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"

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 2016 (Part 1 – The Republicans)


Nevermind that we still have over 22 months yet to endure the presidency of the man once known as Hopey-Changey, the political heavy hitters (and those who’ve deluded themselves into thinking they are heavy hitters) are already lining up to replace him. The one guarantee is that no matter who might come out on top in the November 2016 voting, nothing will fundamentally change in the lives of those non-billionaires delusional enough to participate in the balloting in the belief that it will. Nevertheless, being a former political science major I just can’t help myself when it comes to elections—I simply have to analyze them despite knowing that they have become a total sham giving Americans the illusion that they still have a real choice.

On the Republican side, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that despite couple of rouge billionaires’ attempts back in 2012 to rock the nomination process by backing and giving brief life to the likes of Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the ultimate result was that the party establishment got the candidate it wanted—just like it always does. All you have to do to see what a lock the party establishment has is to look back on the nominees of the past 35 years.

In 1980 the establishment lined up behind Ronald Reagan, not only because he was viewed as malleable and thereby a safe choice, but because it was “his turn” after he had narrowly missed knocking off accidental incumbent Gerald Ford for the 1976 nomination. In 1988, George Bush senior was the establishment’s guy after he spent eight years in the vice president’s office carrying water for Reagan and doing penance for his “voodoo economics” comment during the 1980 campaign.

By 1996, it was Bob Dole’s turn after he had been Bush’s most prominent opponent in the 1988 primaries. In 2000, the establishment decided to line up behind junior Bush, seeing in him not only another malleable Reagan type figure, but a popular governor who was eager to avenge his father’s 1992 defeat. By 2008 John McCain, Bush’s most prominent opponent in the 2000 primaries, managed by his nearly eight years of post-9/11 belligerency to convince the establishment that he could in fact be trusted. Then once again in 2012 the establishment lined up behind McCain’s most prominent opponent in the 2008 primaries, and it was an added bonus that Mitt Romney was also a Wall Street guy himself.

So where does all of that leave the Republicans as we head into 2016? Well, let’s start with Chris Christie, who was probably the establishment’s preferred candidate until he goofed by being publicly exposed as a man unable to control himself from using his power against those with whom he has petty grievances. Not that Republicans have any qualms about abusing executive power, just that potential nominees need to adhere to the "Nixon rule" and do so by being nimble enough not to get "caught."

Meanwhile, Rand Paul (the "W" to Ron Paul's "HW") has been desperately trying to balance being the guy who can lock down the surely libertarian vote while winking and nodding his willingness to go along with the party's belligerent foreign policies. Unfortunately for the namesake of the Atlas Shrugged scribe, there is far too much distrust of him and his truly libertarian father and their previous lack of demonstrated enthusiasm for America’s quite profitable imperial misadventures.

Scott Walker, on the other hand, is the Koch Brothers’ preferred stooge who'll have some potential viability if the Democrat's favorite billionaire boogeymen put a huge amount of money into his campaign. Too bad though for Governor Union Buster that the Kochs do NOT necessarily represent the party establishment, and hence Walker could well be this year’s version of Rick Santorum--a tiresome monkey wrench who keeps the horserace going past early March.

Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson might be this campaign’s great Republican minority hopes, but each seem to be viewed as far too lightweight to be considered anything other Veep possibilities. Mike Huckabee is again hovering around with more than nominal support in the polls--no doubt from Christian conservatives--but it is hard to see the big money boys lining up behind the false prophet from Arkansas. Then you have Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, who seems to sense that without the big money behind him he has no realistic chance. Or it could be that he just prefers being a Senator--where he can grandstand all he wants without ever being held accountable for anything.

That leaves one man standing: Jeb Bush. Funny that were it not for his now infamous last name, the same last name that allowed his imbecilic older brother to walk to the 2000 nomination, Jeb would be considered just as much of a shoo in for the nomination today. The Jebster and the establishment are in fact so desperate to disassociate him with past Bush family disasters that he even recently came out and tried to distance himself from his old man and his brother by laughably claiming that he would “be his own man.” Are the American voters really dumb enough to believe that load of horseshit? Why yes, of course they are.

So the $64,000 question is: can the Republican Party establishment overcome all of the resistance within the party that yet another Bush family candidacy (which would be the FIFTH in the past 28 years) will no doubt encounter from Tea Partiers and libertarians? Well, they were able to use their vast monetary resources—which are even more unlimited these days thanks to the Citizens United decision—to put the former governor of America’s most liberal state (and who as governor enacted his own version of Obamacare) over the top in 2012. However much the Tea Party may howl and the libertarians may sulk, the view of the establishment remains that putting forward one of those factions' darlings as the nominee will result in an electoral disaster--and they also might prove not completely reliable in the unlikely event that one of them was actually able to knock off Queen Hillary next year.

Hence, as of right now it would appear that Jeb Bush will likely be the Republican nominee in 2016. He already has a small lead in the nationwide polls, though it should be noted that Walker is currently ahead in Iowa. But as with the Democrats, it will be the ability tap into the really big money and saturate the airwaves in early primary states with teevee ads that will ultimately decide this nomination. More on the alleged people's party nomination tomorrow.


Bonus: Bill (prematurely) celebrates the political death of George Bush

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Because, Your Honor, the Defendant is a Fucking Moron


When contemplating the many factors that are leading America towards its own spectacular downfall, one must maintain one's sense of humor lest depression grip ahold of one like a giant vice and squeeze all remnants of sanity from one's mind. Keeping that basic rule in mind, I'm always on the lookout in the news for a good laugh that might leave others who remain blissfully unaware of where our country is heading scratching their heads. Today's such story features a student from my graduate school alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago, who decided it might be fun to reenact scenes from the inexplicably popular 50 Shades of Grey.

I've not seen the movie, nor likely will I ever, but thanks to its ubiquitous presence in the media right now even I know enough about its plot to realize that if the idea of recreating its graphic sex scenes turns you on it would probably be a good idea to clue in your intended partner and obtain her consent. Alas:
Hossain used a knit cap to cover the woman's eyes, Karr said, and removed the woman's bra and underwear. He then began striking the woman with a belt. After hitting her several times, the woman told Hossain he was hurting her, told him to stop "and began shaking her head and crying," said Karr.

Hossain continued striking the woman — including with his fists, according to an arrest report — and she managed to get one arm, and then another, free. But he then held her arms behind her back and sexually assaulted her as she continued to plead for him to stop, according to Karr.

(snip)

During police questioning, Hossain reportedly admitted the assault and "doing something wrong" but said he and the woman had been reenacting scenes from 50 Shades of Grey.
Okay, so far it is yet another grim story of a male college student who thinks his female classmates are there solely for his own sexual gratification. Nothing funny about that, until I came to this quote that demonstrated the cluelessness of the judge assigned to the case:
After public defender Sandra Bennewitz noted Hossain's record of student leadership, Judge Adam Bourgeois Jr. responded: "Sandra, how can someone involved in all that let a movie persuade him to do something like this?"
Because your honor, he's obviously a fucking moron. It doesn't matter that he's a college student and not just pumping gas or flipping burgers for a living, nor does it matter how good his grades are or what "leadership" activities he's supposedly engaged in. Nope, being a modern day American means being well trained by Hollywood and the media in monkey see-monkey do. Hossain is in fact not at all different than the moron from Indiana who recently got so riled up after watching Fox News (while consuming 45! beers) that he went out and set a nearby mosque on fire.

I guess what amazes me is that a judge in this day and age could spend years on the bench watching as a parade of American losers passes before him and remain credulous that being a student in our completely broken higher education system might render one immune from being stupid enough to imitate something he saw in a popular a movie. It's the ability to engage in critical thinking, not IQ level or formal educational achievement, that prevents such stupidity, and America's modern education system is specifically designed to snuff out or at least prevent the development of a student's ability to think critically. Students are repeatedly told to get good grades and standardized test scores and not rock the boat, or they won't be able to get a good job when the graduate--trouble being that those who are capable of critical thinking tend to be boat rockers by their very nature.

So yes, your honor, the defendant's excuse is that he's a typical American moron who happens to have lower than normal impulse control. Really, he's not so unusual at all.


Bonus: Bill's likely review of 50 Shades of Gray likely would have been the same as it was years ago for Basic Instinct: "Piece of shit"

Monday, February 23, 2015

Putin’s a Thug, but He’s No Hypocrite


I just recently finished reading Masha Gessen’s book, The Man Without a Face, a journalistic recounting of the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, and how he managed to rather quickly snuff out Russia’s hopelessly corrupt democratic interlude under Boris Yeltsin and return the country to the kind of charismatic authoritarian regime a majority of Russians have always been more comfortable with. In light of the quickly rising tensions between Russia and the U.S. in recent years, it’s almost amazing to recall how positively western leaders initially viewed his anointment. None more so than the imbecilic George W. Bush and his now infamous claim to have looked Putin in the eye and seen a man he could trust.

It is fashionable in leftist and antiwar circles these days to defend Putin and Russia’s stance regarding Ukraine, and certainly U.S. meddling in that beleaguered country has been very bad for the Ukrainian people as well as a direct provocation towards Russia itself. But in our condemnations of yet another American imperial misadventure, lets us not forget one important fact: Putin is a vicious thug. And I’m not insulting the man by calling him that either given that, as Gessen recounts, he highlighted examples of his own personal thuggery during his first presidential campaign. Why would he do that? Because it was a subtle signal to the Russian voters that he would end the chaos of the Yeltsin years and give them what so many of them crave above all else: stability and a restoration of the idea of Russia as a great nation.

With the exception of about six months in 1917 and eight years under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, Russia has never been a democracy. And by taking advantage of Russia’s geopolitical weakness after the fall of Soviet Union by expanding NATO and encouraging Yeltsin to pursue harsh neoliberal economic policies, the U.S. did about everything in its power to ensure that Russia’s second democratic experiment would fail miserably. Russia in the 1990s needed a modern version of the Marshall Plan to get back on its feet, money that could have come from the so-called “peace dividend” if our so-called “leaders” had any imagination whatsoever. Instead, the country got knee to the groin intended to keep it down forever. The surprise is not that Russia turned to someone like Putin—the surprise is that the lunatics in charge of the American insane asylum are at all surprised that it happened.

Yes, Putin is a thug—but he makes no bones about it. Unlike our last two presidents, he doesn’t pretend that he’s fighting for freedom and democracy. As Gessen recounts, under Putin’s direction Russia has eliminated elections for ALL federal officials, except the presidency—and he has used the mechanics of power (including vote stealing) to make it all but impossible for any challenger to have a chance of defeating him or whomever he anoints to the job in his stead. Yet George W. Bush, having lost the 2000 election by half a million popular votes, sent an army of operatives to Florida to screw up recount activities there just long enough to allow the Supreme Court to install him as president by judicial fiat on a purely partisan vote. That same Supreme Court would a decade later issue the infamous Citizens United decision, which has not only made it all but impossible for any third party challenger to achieve victory, but has also made it all but impossible for a true outsider to win the nomination of either of the two major parties.

Under Putin, Russia has engaged in collective punishment by invading and indiscriminately bombing Chechnya in response to terrorist attacks—at least some of which were likely false flag attacks carried out by Putin’s old buddies at the FSB. At the very least, as Gessen recounts, Putin’s military response to terrorist hostage taking has been designed to maximize civilian casualties, whose deaths he has then used to justify curtailing the civil liberties of Russian citizens. Similarly, Bush and congress used the 9/11 attacks to inflict massive collective punishment upon Iraq and Afghanistan while greatly curtailing the civil liberties of American citizens. Obama has not only continued the mindlessly destructive war on terror, he has expanded it by dropping drones on Yemen and Pakistan, by bombing Libya until it became a failed state and lately by bombing Iraq and Syria in response to the rise of a mass terrorist movement his own policies did much to help create.

Under Putin, Russian opposition journalists have been murdered and Alexander Litvinenko, a whistleblower who fled the country, was assassinated—likely by the FSB. In America, journalists who have been too vocal in opposition to the many war crimes of Bush and Obama have been fired or otherwise lost access to the mass media—being instead relegated to relatively obscure blogs and websites. And while the most prominent American whistleblowers—Manning, Snowden and Kiriakau—are still alive, two are rotting in prison as negative examples to others and the other certainly would be had he not fled to Russia.

Under Putin, the Russian mass media has been brought under the thumb of the president and no longer reports anything but officially sanctioned information. In America a handful of large corporations control virtually all mass media organs, and while the media may at times still report corruption and abuses, it does not ever question the basic idea of American exceptionalism. The American mass media also constantly demonizes Putin and Russia, while the latter use their English language channel, Russia Today, to throw it right back in America’s face.

Under Putin, Russia has become a classic cleptocracy, with the president and his cronies stealing everything that isn’t tied down. The former FSB functionary himself is said to have a current net worth of around $70 billion. American presidents by contrast are well provided for when they leave office, making huge amounts of money from sweetheart book deals, consultancies and speaking tours. Meanwhile, during the presidencies of Bush and Obama wealth inequality has reached record heights as the elite cronies who put them in office have been allowed to engage in systemic fraud and corruption, and then were bailed out when their own corrupt schemes blew up in their faces.

Overall, when comparing the current American versus Russian systems a few minor differences are apparent—but they are mostly a matter of style. American presidents are far less likely than Putin to kill their own citizens but far more likely to indiscriminately kill citizens of other countries, for example. Bush and Obama have a far higher overall body count on their bloody hands, but Putin is by far the more personally corrupt.

Yes, Putin is a definitely a thug and thief. But unlike Bush and Obama, at least he’s not a hypocrite.


Bonus: "Mother Russia rain down down down"

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Peak Oil vs The Military-Industrial Complex


I just wanted to point out to my readers an excellent essay just published by Tom Engelhardt on his TomDispatch blog that seamlessly weaves together post-9/11 trends, including militarization of local police departments, NSA surveillance, the war on terror, wealth inequality and the corrosive effects of big money on American politics. Englehardt, who has been a strong antiwar voice since the buildup to the Iraq War, concludes thusly:
In sum, we, the people, are ever less in control of anything. The police are increasingly not “ours,” nor are the NSA and its colleague outfits “our” intelligence agencies, nor are the wars we are fighting “our” wars, nor the elections in which we vote “our” elections. This is a country walking back nothing as it heads into a heavily militarized future. In the process, an everyday American world is being brought into existence that, by past standards, will seem extreme indeed. In other words, in the years to come an ever-less recognizable American way of life will quite expectably be setting in the west. Don’t be shocked.
Shocked? Hardly. In fact, to a point I agree with Engelhardt whole-heartedly--it is utterly hopeless to expect that America will ever willingly change course from its current trajectory. Ah, but that's the one little thing he's missing: willingly. Because sooner or later the ever-militarizing American future is going to run headlong into the increasingly imminent danger presented by Peak Oil (and resource depletion in general) and the somewhat less imminent but still rapidly encroaching danger of environment degradation and climate change. In short, it will be the physical forces of nature rather than politics which will eventually be America's nemesis.

So how long it that going to take? Well, dear reader, if I knew the answer to that question I would immediately abandon this blog, take the money I've saved up over my lifetime and bet the markets accordingly.

In hindsight, we can now say the peaking of conventional crude oil in the middle of the last decade almost caused a worldwide economic heart attack in the fall of 2008 (via electronic bank runs) that was only halted by the bailouts and trillions of phantom dollars being conjured up and injected by the central banks into the world financial system. At the same time, the initial Peak Oil-related explosion in world oil prices caused an all out effort to exploit unconventional oil and gas through the tar sands, fracking and deepwater drilling that had not previously been economically viable. I think it is safe to say that without all that unconventional production, we'd already be well into the backside of Hubbert's Curve and the catastrophic economic collapse many Peak Oilers anticipated back in 2008 would already be well underway.

So where does that leave us? Well, instead of oil being increasingly scarce and gasoline shooting to $10 or more a gallon domestically (as so often breathlessly predicted), we instead have a bizarre situation in which the price of the world's most important resource is now dramatically whipsawing up and down while the central bankers continue to inject their largess into the financial system. Given the insane levels of debt, sovereign and otherwise, all over the world all that is preventing if not collapse at least extreme economic chaos is continued faith in the system. And that faith in the system remains unshakable for the vast majority of the population. Not surprising, really. What other choice do they have?

What we're left with is a horrible situation in which those of us who oppose America's ever more unjust big business, war and empire policies (and, relatedly, abhor the massive destruction being wrought upon the natural environment) are left with the grim realization that the only way those policies will ever be reversed is via a worldwide economic collapse that will ultimately result in the deaths of hundreds of millions if not billions of people. And it WILL be a worldwide collapse--the global economy is far too interconnected to enable any country to escape it once it really gets rolling. The most chilling sights I saw on my cruise were the numerous giant container ship docks we anchored near and the continuous stream of such ships transiting the canal, piled high as they were with all manner of boxed up goods. Seeing that massive volume up close served as a reminder that it is virtually impossible for anyone these days to truly "unplug" from it all.

That said, anyone with any sense should not be actively rooting for economic collapse (though I'll admit I can certainly understand why one might be tempted to do so). But as Tom Engelhardt so conclusively spells out, even without a collapse in the near term future that future is going to be quite grim indeed.


Bonus: "Hubris and greed...let the fossil fuels burn. No way to keep the wings in flight...when the turbine engines don't move"

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The (Fat, Old, Pasty) Ugly Americans (Part 2) - Shop Till You Drop


The travel and tourism industry has become such a scam these days. I’m so old I can remember a time when the advertised cost for say, an airline flight or a hotel room, was the actual price you paid and you didn’t get hit with hidden fees every time you turned around.

Due to my illness I hadn’t travelled much the past couple of years, so that might be why it felt like a bucket of cold water dumped had been over my head when I showed up at the airport—proud of myself for travelling lightly enough despite a fairly lengthy journey to be carrying just one large suitcase—only to be charged 25 bucks to check said suitcase. I’d have gladly paid that much more for the fare, but getting unexpectedly stuck in the ass like that on both of my flights really pissed me off.

That was bad enough, but what was even worse was not being informed ahead of time that I would be charged $45 a night to park my rental car at the hotel where I stayed after the cruise (oh, but I got a “great deal” on the room at Priceline!). I’d have told the good people at Hyatt to go fuck themselves on that little bit of highway robbery, ‘cept there wasn’t a public lot anywhere near the place. That particular outrage then got me wondering how these businesses get away with so obviously boning their customers in a country where it is normal for folks to BRAG about what a great deal they got on whatever particular crap it is they just bought, when I thought back to the passengers I was on the cruise with and it struck me: the top 10% in this country are literally partying like there is no tomorrow and it’s their loose wallets that are propping up the creaky American consumer economy.

As anyone whose has cruised in recent years well knows, when it comes to hiding extra charges nobody is better at it than the cruise ship lines. Want to drink any kind of alcoholic beverage during your time on board, or even have a bottle of water or a can of your favorite soft drink? Hotel prices for that, my friend. Want to go anywhere but the usually fairly ugly cruise ship dock at your exotic ports of call and ensure that you get back before the gangplank goes up and you get hopelessly stranded ashore? Oh, that’s another considerable extra charge. Want to generously tip the incredibly hardworking, underpaid staff who are stuck on board for six to eight months at a time? Oh, doesn’t matter if you want to tip them or not—that sizeable collective tip is automatically added daily to your on board account. If you want to give say, your stateroom steward something extra, that’s your call (actually, I was quite proud of myself as the company I booked the cruise with sent me a $500 on board credit, which enabled me since I cannot drink much these days to walk off the boat owing the cruise line just a bit over $11 more than my fare had been. Bet that pissed ‘em off).

But what was really amazing to watch was the relentless flogging of products. Not only did the ship have numerous shops selling “duty free” luxury goods (another scam I’ve never understood the attraction of), but just about every day there were “special” events featuring a different type of jewelry or other fashion accessory. And I know people were being suckered into buying the stuff because at dinner one night the wife of the doctor from Texas was flashing her brand new necklace, and a different night the husband of the couple from Montana was showing off his brand new “atomic” watch (I really have no idea and didn’t ask, was it powered by a tiny nuclear reactor?). What was really funny is that he freely admitted he had no idea how to even set the thing, and was glad that the clerk who sold it to him promised to adjust it to Montana time the night before the end of the cruise.

Even during the shore excursions we were encouraged to make sure we only shopped for jewelry at a cruise line approved jewelry store—ostensibly so we wouldn’t get ripped off by any surly, dark skinned third worlders—but in reality so the line would get its cut of the no doubt highly over inflated prices. And heck, if shopping really isn’t your thing, you could instead while away every night in the ship’s casino where, the activity newsletter reminded us daily, you could bet (and presumably lose) up to $3,000 nightly and have it charged to your on board account. Yep, if I weren’t the type who is perfectly content to park my ass on a deck chair with a good book to while way the lazy hours under the hot tropical sun I could have damn near bankrupted myself.

And after all, isn’t that what travel is REALLY supposed to be about? It isn’t about going to different places, seeing exotic sights, exposing oneself to different cultures and hearing different languages spoken. Nope, it’s all about doing the one thing you could just have easily stayed home and done—shopping. Because it isn’t enough to show off that flashy bit of jewelry to your friends back home—nope, you have just GOT to tell them all about how you bought it while floating somewhere off the coast of Costa Rica.

Yep, it’s people like this boatload of fat, old, pasty, mostly American baby boomers—not truly rich (or they’d have their own yacht) but upper middle class—who are still doing what their great “war president” instructed them to do to save their country after 9/11. Their portfolios were saved by the Wall Street bailouts, and now they're doing a great job of spending their kids’ inheritances. They're bucket listers merely crossing off one more item while frittering away a bit more of their accumulated wealth buying more shit they don’t need because they have completely forgotten (or never acknowledged) that they came of age during a brief moment in time when it looked like just maybe it was possible that their generation could lead the way as America turned its back on big business, war and empire and actually began to live up to its bullshit ideals.

Come on, people, smile at your brother. He just bought himself an atomic watch, whatever that is.


Bonus: "Good Lord, help us all...while we try to stay afloat. If you could Lord, send a boat"


Thursday, February 12, 2015

"I'm Getting Really Tired of the Che Guevara Bullshit"


I'm interrupting the intended second part of my last post because I had a conversation the other day that's been bugging me ever since and I just had to write something about it (hey, it's my blog, I can DO that, right?). I promise I'll get back to it.

Anyway, I was chatting with an old high school chum who lives in another part of the country when he brought up some problems his teenage son has been having in school. He attributed much of the trouble to the boy's teacher, whom I take it he does not see eye to eye with politically because he actually said about the woman, "I'm getting really tired of the Che Guevara bullshit."

At first I wasn't sure I'd heard him correctly, since I cannot ever recall another occasion in which the late Cuban revolutionary's name has popped up in casual conversation. When it finally sunk in I was horrified, not because of what it indicated about my friend's politics--he did a 20-year stint in the navy, after all--but because I realized that he actually doesn't have a fucking clue what Che Guevara really stood for. He was just mindlessly spewing stupid right wing rhetoric.

How do I know this? Well, my friend lives in a mostly lily white exurban area where, I would be willing to bet a considerable sum, no one who actually preaches the teachings of Che Guevara in a public high school class would remained gainfully employed for very long. In fact, if the poor woman is like most public high school teachers these days she is probably too busy desperately searching for some way to elevate the class's standardized test scores so the school doesn't lose government funding to even think about trying to turn her students into a radical bunch of Commies.

Dwelling on the subject a bit more after the fact, it struck me that it also goes without saying that the hippie nitwits who go around sporting their designer Che Guevara t-shirts and jackets ALSO likely have no real understanding of what the man stood for. They just know it's a cool way to piss off reactionary old farts like my friend.

So there's the American political system in a nutshell--conservatives who are unable to think for themselves versus liberals who think nothing of turning a anti-capitalist revolutionary into a corporate commodity. No wonder we're fucked.


Bonus: "Standing there with her long brown hair...in a Che Guevara t-shirt"

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The (Fat, Old, Pasty) Ugly Americans (Part 1)


So I’m back to freezing my rear end off after a few blissful weeks in the tropics. Or at least as long as it took my cruise ship to sail from Ft. Lauderdale to Los Angeles via the Panama Canal. Seeing the canal was one item on my bucket list and yeah, yeah I know how environmentally damaging cruise ships are, but with my health condition there really wasn’t any other way for me to see it.

One thing to note about these giant cruise ships if you’ve never been on one. It is generally pretty easy to tell the difference between passengers (mostly older, fatter and white) and the crew (mostly younger, thinner and darker skinned). There are some exceptions to that rule: ship officers and the staff that greet you when boarding tend to be European born or even occasionally Aussie, Canadian or American. Some of the regular crew might also be European—but they are almost uniformly from former Soviet bloc countries, in other word the kind of people economically desperate enough to join their fellow Thais, Philippines and Chinese working six to eight months straight without a day off. And I mean without a day—these ships pull into their final port of call at 7:00 A.M., discharge 2,000 or more passengers, take on another load of 2,000 or more and are gone again within 12 hours. The profit margins for these boats are so slim that there is no other way the cruise lines can stay in business. But it must REALLY suck for the crews.

Anyway, for the most part I enjoyed my trip. Seeing the canal was as I said a lifelong dream, and some of the other ports of call in Colombia, Costa Rica and Nicaragua were fascinating if all too brief. I would have enjoyed the experience a lot more, however, were it not for having to spend so much time cooped up on board with my fellow passengers.

The very nature of cruising encourages you to get to know those you’ve embarked with. Unfortunately, the very length of this cruise (15 days) meant the passengers were overwhelmingly retirees as few working people can spare that kind of time all at once these days. That also meant the average age of those on board had to be about 70—in other words right in the wheelhouse of being the older half of the baby boomer generation and, worse still, though there were some Canadians, Europeans and Aussie passengers they were mostly AMERICAN baby boomers.

Let me paint you a gruesome picture—imagine a crowd of mostly pasty white, overweight Septuagenarians in bathing attire, some who had to tip the scales at twice to three times healthy body weight for their height (I had to dodge around a lot of “mobility” scooters as well). Now imagine being stuck among that same crowd for two weeks straight. I wouldn’t have even minded the sight of them so much as much as that talking to them revealed that many had as much blubber clogging the space between their ears as they did around their midsections.

One fine morning I was lounging in one of the hot tubs after a vigorous weightlifting workout in the ship’s (largely underutilized) gym when a particularly ugly old specimen climbed in and caused a large amount of water to slosh out over the sides. Dude seemed nice enough at first, and when I described my recent cancer battle said all of the right supportive things. Then he found out I was from the DC area and his brow furrowed. I’ll never forget his reaction: “Of course,” he said, “I’m a true rebel…I’m a proud member of the modern American Tea Party.” Yeah, a true rebel…one no doubt sucking down social security and Medicare benefits as fast he can, and one whose already horribly overtaxed heart would no doubt explode if he ever heard a shot fired in anger. Nevertheless, I was polite. I didn’t laugh right in his pudgy face.

It’s also standard on cruise ships to be seated for dinner each night at a large table with two to three other couples. Again, the people at my table were nice enough (and actually among the slimmer passengers on the boat), but whoo boy what a group of reactionaries. There was the 70s-ish orthopedist from Texas and his much younger Philippine second wife (a rare breakage of the ship’s demographics) who was quite impressed upon hearing about my cancer battle but who just couldn’t resist saying he hopes Ted Cruz runs for president. Probably not coincidentally, he also admitted to not ever reading any books beyond medical journals.

More disappointing was the naturalized couple from Chile who said they had fled their homeland for the states 40 years ago. Intrigued, I asked for details only to be horrified that it was the election of the “monster” Allende who had caused their flight and how grateful they were that Pinochet had “fixed” their country. Though I noted to myself that the Pinochet regime’s torture and murder of thousands of their “monstrous” countrymen weren’t enough to cause them to return from America—
which they claim to love because of all the “glorious opportunities" it offers people.

The nicest couple was actually the pair from Montana. For the most part I enjoyed talking to them—except the one occasion when the Vietnam vet husband went on an extended rant about Jane Fonda. One evening, he and the doctor were comparing the number of foreign countries they have visited in their lifetimes (85 versus 61). But here’s the sad part. Chalking up those numbers seemed to be merely a matter of bragging rights. Anytime I tried to bring up any deeper subject about any of the countries they mentioned having seen they could not have been less interested. So much for the idea that international travel—which so few Americans do anyway—would broaden their perspectives and make them more empathetic towards other nations and cultures.

After 15 days I was more than ready to flee the boat, even if it meant returning to an American homeland I had been desperate to get away from in the first place. I guess the rule is that if you want to get as far away from America as you can you also need to get as far away as you can from Americans. With a few exceptions. The one delightful and meaningful conversation I had during the cruise was with a retiree from USAID. There’s nothing like immersing oneself in third world poverty for much of one's career to give one a deeper perspective about the way the world really is.

So now I’m back, for better or worse. Oh, and if anyone gives a damn, in the wake of the cruise my “number of foreign countries visited” count is now up to 31.


Bonus: Okay, I'll admit Bill probably HATED this song

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Heading South...


As of tomorrow, this blog will be on hiatus for about a month as your faithful blogger heads way down south (as in far beyond the U.S. border) to get out of the winter cold that makes his chemo inflicted neuropathy even more painful and uncomfortable. Hopefully, I'll come back full of new topic ideas because I'll admit to having trouble coming up with anything fresh to say lately that I haven't said repeatedly already.

Adios!