You are viewing bradhicks

Side Effects

Tarot - The Tower
I read a fascinating book, a while back, called When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store by Elaine Abelson. Here's the story it tells, and what (I think) it may have to do with the Tea Partiers' refusal to back down on their rhetoric even after the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords.

At the dawn of the industrial age, factories started churning out products for the home that had been previously hand-made by wives and their servants, in the home, and the problem arose of how to persuade wives to come in and see that the factory-made products were better than the ones they were making at home, more uniform in quality than the ones they were making at home, and actually cheaper than the materials cost, alone, of the products they were making at home. And what they developed was the Department Store: a brilliantly lit, fantastically delightful gigantic building, made as pleasant to visit and to hang out in as it could be made to be, where women could come and see the newest factory goods, try them out, and be persuaded to buy them. Then they had to staff them with enough people to handle the customers, including both salespeople and what we now euphemistically call "loss-prevention specialists."

It worked at getting the merchandise into the womens' hands, but it had a glaring drawback: operating the stores themselves was insanely expensive. And as long as women could comparison shop, they could force the department stores to bid against each other in a destructive race to the bottom, until the goods were selling for less than was necessary to pay the upkeep and the payroll for the store. So the stores eventually invented "impulsing selling:" make the store as hypnotic as possible, make it a total sensory overload environment, advertise "loss leaders" to bring women in, sell the loss leaders at the back of the store, and on the way back to the door, hard-sell products at a high enough mark-up to cover the store's expenses.

This worked at making the stores profitable, but it also had a glaring drawback: store detectives found that fewer and fewer of their shoplifters were the semi-professional criminals who had made up the shoplifting class before. Now, the vast majority of their shoplifters were respectable middle-class women, upper-middle-class women, even wealthy women. These women had regular accounts at the stores they were stealing from. They bought things from those stores all the time. They had frequently just bought three items, on the same visit, for every item that they stole. They almost all had more than enough money on them to buy the items they'd just stolen. So they put the best detectives and the best psychologists they could hire on the job of finding out what the heck the women were thinking when they risked their position in society and risked their husbands' reputations over trifles, and finally had to conclude that the women weren't lying when they said: they hadn't consciously stolen those goods. They weren't thinking of anything when they did it; they weren't thinking, period, not at all. They were in a trance when they did it.

The stores tried toning down the level of trance-inducing sensory overload ... and found that the impulse purchases dried up. Finally they cranked the sensory overload back up, and adopted a "harm reduction" type strategy: when particular upper-class and middle-class women could be confirmed to have stolen certain items, simply mail a bill for the items to the womens' houses; the vast majority of them could be easily embarrassed into paying. (Although even then, it occasionally fell to the people in charge of those departments to persuade the women to search their own pockets -- no, you really did take this, yes, it really is in your pocket. They were in that much of a trance when they did it.) What the Victorian department stores had learned, to their chagrin, was that any sales technique that left customers with enough intact free will to prevent rampant theft left them with enough intact free will to resist high pressure sales.

Fascinating, no? Now, here's what I think this has to do with the Tea Party.

When Holy Saint Ronald Wilson Reagan the Infallible and Great, Savior of the Free World and Conqueror of the Communists, Blessed Patron Saint of the God's Own Almighty American Dollar, was sworn into office in January of 1981, it was his holy and sacred promise that cutting taxes on the wealthy and deregulating business would eliminate all of the problems in America: newly freed businesses and investors would hire us all to make products for each other, and we would all be happy, healthy, safe, and free. But in the wake of a whole series of back-to-back gigantic nation-wide Ponzi schemes, suddenly Saint Ronald doesn't look so infallible. People were starting to wake up to the fact that when freed from all taxation and regulation, the nation's wealthy have exactly zero inclination to hire us all to make goods for each other. What they do with that freedom is to trick us, over and over again, into piling all of the nation's wealth into a dozen or so piles, and then play a rigged game of musical chairs: at the end of each game, a dozen or so people, at least half of them the previously wealthy, own everything and the rest of us lose our entire life's savings.

Saint Ronald's ideas were so popular in the 1980s and 1990s that they became the ruling ideology of not just the Republican Party, but of the post-Clinton Democratic Party as well ... and now they have been discredited. Which leaves the people who were enjoying those global Ponzi schemes, who enjoyed that hypomanic game of musical chairs, with a problem: how do they get people to keep voting for an ideology that has been entirely and thoroughly discredited? And their first attempts were pretty pathetic, and failed utterly in 2006 and in 2008. But now they've got one technique that works: fear. Deploy a multi-billion dollar campaign, funded by the dozen or so wealthy guys who won the last couple of rounds of musical chairs over all the world's wealth, in the world's greatest propaganda campaign, to persuade as many people as possible that the Death Panels are coming.

Sure, Republican ideals have failed; they poll horribly and only a tiny handful of the most clueless and elderly Republican and right-wing Democratic elected officials are still talking about them, still trying to make the case for that failed ideology. What all of the prominent spokespeople are saying, instead, is, never mind our failures, never mind our laughable ideology, just remember this: if you don't put us back in power, the Death Panels will kill your babies, the Death Panels will kill your parents and grandparents, and the first time you get old or get sick, the Death Panels will kill you, too.

It's not actually possible to persuade sane Americans that this is literally true. But it turns out to be possible to persuade a working majority of Americans to be uncomfortable with the idea that it might be true, to doubt their own confidence that it isn't true, to vote Republican just in case the Republicans are right that the Death Panels are coming. However, this solution comes with a drawback: there are people out there who are so crazy, so suggestible, or so already inclined to fear Government Death Panels for their own reasons, that it is possible to persuade them that the Government Death Panels really are coming, no really, no doubt about it. And those people, as soon as the Death Panels nonsense started, behaved the way you, frankly, would behave if you really believed that the Death Panels were coming for your mother, for your baby: you would form a resistance movement and start assassinating the pro-Death-Panel government officials.

The Tea Party spokespeople and candidates have painted themselves into this corner: they have discovered that no line of rhetoric they can devise is powerful enough to persuade enough people to keep voting for Reaganomics, unless it's also powerful enough to persuade dozens of lone crazies to run around assassinating Democrats. This leaves the rest of us in the awkward position of having to persuade them to voluntarily give up their only chance of winning, for conscience's sake. You may quite accurately guess, I suspect, how likely I think it is that they will volunteer to lose in order to save however many dozens (or more) of the lives of people they disagree with.

Right Wing Terrorism: It Works.

Sick Sad World
  1. Supreme Court rules that women have a right to 1st and 2nd trimester abortions with no more restrictions than are necessary to make the procedure safe, and to 3rd trimester abortions when medically necessary.
  2. Right wing politicians, pastors, and commentators describe abortion as murder, as killing of babies. They warn that America will be destroyed and all Christians will die if Something Isn't Done. They announce that the political process has failed.
  3. "Lone crazies" start showing up at anti-abortion rallies carrying guns.
  4. Right wing politicians, pastors, and commentators insist that this is the lone crazies' 2nd Amendment right.
  5. Repeat step 2.
  6. "Lone crazies" start blowing up abortion clinics.
  7. Right wing politicians, pastors, and commentators look the other way, and/or point out that nobody has been hurt yet, and/or dishonestly insist that liberals are engaging in similar tactics, and/or insist that liberals are over-reacting.
  8. Repeat step 2.
  9. "Lone crazies" start assassinating abortion doctors.
  10. Right wing politicians, pastors, and commentators insist that this isn't their fault, that inciting violence is their 1st Amendment right, that nothing they've said was meant to be interpreted as a call for violence, that they've done nothing wrong.
  11. Repeat step 2.
  12. Bombings continue. Assassinations continue.
  13. Medical students stop signing up for classes in abortion procedures. Abortion ceases to be available in almost all counties in the United States.
  1. Despite premature celebration of "permanent Republican majority," Democrats win Congress in 2006 and White House in 2008.
  2. Right wing politicians, pastors, and commentators describe Democrats as radicals, communists, fascists, murderers, terrorists. They warn that if Democrats remain in office, your children will be murdered by the government. They warn that if Democrats remain in office, your mother will be murdered by the government. They warn that if Democrats remain in office, all surviving Americans will be enslaved if Something Isn't Done. They announce that the political process has failed.
  3. "Lone crazies" start showing up at anti-Obama rallies carrying guns.
  4. Right wing politicians, pastors, and commentators insist that this is the lone crazies' 2nd Amendment right.
  5. Repeat step 2.
  6. "Lone crazies" start vandalizing and firing shots into Democratic politicians' local headquarters.
  7. Right wing politicians, pastors, and commentators look the other way, and/or point out that nobody has been hurt yet, and/or dishonestly insist that liberals are engaging in similar tactics, and/or insist that liberals are over-reacting.
  8. Repeat step 2.
  9. "Lone crazies" assassinate Democratic politicians.
  10. Right wing politicians, pastors, and commentators insist that this isn't their fault, that inciting violence is their 1st Amendment right, that nothing they've said was meant to be interpreted as a call for violence, that they've done nothing wrong.
  11. ?
We know how this story ends, don't we? They're not going to stop, because they learned over the course of the abortion wars to date that this tactic works. They have an endless supply of deniable schizophrenic assassins, they will never be brought to any kind of justice for what they're doing, and if they keep winding up deniable schizophrenic assassins, they eventually get everything they want.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: April 2009's "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment" has been as prophetic and accurate as August 2001's "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US."
Brad @ Burning Man
What? the? F__?!? The Senate filibuster of the bill to repeal Don't Ask/Don't Tell just failed by 5 votes.

Less than a week ago, the defense authorization bill was successfully filibustered, solely over DADT repeal, by 3 votes.

Nothing else changed, so far as I can tell: the only difference between the bill that was successfully filibustered (57 to 40) versus the bill that passed (65 to 31) is that DADT repeal was changed from an amendment to the military funding bill to a stand-alone bill.

I sincerely hope that SOME time in the next week, someone can explain to me how that one absolutely and completely irrelevant change, plus the passage of 5 working days, flipped 8 senators' votes?
Voted for Dean
Johnny Rocco: There's only one Johnny Rocco.
James Temple: How do you account for it?
Frank McCloud: He knows what he wants. Don't you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Sure.
James Temple: What's that?
Frank McCloud: Tell him, Rocco.
Johnny Rocco: Well, I want uh ...
Frank McCloud: He wants more, don't you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Yeah. That's it. More. That's right! I want more!
James Temple: Will you ever get enough?
Frank McCloud: Will you, Rocco?
Johnny Rocco: Well, I never have. No, I guess I won't.

(Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco, Humphrey Bogart as Frank McCloud, and Lionel Barrymore as James Temple, from one of my favorite movies of all time, Key Largo)

Or Maybe I'm Wrong

Brad @ Burning Man
Maybe gunmen today are just that much more accurate than my sources suggest, if one drunken white off-duty cop in Baltimore can empty his weapon at an unarmed married black Marine, for the crime of being perceived to have flirted with the cop's date, and put 13 rounds out of one clip into him. (Uncredited, "Off-Duty Officer Fatally Shoots Unarmed Marine: Man Shot 13 Times Outside Baltimore Nightclub," WBAL-TV, 6/6/10.) "Nice shooting, Tex."

The Baltimore police are investigating to see if one of their own did anything wrong in this. Should I have any more faith in their investigation than I have in Israel's investigation of their own actions against the Freedom Flotilla, or BP's internal review of whether or not they did anything wrong on the Deepwater Horizon? Surely they wouldn't lie to the public, no more than Warren Buffet would lie about whether or not we can trust the ratings company he owns, Moody's, to regulate itself.

Sarcasm aside, wow. I've never in my entire life heard of even a sober cop, let alone a drunken one, hitting a target 13 times out of one clip. On the other hand, most cops don't know they're going to be in a gunfight until right when they draw their weapon; odds are, Tony Guglielmi had plenty of time to prepare himself mentally before he murdered a black guy.

Man. It's been a hell of a year, and it just keeps getting worse. Anybody who isn't depressed just isn't paying attention.

#flotilla: Intent to Kill

Brad @ Burning Man
A thought just occurred to me. I had only heard the detailed autopsy results on Fulkan Dogan; unsurprisingly, the American press mostly cares about it when an American gets hurt or killed. But here's what I found tonight, in the Reuters feed: "The autopsy results showed that a 60-year-old man, Ibrahim Bilgen, was shot four times in the temple, chest, hip and back, the Guardian said. ¶ A 19-year-old, named as Fulkan Dogan, who also has U.S. citizenship, was shot five times from less than 45 cm (18 inches) away, in the face, the back of the head, twice in the leg and once in the back, it said. ¶ Two other men were shot four times. Five of those killed were shot either in the back of the head or in the back, the Guardian quoted Buyuk as saying." (Adrian Croft, "Autopsy shows Gaza activists were hit 30 times; report," Reuters, 6/4/10.)

Is it possible to shoot someone 5 times, with a handgun, and not have intent to kill? If three of those shots were in the back, is there any way that this isn't murder?

I say this because, while I'm not an expert on gunshot wounds myself, what I've been told by people who are is that almost nobody, ever, has continued fighting after being shot, not for at least quite a few seconds. That first gunshot wound stuns the target, and almost always knocks them to the ground. Nor, from what I've read, is it at all likely that someone panic-firing their gun, pulling the trigger as fast as possible, could put 5 rounds from the same clip into one target, especially a moving target: recoil, involuntary jerking of the arm from hesitation to kill, the movement of the target after the first shot hits all conspire to just about guarantee that panic-fired shots, even at point blank range, almost all miss. Each and every one of those after the first shot, almost by definition, has to have been an aimed shot.

If what I've heard about gunfighting is true, then, each of those people was shot 4 to 5 times by someone who ...
  • fired as often as necessary to hit the target the first time, ...
  • saw the target stop fighting and probably fall to the ground, ...
  • aimed again, fired a second shot, ...
  • aimed again at a absolutely no longer resisting target, fired a third shot, ...
  • aimed again, fired a fourth shot into their head or center mass on top of the previous three ...
  • and then, in some cases, aimed yet again, and fired a fifth shot "just to make sure," against a target that was almost certainly already dead.
If you're an American or an Israeli, this was done with your tax dollars, and in your name.

This is why civilized nations don't send soldiers to make arrests, or to enforce border regulations, especially against known to be unarmed targets. Soldiers are trained to kill. They are trained to keep shooting at the target until they absolutely know beyond all shadow of a doubt that the target is dead. Police are trained to use the minimum necessary force to safeguard themselves, safeguard others, and achieve an arrest.

Yet another thing for my American friends to think about, by the way, as they demand that the US send soldiers to police our borders. It's 2010 A.D., and we're all barbarians.

#flotilla: The Most Cowardly Kind of War

Brad @ Burning Man
Before the Freedom Flotilla set sail, Turkish officials searched every nook and cranny of those six boats, and videotaped that search, and gave the video tapes to Israel. Before the cargo was loaded onto those boats, every cargo container was searched, and every item that was put into them was videotaped, and those videotapes were also given to Israel in advance. Before being allowed to board, every passenger on those six boats was hand-searched and then x-rayed by Turkish officials, who certified to Israel, in advance, that none of them were armed. Turkey, Israel's only actual ally in the region, wanted there to be no ambiguity over this fact: there were no weapons on board the Freedom Flotilla. Period. In hopes of avoiding war between their two nations, Turkey, which had no legal grounds to stop these boats from sailing, went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that Israel could not accuse the blockade runners of smuggling weapons to terrorists.

Israel sent ships to intercept those boats deep into international waters, at 4:00 am local time, and ordered them to turn around. According to multiple witnesses speaking from those boats in real time via their cell phones, the captains of all six boats said that they would not do so, but that they would only resist passively if the Israelis boarded the boats, forced their way into the cockpits, and stopped the boats themselves. According to multiple witnesses who reported this in real time, via cellphone at the time from the scene, the Israeli navy boats then opened fire on the lead ships. Israel is now holding those witnesses in captivity and denying reporters access to them, in hopes that they can first convince the public that those cellphone callers were lying when they say that Israel fired first; Israel said at the time that before they opened fire, before they even tried to board the boats, they had come under small arms fire from the flotilla ... from guns that Israel's now-former ally certified did not exist, and which even Israel now admits weren't found.

Only after firing what was at the very least suppressive fire in the direction of people they knew for a fact to be unarmed civilians did Israeli commandos attempt to board the flotilla's ships. On the five observer ships, the commandos outnumbered or very nearly outnumbered the witnesses, who surrendered without resistance, but on the actual cargo ship, the civilians who had been shot at by Israeli commandos went visibly berserk, beating the first wave to touch the deck senseless with whatever blunt objects came to hand, visibly tried to wreck their helicopter by anchoring the ziplines to the moving boat, and in two cases stole guns from the commandos and returned fire. Good for them.

Look: I have no love for Hamas, and no meaningful sympathy for any idiot who voted for Hamas. Whatever charity they provide (using Syrian funding), Hamas is the most cowardly kind of warrior the human race has ever seen. Ever since the beginning of the Second Intifadah, Hamas has concentrated all of their attacks on the softest and most vulnerable targets: Israeli civilians. They stopped even trying to fight Israeli Defense Force occupation troops, because that's too hard. They stopped even trying to resist the Israeli occupation government, because they have defenses and sometimes they shoot back. Instead they do horrendous things like the Passover bombing, a few years back, blowing up a synagogue full of elderly people, women, and children during a religious service. It's a legendarily, famously, notoriously stupid and ineffective tactic. No army that has used this as their primary weapon has ever won, because all it does is demonstrate you are too morally corrupt to rule by moral right and too weak to rule by force; if you refuse to fight the enemy's soldiers, and only fight their civilians, you are a loser.

So it's no surprise that, whether or not the Goldstone report's witnesses are telling the truth, we know from (again) first hand reports from the only neutral reporter who was on the ground in Gaza during Israel's last military incursion that Hamas bragged openly to her about their use of human shields, about only firing on Israeli soldiers once from any given position, and making sure that all of those positions were places where Gaza civilians, ideally women and children, were trying to hide from the war, and then running away before the Israelis could return fire. One of them bragged of having done so, in front of a reporter, while getting his own minor wound stitched, to a bereaved man who'd just lost his wife and kids to Israeli counter-battery fire, telling him he should be glad that his family were all "Islamic martyrs" now. Not, of course, that the weakling who was in there using his gun to make sure that the doctors and nurses stopped caring for the dying in order to stitch up his tiny little cut first had any intention of becoming a martyr himself, no. He was, like everybody in Hamas, a coward.

Just like Israel, under Netenyahu, has turned into a nation of losers and cowards who only fight unarmed civilians.

The attack on the Freedom Flotilla, even more than the Gaza incursion and the farce that was their last attempt to dislodge Hizbollah from south Lebanon, shows us a number of things about this second generation of Israeli Zionists, and none of them flattering. The only time Israel brings armed men and deadly force to a confrontation is when they know for a fact that their opponents are unarmed. And among the things that they're willing to fight and kill for is to prevent food, medicine, water purifiers, and home repair tools from reaching not Hamas (who can get all of those things that they want from Syria) but from the voters who voted for Hamas. Israel isn't willing to to go to war with Syria, no matter how many terrorists inside Israel are equipped and funded by Syria, that would be too hard and some Israelis might get hurt. Israel isn't willing to actually declare war on Lebanon, even with Hizbollah, a party dedicated to the extermination of every Jew in the world, in the ruling coalition there and actively engaged in military attacks on Israel. Going to war against Lebanon would be too hard, and some Israelis might get hurt.

No, Israel finds it much safer, and much more satisfying, to wage war against and freely kill unarmed Turkish pacifists and half-starved, increasingly homeless Gaza civilians. Which shows the world what this generation of Israeli government officials and Israeli military leaders really are: cowards, and losers.

(And I am deeply ashamed that the Obama administration, of whom I would have hoped for better, is the only government in the entire world that is taking Israel's side in this. Obama's ambassador to the UN blamed the Gazans and the pacifists for "provoking" Israel to massacre them, and threatened to veto any UN Security Council resolution that even authorized anybody except the Netenyahu government to investigate Israel's crimes. I haven't been this ashamed of my country since 2003.)

I Didn't Think They'd Actually Do It

Brad @ Burning Man
Israeli naval commandos boarded and captured an unarmed Turkish ship. In international waters, according to early reports. According to nearly all reports, they killed at least two people doing so.

I don't like making snap judgments. But I would like answers to the following questions:

1) How is this not a blatant act of piracy?

2) How is there not a state of war between Israel and Turkey after this?

3) If there is, given that Turkey is a NATO ally, how, under the NATO treaty, is there not a state of war between Israel and the United States? Never mind the politics, talk to me about the law: is the US going to wipe its ass with the NATO treaty, or are we going to defend Turkey from an attack by Israel?

4) If this isn't too far? How far does the Likud/Shas coalition have to go before the United States admits that they've committed intolerable provocations (if not actual war crimes -- and I remind you that piracy is defined as a crime against humanity) and announce that they are, at the very least, no longer under our protection?

5) Before any of you break out the hoary old "only secular democracy in the Middle East" cliché, first of all, it's just not, not any more, and secondly, given the domination that Shas has over the coalition, how can you conceivably call it secular?

My advice to any remaining secular, liberal Jews living in Israel is that this is it: it is time to get out of there.

Elena Kagan is My Last Straw

Voted for Dean
I'm done.

I never harbored any illusion that Barack Obama was a liberal. He was never higher than third choice, for me, in the 2008 Democratic primaries, for just that reason. I always knew that Harvard Law doesn't graduate many liberals, and the few that it does graduate don't get hired by the leading center of right-wing economic philosophy in America, University of Chicago Law. I knew his Democratic convictions were shallow, I knew that he had made his career out of sucking up to conservatives, out of being conservatives' one token liberal (and black) friend, in hopes of getting some crumb of moderation out of them.

But then he gave that damned speech. You know the one. And like a lot of people, I teared up when he stood up in New Hampshire and said, "in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." You know what? The next time a member of Generation X says something to me about "hope," I'm going to assume that I'm being scammed.

Because I'll be damned if what I campaigned for months for, and stood in line for hours on crutches for on a lovely November morning, was for someone who would govern significantly to the right of Mitt Romney.

When, in his first week in office, President Obama nominated militarist and corporatist right-wing Democrat Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, I emailed the White House, saying that if I'd wanted Hillary Clinton anywhere near the White House, I would have voted for her. Like other liberals, I was ignored. But I still clung to some hope, because it was still just barely possible, back then, that all he was doing was ending an intra-party fight between the Democrats In Name Only and the tattered remainder of the real Democratic Party by making room for a high profile DINO in a post that had no domestic or military responsibilities. Maybe. So I stayed my tongue (mostly) and waited to see how he'd actually govern.

When the grass hadn't finished regrowing from that beautiful inaugural on the Washington Mall but he had already broken his promises as to when he'd end the Iraq War, I bit my lip, and reminded myself that at least he wasn't escalating it like McCain would have. When he announced his plans to escalate the war in Afghanistan, but not by anything within two orders of magnitude of what it would take to actually win it, I shrugged, unhappy about it but not having expected anything better from him.

I tried hard not to blame him for the stimulus, though, and just utterly failed. A masterpiece of right-wing Clintonism, the stimulus bill could be broken into roughly three equal parts: evil, evil, and worthless. It consisted of roughly one third tax cuts, disproportionately for the upper middle class and the rich (evil), one third subsidies for wealthy corporations who, predictably, spent at least half of that money subsidizing foreign competition for American workers (evil), and one third replicating the useless old Public Works Administration in the form of timid, small, long-term public works projects, none of which were scheduled to hire any more workers for years (worthless). $800 billion, flushed down the toilet in the pursuit of the exact same policies that, under Clinton and Bush, got us into this mess in the first place. That, more than anything, was when I began to suspect that I'd been had.

But that wasn't nearly the blow as his total betrayal of his campaign promises about Gitmo. When even George W. Bush admits that the US policy of indefinite detention without trial, of people picked up on or near the battlefield despite the fact that we already knew at the time that at least 2/3rds of them were innocent, all of whom, innocent and guilty alike, were tortured for months in hopes of getting actionable intelligence out of the 1/3rd of them who might have been guilty, is making us look like a pariah state, a rogue state, to every civilized country on the planet, when the bizarre extra-territorial base we admitted to using for this has become the flag waved by every anti-American terrorist group at their recruitment rallies, setting those people free, however much they hate us now, should have been a no-brainer. Yeah, most of them would become terrorists when they left; wouldn't you? But we have insanely well funded intelligence services; it wouldn't have been that tough of a burden to watch them and protect against them. And that, pretty much, is one of the things that Barack Obama campaigned on. So when he said that he wasn't going to close Guantanamo on time, then said he might not close it at all, then said that if he did close it, it would only to be to relocate it, that those torture victims will never, ever be released by their torturers, that the most they could hope for would be to be hidden more carefully in northwestern Illinois, or worse at some former Soviet air base in Afghanistan for however long our puppet dictatorship of drug lords and former rape-gang leaders in Afghanistan holds out? Something inside of me died.

And then came ObamaCare. We're going to adopt Mitt Romney's health care plan, only with even fewer cost controls. We made this decision the exact year that Massachusetts, the state that piloted RomneyCare, is about to collapse over skyrocketing costs, made worse by low premium participation among people who've figured out that it's cheaper to pay the annual tax penalty once a year than to pay 6 or 8 times that in premiums, and you still get treated. We waited until we saw what a disaster individual mandate without cost control would be, and then we rushed to vote it in without a single Republican vote, so that when it explodes, the Democrats will be blamed for it. Beautiful. He, and Pelosi, and Reid, couldn't have done more to discredit the Democrats for two generations to come if they'd been on Michael Steele's payroll. But even if, on some level, they know this, what do they care? It doesn't take effect until two years into (what they hope will be) President Obama's second term, when he's no longer running for office. If it takes the same three years to melt down that RomneyCare took in Massachusetts, then it won't melt down until 2017, by which time Obama, Pelosi, and Reid will all be retired. What do they care? Well, I care: at this rate, I expect to still be alive in 2017, and even though I still hope to be on Medicare then, I don't want to live in America, and be campaigning for Democrats, once we're getting blamed for RomneyCare.

I assume you all know the story of The Straw that Broke the Camel's Back. Replacing one of the last remaining center-left justices on the Supreme Court, one of the last justices to remember that the Preamble to the Constitution is, in fact, part of the Constitution, one of the last justices to remember that it's at least as important that the highest court in the land deliver justice as it is that they get their narrow legalistic footnotes right and color within the lines, with a center-right (at best) sycophant to power, someone whose use of what little power has ever been given to her has demonstrated her own unconscious racist, sexist, upper-class biases, is truly, in the measure of things, a very small straw. But this camel was already laden to its absolute upper limit. This truly is, for me, the last straw.

In 2010, 2012, and maybe even 2014, I'll show up at the polls to vote for Governor Jay Nixon again as needed, and the same for Senator Claire McCaskill, because I still believe in both of them. Everywhere else on the ballot, I'm voting Republican. Not in spite of the fact that I know they're wrong, but specifically because I know that they're wrong.

Republican military, foreign policy, and economic principles are wrong. They cannot lead to anything but military disgrace, foreign policy pariahship, ecological disaster, and economic collapse on the level of the Great Depression or worse. But right now, those aren't seen by the public as Republican principles. They're seen as "bi-partisan" principles, because the Democratic Party is entirely dominated by people who agree with Republican principles, they just want them implemented in a slightly friendlier way. When those principles are seen to fail, as they have been being seen to have failed ever since the dot-com bubble burst of 2000, the al Qaeda attacks of 2001, the disastrous Iraq War of 2003, and the real estate investment bubble burst of 2007, I absolutely 100% want to make sure that it is the Republicans who get blamed for it.

I am done voting for the nicer of two right-wing Republicans. I am done with a two-party system in which Dwight Eisenhower and Barry Goldwater would be seen as too liberal to be taken seriously as Democratic candidates, in which Richard Nixon would be seen as so liberal that if he were running for office today as a Democrat, he would be taken about as seriously as Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich, in which George H.W. Bush would be considered a center-left Democrat, in which Ronald Reagan, if he were running today, would be seen as a moderate-to-liberal Republican.

If, when the inevitable crash comes, the American people have no alternative left to vote for? Then the anarcho-communist riots in Greece right now, where they just burned a bank and murdered three low-level banksters, where serious people are worried that Greece is about to slide into a second communist civil war and maybe drag much of Europe with it? That might be the best we could have left to hope for. And I don't want to live to see that. So if the Democrats don't nominate an actual liberal or at least a progressive where you live, vote Republican in 2010 and 2012. For the love of all holy gods, vote for the Republican presidential candidate in 2012, however bad they are. In fact, hope that the Republicans vote for the most right wing, most banksterish, most theocratic candidate they have. Let them take the blame.
Brad @ Burning Man
Even before the arrest of yet another alleged right-wing terror cell on Sunday night, the phrase "original intent of the Founders" was on my mind with regard to another terrorist threat, one that reminded me very specifically that the Founders did, in fact, have to deal with groups exactly like today's right-wing militias and tea parties. And in that context, the conservatives' much-loved phrase, "the original intent of the Founders," is illuminating.

But first, the more recent and unambiguous terrorist threat. An FBI agent inside the Christian-Right multi-state militia known as the Hutaree called in the department to round them up and quickly, when he learned that they had settled on their action plan, their goal for creating an incident that they hoped would trigger a civil war aimed at overthrowing President Obama and the Democrats by force. Some time in April, probably on the 24th, they were going to murder a police officer, lay low until his funeral, and then lay armor-piercing improvised explosive devices along the route from the funeral service to the graveyard; once they had killed every police officer in the funeral convoy, they were planning on retreating through several home-made minefields in hopes of luring more police to their death. The agent had to move fast; they were planning an armed reconnaissance in the next week or so, and had plans to kill anyone, civilian or otherwise, who spotted them. (See Corey Williams & Devlin Barrett, "9 militia members charged in police-killing plot," Associated Press, 3/29/10, and subsequent news stories everywhere.)

I keep having to make this next point, don't I? When the Department of Homeland Security issued their April 2009 report "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," (PDF) just about every Republican in America screamed bloody murder, demanded that they retract it, and accused the Obama administration of trying to criminalize peaceful political dissent. How many right wing assassins, murderers, and terror squads will it take before even one of them admits that they were wrong about that? Do any of them have at least that much minimal honesty or basic decency?

We need to just face facts: there is a large minority in this country, large enough to be dangerous, who just flatly do not accept the fact that they can lose an election. When they win elections, they are all about "democracy" and "the rule of law," but the minute they lose an election, they pick up their guns and start planning for violent revolution to overturn the will of the people. Pretending that these people do not exist, pretending that they are not numerous, and pretending that the Republicans do not stoke these people's paranoid fantasies because of the party's dangerous delusion that they can control them, can use them as a tool, will not change the fact that they are there and they are dangerous.

But I was already thinking about how law enforcement should respond to threats like this, before we even found out about the Hutaree, because of another event I saw announced on the news, one that has an especially strong historical resonance with the Founding Fathers. On this April 19th, the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City when two or more right-wing militia members murdered 99 federal government employees, at least 50 other adults, and 19 children, a group of right wing activists are planning on marching, armed, to within one mile of the Capitol Mall, their so-called "Restore the Constitution rally / Muster Outside DC."

I wonder what George Washington would have done about either the Hutaree or the Muster Outside DC? Well, no, actually, I don't wonder, because exactly similar situations did happen during the life of the first President of the United States, and I know exactly what he ordered done about it, and what he did about his day's TEA Party while he was at it.

"Rebellion against a king may be pardoned or lightly punished, but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death."
Samuel Adams, 1787, on the subject of Shays' Rebellion
Between 1784 and 1787, there were a group of people who thought that the government of the United States had betrayed them. Many of them were Revolutionary War veterans, and there is no real doubt that they had a legitimate grievance, albeit one that the government flatly couldn't do anything to fix. In 1787, a retired soldier named Daniel Shays called up an armed march on Washington DC very like the one that the Muster Outside DC has planned. He and his Regulators, as they called themselves, declared that their intention was not to overthrow the government, but that they were carrying their service weapons to impress on Congress that they were serious. To retired general George Washington, however, carrying their weapons to impress on Congress that they were serious was armed rebellion enough. On his advice, the Founding Fathers called back up the volunteer army, ordered Shays and his Rebellion to disperse and disarm, and when they disobeyed, our Founding Fathers ordered them gunned down.

A few years later, in 1791, after General Washington had been elected President (which shows you how uncontroversial the Founders' generation thought his wholesale arrest of and the substantial death toll among Shays' gun rights enthusiasts were), he faced another group of "protesters." People in the mountain west (which at the time meant the Appalachians, not the Rockies) had already decided that they were being Taxed Enough Already, that if the government needed to make national debt payments it should reduce federal government instead of raising taxes, when the Washington administration persuaded Congress to pass the first "sin tax," a tax on whiskey and other distilled spirits. In the considered legal opinion of those who felt that they were Taxed Enough Already, this was an unconstitutional tax. The first "Tenthers," they argued on 10th amendment grounds that nothing in the Constitution gave the Washington administration, or Congress, the authority to collect taxes on anything other than a per-citizen tax on states and any taxes on imports, that under the doctrine of enumerated rights the federal government could not tax anything else. The courts, and Congress, were unpersuaded by their argument.

Rather than pay the tax, though, and then vote out those who disagreed with them in the next election, the protesters who felt that they were Taxed Enough Already began holding increasingly loud and violent protests, which culminated in attacks on the homes of tax collectors. At the first sign of violence, President Washington responded to the Whiskey Rebellion the same way he responded to Shays' Rebellion: he called up the army and sent them after the anti-tax protesters. Knowing from recent history that Washington wasn't bluffing, they surrendered, and 20 of their leaders were put on trial for their crimes. Had they not surrendered, there is no meaningful doubt what would have happened: George Washington would have ordered the army to gun down any of them too stupid to lay down their weapons and peacefully disperse.

Since then, we've perhaps gone a little soft. Scarcely a generation had gone by before the American people began to wonder if maybe Washington had over-reacted to those rebellions, if some more peaceful way of negotiating with them could have worked, if calling up the army was really the appropriate response. And in acknowledgment of the fact that soldiers are trained to shoot to kill, not to make arrests, we've long since ruled out any future use of the military to put down any but the largest and most heavily armed of rebellions. Still, have no doubt about this: "the original intent of the Founders," were they here today, would be to order all of these loud-mouthed vandals and heavily armed rednecks to lay down their weapons, peacefully return to their homes, and respect the electoral process ... or else be gunned down by federal troops, or else to die in the dirt like dogs.

So for a group of armed men to declare their intention to march, weapons in hand, to within a mile of the Capitol on the 15th anniversary of the worst act of domestic terrorism since the Civil War, and expect us not to treat this as a threat of armed rebellion just because they promise to stop one mile short (this time?) is so outrageous that I'm leaning more and more towards taking President Washington's side in this, and was already leaning that way before allies of theirs were arrested on the verge of unveiling a horrible act of murderous terror a few states over. On the day before the health insurance reform vote in the House, members of this movement (egged on by idiotic Republicans waving from the balcony above) waved signs outside the Capitol building saying "We Came Unarmed -- This Time" and "If Brown Can't Stop It, A Browning Will." Do they expect us to forget that this is the next time?

These are people who have made it clear that they will not honor the results of last November's election, and made clear their intent to take up arms over it. I'm increasingly convinced that it is time for the federal government to treat them, and their leaders, the way that they increasingly deserve. Some reliable and professional branch of federal law enforcement like the US Marshals should confront them well short of that park, guns loaded and drawn, accuse them of armed insurrection, and order them to lay down their weapons and disperse. If they refuse, or resist? Well, then that'll settle it: President Washington was right, and his was the only way to preserve American democracy.

(Watch Republican officials and opinion leaders squirm uncomfortably, this week, as they only now, belatedly, only after feeding these treasonous psychotics' paranoid fantasies for two years, as only now they insist that the only legitimate outlet for the rage and fear they've stoked against Democrats and against the US government in general is at the ballot box this November. It's a little late for that now, I think. To borrow another phrase much loved by the Founders, they sowed the wind; they will reap the whirlwind. Or at least, now that the guns are drawn, they deserve to.)
Brad @ Burning Man
St. Louis is about to get its second stretch of road where you can get a speeding ticket automatically, computer-issued, without any cop seeing you speed, and this second one is an important one: right smack in the middle of mid-county, between I-70 and I-64, right on the I-170 Interstate bypass. (KMOV-TV, "Police fighting to block speed cameras," 3/22/10.)

The first one is on a much smaller surface street, and the case that was made for that one was a lot harder to argue with. (KSDK-TV, "Speeders beware! Speed camera activated in St. Ann," 3/7/10.) The city of St. Ann put a speed-ticket camera in front of Hoech Middle School only after having tried everything else. People use Ashby Road as a bypass, and day after day cars speed by there at 50 mi/hr (in a 20 mi/hr zone), during school hours, while 12 year olds are playing adjacent to the road. They put cops there to write tickets as many hours a month as they could, they put up automatic radar warning signs to warn people that they were driving more than twice the safe speed for that stretch of road, nothing helped. So they gave up and made it automatic: speed in a school zone during school hours, get a ticket so big and for so egregious a violation it may well cost you your license. I can't find it in me to blame them. What were they supposed to do? Wait until some kid got killed there?

But the case of I-170 through the suburb of Charlack is a little more interesting than that. That stretch of I-170 is wide, it's relatively accident free, it's straight as string and flat as a pancake, and drivers on I-170 drive as close to the speed limit as any other Americans do anywhere else ... which is to say, not very close to the speed limit at all, but not at speeds that most Americans would consider reckless. If anything, speeds probably run somewhat lower there, especially at night, because that stretch of highway includes Bel-Ridge, already a notorious speed-trap town, one of the towns that are why the state of Missouri had to cap the percentage of a town's revenue they could collect from speeding tickets. The other night on the news, a Charlack official said that they're doing this for safety reasons, that automatic tickets will only go to people who are traveling significantly over the speed limit -- but no, they wouldn't say what they meant by that, no, they wouldn't say how fast you could actually drive and not get an automatic ticket.

But go back and look at the KMOV footage. "For the most part, drivers in this 60 mile per hour zone were driving right around the speed limit," the reporter says, while his radar gun is flashing, for car after car, "67, 67, 67." In other words, like most Americans, he took it for granted that the law doesn't really mean what it says, and unless you do something stupid like mouth off to a cop, the real enforced speed limit is 10 miles per hour faster than it says it is. Decent, well-meaning (white, adult) citizens (who drive boring cars) have one speed limit, 70 mi/hr, and bad people (kids, black people, people who don't instinctively grovel to cops when pulled over, or people who are driving cars that cops don't like) have another, and there's nothing wrong with that, that's America!

You know, speed-enforcement cameras are not a new idea to me. Back in the early 90s, I worked with a guy who'd spent some time in Germany while serving in the US Air Force, who almost lost his driver's license and his off-base housing to speed-enforcement cameras. He drove through one, not even noticing it was there, every day on his way to and from work, and like any American, he blew through them at 5 to 10 mi/hr over the rated speed, thinking nothing of it. 5 working days later, the first ticket caught up with him; by the time he knew what he was doing wouldn't be tolerated, he had racked up 10 speeding tickets.

See, here's the thing that fascinates me about this. For all my life, Americans have made excuses to me for why they should get away with breaking the law. They tell me that everybody knows that speedometers aren't accurate, that radar guns aren't accurate, that the cop can't possibly really know exactly how fast you're going, so you should be entitled to a slop factor of 5 to 10 mi/hr over the posted speed limit. And unless they don't like you, or are really desperate for the revenue, most American cops would agree with them. But what my co-worker told me is that Germans see it entirely differently. Speedometers aren't accurate, radar guns aren't entirely accurate, so you better drive 5 to 10 km/hr under the posted speed limit just to be sure. Germans see speed limits, and laws in general, as things to make sure they never, ever violate; Americans barely accept speed limits, and laws in general, as suggestions, as things they can frequently safely ignore as long as they're careful to stay within some imagined boundary, on the other side of the law, of "what you can get away with."

And you know what? I can think of a whole lot of social, legal, political, and economic pathologies of the last 30 years that would never have happened if Americans had been more respectful of the rule of law, more respectful of law enforcement, more ashamed of the thought of accidentally (let alone intentionally) going beyond what the law allows, more afraid of being caught on the wrong side of the law, instead of feeling entitled to go right up to the edge of what the law allows and then a fair ways over that edge, into some imagined "gray area" where they have no fear of punishment. American businessmen, American politicians, American lobbyists, American lawyers, American soldiers and spies, Americans in general who worried more about what the law actually says and how it could be used against them, instead of relying on what they think they can get away with, would have made this a much better country to live in.

So I think maybe that if you blow through 8 municipalities twice a day, going 10 miles an hour over the speed limit through all 8 of them, maybe you should rack up $1600 a day in fines. Maybe that'll teach you that yes, the law applies to you, too, so maybe you should be a little more thorough and careful about obeying it.


P.S. I don't drive, at the moment, but when I was driving, I was in the habit of setting the cruise control to 2 to 5 mi/hr under the speed limit and locking it there. I learned that habit during a bad couple of years where, due to a paperwork screw up and tight money, I really, really needed to get pulled over by the cops as little as possible. But even after I got it cleared up, I kept doing it, because it was such a relief to never, ever, ever have to worry about whether or not I was going to get pulled over. Leave earlier. Speed less. It costs you some time, but it's usually cheaper, and it keeps you out of trouble.

Hooray for Amazon!

Brad @ Burning Man
When Apple rolled out the iPad, I squinted at the screenshots on Gizmodo that included the iBookstore, and noticed immediately that Apple was planning on charging $3 to $4 more per e-book than Amazon charges for the same titles. (I strongly suspect that iTunes' bookstore will go over about as well as Amazon's MP3 store.) I was wondering how they were planning on getting away with offering fewer titles and charging more per title.

Well, I guess now we know.

For those of you who weren't paying attention when the blogosphere lit up over it this morning, Macmillan has been putting the screws to Amazon in what had been, until late Friday night, quiet contract negotiations; New York Times technology blogger Brad Stone just posted the details ("Amazon Pulls Macmillan Books Over E-Book Price Disagreement," 1/29/10). Apparently Amazon has concluded that Macmillan has stopped negotiating in good faith, that Macmillan hopes to put the Kindle e-books store out of business by taking its business to the iPad in two months when it finally ships. If so, Amazon is calling their bluff: Amazon yanked all Macmillan titles, e-book and paper, from Amazon.com Friday night. For how long? Who knows?

John Scalzi, who's sold books to Macmillan, is watching his potential royalties from Earth's biggest bookstore drop to $0/day, and is unsurprisingly appalled that Amazon is refusing to cave in. Cory Doctorow, for whom being anti-DRM is a matter of religious principle and who therefore would be expected to hate Amazon even if they cured cancer, unsurprisingly hates Amazon.

I'm going to take Amazon's side on this one, and if you look at the NYT blogger's post, you can see the outlines of why. And if, like me, you'd read Ben Bova's Cyberbooks novel years ago, which predicted all of this, you'd have seen this coming, too.

When you buy a $20 hardcover or a $10 paperback, the author gets a few cents to maybe a buck out of that. The publisher gets a couple of bucks out of that. All, and I mean all, of the rest of that price covers the cost of getting that physical object manufactured, shipped to the distributor, distributed to the bookstore, stocked at the bookstore, and sold to you. To that end, Amazon made publishers what seems to me to be an entirely fair and reasonable offer: we will (against our will) cave in and give you digital rights management if that's the only way to persuade you to let us sell e-book copies of your books. (Amazon is already nudging publishers away from that position, as made the news about a week ago. Apple had to offer music publishers the same deal to get iTunes launched; just as iTunes dropped DRM once the music publishers stopped fearing iTunes and embraced it, there's every reason to assume that publishers will drop the encrypted wrapper around what turn out to be plain old open-format ".mobi" ebooks at Amazon.)

And ... and here's the contract sticking point ... Amazon cheerfully pays the same wholesale price per copy sold that every distributor of paper books pays, 50% off of hardcopy cover price. In exchange, Amazon gets the same privilege that every retailer gets, the privilege of setting the actual sale price to whatever they want. For almost all $20 or so hardcovers, Amazon is paying publishers like Macmillan $9.99, and selling the books to the public at wholesale cost, to promote the Kindle, the Kindle app on smart phones, the Kindle ebook application for Windows, and (most importantly, to them) the Kindle e-book bookstore. For your average $10 paperback, Amazon is paying publishers like Macmillan $4.99 or so, and setting the price (depending on the book) anywhere from $6.99 to $9.99, with occasional sales on backlist from authors they're trying to promote as low as $0 to $2.99. And as far as they're concerned, and as far as I'm concerned, Macmillan and every other publishing conglomerate have no more legal or moral right to dictate Amazon's price to their customers than they have to tell Books-a-Million or Borders how much they have to sell the books for. (The US Department of Justice would, probably, look in fact rather harshly askance at any publishing conglomerate that engaged in price-fixing behavior at the consumer level.)

As far as I can understand Macmillan's argument, I think it goes something like this. Macmillan knows that the average book-buyer has no idea who gets what slice of their $20 hardcover book, and doesn't care; they just know that if they want to read that book while it's still in hardcover and aren't able to borrow it from a library or a friend, it costs them $20. Macmillan also knows that fewer than 10% of all bookbuyers have a Kindle or a smartphone with the Kindle app. What they appear to be afraid of is that if the other 90%-plus find out that Amazon sells their favorite hardcover author's latest book for $9.99, they'll think that that means that the hardcover ought to cost that much, too; that they'll boycott bookstores until prices come down to that; that bookstores will then demand a sharp cut in the wholesale price because customers will no longer pay more than $10 for a hardcover; that Amazon will demand the new wholesale price and continue retailing e-books at the new, lower, wholesale price; that consumers will conclude that Amazon's new, lower wholesale price is what books "should really cost," and the resulting death spiral will kill the industry.

And so, what they've demanded, and what Apple is enthused to give them if it lets them kill a competitor for their late-to-market ebook reader, and what Amazon considers not just bad business practice but actually morally and/or legally wrong so they won't give in no matter what it costs them, is the right to set Amazon's (and Barnes and Noble's, and Apple's, and any other e-book provider's) retail price, paying the e-book vending website 30% of the price. I sincerely hope that this was merely a starting offer on that price, by the way, since among other things, since if they're planning on gradually raising the e-book price to equal the hardcover price to keep from cannibalizing hardcover sales, it'd be a sharp hike in the wholesale cost (from 50% to 70% of cover) to the ebook vendors. But even if it werern't an indefensible raise in the wholesale cost, even if they offered to keep the current 50/50 split, it'd still be wrong, wrong, wrong of Macmillan and the other two companies (yes, there are only three publishing conglomerates who own almost the entire book publishing world) to even try to collude to set, and raise, consumer prices. Period.

Thank the gods that Amazon is standing up to them. They have my full support in this.

Edited to add: Macmillan has given their side of this dispute. It exactly confirms my suspicion that this is all about Macmillan's demand that they, not the retailer, be allowed to set the retail price of a book, their demand that anybody who discounts a book below their preferred price must die. This makes it even easier for me: I sincerely hope that it's Macmillan, not Amazon, that goes out of business.
Voted for Dean
If you got your education in an American or European school, you haven't thought about Haiti much, especially if you're white. In fact, if you're white, and you haven't done a lot of reading on the colonial history of the western hemisphere, I'd offer 9 to 1 odds that within a couple of weeks, you'll go back to not thinking about Haiti again for a longish time. For a moment, though, I'd like you to think about that history, remember (or learn) a couple of things about it. Here's why: the immediate disaster will be over by the end of the day, for all practical purposes. Disaster recovery teams are deploying throughout Port au Prince, and frankly, at this point, just about everybody who is going to die from the earthquake is already dead. It has stopped getting worse. So now, while a few people still care, is the time to think about what happens next. (The odds are, what happens next is "nothing," and Haiti goes back to being "the land where children eat mud.")

The observation has been widely made that ordinary cities don't collapse from an earthquake the size of the one that just hit Port au Prince, and ordinary countries have better and more widely dispersed disaster recovery teams of their own. Haiti, though, is special, and there's a reason for that: From 1804 to the present, during all but a few years, it has been the official policy of Washington DC and of every European capital that Haiti must fail.

A capsule summary of colonial history is essential at this point. Basically everywhere south of US Interstate highway 70, that is to say basically everywhere south of the 40th parallel north, the European colonial pattern was the same, and still shows. The intent of the European powers was to use their military superiority to carve the agriculturally viable and mineral-valuable parts of the New World into estates, haciendas, plantations for white nobility. To that end, everywhere south of I-70, what they sent were:
  • a very tiny number of white families of noble birth, or who were owed favors by royalty and elevated to nobility,
  • a not much bigger number of white technical specialists, such as doctors and clerks, who understood that their whole reason for being there was to provide services to the nobility, and ...
  • a substantial white army, whose job was to subjugate the natives and make them the slaves of the nobility.
This didn't work as well as they would have liked, because part of Europe's military superiority came from the fact that anywhere from 1/3rd to 9/10ths of the natives were dying off of smallpox and tuberculosis. So the surviving native slaves were supplemented in numbers by, and encouraged to interbreed with, African pagans who had been sold into slavery to the white people, mostly by African Muslims. When "decolonization" happened and these former colonies achieved their independence, basically nothing changed almost anywhere in the hemisphere. The same few white families who had been granted ownership of everyone and everything continued to own everyone and everything. The same slightly less few upper middle class white families continued to send their kids to college to be the white professionals and bureaucrats who ran those countries for the white owners of the countries, and to be the military officers who ruled over the mixed poor-white and brown/black foot soldiers who keep the brown/black poor, the descendants of the slaves, in thinly disguised slavery.

But Hispaniola, the island of which Haiti is the western half, started out special. By the time it was safe enough for the nobles to move in, there were exactly zero inhabitants left to enslave. When the native population of Hispaniola realized that they were going to lose, they fought to the death, and the last surviving women, children, and the elderly committed mass suicide rather than have their children grow up under European rule, and if I were a praying Christian, I would pray for their heroic, martyred souls every Sunday. So even before the island got divided up between the French and the Spanish, the slave caste of Hispaniola was 100% black, not the mestizo brown/black mix that most Americans think of when they think of "Hispanics."

But Haiti got even weirder, by western hemisphere standards, because it didn't get its independence from France by having its white population rebel against European rule and enlisting their slaves to fight "for freedom." No, Haiti is the only country in the western hemisphere to win its independence from Europe against the wishes of its white minority, to win its independence in a slave revolt. And that is why, unlike every other country and state south of the 40th north line of latitude, when Haiti got its independence, the entire white population of Haiti fled, taking everything they could pry loose with them. And, even more to the point, that is why it became official US policy all the way back during the Jefferson administration that Haiti must fail, a policy that has remained to this very day under every US president but two, Carter and Clinton, and under every British prime minister since then until now, and under every French president until the current administration: the world must never see, the world's poor must never see, the world's former and current slaves must never, never see a slave rebellion that works. Period.

To that end, the US and all European nations declared war on Haiti as soon as it won its independence, and stayed that war upon the promise of a terrifyingly high danegeld: the Haitian people had to pay back France the full market value of every acre of property in Haiti and the full slave market value of every Haitian citizen, or else be the victims of a threatened genocidal war by the armed, mechanized might of the white world. They paid it. It took them until 1948, it took them working their fingers to the bone every single one of them and shipping every penny they earned by exporting all but starvation-level food overseas to do it, but they bought themselves. And were poised to succeed.

And, well, we couldn't have that. What if black Americans were to see a thriving, prosperous black country, just 70 miles off the Florida coast, doing just fine without any white rulers? The result could be unthinkable levels of violence, maybe even armed revolution. So in 1957, just as Haiti was starting to recover from centuries of deprivation, the US backed the private army of would-be dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and gave him clear marching orders: he was to sink Haiti back into debt that it couldn't pay. The Duvaliers, and their successors from within his private murderous army, have consistently used weapons sent to them for free by the US government, and backed by invasion by the US Marine Corps whenever that wasn't enough and democracy threatened to break out, to force the Haitian government to take out hundreds of billions of dollars in loans in the name of the Haitian people, and give at least 80% of that money to the Duvalier family and their followers. And every time they get close to paying it off, every time it even starts to look like some day they might pay it off, the Duvalierists (still!) take out more loans, and steal that money, too. Less than 20% of that money was used to build the roads and bridges and railroads and factories and food processing plants and schools and firehouses and other infrastructure that a modern economy needs. It was, quite intentionally, nowhere near enough: the Haitian people were told, on pain of re-invasion by the US and its allies, that they could not have any of those things until they paid off the Duvaliers' loans, loans that they will never be allowed to pay off.

So when the earthquake hit, they had almost none of those things, and the few that they had were shoddily built because that was all they were allowed to spend, and they died by the tens of thousands: murdered by America's fierce determination to kill them rather than let them succeed.

Nor will they be allowed to succeed after this, if our political class, yes, including Barack Obama, are not challenged: almost all of the "aid" we're sending to Haiti is in the form of more IMF loans. And as anybody who's studied the history of the International Monetary Fund and its "emergency stabilization loan" program will tell you, those loans come with murderous strings attached: none of that money can be used to build any of the public infrastructure or train or hire any of the government workers that would be needed to raise Haiti out of desperation and anarchy. It can't be used to hire teachers to teach the Haitians to compete in a global economy. It can't be used to build roads for them to get their goods to the port, it can't be used to improve the port so that more countries can buy their exports, it can't be used to hire and supervise truly professional police or the independent oversight boards and judges it would take to make it safe for Haitians to invest in and run their own businesses, that loan money can't be used for any of the things. It can only be used to fund the expropriation of more food from Haitians' own mouths, more assets from the island if any can be found, plus every dollar of those loans, back into the hands of the American and European governments and banks that lent it in the first place.

What can you do about it, what can I do about it? Probably not much. Withdraw your consent; it's probably not enough, but it's better than nothing. Just about every year, one or more members of the US's Black Congressional Caucus introduces a Haiti debt relief bill, a bill to cancel all of Haiti's foreign debts and to require that all future aid to Haiti be in the form of grants, not loans. But since this idea is "radical" and "out of the mainstream" (that is to say, unacceptable to America's wealthy elite and to the graduates of the universities, funded by that wealthy elite, who run the country on behalf of the wealthy elite, since as Dr. Chomsky pointed out back when he was still sane, that is what the word "radical" means in politics), calling your congressman and your senator and asking them to support debt relief for Haiti probably won't do any good, not so long as our political class consists almost entirely of people who were taught oh-so-carefully that loans are better than grants.

You can argue to them that since none of the Haitian people were allowed to benefit from those loans, and since any further loans will be stolen before the benefits get to the Haitian people, that it's morally wrong to expect the Haitian people to pay them back. Maybe that argument will carry water, now that there are piles of corpses to show your congressman and your senator. But probably not. Any bills to enact this are unlikely to come to a vote in the next three weeks. And within three weeks, everybody not actively engaged in keeping the Haitian people down will have, once again, forgotten all about Haiti.

U-6: 17.5%

Brad @ Burning Man
The US Department of Labor Statistics' monthly unemployment report is out, including their monthly "Employment Situation Summary." You may have seen the headline number, the U-3 "official unemployment rate," which came in at 10.2%, which is a full 3/10ths of a percent higher than economists were forecasting as recently as yesterday. The less misleading "Alternative measure of labor underutilization U-6" (available elsewhere on their website), which counts everybody who is available to work, needs a full-time job to pay their bills, and doesn't have one is now up to 17.5%, or more than one out of every six. John Williams' Shadow Government Statistics calculates that if you added in (for example) people like myself who are involuntarily retired due to disability, but who could work if there were jobs that needed us badly enough and who would rather work than draw the dole, the actual number as calculated during previous depressions and recessions, it's at 22%, or more than 1 out of every 5. And still accelerating.

Chart of U.S. Unemployment

So it's not terribly surprising that Congress passed a 20-week extension to unemployment benefits, passed it by wide bipartisan margins and without debate or hesitation, and the President is expected to sign it today, the same day the bill hit his desk. That makes this a good time to talk about how Unemployment Insurance works in the US ... and, more to the point, how and why it doesn't work.

If you still have a job that draws a paycheck, and you look down at the automatic deductions, you'll see that one of them is for Unemployment Insurance, and from your perspective, it works just like any other insurance plan: you pay a regular premium, and if disaster strikes, you draw a benefit that's supposed to help you recover from that disaster. In this particular case, you pay it to your state department of labor, which gets matching funds from the federal government to help keep premiums affordable, but the basic principle remains the same: it's a mandatory, but subsidized, insurance program. Costs and benefits have long been calculated based on the assumption that when one job ends, it typically takes most people less than three months to find another job. So since the government doesn't want to force you take a job in a much lower tax bracket and get stuck there for years the same day you get laid off, they pay you just enough money to keep the wolf from the door for the one to three months it should take you to find a job that pays a similar wage, a job in the same pay range.

Unfortunately, the Labor Department currently calculates the average time to find another job of any kind, let alone one in your same pay range, at 26.9 weeks, a hair over six months. Almost six million of us have been searching for 27 weeks or longer, with still no luck. Two million of us were about to pass the 79 week mark. So, for not even the first time (remember, it wasn't originally 79 months' coverage), the federal government is offering to let states extend the number of consecutive months of unemployment insurance benefits you can draw, paying for it by federal deficit spending rather than by raising unemployment insurance premiums. At this point, I think we can safely say that this is no longer any kind of an insurance program. It's a dole, plain and simple. And worse than that, it's the worst possible kind of dole: one that cripples the recipients.

You see, here's the most important thing to know about this: studies have shown over and over again that if you go past 26 weeks unemployed, you are most probably never going to find another job in your prior pay grade. However many years of education you have, no matter how many years of experience you have on your resumé, they mean nothing: you're a minimum wage clerk or a burger-flipper again or a day laborer or a telemarketer, at best. No employer will give you credit for any education or job experience if there's a six-month gap in your resumé. So how will employers respond, even if the economy recovers, to people who have a 99 week gap, that is to say a twenty three and a half month gap, in theirs?

I'm not saying that the right answer would be to cut off the benefits, replace them with nothing, and throw people (and their kids!) out into the street to starve. What I am saying is that what we're doing only postpones the inevitable. The recipients will never not be on the dole if we just keep extending the benefits. What we need to do, if we ever want them to go back to being productive taxpayers and supportive members of their families and of their communities ever again, is put them back to work.

Unsurprisingly, we are not the first generation of Americans to confront this problem. I'm going to refer you to the single flat-out absolutely best book I've read all year, Nick Taylor's American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. At the top of the reasons that Roosevelt, and his WPA director Harry Hopkins, insisted not just on any make-work jobs but on jobs that used the same skills people already had was that they understood that some day the Great Depression was going to end, and on that day, we were going to need people who were still physically healthy from working, still in the habit of showing up for work, and just as importantly, still sharp in their skills, still current in their fields: everything that somebody who spends 99 weeks doing nothing for a living but going out a couple of times a week to fill out increasingly-pointless job applications won't be.

It's long past time to stop putting bandages on the gaping wound that's spurting the arterial blood of American worker readiness and competency and stitch up this wound in the body politic. If no employer can or will hire those people, it will have to be we, the taxpayers, who do so until private employers are ready to and can. It is long past time to stop giving out charity, to stop paying out dole, to put Americans back to work.
Brad @ Burning Man
Frank Schaeffer, Jr., on the Rachel Maddow Show ("Nazism is Not a Metaphor," 8/7/09):


"What's really being said here is two messages. There's the message to the predominantly white middle-aged crowds of people screaming at these meetings, trying to shut them down, but there's also a coded message to what I would call the loony toons, the fruit loops on the side that's really like playing Russian Roulette. You put a cartridge in the chamber, you spin, and once in a while it goes off. And we saw that happen with Dr. Tiller. We've seen that happen numerous times in this country with the violence against political leaders, whether it's Martin Luther King or whoever it might be. We have a history of being a well-armed, violent country. And so, really, I think that these calls are incredibly irresponsible. ...

"When you start comparing a democratically elected President who is not only our first black President but a moderate progressive to Adolph Hitler, you have arrived at a point where you are literally leaving a loaded gun on the table and saying, 'The first person who wants to use this, go ahead, be our guest.'

"Now, all these people, when something bad happens, will raise their holy hands in horror and say, 'Of course we didn't mean that. We were just talking about being American. It's American to protest.' B.S. They know exactly what's out there. There is a whole public out there that went out and stocked up on ammunition and guns, thinking Obama would take away their weapons. One such person shot down three policemen in Pittsburgh. I'd like to know exactly what Glen Beck, and Fox News, will say the morning after someone takes a shot at our President, or kills a senator or congressman. And if it's one of the people who, we find a little note in their car or the literature or their television watching habits who's tied to these people who are stirring the pot, or tied to these foundations that people like Dick Armey are running and trying to use insurance company money to make these fake grass roots movements, then we'll see what happens. But at that point, we'll be in a new zone, and it'll be too late.

"So my warning to my old friends on the right, and those who read my book Crazy for God know that without the work of my father and C. Everett Koop and myself there would have been no Pro-Life Movement, no Religious Right to be fomenting these things from, it's the same cast of characters: I came to a place in my life where I realized that I'd made a big mistake. Now we've crossed a line where hate and vitriol have gone to a place that is anti-democratic and anti-American. ... We've arrived at a point where enough is enough.

"So these people are hate-mongers, and they are distributing a kind of information on two levels: one, the lies about the health care system requiring euthanasia and all this nonsense, and on another level, as I say, leaving a loaded gun on the table, they're calling our President 'Hitler,' they're spreading this rhetoric, they're spreading these lies. It isn't just a question of being bad journalists any more. These are bad Americans, and they are putting all of us at risk."


I'd embed the video of this segment, but LiveJournal doesn't seem to support embedding MSNBC clips. Please, go to rachel.msnbc.com and watch the rest of Rachel's show from last Friday night, if you didn't already (and why not?) and if you can (please!) spare the 45 minutes or so.

Lovely. Nice Cover-Up, Mainstream Media.

Brad @ Burning Man
I'm delighted that the mainstream media have made a point of repeatedly telling us that the L.A. Fitness Club mass murderer, George Sodini, was motivated by his hatred of women over the fact that he hadn't gotten laid since the Reagan administration. Okay.

I'm less thrilled that I had to find out from Joan Walsh over at Salon.com, days later, what all of the newspapers knew, from looking at his blog, but decided not to tell us. Once she gave me the old (now taken down) URL, it was easy enough to pull it up out of the Google cache, and you can see it for yourself.

  1. First of all, he was laid off back in May, apparently. I'm not surprised; it was the first prediction I made. As in the movie Falling Down, most of the time you can trace the triggering event behind a mass murder or a spree killing to one of two things: a divorce with a nasty child custody battle, or a lay-off. I'm not saying the media should have made a big deal out of this, and I'm not saying that his employer is responsible for the slaughter. And I hope it's obvious that I'm not saying that unemployed men are justified in venting their anger on women, only that the public needs to be warned that some of them, probably quite a few of them, do. With the monthly unemployment numbers coming out in a few hours, we could use a reminder that spiraling unemployment has a human cost, too, in the rising number of angry people who feel that they have no prospect in life, who feel that they have nothing left to lose, who feel that they might as well take someone else down with them.

    Economists both progressive and libertarian are, as far as I can see, uniformly predicting a long "jobless recovery," with the real unemployment rate hovering at or just below 25% for years now. People could stand an early warning that this means that we are all in danger of violence from those who aren't surviving. There are not enough cops in this country to protect us, especially to protect women, from the level of chronic slaughter that we'll see for as long as the (pointless, useless, politicized for the last several decades) official unemployment rate is above 6%. For many reasons, but not least of which to stop the slaughter, we have got to put Americans back to work.

  2. More importantly, I'm actively angry that not one mainstream news outlet thought it was relevant to point out that Sodini started thinking about doing this at the peak of the 2008 election season, and began formally planning it on November 5th, and that the first reason given for why he intended to murder a large number of white women women was for race treason: because, like President Obama's mother, they were too busy having sex with black men to be available to white men like him.
I have long since lost track of how many right-wing, racist and/or anti-abortion, terrorist attacks we've had since the election. The newspapers and the network TV anchors are not doing us a favor by trying to hide this fact from the public; I know it's upwards of a dozen, not even counting the two Democratic congressmen who've gotten death threats in the last couple of days. I've said it before and I'll probably have occasion to say it again and again: "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment" (PDF) is turning out to be the "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" of 2009.
Brad @ Burning Man
As usual, I've waited a nice, long time to see if any additional facts came out after the arrest of (and consequent dismissal of charges against) Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and to see what other people, supposedly wiser than me, had to say about it. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if anybody, anybody in journalism, in the blogosphere, in academia, or in politics is capable of actually thinking, because an amazing amount remains unsaid. And since most people have failed to notice some of the most important details, if they were ever told them at all, and most of the people who have seen all of the details failed to think clearly about what most of them meant, it should hardly count as surprising that virtually everybody is full of crap on this subject ... except, ironically, the one man who's drawn the most grief over the incident, President Barack Obama, who got this one thing mostly right.

As with all disputed incidents, the place to start is with the facts that are not in dispute. Here are the facts that neither Dr. Gates, nor the neighbor who called the police on him, Lucia Whalen, nor the arresting officer, Sergeant James Crowley disagree on. Upon returning to Cambridge, Dr. Gates was driven home by car service; the driver was also black. Dr. Gates couldn't get the key to work on his front door, so he and the driver entered by the back door, and forced the front door open from the inside. Whalen, seeing two black men enter the house after failing to open the front door, called 911; while Dr. Gates was on the phone, Sgt. Crowley pulled up and asked him -- not ordered him, asked him -- to step outside. Dr. Gates declined, found out that Crowley considered him to be a burglary suspect, and angrily went to get his ID. Gates says that he gave Crowley both his Harvard ID, which contains a photograph plus his name and title, plus his Massachusetts driver's license; Crowley says that Gates gave him only the Harvard ID first and said, "don't you know who I am?," then had to be asked for his driver's license. Both agree that Gates then got really angry. Both then agree that Dr. Gates asked the sergeant for his name and badge number, as (neither disputes) is his right under Massachusetts law. Dr. Gates says the officer refused and walked away; Sgt. Crowley says that he gave the professor his name and number and Gates wasn't listening. The officer alleges that among the things Dr. Gates yelled was something about "your momma" and that Dr. Gates was behaving threateningly. The officer further alleges that Gates, who had by then followed the officer out onto the porch, was in danger of inciting a riot (the standard for charging someone with disorderly conduct under Massachusetts case law) among the bystanders, who consisted of the officer, his backup, the neighbor who called 911, and one other neighbor who was standing on the other side of the street with a cellphone camera. Because he allegedly believed that the 2 witnesses were about to riot, Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct.

I'm sorry, but the president got this one right the first time: Sergeant Crowley, however sterling his record to date, handled this one stupidly. President Obama won't go as far as to say that James Crowley is an idiot, but I will: Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley is an idiot, proven so by his own admissions.

Let's give Crowley the benefit of the doubt about part of this, just once, as a thought exercise. Let's suppose, even though he clearly isn't telling the truth about the disorderly conduct charge, and even though nobody has ever heard Dr. Gates say "your momma" in anger to anyone, let's imagine that he might have been telling the truth when he alleges that Gates, at least at first, only handed him his Harvard ID and asked, "Do you know who I am?" This is not a stupid question from a prima donna, this is an entirely legitimate question, because Henry Louis Gates isn't just any random black homeowner. He's a black homeowner who has lived in the neighborhood that Sgt. Crowley patrols for 18 years. But he isn't just any 18-year homeowner, he's an 18-year homeowner who has been a department chief at Cambridge's single most important employer for that whole 18 years. And he isn't just any senior management employee at the towns's single most important employer, he's Henry Louis Gates: MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" fellow, author or co-author of thirteen books and star, writer, and/or producer of eleven documentaries or documentary series for multiple networks, award-winning and heavily advertised on TV. I'm extraordinarily bad at recognizing faces, and I'm pretty sure I would have recognized Henry Louis Gates, ads for his specials have been on my TV almost as often as Billy Mays was.

But even if we give the officer some tiny shred of remaining benefit of the doubt, let's assume that he didn't trust himself to identify Dr. Gates, or even that he watches so little television and reads so little news that he had never heard of him. Once Gates gave him that Harvard ID card, Sergeant Crowley could now see with his own eyes that the man he was questioning was Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He then asked him for proof that he lived at this address? He was continuing to accuse a 59 year old cripple with multiple Ph.D.s of maybe having broken into somebody else's house to burgle it? Do a lot of wealthy elderly crippled Ph.D.s engage in daylight home-invasion burglaries in Cambridge, and I just don't know about it? Is this something the officer had any plausible excuse to be thinking? No? Then he's an idiot.

Damn straight Gates was angry. It didn't even happen to me, and I'm still angry about it. Oh, and trivia that I didn't know: Gates has especial reasons to be angry when this happens to him, it's happened before. The reason he left Duke University to move north, 18 years ago, was that in the deep south he ran into constant, repeated problems with white people who just flatly refused to believe that a black man owned a house as nice as the one he was living in, and he got sick of it. So here it is 18 years later, and a black man is President of the United States, and he's being called a possible burglar, despite his age, appearance, and almost two decades in the community? What is he supposed to think that the cop is thinking?

No, I know what the cop was thinking. He asked for that proof of address before he thought about what he was saying. But he couldn't bring himself to apologize, because to a certain kind of cop, ever apologizing for anything is "showing weakness." Many cops live in mortal terror of "showing weakness," since potential perps* civilians outnumber cops about 450 to 1, so they think the only way they can be safe is if every potential perp civilian lives in fear of all cops at all times, defers to all cops at all times on all issues even when the cop is clearly wrong. So Dr. Gates asked for his name and badge number. That was a threat, and the cop knew it: a threat to file a complaint, and probably file a federal lawsuit alleging infringement of civil rights. It's a threat I never make, anymore; I learned at a tender age that it escalates the tension, puts the cop on notice that he needs to start destroying evidence now, and is entirely pointless since you can get that same information from the dispatcher, even if you have to subpoena it to do so -- but it is a threat that Dr. Gates was both legally and morally in the right to make. Cops don't like being threatened, even when they're in the wrong and the other person has every legal right to threaten them. So he tried to put that complaining potential perp civilian in his place by cuffing him and dragging him down to the station, and then falsified a police statement to cover himself.

So even if he's not a racist, he clearly is a bully and an idiot.

If he goes ahead and follows through on that supposedly-accepted invitation he got from the President of the United States to sit down, over beers, with Dr. Gates and let the President mediate this between them? Something that probably isn't the President's job, but Dr. Gates is a long-time personal friend of his? And Crowley wants any chance of getting to keep his job, let alone his pension in a false arrest and civil rights infringement lawsuit that Dr. Gates is entirely within his rights to file? The first words out of his mouth need to be something on the close order of, "I was wrong. I screwed up. What I did was stupid. I won't do it again. Please forgive me." And if he's not man enough to say that, he's a disgrace to his uniform and his badge and his oath, no matter what his career record says.


* Footnote: I heard it once said that within a year on the job, every cop learns to divide the world into three categories: cops, perpetrators, and potential perpetrators. And that within five years on the job, most cops drop the 3rd category.
Sick Sad World
"Obama ousts AmeriCorps' IG who investigated friend," Ann Sanner and Pete Yost, Associated Press, 6/12/09.

Sacramento Mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson, a personal friend of the President, stole over $350,000 from the federal government's AmeriCorps "volunteer" program, and has agreed to pay it back. The investigation also turned up four separate teenagers, at least two of them legal minors, who accuse Kevin Johnson of using that money to try to get away with sexually molesting them. Inspector General Gerald Walprin of AmeriCorps was scathing about this in his May 13th, 2009 "Special Report to Congress from the Office of the Inspector General of the Corporation for National and Community Service" (PDF), which seems to have been prompted by the decision of AmeriCorps to let Johnson continue to receive AmeriCorps funding once he's made a token partial repayment and taken a few classes.

You don't get away with treating a personal friend of the President of the United States as if he were accountable for his actions, apparently: President Obama announced today that he is firing Walprin: "It is vital that I have the fullest confidence in the appointees serving as inspectors general. That is no longer the case with regard to this inspector general."

Nice friends you have there, Mr. President, and nice job of looking out for taxpayers, let alone children. I think I'm going to be sick.

Thank the Gods for the Feds

Brad @ Burning Man
Early Friday evening, a crushing weight was lifted off of my chest. The Tiller assassination hit me on a lot of levels, some of them personal, some of them political. But one in particular was weighing heavily on me: from where I was sitting, evidence of a cover-up by the Wichita police was inescapably clear, unambiguous, and 100% certain. This isn't something that I have the luxury of feeling surprised by, either. If you've read anything by any abortion provider, clinic employee, or clinic volunteer, or if you've spoken with any of them about this as I have, one thing you hear from very nearly all of them is this: cops don't care what happens to an abortion clinic or to an abortion provider. A disproportionately large number of the police chiefs in this country are, themselves, anti-abortion. But even the rest of them would quietly and secretly be delighted if the protesters and the terrorists they inspire managed to shut down their town's abortion clinic, because to a police chief, an abortion clinic is an "attractive nuisance."

So many people are willing to go to such illegal lengths to shut one down that there is no police department in this country that can afford what it would cost to fully investigate every crime against an abortion provider or an abortion facility. So even the best of them wish the problem would just go away, and the easiest way for the problem to just go away would be if the abortion providers and clinics moved out of their town, and became some other police department's problem. So while I wanted to scream with rage at the screen when I read that the Wichita police chief rushed to tell reporters that Roeder acted alone before Tiller's body had even been removed from the church, so early that even if it was true he couldn't possibly know that, I couldn't make myself feel surprised or shocked. At most, I was shocked that he was that sloppy and careless about giving away the fact that he had no intention of investigating to see if Roeder had any co-conspirators; shouldn't he at least have been ashamed to reveal that so early?

None the less, a substantial chunk of the anger that was gnawing at me and robbing me of my ability to sleep for more than 2 or 3 hours at a time was coming from my entirely justifiable fear that the rest of Roeder's terror cell were still at large, were still free to conspire against additional doctors and clinics, and once they found another willing patsy to do the last bit of dirty work and take the fall for them, they would kill again, and that none of the people whose job it is to do something about that were going to do so. So it came as an overwhelming relief when I found out, Friday evening, that the US Department of Justice had just put out a press release reading, in part:
The Department's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Kansas have launched a federal investigation into federal crimes in connection with the murder of Dr. George Tiller. The federal probe will consist of a thorough review of the evidence and an assessment of any potential violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE Act) or other federal statutes. ... The FACE Act was enacted by Congress in 1994 to establish federal criminal penalties and civil remedies for violent, obstructionist or damaging conduct affecting reproductive health care providers and recipients. "The Department of Justice will work tirelessly to determine the full involvement of any and all actors in this horrible crime, and to ensure that anyone who played a role in the offense is prosecuted to the full extent of federal law," said Loretta King, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division."
Thank all the holy gods, because this is something that the Wichita police department very deliberately, in the first few hours after the assassination, tried to prevent. In the first few hours after the shooting, they repeatedly told reporters that this was a crime by a Kansan with no links to anyone outside of Kansas, against a Kansan, within Kansas, with no part of the crime taking place across state lines, and therefore there was no federal jurisdiction. They didn't explicitly say "feds, back off," but they were pretty clearly unhappy that the BATF and the FBI responded to the 911 call from Dr. Tiller's church. And that left me very, very angry because if the Wichita police department was the only one that investigated this crime, I was pretty sure we were never going to get an answer to any of the following questions:
  1. Tiller was famous for never going anywhere without at least one armed bodyguard. Only a fairly small number of people knew that there was one exception, that he didn't bring his bodyguard with him to church. Given that Roeder lives in Kansas City, who did the surveillance that turned up this tidbit, and how did it get to Roeder?

  2. Furthermore, Tiller would only have been vulnerable on Sundays that he was an usher. Any time that he wasn't ushering, he would have been embedded in a crowd to big for Roeder to get through to get to him. Did Tiller usher every service? If not, how did Roeder know that Tiller would be ushering this service? Who knew that in advance? Most of the people I assume would know are pretty clearly above suspicion, like the deacons and the other ushers, but who prints the programs for Tiller's church?

  3. And here's a really ugly one. Even as an usher, there was only a very narrow window of time when Tiller and the other ushers would be alone in the lobby. Two minutes earlier, and the lobby would have been too crowded for Roeder to reach Tiller with a gun. Two minutes later, and the lobby would have been empty. And church schedules don't run on split-second accuracy; the start of a service can vary by 10 minutes or more. Judging by the photographs of the building that I've seen, there's no way for someone in the parking lot to see how full the lobby of the church is, so how did Roeder know exactly when to walk in, how did he know the exact minute that if he walked in there would be nobody between him and Tiller, unless someone in the congregation text messaged him with it or otherwise signaled him? Remember: months ago, Roeder himself suggested, on the Operation Rescue chat forums, that someone from that group infiltrate Dr. Tiller's church.

  4. When Roeder was arrested, reporters photographed his car, and visible on the top of a pile of papers on the dashboard was an envelope with the name and phone number of Operation Rescue "senior policy adviser" Cheryl Sullenger, who served a two year prison term in 1988 for the attempted bombing of an abortion clinic. Sullenger, who says that her violent days are behind her, has given at least two, maybe three conflicting stories to reporters about her contacts with Roeder. Was that phone number on the dashboard of Roeder's car after the assassination because he called her before the assassination? Or after? And what did they discuss?

  5. Within an hour of the crime, the description of Roeder and his car, with license plate number, were released to the media. Reporters found out where that car was registered and went there, and asked the neighbors if they'd seen that car. According to early press reports, the neighbors knew instantly who they meant, because the house was a local nuisance. So many people were constantly coming and going from that house, day and night, every day of the week, that the local neighbors bitterly joked that it needed a revolving door. Some, but only some, of the gatherings of people sounded like worship services. Question: Who were those people, and what did they know about Roeder's plans?

  6. Another complication: Roeder supposedly no longer lived at that address. It turns out that Roeder moved out of that house months ago, and was living across town in another part of Kansas City. So why was his car still there almost every night? Who does own that house, and what are they using it for?

  7. Roeder was arrested slightly over three and a half hours after the shooting, on the outskirts of Kansas City. According to Google Maps, it should have taken him only two and a half hours to drive that far. Where was he during the missing hour, and who was he with? Police say they fanned out and checked every hotel and motel in the area, and he wasn't there. His car was being looked for by every patrolling police car. Who hid him? Or did one or more police officers see him and let him pass?

  8. And given the relatively low number of interstate highways leaving Wichita, how did he get as far as Kansas City, especially if he didn't leave Wichita for an hour? Why didn't the cops catch him on his way out of town?

  9. Furthermore, given that Roeder saw one of the ushers photograph him, and given the likelihood that he saw the same usher photograph his car as he left the parking lot, why was Roeder driving towards his home in the Kansas City area? Did he really think he was going to get away with it? Or was he heading that direction to distract police attention from Wichita?

  10. Roeder spent a lot of time unemployed, recently, and at the time of the shooting his reported income was $1100 a month. But a third of that was being garnished to pay off a credit card he had defaulted on. And supposedly he lived alone. So how in the heck was he affording the gasoline to drive 150 miles each way from Kansas City to Wichita every day for Tiller's trial, when Tiller was accused of performing illegal late-term abortions on viable fetuses without medical necessity?

  11. Furthermore, Roeder's employer is given as Quicksilver Airport Delivery. Roeder had a past conviction for transporting a partially assembled pipe bomb, and was a known past associate of the local chapter of the Montana Freemen white-supremacist militia. Shouldn't a job at an airport have required a background check, and if so, how did he of all people pass one?

  12. Where did Roeder get a gun, if he was so broke? Who armed him? What did Roeder tell that person about why he wanted a gun?

  13. And one really, really big and ugly one: if Roeder only has $10 in the bank, why was he so fiercely determined to get a judge to set bail? Who did he think was going to put up that five million dollar bail for him?

  14. And finally, in light of all of the above, can anybody think of any non-sinister reason why the Wichita police department was in such a hurry to conclude that Roeder was a "lone nut" and in such a hurry to chase off the federal investigators?
Maybe, now that the feds are involved, we'll get some answers. But I already know this much for a fact: Scott Roeder did not act alone.

Before you comment, please read this blog's updated policy on commenting about abortion. Thank you.

What Did I Tell You?

Brad @ Burning Man
I didn't spend all of those years studying First Amendment law, or all of those years doing volunteer civil liberties work, without learning a thing or two. Which is why David Kravets' "U.S. Manga Obscenity Conviction Roils Comics World" (Wired "Threat Level" column, 5/28/09) came as exactly no shock to me. I'll bet quite a few of you can't say the same.

For those of you who don't want to (or can't) click through to the original article, let me summarize: in 2006, a (now) 39 year old Iowa manga collector named Christopher Handley ordered half a dozen volumes of "lolicon" manga from a retailer in Japan. They were intercepted by a US Customs Service inspector, and Handley was charged with importation and possession of child pornography, specifically "possession of any type of visual depiction, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, that depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct that is obscene." Yesterday, on advice of his attorney, he plead guilty to all charges. He faces a prison term of up to 15 years, a fine of up to $250,000, plus 3 years probation, and he will spend the rest of his life listed on the convicted sex offender registry.

No, we don't know what books he ordered, but according to the US Department of Justice press release ("Iowa Man Pleads Guilty to Possessing Obscene Visual Representations of the Sexual Abuse of Children", 5/20/09), "in May 2006, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) intercepted a mail package coming into the United States from Japan that was addressed to Handley. Inside the package was obscene material, including books containing visual representations of the sexual abuse of children, specifically Japanese manga drawings of minor females being sexually abused by adult males and animals. Pursuant to a search warrant, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) searched and seized additional obscene drawings of the sexual abuse of children at Handley’s residence in Glenwood."

I will also tell you that either Handley's lawyer Eric Chase is either grand-standing, or else he's flatly incompetent to practice First Amendment law, if it's true that he told Wired, "It’s probably the only law I’m aware of, if a client shows me a book or magazine or movie, and asks me if this image is illegal, I can’t tell them." Lawyers who specialize in obscenity cases, both pro-civil-liberties and anti-pornography, track jury verdicts and can tell you with nearly 100% reliability whether what they're looking at would be ruled obscene by a jury, and yes, I'm telling you right now, no jury has ever not indicted and convicted for visual portrayals of children having sex. The same is equally true of equally graphic portrayals of bestiality, necrophilia, urolalia, scat play, rape, or simultaneous sex and torture. To anybody who actually knows what they're talking about, this isn't even controversial, and if Eric Chase didn't know that, and didn't research the case law enough to know that, Handley had an idiot for an attorney. Or, alternatively, he does know it, but is counting on you not to know it.

If Handley had a case, that case would have depended on an "artistic merit" defense; under US obscenity law, no image is obscene if it has "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." (1973 Miller v California.) The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund says that they consulted on the case and lined up expert witnesses to testify to the artistic merits of "lolicon" manga. Apparently Chase, and Handley, concluded that the jury wasn't going to buy it. They may well be right; at least one past jury in a high-profile, well funded, well defended case made it clear that if the subject matter is offensive enough, they don't care how famous the artist is or what the critics say about the importance of the work, it's still obscene.

Told you so. Lots of you didn't believe me, but I did tell you.


P.S. Note the date of the interception of Handley's manga. The US Customs Service, and presumably thereby the US Postal Service, have known what retailers in Japan sell this stuff to American buyers for at least three years. Can your library survive a search warrant? If not, you've got work to do. Hope you own a cross-cut paper shredder and an indoor fireplace. Otherwise, you're betting the rest of your life that they won't pick you to be the next person they make an example out of.

You might keep being lucky. There are a lot of lolicon manga collectors in the US. Only one of them has been convicted, so far. Is it worth it to you to keep betting those odds? If so, be my guest. But if you are going to do so, may I politely suggest, not as a lawyer but as someone who studies the history of these things? Shut the hell up about it. Tell no one, especially not through an online email service or web forum or blog, no matter how good you think your anonymity is (because it isn't), that you are doing so. Because that's just asking for it. When prosecutors are looking to hand out search warrants, people who brag about their crimes in public are the first ones they target.

Unless, of course, you have a martyr complex and want to be a registered sex offender for the rest of your life, because taking a stand As a Matter of Principle is that important to you. If it is? Again, be my guest. If you're that determined to be a martyr, though, don't expect me to stand up for you.

P.P.S. Every time I write about anything like this, people think I'm standing up for the law or defending the prosecutors. I'm not. If it were up to me, you could collect drawings (or even pictures or movies) of anything you want. I don't write this stuff because I'm anti-porn, or anti- any "Forbidden Lore." I write this stuff because ignorance of the laws you live under appalls and offends me. I write this stuff because I'm tired of self-entitled idiots who've never participated in democracy in any way stubbornly and naively insisting that the law is whatever they want it to be, that juries have to agree with them about what should and shouldn't be legal.

If you want to enjoy an illegal hobby, it behooves you to know the law and your chances of acquittal if you're caught. If you want your illegal hobby to be legal, you've got work to do. Saying stupid crap like, "yaoi and hentai and lolicon manga are entirely legal because they're just lines on paper" doesn't make it true, it just makes you someone who doesn't know what he's talking about. If you want all lines on paper to be legal, your nearest ACLU would love you to donate and volunteer. You're not going to achieve that goal by whining about it in your LiveJournal, nor on mine. I'm just saying.

Don't Read Me Today

Brad @ Burning Man
Not when two other bloggers have written the kind of thing I try to write, at least as well or better, on topics I usually cover. I read the Drug Monkey's "Your Pharmacist May Hate You" blog, and so should you (also available on LJ as drugmonkey_rss), but even if you don't, you should read today's article on why you should believe that the health insurance industry's offer to reduce health care costs is a flat out lie, "Big Pharma and the Health 'Insurance' Industry Come Up with a Comedic Routine That Leaves Me in Stitches," (drugmonkey.blogspot.com, 5/12/09).

And, found via solarbird, you should also read Gonzalo Lira's guest post at Zero Hedge, on why you should not trust the Obama administration on the economy, "Why I Am Freaking Out" (zerohedge.blogspot.com, 5/11/09).

I endorse both of these messages, and I'll add one thought for the day: Regulatory capture is a form of coup d'etat.

Taking a Week Off from the News

Voted for Dean
The funny thing is, I watch the news as if it were my job. I'm a news junkie. But I've been stewing in murderous rage most of this week, and I know why, and I know what I have to do about it. What I have to do about it is, stop reading and watching the news altogether for a week. OK, I may log into the Sunday NYT and read the features section. Or, if it's on the same subject, I may not. See, here's another funny thing: I'm becoming the guy everybody always thought I was. My facial expressions look angry even when I'm not; I'm prone to talking in an emotionally-drained sounding monotone even when I'm not, so all my life I've been confronted, over and over again, by people who tell me that I'm a very angry person, and I need to do something about that. Well, I wasn't, before, not really. Anger's hard to sustain, for me; it just bleeds away into no-longer-giving-a-crap within days or weeks if I don't keep getting prodded at. Well, guess what? I keep getting prodded at.

Here's the reason why I have to take a week off from watching the news. What we have seen, since Tuesday, has been the exact thing I've been bitching about for years about the Columbia Journalism School model of "professional" journalism: the belief that every news story has two sides, that the two sides are of equal value, that representatives of both sides should be quoted equally respectfully, that it is the job of sources and not journalists to determine if either or both sides are lying, and that it should always be left up to the reader to decide which side they want to believe. So ever since the Obama administration grudgingly gave in to the Freedom of Information Act request for "the torture memos," every journalistic outlet, but especially the newspapers and the network news, have been full of the same narrative: Side 1 says that these are evidence of intent to commit torture, so we should resolve to never do that again, but we certainly shouldn't "criminalize policy differences." Side 2 says that there was no torture, and it wouldn't matter if it was, because a "necessity defense" applies. And in all the mainstream news outlets, the stories mostly end there. Although there may be an article, way back in the paper (but absolutely not on the network news except during the opinion shows) that says that there are a tiny few people in side 3 who say that these memos are prima facie evidence of torture and that everybody who could have stopped this but didn't should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but the article then goes on to quote sources from side 1 and side 2 who say that these few people are "radical leftists" and shouldn't be listened to.

And if I keep hearing that, the very least that will happen is that I will go stark raving mad, screaming through the streets. If I keep hearing it even longer, without a vacation from it, I may even go on a killing spree. Because that narrative has me angrier than I have ever been in my entire life. What an honest god damned journalist would admit, if one could be found willing to research the facts and then report the facts in public, is that there is no god-damned controversy about any of the fucking facts at all, and only the criminals who were caught in the act, some literally red-handed, say otherwise.

FACT: As a matter of ample court precedent, every single form of "enhanced interrogation technique" they described in those memos, that they confessed to in writing, is something that past criminals have been convicted of in court as torture. It's not a matter of opinion whether or not locking someone in a stress position until their muscles ache is torture. It's not a matter of opinion whether or not slamming people into the wall over and over again is torture, no matter how careful you are not to hurt them. It's not a matter of opinion whether or not punching them in the stomach is torture. It is not a matter of opinion whether or not repeatedly dousing them in near-freezing water is torture. And it is, for gods' sake, absolutely and in no way a matter of opinion whether or not water-boarding is torture. All of these issues have been settled in courts of law, both here in the US and in US-run trials of other countries' war criminals, over and over again. An honest god-damned journalist, if one could be found, would privilege the facts over the opinion; if they did feel any "professional" need to let the criminals who did this make their defense, they would also show not somebody else's contradictory opinion but the actual proven facts to the contrary, and label them as facts.

FACT: As a matter of unambiguously settled US law, it is not up to Barack Obama or anybody else whether or not the people who are accused of doing this should face trial. No honest journalist would ask Obama, or Cheney, or Rush Limbaugh, or anybody for their opinion on whether or not accused torturers, or whether or not people accused of ordering torture, or whether or not people who are accused of facilitating torture, or whether or not people who attempted to cover up torture, should be charged, nor whether or not people who attempted to obstruct the prosecution of those people should also be charged. It's settled law: they must all be charged. The United States ratified the UN Convention on Torture, and that treaty does not allow any excuse whatsoever to not charge people accused of these crimes. There are only two questions about whether or not criminal investigations, leading to criminal trials for the indicted, will occur that an honest journalist would ask. An honest journalist would ask Eric Holder whether or not he intends to obey the law, as required by the UN Convention on Torture. And they would ask Barack Obama what he intends to do if Eric Holder does not. Nothing else about "should there or shouldn't there be prosecutions?" is an open question.

FACT: The people who are accused should not be making their defense in the media, or among the punditocracy, or from the podiums of civic forums, or on their blogs. Nor should they be making their defense in front of some flatly-illegal "truth and reconciliation" committee. The UN Convention on Torture was written, signed, and ratified specifically to take those options off of the table, lest our government or any other succumb to that temptation. There is a forum for the accused to make their defense. If they want to deny that they did what they're accused of doing, they may do so; if they want to deny that what they did meets the elements of the crime charged, they may do so; if they want to argue a "necessity defense" (even though the laws in question admit no "necessity defense" and no court has ever so ruled), they may do so: in court. There is nothing whatsoever political about it when the Attorney General presents evidence of a serious crime to a grand jury; there is nothing political about it if or when the grand jury indicts. Once the grand jury indicts, all the accused are promised their day in court. They may bring as much legal or expert assistance as they like. They are entitled to full procedural protection. They are entitled to voir dire and all other protections against biased juries; they are entitled to all protection against conflict of interest in the judiciary; they are entitled to appeal. But under the terms of the UN Convention on Torture it is just plain simply and factually and unambiguously not legal to settle the matter in any other way; asking people for their "opinion" on how this matter should be settled is dishonest and shoddy journalism.

I personally think, based on the evidence we have seen so far, that there is no question whatsoever that at least half a dozen top Bush White House officials are guilty of ordering torture; that no fewer than several dozen CIA and military personnel (but, praise the gods, no FBI personnel; thank all holy gods that Robert Mueller had at least that much integrity, or at least self preservation) are guilty of committing torture; I think that the four top ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are very probably guilty of covering up torture; I think that President Barack Obama would most likely be convicted by an honest impeachment trial of attempted obstruction of the investigation of torture and that he should therefore be impeached. I could also very possibly be wrong about all of these opinions. I'm also aware of the fact that according to today's Pew Research poll, 75% of all Americans think that we should disobey the UN Convention on Torture and at least occasionally torture prisoners, and don't think that that opinion isn't angering me almost as much as the journalistic coverage of this issue. These are all matters of opinion, and I do not object to them being reported as such.

But I need at least the better part of a week to calm down, and I cannot do that if journalists and members of the commentariat keep treating matters of settled fact and settled law as mere "policy differences." If I try, my rage absolutely will consume me even further than it already has.


Addendum: Why are we doing this? All I can say about that is that Sara Robinson is a lot more generous about this than I am. But you absolutely should read her thought-provoking article "The Truth about Consequences: Conservatives, Progressives, and Accountability Moments," Campaign for America's Future (ourfuture.org), 4/21/09.

Blowing Rainbows

Brad @ Burning Man
Okay, I'm serious: you need to stop letting people with a vested interest in the stock market, including the President and his economic team, blow rainbows up your ass. This is not the bottom. We are not anywhere near the bottom. If you followed my advice and you've been reading solarbird's journal, and looking up the parts that you don't understand, you know this already. But let me lay out for you the important economic indicators that the news media here in America have completely and utterly glossed over:

The Dollar is doomed. The news media have been full of reports that "the dollar is up" against foreign currencies, as if you're supposed to be reassured by this. If you are feeling reassured by this, let me clarify something for you. Know anything about how the national debt works? The federal government buys money by issuing fixed-length bonds called T-bills, which they auction off. They offer to sell anybody who wants to bid, oh, let's say $100,000 in 10 years: how much will you pay them for it now? Annualize the interest rate on that, and that's the interest rate on the national debt. Still with me? Because they're fixed-term bonds, some of them come due every couple of weeks. And we're obviously not paying off those bonds; the US government hasn't paid a principal payment since the dot-com bubble, when Clinton (wisely) chose to use the capital gains taxes on the churn in inflated dot-com stocks to make payments rather than give Newt Gingrich the tax cuts he demanded. So what they do instead is they sell another bond, and use it to pay off the one that just expired. Now, the news part: about a month ago, so few people showed up to bid that the auctioneer wasn't getting what the government considered an acceptable interest rate. If we kept paying that rate at every auction from now on, our interest rate would have at least doubled, and interest on the national debt is the 3rd largest line item in the federal budget, just barely behind military spending and Social Security. No way we could pay that. So Federal Reserve chairman Bernanke announced that if not enough people were showing up to bid, the Federal Reserve Bank would buy up to $3 trillion (three million million) in T-bills itself. Where does the Federal Reserve get that money? They invent it. This is the reality behind the symbol "running the printing presses." How much is $3 trillion? Well, US GDP is about $10 trillion, so it's about 30% of this year's GDP. Since the GDP is going down, not up by 30%, this means that relative to any actual goods, the value of the money in your pocket just dropped 30% ... if Bernanke has to go through with it. So far he hasn't had to spend the whole $3 trillion to keep our interest rate pushed down, so far he hasn't inflated his way out of our national debt. But he means to, and that is what's behind China's panicky calls for an alternate global reserve currency. What this means for you: 30% inflation, across the board.

Corollary: Too bad we wasted all of that money, we could really use it now. We've spent about $2.75 trillion (counting, but not limited to, TARP) in direct capital assistance to the major money center banks. It's not enough. How much will be enough? I'm reading estimates of $6 to $8 trillion. If the banks are telling the truth, then that $2.75 trillion was good money thrown after bad, because there isn't going to be another $6 to $8 trillion to give them. Which means, among other things, that we're not getting that $2.75 trillion back, but that's not the horror of the situation. The horror of the situation is that when Barack Hoover Obama finally figures out what he should be doing, that $2.75 trillion, plus the roughly half a trillion we've spent in Iraq under the previous administration that was also for nothing, won't be there for him. He'll either have to further deflate the currency, or go without. Either way, we're screwed. How screwed?

Nothing has stemmed the acceleration in foreclosures. I spent much of last month on the edge of my seat, waiting for good news I could share with you. I was pretty sure it would be coming some time last month, because at the end of January, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo all announced 60 to 90 day moratoriums on foreclosures to wait and see what the new administration's plan for cleaning up the mortgage mess would be. So by definition, it seemed to me, January would turn out to have been the peak for foreclosures ... but it wasn't. Foreclosures went up, not down, in February. I have no idea how, but they did. Then in February the President announced his mortgage rescue plan. Effective March 4th, people who were in danger of foreclosure would be able to get help from the government to save their homes, so we had reason to hope that finally, at least, the March numbers would be better than February's. Well, we won't know the March foreclosure numbers for another couple of weeks, but we already know enough to know that it won't be good news. In the last couple of days, two reports on housing sales came out that usually track within a few percent of each other; this time, there was a huge disparity. One report said that sales of existing houses were way up. The other said they were even or maybe slightly down. What's the difference? The second one doesn't count foreclosures. That the gap between the two reports increased tells us that yet again, despite the President's housing plan, foreclosures went up again in March, not down. Nor is it going to decelerate in April, either. There's a reason for that, too.

The President has declared the big banks to be above the law. On at least two occasions in the last month, President Obama has announced that his commitment to saving Citibank and Bank of America is "absolute." The stock market is thrilled. You shouldn't be: that's the last nail in the coffin of the President's anti-foreclosure plan. Remember my pointing out that without further bail-out money, they were all insolvent, and under US law, they'd have to be closed? Remember the President saying that he was conditioning any further help for the banks on their participation in his housing plan? Guess what happened in the last week? A report came out explaining that the reason that foreclosures are still rising is that none of the big banks has agreed to accept the "voluntary" interest rate cuts. So, no more bailouts? You wish; where do you think all the AIG money has been going? You were told that, too, remember? So, the President lied. He was bluffing. But remember, there just plain isn't enough money, even the Federal Reserve can't print enough money, to actually render these banks legally solvent under US law. Which means that the President also lied when he promised to faithfully perform the duties of the President of the United States: he is not going to let the FDIC do what the law requires them to do, namely close insolvent banks. His commitment to their ability to continue flouting that law is "absolute." Not only that, he's going to help them violate the law some more.

The SEC is now officially replacing the fraudulent ratings agencies as the fraud facilitator of first resort. This last week, the SEC nudge-and-a-wink outright told the banks how to commit shareholder fraud. Step 1: Price their CDOs at such a high price that no sane private investor would pay that. Step 2: Use the fact that nobody bought any as proof that the markets are "frozen." Step 3: Invoke the SEC rule that lets them use "mark to model" accounting when "markets are frozen." Step 4: Value the assets, for legal capital asset requirement purposes and shareholder reporting purposes, using the same proven to be false mathematical model of what these CDOs "should" be worth. It's working, too; stocks in the big banks were up several percent yesterday. Working for the fraudsters, I should say, not you; those banks are still going to fail, they do not have enough assets to cover deposits, and the FDIC does not have enough money on hand to pay off the default. So the Federal Reserve will have to step in and print that next $6 to $8 trillion, after all. So that 30% inflation? That was just the first bump. It jumps to over 50% when the banks finally collide with reality. And finally:

Your boss already knows all of this. He, unlike you, reads the business pages, and so he knew all of what I just told you already. And he knows what it all means. Which is why, by the same measure of unemployment used during the Great Depression, the real unemployment number, as calculated by Shadow Government Statistics (shadowstats.com), is about 19.8%. Even the only somewhat fraudulent U-6 "real" (but not really real) unemployment number, available on the Department of Labor's website as of last night, looks like this:



(The U-6 has only been available there for about a week. They added it to those reports at my request. No, really; I got an email from the Bureau of Labor Statistics personally thanking me for suggesting it, and they implemented it immediately thereafter. Disconcerting. I wish the rest of the Obama administration was that much on the ball.)

By comparison? As Jess Bachman of the indispensable WallStats.com reminded me, via a poster made for mint.com, at this exact same point in the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was 8.9%. We're only one year into this Depression; it took four years for the Great Depression to reach 20% unemployment. What's more, the rate is constant over the last three months, at about 9/10ths of a percent per month. Which means that we hit the peak unemployment rate for the Great Depression some time around this September. If you look at the county-by-county unemployment map over at the New York Times website, you realize that it's already that bad now in most of Michigan, much of the South, in parts of the desert southwest, and in inland California. Now do you understand why the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the go-to journalist on the subject of militia violence, Dave Neiwert over at Orcinus, have both been reporting increases in recruiting for right-wing militant groups in the US? Including inside the US military? We could see the first mutiny against the federal government since Shay's Rebellion this winter.

Keep in mind, I'm not predicting a successful overthrow of the US government this year. Neither the Banker's Plot, nor Huey Long's Poor People's Army, nor the CIO's general strike, were successful in overthrowing the US government during the Great Depression. Also remember that one of the biggest places we're hiding unemployment people from the U-6 unemployment estimate is on SSDI for mental illness, which was already increasing in membership by 40,000 people per year before this year; the bad news, we can't go on like that, the good news, for as long as we do, it staves off riots. Call it another couple of months to a year before the threat of violence gets really serious. But nothing I've seen in the last two months has given me any reason to think it will take any longer than that before we have mutiny, insurrection, secession attempts, runaway inflation, brownouts or blackouts in the power grid, and conceivably even scattered food riots by late 2010.

I could be wrong. We could wake up on Monday morning and find out that Bernanke, Summers, Geithner, and all the rest of the Bush administration/Democratic Leadership Council holdovers in the Obama administration have tendered their resignations. Next Friday evening, the FDIC could borrow additional manpower from the US Marshals Service and actually obey US law, actually close down Citibank and the rest of the corporate scofflaws and stop the bleeding, selling the assets they're servicing to banks that will go along with the President's mortgage foreclosure mitigation plan, for whatever we can get; even if we have to loan them the money, it'll be cheaper than continuing to bail out the existing banks. (This is not a radical suggestion. This is US law. This is routine procedure when the law is being obeyed. Under routine procedure, it should have happened no later than 90 days after the banks were notified they were out of compliance with their capital asset requirements, back in April of 2007. They've been getting away with evading US law that long, under now two Presidential administrations.) And if the gods are truly kind to America, somebody could actually get through to President Obama and to the Democrats in Congress that the absolute last thing Americans of any social class need right now is another hand-out; what we need are jobs, even if the government has to print the money to hire us; if they're going to print the money and hand it out anyway, shouldn't the taxpayers get some work out of those of us, myself included, who are getting it?

But you'd be an absolute total idiot to assume that any of that is going to happen, let alone all of it.

The G-20 Not-News

Brad @ Burning Man
I've seen people complaining about the news media focusing so much of their coverage on what the various world leaders' wives were wearing, and whether or not the Obamas technically violated British lèse majesté laws, instead of the "real news" from the G-20 Summit. Don't be silly. That was the "real news" from the G-20 Summit. Nothing else that happened there was actually news.

For one thing, as I was warning people who asked me about it all week, it was 29 world leaders and their entourages meeting for 36 hours: except that it was less than that, because it was two evenings and one working day. And most of that day was scheduled for entirely ceremonial functions, group photos and press appearances and so forth. Nothing got done at the G-20 Summit itself. It was entirely a publicity exercise. That's a mild indictment, as such things go, though. Influencing public opinion, campaigning on behalf of agreed-upon solutions, is in fact a legitimate part of the job of any nation's leader, and doing publicity stunts like summits is part of how you do that.

There was, of course, an official G-20 agreed-upon statement, even if it was actually negotiated by people far below the presidential level from the 29 attending countries, and over the preceding weeks, not the day of the event: the 2009 London Summit Communiqué. But it contains no actual news, either, for all that desperate business journalists tried hard to squeeze some whey out of that stone. In a nutshell, what it really consists of is America telling the rest of the world, "Screw you!" and the rest of the world telling America, "no, screw you, buddy!" Which is not exactly news, although it does technically qualify as an agreement: we all agree not to do what anybody actually asked.

America to World, "Screw You:" Okay, yes, we grudgingly admit that we will include hedge funds in our regulatory structure, even though no hedge fund played any part in this fiasco. We know why you're scared of hedge funds: they call you on it when you do something that isn't actually going to work, and short your bonds and your currencies. Since we're in the middle of something that nobody in their right mind thinks is actually going to work, though, this time we're on your side. But as for the thing you really wanted the most, some international body like the IMF to replace the SEC and all other global market regulatory and investigatory agencies? Screw you. Never going to happen. The closest we're ever going to even think about coming to that is an agreed-upon set of guidelines for such national agencies to follow. And we're withholding judgment on that much until we see the actual guidelines.

World to America, "No, Screw You:" Okay, yes, they all grudgingly agree that all the world's manufacturing companies are going to go bankrupt during the period of high global unemployment that's begun unless a lot of cash gets handed out for people to buy manufactured goods. They are not, however, going to do that themselves. What they have all agreed is that we should hand out stimulus money to Americans, while they hand out subsidies via their national banks to their local manufacturers: they make things and get paid, Americans buy things and spend money, that's how they all agree the world should work. And then, when even higher American unemployment wrecks our currency, they can come in and buy up anything of value that remains in the ruins.

See? Everybody agrees.

Now here's what I say. This "Americans are the purchasers of last resort" thing has got to end, and it has got to end now. There was some marginal justification for it back in the early 1970s, after we'd used our post-WWII domination to loot the 3rd world of most of its raw materials and exploited the Old World and Japan as our captive markets. But it has long passed the point of sustainability. This thing of every country in Asia and Latin America, and even some parts of Europe, keeping wages low so that nobody there can buy American goods or even locally-made goods, and selling the goods that their people make to Americans at government-subsidized prices, and calling it "protectionism" or "trade war" whenever we don't go along with this scam? And then expecting the US to fund 99% of NATO's expenses, while they spend any of the money they didn't spend on defense that's left over after subsidizing their industries on national health care, and using that to "prove" their moral superiority? If it doesn't end soon, the rest of the world is going to lose America as a dumping ground for their manufacturing capacity anyway, when America burns down, tips over, and sinks into the swamp.

But then, that's been the whole world's policy since the late 1970s. And Barack Hoover Obama with his all-Wall-Street economic team, like every President we've had since Reagan, thinks that what we have now is a "free market" and is terrified to "tamper with the free market" for fear of "contracting global trade during a recession." (Really? Global trade? Global trade in what? What, that we make, are they buying right now? Are they going to impose trade sanctions on the American food they make up reasons not to import, the American cars they don't import, the "American" computers that are actually made in Singapore and Hong Kong?) But that's been US policy since Reagan. We didn't need a G-20 Summit communiqué to tell us that, either.

So, yeah, if we're going to talk about the G-20 Summit, by all means, let's talk about fashion and diplomatic protocol. It bores me, I don't actually care, but it's far more newsworthy than the actual G-20 Summit "agreement" ever could be.

"When Will Everything Return to Normal?"

Brad @ Burning Man
I'm hearing a disturbing amount of optimism. I hear it from my friends. I read it in the newspapers and the blogs. I see it and hear it coming from half (but only half) of the economists, nearly all of the CEOs, and the entire Obama administration economic team: the worst is almost over.

These optimists are the people who believe, or at least appear to believe, what they are asking us to believe, these ideas that they want us to take for granted as long-proven facts, that they want us to bet all of our futures on, that they want us to plan our lives forever around:
  1. There was, and is, nothing fundamentally wrong with the economic principles of Reaganomics. The "free market" is always better than government intervention, and for everything.

  2. It is absolutely essential that taxes on corporations and on capital gains remain as low as humanly possible, in order to keep from draining money out of highly productive companies and wasting it on less-productive endeavors.

  3. The vast majority of businessmen, especially in the Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate sectors of the economy (I didn't coin the acronym), are the smartest people in the world; that's how they came to be entrusted with that much money. Nearly all of them are honest; the rest can be kept honest with minor changes to our accounting and reporting rules. Therefore we should give them whatever they ask for, because they're probably right.

  4. In particular, when these very smart and very productive people tell us that only the biggest banks are worth saving, and that there is no reasonable upper limit to the size of any bank, and that we ought to allow as tiny an oligopoly to control our FIRE economy as can be arranged, we should believe them.

  5. There was no real estate "bubble." Houses became more vastly more valuable because we freed up money that would have been spent on other things, like expensive American-made food and clothing and children's toys and toothpaste and electronics and cars. That's why the old rules about what people can afford to pay for a house are just wrong, so it is entirely natural that housing prices went up, and will continue to go up as we outsource more and more of our production to cheaper and cheaper countries.

  6. There is nothing wrong with the fact that average American wages have declined relative to inflation during and over the same span of time that worker output per hour doubled relative to inflation, because real Americans don't make most of their money from wages, they make the bulk of their money from investments. Wages are for losers.

  7. It therefore stands to reason that the "collapse" of the "housing bubble" was no such thing. We are a "nation of whiners" having a "mental recession," a "crisis of faith" not a crisis of capitalism. This crisis of faith was brought about by a few bad actors who engaged in fraud. Once we identify those people and weed them out of the FIRE sector of the economy, and put in place simple accounting rules and improved reporting requirements so that the private sector FIRE guys can spot each others' fraud in time to notify the rest of us and avoid it, no further changes will be needed to bring back the status quo ante, the booming global economy of, say, 2003-2006.

  8. Once we do that, housing prices will return to their 2006 prices or higher immediately, and resume increasing at the rate they were increasing before April 2007. The rise in foreclosures that started then, and the wave of resulting bank failures, were entirely caused by misguided government "mark to market" accounting rules, not any fundamental problem with the underlying economy.

  9. Once we do that, Chinese factory employees can continue putting their savings into bank accounts at home, and those bank accounts can continue to be loaned to American banks at low interest rates indefinitely, because they can uniquely trust us to return their money. That is why your real estate prices will continue to appreciate indefinitely.

  10. Because housing prices will continue to increase indefinitely, there is no reason for anybody's wages to go up in order to afford a house. They can just sell their existing house for an ever increasing profit and use that money to trade up to a house that will, itself, continue to appreciate at double-digit rates forever. Nor will you ever have to make an actual down payment or pay even a token amount of principle; you can just pay your loans with the appreciation on the house.

  11. Because manufacturing workers all over the world will have nowhere safe to invest their money other than here in the US, and because housing prices will always skyrocket, there is no need for the United States to try to be self-sufficient in anything. Nor should we want to have any jobs in the United States making anything. Manufacturing is a job for inferior people. Real Americans will work in the FIRE economy; the few Americans so inferior that they cannot find jobs in FIRE will mow the Real Americans' lawns, or maybe all go on Social Security Disability Insurance. But that's okay; once we make these few minor reporting changes, America will be wealthy enough that we can afford that, too.

  12. Once make those minor reporting changes, those same Chinese banks will also continue to buy however much US government debt we want to sell to them, and then some. That is why the USA will always be able to afford to keep spending 90% of all the world's military expenses, which is why whenever any trouble breaks out where the UN and/or NATO want "boots on the ground," whether Afghanistan or Darfur or anywhere else, it will always be American boots. We will never stop spending that money, and it will never run out. Nor will any American, rich or poor, be asked to pay any taxes towards covering those war costs; it will all be paid for by the endless appreciation of our FIRE economy.

  13. Most importantly, since no actual mistakes or errors were made by the private sector, only the crimes of a few bad apples and misguided regulatory mistakes of the hostile-to-business Bush (the Younger) administration, it is absolutely essential that we must not change anything important about the American economy, just make the barest minimum reform necessary to catch the few bad apples. If we change anything important about the US economy, we risk "creeping socialism," leading to an economy as dysfunctional as the old Soviet Union's; we know this because intrusive government, not the vast percentage of its GDP that the Soviet Union was spending on the Cold War, was what wrecked their economy, just as we know that labor unions, not the unsustainable costs run up during the Vietnam War and by the OPEC oil embargo, were what lead to the stagflation of the 1970s. If we change anything major about the US economy, we also risk making Americas as lazy as the Soviets were, by taking away their aspiration to some day be as wealthy as CEOs now are.
And the people who believe all of this had better be right. Because we have bet the absolute upper limit of the US government's current ability to borrow on it, and the Federal Reserve Bank has announced an intention to print several trillion dollars of new money above and beyond what we can currently borrow, and we are betting it all on just this scenario.

If any one of those thirteen statements is wrong? And, frankly, I think they all are? There will not be a "return to normal" in September of this year. Nor will it come by September of 2012. And maybe not for several years after that. If any one of those statements are wrong, we are screwed.
Brad @ Burning Man
There have been very few times in modern history that I have wished I was the proverbial "fly on the wall" secretly eavesdropping on a historical event, however major or minor. I figure that, contrary to most conspiracy theory, the motives of the people involved are generally far from inscrutable, their goals seldom secret, and their agreements and joint actions that matter generally become public knowledge in a matter of years, or even days. But I'm having one of those moments now. And, bizarrely, for the second time in less than a year, one person was involved in both conversations. The content of both of those conversations have remained incomprehensibly successfully secret, considering their importance, and I'm dying to know.

Yesterday, President Obama flew up to Canada and back for the traditional first foreign state visit of almost every President, to Canada. You can see a typical media account of it in the New York Times dated 11/19/09, "Obama Makes Overtures to Canada's Leader" by Sheryl Gay Stolberg. But that account has a surprisingly large gap in it. It turns out the White House's official blog "live-blogged" the visit, and here's the President's schedule as it happened:
  • 10:35 to 11:32 am: Obama in closed-door meeting with Governor-General Jean.
  • 11:32 to 11:47 am: Motorcade from her office to Parliament.
  • 11:47 am to 2:42 pm: Private meeting and working lunch with "Prime Minister" Harper.
  • 2:42 to 3:38 pm: Joint press conference, Obama and Harper.
I understand that as a ceremonial matter, it makes sense for President Obama to meet briefly with the Governor-General. But what did they find to talk about for almost an hour in private? He met with Harper for almost 3 hours, and we were told in detail what they talked about. He met with the Governor-General for about an hour; neither he, nor she, has said word one about what the subject of their meeting was.

I will admit up front that I am still under-educated about, and slightly confused by, the Westminster system and Canadian politics. That being said, this is interesting to me for the reason that I (intentionally snidely) put the words "Prime Minister" in quotes with regard to Harper, because this isn't the first time one of those two has had a secretive closed-door conversation with Governor-General Jean. Harper had his first, a two hour meeting with her on the morning of December 4th, and it lead to what Wikipedia is currently euphemistically calling the "2008-2009 Canadian parliamentary dispute." In a smidgen under two hours, Prime Minister Harper somehow persuaded the Governor-General, allegedly on her own authority and without even consulting with Queen Elizabeth, to do something almost completely unprecedented since the Magna freaking Carta: to suspend a Parliament against their will, without them having first asked her to do so.

It is my understanding that, for centuries now, the sovereign's calling of Parliament into session, giving them permission to meet and an agenda of things the sovereign will allow them to talk about, and then dismissing them at the sovereign's will, have been purely ceremonial legal fictions. And yet, this was specifically done to prevent a no-confidence vote for long enough for Harper to figure out some way to break the coalition against him, to keep the Conservatives in power against the majority will of the Canadian voters. That was months ago, and neither he nor she has said word one, yet, about what in the heck it was that he said to her that persuaded her to precipitate a constitutional crisis. So I hope you'll excuse me for wishing that I had been a fly on the wall in that conversation, and then again when she met equally secretively with our President before his meeting with "Prime Minister" Harper. Mind you, I'm not accusing any of the three people involved of anything dastardly, I'm just bursting with curiosity as to what in the heck those conversations were about?

If nothing else, I'm oddly baffled that a celebrated career journalist elevated to what is (under the Treaty of Westminster) presumed to be an almost entirely ceremonial post has been so oddly secretive, and even more oddly successful at keeping her secrets. I find it weirdly and not entirely pleasantly fascinating.

The President's Definition of "Voluntary"

Brad @ Burning Man
As you can tell, I spent most of yesterday and today poking around the edges of President Obama's plan to solve the mortgage financing crisis; bear with me for one more post about it, because I think I just figured something out. And when I did, I laughed myself absolutely silly. You may hate this. Most of you will probably love it.

From the White House blog, I found a link to a (PDF) document on the Treasury Department website, credited to Jacob Leibenluft, "Support Under the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan: Three Cases," (treas.gov, 2/18/09). The first two cases are uninteresting. Let's look at example 3, in the author's own words:

Family C: Eligible for Homeowner Stability Initiative
  • In 2006: Family C took out a 30-year subprime mortgage of $220,000, on a house worth $230,000 at the time (they put less than 5% down). Their mortgage broker – Mom & Pop Mortgage – sold their loan to Investment Bank. The interest rate on their mortgage is 7.5%.
  • Today: Family C has $214,016 remaining on their mortgage but their home value has fallen -18% to $189,000. Also, in November, one parent in Family C was moved from full-time to part-time work, causing a significant negative shock to their income.
    • Their loan is now 113% the value of their home, making them “underwater” and unable to sell their house.
    • Meanwhile, their monthly mortgage payment is $1,538 and their monthly income has fallen to $3,650, meaning the ratio of their monthly mortgage debt to income is 42%.
  • Under the Homeowner Stability Initiative: Family C can get a government sponsored modification that – for five years – will reduce their mortgage payment by $406 a month. After those five years, Family C’s mortgage payment will adjust upward at a moderate, phased-in level.
Existing MortgageLoan Modification
Balance$213,431$213,431
Remaining Years2727
Interest Rate7.50%4.42%
Monthly Payment$1,538$1,132
Savings:$406 per month, $4,870 per year

Homeowner Stability Initiative: How the Program Works for the Lender, Government and Borrower
  • First, Investment Bank (working through a mortgage servicer) reduces the interest rate so that the Family C’s monthly debt-to-income ratio drops from 42% to 38%. This means that Investment Bank must reduce the interest rate from 7.50% to 6.38%, bringing down Family C’s monthly payment from $1,538 to $1,387.
  • Second, the government and Investment Bank share the cost of further reducing the interest rate so that the Family C’s monthly debt-to-income level is lowered to 31%. Any dollar the bank spends is matched by the government. At this stage, Family C’s interest rate is reduced from 6.41% to 4.43%. In total, Family C’s monthly payment has fallen from $1,538 to $1,132.
  • If Family C remains current on their payments, they will receive incentive payments up to $1,000 a year, or $5,000 over five years, that would go towards reducing the principal they owe. Additionally, the mortgage servicer can earn an up-front incentive fee of $1,000, plus up to $1,000 per year in “Pay for Success” fees for three years, so long as Family C remains current.

Now, let's add some annotations to that: how does this actually work? Well, first the bank that's servicing their loan, Investment Bank, "voluntarily" lowers their interest payment from 7.5% to 6.38%, the maximum that this program allows them to charge and still "voluntarily" participate in this program. Because there's a 6.38% interest cap? No, because there's a 38% of income cap, and that's what interest rate would have to be if they were paying off a $213,431 loan over 30 years at a fixed rate and only paying 38% of their current monthly income.

Now, immediately a problem crops up. Investment Bank didn't issue Family C's mortgage, remember? They're only servicing it for some mortgage investment pool that Mom & Pop Mortgage sold the loan to. And because they were planning on selling it to a mortgage investment pool, there's a clause in Family C's contract that says that the interest rate on this loan cannot be legally lowered. Period. At the very least, not without a court order. Nevertheless, Investment Bank will "voluntarily" do so. So, what do they do, dare any of the shareholders in that mortgage pool to sue them for violating the contract? Probably not. If not, they have only one choice: "voluntarily" pay off Family C's mortgage themselves and issue them a brand new 27-year mortgage for the same amount at 6.38%. Since they paid off a 7.5% loan and issued a loan that only pays them 6.38%, they take a substantial loss on the deal. Why are they willing to do that? Because they're doing it "voluntarily." And because they did so "voluntarily," the government will pay Investment Bank $255/month towards Family C's mortgage payment, so that Family C can more easily afford the loan, bringing their payment down to 31% of their income from 38%. What do the taxpayers get for their $255 a month? Nothing. We're doing it "voluntarily."

What does "voluntarily" mean to Investment Bank, in this example? It means that Investment Bank is under no legal obligation to do so. On the other hand, President Obama has just pointedly and explicitly reminded them, there's nothing in the law that says he has to bail them out if their capital asset ratio is out of whack. Which, I guarantee you, Investment Bank's is. So, yes, sure, certainly Investment Bank can decide that even with the government paying $255/month of it, Family C is a bad bet for a $1,387/month mortgage for 30 years, and they are absolutely free to turn them. Yes, they can. They are also legally entitled to decide that the house is a bad bet at $213,431, and turn them down. They are also completely and fully allowed to refuse to take the loss from paying off their old loan. Yes, they are. And President Obama absolutely can say, oh so casually, "Nice banking license you have there. It'd be a shame if anything were to ... happen ... to it." Like, say, him wiping his ass with it, which he absolutely can do any time he wants, now. Not only can he do it, if mark-to-market rules were being strictly enforced, he'd be legally obligated to do so. And there isn't a damned thing Congress can do about it. Nor would they want to. The way the voters feel about banks right now, Congress knows which side their bread is buttered on. Nor do they even have to stick their necks out to give him permission to do so; they already did. The original TARP authorization includes enough weasely language that the President and the Treasury Secretary can do just about anything they want to or about the banks, it's as loosely and sloppily worded as the 2001 war powers resolution was. He absolutely can do this. And there really isn't any way anybody can stop him.

Hey, what do you know? Obama did learn something about negotiation while he was in Chicago, after all! I laughed myself silly when I figured this out. Heck, it's hours later, and I'm still giggling when I think about it. If nothing else, somewhere the ghost of Inigo Montoya is saying, "You keep using that word, 'voluntary.' I do not think it means what you think it means."

Instant Reaction: Cautiously Optimistic

Brad @ Burning Man
Even a blind squirrel can occasionally find a nut. There are remarkably few right-wing Democrat/anti-government Republican fingerprints on the speech that Obama just gave and on the plan summary on his blog. (Maybe the real purpose of the Geithner plan was to serve as a "monkey trap" to keep them all busy while the "reality-based community" worked on the real problem? We can only hope he's that smart.)

The documentation on this stinks, it reads like stereo instructions with at least one missing page, but let me see if I can summarize this a little more clearly. The Obama Plan sets a target price for mortgage payments at 31% of income, which is an unbelievably good and very welcome breath of fresh air, in a world gone mad where brokers were telling people that paying 50% of your income for your mortgage was normal and sustainable. People are paying more than that (and therefore, as we've always known people who are paying more than that would do, going broke) for one or more of several reasons: they got scammed on the value of the house, they got scammed on their loan terms, or the economy went into the tank and their income fell; we're going to save as many of those people as we can. People in that situation will have several options:

If (and only if) the amount owed on the house is no more than 105% of what a (hopefully more honest) appraisal of the house is worth, and they have enough income to afford that much house via a 30 year fixed-rate mortgage with payments of no more than 31% of their income, the government will refinance their mortgage for them, through the recently re-nationalized Federal National Mortgage Association and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation: no points, no fees, semi-automatic application process. I'm all in favor of it, and am hard-pressed to imagine anybody objecting to this part.

If they owe more than 105% of the value, or don't have enough income to qualify, the government will "create incentives" for the company that's currently servicing their loan to renegotiate on the following terms. The mortgage servicing company finds them some way to refinance it as a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at any payment, and the government directly subsidizes the difference between that payment and 31% of their income. And if that isn't enough incentive for them, the President may have just said (the language isn't clear) that agreeing to do this for all the loans they service is a condition of those companies receiving any government aid of any kind? OK, but I have some serious reservations about this part of the plan. First of all, for about half of the loans in question, what he's asking the mortgage servicing companies to do is basically flatly illegal, because the mortgages were written with an explicit clause in the fine-print that rules out any renegotiation on any grounds. There's nothing in here that explains how they're supposed to get around that.

Secondly, it really does reward people who bought way more house than they could afford, speculating that they could refinance bring their payments down later by reapplying their "certain" future home equity as down payment. There are enough such mortgages out there that I'm far from sure that the $75 billion he's estimated to be available is enough. The main protection we've got against that is one that he doesn't promise, only promises to "support," and that's cram-down through the bankruptcy process. Let's say you can only afford a $150k mortgage, by any honest measure. But you bought a $250k house, on an optional-payment adjustable rate mortgage (option-ARM) that let you only pay what the mortgage would be on a $150k house for a while. You did this because you were just that sure that a year later, the house would actually be worth $350k or $400k, so you would take out the equity and reapply it as a down payment. The Obama Plan basically lets you have that money, or more precisely the benefit of that money, for free. Only it does so by, in effect, repricing your house down to $150k, thereby bringing down the average value of all the houses in your neighborhood. I'm of two minds on this. It's obviously morally wrong for you to have made this deal, and for the taxpayers to be on the hook for it is reprehensible. On the other hand, most people in this situation didn't come up with the idea on their own, they were hard-sold into it by even more corrupt and reprehensible mortgage lenders who never intended those people to get to keep their houses, they only wanted to scam the system for their loan origination fees and then split with the money. And it's not as if the information that this was a scam was made widely available early enough, often enough, or loud enough for it to be fair to have expected them to know that it was a scam. On the other hand, I get the sense that the threat to cram-down the value of the house through bankruptcy court order is just a poison pill, that the intent is to create that as a threat, not to actually have it ever happen, just to create yet another incentive for the mortgage servicer to find some way to refinance ... or else.

So I'm not sure it's going to work, especially not without a bunch of details that we were just told may not be available for another two weeks. But I'm cautiously optimistic, if for no other reason than this: he didn't say the words "public-private partnership" and he didn't pretend that there's a ton of "private investment" out there waiting to be "attracted" to solving this problem for us. So, against all expectations, he may actually pull this one off. And, as I said last night, if he gets this one right, it may not matter that he screwed the pooch on the financial rescue plan and the stimulus bill. Maybe I can renew my lease this spring, maybe I can spend some money on some things I want to buy that would (indirectly or directly) provide income to some friends and acquaintances of mine, maybe I don't have to plan for the very-near term collapse of the US economy. We might just make it through this one with no more than "normal" recessionary damage. That it's at least possible is rather substantial relief.

Holding My Breath

Brad @ Burning Man
The anxiety symptoms are back, including nightmares so vivid I can't get back to sleep. I recognize this: it's a panic attack. Something is pushing my phobia buttons. For those of you who don't know, my particular phobia, going back to when I was 13, is of having some bureaucrat in a suit holding my life in his hands, screwing me over, and having no way to placate or persuade them otherwise. Most of my outbreaks have been job-related. This one isn't.

President Obama inherited a whole heck of a lot of messes from his anti-government governmental predecessors, but three of them rise to the level of genuine existential crisis. To stave off Great Depression 2.0 not just here at home but world-wide, he has to do three things, and do them fast. He must keep unemployment from rising to the point where the American people withdraw their consent to be governed altogether, from the historical point where we risk descent into anarchy and totalitarianism. He must keep our financial system from cratering so hard it wrecks the whole global economy, plunging much of the rest of the world into anarchy and totalitarianism. And he has to address the underlying cause of both of the above, by doing something about the mortgage industry mess that started kicking off these problems about 9 months ago.

How's he done so far? Well, we have a local news story about his nearly $800 billion attempt to solve the unemployment problem. It turns out Missouri's Democratic governor, future presidential hopeful Jay Nixon, wanted to be able to make the propaganda claim that the very first stimulus dollars were spent right here in Missouri, so his state department of transportation had lined up a series of four road expansion and repair projects that he knew would qualify, and assigned the contracts subject to the stimulus bill being signed and with the requirement work begin the second the signature was complete. You can see the press release here: MoDOT, "Missouri Has First-in-Nation Economic Recovery Project," 2/17/09. What's missing from that press release? Any mention of any actual hiring. It went to an existing contractor, who's working the project with his existing employees. You can argue that maybe this contractor might not have had another contract lined up and might have been about to lay people off, but the press release doesn't allege that, either. In short, the very first economic stimulus project to begin created zero jobs, and may not have even saved any. I'm not saying we didn't need to fix those roads and bridges. And I'm not saying that Missouri could afford to do so. And I'm not coming out against infrastructure spending. But right this second, we have bigger problems. If it wasn't going to put currently unemployed people to work, right away, we had more urgent needs for that money. Road repair could have waited. So, score so far: 0 for 1.

Then there's the Geithner Plan, which still exists only in the form of a vague outline that Geithner himself didn't even write, half of which contradicts the other half. And it violates important laws of physics, by implying (contrary to fact) that we have as much time as we want to "stress test" the banks that are hovering on the brink of failure, and that somewhere out there is a mythical swarm of investment pixies who are urgently eager to pay full price for all those currently valueless collateralized debt obligation shares if the government will just offer to also sell them insurance on them. Nobody, not even Geithner himself as far as I can tell, is defending the claim that the Geithner Plan will actually save a single bank, save a single brokerage, save a single pension, save a single 401k, or save the FDIC from running out of money any day now. Hurray again. Score so far: 0 for 2.

Needless to say, I am holding my breath, desperately hoping that the President doesn't go 0 for 3. He has one last chance to get this right, this (Wednesday) morning at 10:15 am Mountain Standard Time at a high school in Phoenix. If he gets this one right, it will barely matter that he screwed up the first two, because he will have successfully addressed the underlying cause of the first two problems. If he gets this one wrong, he might as well legally change his name to Barack Hoover Obama, and we're going back to the Great Depression. In particular, if he even says the phrase "public-private partnership" (creating yet another fraudulent corporation that will pay itself a fortune, stiff the taxpayers, and leave the work undone, like every other public-private partnership of the last 30 years) or if he even suggests that it's possible to "attract private investment" to solve the problem (from where?), take a good look at yourself and your three closest friends who still have jobs: by this fall, one of the four of you will be unemployed, and will take at least 18 months to two years to find comparable work. And it might well be you. For the next four to eight years, three of you at a time will continue to draw roughly the same salary, but for most of that time things will cost twice as much. Plan accordingly.

What would a real solution look like? There are some promising hints that have leaked out of the White House policy shop, or at least supposed leaks. An AP wire story had some of them earlier, but before I could clip them out, the version on the web changed and dropped that paragraph. Alyssa Katz at Slate's sister site TheBigMoney.com has a (frankly skeptical) article with some hints, too ("The Loan Ranger," 2/17/09). One is that the administration will try to push through Congress an existing bill to give bankruptcy judges the right to reduce loan amounts on mortgages, even if they've been sold into mortgage pools with "no modification" clauses in the contracts. If this passes, expect financial sector stocks to drop like a brick, almost to the point where if you open a new checking account with a $100 balance, they'll give you majority ownership in a bank. But in a twisted sense, that'll be the good news, because once those "cram downs" begin, it will force a fast and accurate accounting of what the CDO shares are actually worth, and then we'll have the result of Geithner's "stress test" without setting up a dangerously lobby-able government agency to assess them. A similar (supplementary? competing? we'll know today, I hope) proposal would be for the government to step in and guarantee a weird form of debtor-in-possession financing for everybody with a mortgage on a house that was fraudulently assessed or who was stuck with an ARM that reset on them through no fault of their own. The trial balloon we've heard is that as long as there's at least one person on the mortgage with a job, the homeowners will pay 31% of their take-home pay for 30 years, and own the home outright; if a 30 year loan at 31% of their monthly income per month doesn't pay for the house, the government will pay off the rest.

Do they do this via direct subsidy? My guess is no. Considering that just about everybody in this mess was promised, by everybody, that it didn't matter that these loans couldn't be renegotiated because (as long as the homeowner made their payments up until the interest reset date) they were certain to be able to refinance, the fairest way to do it would be for the government to force a cram-down onto the current loan servicer, and then finance a mortgage through Freddy or Fannie that keeps the homeowner in the house at their current salary. I don't know if they do this by having the taxpayers put up a down payment in exchange for equity in the house when it sells, or via balloon payment down the line to cover the difference between what the homeowner paid and what the house was worth, or something altogether different. It would be sheer brilliance if it works, though. Right now, there are a ton of people, millions of them, who're stuck in loans that reset to rates they can only pay by stopping spending on everything else. There are also roughly as many people looking up towards the reset date that hasn't hit them yet, but they know it will, and they've stopped spending anything because they know that when it does they'll need every penny they can scrounge between now and then to save the house. Lower that first group's payments back to what they can afford, and free the second group from fear, and you just about single-handedly jump start the retail and automotive and durable goods sectors of the entire world economy.

But we're not guaranteed anything nearly so smart. Obama is famously a smart guy, one who learns from his mistakes, but he's also most famous as a guy who learns from the people around him if he doesn't go into a situation with an opinion of his own. And I'm not even vaguely happy about the people he's gathered around him, the literally hundreds of held-over Bush appointees and warmed-over right-wing Democrat Clinton-era appointees that David Sirota at the Campaign for America's Future has taken to calling "the Team of Zombies." If he listens to them, he'll reject bold action on the mortgage crisis in favor of a nice, (politically) safe plan to "attract private investment" in order to "harness the energy of the free market" to solve this problem via "a public-private partnership." Or, just as bad, he may have learned now not to trust the Team of Zombies, only to find out that after letting Pelosi and Reid (and House and Senate Republicans, to whom he gave far too many concessions) turn his stimulus bill into a legislative Christmas tree, and after giving Geithner a blank check and no deadline, there's no money left in the treasuries market for him to use to do the right thing. In either case, we're screwed. And I've been losing sleep for days now waiting to find out which it'll be.

Latest Month

November 2012
S M T W T F S
    123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
252627282930 

Syndicate

RSS Atom
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Lilia Ahner