Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation is Heading into a "Perfect Storm"

One interesting thing I've noticed after my nearly two-year break from blogging is how some of the worst economic news these days gets reported in such a hum-drum manner. You would think that a story as big as a near doubling of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation's annual deficit would generate a huge amount of coverage given that the agency is all that stands between over 40 million retirees and the poor house. But no, you'd be forgiven if you missed it given that CNBC gave it exactly FOUR short paragraphs on its website:
The federal agency that insures pensions for about 41 million Americans saw its deficit nearly double in the latest fiscal year. The agency said the worsening finances of some multi-employer pension plans mainly caused the increased deficit.

At about $62 billion for the budget year ending Sept. 30, it was the widest deficit in the 40-year history of the Pension Benefit Guaranty, which reported the data Monday. That compares with a $36 billion shortfall the previous year.

Multi-employer plans are pension agreements between labor unions and a group of companies, usually in the same industry. The agency said the deficit in its multi-employer insurance program jumped to $42.4 billion from $8.3 billion in 2013.

By contrast, the deficit in the single-employer program shrank to $19.3 billion from $27.4 billion.
Sometimes it also helps to add a little historical perspective. Back in October 2011, I wrote about the the rising PBGC deficit, highlighting this factoid that was on Wikipedia at the time:
During fiscal year 2010, the PBGC paid $5.6 billion in benefits to participants of failed pension plans. That year, 147 pension plans failed, and the PBGC's deficit increased 4.5 percent to $23 billion. The PBGC has a total of $102.5 billion in obligations and $79.5 billion in assets.
At the time, private pension underfunding was reported to have risen to the staggering total of $512 billion. Since then, as you can see above, PBGC's annual shortfall has accordingly nearly tripled in size, which doesn't bode well for the future.

There has been a lot of crowing in the financial media about the falling federal budget deficit (down these days to ONLY about $1 trillion annually). Looks like there is at least one federal agency that's going to be putting lots of upward pressure on that figure going forward.

Bonus: If you have a pension just relax, enjoy this upbeat little ditty and don't worry about where you'll be in five years' time

Monday, November 17, 2014

What do Jerry Brown and Samuel L. Jackson Have in Common?

"You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

So says Aaron Eckhart as fictional District Attorney Harvey Dent in the movie The Dark Knight, not long before his kidnapping and horrible disfigurement by Heath Ledger's Joker turns him in exactly the way he predicted. In real life such transformations are far more subtle and usually take far longer to reach fruition. Two such contemporary figures who both happen to hail from the great and wacky state of California but who could not have more disparate backgrounds, beloved actor Samuel L. Jackson and current California Governor Jerry Brown, are living proof that for reputation's sake it is rarely a good idea to hang around too long in the public eye.

Let's start with Jackson, who American moviegoers love for his admittedly intense performances in such movies as Pulp Fiction and the remake of Shaft (can you dig it?). Few popcorn munchers are aware, however, that during his student days Jackson became so outraged by Martin Luther King's assassination that he joined the Black Power movement and in 1969 participated in holding members of the Morehouse College board of trustees hostage on the campus, demanding reform in the school's curriculum and governance. You can readily imagine Jackson going into that battle carrying a wallet with "Bad Motherfucker" etched in the leather. He was later convicted of a second degree felony for his actions, and clearly this was a young man willing to go to jail or even risk his life in order to fight systemic abuse and injustice directed toward black Americans.

Flash forward 45 years later, and the bad motherfucker has mellowed out a bit. In fact he's mellowed out so much that he has become unavoidable on commercial teevee as a pitchman for Capital One, hawking credit cards to already seriously over-indebted American citizens consumers idiots. Not only was Capital One bailed out by the taxpayers during the financial crash to the tune of over $3.5 billion, but the company's current credit card interest rate charged for purchases is 24.9% on money that the bank can, of course, borrow from the Federal Reserve for next to nothing.

It should go without saying that credit card debt most heavily burdens lower income Americans, who are disproportionally black and minority. But more surprisingly is that even middle class black families have come to lean heavily on high interest credit card debt, to the point where nearly four out of five such families are so indebted. Yet there is nary a negative word publicly uttered about Jackson's massive sellout of his previous principles despite the fact that his net worth is currently estimated at $170 million, and he hardly has any financially motivated reason to be out hawking debt to those, especially those of his own race who he once seemed to care about so passionately, who can ill afford it.

Next we have the example of Jerry Brown, who for much of his career campaigned vigorously against the corrupting influence of big money in politics. So how is all that going these days? Here's the Sacramento Bee with the scoop:
Brown began his political career in the 1970s as a radical governor who would take down political corruption and outsized donations from lobbyists. The Brown we see today courts millions in campaign contributions from big corporations and looks the other way when a key government official is caught red-handed trying to protect the company he is supposed to be investigating.

In the case of disgraced PUC President Michael Peevey, Brown has not demanded Peevey immediately resign from office, despite the recent unearthing of his blatantly improper and unethical intervention on behalf of PG&E. The PUC is supposed to hold PG&E accountable and protect the public in the aftermath of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion. What we find instead are backroom deals, bribery, questionable rate hikes, and hand-picking judges who will be favorable to PG&E and the utility industry Peevey comes from.


Brown’s governance has failed to set a standard condemning influence peddling in Sacramento.

The changes in Brown’s campaign fundraising over the years are a signpost of the kind of leader he has become. Unlike his first gubernatorial campaign in 1974, during which he attempted to ban direct contributions from lobbyists, or his campaign for president in 1992, when he wanted candidates to cap donations at $100, Brown’s most recent campaigns have been marked by raising some of the largest sums in the country. The $25 million in the 2014 race came overwhelmingly from big corporations, labor unions, oil companies and wealthy individuals known for lobbying state government.

The means by which Brown secures such hefty contributions came under suspicion in January, when he asked the California Supreme Court to reverse lower court rulings blocking high-speed rail. Brown filed the appeal just three days after Tutor Perini Corp. – the contractor that won a $1 billion contract for the project despite having the lowest technical rating of those bidding – donated the maximum $27,200 it could to Brown’s campaign.

Is it any surprise that in September Brown vetoed an ethics bill (Senate Bill 1443) that would have required more campaign finance disclosure and reduced the value of gifts lobbyists can give state officials?
No it really isn't a surprise given that it has been quite awhile since anyone, even a politician of Jerry Brown's stature, could be elected to a major post like Gubbner of California WITHOUT pocketing vast sums of cash from such sources. At some point "Governor Moonbeam," who during his first stint as governor during the mid-1970s lived in a modest apartment instead of the governor's mansion and drove around in a Plymouth Satellite sedan instead of being chauffeured by limousine, recognized that he either needed to compromise his principles or give up politics, and we can see which route he chose.

I highlighted these two examples to demonstrate just how commonplace and mundane the selling out and/or corruption of American public figures has become these days. In fact, it has become so much so that those involved in it can no longer see that they are just as big a part of the problem as those they may choose to vilify, as shown by this amazingly clueless quote from Jackson about Supreme Court Justice Clarance Thomas:
He (Jackson) compared his Django Unchained character, a villainous house slave, to black conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, saying that "I have the same moral compass as Clarence Thomas does".
No, Samuel, sadly it is not just your "Uncle Tom" character who has the "moral compass" of Clarance Thomas, but YOU as well. You and Thomas are part of the same massive hypocrisy, and are both useful "tools of the man" as you and your brethren no doubt put it back in the 1960s. And along with your esteemed governor, Jerry Brown, you are hardly alone.

Bonus: "The path of the righteous man is beset on all side by the inequities of the selfish and the tyrannies of evil men"

Friday, November 14, 2014

Lord Kitchener and "The Banality of Evil"

image: Uncle Sam is a piker compared to Lord Kitchener

"The banality of evil" was a phrase first used by political theorist Hannah Arendt to describe Nazi bureaucrat and key Holocaust cog Adolf Eichmann when the latter was finally put on trial for war crimes back in 1963. It arose from Eichmann's claim that what he had done in the service of of his country was not wrong because he was "doing his duty" and "just following orders." Arendt's thesis about Eichmann is summed up thusly:
Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on cliché rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann's actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional. She never denied that Eichmann was an anti-semite, nor that he was fully responsible for his actions, but argued that these characteristics were secondary to his stupidity.
And as a result of such stupidity--the same kind of stupidity that is unfortunately all too common in our own country these days in such places as the Pentagon and Wall Street--did Eichmann become one of the most notorious names of the 20th century.

But what about those who are NOT stupid, and are NOT motivated by the desire for promotion? Those at the top who make decisions knowing damn well millions of people are going to suffer and be killed as a result, yet don't particularly seem to care? Are they not far more hideous monsters than the likes of Adolf Eichmann? After all even Eichmann's ultimate boss, Adolf Hitler, was not exactly history's brightest bulb.

My last post got me to thinking again about the First World War. Unlike the second global conflagration, the wake of World War 1 never saw any serious attempt to hold those whose decisions were responsible for slaughtering over 37 million of their fellow human beings responsible for their actions. And if one wants to talk about stupidity in power, one needs to look no further than the collection of hereditary monarchs and preening fools from Kaiser Wilhelm to British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith who were in charge of their respective countries when the war broke out. Most of these esteemed statesmen stupidly believed that the war would be short and glorious and that the troops would be "home by Christmas," as the popular expression went in those fateful early days of August 1914.

One reason so many of these so called "leaders" were so confident was because Europe had not seen massive continental warfare since the Battle of Waterloo ended the career of Napoleon almost exactly a century before. They truly could not envision (because they were stupid) the wholesale slaughter that modern industrial warfare inventions such as artillery, the carbine, the machine gun, the airplane and poison gas were going to precipitate everywhere from Flanders' "bloody fields" to the Gallipoli Peninsula.

But there was one man in particular who knew the horrible truth even before it all started: British Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener. Considered at the outbreak of the war to be "Britain's greatest living soldier," Kitchener had already had plenty of opportunities to see up close and personal what the rapid advance of military technology had wrought in the years since the Grand Armee's wave finally crested and broke in the burned out ruins of Moscow.

Kitchener had spent most of his career fighting colonial wars. He was particularly renowned for his victory in the Battle of Omdurman in Sudan, in which by training his Maxim machine guns on horseman charging with spears his forces killed 10,000 enemy soldiers and wounded 15,000 more while losing only 47 of their own. As author Scott Anderson put it in his fascinating book, Lawrence IN Arabia, during his career Kitchener had participated in more one-sided slaughters than probably any man alive. But because he had, Anderson adds, Kitchener also had a pretty good idea what would happen on a battlefield in which BOTH sides possessed the same level of superior military technology.

Thus, while the other idiots in the British cabinet that summer (to include Winston Churchill) were confidently predicting that the war would be over in months, or even weeks, it was Britain's greatest living soldier who sounded the very sobering and completely accurate warning. The war would drag on for years, Kitchener told them, and it would not end "until we have plumbed our manpower down to the last million." Needless to say, it was NOT a message the politicians running his country wanted to hear.

So, knowing what he knew about how the war was likely going to unfold what did Kitchener, whose word carried more weight with British public opinion in all matters military than even King George V, DO once it became apparent that the nation's "leaders" were determined to drive the country into the abyss? Did he resign in protest at a time in which doing so could possibly have halted the insane rush to war? Of course not. Instead, he allowed himself to be appointed Secretary of State for War. Almost immediately, Kitchener's became the very public face of the British war effort, as well as the drive to get young British men to voluntarily sign up to be led off to slaughter (the country did not resort to drafting soldiers until 1916, around the time of Kitchener's death).

Going back to Arendt and "the banality of evil," Kitchener was rare among the "leaders" of his day in that he was obviously not a stupid man. Nor at the time that he helped initiate what for his country was a war of choice knowing that it was going cause many millions of deaths was he likely motivated by the hope of professional promotion. In fact, Kitchener's ambition was to be Viceroy of India, not Secretary of State for War. So if Eichmann represents the "banal" figure who commits massive crimes against humanity because of a combination of burning ambition and no moral compass, what exactly does that make the likes of Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener? Yet one is (rightfully) vilified as a monster while the other has an elaborate memorial monument permanently on display in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Bringing all of this forward to America in the present day, I doubt if I'll get too many arguments if I assert that our current "leadership" features countless figures who are in fact monumentally stupid. But perhaps the lesson we should keep in mind from the example of Lord Kitchener is that it's the rare smart ones who when they do appear that we should REALLY be wary of.

Bonus: "In the fields the bodies the war machine keeps turning"

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Remembering "Remembrance Day"

"I'd rather be hanged as a traitor than go to war for Wall Street" - Eugene Debs

With all the ass kissing of veterans that goes on every November 11th, a tradition that has gotten particularly annoying in the wake of 9/11, it is worth remembering what the November 11th holiday is SUPPOSED to be remembering. Called "Remembrance Day" in the British Commonwealth, the holiday there pauses to reflect on the over 800,000 soldiers of Great Britain and her Empire who perished in what has to rank as mankind's most fruitless and futile war.

In America, where anything that's happened more than six months ago is considered ancient history, most people have a pretty dim awareness of the First World War, assuming they remember it at all. Go into any bookstore (if you can find one that's still open), and even with the recent "splurge" in publications about the war to commemorate the centennial of its outbreak in August 1914, the number of World War 2 books will still outnumber it on the shelves by at least 20 to 1. That's a shame for a lot of reasons, but particularly because it means that the MOST important historical event of the 20th century is far less well understood even by the tiny fraction of people in this monumentally stupid country who actually still read non-fiction.

In addition to arguably being the first war to feature death on an industrial scale (the last year of the American Civil War also has an argument in this area) it was also the first war to feature airplanes, tanks, massive starvation of civilians (largely in the old Ottoman Empire) and the world's first modern genocide (again, courtesy of the Ottomans). The war's end also redrew the map of the Middle East to the abomination that has led to so much subsequent misery and bloodshed as well as a hideously one-sided peace treaty that created the political conditions that would allow a thuggish young upstart named Adolf Hitler to eventually seize control of what had previously been one of Europe's most enlightened nations.

Taking things across the Atlantic, Woodrow Wilson's decision to plunge America into the European abyss not only tragically and needlessly wasted the lives of 117,000 young men, it also witnessed the unconstitutional political persecution and even imprisonment or deportation of antiwar leaders such as Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who correctly surmised that American involvement was first and foremost to protect the interest of big business in selling war material to Britain and France. It was, in fact, America's first neoliberal war--sold as a humanitarian mission (the "war to end all wars") while fattening the pockets of the wealthy benefactors of America' corrupt politicians. Worse yet, had America ultimately stayed out, World War 1 would have likely ended in a stalemate, which would have meant no Versailles Treaty, no "stab in the back," no Hitler rising to power and no World War 2, at least in the European theater.

But lastly, the First World War is an interesting study in just how far "leaders" of nations will go in slaughtering their citizens in order to maintain their power, as well as how far said citizens can be pushed while their fathers, brothers, uncles and nephews' lives are being fritted away by megalomaniacal and incompetent psychopaths. Yes, many French soldiers rose up against their officers in 1917, and in the same year a revolution finally brought down the pitiful Czar in Russia, finally taking that beleaguered country out of the war, but for the most part the young men of Europe and later America marched suicidally into blanket artillery and machine gun fire like lemmings drowning themselves in the sea while the civilians back home watched in horror but sat on their collective asses and effectively did nothing to stop it.

From this example come the lessons we should take to heart as the American empire lurches ever forward to its eventual collapse: 1). Don't ever underestimate the lengths the elites will go to in order to maintain their power, and 2). Don't ever overestimate the willingness of your fellow citizens consumers idiots to revolt against whatever their "leaders" who say they will do to "protect" the homeland and keep them safe.

Bonus: "It was dark all around...there was frost in the ground...when the tigers broke free"

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Soviet America (Part 2)

(image: Soviet era bread line)

The Guardian published an interesting article the other day called, "As the Berlin Wall fell, checks on capitalism crumbled," the title of which pretty much tells the story:
The immediate cause for the collapse of communism was that Moscow could not keep pace with Washington in the arms race of the 1980s. Higher defence spending put pressure on an ossifying Soviet economy. Consumer goods were scarce. Living standards suffered.

But the problems went deeper. The Soviet Union came to grief because of a lack of trust. The economy delivered only for a small, privileged elite who had access to imported western goods. What started with the best of intentions in 1917 ended tarnished by corruption. The Soviet Union was eaten away from within.

As it turned out, the end of the cold war was not unbridled good news for the citizens of the west. For a large part of the postwar era, the Soviet Union was seen as a real threat and even in the 1980s there was little inkling that it would disappear so quickly. A powerful country with a rival ideology and a strong military acted as a restraint on the west. The fear that workers could “go red” meant they had to be kept happy. The proceeds of growth were shared. Welfare benefits were generous. Investment in public infrastructure was high.

There was no need to be so generous once the Soviet Union was no more. What was known as neoliberal economics was born in the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that market forces reigned supreme. The free market spread to poorer parts of the world where it had previously been off limits, expanding the global workforce. That meant cheaper goods but it also put downward pressure on wages.

What’s more, there was no longer any need to be inhibited. Those running companies could take a bigger slice of profits because there was nowhere else for workers to go. If citizens did not like “reform” of welfare states, they just had to lump it.
The whole article is well worth reading, except that in the second half it starts getting into potential "solutions" to counter the now unchecked rapacity of the world's predatory capitalist elites. The only real solution that could possibly change the status quo involves a violent revolution and overthrow of every government worldwide that has bought into the neoliberal economic policies that insist that enriching those at the top benefits everyone instead of the exact opposite being true.

But let's be perfectly clear about this--violent revolution is no more likely to happen in the West, especially in America--than it was to happen in the old Soviet Union. The Soviets kept the clamps tightly fashioned on dissent, just as is happening now in America. The only difference is that advances in technology and the increasing effectiveness of mass media propaganda means that (so far) our elites have generally not had to rely on tactics as heavy handed as those employed by the KGB in order to keep the masses in their place.

When the Soviet system did finally come apart it miraculously happened from the top-down after Premier Mikhail Gorbachev tried to "reform" the sclerotic Soviet command economy and failed miserably. To Gorbachev's undying credit, once he realized he had failed he did not try to cling on to power at the cost of a potential second Russian civil war, but allowed the Soviet Union to more or less peacefully collapse. It was an act almost completely unprecedented in world history, and the average Russian paid a steep price in terms of plunging standards of living as a result.

"Collapse" is also almost certainly the only way the current corrupt American system, which may not have any bread lines but is approaching late Soviet era levels of inequality between the elites and the masses, is ever going to cease to exist. The problem is that there does not seem to be any potential American Gorbachev out there who recognizes that peacefully dismantling the American empire, even at the cost of a huge drop in our own standards of living, would be preferable to maintaining the system until it experiences a violent collapse that will likely suck many millions of people into the maelstrom. In any event, even if an American Gorbachev did exist it is unlikely that he or she would be able, given how hopelessly selfish and entitled a majority of Americans are, to successfully "land this sucker" before it all goes kablooie.

Bonus: "Sweet communist, the communist daughter...standing on the seaweed water"

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Soviet America

Well, it's election day once again in America and once again I am going to exercise the one meaningful freedom still open to me this day as a citizen of the empire. Despite now being retired and having the whole day to go and "enjoy the franchise" that "brave men (and a few women)" have supposedly "fought and died for," I am instead going to assert my right to not participate in what has become a meaningless holographic (and as the late George Carlin put it: masturbatory) excercise.

We as American citizens may live in a virtual one party state, so under the political control of oligarchs that electoral "change" has become virtually meaningless, but the one thing that separates us from the denizens of the old Soviet Union, or any other totalitarian system that insisted upon having sham elections in a desperate attempt to provide the illusion of legitimacy and democracy, is that we still have the right to not participate--and what's more we won't be fined, imprisoned or fired from our jobs for holding up a stiff middle finger of refusal on election day. Deliberately NOT voting and thus withholding legitimacy, however slightly, from the whole corrupt American political, business and media establishment, is in these "interesting times" the only sensible thing a citizen can still do on election day.

The Democrats have apparently finally given up my support, because I no longer receive solicitations from that corrupt and worthless party asking for money. My dad still does however, and he told me that most of the correspondence directed at him by the Donkeys this year menacingly intones how awful it will be if they lose and the Republicans take control of the Senate. And that's ALL Pelosi, Reid, Biden and Obama (whose names appear on the solicitations) dare to argue with their pleas--there is not one mention from these dubious party "leaders" of just what their party will actually DO if it manages to hold onto the Senate. I think we've seen perfectly well during the current political alignment of the past four years exactly what they will do if they manage to hang on to their slim Senate majority--effectively nothing but continue to allow the billionaires to line their pockets at the expense of everyone else.

There has been a little bit of excitement in the press this election cycle about the unusual number of independent candidates who might actually win their races this time around, as if this is a development of any real significance. It isn't, because even if all of those non-affiliated candidates win they each will be asked to caucus with the two major parties, and they all will with one or the other. For if they don't they won't be allowed to sit on any of the committees that slice up the bacon for distribution to the folks back home. And NOBODY, however well intentioned they may be to begin with, spends the time, effort and money it takes to get elected to congress just so they can become an ineffectual one termer. Nope, before these newbies even move the furniture into their new offices outside their office doors will be lines of lobbyists just waiting to tell them which way to vote and when, and schooling them on how the thoroughly corrupted Washington system really works.

In post-Citizens United America especially, elections have become as big a sham as they were in the old Soviet Union--the one difference being that the voters who went to the polls pre-1991 in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, etc., unlike most of the voters in America today, likely suffered from no illusions that their votes had any real meaning whatsoever.

Bonus: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here...this is the war room"

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Choice I Hope I Never Have to Make

By now I'm sure most if not all of you have heard the amazing story of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who chose to end her own life while she still could rather than wait around for the disease to consumer her in its ugly, painful fashion. Maynard's situation really hit home to me because not so long ago I thought I might find myself in the same exact position, and I still might should my cancer return at some point. The dismal reality is that despite the "every day alive is a good day," happy talk, there comes a point where life really is no longer worth living. As someone who has suffered an intense amount of pain and discomfort the past two years, I'm not yet sure I know exactly where the threshold lies, but I think I have some idea. And for anyone who has not had the experience of being in excruciating pain and having been told by your doctors that you are expected to live for only X number more months who thinks what Maynard did was morally wrong, let me be the first to tell to please go fuck yourself with a very big stick.

Before I got sick, I knew two other people with terminal cancer who chose to to end their lives early. One was in her early 60s and was suffering the horrendous agony of having the disease slowly eat away at her spine. The other was a just-turned-40 young woman who initially appeared to have defeated breast cancer only to have the damnable disease return and metastasize. She made the courageous decision to stop receiving chemotherapy because she was told there was little chance it would be able to save her a second time and because the first go-around had made her life nearly unbearable.

During my own treatments I also saw people on the other side of the fence, those who continued to struggle despite there being little or no hope. While undergoing chemotherapy I made friends with Tom, a 59-year-old guy who had stage 4 esophageal cancer. Over the months I had chemo with him his condition continued to worsen. Tom was a big baseball fan, and my wife and I decided to use some connections we had to arrange for him and his wife to go with us to see what turned out to be his very last big league game, with the bonus that we were allowed to go onto the field during batting practice and meet some of the players. Several even signed a ball for Tom.

By the time of that game, however, Tom was already confined to a wheelchair, could not hold his head up without a neck brace, could barely speak above a whisper and was permanently attached to a colostomy bag. He ended up passing on about three months later, and the effusive thanks he and his wife expressed to us for arranging that special moment near the end of his life are something I will always remember. Nevertheless, as I observed him that night my thought was that it was great that he was having fun but I doubted I'd be able to stand to let my own condition deteriorate as far as his already had. Thankfully, to date it never has.

Allowing people to end their lives with dignity is a touchy subject in this country. On the cold, analytical end of the spectrum there's the figure that gets thrown about that says in America two-thirds of the average person's total medical expenses are incurred in the last year of life, which would seem to indicate a way that skyrocketing health care costs could be brought down but for the chilling thought of exactly who gets to make such decisions. On the other end are the fundamentalist religious freaks and right to life lunatics who if they could would force every patient to draw every agonizing breath for however long it takes until they mercifully expire. Because these fucking assholes shout the loudest, they make it nearly impossible to have a reasonable discussion about the right to die and the real necessity for legalized physician-assisted suicide.

Then along comes Brittany Maynard, bless her, a pretty young white woman with incredible courage who, dignity despite the media circus that surrounded her, was able to bring national attention to the issue in such a way that was basically impervious to all but the most unhinged criticism. Yes, it's a shame that the media won't pay attention to many social issues UNLESS a pretty young white woman is involved as the victim, but in this case we'll have to take what we can get. And what we got was an incredibly selfless act from a someone who allowed a huge intrusion into her private life at the worst possible time so that others in the future might be able to end their own lives with dignity and while experiencing as little physical pain as possible. I don't often cite heroes on this blog--mostly because I don't think there are a whole lot of genuine heroes left in this shitty world--but Brittany Maynard was a hero. May she rest in peace.

Bonus: No--suicide is NOT "the coward's way out"

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Scariest Halloween Story You'll Read Today

(Editorial note: There was a BBC report earlier this week which raised the alarm about world population growth, stating that rather than leveling off at around 9 billion by 2050, as previously postulated by the UN, that the population could instead reach 12 billion by the year 2100. Just prior to the publication of that article, I wrote the post below in which rather than having a team of scientists furiously studying their latest computer algorithms, I just used a simple calculator and a world population counter to come to basically the same conclusion. I've decided not to alter my original post in light of the BBC report, just to show that figuring this stuff out isn't nearly as hard to do as the "experts" would like you to believe it is).


As I highlighted at the time here at TDS, on Halloween Day 2011 at exactly 1:48 P.M. the poplation counter site Worldometers estimated that the world had just added its 7,000,000,000th living human. Not to worry, the optimists assured us, birthrates around the globe have been declining since 1960s and it's a well known "fact" that when the wealth of societies increase, women on average start having fewer babies. Some optimists who study these issues have gone as far as to say that world population will level off at around 9,000,000,000 by around the year 2050.

Ahhh...optimists. They are just so much fun to poke with a rhetorical stick. I don't think I'll ever get tired of it.

Let's start by reminding everybody where we have come from. The data shows that it was upon reaching the 3 billion mark in 1959 that human population numbers realy began to spiral out of control. From that level the world raced to 4 billion in 1974 (just 15 years later) and 5 billion in 1987 (just 13 years after that). The last two milestones were each reached in exactly one dozen years, 6 billion in 1999 and 7 billion in 2011. Admittedly, the raw numbers DO indicate a slow down in birth rates, but the sheer size of the the current human population has caused the momentum of increase to lumber steadily forward anyway. Already we are in a situation where I, one of the eldest members of Generation X, have seen the human population of planet Earth double in just my lifetime.

In that spirit, let's have a little check of the Worldometers website again today, three years after the adding of the 7th billion person, and see if we can see any signs of a continuing slowdown in population growth. Hmmm, seems the total now is slightly above 7,270,000,000. That means that for the last three years the AVERAGE annual increase in human beings was 90,000,000. At that rate, the world's 8 billionth person will be born in 2022, just ELEVEN years after the previous milestone was reached. Extrapolate out further, and world population at midcentury will be around 10.5 billion, not the 9 billion the optimists were touting.

So why have the optimists apparently been proven wrong? Well, the one big elephant in the room is the fact that the the world economy for anyone who isn't among the elites has pretty much sucked since the financial crash of 2008. So much for the idea of rising prosperity serving as a gigantic prophylactic.

There has rightly been lots of worry about ebola, but to put the epidemic in perspective right now it would have to kill about 90,000,000 people PER YEAR just to level off the planet's population. So, as if we didn't have enough real world events to scare us this Halloween, here's an oldie but a goody that just continues to make calls from INSIDE THE HOUSE.


(2nd editorial note: putting aside for a moment the fact that resource depletion will likely not allow continued human population growth beyond midcentury, if the planet did theoretically have the resources and we did in fact reach 10.5 billion in population by 2050, even the BBC report's "pessimistic" assessment of 12 billion humans in 2100 would likely be well off on the low side)

Bonus: Happy Halloween, everybody

Thursday, October 30, 2014

They Hate You--They REALLY REALLY Hate You

The other day I was scanning online through some old year end "Best of" lists from some newspaper websites looking for books to add to my already substantial reading list. That's when I came upon a review of THIS TOWN -- Two Parties and a Funeral Plus Plenty of Valet Parking! in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich, which was published last year to some excellent critical acclaim. I haven't yet read Leibovich's book, but some of the blurbs from the New York Times review of it were so interesting that I thought I would share them here:
Not to ruin it for you, but: if you already hate Washington, you’re going to hate it a whole lot more after reading Mark Leibovich’s takedown of the creatures who infest our nation’s capital and rule our destinies. And in case you are deluded enough as to think they care, you’ll learn that they already hate you. He quotes his former Washington Post colleague Henry ­Allen: ­“Washington feels like a conspiracy we’re all in together, and nobody else in America quite understands, even though they pay for it.”
It's a conspiracy, all right, if in fact only a loose one among a large group of sociopaths who hate each other almost as much as they hate you and me. The meat of the review, and thus the book, comes with the author's depictions of four major changes that have come to Washington in recent decades:
Lobbying. President Obama’s first year in office was the best year ever for the special interests industry, which earned $3.47 billion lobbying the federal government. Ka-ching — your change, sir. There’s a phrase in journalism-speak called “burying the lede,” which Leibo­vich appears to do by waiting until Page 330 to cite this arresting figure (previously reported by The Atlantic): in 1974, 3 percent of retiring members of Congress became lobbyists. “Now 50 percent of senators and 42 percent of congressmen do.” No one goes home anymore. Cincinnatus, call your office.

There are a number of sanctimonious standout “formers” in Leibovich’s Congressional hall of shame, but just to name a few exemplars who gleefully inhabit ethical no-worry zones and execute brisk 180-­degree switcheroos on any issue, including the Armenian genocide, so long as it pays: Dick Gephardt, Evan Bayh and Tim Pawlenty. (Christopher Dodd, late of Connecticut, is another beauty. Disclosure: he beat my uncle out of a Senate seat, but judge for yourself if he isn’t loathsome for other reasons.) My own modest proposal is that the media stop referring to these scoundrels as “strategic consultants” or their other camouflage titles and call them what they are: influence peddlers. I know — good luck with that.

The other major change took place pari passu with lobbying: the arrival of big money in Washington. “Over the last dozen years,” Leibovich writes, “corporate America (much of it Wall Street) has tripled the amount of money it has spent on lobbying and public affairs consulting in D.C.” Alongside this money comes the tsunami of dollars from presidential campaigns. He reports that during the 2012 contest, the so-called super PACs and megadonors pumped “upwards of $2 billion . . . into the empty-calorie economy of two men destroying each other.” He refers to a datum courtesy of The Huffington Post, which reported in the spring of 2012 that, so far, “the top 150 consulting companies had . . . grossed more than $465 million” during the campaign.

All of which has given rise to another unlovely development: political consultants and their concomitant celebrity. This breed has, Leibovich says, essentially replaced the old-style political bosses. One might ask: is it a bad thing that we now have the omnipresent James Carville and Mary Matalin and their ilk? Aren’t we better off for this “celebrity-industrial complex” instead of the smoke-filled rooms of yore? Over to you, but at least the boys in the smoke-filled rooms didn’t yap at us on TV on the Sabbath and endorse Maker’s Mark bourbon. (Honestly, James and Mary. They’re also doing the safety briefing voice-over for Independence Air. Is this a great country or what? Meanwhile, on “Good Morning America” tomorrow, George Stephanopoulos’s guests are. . . .)

Bringing us to the fourth change: Pandora’s (cable TV) box. The rise of cable television and the 24/7 news cycle, as well as Facebook, Twitter and the rest of social media, have provided all these people with heretofore unimaginable influence. “Suddenly,” Leibovich writes, “anyone without facial warts could call themselves a ‘strategist’ and get on TV. Or start an e-mail newsletter, Web site or, later, blog, Facebook page or Twitter following — in other words, become Famous for Washington.”

It has also enabled journalists to turn themselves into pundits, with all the glittery and greasy emoluments of that lower trade. “Punditry,” he writes, “has replaced reporting as journalism’s highest calling, accompanied by a mad dash of ‘self-branding,’ to borrow a term that had now fully infested the city: everyone now hellbent on branding themselves in the marketplace, like Cheetos (Russert was the local Coca-Cola). They gather, all the brands, at . . . self-­reverential festivals, like the April White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, whose buffet of ‘pre-parties’ and ‘after-parties’ now numbers more than two dozen — because a single banquet, it is clear, cannot properly celebrate the full achievements of the People Who Run Your Country.”
I spent most of my career prior to my recent retirement inside the Beltway, but I was as far away (metaphorically if not literally) from the glitz and glamour of "official" (read: "political") Washington as I'd been when I was still growing up in Illinois. You're either in what the late George Carlin described as "The Big Club" or you're not, and I most decidedly was not.

Nevertheless, what I've witnessed since arriving in the DC area a month before Bill Clinton won his first term in office is how the money pump, which has always propped up the world's largest "company town," has in the years since the start of the War on Terror and particularly since the insane federal borrowing and spending in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, almost literally paved the streets of the city and its immediate suburbs with gold. This incredible surge of wealth, most of it going to the lobbyists, lawyers and "Beltway Bandit" contractors, can be seen everywhere from the countless new suburban McMansions and upscale shopping malls to the many regentrified DC neighborhoods that have changed the demographic makeup of the so-called "Chocolate City" so dramatically that it no longer has a black majority population. Washington as a workplace is no longer a locale for citizens who really believe in public service (as I once did), but has instead become a gold rush city where the greedy and power hungry come to strike it rich.

And all of this, of course, is enabled by Americans who are either ignorant, stupid or willfully blind enough to believe it still matters what party label the sociopathic social climbers who come to Washington to make their fortune wear. The real truth is personified by former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who after his recent "stunning" primary defeat almost immediately signed on as a lobbyist making 26 times the average annual household income of his former Virginia district.

Of course, for all of their bluster and preening these people are still just puppets dancing on the ends of strings held by the billionaires who pay the bills. And the system that supports both them and their paymasters is getting more brittle and creakier by the year. Someday, the whole (ahem) house of cards is going to come crashing down, and those who have so come to disdain their fellow citizens are going to get a rude awakening in just what it means to be the objects of their collective hatred.

Bonus: "They still call it The White House, but that's a temporary condition"

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Earth’s Vertebrate Wildlife Population has Halved in 40 Years

And that doesn't even include members of congress (bada-BING!).

Actually, this story from The Independent makes me very ashamed of my own species:
The world’s wildlife population is less than half the size it was just four decades ago, with unsustainable human consumption and damage from climate change destroying valuable habitats at a faster rate than previously thought, a new report has warned.

The number of vertebrates, which make up the bulk of Earth’s visible animals, has dived by 52 per cent over the past 40 years. Biodiversity loss has now reached “critical levels”, the report warns.

But some populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have suffered much bigger losses, with fresh water species declining by 76 per cent since 1974, according to the Living Planet Report by the conservation campaign group WWF.
There's not really a whole lot I can add to this awful report other than to say you're either a person who actually gives a fuck about the problem or you're one that doesn't. And even if you reside squarely in the former camp, there isn't really fuck all you can do about any of it.

Reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible? Yes, absolutely. Just living below your financial means, which is a smart thing to do anyway if you are able, will help in that regard. But never believe it will add up to anything so much as a cure for what we human beings are doing to the natural world.

Bonus: "Come closer and see...see into the dark"

Friday, October 24, 2014

America's Middle Class Knows it Faces a Grim Retirement

Per yesterday's post, I guess it isn't just the young'uns who know they're screwed. From the L.A. Times:
More than a third of middle-class families aren't saving anything in a 401(k), IRA or other vehicle, the survey found. For those 50 to 59 years old, it's 41%.

"Nearly a third (31%) of all respondents say they will not have enough money to 'survive' on in retirement," the bank says. "This increases to nearly half (48%) of middle-class Americans in their 50s."
Ahh...that younger segment of the Baby Boomer generation. Guess it really is better to die before you get old.

There was another quote from this article that I found particularly horrifying:
There's little new in these findings. They echo the findings of last year's installment in the Wells Fargo series, when more than a third of respondents said they expected to work at least until 80 to have enough to retire on.
Yikes! That's not "retiring," that's called "dying in the saddle."

I had a discussion recently with my brother-in-law. He hasn't made the best decisions in life. He failed to use his bachelor's degree to get a good paying white collar job despite residing in the high cost of living New York City area. After having four kids he dumped his wife for a fellow divorcee who has a young child of her own, and then they had yet another child before the two of them even got married. Now his oldest are reaching college age and are enlisting in the military partly to escape what has become a depressing family situation, but also for the tuition benefits. BIL was reflecting on the fact that I was able to take early retirement (due in large part to the cancer) because, among other things, my wife and I lived frugally and paid off our house even before I got sick.

"I'll retire on the day I die," he stated to me rather matter-of-factly. Problem is, he works a blue collar job that takes a fair bit of physical effort, so I wonder if he won't begin to physically break down long before it is time for him to shuffle off this mortal coil.

As for me, even if I hadn't gotten sick the idea of working until I'm 80 fills me with horror and dread. It's not that there aren't plenty of things that I could do until I'm that old (especially writing), it's just that none of those I enjoy doing are likely to pay me anything resembling a living wage. I'm very grateful to have been able to leave the rat race at a relatively young age, but in my case it remains to be seen if the hangover effects of my cancer battle will prevent me from doing many of the things I had hoped to do in retirement.

But enough about me. Let's finish the discussion of this article with another interesting tidbit:
All this points ever more strongly to an inescapable solution to Americans' retirement quandary: expanding Social Security. The program is immune from market influences, operates with rock-bottom administrative costs, and forces workers to place saving for retirement front and center.

Those who claim that increasing benefits is unnecessary because America's retirees are secretly rich -- a notion recently bandied about by independent benefits consultant Sylvester Schieber and Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute -- may need to get out and meet middle-class workers more. They would learn very quickly that middle-class Americans aren't laboring under the same misconceptions about their retirement prospects.
Forgetting for a moment that the Social Security program has its own long term financing problems, note the sheer fucking arrogance of these two assholes from the American Enterprise Institute. Do YOU know anyone in your social circle who is "secretly rich?" No, I don't either despite having a number of friends and acquaintances who are solidly upper middle class. The fact that these these two billionaire mouthpieces can get away with publicly saying such utter shit and not be tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail is a big part of the problem in this country.

Bonus: "All your hope is gone...and it's not that funny, is it?"

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Shockingly, Millennials Are The Most Cynical Generation Ever

Tying into to yesterday's post about the plummeting popularity of President Hopey-Changey, who would have thought that America's coming-of-age generation could get so cynical? Don't take my word for it, here's the scoop from MTV News:
Generation Y grew up in the shadow of a decade-long war and an economic crash both caused by authority figures’ filthy lies faulty assumptions, so it’s no surprise that skepticism of government and corporations is running high — but researchers are now warning that young people’s cynicism toward social institutions and even fellow citizens is at unsustainable levels.

A new study from the University of Georgia compared 140,000 millennials’ responses to previous generations’ attitudes. Between 2000 and 2012, millennial approval of Congress plummeted from 49% to 22%. (Compare that to the 30% of baby boomers happy with Congress during the Vietnam years.) In the same timespan, millennial approval of corporations dropped from 54% to 33% — and the results are similar for organized religion, upper education, police departments, the media and…hmm, that about covers it?
I have to admit, I made it to almost 40 before I got to the point where I started to assume that just about EVERYONE in some position of authority was completely full of shit. Who says kids these days are just mindless consumers who are out of touch with what's really going on? But it gets even worse:
Just as troublingly, the Associated Press reports, only 16% of millennials believe that “most people can be trusted” today, versus half of Americans back in the 1970s. All age groups feel more cynical than they did 10 years ago, but the under-35 crowd is the most pissed off and paranoid.
Now those are numbers of a society that is splitting apart at the seams. There's no way any sense of "community" can be built in a country where nobody trusts ANYBODY. Now, we're just 318,000,000 isolated little islands out here...and that's EXACTLY the way those in charge want us to be.

Bonus: "You ask me what you need...hate is all you need"