Tuesday, October 15, 2013

(Roasting Jolly Dick Cheney) David Byrne Slams the Super-Rich, Ways That 1%'s Huge Profits Have Broken the Back of America (For Almost 70 Years the U.S. Has Been the World Leader in Spreading Destruction and Misery Across the Planet) Pension Reform Myths Exposed

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I guess it's almost always true:

You do get what you pay for. And sometimes so much more.

Cheney, Rumsfeld and Other War Criminals Joke About Waterboarding as America Burns

October 9, 2013

Photo Credit: Spirit of America/Shutterstock.com

Talk about torture.

As the nation is dragged toward a debt-ceiling crisis by a band of radical Republicans determined to invalidate laws they don’t like but don’t have the power to repeal, party elders got together for a light-hearted roast of accused war criminal Dick Cheney in New York Tuesday night. The ad in Commentary read:

He was White House chief of staff. He was House minority whip. He was secretary of defense. He was vice president of the United States. Now…he will be the main course.
Ben Smith at BuzzFeed has the exclusive details.  Read them.

Apparently guests shared details of the off-the-record gala, which featured humor from Donald Rumsfeld, Michael Mukasey and spoiled nepotista (and party wrecker) Liz Cheney, who wants to be the first Wyoming senator who’s actually from Virginia. There were light-hearted water-boarding jokes, and someone – reportedly Sen. Joe Lieberman — rocked the house by saying “something to the effect that it’s nice that we’re all here at the Plaza instead of in cages after some war crimes trial,” one of Smith’s sources told him.

If only.

At least a couple of people have a conscience buried under all their money, because they told Smith they thought some of the jokes were inappropriate. “There were some waterboarding jokes that were really tasteless,” one said. “I can see the case for enhanced interrogation techniques after Sept. 11 but I can’t really endorse sitting there drinking wine and fancy dinner at the Plaza laughing uproariously about it.”

But judging from the uproarious laughter reported, most attendees didn’t have a problem with it.

I found my blood boiling after reading Smith’s piece. Our tax dollars keep Cheney alive, on the best healthcare government money can buy, while his political inheritors shut down the government to stop the uninsured from getting help. Doctors keep trying, and failing, to give Cheney a working heart; instead, he seems to be kept alive by spite.

The former vice president and his neocon buddies couldn’t get together to reminisce about their war service, because they all ducked the military — Cheney most famously with five deferments during the Vietnam war (which of course he supported.) In fact, that’s their hallmark:

You might be a neocon if . . . you never met a war you didn’t like, and never met one you would fight in, either. Instead, at the roast, they mocked a man who did serve, Gen. Colin Powell.

And while right-wing nut bags rail against President Obama for running up the deficit, let’s remember it was Cheney who drove that deficit with tax cuts for his wealthy friends and two wars of choice, famously telling his minion, George W. Bush, that “Reagan showed us deficits don’t matter.”

In fact, Reagan showed Cheney something else: That a president could break the law, as in Iran-Contra, and get away with it. 

My friend Charlie Pierce at Esquire has long argued that our current political hostage situation goes back to the Democrats’ failure to do more to punish Iran-Contra lawbreakers. And in fact, the guy “who functioned as lookout and getaway driver for the Iran-Contra crooks,” in Pierce’s words, former Attorney General Ed Meese, is apparently still a key player in the right wing ignore-the-law thug syndicate, helping craft the Tea Party strategy to shut down the government to abolish Obamacare. The Reagan undead are still with us.

Having backed down on Iran-Contra, let’s remember, Democrats saw their next president impeached after a sexual witch hunt. Then they saw Al Gore denied the White House by the right-leaning Supreme Court (Reagan appointee Scalia wrote the decision), after a vote recount in Miami was shut down by preppy GOP thugs in the famous “Brooks Brothers riot.” After that, Democrats compromised with Bush on tax cuts for the rich, an education reform bill that promised but didn’t deliver adequate funding. Most famously, a majority authorized the use of military force in Iraq.

When America had turned against the war, and the people who lied us into it, and Democrats took back the House of Representatives in 2006, Nancy Pelosi immediately took impeachment off the table. Likewise Barack Obama said “we need to look forward, as opposed to looking backwards,” when asked after the 2008 election whether he planned to investigate – not do anything about it, just investigate — possible criminal acts of the Bush administration. (To be fair I should note that Obama continued many Bush-Cheney national security policies.) Taking impeachment off the table may well have been the “right” thing to do for the country, but looking back, don’t you wish Democrats occasionally put the fear of God into their Republican opponents? Because they don’t have any.

People are down on Canada lately for giving us Ted Cruz, but let’s be fair to Canada and remember Cheney doesn’t feel welcome there. Last year he had to back out of an event in Toronto because of fears it was too “dangerous” for him,the National Post reported. “He felt that in Canada the risk of violent protest was simply too high,” said the event promoter who had booked Cheney. The year before, the former vice president wound up trapped in a fancy club in Vancouver for seven hours after allegedly violent protesters amassed outside.

Not in New York.

At the Plaza, the men who mired us in endless war while giving tax breaks to themselves and their plutocrat cronies drank wine and laughed about the good times.

It's good that one of our cultural heroes doesn't feel shy about his opinions.

So many others do.


David Byrne Slams the Super-Rich

October 8, 2013

The phrase “starving artist” may be a cliche, but the ability of creators to afford a living is a serious concern.  Great artists are often known alongside their patrons: Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth, Michelangelo and Lorenzo de Medici.  Today, the great patrons, like YCombinator, are more interested in funding technology: the excitement is about tech geniuses, and financial whizzes, not artistic geniuses or great writers. And so greatness is measured in dollars.

As the gap between the rich and the poor widens to a chasm, will creators be able to afford to flock to urban hubs like New York?  What will happen to great artists and cities if they can’t?

Talking Heads frontman and all-around creative guy David Byrne aptly addressed these issues in an op-ed originally posted yesterday on Creative Time Reports and republished byThe Guardian.  Byrne acknowledges that being an artist has never been easy — even in the glorified New York 70s culture.  But certain things were more prevalent then, like affordable housing and the idea that being a poor artist was something worthwhile.  Byrne puts it beautifully here:

The city is a body and a mind – a physical structure as well as a repository of ideas and information. Knowledge and creativity are resources. If the physical (and financial) parts are functional, then the flow of ideas, creativity and information are facilitated. The city is a fountain that never stops: it generates its energy from the human interactions that take place in it. Unfortunately, we’re getting to a point where many of New York’s citizens have been excluded from this equation for too long. The physical part of our city – the body – has been improved immeasurably. I’m a huge supporter of the bike lanes and the bikeshare program, the new public plazas, the waterfront parks and the functional public transportation system. But the cultural part of the city – the mind – has been usurped by the top 1%.

What, then, is the future of New York, or really of any number of big urban centers, in this new Gilded Age? Does culture have a role to play? If we look at the city as it is now, then we would have to say that it looks a lot like the divided city that presumptive mayor Bill de Blasio has been harping about: most of Manhattan and many parts of Brooklyn are virtual walled communities, pleasure domes for the rich (which, full disclosure, includes me), and aside from those of us who managed years ago to find our niche and some means of income, there is no room for fresh creative types. Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore, so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.

This city doesn’t make things anymore. Creativity, of all kinds, is the resource we have to draw on as a city and a country in order to survive. In the recent past, before the 2008 crash, the best and the brightest were lured into the world of finance. Many a bright kid graduating from university knew that they could become fairly wealthy almost instantly if they found employment at a hedge fund or some similar institution. But before the financial sector came to dominate the world, they might have made things: in publishing, manufacturing, television, fashion, you name it. As in many other countries, the lure of easy bucks hoovered this talent and intelligence up – and made it difficult for those other kinds of businesses to attract any of the top talent.

More data is amassed daily on how Dick Cheney and Friends, Inc., ventures have eviscerated the Middle Class and the rest of the 99%.

5 Depressing Ways That 1%'s Huge Profits Have Broken the Back of America

October 6, 2013

The middle class, once the backbone of a strong American society, has been broken, beaten down, pushed further and further toward poverty levels. Here are five well-documented ways that this has happened.

1. Income Redistribution is Worse than Usually Reported

We are told that the richest 1% doubled its share of income in the past thirty years. But from 1980 to 2006, according to both IRS  and CBO figures, they nearly TRIPLED their share of income -- and that's after-tax income.

After 2006, the recession set everyone back temporarily, but in the first two years of the recovery, the richest 1% captured an incomprehensible 121% of the income gains (others saw debt rise faster than income).

2. Wealth Redistribution is Even Worse than Income Redistribution

In 1983 the poorest 47% of America owned about 2.5 percent of the nation's wealth, an average of $15,000 per family.

In 2009 the poorest 47% of America owned ZERO percent of the nation's wealth (their debt exceeded their assets).

Hard to believe it could get even worse. But because of the housing crisis and recession, the median family net worth dropped 40% between 2007 and 2010, while the richest Americans were regaining [10] all their losses, and beginning an even steeper climb to the top.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this wealth redistribution is that the richest 10% own almost 90 percent of stocks excluding pensions. Since the recession, as the U.S. economy has "recovered," almost two-thirds of the gain was due to growth in the stock market.

3. The Redistribution of Productivity: Boosting Profits rather than Wages

From 2001 to 2011, total corporate profits more than doubled, to almost $2 trillion, while the corporate federal income tax rate was cut in half.

Incomes for 99% of Americans have declined since the recession, with the median household income dropping by 7.3 percent. Low-income jobs ($7.69 to $13.83 per hour) made up 1/5 of the jobs lost to the recession, but accounted for 3/5 of the jobs regained during the recovery.

4. Finance is Outrunning Society, and Taking the Money with Them

Americans once trusted the financial industry to safeguard their retirement money. But high tech has transformed high finance, at a much faster rate than the average investor can understand the changes.

Rolling Stone reports on the loss of $2.3 billion in pension money in Maine - and the simultaneous billing of $2.1 billion by the hedge funds, private-equity funds and venture-capital funds. Another report tells of local funding crises caused by indecipherable "structured finance" deals sold by bankers with promises of big returns. In 2007 a hedge fund manager (John Paulson) made $3.7 billion by conspiring with Goldman Sachs to create packages of risky subprime mortgages, so that in anticipation of a housing crash he could use other people's money to bet against his personally designed sure-to-fail financial instruments.

The high-speed high-tech chicanery continues in the stock market, where programs can intercept 'buy' orders and in a few nanoseconds purchase the stock and then complete the 'buy' order for a few pennies more.

The bankers and hedgers and hustlers have made up new rules for making money, and our government representatives don't know what's going on, or don't care, or don't want to stop the financial games that ultimately generate campaign funds. Finance is quickly printing its own new money. In less than ten years, the world's wealth has approximately doubled, from $113 trillion to $223 trillion. Much of that is sheer speculation: the derivatives industry is worth over $1 quadrillion. But those speculative transactions get cashed in as real money.

It's a dizzying high-speed fantasyland that redistributes the real money of the middle class to the super-rich while inventing new forms of fees and bonuses along the way.

5. Redistribution through Government Manipulation

There are numerous ways the very rich have cajoled and coerced and connived their Congressional partners to redistribute money in their direction. Like the lower capital gains rate. An astonishing 75 percent of dividend and capital gain subsidies go to the richest 1%. That's still not enough for hedge fund managers, who call their income "carried interest" instead of "income" to keep their tax rate at the capital gains rate. And even this small amount may not be paid. Hedge fund managers with incomes in the billions can pay ZERO income tax by deferring their profits through their companies indefinitely.

About two-thirds of nearly $1 trillion in individual "tax expenditures" (tax subsidies from special deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits, capital gains, and loopholes) goes to the top quintile of taxpayers.

Banks have arranged to get lower interest rates, saving them $83 billion per year.

The U.S. federal government spends $100 billion a year on corporate welfare, almost half for big agriculture and the fossil fuel industry.

Another $150 billion per year goes for excessive pharmaceutical expenditures, as the drug companies have lobbied for laws to keep cheaper medications out of the hands of Americans.

Better to Call it Pre-Distribution

The term 'pre-distribution' better represents, according to political scientist Jacob Hacker, "the way in which the market distributes its rewards in the first place." Unregulated free-market capitalism simply makes the rich richer. Even if they have to break the backs of productive middle-class Americans to get their way.

Uncle Noam has a few common sense words for US, but there again, he's been commenting on this situation for years and no one in charge seems to have listened.


Chomsky: For Almost 70 Years the U.S. Has Been the World Leader in Spreading Destruction and Misery Across the Planet

October 7, 2013

The recent Obama-Putin tiff over American exceptionalism reignited an ongoing debate over the Obama Doctrine: Is the president veering toward isolationism? Or will he proudly carry the banner of exceptionalism?

The debate is narrower than it may seem. There is considerable common ground between the two positions, as was expressed clearly by Hans Morgenthau, the founder of the now dominant no-sentimentality "realist" school of international relations.
Throughout his work, Morgenthau describes America as unique among all powers past and present in that it has a "transcendent purpose" that it "must defend and promote" throughout the world: "the establishment of equality in freedom."
The competing concepts "exceptionalism" and "isolationism" both accept this doctrine and its various elaborations but differ with regard to its application.
One extreme was vigorously defended by President Obama in his Sept. 10 address to the nation: "What makes America different," he declared, "what makes us exceptional," is that we are dedicated to act, "with humility, but with resolve," when we detect violations somewhere.
"For nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security," a role that "has meant more than forging international agreements; it has meant enforcing them."
The competing doctrine, isolationism, holds that we can no longer afford to carry out the noble mission of racing to put out the fires lit by others. It takes seriously a cautionary note sounded 20 years ago by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that "granting idealism a near exclusive hold on our foreign policy" may lead us to neglect our own interests in our devotion to the needs of others.
Between these extremes, the debate over foreign policy rages.
At the fringes, some observers reject the shared assumptions, bringing up the historical record: for example, the fact that "for nearly seven decades" the United States has led the world in aggression and subversion - overthrowing elected governments and imposing vicious dictatorships, supporting horrendous crimes, undermining international agreements and leaving trails of blood, destruction and misery.
To these misguided creatures, Morgenthau provided an answer. A serious scholar, he recognized that America has consistently violated its "transcendent purpose."
But to bring up this objection, he explains, is to commit "the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds." It is the transcendent purpose of America that is "reality"; the actual historical record is merely "the abuse of reality."
In short, "American exceptionalism" and "isolationism" are generally understood to be tactical variants of a secular religion, with a grip that is quite extraordinary, going beyond normal religious orthodoxy in that it can barely even be perceived. Since no alternative is thinkable, this faith is adopted reflexively.
Others express the doctrine more crudely. One of President Reagan's U.N. ambassadors, Jeane Kirkpatrick, devised a new method to deflect criticism of state crimes. Those unwilling to dismiss them as mere "blunders" or "innocent naivete" can be charged with "moral equivalence" - of claiming that the U.S. is no different from Nazi Germany, or whoever the current demon may be. The device has since been widely used to protect power from scrutiny.
Even serious scholarship conforms. Thus in the current issue of the journal Diplomatic History, scholar Jeffrey A. Engel reflects on the significance of history for policy makers.
Engel cites Vietnam, where, "depending on one's political persuasion," the lesson is either "avoidance of the quicksand of escalating intervention [isolationism] or the need to provide military commanders free rein to operate devoid of political pressure" - as we carried out our mission to bring stability, equality and freedom by destroying three countries and leaving millions of corpses.
The Vietnam death toll continues to mount into the present because of the chemical warfare that President Kennedy initiated there - even as he escalated American support for a murderous dictatorship to all-out attack, the worst case of aggression during Obama's "seven decades."
Another "political persuasion" is imaginable: the outrage Americans adopt when Russia invades Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. But the secular religion bars us from seeing ourselves through a similar lens.
One mechanism of self-protection is to lament the consequences of our failure to act. Thus New York Times columnist David Brooks, ruminating on the drift of Syria to "Rwanda-like" horror, concludes that the deeper issue is the Sunni-Shiite violence tearing the region asunder.
That violence is a testimony to the failure "of the recent American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal" and the loss of what former foreign service officer Gary Grappo calls the "moderating influence of American forces."
Those still deluded by "abuse of reality" - that is, fact - might recall that the Sunni-Shiite violence resulted from the worst crime of aggression of the new millennium, the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And those burdened with richer memories might recall that the Nuremberg Trials sentenced Nazi criminals to hanging because, according to the Tribunal's judgment, aggression is "the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
The same lament is the topic of a celebrated study by Samantha Power, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In "A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide," Power writes about the crimes of others and our inadequate response.
She devotes a sentence to one of the few cases during the seven decades that might truly rank as genocide: the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. Tragically, the United States "looked away," Power reports.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, her predecessor as U.N. ambassador at the time of the invasion, saw the matter differently. In his book "A Dangerous Place," he described with great pride how he rendered the U.N. "utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook" to end the aggression, because "the United States wished things to turn out as they did."
And indeed, far from looking away, Washington gave a green light to the Indonesian invaders and immediately provided them with lethal military equipment. The U.S. prevented the U.N. Security Council from acting and continued to lend firm support to the aggressors and their genocidal actions, including the atrocities of 1999, until President Clinton called a halt - as could have happened anytime during the previous 25 years.

But that is mere abuse of reality.

It is all too easy to continue, but also pointless. Brooks is right to insist that we should go beyond the terrible events before our eyes and reflect about the deeper processes and their lessons.

Among these, no task is more urgent than to free ourselves from the religious doctrines that consign the actual events of history to oblivion and thereby reinforce our basis for further "abuses of reality."

Why the Rich and Powerful Have Less Empathy

David and Matt do the public service for us on this current nonsense legend. Funny how when the MSM trumpet nonsense again and again it takes on a life of truthiness.

The Myths Behind Public-Employee Pension "Reform"

By David Sirota and Matt Taibbi

San Francisco Chronicle, 10/11/13

From Wisconsin's controversial Gov. Scott Walker to New Jersey's Chris Christie, politicians all over seem to be telling us the answer is yes. The fiscal end is nigh, these leaders say, if America doesn't act soon to slay one of the last great budgetary dragons held over from the entitlement age: our allegedly outmoded, unsustainably expensive system of state and municipal pensions.
In the new fable, state and municipal workers are presented as the welfare queens of our age, historical anachronisms living fat and happy in the competition-free panacea of public service, and shamelessly living off the tax dollars generated entirely by the innovation of America's true workforce - its go-getting private-sector employees, who long ago stopped expecting their bosses to give them real health and retirement plans.
To them, the old-fashioned defined-benefit pension plan, the one that guaranteed a unionized state worker extensive health benefits and a sizable monthly retirement check until his (invariably too-distant) death, is the glaring budgetary inefficiency of our age, the first place we must turn to make the fiscal cuts if we don't want to become the next Detroit.
Pension reform advocates have cited these tales to make their legislative pitches. In state after state, politically active billionaires such as former Enron executive John Arnold, finance-sector think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, and foundations viewed as centrist, such as the Pew Center on the States, have all pushed to cut public workers' guaranteed retirement income, transform pensions into 401(k)-style individual accounts, and turn over the management of pension money to, well, people like the hedge-fund CEOs on the board of the Manhattan Institute. Such reforms are then portrayed as benevolent and transparent initiatives to protect taxpayers and balance budgets.
To a lot of Americans, these purported pension solutions seem logical because the underlying stories about public pensions are compelling. Most Americans know a retired cop or teacher collecting a pension check. Few know a hedge fund CEO.
But are those stories true? It is a particularly important question for California, as Arnold begins financing a ballot initiative campaign to radically alter the state's pension system.
When we evaluated the ubiquitous pension narratives (Taibbi for a lengthy feature in Rolling Stone and Sirota for a report for a progressive think tank, the Institute for America's Future) we both found the same three problems.
One was that the legend of the lazy, budget-devouring public-sector employee as the cause of America's fiscal crises has in many cases been carefully manufactured by Wall-Street-funded organizations. Their goal is to pretend that modest retirement benefits are the cause of pension shortfalls. They promote this story even though data show that stock market declines from fraud in the financial services industry were most responsible for those shortfalls.

The second problem is that the pension initiatives put forward by these reformers and the conservative politicians they back often propose moving America's public pension money into labyrinthine and extremely expensive "alternative investment" programs. This is done in the name of saving taxpayer money, even though these "alternative investments" involve fees paid to billionaire money managers that are often nearly as high as the cuts to public worker benefits. In many cases, that means little real savings for taxpayers and less income for retirees - but a huge payout to Wall Street.
 . . . The third and most disturbing thing we both found is that many states have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide the details of these pension reform plans. That means public workers are kept in the dark about where their money is being invested and about how much of their dwindling nest egg is being blown on fees for high-risk Manhattan hedge funds and private equity firms.
This secrecy is particularly alarming.
In more than a dozen states, legislators have enacted exemptions for hedge funds and other alternative investments to laws such as the Freedom of Information Act. Other states simply fail the transparency test. Rhode Island illustrates what that kind of thing means in practice. There, state Treasurer Gina Raimondo cited the need to protect Wall Street's proprietary information as a justification to hide the cost estimates of the new pension system she championed in 2012. Only after that system was ratified by the state Legislature did former Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer Ted Siedle estimate that the reforms will take the roughly $2.3 billion cut to workers' cost-of-living adjustments over 20 years and use it to pay roughly $2.1 billion in new hedge-fund fees. Raimondo later relented and disclosed at least $70 million in fees for next year alone.
To justify retirement benefit cuts, reformers point to a 30-year, $1.38 trillion gap in state pension finances as supposed proof that states are broke. However, that annual $46 billion shortfall is small in comparison to the at least $80 billion that the New York Times estimates that states and cities spend each year on subsidies for corporations. But because these subsidies are often hidden, the Times notes that it remains impossible to "know the value of all (the) awards" or "how many jobs are created" from them.
Thanks to this lack of transparency, the result is preposterous trade-offs such as the following: Rhode Island giving an infamous $75 million loan guarantee to Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling's doomed video-game company, while simultaneously pleading poverty and cutting retirement benefits for police and firefighters in the name of budget austerity.

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