large part of the world has adopted that corporate philosophy.
In Cambodia, race to the bottom involves granting tax holidays of 5 or 7 years to new factories. Recently a minister mused that Cambodia should end those generous tax benefits since the country really needs to increase revenue. He want on to speculate that many businesses close up and move when the tax holiday ends, with some merely changing their names and starting over with new tax breaks. The news article then pointed out that all the neighboring countries do the same, so it might be difficult to implement such a change. Public subsidies for private businesses is just as evil in a developed country like the US as in Cambodia, but at least workers in the US pay income taxes to make up part of the shortfall in revenue. In Cambo workers are too poor to pay taxes so all the additional costs caused by providing infrastructure to the new factories or education for worker’s children, etc. is born by the people as a whole. Bangladesh also provides tax holidays of 5 years to new businesses. Countries get jobs for their people, a good thing for sure, but not the money to provide social services to improve their lives.
Bangladesh has been in the news a lot lately. In its desperation to provide jobs for its people, one of the world’s poorest, they’ve gone through great lengths to repress worker’s rights and income, thinking that was the way to make international corporations happy, since that gives them the ability to provide extra cheap garments for people in rich countries. The country is also hopelessly corrupt, which means common sense safety rules are routinely and easily ignored, like having factory doors locked so when a fire erupts, workers have no exit. They do that to prevent workers skipping out surreptitiously and to prevent theft. Late last year more than 100 workers died for that very reason. They can do that because small bribes there can solve all problems.
More recently, more than eleven hundred workers died in a building collapse in which multiple illegal and/or unethical and/or corruption factors were involved. In the first place the factory was built on a former wetland, which doesn’t automatically preclude developing an 8 story building there but does require extra care and higher costs in construction, which obviously didn’t happen in that case. Secondly, the building permit was issued by the local jurisdiction, though only the central government is authorized to do so for that type of building. The area is not zoned for industry so the building should’ve never been allowed in the first place. The permit was for a 5 story building to which an extra 3 stories were added illegally. None of those reasons would have necessarily caused the building to collapse if it had been designed properly for its purpose.
Corruption takes on many guises. In South Asia – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal – corruption is social and ethical as well as financial. For instance, during the great flood in Pakistan in 2011, people who lost everything were denied basic food aid if they couldn’t show ID. Their whole lives had been washed away but they didn’t qualify for basic sustenance because of bureaucratic callousness and intransigence. In India, it takes 29 permits to open a supermarket, each one in a different office requiring a separate bribe unless the permit seeker is willing to wait interminable lengths of time for the permits.
The following is an experience I had at the Kathmandu Post Office on my first trip there in 1992; I doubt if it’s changed all that much. I was sending some paintings to the states in a mailing tube. I went into the office and stood in one of three lines with my package. When I got to the front – it took a while, there were about 10 people ahead of me – I was told I was in the wrong line, so I went over to the correct one. When I got to the window the clerk weighed the package, put a little scribble on it and told me to go to another line. A little odd, but okay, next line, another long wait, the clerk looks at the scribble and sells me stamps and tells me to put them on the tube and to go to a third line to mail it. What? All that rigmarole to mail one package? Well, at the time the largest denomination stamp had minimal value so I had to practically fill up the tube with stamps. That required that I separate long strips of stamps from a whole sheet and a half of them. In the process, I ripped off a very small portion of the corner of two of them, partly because they were printed on low quality paper. I thought nothing of it, but when I got to the head of the third line where the stamps were to get postmarked, the package was rejected for the two little corners that had gotten ripped off. Well, I freaked, said some decidedly unkind words to the clerk and stormed out, only to be forced to return some days later if I actually was going to get the thing mailed.
In all three cases you have bureaucracy run amok, seemingly almost gleefully devising rules designed to harass the citizen, and by the way stymieing growth, progress and advancement. That is in contrast to Cambodia where the permit process, with a little facilitating money thrown in, is very speedy and hassle free. Bureaucracy here also has its flexibility. For example, recently the process for obtaining a license plate for motorbikes was changed in a way that required long waits in an uncomfortable setting and was very confused since the government hadn’t properly made the process clear. Previously one paid an agent who charged a little extra but did all the paperwork and the plate was obtained very quickly. After a week of complaints the process was simplified and streamlined.
My personal experience with Bangladesh is very limited but telling nonetheless. The first time was in 1992 when I chose to fly Biman Air, the Bangladesh national carrier, from Bangkok to Calcutta, to save money. That involved a long layover in Dhaka. During the wait, I was able to observe the main waiting room being expanded right outside the big picture window. They - mostly women - were bringing concrete for the floor by carrying one bucket at a time on their heads up a flight of stairs... at an international airport.
I used Biman a second time in 2000, also to save money. On that trip I spent overnight till mid-morning in Dhaka at a special hotel run by the airline near the airport. The special hotel was supposed to be for emergency use only when flight connections didn’t happen, but obviously wasn’t an emergency in our case. This time it was a flight from BKK to Kathmandu, but since they had little traffic on the Dhaka-Kathmandu leg they used us travelers to add to the nearly empty plane. They served us a very simple dinner and breakfast the next morning and I got to walk around the neighborhood for about two hours before the mid-morning flight. The meal served to the hotel staff consisted of rice colored with spices and a small amount of eggs, no vegetables or meat... not much to it.
Though the immediate area around the hotel was middle class, just a short distance away the poverty was impressive even compared to India. One picture that stands out in my mind was seeing people breaking up new bricks with small sledgehammers, which I assumed was to take the place of construction rock. Almost the entire country consists of the vast delta formed at the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Except for some foothills in the north and far southeast of the country, there’s just no place to quarry rock. Being a delta makes it a very fertile land, but it’s also one of the most crowded places on Earth. It has a population of about 160 million in an area the size of Wisconsin in the US – about 55,000 square miles or 135,000 square kilometers. It’s about 2/3 the size of Cambodia which has less than one tenth the people.
The industrial makeup of Bangladesh is very similar to Cambodia’s. In both cases garments make up 80% of export earnings. Bangladesh’s garment industry is ten times the size of Cambodia’s, which matches the population differential. Per capita income is very similar - $2000 for Bangladesh, $2400 for Cambodia - based on Purchasing Power Parity which is a better indicator of wealth than merely converting to US dollars.
Treatment of workers, however, has been very different. Minimum wage in Bangladesh’s garment industry was recently raised from $25 per month to $38, whereas Cambodia’s wage was recently raised from $61 to $75 – almost twice as much though Cambodia’s income is only 20% larger. Where the countries diverge is in worker’s rights. Cambo, being dependent on the international community for the last 20 years was forced to allow unions and today the entire industry is unionized with several unions vying for worker support. Some buyers, like The Gap, for instance, purposely have located here so they can say the workers that make their clothes have the right to join unions and are treated fairly. Cambodia’s garment workers are not at all shy about work stoppages and asserting their rights. Manufacturers and the government don’t like it, but they live with it.
In contrast, Bangladesh has prohibited all union organizing. Change towards improving worker rights is being talked about with the recent disasters affecting so many workers. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that unionized workers would’ve refused to enter the building that later collapsed. It was evacuated the day before because of serious cracks in the concrete, but workers were told they had to return to work. With no rights whatever and in fear of their jobs, they felt they had no choice.
At the time of the collapse, I was thinking that it couldn’t happen here, or at least wasn’t very likely, but then in quick succession two events in Cambodia caused death and injury. In the first an illegally constructed mezzanine floor collapsed killing two and injuring another 20 or so and then only four days later a dining area on a raised platform fell down and injured about two dozen. Both were cases of shoddy construction and careless thinking. Still a sharp contrast to the large numbers killed in Bangladesh. There, because of extreme population density, they have no choice but to build multistory. There’s no way they could take very large greenfields, as in Cambodia, to build one story factories.
Multistory factories in themselves are no problem but require good design and conscientious engineering. They’re an efficient use of land and in some ways, in my mind, preferred to sprawling Cambodia style factories build on open land in the middle of nowhere. Many Cambo workers are forced to travel as much as two hours each way to get to work, a tremendous burden added to an already long workday. The industry of late has been having difficulty recruiting workers; getting to the worksite is one of the drawbacks of current development.
Even if only one story, it’d be far preferable to locate compact factories in or close to population centers. There’s a factory located close to the heart of Kampot which, until recently, employed about 300 workers (I’m not sure why it closed down). The vast majority of its workers were within 15 minutes of the factory by walking, bicycling or motorbike.
Cambodia and many other places in the world are being designed as if fossil fuels will always be cheap and easily available, a dubious proposition at best. They’re obviously oblivious to shortages that are inevitable and not in the distant future.
In America, good planning principles encourage industrial zones near the heart of the city since that’s where the workers are. Industrial jobs need to be balanced with retail, commercial and office jobs since there are a lot of people who are not suited to the latter. Having people travel long distances to work is never a good idea for the individuals involved or the increase in traffic that results. A few years ago a multistory garment factory employing hundreds of workers which was located on Street 51 in the center of Phnom Penh was replaced with an English school. Few would suggest that a garment factory is a better use of very valuable land in that location than an English school but it made it possible for large numbers of workers to easily get to work. Instead factories are being built 20, 30, 40 kilometers from the city in former rice paddies. This will at some point constitute a big problem.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Thank You Mr. Feckless President

Part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill - at best a very tepid attempt to reign in the excesses of the financial industry – was the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. The CFPB, a brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, now a senator from Massachusetts, was one of the only good things to come out of the act. Dodd-Frank’s already weak improvements in regulating the financial industry are currently being further watered down by a massive bankster lobbying effort. No matter how low the thieving banksters get, there always seems to be another moral nadir for them to plumb.
Warren was naturally slated to be nominated for the head of the CFPB, but since she’d certainly have faced stiff opposition from the Repugs, Obama was too chickenshit to nominate her. His fecklessness, in this case at least, was a great gift to the people, since Warren was then free to contest a senate seat which she won. Obama went on to nominate Richard Cordray, also a good pick for the post, but since the Repugs hate the idea of financial regulation as a matter of principle, they’re doing everything they can to block his appointment unless or until they can weaken the commission’s mandate into worthlessness.
Had Obama nominated Warren she’d be stuck in limbo, rather than be the strongest voice for banking and finance reform in the Senate. Lately she’s been pushing the idea of pegging student loan interest at the same level as what the big banks are paying. Student loan rates are soon to rise from 3.4% to 6.8% if new legislation isn’t passed. This is part of the cockamamie way politics is made in Washington, with temporary fixes to long-term problems that only require the same shit sausage to be recycled again later. Meanwhile the banks are paying 0.75% so she’s been asking why students should be paying 9 times as much interest as the banksters.
It gets worse: The US government earned a cool $51 billion from the student loan program last year. So the US is making a lot of money off of the backs of struggling students at the same time it is paying the banks to take its money. When you charge less than the rate of inflation, you are essentially giving the money away. One of the ways the banksters have been using that free money is to turn around and buy US treasuries - which are now paying about 2%. This free money is one of the reasons why the banks just posted their best profits ever.
Senator Warren will hold their feet to the fire. They’ll get away with their shenanigans for now because they own the government, but Warren will be relentless in changing the paradigm and I dare say, if she chose to run for president in 2016 she’d give Hillary a run for her money.
So thank you Mr. Feckless President for giving us Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Student loan debt, at $1.1 trillion, now exceeds credit card debt, with the average student owing about $27,000 at graduation. What’s more, student loan debt cannot be written off in bankruptcy, except in very rare circumstances. A lot of that debt has been taken on because government is no longer willing to support higher education to the extent it once was or should be. After all, an educated citizenry is one of the primary goals of society, so it makes no sense to punish people who seek a higher education who don’t happen to have rich parents. Anytime anyone who could benefit from higher education is denied the opportunity, the whole society loses.
In some European countries, students who qualify for public universities not only do not pay tuition but also receive a stipend to allow them to concentrate on their studies. I graduated from City College (now University) of New York, while working 30 hours a week and single parenting. It was very tough, but it would have been impossible if I’d had to pay tuition. At the time, back in the sixties, tuition was free, I only had to pay a small student fee and buy textbooks. Today there are no (that I know of) free public institutions of higher learning in America, and many of them are not just charging tuition but charging a lot.
Charging high tuition at public colleges and gouging of student borrowers is part of the trend in the last 30 years of the 1% not being willing to pay their fair share of the cost of a healthy and educated society. Personal responsibility, they scream, while they pad their own deep pockets with tax breaks and corporate welfare. They bankrupt their banks by making casino bets with the people’s money, knowing Joe Schmo, the US taxpayer, will bail them out, while they rail against the 47% who only want government handouts for inconsequential things like food, health care, shelter, education. Congress wants to cut back on the food stamp program, literally taking food out of the mouths of children, to save a few billion dollars, while refusing to consider a very small stock transaction tax - 0.5% - that would yield $350 billion a year.
One Repug congressman working hard to cut slothful unworthy takers off of food stamps, is himself a very big benefactor of farmer’s welfare programs, the biggest receiver of farm aid in his state. But, of course, that’s somehow different.
In fact, the Repugs only control the House of Representatives by a wide margin because of efficient gerrymandering, since Dumbo candidates for the house received more votes in total than the Repugs. That disconnect doesn’t happen only in the US: in the recent Malaysian election the ruling party won 60% of the seats even though the opposition won the popular vote. Democracy is sloppy, but that’s unfortunately all we have to work with.
Meanwhile there are individuals like Elizabeth Warren who rise up to make great changes in spite of the built-in disadvantages of the political systems they are forced to work with.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Austerity Bites Again

Christine LaGuarde, current head of the IMF is having second thoughts about austerity. Maybe we’re going to fast, she’s said recently. Is that because unemployment in Spain has just hit 27%, with about 60% unemployment among youth? Every time unemployment goes up, balanced budgets, the ostensible reason behind cutting back, become less likely since joblessness means higher costs and less income for government.

The IMF caught a lot of flack way back in the past for lending to governments which were so inept and/or corrupt the money was totally squandered. Thus they decided it was necessary to impose rules on receiving countries, and, at least in theory, that makes sense. Unfortunately, their rules are based more on ideology than practicality or benefit to the people at large. Naomi Wolf wrote a book called the Shock Doctrine which describes how need for international help places countries in a position where they’re required to adhere to a conservative bankers’ worldview of how to fix their economies. For instance, that was behind the insistence that Greece lower its minimum wage in order to qualify for help. The connection between a country’s minimum wage and its ability to service its sovereign debt to the banks, the wealthy and other countries is tenuous at best. It’s just another way to stick it to the people at the very bottom who’s lives are already on the edge.

If /when your country needs international help to prop up a corrupt, sleazoid banking system, you’ll need to impose crushing tax burdens on the poor and heavy job and program cuts on essential public services while you lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

The elite don’t really need the money, but they ‘create jobs’ so if we throw enough money at them, they might deign to put some people to work. Except… after all the austerity cuts amidst high unemployment the masses don’t have the money to buy things, or they save because they’re frightened of losing their jobs, so there’s no reason for corporations or banks to create new businesses. Instead they use the cash bestowed upon them to speculate on securities, commodities and property, all of which is detrimental to the needs of the 99%.

The money referred to in the above paragraph is being created out of thin air and given to the biggest banks at near zero interest rates. In America that amounts to $85b per month. In Europe it’s about $50b. That new money has served the 1% well by sending the stock markets to record highs at the same time that wages are going down. Maybe you heard that the US is growing at 2.5% per year. In aggregate that’s true, but when broken down it turns out that the bottom 80% has lost ground so when tallied up we see that more than 100% of the gains have gone to the very top.    

Europe is different than the states in the sense that they have relatively strong social safety nets. In America there are no advocates for the commoners. Aside from a few fringe legislators, nobody in politics cares. Thus in some ways it baffles me how completely obsessed European leaders are with austerity. And how tardy they are with creating jobs programs, which is Europe’s most pressing need. If they can feed their banks with $50b per month with free printed money, it can’t be that much of a stretch to use it to create public service or infrastructure jobs.

There needs to be a Europe-wide jobs program financed by the European Central Bank that would be available to all EU youth and long term unemployed. Applicants could apply to work anywhere in Europe, though the greater needs would be in countries having difficulties, so most of the jobs would be there. These jobs would have a limited duration and wouldn’t pay much but they’d keep people busy doing useful things and keep them from getting too discouraged by unemployment. They’d also get the chance to live in and experience other countries. Since financing would come from the EU as a whole, it would only improve the bottom line of struggling countries. The EU owes it to those countries in the Eurozone experiencing difficulties since it’s membership in the Euro which is causing many of their problems. But other EU countries outside the Eurozone are also going through financial upheavals so to be fair it needs to be for all EU countries. 

The southern European countries have archaic and ossified labor laws that preclude flexibility and efficiency. Some also have bloated bureaucracies. Economic shock will probably force wrenching changes in society, but regardless people need jobs now, so there’s no reason to punish the unemployed for the inadequacies of their governments. Or force them wait until austerity magically begins to work, a dubious proposition at best.

The other thing Europe needs to do is rethink its currency regime. Part of the problem of countries experiencing difficulties is being tied to the Euro. The common currency is very important for Europe, but it has overreached and made several countries’ problems more difficult to tackle.

In regards to Greece and Cyprus I’ve advocated they adopt a dual currency system similar to Cambodia’s where the US Dollar is used alongside the riel, the local currency. Actually, between 80% and 90% of all transactions here are in dollars. They’ve kept the value of the riel within 5% of 4000 to a dollar for as long as I’ve lived here, about 11 years, so it’s very stable. However, if need be in a fiscal emergency they could print more riel, thus having a little flexibility. The Cambodian government periodically talks about stopping use of the dollar as its main currency, but they receive big benefits in stability and convertibility so they’re very reluctant to give up that advantage. As for Greece and Cyprus and any other Eurozone country that gets into trouble, they have no choice, they’re stuck with the Euro.

I’ve changed my thinking about the Eurozone’s problems to the point where I now feel that a two tier system needs to be adopted with the core countries of France, Germany and maybe Netherlands and Belgium using the Euro exclusively and all the other countries, or rather any one that wanted, would have its own currency alongside the Euro. That way the Euro would remain rock solid and available for all the countries of the EU (both inside and outside the Eurozone) to use, while individual countries gain some flexibility by having their own currencies alongside the Euro. Whether or not an EU country is officially part of the Eurozone, there will be large amounts of Euro in circulation.

The problem with governments and large institutions is a built-in inertia that resists any kind of change, especially when it looks like a retraction or reversal, but if they don’t come up with innovative changes they’ll only sink deeper into the abyss. Investors took a big hit in the recent Greek rescue plan, but the country is still left with extreme debt levels which they are never likely to be able to service. They’ll just flail along indefinitely from one crisis to the next while the people suffer. The only realistic solution would be a total default and reversion to the Drachma in a dual currency regime. They also need a wholesale restructuring of their society and economy. Default and absence of international help would force those desperately important changes.

Meanwhile is it possible the IMF, etcetera are waking up to the folly of austerity after ‘only’ 5 years of abject failure? Seems hard to believe but you never know.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why Do They Hate Social Security So Much

What is it about a self-financed pension system that is funded 20 years in the future that enrages them so? What is so galling to them about the idea that millions of seniors don’t have to beg for sustenance as was the case before Social Security?

And yet, the moneyed elite and their idiot minions in the conservative base have been on a rampage against it from the minute it was passed into law in the 1930’s. And now they - and Obama, their enabler - want to cut benefits as a means of bringing down the country’s deficit when SS has absolutely nothing to do with the deficit, never has and never will. The Social Security Trust Fund has $2.7 trillion in the bank, actually it is held in US Treasury Bonds, the same bonds that foreign governments and rich people own.

The meme in Washington among the punditocracy is that ‘entitlements’ must be cut if there’s any chance of bringing down the deficit. Entitlements is in quotes because SS and Medicare are self funded; they are not entitlements, you only receive those benefits if you’ve paid into the program. Medicaid, on the other hand, the federal program that provides medical assistance to those who otherwise can’t afford it or have no access to insurance, is an entitlement because any American who fits the qualifications is eligible for aid.

Those three programs make up about 60% of the US budget, $2 trillion out of $3.4 trillion so they are easy targets for regressives. If you’re interested in this budget stuff, I highly recommend a web site called It keeps a running total of debt and income totals; it’s truly fascinating to watch the numbers rolling along. But, once again, SS and Medicare really do not belong in the budget because they are self funded, so having them there clouds the issues.

It’s worth spending a few minutes on how SS became part of the budget. Lyndon Johnson started the practice of folding SS into the budget to try to mask or minimize the cost of his Vietnam war. SS being so large it made his war expenditures a much smaller part of the total budget. The reality was the same but the perception was different.

In 1980 Reagan doubled down on the scam. He looked 30 years ahead and said, My god, the Baby Boomers are going to overwhelm the system when they start retiring in the next century so we need to raise payroll taxes now to put some money away for the coming crunch. SS payroll taxes are as regressive as you can get. Not only does everybody pay their 6 ¼ percent regardless of how poor they are but the wealthy are exempt for all income over about $120,000 annually. So, raise taxes on the lower classes and it looks like you have an extra $200 billion a year coming in which you can then use to lower taxes on the wealthy, which is exactly what Reagan did.

It’s more familiarly called slight-of-hand. The additional money coming in off of the increased SS tax is borrowed from the SS trust fund, so it’s not really the government’s money, but it looks like the budget is more balanced than it really is. Despisers of SS say the SS Trust Fund is just a bunch of IOUs; very true, but China holds a trillion dollars of those same IOUs and you wouldn’t hear any American politician or pundit say that to China, now would ya?

The way Obama wants to reduce SS benefits is called chained CPI or consumer price index and it’s supposed to reflect the ability of people to substitute cheaper items when the price of the things they want to buy rise too much; so buy margarine instead of butter, pork instead of beef. This is Obama’s plan, the Repugs have not proposed it and if Obama gets his way the same Repugs who hate SS will use Obama’s Chained CPI to campaign as the true defenders of the program… fucking hypocrites, but that’s what will happen and it could easily cost the Dumbocrats in the next election, if they don’t find some intestinal fortitude take a stand against Obama.

The loss to SS recipients would not be a lot of money – 3% over 10 years up to 10% over 30 years if they live that long. But they don’t have a lot of money to begin with. The average monthly check is about $1200. That is not the high life. In many parts of America that is just scraping by. Some 60% of recipients depend on SS for 80% of their income. A lot of people like myself receive far less. Even the largest checks do not involve a lot of money. A fellow I talked to recently, who paid taxes at the maximum, said he’ll receive $2600 per month at 62. Plenty enough for me, but hardship for a lot of Americans.

And why are SS recipients, which to be clear include the disabled as well as seniors, being asked to make this sacrifice. What is the purpose? What is to be gained, vis-à-vis the budget?
This cut in benefits will reduce the total budget by about $163 billion over ten years, $16.3b per year. To put that number in perspective, last year GE, one of the world’s largest, most profitable corporations earned nearly $14 billion, of that they paid no taxes, but instead received a $3.7 billion refund. If they had paid the standard corporate tax rate of 35%, then the Treasury would’ve received about $5b. So add up the tax they should have paid and the refund they shouldn’t have gotten and that comes to $8.7b or more than half the savings the government would gain by screwing pensioners. Now that’s only one corporation, though admittedly one of the sleaziest. Or how about the $8b in corporate welfare that goes to the largest oil companies? Exxon needs a subsidy? Ripping off SS recipients is more important than ending that subsidy?

Meanwhile, once again, it’s not the government’s money anyway, it only looks better on their bottom line: it’s our money, we paid for our benefits. The government can borrow that money if they want, but if they renege on their commitments and raid the Trust Fund they’ll be stealing. In this case stealing from the poor to feed the rich, which is nothing new in today’s America, but still…


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Elite Cluelessness - Cyprus & Singapore


The recent economic turmoil in Cyprus once again displays how clueless and disconnected the ruling elite are from the reality of people’s lives; once again provides a striking example of their desire, nay obsession, to minimize impacts on the wealthy by taking from the poor.
Cyprus has gained a lot economically by being a haven for offshore banking – their banks’ assets are several times the economy - and so it was easy for the Troika – IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission – to look for bailout money from account holders. A large percentage are owned by Russians and a good percentage of that is shady money being laundered, so to penalize the country they devised a scheme that would levy a one-time tax of 6.7% on accounts of less than €100,000 and 9.9% on accounts over €100,000.
That was a bald-faced attempt to steal from the poor, while concurrently minimizing losses for the rich. Before that proposal was made, it was believed by all depositors in all European banks that all accounts under €100,000 were insured, guaranteed, rock solid. Up until that point, all felt safe that nothing less than a total breakdown of society would jeopardize their savings.
Instead, people with €1000 in the bank were expected to do their share, to the tune of  €67, to save their incompetent banksters. After all, if the little people weren’t taxed than the rich would have to pay a lot more. That made it an easy step to propose reneging on their previous hard-wired guarantee. Not only did all hell break loose in Cyprus, and all legislators in parliament either voted against the proposal or abstained, but now, regardless of the Troika’s insistence that that was a one-off and only applied to Cyprus and no other average people would be forced to assist in bailing out banks in the other Eurozone countries experiencing financial difficulties, nobody will be able to trust that €100,000 guarantee. It’s finished, nobody with money in the bank will feel completely safe again.
They then tried to float basically the same idea but exempt the first €20,000, but that was only marginally more acceptable than the first rip-off plan. The latest proposal is that only deposits above €100,000 would get hit, which is they way it should’ve been from the start.
A guarantee is a guarantee. If you had €100,001 in the bank, you knew the first €100,000 was protected, but that you were taking a chance on the last €1. Especially if you were putting your money in a notorious offshore banking center, unless you are a complete idiot, you had to know there was a good chance, however remote, that you could lose out. That’s what capitalism is supposed to be all about; You invest, you speculate, you take your chances; you win some, you lose some. Instead the elite seek to protect banksters and their investors and wealthy depositors at all costs and the little people are left to foot the bill and then fend for themselves.
The elite have gotten so isolated from masses they live in their own personal bubble and can no longer relate to the real world of the 99%. Like when Romney was asked what a person could do when they couldn’t find a job in a very tough market for job-seekers, he said, Ask your parents for money to start a business. Yes, very simple, ask your parents.
Personally, I prefer in all the chaos afoot that Cyprus is ‘forced out of the Eurozone’. As mentioned in a previous post, leaving the Euro and having their own currency will not stop most transactions in the country being in Euro. Having their own currency used alongside the Euro, as happens in Cambodia where about 80 to 90% of all transactions are in US Dollars, will give them some flexibility. What Cyprus ‘leaving’ the Euro would do is begin a two-tiered currency system in many European countries in which Euro and local money are used side-by-side. It would also be two-tiered in the sense that the Euro would be a master currency backed by and used exclusively in the strongest northern countries – Germany, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria - with the remainder of individual states issuing their own currencies for local transactions; for instance, all government salaries and payments to government offices would be in local money. Once the local money finds its proper value - it would be volatile at first - the individual states would try to maintain it within a narrow range compared to the Euro. Cambodia, for instance, has kept its currency within a 5% range of value compared to the USD for the 11 years I’ve lived in the country, so it’s accepted along with dollars with little or no discounting and there’s no need to recalculate every day.
Regardless of how the bailout evolves, Cypriots are in for serious hard times with massive unemployment and punishing austerity for as much as a decade. They got rich off of being an offshore banking haven, now they will pay the price. Once again, the lure of big bucks casts aside all doubts, restraints and reason and it’s full speed ahead until the ship hits an iceberg.


In February, Singapore experienced its largest ever demonstration; 4000 people turned up to protest against the government’s push for increased immigration. People tend not to protest there since they are wealthy and relatively content in the world’s number one nanny state, not to mention the government oppressively and forcefully frowns upon such activity.
The demonstration, along with the loss of a seat in the legislature to the opposition in a by-election, quite stunned the ruling elite. The Lee family, which has ruled the city-state since independence in the sixties, now has to contend with the largest opposition ever – they now have 7 seats in the 87 seat body. Until recently, the largest opposition contingent was four. That is not because 95% of the population has always solidly backed the government, rather the government has devised a painless (for them) and bloodless means of eliminating all official dissent.
The first time an opposition member of parliament makes a statement deemed to hurt the feelings of the ruling family, he/she is sued for defamation for everything they’ve got and is subsequently bankrupted – the government never looses such a case – and once bankrupt is no longer eligible to sit in the legislature.
But this is the 21st century and people over the world are finding their voices and are less able to remain pliant and docile when they feel impacted by social changes that are not to their liking.
Singapore’s population of 5.2 million is now 40% foreign born, up from 22% about twenty years ago. The protest was in response to a government white paper which seeks to add another million and a half immigrants to the city by 2030. The government insists that the country needs more people to continue its industrial and economic growth, but their citizens, like wealthy populations everywhere, are not much interested in making babies. The birthrate there is even low by wealthy country standards. They’ve tried everything including special benefits for having kids and even a government dating service, to no avail.
As almost everywhere the government is locked into endless growth, growth as the be-all and end-all of society, as its guiding philosophy. Bhutan, which is promoting a Gross Happiness Index in place of Gross Domestic Product, is probably the world’s only exception. If Singapore has more people and more wealth, that must be a good thing, no?
However, while the government sees immigration as a  path to increased wealth, the protesters, as the majority of the people at large, see higher property prices, competition for jobs which lowers wages, more crowded public transportation and strains on public services.
The question is; Growth for who? It certainly isn’t the commoners who benefit, it’s strictly the elite who benefit from growth in a mature economy. Growth can be justifiable in a developing country which has large numbers of desperately poor people. In developed countries, small places can be improved by expansion if that growth adds intellectual and financial opportunity, but once a location reaches a certain size, it’s mostly downhill, at least in terms of livability. Sure there’s lots of money to be made in megalopolises, but if you’re in a place like LA and have to spend two to four hours a day commuting, the money no longer has the same value.
Some countries with large geographic areas but small populations, such as Canada and Australia, can benefit from immigration, but Singapore with an area the size of New York City and a projected 7 million people – about the same as NYC - will be just as crowded and difficult to live in, especially for the lower classes. The wealthy have no concerns about housing prices or overburdened public transportation. The country’s legislators earn more than a million dollars a year, so would have little concept for what their constituents deal with on a daily basis.
Singapore’s rulers have never had to consider the people’s wishes before and I’m sure they’ll continue to use their defamation magic to try to quash their token opposition, but the tide is turning and they will be forced to listen to the people.
Personally I’m a fan of immigration, at least in theory. I’m one myself, though few would refer to me that way, but after 11 years in Cambodia, what else could I be? One could even consider me an economic migrant, since I could not make it in my native land without abject penury and bemoaning my fate 24/7. Cambodia’s lax immigration policy has brought hundreds of thousands of relatively wealthy expats to live here. My lowly pension is still several times Cambodia’s per capita income so I’m making a positive contribution in spite of it all.  
Immigration would also be a good idea for countries like Korea, which has the world’s most homogeneous population and Japan with the second most, even though both countries are relatively crowded, because they desperately need lessons in and experience with relating to diverse peoples.
As a long time expat estranged from my own country, it’s unsurprising that I believe that one of the best movements for the world is immigration that mixes people up and gets us closer to understanding each other. That isn’t to say it isn’t extremely important that immigration happen at a slow measured pace otherwise backlashes that have destabilizing impacts are possible.
Welcome to the world.