Friday, March 27, 2015

Crisis, What Crisis?


As I've stated before on this blog I pay next to zero attention to American teevee news, particularly the cable news channels. It was only because I was at the gym on Wednesday trying to rebuild the considerable amount of muscle mass I lost after my cancer surgery last year that I even saw (up on the overhead screens) how CNN was reporting on the overthrow of the government of Yemen. There was the tired old visage of Wolf Blitzer, with the screaming headline CRISIS IN YEMEN affixed in front of him.

I had my Ipod on, so I have no idea what Blitzer was saying nor do I give even the tiniest fraction of a shit. It just amused me as it always does to see the American propaganda machine in action. Interesting how we are always told that Americans have no interest in what is going on outside their own country--which has been used as a justification to close down foreign press bureaus in capital cities around the world--yet when there is a coup in a country that probably less than 5% of Americans could even find on a map it suddenly makes huge headlines.

Why would that be? But of course it would be so that yet another armed group that's decided it has had just about enough of American hegemony and interference where they live can be demonized--thereby justifying the continuance of the war on terror and America's absolutely insane levels of defense war spending. The only place on U.S. soil where current events in Yemen represent a "crisis" is in the "exalted" halls of Washington's foreign policy establishment, which has just seen another one of its brilliant plans for world domination turn into utter shit.

I would almost certainly bet that Blitzer did not mention the U.S. role in deposing Yemen's previous long time president back in 2012. Blitzer may have said something about all the the predator drone strikes employed against "Al Queda" in that country, but I would bet a decent amount of money that he did not make the connection for his viewers between the wanton killing being done by U.S. missiles and the understandable popular anger that helped lead to yet another American client government being unceremoniously shown the door.

Crisis? How exactly is the situation in Yemen a "crisis" to the average American--the same dumbass American who as I've been pointing out on this blog is too ill informed and apathetic to even have an effective voice in his/her own municipal governance. Americans compliantly allow their own mayors, city councilmen/women and state representatives to fuck them up the ass on a regular basis on behalf of their wealthy paymasters, and yet our alleged number one source of "news" focuses their attention and odium towards the latest group of predatory creatures to be in charge over in Aden. Aden? Who or what the fuck is Aden, anyway?

The only thing that would make the hyping of this story more perfect was if rather than Yemen the country was instead called Eastasia.

Bonus: "Once again, I was watching CNN and they blew up all the anxiety"

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The "Mafia" Has Gone Legit


HBO's John Oliver hit another one out of the park this past Sunday with a brilliant rant on municipal fines and the predatory private companies that are now profiting on the backs of our poorest citizens (video embedded below). Watching it, I was reminded of some passages in Gus Russo's book, The Outfit, about the history of organized crime in Chicago, in which he makes a strong comparison between "the underworld" and "the upperworld" and how most of the great American "legitimate" fortunes were made either by using extortionist tactics similar to those of the mafia or through actual organized crime connections.

Russo cites a quote from robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, then one of America's richest men, who confessed that: "You don't suppose it is possible to run a railroad in accordance with the statutes, do you?" He also cites the example of John Factor, brother of cosmetics baron Max Factor, who began his business career with a huge, multimillion dollar white collar scam in his native Great Britain, then fled to America an became involved in the Chicago mob in the 1930s. Factor not only avoided extradition thanks to mob influence, at one point with mob help he actually faked his own kidnapping in order to send a business rival to prison for 20 years. Eventually, he ended up running a Las Vegas casino for The Outfit. Late in his life, Factor tried to obscure his criminal background with many philanthropic efforts, and actually broke down in tears when asked by a reporter about his various unpunished crimes. "How many good deeds does a man have to do to erase his past?" he reportedly sobbed. Old Joe Kennedy was probably wondering the same thing right after his son was assassinated.

The point to all of this is that in this age of the war on terrorism, the mafia doesn't make many headlines anymore. That's partly because the FBI and Department of Justice did such an effective job during the 1980s and 1990s of smashing traditional organized crime, particularly the legendary "five families" in New York. But it is also in part because the primary activities the mob made its money on (gambling, loansharking) are now legitimate businesses in the form of widespread casinos and payday lending operations, and because labor unions have been so effectively neutered that they are no longer the cash cow they once were.

As Oliver points out below, incredibly another common mob practice has not only been legalized but is now being perpetrated by private companies on behalf of municipal governments. The video features the victims of legal shakedowns, indigent minor offenders who often ended up paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars in "late fees" because of their initial inability to pay their fines. Difference being that these shakedowns are backed by the threat of imprisonment rather than the target having an arm or leg broken. In fact, Oliver doesn't explicitly make the connection but it is likely that the people shown in his video were not only being shaken down by these private "probation companies" but were also ensnared by legal loan sharks--taking out car title or payday loans in a futile effort to keep paying the ever escalating "vig" on their tiny original fines (last year, Oliver also attacked the payday loan industry--see second embedded video below).

Oliver ends the video with a brilliant point that the "right" to "pursue happiness" should also include the right to fuck up every once in awhile with getting fucked by your own government, or privately hired goons acting on behalf of your government. Of course, rich people already enjoy that right. Robert Durst has been in the news a lot lately, but to me the most astonishing aspect of his case was his acquittal on murder charges after he killed and dismembered his neighbor. Only someone with the millions to afford to buy the best legal defense possible could ever hope that a "self defense" defense could possibly be successful in such a situation.

This is all happening because of a phenomenon I cited in my last post: namely voters in this country idiotically paying the closest attention to the one election that has the LEAST importance to their daily lives and which their vote has become utterly meaningless (for president), and paying the LEAST attention to the elections that not only have the most effect on their daily lives but in which a relatively small number of them could in most cases actually change the outcome (for state and local officials). Now all we have to do is convince them to turn off American Idol (how is that POS show still drawing high ratings after 14 excruciating years?) and get them involved politically in their own communities. Yeah, right...good luck with that.


Bonus: Why does it take an Englishman to so deftly point out what is going wrong in America (Part 2)



Friday, March 20, 2015

The Continued Liberal Reluctance to Point the Finger of Blame Where it Really Belongs


In the past two days, two editorials were published that do a reasonable job of summing up some very disquieting new American political realities. The first, entitled "Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life," by Anthropoly Professor David Graber of the London School of Economics, uses the recent Department of Justice report as a centerpiece to show how local governments are increasingly becoming predatory institutions, using the criminal justice system to financially squeeze those at the lower end of social ladder on behalf of the big banking institutions:
The police, then, are essentially just bureaucrats with weapons. Their main role in society is to bring the threat of physical force—even, death—into situations where it would never have been otherwise invoked, such as the enforcement of civic ordinances about the sale of untaxed cigarettes.

For most of American history, police enforcement of such regulations was not considered a major source of funding for local government. But today, in many municipalities, as much as 40% of the money governments depend on comes from the kinds of predatory policing that has become a fact of life for the citizens of Ferguson. How did this happen? Some of it, of course, has to do with populist anti-tax movements, beginning with California's Proposition 13. But much of it has happened because in recent decades, local governments have become deeply indebted to large, private financial institutions—many of the same ones that brought of us the crash of 2008. (In Ferguson, for instance, the amount of revenue collected in fines corresponds almost exactly to that shelled out to service municipal debt.) Increasingly, cities find themselves in the business of arresting citizens in order to pay creditors.
In this light the killing of Michael Brown can seen in a much different way, one in which Darren Wilson may not have acted as an out of control racist cop but instead as a glorified bill collector with a gun who overreatced when Brown forcibly refused to be exploited financially for the "crime" of walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk. It is very possible, even likely, that Brown's death was due as much to the greed of the big banks as it was to an institutionally racist police department and citizen apathy.

Graeber goes on to write:
Almost every institution in America—from our corporations to our schools, hospitals, and civic authorities—now seems to operate largely as an engine for extracting revenue, by imposing ever more complex sets of rules that are designed to be broken. And these rules are almost invariably enforced on a sliding scale: ever-so-gently on the rich and powerful (think of what happens to those banks when they themselves break the law), but with absolute Draconian harshness on the poorest and most vulnerable. As a result, the wealthiest Americans gain their wealth, increasingly, not from making or selling anything, but from coming up with ever-more creative ways to make us feel like criminals.

This is a profound transformation, and one we barely talk about. But it is rapidly altering people's most basic conceptions of their relations with society at large.
Fair enough. But before I comment on Graeber's conclusion, I want to move on to antiwar writer Tom Engelhardt's latest essay, entitled: The New American Order--
1% Elections, The Privatization of the State, a Fourth Branch of Government, and the Demobilization of "We the People."
The premise of Engelhardt's essay is that American governance is entering a new era that is so dominated by a tiny oligarchy that it makes the Gilded Age of the late 19th century look like the late 1960s by comparison:
Let me make my case, however minimally, based on five areas in which at least the faint outlines of that new system seem to be emerging: political campaigns and elections; the privatization of Washington through the marriage of the corporation and the state; the de-legitimization of our traditional system of governance; the empowerment of the national security state as an untouchable fourth branch of government; and the demobilization of "we the people."

Whatever this may add up to, it seems to be based, at least in part, on the increasing concentration of wealth and power in a new plutocratic class and in that ever-expanding national security state. Certainly, something out of the ordinary is underway, and yet its birth pangs, while widely reported, are generally categorized as aspects of an exceedingly familiar American system somewhat in disarray.
Engelhardt then goes on to make his point much more than just "minimally," and actually concludes by saying:
In the meantime, let me be as clear as I can be about something that seems murky indeed: this period doesn’t represent a version, no matter how perverse or extreme, of politics as usual; nor is the 2016 campaign an election as usual; nor are we experiencing Washington as usual. Put together our 1% elections, the privatization of our government, the de-legitimization of Congress and the presidency, as well as the empowerment of the national security state and the U.S. military, and add in the demobilization of the American public (in the name of protecting us from terrorism), and you have something like a new ballgame.

Still, don’t for a second think that the American political system isn’t being rewritten on the run by interested parties in Congress, our present crop of billionaires, corporate interests, lobbyists, the Pentagon, and the officials of the national security state.

Out of the chaos of this prolonged moment and inside the shell of the old system, a new culture, a new kind of politics, a new kind of governance is being born right before our eyes. Call it what you want. But call it something. Stop pretending it’s not happening.
I'm not really sure who Engelhardt is addressing with that last sentence. Certainly, if your deep down far enough in the weeds of awareness to be reading his blog (or this one, for that matter), you're probably not in denial that something has gone horribly wrong in this country. But it might be because Engelhardt has deluded himself into thinking that he has a greater audience reach than he does and is NOT just preaching to the choir that he starts out so tentatively and, like Graeber, fails to address the really big question of exactly who is to blame for this state of affairs.

Engelhardt dances around the question, citing the influence of big money on politics, particularly after the Citizen's United decision, the supposed "demobilzation" of the Democratic Party and the effects of voter suppression laws. Graeber doesn't assign any responsibility at all, which I guess means that the profound changes he so earnestly documents in his essay have just fallen out of the sky. It's a common affliction of liberal essayists to either cop out by blaming "wealth inequality" for America's political ills or to want to avoid discussing the subject altogether. Because to cite the real problem is to admit that the ignorance and stupidity of the little people they so desperately wish to "save" are in fact the root cause of the very trends that are destroying our so-called democracy from within.

Engelhardt reports that the amount of money spent on the 2014 midterm elections was over $4 billion and that the 2016 presidential race alone is expected to top $5 billion--up from just over $2 billion in 2012--without mentioning that the overwhelming majority of all that campaign cash will be used to buy television advertisements. The days of door-to-door canvasing and get out the vote efforts are as forgone as the need to raise lots of money from small donors in order to have a viable campaign.

Consider the above, and now consider for a moment the level of discourse included in your average 30-second campaign commercial while recognizing that despite their sheer imbecility they are what decide our national elections. The reason for that is simple--the average American voter is so uninformed or misinformed that they either base their voting decisions on the messages they receive from such simple-minded ads or upon the fact that they see more far more ads for one candidate than they do the other.

For state and local elections the problem is far worse. As I cited in my previous article about the Ferguson DOJ report, only 12% of the registered voters in that community bothered to turn out for the last mayoral and city council election and the mayor ran unopposed. And as John Oliver points out in the brilliant rant below from his HBO show, over 1,000 state legislators ran unopposed in 2014--around than 25% of the total. Additionally, if Virginia politics which I follow are at all typical of the other 49 states, even in those instances where an incumbent state legislator or local official does draw a challenger it is rare that the race is even remotely competitive.

All of this is only possible in a system in which the citizenry has collectively abdicated its basic responsibility to stay well enough informed for representative democracy to function. It is true that the rich and powerful have a vested interest in keeping the citizenry distracted through their control of the mass media, but Americans seem particularly eager to allow themselves to be distracted and to thus become effectively disenfranchised from having any voice in their own governance.


Bonus: Why does it take an Englishman to so deftly point out what's going wrong in America?



Saturday, March 14, 2015

UC Irvine "Flag Ban" is Yet Another Meaningless, Media Hyped Controversy


As our society just keeps on getting dumber and dumber, the bar for what constitutes a controversy just keeps on getting lower and lower. I'm specifically referring to the completely over the top media coverage of the decision by a student panel to ban ALL national flags (not just the U.S. flag, Natch) from the office of the Associated Students of University of California, Irvine, because such flags promote "...nationalism, including U.S. nationalism, (which) often contributes to racism and xenophobia, and that the paraphernalia of nationalism is in fact often used to intimidate." The backlash caused by this controversy has already very much proved the student panel's point, but its very predictability shows that standing up for what you believe in probably isn't the best course of action if it all it does is put you at personal risk without achieving anything.

The problem is that reading or hearing about this story is going to cause one of five reactions in about 99.9% of the population:

1). Rabid conservatives will use this as yet another excuse to get outraged about something that frankly doesn't affect their lives one damn bit and is really none of their business--and some will even be angry enough to wish personal harm upon the students who voted for the measure.

2). Ignorant clods will side with the rabid conservatives because they won't take the time to try and understand what the student panel was really trying to say by making this decision.

3). Some liberals will agree with the student's decision and get just as outraged by the backlash as the conservatives are by the decision itself.

4). Other liberals might agree with the panel's decision but will be either too afraid to say so publicly or will offer up some lame ass apologetic defense of the move.

5). Know nothing dipshits will be too busy paying attention to what the Kardashian clan, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber are doing to give a shit one way or another.

And beyond that 99.9% are the very tiny number of us critical thinkers who will shake our head in disgust for about the millionth time that a story that shouldn't have reported beyond perhaps the UC Irvine student newspaper is instead managing to kill countless billions of brain cells from coast to coast. We are the few who recognize that the oligarchs who control the media use such frivolous and manufactured controversies to keep the engaged portion of that 99.9% divided and at each other's throat's politically so they can slowly strip away all of the nation's wealth and prosperity and pocket it for themselves.

I really wouldn't expect the students themselves to understand such bigger picture issues, but according to the linked article 60 prominent professors at UC-Irvine have now signed a petition supporting their action. Sadly, the wiser adult counsel before all of this started probably would have been to tell the young'uns that they completely understand their point, but whipping up this particular shit storm is not going to change the minds of anyone in those five categories. It will instead paint a big ol' target on your backs and will, by feeding the vacuous media outrage machine, actually help contribute to making matters even worse.


Bonus: "Our emotions are running wild and our mind has stopped"

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

America's Worst Restaurant Chain Utterly Clueless About How to Reverse Declining Sales


It could happen to a more deserving group of corporate assholes:
February was an ice-cold month for McDonald's, with same-store sales dropping 4% in its troubled U.S. stores and 1.7% globally.
Sounds like these are troubled times indeed under the tarnished golden arches. So what does the company plan to do to reverse this decline?
"Consumer needs and preferences have changed and McDonald's current performance reflects the urgent need to evolve with today's consumers, reset strategic priorities and restore business momentum," the company said.
"Customer needs and preferences have changed?" Oh, you mean that minimum wage earners--like your own employees--are feeling the strain of working for such shitty pay that they can no longer even afford to eat out at McDonalds as much any more? If so, "resetting your strategic priorities" to "restore business momentum" would mean that your company along with every other minimum wage paying retailer out there needs to RAISE FUCKING WORKER SALARIES. But I gather that's the LAST fucking thing you assholes would consider doing.

Oh, but there seem to be some other silly ideas floating around:
At an investors' conference last week, McDonald's also said it planned to launch a mobile app this summer that may also be part of a loyalty program...
I just wonder if any of the empty corporate suits who get paid big bucks to come up with these stupid ideas ever actually visit their company's shitty restaurants--especially those located outside of tourist areas. Go in, sit down for a while and see how many of the downtrodden people for whom a trip to Mickey D's represents a big night out are carrying around fancy smartphones.

In addition, there was this little nugget:
"It's interesting that McDonald's had a 'Turnaround Summit' last week in an effort to address its U.S. sales decline. The focus for the fast-food chain will be on enhancing the restaurant experience, which it hopes will help curb the decline," says Joshua Raymond, chief market strategist at City Index UK.
Yeah, that's the problem right there. It isn't because McDonald's customer base can no longer afford to stuff the faces with its garbage "food" four nights a week, instead they just need to spruce up the large indoor toilets they call restaurants, as if most of their "discerning" customers even notice how drab and depressing the fucking places are--despite the hideously bright fluorescent lighting.

The article ended, of course, in the most laughable fashion possible:
In its own statement, McDonald's spelled out its goal in no uncertain terms: "To be a true destination of choice around the world and reassert McDonald's as a modern, progressive burger company."
Somebody please tell me exactly what it means to be a "modern, progressive burger company," because I have no fucking clue. It's too bad the corporate stenographer posing as a "business reporter" working for USA Today couldn't have at least ASKED some publicity flack at the company just what that meaningless pile of corporate speak bullshit really means. That might have at least been entertaining.

The good news in all this is that it sounds like McDonalds' corporate "leadership" remains utterly clueless as to how they can reverse their serious sales decline. It's probably to much to hope that the nosedive will continue all the way into bankruptcy for America's largest purveyor of shitty food and ugly ass retail buildings. But a blogger can dream, can't I?


Bonus: In this case, the real clowns are not Ronald but the empty corporate suits

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

No Kids, This is NOT "What Democracy Looks Like"


Okay, they're high schoolers, so I will cut them a little bit of slack:
Today, in response to the Friday night killing of unarmed black teen Tony Robinson by Wisconsin police, nearly 1,000 high school students marched the streets of Madison in protest, and stormed the state capitol demanding justice. "This is what democracy looks like," they shouted.
Sorry, kids, but I beg to differ.

Real democracy is boring. And it's a LOT of hard work. Just a few years ago in your own state of Wisconsin, the unions tried to effect supposedly democratic change against your asshole governor by storming the capitol in even far bigger numbers. They even went so far as to try and recall Scott Walker by referendum. And what was the ultimate result of all that fuss and fury?
When the Wisconsin State Assembly dropped the hammer on the state’s labor movement, the State Capitol was as quiet as a library. Maybe half a dozen ragged protesters stood outside the chamber hollering weakly, but the rest of the building and the grounds were serene. After two short post-vote press conferences, Madison sailed calmly on.

(snip)

Regardless of whether you’d characterize the right-to-work law as fanatical or not, it’s remarkable the extent to which Madison kept mum about its passage. Besides a few dozen Democratic legislators and a few hundred labor protesters the day before, the famously liberal city was placid as the conservative legislation rolled along. The liberals who have faced Walker have lost, and lost, and lost again, and progressive Wisconsinites’ stores of outrage seem, at least for the moment, to be exhausted.
Now, you could argue that Walker won in part because of the huge amount of money ($30 million) he was able to raise, mostly from out of state big business interests. But I would argue that he also won because the protests were co-opted by the hopelessly corrupt Democratic Party, which then put up a mealy-mouthed candidate running offering the same old lame ass centrist bullshit when, as the protests showed, what was needed was some good old fashioned angry leftist populism. That might have sustained the energy of the protests through the recall election and helped overcome the big money pumped in by the Koch Brothers (the percentage of the vote won by Walker in the recall election was nearly identical to that of his initial election victory despite the big money he raised). It also seems that once the protests themselves died down, most of those who participated put away their signs and went home to resume watching American Idol or whatever--sort of an echo to what happened with the Occupy protestors.

In and of themselves, protests are NOT representative of democracy but tend to happen when democracy is either being denied or has broken down. Take the case of 1960s America. The civil rights protests were followed up by years of hard work by such figures as Martin Luther King until civil rights laws were passed that finally put Jim Crow into his long overdue grave. The antiwar protests and the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention fiasco were followed by years of work by young leftist political activists that resulted in election reforms that led to the primary election system that (very temporarily) democratized the selection of candidates within the two party system. It was only when the voters, "exhausted" by years of protest, stupidly went back to sleep that the oligarchs saw their opportunity to begin slowly reversing the political changes wrought during the 1960s and early 1970s.

So while I applaud the protestors in this instance for at least getting angry about the latest questionable violent police action against a young black person, I caution them that they should not think a few days of sign waving at the state capitol is going to change anything. Get involved and stay involved and keep fighting the bastards with everything you've got. It's hard, it's often boring and not nearly as much fun as the rush that comes from taking to the streets. But if you're not willing to to do that hard work, which is the REAL work of democracy, then there is really no point in protesting in the first place.


Bonus: The whole world may be watching, but that doesn't mean it gives a damn

Monday, March 9, 2015

Dangerous Food Product to Have "Dangerous Ingredient" Removed; is Still a Dangerous Food Product


Here's a headline that made me chuckle:
Dunkin Donuts Removing Possibly Dangerous Material from Product
What, just one? I believe if you removed every ingredient in a Dunkin Donut that causes obesity, diabetes, gallstones, high blood pressure and heart disease you wouldn't have anything left but the hole (bah-dah BOOM!).

So what is it that's being removed?
Dunkin Donuts has announced it will be changing the recipe of its doughnuts.

The coffee chain said it will remove the titanium dioxide, a food coloring agent, from all of its powdered sugar products, including doughnuts.

Titanium dioxide is commonly used to brighten white substances, like powdered sugar or toothpaste.

Some groups said it could also lead to health problems like inflammation or even organ damage.
So, out with the product that sounds like it should go into making gulf clubs rather than something a person would actually eat because of vague warnings from the ever nebulous "some groups." And while its removal is likely a good thing, there's still the matter of the:
Enriched Unbleached Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron as Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamin Mononitrate, Enzyme, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Palm Oil, Water, Dextrose, Soybean Oil, Whey (a milk derivative), Skim Milk, Yeast, Contains less than 2% of the following: Salt, Leavening (Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, Baking Soda), Defatted Soy Flour, Wheat Starch, Mono and Diglycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Cellulose Gum, Soy Lecithin, Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum, Artificial Flavor, Sodium Caseinate (a milk derivative), Enzyme, Colored with (Turmeric and Annatto Extracts, Beta Carotene), Eggs; Glaze: Sugar, Water, Maltodextrin, Contains 2% or less of: Mono and Diglycerides, Agar, Cellulose Gum, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), Artificial Flavor.
Actually, I have no idea what most of that shit is, but it all adds up to 260 calories and 30% of your recommended daily allowance of saturated fat--for just one lousy glazed donut.

But hey, I'm sure this move will turn these little fat pills into virtual health food.


Bonus: "As if there has ever been a good reason to eat a donut"

Saturday, March 7, 2015

DOJ Reports Show that the REAL Cause of Michael Brown's Death was Citizen Apathy


The two DOJ reports on the epic fuckery going on within the Ferguson, Missouri, criminal justice system ought to send a chill up the spine of every American, not just because of the blatant racism of the city police department but because of what the whole shitty situation says about the state of so-called American democracy. It's hard to know where begin with this hideous story. We could start with the fact that a part time municipal judge who apparently routinely jailed people for being late paying small municipal fines was paid over $56,000 a year for holding exactly TWELVE annual circuit court sessions--at a robust taxpayer funded hourly rate of $1,500. Oh, and that same asshole judge also owes the federal government $170,000 in back taxes. Motherfucker's got some gonads on him, I'll say that.

Even more appalling was the fact that from 2012-2014, 93% of all arrests made by the Ferguson PD were of black people. Additionally, two Ferguson cops and the county clerk have lost their jobs for sending racist e-mails, which is amazing given that the asshole police chief said that he would not fire Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown (Wilson resigned after the grand jury failed to indict him). E-mailing is worse than killing--that's the message here, I guess. And even before the DOJ reports were released, one of the Wilson grand jurors attempted to sue the county prosecutor for his mishandling the presenting of the case, and it was further reported that the prosecutor knowingly allowed one of the witnesses to lie to the grand jury.

So given all of the above, particularly the appallingly racist arrest record of the Ferguson PD, the key question is: how did all of this happen in a community in which as of the 2010 census more than two-thirds of the citizenry are black? Because, my friends, just as I stated in a much different context in my recent post about Hillary Clinton's e-mails, most American voters simply do not give a shit about the rampant abuse, fraud and corruption going on at all levels of their god damned government.

How else does a town that is overwhelmingly black end up with a nearly all white police department, and a racist one at that? How else does all the other corruption and petty bullshit that was going on in Ferguson happen for years on end with nothing being done about it? How else do the city officials get so fucking arrogant as to not only engage in these practices but then to order the jackbooted thuggery we saw being employed against the citizenry when it finally, many years too late, erupted into protest last year? I'll tell you how:
Voter turnout in the most recent mayoral election was approximately 12%. The Mayor ran unopposed.
The sad fact is that everyone in that town, black and white, protestor or not, should take a moment and reflect upon their own culpability at electing the shitheads who created the climate in which the Michael Brown shooting became inevitable. Darren Wilson pulled the trigger. He got away with the killing by claiming he feared for his safety. But by his own admission he was hassling Brown and his friend for the "crime" of walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk, and though we'll never know Brown's side of the story it seems likely HE reacted as the resident of city in which the police were viewed by most as an occupying army but the adult citizenry were to damn apathetic to do anything about it until after he was killed.

But don't get too cocky even though you may not live in Ferguson. It is exceedingly likely that your dismal 2016 presidential choice will be between the twin oligarchs Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. And THAT is the collective result of more that three decades of the vast majority of Americans being so ill informed that they--Republican, Democrat or even independent--have been making increasingly shitty choices, degrading the electoral system at the national level to the point where realistically there is no longer any more choice than there was for mayor of Ferguson last time around.

This does not mean that I advocate participating in sham election like the 2016 presidential contest other than to maybe cast a third party protest vote. But at the very least people ought to pay attention to what is going on at the local level, because the people who have control over your local government have the most direct control over your day-to-day life. Had literally just a few hundred voters in Ferguson lined up behind a reformist candidate for mayor last time around, Michael Brown might still be alive today.

So RIP Michael Brown. Sadly, it took your violent and completely avoidable death to wake up your friends and neighbors and get them to demand that things finally change in Ferguson, Missouri. What it would take to do the same on the national level I can't even begin to imagine.


Bonus: "I don't wanna be no mothafuckin 'accident'"

Friday, March 6, 2015

Auto Industry About to Take a Hit from Subprime Lending Cap


At the time I wrote yesterday's post about the dangerous bubble blowing in new car lending, I hadn't yet seen this article from Wolf Street documenting how the banks that finance auto loans have become so concerned about the perils of subprime lending that Wells Fargo, the nation's largest lender, is slashing its subprime auto lending by nearly two-thirds:
Wells Fargo, which originated $30 billion in auto loans last year, has for the first time put a cap on subprime auto loans, limiting the dollar volume of subprime loan originations to 10% of its total auto loan originations. The New York Times reported that the bank, “according to people briefed on the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly,” has been “increasingly rejecting loans that dealers expected would be approved.”

And Wells Fargo’s subprime cap of 10% of loan volume is setting the tone for the rest of the industry, where the national average has been 27.4%.

Regulators are not only worried about the banks but also about the structured securities auto lending has spawned.

If subprime auto loans go bad in large numbers, as they’re likely to do, the structured securities based on them will take a hit, and investors will get to lick their wounds once again in their chase for yield. Banks and specialized subprime lenders will take a hit too. Megabanks like Wells Fargo might see their earnings get dented, but the amounts aren’t big enough to topple them. Smaller lenders that have specialized in subprime might not be so lucky. But the auto loan subprime bubble, when it implodes, won’t sink the US financial system as a whole; it’s just not big enough.

Yet if these lenders are cutting back on subprime lending in a drastic manner, all heck will break lose in the auto industry.
What what motivated me to write yesterday's post was the glaringly disturbing fact from the seemingly innocuous USA Today article I linked which said that the average amount financed for new car loans had risen by almost $1,000 in just one year. Immediately and without doing any other research, I recognized that such an increase indicated that a dangerous bubble had formed in both new car lending and the new car sales. To see my hypothesis confirmed so quickly by the lending industry itself was really quite remarkable.

I've said this before: it really doesn't take any fancy degrees or insider knowledge to decipher what is really going on in our economy and our society. All it takes is applying a little common sense to the information that is readily available out there. But sadly, common sense is out of fashion these days.


Bonus: This one is way too easy


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Average New Car Buyer Pisses Away Over $7,000


I don't watch a lot of television, but when I do it usually isn't very long before I'm bombarded by the inevitable slew of new car commercials. Almost always, these commercials make sure to mention that 0.0% financing is available to "well qualified buyers." That's why it was a bit of a surprise to read the following factoid from an article in USA Today:
Americans' average new-car loan payment hit a record $482 the fourth quarter, and car buyers were paying an average 4.56% for loans, according to researcher Experian Automotive.
I wasn't math major but even I can deduce that with the availability of zero percent financing for most makes and models these days, if the AVERAGE new car buyer is paying that much in interest it means many people are paying a far higher rate than that. These are, of course, subprime buyers with bad credit. Without them, I would gather, the automobile industry would be in deep trouble.

The average interest rate, on the other hand, doesn't seem so bad considering the cost of auto loans historically. I remember being charged 12% on my first car loan back in 1990--I was a recent college graduate who hadn't yet established much of a credit history--and that was not an atypical rate back then. It would also be the LAST car loan I ever took out as I vowed not to ever let a bank fleece me like that again.

Yep 4.56% doesn't seem so bad in comparison, until you consider how much the price of new cars has soared in recent years. Here's USA Today again:
What's more, the Experian report shows that the amount borrowed to buy a new car in the fourth quarter hit a record $28,381, up more than $950 from a year ago and a $582 increase from the previous quarter.

Edmunds.com auto researchers show the average transaction price for a new vehicle in the fourth quarter was $33,352.

That means buyers were making down payments averaging about 15%.
Furthermore:
Experian says the average length of a new-car loan in the fourth quarter rose to an average 66 months.
Using all this data, I pulled out my trusty calculator and determined that if the average amount borrowed to purchase a new car is $28,381, the average interest rate paid is 4.56% and the average loan length is 5.5 years, then the average amount of interest paid on new car loans is a staggering $7,117, or more than 25% of the cost of the vehicle.

That's over seven grand that the average new car purchaser is pissing away by giving it to a bank, even in these times of supposedly wondrous 0.0% financing. So why are people doing it? USA Today again:
"In most parts of the country, vehicles are viewed as a necessity to everyday life, which is why we continue to see consumers willing to take out larger loans as the average price of vehicles continues to rise," said Melinda Zabritski, Experian's senior director of automotive finance.
Given how shitty or completely unavailable public transportation is outside of our major cities, it is true that most Americans cannot get by without access to a car. Where Experian's brain dead mouthpiece gets it wrong is assuming that people have to purchase new cars as opposed to used, or that they have to purchase the more expensive models. In fact, additional data from the very same article shows that used car purchasers are far more likely to buy without financing:
The new-car loan data hits home with most car buyers, because 84% of new vehicle purchases were made with financing. Used, 55.2%.
Which says to me that the average used car purchaser is far smarter with their money than the average new car purchaser.

But the most disturbing factoid in the whole article is the fact that the average amount of new car loans has increased by nearly $1,000 in just the past year. Given that incomes for people outside of the top 10% have been flat for many years, that annual rate of growth cannot be sustainable for very long. Which would indicate that American new car sales will begin to decline at some point in the near future...possibly dramatically.

No wonder most Americans hate math so much.


Bonus: "It's all mixed up," indeed

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Problem is Not a "Lack of Transparency" but a Lack of Americans Who Give a Shit


Yes folks, it seems that yet another jaw-droppingly stupid political "scandal" is upon us. This one involves none other than Queen Hillary, who during her tenure a Secretary of State apparently decided to forego using the State Department's e-mail system and instead conducted all of her official business on her own personal e-mail account.

The stupidity here begins with Clinton herself for yet again arrogantly and unnecessarily blundering her way into negative headlines. This is a woman who has been lusting after the presidency for at least most of this current century and who has been the presumed 2016 Democratic front-runner almost from the moment she took the oath to become Madame Secretary back in 2009. In other words, despite knowing the intense scrutiny her every move would be facing as the fateful election year approaches she deliberately chose to violate the Federal Records Act and give every appearance that she has something to hide. Or, as one particularly breathless (but partisanly neutral) editorial put it:
It will be framed as an issue specific to Clinton, evidence of her inability to lead the country in an open and transparent way (or, in this case, a legal way). It will also be used as evidence of her carelessness in handling government business in an non-secure manner.

More realistically, this latest Clinton scandal is further evidence of the secret ways in which the U.S. federal government operates. In recent years, U.S. citizens have grown accustomed to learning about the terrible government practices that have been blatantly hidden from them: the N.S.A. leaks, the C.I.A. torture report, the list goes on. The fact that the majority of Clinton’s Secretary of State emails are unavailable is hardly surprising. As Vox reports, that lack of transparency is nothing new. Several officials of the Bush administration were investigated towards the end of that presidency for covering up or deleting archives of emails that could have possibly incriminated the White House.
Yes, indeed, the list does go on...and on...and on. And that brings me to the second and more pertinent reason why the focus on this scandal is so stupid: because the real problem is not Hillary Clinton's lack of transparency. The real problem in that the vast majority of the American public most decidedly does not give a shit about it.

Oh sure, the Republicans and even a few progressive Democrats will fuss and fume and try to ride this particular (ahem) donkey for as much mileage as they can possibly get out of it. But what will happen after that? Precisely fuck-all, that's what. Just as has happened with all of those other "terrible government practices" Americans have learned about in recent years, this kerfuffle will also be largely forgotten by the time Justin Bieber farts out his next shitty music video.

That is the perverse beauty of the sham two-party democracy that is currently operating in America. "You're either with us or against us," is not just a bullshit phrase that our so-called "leaders" use to justify the neverending war on terror--it's also the way they make the whole system immune from infiltration by political outsiders.

If you despise Hillary Clinton it must be because you're a fundamentalist Christian, anti-science, gay bashing, teabagger troglodyte. The possibility that you might be an antiwar, anti-imperial, anti-Wall Street, environmentally minded individual who knows her ACTUAL RECORD ON THE ISSUES is not allowed to compute within the system. The same is true for libertarian conservatives whose positions on foreign policy and reigning in the Federal Reserve match those of Ron Paul. They'll be told they better line up behind whichever warmongering Wall Street creature wins the Republican nomination or risk seeing the White House occupied by a known 60s radical hippie feminazi commie.

It's also pretty amusing that it was the New York Times that broke this particular story given the paper's own dismal record of withholding information from the public about government surveillance and employing a reporter who fabricated stories used to justify the Iraq War. That's not to say that the Hillary e-mail fiasco is not an important story nor one that the ought not be reported. It's just that if her shady investment deals back in Arkansas; her Hillarycare debacle and the Lincoln bedroom fiasco as First Lady; her senate votes for the Patriot Act, Iraq War and Wall Street bailouts; and her advocacy for the Afghanistan surge, Libya bombing, drone missile campaign and Georgia's disastrous war against Russia as Secretary of State aren't enough to convince someone not to vote for her in 2016 I really doubt that her lack of e-mail transparency is going to be the issue that suddenly changes their minds.


Bonus: "With real arrogance burning inside...I drank in the whole wide world"

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 2016 (Part 2 – The Democrats)


Perhaps no prominent organization more perfectly reflects the decline and fall of American representative democracy than the Democratic Party. For it was the Democrats after their 1968 convention disaster in Chicago who begrudgingly decided to truly change their way of picking presidential candidates to reflect the leftist populism that was then ascendant within the party, and appeared as though it would be the dominant strain of American politics for the foreseeable future. The Democrats defused the power of their party bosses to choose their nominees much more thoroughly than the Republicans ever did—embracing primary elections in as many states as possible to choose the delegates who would pick their standard bearer. The Republicans eventually followed suit, but did so in a way that still left as much power as possible within the hands of the establishment.

Unfortunately for the Democrats the first product of this process, Senator George McGovern, the most liberal major party nominee ever, would in 1972 suffer the then-worst general election defeat in American history. Nevertheless, the pattern was set as insurgent candidate Jimmy Carter went from Jimmy Who? to the nominee in just a few short months in early 1976. Once again, however, an outsider candidate proved a poor choice politically even if in his single presidential term Carter attempted to guide America out of the moral swamp of the excruciating Vietnam and Watergate years. Regrettably, Carter's defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 was nearly as bad a debacle as the McGovern disaster and it soured the Democrats on true populist candidates.

As a result yet another insurgent candidate, former McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart, failed to topple establishment choice Walter Mondale for the nomination in 1984. Mondale’s whipping by Reagan was even worse than Carter’s and left the party in disarray on the national level, as the rugby scrum of pygmy candidates in 1988 and the disastrous nomination of Michael Dukakis that year showed. By 1992 hard lessons had finally been learned, as moderate “new” Democrat Bill Clinton adopted the insurgent’s playbook as his own to win the nomination. Unfortunately, Clinton's subsequent triumph in the general election (defeating a true insurgent candidate, Ross Perot, along the way), turned out to be a pyrrhic victory for Democratic activists.

By 2000 the Democratic establishment was firmly back at the helm, as Al Gore breezed to the nomination easier than any non-incumbent Democrat had going all the way back to Adalai Steveson in the 1950s. Had Clinton kept his dick out of Monica Lewinsky’s mouth--or had Gore just managed to run a more energetic campaign--he would have won easily, yet somehow he and 2004’s plodding establishment candidate, John Kerry, both managed to kick away close races to the worst president in American history.

By 2008 the Democrats smelled blood in the water and were hungering for a general election win, only to get sidetracked in a huge battle over identity politics as the first woman to have a realistic chance to win the presidency battled the first non-white man with the same aspirations even as the teetering Bush economy finally imploded in the background. Hillary Clinton was initially the establishment candidate, but Obama used the same insurgency tactics and bogus message of hope her husband had in 1992 to prove his electoral viability, and he then won over enough of the major players to secure the nomination.

More importantly but much less noticed was Obama’s decision to forgo federal campaign financing, which had been accepted by every major presidential candidate since Watergate but which severely limited the amount of donations a candidate could receive from any one source. With the financial backing of numerous Wall Street and big business players, Obama raised over $600 million during the 2008 cycle, a staggering sum at the time. In their elation at Obama’s victory, the Democratic party activists largely ignored the dangerous precedent his campaign had set just three years before the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision removed the last remaining barrier to America becoming a true elitist oligarchy.

Flash forward to the year before the 2016 race and it is uncertain whether any other “name” candidate will even try to challenge Hillary Clinton, who appears to have already locked up the support of the party establishment and the huge amounts of Wall Street and big business money that go with it. On an even monetary playing field, Elizabeth Warren would likely have a decent chance to be 2016’s version of Obama and knock Hillary off. But Warren has earned the permanent enmity of Wall Street due to her relatively modest attempts to reform the financial system. Even if Warren attracts large numbers of small individual donations like Obama did in 2008, she could never hope to compete with Hillary’s war chest and ability to dominate the airwaves in early primary states.

Bernie Sanders is the closest thing to a genuine liberal who might enter the fray, but he has less chance at the nomination than Warren and could only potentially affect the election’s outcome by playing a Ralph Nader-like third party spoiler role. Some liberal bloggers are so desperate they are actually advocating for Joe Biden to make what would be his third run for the nomination, conveniently ignoring the fact that Biden has spent the last six plus years carrying water for the Obama sellout presidency and before that spent decades as the credit card companies’ best friend in the U.S. Senate. Beyond those names, dreamers like Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb would seem to be angling to be an eventual vice presidential selection rather than making truly serious bids for the top spot.

So unless something dramatic happens between now and when the actual primary voting gets underway a year from now, the Democratic nomination is Hillary’s to lose. It is even possible that we might see something unprecedented in the years since primaries came to be the preferred method of selecting convention delegates in the early 1970s--a non-incumbent candidate walking to the nomination of a major party virtually unopposed. If so, it would be the most dramatic illustration yet of the corrosive effects of big money on American politics in the post-Citizens United era.

In the past couple of months I’ve heard numerous people express their dismay at the possibility of another Bush-Clinton presidential campaign, and such an eventuality should make it clear to all except the most completely thickheaded that American democracy is dead and and will be buried in 2016 under a mountain of presidential campaign cash that is already predicted to soar as high as $6 billion or more. That is an incredible figure when you consider that what it's really buying is merely an elaborate illusion that, especially at the presidential level, there remains even a dime's worth of difference between the two major parties.


Bonus: "I feel...like I've been here before"