Non-fiction day: The Divide and The Lucifer Effect

I’m not quite finished with Matt Taibbi’s new book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, but I thought I’d review it now because, a.) I’m pretty sure of my impressions of the book and b.) it should be read in conjunction with another book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phillip Zimbardo.  I dunno, maybe I should read the Taibbi book to the end to see if he makes the connection but I’m beginning to get outrage fatigue, which is why it’s probably a good idea to read the more clinical prose in Zimbardo’s book to gain perspective.

So. Much. Morality.

The premise of Taibbi’s book is that the justice system is divided into two parts in this country.  If you are a member of the bonus class or oligarchy, your possession of the One Ring makes it nearly impossible for the justice system to prosecute you.  You’re invisible to the powers of accountability for one reason or another.  On the other hand, if you are a member of the working class, that is, anyone not living off their investments, the justice system can make your life a living hell.  Just breathing wrong can get you into trouble and that trouble is excessively punitive, relentless, expensive, arbitrary and seemingly endless.  It doesn’t take much to fall down the rabbit hole but it takes even less if your are a member of a minority population.

Sidenote: We have experienced this in our own family when a cousin’s persistent drug problem lead to direct interaction with the justice system.  He needed rehab- quickly.  What he got instead resembled Les Miz.  In the end, the legal system and it’s self-replicating fees, coupled with unmerciful punishment of every imaginable variation, put him in a hole he could not climb out of, made him homeless, broke and despondent.  He committed suicide.  So, you know, we definitely know what Matt is talking about. You don’t have to be black or hispanic. All that is required is that you have no money and live in a country where the public has been trained to be completely unsympathetic to what is happening to you.

Taibbi alternates the book with stories from each side of the divide.  We swing from bankers on Wall Street who got away with murder to “stop and frisk” detentions of young black men who are just standing outside their apartments at the wrong time.  Where the justice system seems willing to take a “boys will be boys” attitude towards the bankers, it comes down on the loiterers with a vengeance, depriving them of their dignity in the courtroom and subjecting them to endless hours of waiting around, mounting fees and coercion to plea to crimes they didn’t commit that ultimately deprive them of their right to public housing and student loans.

Taibbi doesn’t write with the same snap and clarity as Michael Lewis or Neil Barofsky  when describing the machinations of the Wall Street criminals.  His prose tends to meander, feels insidery (is that a word?) and it was difficult to follow who did what to whom.  This only pertains to the case studies in the upper justice system but I think his editor should have pulled him aside and asked him to tighten these sections up. He could never have gotten those case studies published in the kind of peer reviewed journals the science community is subjected to. Both Lewis and Barofsky have demonstrated that complexity doesn’t have to be confusing, even in an audio book.  But if you’re going to plow through Taibbi’s book, you’re probably better off getting the ebook version so you can make notes, leave book marks and create a flowchart.

On the other hand, Taibbi’s case studies of what happens on the bottom half of the justice system are easy to understand and  heartbreaking, probably because the infractions are so minor but the reaction is so severe.  It’s like the American justice system is chock full of turbo charged law and order types who carry out punishment with ruthless and brutal inefficiency.  And there was something about depersonalizing experiences of the victims and the anonymity of flawed computer systems of the justice system that reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment that Phillip Zimbardo carried out in the 70′s.

In case you aren’t familiar with the experiment, Zimbardo, a psychology professor at Stanford, wanted to replicate the experience of prison in order to figure out how the accused reacted to incarceration and depersonalization.  So, he recruited a couple dozen students to take the roles of prisoners and guards.  He randomly assigned the students to one of the groups and had the prisoners arrested and processed by real police.  In the makeshift prison, the prisoners were stripped of their clothes and given numbers instead of names.  The guards hid behind mirrored sunglasses and were given very few instructions. The warden was hands off.  Well, it didn’t take long before the guards started exercising authority and the prisoners started to crack.  We’re talking days.  It turns out that when one group of people is given all of the power and another group of people is subjected to that power, depersonalization and lack of oversight, it can lead even the blandest guy on campus to become indistinguishable from one of the guards at Abu Ghraib. The guards imposed capricious, humiliating and sadistic punishment while the prisoners became more and more despondent and stressed.  Zimbardo went on to testify as an expert witness in the Abu Graib trials.  He concludes that even the most decent, moral people are capable of evil behavior when the situation is right.  Group dynamics, conditioning to authority and dehumanization contribute to the kind of evil we saw at Abu Ghraib and, it seems, the excessively punitive experiences of the victims in the lower half of the American justice system.

The more I read Taibbi’s book, the more I was reminded of Zimbardo’s book.  So, I recommend you read Zimbardo’s book first and follow it up with Taibbi’s.  In fact, that’s the only reason I would recommend Taibbi’s book.  Without a proper context, it lacks the force it needs to land a powerful blow.  And that’s why I’m going to finish it even though the stories of “getting away with evil” followed by “getting away with nothing” are somewhat monotonous.  Taibbi might make the connection in the final chapters and have that eureka moment that will make it all worth while.  But I’m almost done with the book and see no evidence of it yet.  I’m afraid that the lefty community will miss the larger point that could propel it out of its fecklessness.  Instead, it might fall back on the “Bill Clinton is to blame for all of this!” crap they’ve been mindlessly vomiting for the past decade (as if Newt Gingrich and his Contract On America never existed {{rolling eyes}}).  What a horribly wasted, missed opportunity to see the world as it truly is.

3 Sponges for The Divide

4 Sponges for The Lucifer Effect (it can bog down with too many details in the first part)

PS. The left should study part 2 of Zimbardo’s book to understand how to resist situational influences.  It’s going to come up again in 2016.  Let’s not get fooled again, m’kay?

Oh, and here’s a concept that we should all learn about: malignant narcissism.  Don’t throw it around indiscriminately though.  It’s the kind of thing that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh types will seize on and dilute.  (it’s what they do)  But the next time an oligarch whines about how the rest of us are mean to them and envy their wealth, think about malignant narcissism.  They’re on the spectrum.

 

 

 

{{snicker}}

Matt Taibbi writes:

Minds are changing on Too Big to Fail. A month ago, it was just something in the air. Now, it looks like we’re headed for a real legislative confrontation. And man, is the finance sector freaking.

Last week, on April 24th, Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Louisiana Republican David Vitter introduced legislation called the “Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act of 2013 Act,” or the “Brown-Vitter TBTF Act” for short. The bill is a gun aimed directly at the head of the Too-Big-To-Fail beast.

[...]

The S&P report, entitled “Brown-Vitter Bill: Game-Changing Regulation For U.S. Banks”, is so incredibly hysterical in its tone that, reading it, one cannot help but deduce that people on Wall Street are genuinely afraid of this bill. The paper essentially hints that forcing banks to retain more capital could lead to world financial collapse, the onset of a new Ice Age, mammoths roaming Nebraska, etc. “The ratings implications of the Brown-Vitter bill, if enacted, for all U.S. banks would be neutral to negative,” the report read. In the second paragraph, it reads:

If congress enacts the bill as proposed, Standard and Poor’s Ratings Services would have concerns about the economic impact on banks’ creditworthiness stemming from the transition to substantially higher capital requirements.

Having a ratings agency bent to monopolistic bank influence give a bad rating to a piece of legislation designed to . . . curb monopolistic bank influence is a bad surrealistic joke, like a Rene Magritte take on lobbying – Ceci nest pas une Too-Big-To-Fail!

Of course, the Democrats are bound to blow this one.  They always do.  Heavy sigh.

And why do they always manage to blow it?  Greg Sergeant at The PlumLine provides a clue:

The New York Times and CBS News have released new poll findings that again confirm what other polls have showed: Large majorities agree with the Democratic position, and disagree with the Republican position, on key issues facing the country. But before delving into those numbers, I wanted to highlight this quote from a Republican voter — given to the Times in a follow up interview — because it perfectly captures what is currently causing all the gridlock and stalemate in Washington:

“Rick Buckman, 52, a Republican and an electrical engineer from Dallas, Pa., said that while he supported stricter gun legislation, he did not necessarily approve of the president’s approach. “I was really ticked off that the law didn’t pass,” Mr. Buckman said. “But I thought it was wrong of President Obama to get in front of the public and use people who had been damaged by gun violence as props.””

Obviously one doesn’t want to read too much into what one voter says, but this is just perfect. This Republican supports stricter gun laws, and was “ticked off” that they didn’t pass. But to this voter, when Obama gets out there and advocates for what he supports, the president is just grandstanding. What’s more, this voter has been seduced by a ridiculous and lurid line pushed by far right Senators and right wing media — that there’s something nefarious and cynical about Obama’s alliance with Newtown families in pushing for gun control, even though better gun laws are exactly what those families want, and even though they themselves first contacted the White House to get involved in the campaign to push for it.

Greg then goes on to suggest that this is because the president can talk a good game but can’t really do anything at the executive level.

I’m not buying it.  I think the real reason voters like the one quoted turn against Obama and the Democrats is because the right wing noise machine knows that its audience LOVES kicking losers when they’re down.  It’s human nature.  Democrats are always forced to compromise.  If  Democrats get caught doing sexytime without a license, they’re forced to resign, unlike Republicans who manage to turn indiscretions into milestones on their journey to self-discovery.  And punching Dirty Fucking Hippies has become a national pastime.  Democrats are praised for decking their own.  It makes Democrats look weak and who the hell wants to sit with a bunch of fricking losers?  Kicking, punching and dissing weak people develops a momentum of its own.

I’ve said before that Democrats have to develop some muscularity, grow a unibrow and start taking prisoners.  Once we start screaming that we’re reinstituting Habeas Corpus, closing Guantanamo and approving Plan B for 2 year olds, whether right wing nuts like it or not, things will change.

Our biggest problem is convincing the student body types who populate the Democratic caucus to stop being such suckers and sell outs, and punch someone out.

David Brooks is seriously f%^&ed up

Matt Taibbi has a brilliant take down of David Brooks’ latest column on the perils of gay marriage.  According to Brooks, marriage is bad for gay people because it imposes constraints on their animal instincts and what freedom loving, irresponsible hedonist would want that?:

Ostensibly, the column purports to make a single ironic point, which is that by petitioning the Supreme Court for the right to marry, gays and lesbians were not expanding their freedoms – and thus continuing, as Brooks implies, a long and perhaps-regrettable winning streak for people’s right to “follow their desires” that dates back to those hated Sixties – but rather constraining them. Brooks puts it this way:

But last week saw a setback for the forces of maximum freedom. A representative of millions of gays and lesbians went to the Supreme Court and asked the court to help put limits on their own freedom of choice. They asked for marriage.

Brooks here apparently expects his gay and lesbian readers to scratch their heads here and think, “Gosh, what does he mean by that? I thought we were seeking new freedoms with this campaign?”

What does he mean? Well, the self-appointed hetero-in-chief is here to enlighten us as to what marriage is – and he’s here to tell you, it’s no bowl of freedom-cherries!

Marriage is one of those institutions – along with religion and military service – that restricts freedom. Marriage is about making a commitment that binds you for decades to come. It narrows your options on how you will spend your time, money and attention.

Gee – really? Boy, those gays and lesbians are sure going to be in for a shock when they find out that being in a committed relationship involves constraints on behavior. That’ll be some unpleasant new ground they’ll be breaking there.

What an asshole!

I can only assume that Mrs. Brooks is illiterate.

Wait, why does David Brooks suddenly remind me of this character?:

I think what we’re seeing here is a glimpse into David Brooks’ blighted soul.  The guy would seriously love to lose the tie and let what’s left of his his hair down but it’s been beaten out of him and now he has to play the part of whip kisser extraordinaire for the rest of the world.  Maybe he assumes that everyone is like him, secretly harboring desires that dare not speak their names.  Without the mental chastity belt, we would all just throw off our chains of civilization and get down and dirty in the mud in a frenzy of orgiastic freedom and never get any work done because, let’s face it, work is drudgery and who wants to do that all day when you could be having lots of sex?

Or, here’s my new theory.  Republicans are going to abandon their opposition to marriage equality because they see the writing on the wall demographically and have to make up their numbers, replacing the dying religious conservatives with a potentially large group of voters with money- gay couples.  What better way to attract gay couples than with a militantly anti-tax message?  And where does that leave David Brooks?  Well, there’s always abortion to rail against since women are the LAST people on earth who will ever be allowed a taste of freedom and equality.  But people in Brooks’ class think discussing money is gauche otherwise he’d be writing silly, offensive screeds for the Wall Street Journal.

Well, whatever.

His attitudes about gay people and marriage equality are about as informed as any white supremacists and twice as ignorant.

People like Brooks need to be shunned by polite society.

Uncomfortable conclusions

Matt Taibbi has a follow up to his Secrets and Lies of the Bailout article in the Rolling Stone.  This one, called “One Broker’s Story” is about the consequences of the bailout to ordinary brokers as a result of asymmetric information.  Neil Barofsky hinted at this in his book Bailout when he described all of the money that the government let the banks have access to.  It amounts to trillions and trillions of dollars.  It’s a little like opening the bank vault doors to people who have a habit of setting money on fire and telling them, “We know you didn’t mean to burn up everyone’s nest eggs.  Now, don’t do it again.”

Trillions and Trillions.  Imagine all of the money that the Republicans are constantly going on about in the deficit crisis hysteria and multiply it my several times over.  The social security shortfall requires a minor adjustment, a teensy tweak.  But the amount of money we have thrown at bankers and allowed them to access whenever they want is vastly, vastly larger.  When it comes right down to it, the bankers pretty much own the money supply.  They can tap into it whenever they want, charge interest on money they lend to others on money they got virtually interest free, and they don’t have to tell you about it.

The hapless broker in Taibbi’s story didn’t know that the bank he worked for, Wells Fargo, had access to all this cash.  He was looking at the fallout of the 2008 disaster, estimated the financial solvency of all of the major banks and decided to short them because he figured it was only a matter of time before they started falling like dominos due to the weight of all their bad assets.  But the broker didn’t know that all these banks had nothing to worry about because not only did the US government bail them out, it covered up their problems and then opened the money sluice to them in perpetuity.  So, stocks continued to climb in spite of all evidence to the contrary and the broker lost his shirt and everyone else’s shirts he did business with.

He only found out when Bloomberg filed a FOIA to obtain information on where all the bailout programs money was going.  The banks and the Treasury (and the White House, I’m sure) were hoping to keep it a secret as long as possible.

What the stock market is showing everyday is an illusion.  The banks are doing well because they’re being propped up by our money.  That is the observation.  The question is, why?  Why are we allowing the banks to have so much money?  Why aren’t we letting the market suffer?

I think it comes back to the 401K and IRAs again.  So many of us have so much of our money locked into the market instead of pensions that if the government let the market sink to its natural level, there would be a social and political crisis.  It is a vicious circle.  And we can’t take our money out to start new businesses or pay debts or just live without paying punitive taxes.  Those taxes virtually guarantee that the money stays in the market.  So, the government has to prop up the market until it can’t be propped up anymore.  That should happen when the next bubble bursts on Wall Street.

Taibbi finishes the post like this:

This is the real problem with the bailouts, and the issue we tried to underscore with the “Secrets and Lies” piece. With their hide-and-seek policies, bogus stress testing and stubborn insistence on calling failing banks healthy and publicly endorsing other such fibs, the architects of the federal rescue (from both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as from the Federal Reserve) created a two-tiered market. The new economy has two classes of investors: those who know the real numbers, and those who don’t.

So while the proponents of the bailout will argue they were a success, and the covert and overt federal support helped bring the Dow all the way back from below 7,000 to above 13,000 – seemingly a good thing no matter how you look at it – there’s another bitter reality, which is that the bailouts officially created a sucker class.

When banks started making fortunes again in 2009 and beyond, it wasn’t a victimless situation. There were losers in this trade, too. Hartzman and his clients are examples of the kind of people who lost when the government made decisions about who’s entitled to the truth and who wasn’t. As one former hedge fund manager put it to me recently, “Joe Sixpack has no chance in this market.”

We are the sucker class.  Well, some of us are suckers.  Some of us weren’t suckered into voting for Obama either time.  Ultimately, the responsibility for this fiasco falls on his shoulders and those of the people he hired.  And the people who unquestioningly supported him.

********************************************

And about that $1Trillion platinum coin, mint the damn thing already.  As Krugman pointed out yesterday:

There seem to be two kinds of objections. One is that it would be undignified. Here’s how to think about that: we have a situation in which a terrorist may be about to walk into a crowded room and threaten to blow up a bomb he’s holding. It turns out, however, that the Secret Service has figured out a way to disarm this maniac — a way that for some reason will require that the Secretary of the Treasury briefly wear a clown suit. (My fictional plotting skills have let me down, but there has to be some way to work this in). And the response of the nervous Nellies is, “My god, we can’t dress the secretary up as a clown!” Even when it will make him a hero who saves the day?

The other objection is the apparently primordial fear that mocking the monetary gods will bring terrible retribution.

It sounds like another civility bluff to me.  The bullies announce they are going to steal your lunch money, push you down in the dirt and stomp on your face but if you protest or come up with some clever workaround, they start heading to the fainting couch with the vapors.

Normally, I’d say that this kind of silliness with the coin is just going to make the matter worse because who in the world will take us seriously.  But there shouldn’t be any real economic fallout, so mint the damn coin.

On the other hand, maybe we should just call their bluff.  Let them wreck the economy, pull down our credit rating, sow chaos and confusion and ruin people’s lives.  I’m sick of Republicans pulling this shit.  They need to be terrified of the consequences of their actions for a change.  If you mint the coin, they’ll just come back with something else to hold hostage.  So, let the babies have their way and get the end of the financial world over with.  It’s out of control and an unmitigated disaster and it’s going down eventually anyway.  Why prolong the suffering.  Let’s just lance the boil now and start over.   I want a capitalism without exploitation.

Reboot.  Do it now.

Read the latest Matt Taibbi article on the bailout

Secret and Lies of the Bailout

It’s got two very colorful opening paragraphs:

To listen to the bankers and their allies in Washington tell it, you’d think the bailout was the best thing to hit the American economy since the invention of the assembly line. Not only did it prevent another Great Depression, we’ve been told, but the money has all been paid back, and the government even made a profit. No harm, no foul – right?

Wrong.

It was all a lie – one of the biggest and most elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people. We were told that the taxpayer was stepping in – only temporarily, mind you – to prop up the economy and save the world from financial catastrophe. What we actually ended up doing was the exact opposite: committing American taxpayers to permanent, blind support of an ungovernable, unregulatable, hyperconcentrated new financial system that exacerbates the greed and inequality that caused the crash, and forces Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup to increase risk rather than reduce it. The result is one of those deals where one wrong decision early on blossoms into a lush nightmare of unintended consequences. We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.

I haven’t read the whole thing yet but if Taibbi is consistent with Sheila Bair, Ron Suskind and Neil Barofsky, Tim Geithner is going to look pretty bad.  There was a point in Barofsky’s book when I finally realized the magnitude of the scam that just made my jaw drop and made me want to join the Doomsday Preppers.  It really is that bad.

There will be a quiz.

More…

This part is good.  I mean bad:

To guarantee their soundness, all major banks are required to keep a certain amount of reserve cash at the Fed. In years past, that money didn’t earn interest, for the logical reason that banks shouldn’t get paid to stay solvent. But in 2006 – arguing that banks were losing profits on cash parked at the Fed – regulators agreed to make small interest payments on the money. The move wasn’t set to go into effect until 2011, but when the crash hit, a section was written into TARP that launched the interest payments in October 2008.

In theory, there should never be much money in such reserve accounts, because any halfway-competent bank could make far more money lending the cash out than parking it at the Fed, where it earns a measly quarter of a percent. In August 2008, before the bailout began, there were just $2 billion in excess reserves at the Fed. But by that October, the number had ballooned to $267 billion – and by January 2009, it had grown to $843 billion. That means there was suddenly more money sitting uselessly in Fed accounts than Congress had approved for either the TARP bailout or the much-loathed Obama stimulus. Instead of lending their new cash to struggling homeowners and small businesses, as Summers had promised, the banks were literally sitting on it.

Today, excess reserves at the Fed total an astonishing $1.4 trillion.”The money is just doing nothing,” says Nomi Prins, a former Goldman executive who has spent years monitoring the distribution of bailout money.

Nothing, that is, except earning a few crumbs of risk-free interest for the banks. Prins estimates that the annual haul in interest­ on Fed reserves is about $3.6 billion – a relatively tiny subsidy in the scheme of things, but one that, ironically, just about matches the total amount of bailout money spent on aid to homeowners. Put another way, banks are getting paid about as much every year for not lending money as 1 million Americans received for mortgage modifications and other housing aid in the whole of the past four years.

It’s like the guys who made up these rules on the bailout never had to deal with children or adolescents.  I guess that kinda makes sense, given that they are all guys who probably have wives and nannies to do that stuff.

 

Rand-omly related stuff

over the river and thru the woods to Grandmother's house we go

over the river and thru the woods to Grandmother’s house we go

Just got home last night from my trip to Pittsburgh where I had forgotten how bone chillingly cold winter weather is there.  It must be a unique combination of cold and humidity in the Pittsburgh climate.  My aunt took me on a tour of some neighborhoods that I had missed when I lived there before.  Little hidden gems that would be prime real estate territory if Pittsburgh was San Francisco.  She’s got a good eye. The view from the cliffs is spectacular and houses in that area are going for a song.  Nope, not going to tell you where they are in case I decide to become a long term real estate investor. Bwahahahaahhhhhh!

I was away from my internet connection for almost 5 days and I am here to tell you that it is survivable, especially if there are interesting people around to talk to.  But I was able to surf a teensy bit when the wind was blowing signal in my direction.  One of my favorite posts of the past week was Matt Taibbi’s 10 Most Pretentious Moments in History.  There are some awardees I had never heard of but will now have to track down, if I can stand it.  How have I managed to miss Martin Amis all my life??

Anyway, coming in as a close runner-up to the most pretentious moment in history is Ayn Rand’s appearance on Phil Donahue’s show in 1979.  Only one segment of this infamous interview was included in the post but it was so jaw-droppingly pretentious that I had to see the whole thing.  Take a look:

Part 2/5

Part 3/5

Part 4/5

Part 5/5

Wow, Roger Ailes must have been watching that because Rand laid out the entire conservative strategy for duping people on Fox.  She even demonstrated how the “Shut up! Shut up!” tactic works.  You just refuse to answer questions you don’t like and tell your questioner that they’re being rude.  What a piece of work.  It’s all there. But what was really unsettling was that the audience was much smarter back in 1979.  They called her on her bullshit.  You’re not allowed to do that on TV anymore.  Questioning uber meany conservatives who say stupid, illogical things is strictly forbidden.  It’s so forbidden that it probably hasn’t been done like that since 1979.

Rand was full of good ideas like letting the rich and powerful do whatever they liked and giving them permission to feel special about themselves.  She was an early proponent of eliminating public education.  She was an anti-feminist.  If you want to know why Hillary lost in 2008, look to Rand.  She gave men permission to murder a powerful woman’s political career for no other reason than they felt they should never have to follow a woman.

It’s hard for me to take in that Alan Greenspan was this woman’s disciple, but it certainly explains Andrea Mitchell’s dismissive and nasty attitude towards Clinton in 2008.  I listened in on the press briefings and was always struck by Mitchell’s nastiness and arrogance.

I only read The Fountainhead and decided to stop there.  So I had to read the cliff notes version of Atlas Shrugged on Wiki and, apparently, the precious “jahb creators” decide to drop out of society to teach the rest of us a lesson, which sounds like a very good idea.  But the literary reference that I think would most accurately describe the consequence of that decision is probably the one from Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe where the wise people of Golgafrinchan scared their problematic stratum of society into thinking their planet was about to be destroyed and tricked them into boarding an Ark Ship to be sent ahead to an outpost planet millions of light years away, leaving all the productive innovators and working class bereft of their input.

Unfortunately, according to Adams, the Golgafrinchans landed on earth. Rand was like an ancestral Eve.

And now for something completely but not really different, take a listen to this podcast by the Thinking Atheist’s Seth Andrews on the Church of Satan, which Andrews does with tongue firmly in cheek.  Rand and Anton LeVey must have known each other.  It’s uncanny.

Two depressing videos

The first I found at NakedCapitalism.  It’s a post election summary on Real News Network about what is going to happen in the next four years.  That we’re going in the direction of favelas is no surprise to me.  But what most interested me was the bit in the last 10 minutes or so about what might happen in the vast sea of red in the middle of the country (and parts of Pennsylvania).  We are talking about nationalism.  I think the little diatribe that Rush Limbaugh went on today, as described by Matt Taibbi, suggests the germ of that is already out there.  There’s a bitter resentment about how Latinos, women, the LBGT community and african americans have exerted their “special privileges”.  As the economy falls deeper into recession due to ill-conceived austerity measures, we might see what seems like the sudden emergence of a true brown shirt movement.  Liberals will be the ones who stabbed the good citizens in the back when they elected Obama (not me!  I voted for Anderson and I have the iphone pic to prove it).  Anyway, just watch it.  It makes me think that the right wing conservative who watched Schindler’s List can not make the connection because liberal Democrats are not Jews.

The other video features Dave Swanson who argues that it is time for the left to start an movement/voting bloc independent of the Democratic party.

Wow! That’s original.  That would be like the idea that I had that we form a federation of liberal and allied groups to organize our efforts, lobby for our causes, vote as a powerful bloc and vet our own slate of candidates.

The difference is that when Dave Swanson says it, no one accuses him of being a racist and irrational Obama hater.  Now, it is chic to be critical of Obama.  It’s a fricking pain in the ass to be four years too early.

Either that or it’s the penis years effect.

Now, I’ve always been the type to say that we need to stop acting like our particular issue is THE most IMPORTANT thing EVER.  And I hate wordsmithing.  But I have noticed that women opinion makers on the left have an extremely hard time getting any kind of recognition or invitation to express their opinions- to anyone.  So, if Dave Swanson or Matt Stoller or anyone else is considering reinventing the wheel that we suggested a couple of years ago, it is my opinion that there MUST be a gender quota in the leadership and public relations department.  I’m even setting the bar pretty low at no less than 34% representation of women in leadership positions and as mouthpieces on TV and internet.  It’s the bare minimum.  To really be secure about our rights, we need to have a representative on the finance committee  Do you think I’m stupid??  The Board of Ed is not that much different than any other political institution.  It’s just on a smaller scale.  And we all know that Finance is where the action is.  Initiatives need funding and women’s initiatives need to be taken seriously.  So, no less than 34% representation on Finance.

If the left is getting the band back together, it’s time for the guys to stop bogarting the microphone.

Chrystia Freeland and Matt Taibbi say that Obama is one of the 1%

We’ve been trying to tell the world that since 2008.  “He is one of them.” (about minute mark 40:50)

Check out this interview Freeland and Taibbi do with Bill Moyers.  It’s unsettling.  Freeland points out that progressives have to get the band back together and do something.  The problem is that Obama was the guy who broke us up in the first place and during the last year, progressives did NOTHING to scare him.

The Ring of Gyges or Why Study the Classics at UVA or Why anti-Regulators are full of $#*!

About 2500 years ago, the philosopher Plato told a story that even the most dedicated Fox News viewer can understand.  Here it is in text form:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended.

Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result–when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point.

And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.

The Greeks go on to say that King Croesus, you know, the guy who had more money than God, was a descendent of Gyges.

Now, the more zealous whip kissers out there will ask why even bring up this stupid story.  I mean, it’s not even in the Bible, right?  I have no way of knowing for sure but I suspect that Jesus would have gotten around to it eventually but his career was cut short by the anti-Occupy forces of the Roman Empire.  You know how it goes, some rowdy bunch of activists for social justice and equality who sleep outdoors and make noisy spectacles of themselves in public places and carry out unpermitted marches into Jerusalem are reported to the authorities for disrupting the peace, keeping everyone up at night, and making everyone uncomfortable and, before you know it, someone gets crucified and the whole group scatters.  So many parables, so little time.  Still, Jesus was totally into shepherds so I think he was leading up to it.

The Ring of Gyges story is pretty easy to understand and there is a reason why we call stuff like this “the classics”.  The classics never go out of style and say something that is universally true.  So, let me give you my spin on this and why the Ring of Gyges should be invoked whenever some politician starts using the evils of “regulation” to persuade others to vote for him.

The power that the ring gives the user is the ability to do what he wants without accountability.  Gyges gets away with murder and seduction and theft because no one can see him.  In other words, shit just happens. Mistakes are made.  We don’t know who.  Maybe Gyges did it, maybe someone else did it.  We can’t hold anyone responsible because no one is able to see or use indirect methods of seeing who did what.  That is, there is no way to measure who went in and out of the palace that doesn’t rely on our own eyes.  There’s no safeguarding person watching over the treasury who has the power to see through the ring’s power and detect Gyges robbing the bank.

The moral of the story is if there’s nobody watching, no justice system in place that is able to hold you accountable, and even the most honest and ethical person can become corrupted.  It is human nature to desire things and if there is no way to hold you accountable for taking what you desire, then you might as well take it.  In fact, you’re going to look like a fool if you have access to unlimited power and the things you desire and don’t take full advantage of it and the power you have over others.  If you don’t have access to the ring, well, you’re just a fricking loser.  Keep that in mind when you listen to this act from a This American Life episode called “Crybabies” about Happy Hour on Wall Street. Try to ignore the fact that Adam Davidson is reporting. The piece is actually quite good and illustrates the power of the ring of Gyges perfectly:

Wall Street: Money Never Weeps

Plato couldn’t have written that act any better.  Isn’t your blood boiling?  Don’t you want to hurt those bankers?  I know I do.  I think, who the f^*$ do those assholes think they are?  Oh, yeah, they’re the guys (and they’re almost always guys.  Women rarely get away with behaving badly.) who think they don’t have to answer to anyone.  They can do pretty much whatever the hell they want because no one can do a thing about it.  And they attribute their success to their smartness.  They’re just smarter than you losers who work at a regular job.  But that’s not why they’re so amazingly successful.  No.  They’re so successful because we have removed just about all the regulation from the financial industry.  There’s no oversight.

Oversight-1.a : watchful and responsible care b : regulatory supervision <congressional oversight>

In other words, those bankers are invisible to the justice system.  They can do what they want because no one can see what they’re doing.  No one can see what they’re doing because they keep telling everyone that regulation is bad.  They convince voters that regulation is bad by focusing the voters’ attention on the plight of small business owners.  And it probably is bad for small business owners.  But the effect of deregulation virtually never benefits small business owners.  It almost always benefits the guys at the top with the ring.  And the more money they get with their rings, like Croesus, the more money they can spend on advertising and Fox News and bribing politicians to make sure that no oversight is ever imposed on them.  Remember Elizabeth Warren?  She was supposed to head up a new oversight commission for the consumer financial products.  But the bankers wouldn’t have any oversight so Obama never appointed her.  Therefore, they can do whatever they want to consumers without oversight.

This is the real story of Elizabeth Warren and what she stands for.  She should be using that against Scott Brown.

And here is the most recent manifestation of the power of the ring of Gyges as explained by Matt Taibbi and Eliot Spitzer with regard to the fraud that Goldman-Sachs perpetrated on unsuspecting pension fund managers.  Goldman-Sachs is negotiating its way out of prosecution with the consent of our US attorney generals.  Matt says:

I was trying not to be too obvious in making the point that Spitzer is an example of the kind of guy you would want looking at that Goldman case. Not only did I not want to look like a suck-up, but I wasn’t sure how, “As you know, Eliot, a prosecutor is supposed to be kind of a dick!” would go over. Because I would have meant it in the most complimentary way possible. And it has nothing to do with politics. If you read James Stewart’s Den of Thieves you can see that Rudy Giuliani had some of the same key qualities. A good prosecutor should look down the barrel of a bunch of millionaire lawyers at Davis Polk or White and Case and feel turned on by the challenge of combat. Making a deal with any devil should burn him at the core, keep him awake at night.

But that’s exactly who Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer haven’t been, exactly who Bob Khuzami at the SEC hasn’t been. Instead of being fighters, they’ve been dealmakers and plea-bargainers. They’ve dealt out every major financial scandal, from Abacus to the Muni-bid-rigging cases (they prosecuted a few low-level guys at GE but let the big players at the big banks skate) to the Citigroup fraud settlement that was so bad a judge threw it back at the govenment’s face. In that latter case, amazingly, the govenment is now fighting not for its constituents, but for its right to give out crappy deals to repeat-offender banks without judicial review.

I’m not surprised that the Obama administration’s justice department has been reluctant to use regulation to its benefit and prosecute the criminals with the full force of the law.  It was evident early on (April 2009, to be exact) that this was the approach that Obama would use when it came to Wall Street.  All of the “oversight” would come in the way of ad hoc deals, each company getting a custom made solution that allowed them to skirt the law and get away with a slap on the wrist.  That’s because Obama doesn’t have any principles that he isn’t willing to bargain away on the negotiating table and he always starts his bidding on terms that are heavily favorable to the other side.  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

It goes without saying that you don’t have to be of any particular political persuasion to be incensed that the banking industry is getting away with murder and theft without any oversight.  It goes without saying but for some reason, I feel compelled to say it anyway.

Just because people on the left are the most vocal and angry and disappointed and irate about the fact that the financial industry is going unpunished doesn’t mean they are wrong.  Just because a bunch of Occupiers are calling attention to the financial industry and how the fact that it is not accountable screws all of us doesn’t mean that they’re bad people.

What I wonder is why it is that so many people on the right are focusing all of their attention on abortion and gay rights and how unemployed and poor people are unconscionable deadbeats but giving the real parasites in the finance industry a pass.  And I can only come to two possible conclusions: 1. The people on the right are easily lead and gullible and respond well to authoritarian messaging because it is all over the place or 2. It’s because they hope to *be* part of that privileged group of power ring owners in the future so that they can have all of their desires met without accountability.

Now, I will be the first one to mock the left for their crazy ass beliefs about GMO crops and homeopathy and nuclear energy and that the pharma industry is trying to poison them (because they’re not and anyway, it’s just another way for the trial lawyers to sink their fangs into the money stream. The left has its own unaccountability problem.)  But if you’re on the right or leaning right, or used to be a Democrat but are so pissed off about what Obama and the DNC did in 2008 that you’re letting your anger blind you to what these criminals on Wall Street are doing now, then you need to do some soul searching and get to the bottom of your orneriness because it’s really not helping.

It’s the right that relies on religion to keep everyone in line with threats of hellfire if you’re sexually active and not married.  You can always count on the religious to condemn everyone who doesn’t believe strictly in the Judeo-Christian version of the ten commandments.  They have a holy fit if you’re an atheist.  But they seem to be perfectly Ok with giving Wall Street a pass.  It’s like, “there’s nothing we can do.  They’re evil and we’re scared of them because they have all the power to make our lives miserable.”  Bullshit, of course there’s something you can do.  Stop voting for the politicians who keep asking for fewer regulations.  It doesn’t get any simpler than that.  Unfortunately, they’re also the politicians who hide behind religion or pander to religious people.  Show me a religious politician and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t believe in regulation.  That’s all there is to it.  They want to let the criminals operate without boundaries.

If these wealthy, unaccountable assholes continue to do what they’re doing without oversight, they’re going to bring the entire world’s financial system down.  That’s what happens when you can’t stop yourself from taking whatever you want and no one else has to power to interfere.

It doesn’t matter if you are on the right or the left, everything you own, everything you planned, your health, your retirement, your entire future, is at risk.

Forget Romney’s taxes, what will Obama do about unemployment??

Sorry Matt Taibbi, This tax return issue is one gigantic distraction:

The Obama administration, if it wanted to, could make a lot of hay over this. It could say, “Mitt Romney doesn’t want to release his tax returns for years and years during the last decade. But the years for which he did release returns, he paid a rate that’s less than half of what most ordinary American professionals make – and he thinks that’s ‘fair.’”

Now, Obama has gone after Mitt’s tax returns – a little. He’s released a few ads here and there, including one called “Makes You Wonder” that called Mitt’s use of carried interest in his tax return a “trick,” a semantic move for which Obama was criticized, since it was actually nothing of the sort. Mitt Romney’s ability to pay a top rate of 15% for his work was no trick at all but a fully-legal expression of the values of our current political system, a system, again, that Mitt Romney is “proud of” and thinks is “fair.”

I can’t blame Matt for doing what all the other journalists do during an election year.  Jay Rosen has written extensively on the “horse race” reporting of election year journalism.  Journalists write stories only other journalists would love.  It’s all about petty tit-for-tat and gossip and gaffes.  But this is not like other election years.  In a way, you would have thought that the politicians with their slick psychological manipulators on the payroll would have figured out that the voters want to talk about serious things this year.  They should be on the cutting edge.  But I’m beginning to think that the parties are not as modern and hipster as they’d like to think.  Maybe that’s because both *presumptive* nominees are representing old, establishment money and power.  Old guys think the world revolves around their interests and that they can still mold the culture to suit them.  But it is social distancing that prevents them from seeing the American landscape as it truly is.

Jonathan Chait recently encapsulated this mindset in his recent piece, Why Washington Accepts Mass Unemployment. Chait is critical of the Washington establishment that thinks that bad things happen to other people.  But the weird thing is that he doesn’t even know how vulnerable he is:

It’s important to respond to arguments on intellectual terms and not merely to analyze their motives. Yet it is impossible to understand these positions without putting them in socioeconomic context. Here are a few salient facts: The political scientist Larry Bartels has found (and measured) that members of Congress respond much more strongly to the preferences of their affluent constituents than their poor ones. And for affluent people, there is essentially no recession. Unemployment for workers with a bachelors degree is 4 percent — boom times. Unemployment is also unusually low in the Washington, D.C., area, owing to our economy’s reliance on federal spending, which has not had to impose the punishing austerity of so many state and local governments.

I live in a Washington neighborhood almost entirely filled with college-educated professionals, and it occurred to me not long ago that, when my children grow up, they’ll have no personal memory of having lived through the greatest economic crisis in eighty years. It is more akin to a famine in Africa. For millions and millions of Americans, the economic crisis is the worst event of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, health insurance, opportunities for their children, seen their skills deteriorate, and lost their sense of self-worth. But from the perspective of those in a position to alleviate their suffering, the crisis is merely a sad and distant tragedy.

Maybe in the plush Washington suburbs 4% unemployment among college graduates is the norm.  But I’m sitting here in NJ with the dead corpses of the careers of PhD’s in Chemistry and Pharmacology all around me and it is most decidedly not all sunshine and roses.  We are also part of the “elite” and we’re dying out here. All we hear is myths about how there aren’t enough of us while vast numbers of us can’t get jobs or keep the ones we relocate our families to take.  Jonathan Chait joins Bill Keller in the same clueless club.  Who exactly do they think they are talking about?  Are journalists and poli sci graduates guaranteed gold watches and pensions these days?  A couple of years ago, the kids around here also would have looked on the recession as “a sad and distant tragedy”.  These days, those same kids are the ragged refugees of the middle class.  Their childhoods will be permanently marked by the changes their parents are going through.

The tax distraction serves both parties.  Neither one of them wants to talk about unemployment.

Here we are, 3 months from the election and no one is talking about unemployment.

How is Obama going to put people back to work?  If I don’t hear some concrete policies, then I am going to assume he has no plans.  I am going to assume he doesn’t care.  I’m not going to be the only one.

Yes, yes, it’s really crappy that rich people do not pay enough in taxes.  If politicians are really concerned with this, the first thing they could do to help level the playing field is eliminate the cruel excise tax for people who are chronically unemployed who have to liquidate their 401Ks in order to keep their kids in the same high school.  That’s where I would start.  No, do not lecture them about saving their money for retirement.  If they needed a lecture, they wouldn’t have a stash in their 401Ks to begin with.  You want to lecture people about saving for retirement? Go talk to a 30 year old who hasn’t saved a dime.

You know, I have no intention of helping Republicans achieve a damn thing.  I’m not harping on Democrats because I want Republicans to win.  I’m harping on Democrats because I want them to do something.

It gives me no pleasure to have to be a Democrat in Exile looking forward to a long hard slog and decades of being in the wilderness while we build another party.  But that’s where we’re headed.  And I’d like to remind the party who wants to make it sound like resistance is useless that that’s probably they way the Liberal party treated the New Democratic Party of Canada about 10 years ago.  Times change, people change, and it happens at a much quicker  pace these days.  The Democrats might not feel so smug in a few months when 5-6% of us decide to tough it out and turn to replacing one of the two parties with something different.

The unemployed will have plenty of work to do to get rid of the party that wanted to waste our time with a pointless exercise of distraction while we were losing everything.  That will motivate us to get up in the morning and work for a shake-up of the two party system.

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Updating Shakespeare: “First thing we do, kill all the marketers.”  Grocery stores are now using loyalty card information so that food manufacturers can reward some of their customers more than others.  There are a zillion reasons why this is a bad idea.  It’s unfair.  It’s like putting your thumb on the scales for some customers while others still generate a hefty profit margin thinking they’re getting a break.  As one commenter noted in this NYTimes piece, if you’re poor, you don’t look loyal enough to the companies who might offer you a lower price so you end up footing the bill for the upper middle class suburbanites.

If there isn’t a law, there oughtta be.  For one thing, it feels like someone is always looking over your shoulder and invading your privacy.  For another, it seems like the whole world is manipulating prices with a giant optimization algorithm in just one more way to pick every penny of disposable income as it can from our pockets.  I don’t feel like a consumer anymore.  I feel like a crop that is being harvested.

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More dance loveliness.  Afternoon of a Faun combines two of my favorite things: Debussy and Dance.  The original was choreographed by Nijinsky and was scandalous.  In the end, a faun that has been stalking a nymph throws himself on her discarded scarf and lustily pelvic thrusts into it.

But when I was a kid, I searched the NYCB schedule at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for the Jerome Robbins version.  The music is the same but the setting is different.  In this ballet, two dancers are in a studio and dance alone and together, seemingly unaware of each other as they stare into an imaginary mirror.  It’s playful, romantic and clever.  And no scarfs get messy.

I’m pretty sure the version I saw was danced by Allegra Kent.  The name sticks out.  Allegra.  Only ballerinas have names like that.  Allegra, Darcy, Gelsey, Paloma.  Even their names are in arabesque.

In the case of the Robbins’ updated version, the original dancer was the ethereal Tanaquil LeClercq.  Tanaquil was the name of an ancient Etruscan queen.  Tanaquil’s career did not last very long.  She was married to George Balanchine at the peak of her ballet career when she was struck down with polio while she was on tour.  She never danced again and spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.  But we have this video of a substantial portion of this short ballet where Tanaquil and Jacques D’Amboise  dance as “nymph” and “faun” in a studio in an afternoon.  You can watch it here if the request is disabled.

Enjoy.

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