Friday, March 30, 2012

To your health...

The weather's been especially windy this month, and so have I. What the hell — here comes post #11 for March.

As we have seen in the past week (if we hadn't noticed it earlier), the Supreme Court is thoroughly politicized. Now there is no branch of government in which the American people can place its faith.

The first mistake of the Obama administration was deciding to go with a health care plan designed by the Heritage Foundation. Did Our President think a plan designed by a right wing think tank would lead to bipartisan support for universal coverage? Probably not. For a smart man, he's more than a little naive, but he couldn't have been that innocent. Even though he never actually joined the DLC, he's been a fellow traveler — and he certainly didn't want to offend the deep-pocketed insurance industry.

I don't know whether the individual mandate is or isn't constitutional, and I don't suppose it especially matters — unless Chief Justice Roberts, perhaps, figures out he no longer is beholden to the plutocrats, or Kennedy hits the Jameson's a little harder than usual. (Our affirmative action Justice, as usual, said nothing — but we all know how he'll vote.)

What I do know is that if the Democrats had some organization, some discipline, and some guts, we might even have single payer on the horizon instead of a jumbled mishmash of questionable legislation which will do nothing to lower health care costs. (Okay, that was just wishful thinking — too many goddamned DINOs were standing in the way. There may have been sixty Democrats in the Senate, but there were a hell of a lot fewer liberals.)

I can't fault Sandra Day O'Conner for leaving the court — I am not one to begrudge anybody's retirement — but I still wish she had stayed. I don't know how she would have voted, but I'm sure her vote would have been based on her understanding of the law rather than on ideology.

Okay. That should do it for March.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Scary People

Hmmm... this guy looks like bad news. Maybe you ought to shoot him.

Okay, he seems to be a bit older than the people you ordinarily shoot, and a bit whiter. Just the same, that's a threatening look on his face. Are you feeling threatened?

In Florida, you can feel free to shoot him, with the blessing of the NRA inspired and ALEC drafted "Stand Your Ground" law. Very similar laws exist in 23 other states, and the movement seems to be spreading, despite the outcry over the murder of Trayvon Martin.

As of this writing, George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin, has been neither arrested nor charged with any offense. As far as I can tell, the Sanford police didn't even confiscate his gun. He tells a fairly incredible story about being attacked by the 140 pound teenager — about 100 pounds less than Zimmerman weighs — and acting in self-defense.

To me, George Zimmerman sounds like a very scary man. Even though I'm an old white man and I had to Photoshop myself into that hoodie because I don't own any, I'm pretty sure I'd feel threatened if I ran into him on the street. Florida law, I believe, permits me and anybody else who shares my apprehension the legal right to blow him away. No wonder he's in hiding.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Keystone XL

Just in case you were not aware — and hardly anybody is — there already is a Keystone pipeline, extending from the oil sands of Alberta to Cushing, Oklahoma, and St. Louis, Missouri. Our President just announced that he wishes to expedite a southern extension of the pipeline from Cushing to the refineries of Port Arthur, Texas.

Why Port Arthur? Because it's a port, of course! That makes the refined products much simpler to export. The United States is a net exporter of petroleum products, and the southern leg of Keystone will help to expand those exports. It will not increase the supply (much less lower the cost) of gasoline in the United States.

Granted, that would help to reduce, to a small extent, our trade deficit — but selling jet fuel to European airlines does nothing to relieve the current stress on American drivers. If the idea were to increase American gasoline supply, it would make a lot more sense (environmentally as well as economically) to approve a fairly short new pipeline from Alberta to Montana, where there are refineries that serve the United States.

The devil, as always, is in the details. The American public, typically, has no clue.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How dum r we?

It is no secret that Americans read little and none too well. American computational skills have necessitated the development of the modern cash register, which requires only that the human being be sufficiently competent to scan in a price, punch in the amount of cash presented, and count out the correct amount of change. (The operators of such machines generally earn more than minimum wage because of their superior skill sets.)

Hence, it comes as no surprise that there is a lot of support, out there, for assorted Republican candidates for the House, the Senate, and the Presidency. If you've had a look at Paul Ryan's latest budget proposal, you will understand that Ryan — like me — does not hold American intelligence in high regard.

Just two tax brackets?!!! Are you kidding?!!! (No.) Letting American corporations repatriate their foreign profits for free, forever?!!! (I know! Let's ship even more jobs overseas!) Let's not even bother to consider the extreme reductions to high income and corporate tax rates.

(Well, maybe we ought to at least think about them, because we Americans are not too bright. The justification for tax breaks to the rich is that they will invest more in our economy and, therefore, create jobs. Sounds good, except that when they got tax breaks under Bush, they invested their extra money in derivatives — not new business — and brought down the Western World. Derivatives represent fast money. Investments that create jobs represent slow money. Don't bet on the tortoise against the hare. You'll lose.)

I won't get into Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Pell grants, and the rest of the proposed Ryan cuts right now — suffice to say that the plutocrats grow fatter and grosser at the expense of the far more ordinary. Romney implies that the ordinary deserve to struggle all their lives, because they're dumb — and he deserves to be President because he embodies the "meritocracy."

Well, the ordinary are pretty dumb, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve decent lives — with decent incomes, decent health care, and what used to be very ordinary hopes for the future of their children. If we really had a meritocracy, Paris Hilton would be whoring out on the Tenderloin, and Romney's vast brood would have no greater opportunities than some very nice, bright kids who are growing up in East Harlem.

Watch Obama move even further to the right. Here, in the 21st century, money moves all mountains — and it makes me sick.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The "JOBS" Bill

When I first heard about the bipartisan JOBS (Jump-start Our Business Start-ups) bill, I didn't pay a lot of attention, figuring it was just some innocuous bit of legislation with a politically attractive acronym. Well, I was wrong. I should have remembered one of my first laws of American politics:
Bipartisan means everybody gets screwed.

What the bill does is gut financial regulations put in place after the Enron debacle, and then some. When this bill is signed into law by Our President (yes, he's in on it too), companies going public can ignore many important auditing requirements, keep executive compensation a secret, and market shares directly to consumers over the internet. Five'll get you ten the JOBS Act's most outstanding accomplishment will be a massive explosion of fraud.

Here's how to do it, amateur grifters. Incorporate; announce your IPO; create some buzz with posts to consumer finance blogs; sell blocks of stock for relatively small sums, say fifty or one hundred dollars; take all the money from sales and pay it to yourself as an undisclosed executive salary; declare bankruptcy.

It's so easy, even a Congressman could do it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sexual Politics

CNN informs me that Rick Santorum just won Alabama and Mississippi — albeit the count shows Romney and Gingrich not very far behind. Whatever. It's time to look at the politics of abortion, contraception, and (not yet mentioned in this campaign) masturbation.

For all human groups, throughout history, survival has depended on numbers. When two tribes had to work out who got the river valley and who got the desert, the big tribe got the prime real estate and the small tribe got to wander in the wilderness. It's no different with religions. The more adherents to a faith, the more likely it is to survive. "Be fruitful and multiply," sayeth the Lord. If you don't, those damnable Egyptians or Hittites or whatever will wipe you out.

Increasing your group's numbers depends on keeping your women pregnant. Naturally, it follows that religions competing with other religions for population will have "moral" prohibitions against birth control, abortion, and that "sin of Onan," which "wastes" what could be used to keep the group's women perpetually pregnant (and don't forget to kill the queers.)

In the United States, "mainstream" Protestants, secularized Jews and Catholics, and those with no particular interest in any religion are failing to be fruitful and multiply, perhaps under the impression that they can do more for one or two children than for seven or eight — while traditional Catholics and Muslims, Mormons, and many Evangelicals are breeding like bunnies.

In a democracy, the breeders, eventually, will win.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Kandahar Massacre

A 38-year-old Army sergeant and a father of two (according to sources for the New York Times) left his base in Kandahar, kicked down the doors of a bunch of people who lived about a mile from the base, and killed sixteen of them. Most were children.

Afghanistan's vox populi doubts the "lone gunman" theory, but most likely it was one guy driven batshit crazy by his service — three tours in Iraq, and a final tour in Afghanistan. Needless to say, he had to be batshit crazy, but that little factoid should not be allowed to invoke any no-fault insurance policies. The blame should fall exactly where it belongs — on the United States military. Only the military had the opportunity to drive him batshit crazy, and only the military had the responsibility to notice he was nuts.

Except for a few psychopaths, who rise rapidly either to the middle ranks of the military or the upper echelons of government, even young men have inhibitions about killing. One of the inevitable objectives of military training must be dehumanizing "the enemy." It's a damned shame that the only options available to basic training personnel consist of either teaching the gung-ho youth sophisticated and nuanced ways to discriminate between "the enemy" and potential friends, or just teaching them to hate all "towelheads"

We all know which approach they take — the easy one.

The video of American soldiers pissing on the corpses of dead Afghans (who may or may not have been Taliban — it doesn't matter), and the "accidental" burning of a stack of Korans at Bagram should have provided ample proof that whatever the US military is doing to train its troops is inadequate at best, more likely counterproductive or, at worst, suicidal. The Kandahar murders just put the cherry on top.

Considering that the main thing we've been doing in Afghanistan for too, too many years has been propping up the corrupt Karzai government, I suggest it's time to tell America's ignorant masses we won, and just get the fuck out. (As a matter of fact, I think that's exactly what Obama plans to do. I wish him luck.)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Greater Kurdistan?

Today's New York Times has an article about Kurds fleeing Syria and taking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. It gave me, as Poirot used to say, "a little idea."

Regulars may recall that I have little hope of Nouri al-Maliki maintaining Iraq in one piece — and particular doubts about his hanging onto the Kurdish area in the north. Hell, they've been almost entirely autonomous for years. They're well-armed, well-funded, and more than a little nationalistic. They're willing to fight.

Syria is a mess, Bashir al-Assad is channeling Idi Amin, and none of the real countries feels able to do anything about it. So here's my idea: somebody just might want to suggest to the Kurds in Iraq that the current state of affairs might offer a splendid opportunity to "rescue" their fellow Kurds by moving into the northeastern tip of Syria (see the map) — and keeping it. Hail Greater Kurdistan!

Mind you, both the Iranians and the Turks would totally freak, but it's very unlikely they could manage any sort of coordinated response. In the meanwhile, the "Free Syrian Army" (if it really exists) might take advantage of the diversion and make some gains in the Sunni regions. Hooray for the simplicity of tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions of territory! (If you keep the nation-states small enough, all you can get are little wars.) Hillary Clinton would wear out her wedgies running around the region, and John McCain would want to bomb everybody!

Okay, it's just a fantasy — but I can't be enraged all the time. Sometimes I just need to amuse myself.

Monday, March 5, 2012

AIPAC, again

So Our President addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee again, and he said blah, blah, blah... I don't care.

What particularly annoys me is how the major media, including the "left leaning" NPR and New York Times, refer to AIPAC — either as the "pro-Israel" lobby, or, worse yet, the "Jewish" lobby. AIPAC is not "pro-Israel," it is pro-Likud. It does not now, nor has it ever represented Kadima, much less Labor. It does not now, nor has it ever represented progressive American Jews — and such Jews still are not in short supply. AIPAC is just another lobby, funded like every other lobby — by the very rich. Yes, they're very rich Jews, for the most part, but so what?

I suppose there are a bunch of rabbis preaching right-wing Israeli politics from the pulpit — but let me assure you, American politicians, that their congregations are not listening. The elderly regulars, who just keep davening no matter what else is happening, stopped listening to anything years ago — and the family and guests of the Bar Mitzvah boy are just thinking about how much longer it will be before they get to chow down on the kiddush.

Unless AIPAC comes up with a hell of a lot of money for a particular politician's campaign, I think it can, finally, be safely ignored. Nevertheless, isn't it time for some very rich progressive Jews, both in Israel and the United States, to fund some competition?

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Market Failure

It is becoming increasingly clear there are only three ways to make money in the stock market. The first is to get lucky — which is to say turn up on the winning side of pure chance. The second is to ride a bubble — although those who ride bubbles seldom disembark in time to preserve their gains. The third is to have access to insider information.

It's that third one, recently gaining a bit more notice by the SEC, that deserves a closer look by all the rest of us. Free market ideologues like to believe that the price system provides us with all the information we need; but, when you stop to think about it, the price of a share of stock tells us very little about the true value of a company — nor about what that value might be a year, a month, a week, a day, or even a few nanoseconds in the future. Corporate executives are very adept at disguising weaknesses and exaggerating strengths. It takes time — often quite a bit of time — for truths to become public.

Market systems only can be efficient if there is a free flow of information, and a paucity of information inevitably leads to market failure. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a free flow of information — and in these days of multinational mega-corporations, the problem is worse than ever. Show me a hedge fund manager who is consistently successful and I'll show you a hedge fund manager who either embodies the unlikely fat tail of investment good fortune and soon will crash and burn, or — far more likely — receives information before the rest of us do. (By the way, the longer a "lucky streak" lasts, the less statistically likely it is that the streak is based on luck. True, unlikely things happen all the time — a very few people win two or even three big-money lotteries — but they don't do it nearly every year, year after year.)

The best investors of other people's money (with nifty personal gains when they succeed) like to claim they "study" the companies they recommend. Well, intensive study of public information might shift the odds a little bit — but the really big gains depend less on "study" than on a crib sheet. The rich and powerful, often sitting on the boards of multiple corporations while serving as executives of others, inevitably are going to "talk amongst themselves." Yes, one might call it "idle conversations about items of mutual interest," but insider trading is a much more apt description.

For those who might have wondered about my reference, above, to nanoseconds, let me explain. When a high-speed trading program, based in a supercomputer practically next door to the computers on which modern trading takes place, get information about buy and sell orders a few nanoseconds sooner than computers a few more blocks away, and minutes ahead of mere mortals, those computers are harvesting insider information. They can analyze it and act on it well before it becomes genuinely public.

The SEC has one hell of a job to do. I sincerely hope it's up to it.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Syria, needless to say, has been a very dreadful place to live of late. What's taken place in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs over the past couple of weeks is comparable to what happened in Srebenica back in 1995. Something, it appears, really ought to be done by outsiders.

The $64,000 question, of course is what? The situation is totally crazy.

Some, like John McCain, want to ship arms to the "opposition" — but which opposition? The anti-Assad Syrians are not especially unified. The Free Syrian Army probably would like to have some heavier weaponry, but, unfortunately, it's not really an army. It's fragmented. Its self-proclaimed leaders might not be leaders at all — just a few disaffected officers with big mouths. The protests in Syrian cities other than Homs — Damascus, Hama, Deraa, Aleppo, and others — seem to be led locally, and not even prepared to accept and use armaments.

A NATO invasion aimed at deposing Assad — in the manner of Libya — won't work. There is no "liberated" area to work from and, again, no unified opposition. An assassination of Bashir al-Assad might make a significant difference, but I doubt we could get him to smoke any official CIA poisonous cigars — and a drone attack is not an especially good strategy in Syria, especially since it probably would miss Assad and kill a bunch of civilians. Anyway, what Assad really deserves is good old fashioned South African necklacing.

Then, it remains to consider what might happen after the Assad government falls. Allawites, Christians, and Druse are likely to find themselves in the same kinds of situations the Sunnis of Homs find themselves in now.

It's times like this I'm glad to be powerless. I wouldn't want to face the decisions now faced by the leaders of the US, Turkey, Israel, Europe, and the Sunni monarchies right now — because, honestly, I don't have a clue.