Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Biutiful" (NOT) - No Recovery "Corporate Profits Soaring Thanks to Record Unemployment" - Connect A Million MInds


If you haven't seen Javier Bardem in Iñárritu's Biutiful yet, please do. You're missing a cultural masterpiece.

Unknown to me when I decided I just had to go see the best foreign film of the year was that it contained the history lesson of how we got to where we are today.

The lack of unions and any kind of organization among workers is a constant underlying (worldwide) theme.

And the next time you decide to buy knock-offs, just remember where they come from.

Not that many originals don't also.

Research your choices! (Emphasis marks added - Ed.)

Barcelona is one of the world's most photogenic cities, as demonstrated in more than three decades of movies, from Antonioni's dazzling The Passenger to Woody Allen's touristy Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Jim Jarmusch's elegant The Limits of Control. All three play up the glories of its architectural heritage and the works of Antoni Gaudí. In Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful, which is entirely centred on the turbulent suburbs occupied by desperate immigrants from Africa, Asia and eastern Europe, we're hardly aware of being in that city at all. It is a shock suddenly to see in a distant cityscape the familiar outline of Gaudí's Sagrada Família and later to be faced with an idyllic Mediterranean beach littered with the dead bodies of illegal immigrants.

Biutiful brings together for the first time the brilliant Mexican director of Amores Perros and the greatest Spanish actor of his generation, Javier Bardem, after both have enjoyed considerable success in the States, Iñárritu having worked with Brad Pitt on Babel and Bardem having won an Oscar in the Coen Brother's No Country for Old Men as well as having been Julia Roberts heart-throb in Eat Pray Love.

If the film has a model, it's Akira Kurosawa's masterly Ikiru (aka Living), which took a hackneyed subject – the way a middle-aged Japanese civil servant reacts to the news that he has terminal cancer – and transformed it into a profound statement about the human condition. The protagonist of Biutiful is Uxbal, a man from southern Spain, who at fortysomething looks in poor physical shape and first reveals his true condition to us when he passes blood. It transpires that he has neglected to have medical check-ups and his painful prostate cancer has been metastasising, leaving him with a couple of months to live.

The movie has a circular motion, beginning and ending with Uxbal handing his mother's ring to his young daughter and recalling a dream-like encounter in a snow-covered forest. This sets the mood for a harsh, unsentimental narrative of redemption and putting one's life in order as a prelude to death. Uxbal does not have the time or the social privileges that allow him to indulge in the doubt and despair of Kurosawa's civil servant or to negotiate those five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross taught Americans to prepare for in On Death and Dying.

Uxbal is too poor, hard-pressed and desperate for that, which is not to say that he isn't a man of sensibility and moral intelligence beneath his tough peasant exterior. In league with his brother, Tito, he's up to his neck in petty criminality while exploiting and helping Chinese and African immigrants who make a living on the streets of Barcelona. He's divorced from his wife, the good-looking, chain-smoking, hard-drinking Marambra, and he's raising his two small children Ana and Mateo on a small income. Moreover, his apparent psychic gifts allow him to earn a bit of dubious extra cash.

Without recourse to social counselling, Uxbal must continue his dodging and weaving in his 24-hour-a-day hustling to feed his family, cope with the problematic Marambra and look out for his immigrant clients. In the event, his good intentions don't help and very little turns out well. He goes to jail, people die as a result of his actions and he's forced to sell the family tomb and have his father's embalmed body cremated. One could say his life ends in tragedy. Yet what we see is a decent man striving to do his best in terrible circumstances.

Sharing his pain and observing his struggle, we think of Browning's lines: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what's a heaven for?" In this light, his end seems a kind of moral triumph.

Iñárritu's previous films have been multilayered narratives. Here, he sticks to a single, admittedly richly vibrant milieu and a central character who appears in virtually every frame. He's brilliantly served by the handsome, imposing Bardem, whose expressive face and large battered nose resembles a deposed Roman emperor who's spent a lifetime in fairground boxing booths. This is a further contribution to an astonishing gallery of characters Bardem's created these past few years, ranging from a troubled intellectual and a police chief to a romantic artist and a sadistic killer. The versatile actor he most reminds me of is Anthony Quinn.

And, of course, there is no recovery (only rightwing-generated rumors of one (happening only to them)). And where's their skin? The fact that industries specializing in liquor intake have shown great job growth should surprise no one familiar with the statistics of the Great Depression. Yeah, Obama's our friend. The only economic change has been for much, much worse. Oh, and he's a socialist (haven't you heard?). Read it and weep, friends. (And you keep wondering how bonuses can continue being so massive?) (Emphasis marks added - Ed.)

Corporate Profits Soaring Thanks to Record Unemployment Febrary 25, 2011 In a January 2009 ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos, then President-elect Barack Obama said fixing the economy required shared sacrifice, "Everybody’s going to have to give. Everybody’s going to have to have some skin in the game."

For the past two years, American workers submitted to the President’s appeal — taking steep pay cuts despite hectic productivity growth. By contrast, corporate executives have extracted record profits by sabotaging the recovery on every front — eliminating employees, repressing wages, withholding investment, and shirking federal taxes.

The global recession increased unemployment in every country, but the American experience is unparalleled. According to a July OECD report, the U.S. accounted for half of all job losses among the 31 richest countries from 2007 to mid-2010.

The rise of U.S. unemployment greatly exceeded the fall in economic output. Aside from Canada, U.S. GDP actually declined less than any other rich country, from mid-2008 to mid 2010.

Washington’s embrace of labor market flexibility ensured companies encountered little resistance when they launched their brutal recovery plans. Leading into the recession, the US had the weakest worker protections against individual and collective dismissals in the world, according to a 2008 OECD study.

Blackrock’s Robert Doll explains, “When the markets faltered in 2008 and revenue growth stalled, U.S. companies moved decisively to cut costs — unlike their European and Japanese counterparts.”

The U.S. now has the highest unemployment rate among the ten major developed countries.

The private sector has not only been the chief source of massive dislocation in the labor market, but it is also a beneficiary. Over the past two years, productivity has soared while unit labor costs have plummeted. By imposing layoffs and wage concessions, U.S. companies are supplying their own demand for a tractable labor market. Private sector union membership is the lowest on record.

Deutsche Bank Chief Economist Joseph LaVorgna notes that profits-per-employee are the highest on record, adding, “I think what investors are missing - and even the Federal Reserve - is the phenomenal health of the corporate sector.”

Due to falling tax revenues, state and local government layoffs are accelerating. By contrast, U.S. companies increased their headcount in November at the fastest pace in three years, marking the tenth consecutive month of private sector job creation.

The headline numbers conceal a dismal reality; after a lost decade of employment growth, the private sector cannot keep pace with new entrants into the workforce.

The few new jobs are unlikely to satisfy Americans who lost careers. In November, temporary labor represented an astonishing 80% of private sector job growth.

Companies are transforming temporary labor into a permanent feature of the American workforce. UPI reports, “This year, 26.2 percent of new private sector jobs are temporary, compared to 10.9 percent in the recovery after the 1990s recession and 7.1 percent in previous recoveries.”

The remainder of 2010 private sector job growth has consisted mainly of low-wage, scant-benefit service sector jobs, especially bars and restaurants, which added 143,000 jobs, growing at four times the rate of the rest of the economy.

Aside from job fairs, large corporations have been conspicuously absent from the tepid jobs recovery. But they are leading the profit recovery.

Part of the reason is the expansion of overseas sales, but the profit recovery is primarily coming off the backs of American workers. After decades of globalization, U.S. multinationals still employ two-thirds of their global workforce from the U.S. (21.1 million out of 31.2 million).

Corporate executives are hammering American workers precisely because they are so dependent on them.

An annual study by USA Today found that private sector paychecks as a share of Americans’ total income fell to 41.9 percent earlier this year, a record low.

Conservative analysts seized on the report as proof of President Obama’s agenda to redistribute wealth from, in their words, those ‘pulling the cart’ to those ‘simply riding in it’. Their accusation withstands the evidence — only it’s corporate executives and wealthy investors enjoying the free ride.

Corporate executives have found a simple formula: the less they contribute to the economy, the more they keep for themselves and shareholders. The Fed’s Flow of Funds reveals corporate profits represented a near record 11.2% of national income in the second quarter.

Non-financial companies have amassed nearly two-trillion in cash, representing 11% of total assets, a sixty year high.

Companies have not deployed the cash on hiring as weak demand and excess capacity plague most industries. Companies have found better use for the cash, as Robert Doll explains, “high cash levels are already generating dividend increases, share buybacks, capital investments and M&A activity — all extremely shareholder friendly.”

Companies invested roughly $262 billion in equipment and software investment in the third quarter.

That compares with nearly $80 billion in share buybacks.

The paradox of substantial liquid assets accompanying a shortfall in investment validates Keynes’ idea that slumps are caused by excess savings. Three decades of lopsided expansions has hampered demand by clotting the circulation of national income in corporate balance sheets.

An article in the July issue of The Economist observes: “business investment is as low as it has ever been as a share of GDP.”

The decades-long shift in the tax burden from corporations to working Americans has accelerated under President Obama.

For the past two years, executives have reported record profits to their shareholders partially because they are paying a pittance in federal taxes.

Corporate taxes as a percentage of GDP in 2009 and 2010 are the lowest on record, just above 1%.

Corporate executives complain that the U.S. has the highest corporate tax rate in the world, but there’s a considerable difference between the statutory 35% rate and what companies actually pay (the effective rate).

Here again, large corporations lead the charge in tax arbitrage. U.S. tax law allows multinationals to indefinitely defer their tax obligations on foreign earned profits until they ‘repatriate’ (send back) the profits to the U.S.

U.S. corporations have increased their overseas stash by 70% in four years, now over $1 trillion — largely by dodging U.S taxes through a practice known as “transfer pricing”.

Transfer pricing allows companies to allocate costs in countries with high tax rates and book profits in low-tax jurisdictions and tax havens — regardless of the origin of sale. U.S. companies are using transfer pricing to avoid U.S. tax obligations to the tune of $60 billion dollars annually, according to a study by Kimberly A. Clausing, an economics professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

The corporate cash glut has become a point of recurrent contention between the Obama administration and corporate executives. In mid December, a group of 20 corporate executives met with the Obama administration and pleaded for a tax holiday on the $1 trillion stashed overseas, claiming the money will spur jobs and investment.

In 2004, corporate executives convinced President Bush and Congress to include a similar amnesty provision in the American Jobs Creation Act; 842 companies participated in the program, repatriating $312 billion back to the U.S. at 5.25% rather than 35%.

In 2009, the Congressional Research Service concluded that most of the money went to stock buybacks and dividends — in direct violation of the Act.

The Obama administration and corporate executives saved American capitalism. The U.S. economy may never recover.

Feel saved yet? (Maybe that's why there's so much of their money in that fundie religious element now?)

They surely think they are "saved." So, Frank Rich is now leaving The New York Times. I'm guessing that we'll soon have notices about Paul Krugman and Nick Kristof also needing to find another place to present the real facts about our economic and social lives. It's the Long March to Election 2012, babies. Hold onto your drawers! From that fantastic site Eye on Miami we learn:

In this fucked up world, Frank Rich's editorials in the Times - sometimes three times as long as standard opinion pieces - stood out as a beacon of clarity if not hope. News that Rich is leaving the Sunday Times is deeply troubling. I can live with the mystery why Rich is leaving one of the most important posts in journalism to a monthly column at New York Magazine. I can't live without a muscular New York Times. Without Frank Rich or someone as keenly observant, the Times is a weaker newspaper.

For more than 30 years, Rich lent the Times uncompromising luminosity on American politics. He was one of our most clear-headed observers of the radical right and its horrid results. As a cultural and political commentator, Rich has the great talent to weave facts in the narrative to which they belong, exposing fabrication, lies and decoding the world we live in. If there is another voice at the Times who can do Rich's work, as well, it would be good to know.

I dislike writing of Rich, in an elegiac way. We are the same generation. Again, it is the Times that worries. Like all major newspapers, the Times is suffering. Last night, I offered a friend a view: that a cultured society would not throw the newspaper business to the Internet wolves, leaving us all to Google News and pathetic advertising vehicles like Fox and ignoramuses masquerading as men and women of sober wisdom. But we are not a cultured society. We are a society made up mostly of idiots, with an even higher percentage in our legislatures and Congress: the underlying fact that pushed Frank Rich to one of the loftiest perches in American journalism.

(Please consider joining Connect A Million Minds. I recommend it highly.) _________________________

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