Sunday, May 10, 2009

Financial Comedy Central?

It's Comedy Central on the tubes these days. I guess there's no other way to react to the onslaught of bad news that's just supposed to wash over us like yesterday's cheap red wine as we go off to the unemployment and bread lines. (Click on the links to go straight to their blogs.) The Rude Pundit is always in rare form and his comments on the death throes of the Rethuglicans are especially amusing.

This is the 2009 Republican Party. Everything they do is another step in the long death march they've been on since 2006. No, instead we'll get the usual bullshit pronouncements about abortion rights, about limiting the ability of people to sue, about "judicial activism," one of those meaningless phrases that fools use to make themselves sound smart. They'll say they're standing up for people when all they're doing is pleasuring the base like a Chinese masseuse on happy ending duty at a corporate retreat. Then again, this is a group who actually believes that the future of the party might be named "Bush" or "Palin" or "Romney," the crabs on the crotch of American progress.
Thomas Friedman receives some well-deserved kicks from Ted Rall, and since I'm such a Friedman fan, I'm running a lot of it for your edification (and your opportunity to laugh out loud in outrageous enjoyment). (Emphasis marks were added - Ed.)
Do you believe in "intelligent design"? It's the argument that the universe is so logical that it must have been planned out by a master creator. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, single-handedly disproves the existence of such a God. Friedman is the nation's most prominent opinion writer. He wins journalistic prizes. Audiences shell out big bucks to hear him speak. Book collections of his columns become bestsellers for months on end. Yet the dude can't write. I'm not talking about his opinions. Friedman doesn't know how to arrange nouns and verbs in a way that is pleasing to readers of the English language. He is to writing what George W. Bush is to oratory. Stranger still is Friedman's role as über barometer of conventional wisdom. When Congress, media tastemakers and thus most Americans bought into Bush's Saddam-has-WMDs story, Friedman did too. When the Iraq War started to go wrong but officially acceptable opinion wanted to stay and "finish the job," so did he. When everyone threw up their hands in disgust, Friedman was there with them. Of course, he was wrong. He's always wrong. But he's always in perfect sync with conventional wisdom - which is almost always wrong. Friedman's prose appears to have barely survived the linguistic equivalent of a harsh interrogation technique: "Because that is when Al Qaeda's remnants will try to throw a Hail Mary pass - that is, try to set off a bomb in a U.S. city - to obscure its defeat by moderate Arabs and Muslims in the heart of its world." Did he get this sports metaphor from some think tank neocon, or was he lame enough to make it up himself? Whether he leads or follows the average mean of the mainstream, Friedman's role as the nation's ultimate bellwether is what makes him worth reading. Which is why it's so disquieting to read Friedman support Obama's refusal to prosecute torturers. Times Tom may be a fool. His logic is certainly hopeless. But the people who matter - Congress, editors and producers at the big papers and broadcast networks and thus most of the public - agree with him. Seven years after accounts of torture by American soldiers and CIA operatives first became public, the revelation that one detainee had been waterboarded 183 times in a single month has struck a Katrina-like nerve. Conventional, mainstream, average, generic U.S. public opinion wants something done about it - an investigation, maybe prosecution of a few of the attorneys who authored the Torture Memos - but nothing close to genuine accountability. Friedman's April 29th column reflects this internal conflict: "Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, has testified to Congress that more than 100 detainees died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 27 percent of these declared homicides by the military. They were allegedly kicked to death, shot, suffocated or drowned. Look, our people killed detainees [Friedman's emphasis], and only a handful of those deaths have resulted in any punishment of U.S. officials." By Friedman's math, the military admits to the torture-murders of 27 people. He's low-balling. He doesn't include detainees murdered by the military in other places like Guantánamo or the Navy's fleet of prison ships, killed by the CIA at secret prisons, or slaughtered by foreign torturers after being "extraordinarily renditioned" by the U.S. Even so, 27 is a lot. No one would suggest letting a serial killer off the hook for 27 torture-murders. Friedman does. "The president's decision to expose but not prosecute those responsible," he writes, is justified. Why? Because "justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart." "Rip our country apart." Wow. Granting prosecutorial immunity to war criminals like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Powell is already "tearing the country apart." First and foremost, it confirms many people's suspicion that there are two systems of justice in America: one for the rich and powerful and another for you and me. If I kidnap a man and hold him overnight, I face the death penalty or life in prison. Bush and his top officials ordered the kidnapping of tens of thousands of men as young as 12 years of age, the torture of thousands and the murder of hundreds. Until America's official mass murderers are treated as harshly as its freelance psychos, Americans will view their justice system as something to be feared rather than respected. Not only does extending executive privilege into retirement - and not even conservatives think there's a legal basis for this - encourage lawless behavior by current and future political leaders, it feeds partisanship. Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for lying about a BJ. He was also disbarred (and rightly so). Nixon, on the other hand, resigned before being impeached and never faced a jury. If Bush and his minions get away with murder, does that mean that only Democrats are subject to the rule of law? If the officials who ordered torture, the legislators who let it happen, the lawyers who justified it and the men and women who carried it out are not held accountable, the message will not be - as Obama seems to believe - that the Bush years represented some weird aberration in American history. Obama will be telling the world that the 2008 election changed nothing, that legal illegality could return at the drop of a hat (or the detonation of a dirty bomb), that his Administration protects the criminals and thus endorses their crimes. Millions of Americans, many of whom voted for him, already feel alienated from a country that expresses values that it doesn't live up to. Refusing to prosecute Bush deepens their cynicism. Cynicism, Mssrs. Friedman and Obama, is what's ripping the guts out of America every second of every day. Only consistent and fair application of the law can begin the healing.
Dave Lindorff argues effectively that the Obama Administration is in danger of "Becoming a Stand-Up Comedy Act." I've got to give this guy props (again) as I only meant to run a paragraph or two to publicize his political writing prowess but I just had to include waaay more. He is goooooooood. (Emphasis marks added - Ed.)
What a joke the Obama administration is becoming, as it keeps trying to prop up failing industry after failing industry. First we had the president becoming First Car Salesman, offering federal guarantees for GM and Chrysler car warrantees so that potential car customers wouldn't turn away from those two companies' showrooms fearing that the manufacturers would go bust and leave them holding the bag. Then he started touting the cars themselves, saying they were "great products" and that people should go out and buy them. Now we have the White House and Treasury Department assuring us that all 19 of the country's biggest banks are going to survive the credit crisis and the economic slump, and that they are all basically sound. Okay, so some of them, like Bank of America which has to come up with $35 billion in new capital, need cash infusions or need their books juggled - a total of $100 billion for all 19 banks - but as Fed Chairman and Chief of Rehabilitation and Promotion (that's CRAP) for the banking industry Ben Bernanke, is assuring us, "All the banks in the stress tests are solvent." Really. Forget about all those troubled assets folks. They are solvent. Honest. These stress tests are really a joke, though. Consider that the government (and in the end each individual American taxpayer) is now a huge stakeholder in every bank that received bailout funds. If one of these stress tests were to honestly report that one of these "too big to fail" banks was insolvent, or that it would become insolvent if the recession got worse, that would cause a collapse in that bank or, at a minimum, a plunge in its share value, with the government being the loser. Do we really think CRAP Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner are going to do that? The only way to do a real stress test would be the way the Fed and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other bank regulators used to do them: in complete secrecy. Banks, after all, which even under the best of circumstances lend out 10 times their assets, are critically dependent upon the confidence of their depositors. Any sign that a bank is in trouble and the depositors and even business customers like those who maintain credit lines at an institution, start to flee. So what these stress tests are really is not honest evaluations of the financial conditions of these banks, but rather, public relations exercises designed to boost the public's confidence in them. Even then, though, the tests were anything but rigorous. One test was based on an assumption that the nation's unemployment would reach 8.8 percent sometime next year, with housing prices falling another 14 percent in 2009. But official unemployment is already at 8.9 percent and is still rising, and housing prices are falling more than that level. The so called "worst case" stress test assumed unemployment rising to 10.3 percent in 2010 and housing prices losing another 22 percent in 2009, but in fact, things could well be much worse than that, both for unemployment and housing prices, by 2010. So really, the fact that these easy "stress" tests resulted in a conclusion that the 19 banks in question need to raise a total of $100 billion in new capital in six months should be a cause for alarm, not confidence. Add to that the fact that the government's and the banking industry's proposed solution to the capital shortfall, since there are likely to be few investors who will want to shovel new money into these zombie banks, is to convert the money which the government has already loaned to the banks in return for preferred shares in those institutions into common shares, which counts as capital. If you think about it, while this shifting around of money on the banks books may yield better numbers, it doesn't really provide the banks with one dollar more of cash to lend, or to cover bad debts. What it does do is take government money which could conceivably be recovered in the event of a bank failure, and convert it into paper that could easily end up having a value of 0 in the event of a bank failure. If a bank were to go down the tubes, its common shares would have no value at all, and then that's what our TARP funds would also be worth: zero. No wonder Obama and his term of financial "wizards" are touting the alleged strength of these banks! So it has come to this. After getting rid of an inarticulate and know-nothing president and a manipulative, secretive and anti-democratic vice president, we now have a White House filled with comics and hucksters shilling shamelessly for the both the automotive and the banking industry, both of which are candidates for roles in a "Night of the Living Dead" remake. This should not give us confidence about other government claims, like when President Obama and his State Department and Pentagon "wizards" stand up and tell us that they have a plan for the mess in Iraq or the other mess in Afghanistan, or that they even know what they are doing in and to Pakistan. Congress has been a joke for years. Now the White House is becoming a laughing stock. It is, I'm afraid, all starting to look like one big joke, and it's on us.
It's been a tough week. Enjoy the weekend if you can. Suzan ______________________

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