Tuesday, October 30, 2012

G.O.P. Split Over Whether to Emphasize Misogyny or Racism & Are You Also An Accomplice to Murder?

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The un-In Crowd.

October 26, 2012

G.O.P. Split Over Whether to Emphasize Misogyny or Racism

Andy Borowitz


(Photograph - Michael Conroy/AP)

NEW HAMPSHIRE (The Borowitz Report)—With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, there is a deep divide among Republican leaders over whether to emphasize misogyny or racism as the campaign’s closing theme.

In one camp is the Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who says that his view that God is sometimes O.K. with rape is “gaining real traction with a key demographic: men who don’t like women very much.”

“I can’t tell you how many misogynists have come up to me at my rallies and said, ‘Thank you for saying what you said,’ ” he told reporters today. “I think they’re like, finally, someone’s taking a more nuanced position on rape.”

But in the other camp is the former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who worries that the Republican Party’s emphasis on misogyny is threatening to drown out its “winning message of racism.”

“I understand the appeal of Mourdock’s anti-woman theme, but I worry that it’s going to overshadow our core value of racism, which is still our best shot at winning this thing,” he said. “In politics, you’ve got to dance with the one who brung you.”

Hoping to heal a possible rift with so little time left until Election Day, the R.N.C. chairman Reince Priebus said today that there is room for both views in today’s Republican Party: “Our ‘big tent’ message to voters should be this: come for the misogyny, stay for the racism.”

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Never fail to consult Arthur Silber.


October 20, 2012

Accomplices to Murder

I.   A Meeting in a Park

He wondered why almost no one visited this small corner of the park. How peaceful and lovely it is here, he thought. A soft breeze gently rippled the water in the pond. He thought that the families with young children must prefer the much larger lake; the children enjoyed feeding the birds that gathered there. There were no birds here; there were no signs of life at all. Perhaps that's why it's so peaceful. He laughed at himself reprovingly for having such a thought. I sometimes think you don't like people very much, he chastised himself. He reminded himself that he cared about people very much. He had dedicated his life to protecting innocent people. Ah, you're not so bad, he joked to himself. You're just tired. He was tired, and he was not entirely happy about his task this morning. But he recognized what needed to be done, as he always did.

He leaned back on the bench and closed his eyes. Let yourself relax, just for a few minutes. He had learned to do this while remaining fully alert to the slightest sound, so he heard the soft footsteps as another person entered the secluded haven. He opened his eyes and turned toward the sound. He hated the fact that the woman had the girl with her. But there was no other way to do it. Damn it, he thought. He smiled, a warm, genuine smile. "Good morning," he said.

"Oh ... hello," the woman said. She looked momentarily disconcerted. He was an attractive man, well-dressed in a business suit. He has a kind face, she thought. She offered a small smile in return.

"Please come and sit down," he said. He moved closer to one end of the bench to make room for them. After a moment, the woman walked over to the bench, still holding the girl's hand.

"Thank you."

After the woman and the girl settled themselves, the woman opened a bag she was carrying. "Let's have our cookie now, Joanna," she said to the girl. Joanna's face brightened with delight as she extended her hand to take the cookie. "Thank you, grandma." "You're welcome, darling."

The grandmother glanced again at the man to her side. It is a kind face, she thought. "We always buy a few extra ones. We probably shouldn't," she laughed gently, "but they're so good. Would you like one?"

"Only if you're sure you don't want to save it for later."

"No, no, we have plenty, believe me. Please have one."

"Thank you very much." After a moment, he said, "My goodness, these are delicious."

They ate their cookies in silence. When they were finished, they continued to sit there for a few minutes without speaking, enjoying the soothing peace of this forgotten corner of the world.

"I was surprised to see you, to see anyone. Joanna and I have been coming here for months, and there's never been anyone else here. We feel as if it's our secret place." She laughed, very gently.

"I'm sorry," the man said. "I feel as if I'm trespassing."

"No, no, I shouldn't have said that. It's a public park. I just wasn't expecting it. But you seem to enjoy this spot the way we do."

"It's beautiful here. So peaceful. You can almost forget the rest of the world is there."

"I know. Sometimes, these days, I need to forget that. There are just too many upsetting things happening."

An expression of deep unhappiness flickered across the grandmother's face. "Oh, dear. I shouldn't have said that either. I try not to speak of such things when I'm with Joanna." She put her arm around the girl, giving her a gentle hug, and kissed her on the forehead. "it's all right, sweetheart. Nothing at all for you to worry about. Just things that old people think about sometimes."

"I understand, grandma. It's okay. I always feel safe with you." The woman hugged her again.

"A wise child," the man said. He and the grandmother exchanged a warm glance of understanding.

"But I know that you've been very worried for a long time," the man went on. The woman turned a mildly puzzled face toward him. "You ... know?"

"I'm sorry," he said. "I tend to explain this badly. There's never an easy way to start." He reached into his pocket and took out a small folder. "I work for the Department of Internal Security. Here's my identification badge."

He extended it toward the woman, who looked at it for a long moment. "Richard Maddox," she read out loud. "Yes, that's me. It's as bad a picture of me as the one on my driver's license." She offered only a wary smile in response to his soft laugh. "I ... I don't understand," she said after a moment.

"Our Department didn't have any particular reason to be aware of you. It was just the result of the random searching we do, through emails, comments on websites, things like that. I'm sure you've heard about all those programs. There have certainly been lots of stories about them. At first, we didn't like all that coverage. But when we saw that people quickly got used to the idea that we kept track of so many things, we decided the publicity was a great advantage. People didn't protest all that much, not in ways that we might have cared about. People understand that we're just trying to keep them safe. You understand that, don't you, Mrs. Hamilton?"

Her body jerked slightly in surprise. It was the first time he had used her name. "I ... this ... this is making me very uncomfortable. Perhaps we'd better go." She gripped Joanna's hand firmly and started to rise.

"Please don't go," he said. "I'm here to reassure you. Please. I need to talk to you." He had placed his hand on her arm; the pressure he exerted was strong and insistent. She experienced a rising sense of danger. She looked around the little glen, as if searching for other people, for safety.

"That's right," he said. "We're in the middle of the park. What could possibly happen here? We're just talking. Please."

It's silly to be frightened of him, she told herself. He was right. They were just talking. They were out in public. What could happen here? She relaxed, just a little, and sat back on the bench.

"So what made you aware of me in particular?"

"Well, you left lots on comments on lots of websites. And you expressed a lot of worries and concerns -- about Social Security and Medicare, about the treatment of women, about the environment, about the Supreme Court. A lot of concern, and a lot of comments. And a lot of emails, too. Of course, we agree with all your worries about what the other party might do, but we were upset to see that you were so worried about what the President would do. And you expressed so much concern about the President and his plans that we thought you were almost asking to be noticed, asking to be reassured. That's why I've come to talk to you."

She listened very intently. As he spoke, she was thinking, well, that's true. She had left lots of comments about those subjects, she had written lots of emails. She did want her concerns to be noticed, to be understood. And she had seen and heard all those stories about the government's surveillance programs. If she were honest with herself, she realized, she couldn't say she was surprised.

"Yes. Yes, I see," she said after a few moments had passed. "I would like to believe the President will make sure the policies he says he believes in are followed and protected. I guess ... I just didn't expect to be reassured in such a personal way."

"It's a new day, Mrs. Hamilton. A new time. We have dangerous enemies. Sometimes they turn up in unexpected places. We have to be vigilant. The President has talked a lot about all of that, too. I'm sure you're aware of what he's said about how committed he is to protecting innocent Americans, aren't you?"

"Yes ... yes, I suppose you're right. I just hadn't thought it through all the way."

"Almost no one does. I have to admit that I find that very disappointing. I mean, I'd like to think people understand the meaning of what they say they support. On the other hand, it makes our job easier in many ways." Mrs. Hamilton began to look worried again, even frightened. Damn, he said to himself. You always say too much in these meetings. This isn't the time to question the complexities of what you do, what you have to do.

"But look," he quickly went on. "As I said, I'm here to reassure you. You don't need to worry anymore about Social Security or Medicare, or Supreme Court appointments, or any of the other things you've written about so often. So often." He smiled at her, and quietly laughed. She finally offered a small laugh in return. "The President is fully committed to the policies he's talked about, the policies you support. Of course, we never know how obstructionist the other party will be, or what difficulties they'll cause. So there are some elements that aren't within the President's control. Still, to the greatest extent possible, the President will make sure all those things you're so strongly committed to will be protected. We want to make sure you know that."

"All right. But ... but, couldn't someone have just sent me a letter?" She looked at him with an amused expression.

"Sure, I suppose we could have done it that way. But everyone complains about how impersonal government has become, the curse of bureaucracy and all that. You've written about that, too."

"Yes, yes, I have." She laughed again.

"So we thought a personal visit would be much better. We want to emphasize how strongly we're committed to the policies we all want. Much better to hear it from someone in person, don't you think?"

"It is much more convincing than a form letter." She smiled. After a moment, she asked, "And that's it? That's what you wanted to tell me?"

He extended his arms, palms turned upwards, as if to say, That's all I've got. He still wasn't able to lie about it right to someone's face, especially to a lovely woman like Mrs. Hamilton. Not that it mattered at this point. But still.

"We should be going. Say goodbye to the nice man, Joanna." They had stood up. Joanna turned to Maddox and said, "Bye!," smiling radiantly. God damn it, he thought. He had stood, too. He raised his hand and gave a little wave.

They had taken just a couple of steps when he spoke again.

"Mrs. Hamilton." She stopped; she and Joanna turned to him. "Yes?" She didn't look at all frightened any longer. It usually happened that way. It always surprised him.

"I'm afraid there is one more thing. After we'd become aware of you because of all those comments and emails, we did some further checking. Just routine stuff. But it turned up some donations you've been making regularly to a few charities. Two of those charities appear on the list of organizations we've designated as terrorist groups."

"What are you talking about? I don't give money to terrorist groups."

"I realize that. You thought you were donating to charities. But the charities are fronts for terrorist organizations. And you've made donations to them regularly for years. And it wouldn't matter so much, except that we recently received intelligence indicating that one of those terrorist organizations is planning a major attack right here in the city. It's something big, so stopping the attack has been given the highest priority. We have to do everything possible to stop it, and to stop everyone who has any connection to it. Any connection at all. I've checked and rechecked all of this with the main office. We have no choice, not if we want to protect innocent American lives."

He said all this with great calm and deliberation. He wanted to be sure she understood. Not that it mattered, he told himself again. But still. He saw the color drain from her face. She gripped Joanna's hand with all her strength. He saw that, too. She understood.

"To stop everyone ..." Her voice trailed into nothingness.

"Yes. Everyone."

"But ... but we're in the park. Someone could come by at any moment."

"No one ever comes here, except you. And Joanna. I can't tell you how sorry I am that Joanna is with you. There wasn't any other way to do it. But Joanna ... well. Unavoidable collateral damage. Awful."

He looked genuinely pained. She thought, He still has a kind face. How can he have a kind face? In the next moment, he took his hand out of his pocket and raised the gun.

In the same moment, she started to scream, "Run, Joanna, r---." There were two soft sounds, pock-pock. A small hole opened in Joanna's forehead, followed a split second later by a hole in Mrs. Hamilton's forehead. For a moment, both bodies remained frozen in place. Then they both slowly crumpled to the ground, and the blood began to pool around their heads.

He put the gun back in his pocket. He looked around to make certain no one else could be seen. That wasn't actually a problem. The drones that regularly swept over the park would pick up anyone who might have witnessed the murders. If there were witnesses, they could be dealt with easily enough. But it was better not to have any loose ends.

He began to walk out of the glen. When he reached the turn in the path, he turned back to take one last look. The pools of blood continued to spread on the ground beneath the bodies. There was nothing else to see in this quiet corner of the park.

There were still no birds here. There was no sign of life at all.

II. The Meaning of What You Support

This story is not fiction. Yes, I've invented the characters, the dialogue and the specific actions. But in terms of its essentials, I repeat for emphasis: this is not fiction. This is the meaning of the policies you support and sanction if you vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney for President. If you vote for either man, you condone the murders of Mrs. Hamilton and Joanna.

In fact, events exactly like what transpires in my story have happened countless times over the last several years. They haven't happened here in the United States -- at least, not that we know of. But such murders take place regularly in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, and in additional countries. The victims include American citizens. But they were murdered abroad, not in America. The specific locale is irrelevant. If you sanction murders that happen abroad -- murders of Americans or people who are not Americans -- you sanction murders here at home as well.

If you vote for Obama or Romney, that is certainly your right -- although you will forever forfeit the right to speak of "rights" at all. If a human being can be murdered for any reason, or for no reason at all, merely on the arbitrary order of someone who claims the power to issue such orders, she has no rights at all. You thus sanction the destruction of all rights, of all human beings -- including yours. The victim may be Mrs. Hamilton, or Joanna -- or you.

If you vote for Obama or Romney, do so proudly. I want you to say: "I vote for Obama/Romney proudly. I am proud to be a knowing accomplice to their murders, including the murders of innocent human beings." Say that, and those of us who refuse to surrender our souls will know where you stand.

This is not a complicated issue. It is stunningly straightforward. Those who seek to complicate and confuse it do so because they will not identify the meaning of their support, either to themselves or to anyone else. When they wish still to be regarded as "civilized," murderers and their accomplices will engage in endless irrelevant arguments and invent complexities where none exist. Don't let them get away with it. They are knowing accomplices to murder. Make them say it.

I have explained this issue repeatedly for several years. For those who remain confused -- and I am marginally sympathetic in certain cases, given the strenuous efforts exerted by so many to create confusions out of nothing -- allow me to offer a brief review. In "Murder with Malice Aforethought" from June 2010, I wrote:

Obama and his administration claim the "right" to murder anyone in the world, wherever he or she may be, for whatever reason they choose -- or for no reason at all. Obama and his administration recognize no upper limit to the number of people they can murder in this manner: they can murder as many people as they wish. And they claim there is nothing at all that may impede their exercise of this "right."

This is the game entire. Understand this: once Obama and his administration have claimed this, there is nothing left to argue about. They can murder you -- and they can murder anyone else at all. What in the name of anything you hold holy remains to be "debated" once a vile, damnable "right" of this kind has been claimed?

This is a war crime [under the Nuremberg Principles]: "murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave-labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory..."

It is also a crime against humanity: "Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population..."

Under Principle VII, all those who are complicit in these crimes are also guilty.
Expanding on this in the second part of "Reflections on a Bestial Culture" in June of this year, I said:

Be sure to understand this issue. The claim of absolute power -- the claim of dominion over all of human life itself, and the assertion of a damnable "right" to unleash death whenever and in whatever direction they wish -- is not remotely equivalent to any dispute over lowering Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age, or any similar question, at least it is not equivalent to any sane person. The claim of absolute power is sui generis; it is a claim unlike any other. It is not -- I repeat: it is not -- simply another "question of policy." It is certainly possible that, in particular cases, the deprivation of medical benefits (as just one example) may ultimately result in a person's death sooner than would have occurred otherwise. But for some period of time, however brief, the persons so affected are left with the possibility of action; they can still try to save themselves, even if those efforts are finally unsuccessful. But the claim of a "right" to dispense death arbitrarily -- the claim that the State may murder anyone it chooses, whenever it desires -- constitutes a separate category altogether, a category of which this particular claim is the sole unit. When death is unleashed, all possibility of action is ended forever.

Yet you can read various harsh denunciations of this policy, and you will almost never encounter language of the kind I employ here. Even for the most vehement of "dissenters," the assertion of absolute power is treated as another in a list of wrongs, perhaps an especially egregious wrong, but not a claim which demands a fundamentally different response. For such writers, it is certainly nothing to take to the streets about; it is no cause for withdrawing one's support in every way possible from a system of evil dedicated to death.
Later in the same essay, in discussing the Obama administration's urgent participation in the lengthy New York Times article about Obama's Kill List, I wrote:
[T]his in effect announces the identity of the article's true author: the author is the U.S. government, the State itself. Through these "advisers," the highest levels of the U.S. government have told the story they want to tell. And what is that story? It is simply this:
The State is become death. Our target can be anyone we choose. Yes, this means you. No, there is nowhere to run.
It is not every day that the State announces in the august pages of "the paper of record" that its primary program, the central mission to which it patiently and carefully devotes its vast resources, is the elimination of human life, wherever, whenever and to whatever extent it wishes.
This is what you support if you vote for Obama. Let the meaning of the phrase sink in: a vote for Obama. If you vote for Obama, you vote for the murder of anyone, anywhere, anytime. Your vote is not accompanied by a short treatise which explains that you vote for policies one through five, but against policies six through 10. Your vote is an either-or proposition. This, too, is not a complicated issue. If you vote for Obama and you oppose his murder program, how do you propose to stop his murders if he is reelected? You're not going to stop them. Anyone who votes for him knows that. It's worse than pointless to argue the point with them. They know the murders will continue.

The same is true for Romney. As one example, look at this exchange from the Republican primary debate on November 12, 2011:
Scott Pelley: And that is time. Thank you, sir. Governor Romney. Governor Romney, recently President Obama ordered the death of an American citizen who was suspected of terrorist activity overseas. Is it appropriate for the American president on the president's say-so alone to order the death of an American citizen suspected of terrorism?

Mitt Romney: Absolutely.
Give the bastard a point for clarity and brevity. The totality of Romney's views make it indisputable that he means that "Absolutely." A vote for Romney is a vote for murder without end, of anyone, anywhere, anytime. Grant the principle in one case, and you have granted it in all cases.

This issue is a very simple one. This question stands alone; there is no other issue that begins to approach it. I understand very well that people care passionately about ensuring the continuation of Social Security (they hope), or protecting the environment (they hope), or establishing full equality for women (they hope). Take another look at the story that began this essay. Even if every other issue you care about is, in fact, advanced and safeguarded by Obama (or Romney, if that's your preference), if the President and his associates have the power to order the murder of anyone for any reason, that is the end of the argument. If you're dead, the other issues don't matter a damn. If people can't understand this, it's because they refuse to understand it.

Many people refuse to understand it, including famous and well-regarded writers and dissenters. It gives me no pleasure to offer harsh criticism of men like Daniel Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky, but this is not a time for avoiding confrontation and argument. The repeated public announcement of the State's assertion of absolute power demands the most forceful response possible. I hold both men in very high regard for their past work (and even for some of their more recent work); in the case of Ellsberg, I am deeply grateful for his past acts of astonishing heroism. But past work and past actions are no guarantee for the future. People change; there lies the possibility of glory, and the possibility of ignominy. I expect, I demand to be held to the same standard myself.

With regard to the following passages, keep in mind what I said in the earlier essay:
Even for the most vehement of "dissenters," the assertion of absolute power is treated as another in a list of wrongs, perhaps an especially egregious wrong, but not a claim which demands a fundamentally different response. For such writers, it is certainly nothing to take to the streets about; it is no cause for withdrawing one's support in every way possible from a system of evil dedicated to death.
Daniel Ellsberg recently wrote the following. To make certain his argument can be evaluated fairly, I offer an excerpt which is not brief:
An activist colleague recently said to me: “I hear you’re supporting Obama.”

I was startled, and took offense. “Supporting Obama? Me?!”

“I lose no opportunity publicly,” I told him angrily, to identify Obama as a tool of Wall Street, a man who’s decriminalized torture and is still complicit in it, a drone assassin, someone who’s launched an unconstitutional war, supports kidnapping and indefinite detention without trial, and has prosecuted more whistleblowers like myself than all previous presidents put together. “Would you call that support?”

My friend said, “But on Democracy Now you urged people in swing states to vote for him! How could you say that? I don’t live in a swing state, but I will not and could not vote for Obama under any circumstances.”

My answer was: a Romney/Ryan administration would be no better -- no different -- on any of the serious offenses I just mentioned or anything else, and it would be much worse, even catastrophically worse, on a number of other important issues: attacking Iran, Supreme Court appointments, the economy, women’s reproductive rights, health coverage, safety net, climate change, green energy, the environment.

I told him: “I don’t ‘support Obama.’ I oppose the current Republican Party. This is not a contest between Barack Obama and a progressive candidate. The voters in a handful or a dozen close-fought swing states are going to determine whether Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are going to wield great political power for four, maybe eight years, or not.”

As Noam Chomsky said recently, “The Republican organization today is extremely dangerous, not just to this country, but to the world. It’s worth expending some effort to prevent their rise to power, without sowing illusions about the Democratic alternatives.”

Following that logic, he’s said to an interviewer what my friend heard me say to Amy Goodman: “If I were a person in a swing state, I’d vote against Romney/Ryan, which means voting for Obama because there is no other choice.”
Note the list of "serious offenses" that I highlighted. Ellsberg lists "a drone assassin" as another "serious offense." It's not another "serious offense." It is the ultimate offense -- against civilization, against every person now alive, against life itself.

A vote for Obama is support of Obama's assassination program. Ellsberg can call it whatever he wants; the fact of his support is not altered. I assume that Ellsberg's report of Chomsky's identical view on this question is accurate. (If it is not, I would appreciate being pointed to a source for refutation.) Assuming their views to be the same, they are both accomplices to murder. I want them to say it.

Certain remarks of Glenn Greenwald's fall into a related, but different category. The Greenwald comments are different because, at least in this column -- from December 31, 2011 -- Greenwald is at pains to say "that I am not 'endorsing' or expressing support for anyone’s candidacy..." (I do not read Greenwald with any regularity, so if he has since endorsed Obama, I would be interested to know that. I don't read him regularly in large part because of the error I am about to discuss, and a number of similar errors; see the concluding section of this essay for one example.) The column offers a detailed examination of Obama's "heinous views" and actions "on a slew of critical issues," and contrasts Obama's views with those of Ron Paul. Greenwald (correctly) criticizes those who seek to minimize or avoid just how heinous Obama's record is.

Then he writes (the italics and highlighting are his):
It’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else. An honest line of reasoning in this regard would go as follows:

Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.
Without my adopting it, that is at least an honest, candid, and rational way to defend one’s choice. It is the classic lesser-of-two-evils rationale, the key being that it explicitly recognizes that both sides are “evil”: meaning it is not a Good v. Evil contest but a More Evil v. Less Evil contest.
As in the Ellsberg example, Greenwald lists "American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process" together with other heinous policies and acts. To be sure, the slaughter of Muslims (and not only children), the evils of the prison complex and the Surveillance State, and the other items he lists are indeed heinous -- but murder by arbitrary whim remains the ultimate heinous crime. These are not policy choices of equal weight and meaning.

As I have written before: "the claim of a 'right' to dispense death arbitrarily -- the claim that the State may murder anyone it chooses, whenever it desires -- constitutes a separate category altogether, a category of which this particular claim is the sole unit. When death is unleashed, all possibility of action is ended forever." For this reason -- and it is the only reason required -- it is not "perfectly rational and reasonable" to decide that "the evils of their candidate are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate."

There is no evil beyond the claimed "right" to murder by arbitrary edict, to murder anyone, anywhere, anytime. If you support this particular evil -- and if you vote for Obama, you support it -- then you will support anything.

I want to mention two comparatively minor points. The inclusion in Greenwald's list of the purported preferred policies of "a President with no association with racist views in a newsletter" is a reference to the Paul controversy about this issue. But it's an astonishing claim to make in Obama's favor. Obama himself has expressed viciously racist views (see generally this, as well as all the links collected there; see this, too, as well as this for a narrower example concerning black fathers) -- and much more significantly, the most lethal racism is embodied in countless aspects of Obama's foreign policy, a subject which I recall Greenwald himself has addressed. To mention "associations with racist views in a newsletter" in the context of Obama's own record is trivial and ludicrous.

The second point is that, in response to this Greenwald post, Roy Edroso offered some very heated criticism of Greenwald's argument. Greenwald made some remarks in Edroso's comment section, but all the comments have disappeared from Edroso's site, apparently the result of a site redesign. However, I'd saved the comment; Edroso references Greenwald's comment in an update to his post, and I'm certain Greenwald would confirm its content if questioned. In any case, the comment merely repeats the essence of Greenwald's argument as set forth in his original column, so I need not rely on it for my criticism. But his rewording is worth noting. Here is Greenwald's comment as I had saved it originally (again, the italics and highlighting are Greenwald's):

Roy - I appreciate the post, but I actually did lay out in detail exactly why one could still rationally and reasonably support Obama despite the issues you flagged (on which I do think Paul is clearly better). This is what I said could constitute exactly that sort of endorsement:

Yes, I’m willing to continue to have Muslim children slaughtered by covert drones and cluster bombs, and America’s minorities imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands for no good reason, and the CIA able to run rampant with no checks or transparency, and privacy eroded further by the unchecked Surveillance State, and American citizens targeted by the President for assassination with no due process, and whistleblowers threatened with life imprisonment for “espionage,” and the Fed able to dole out trillions to bankers in secret, and a substantially higher risk of war with Iran (fought by the U.S. or by Israel with U.S. support) in exchange for less severe cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, the preservation of the Education and Energy Departments, more stringent environmental regulations, broader health care coverage, defense of reproductive rights for women, stronger enforcement of civil rights for America’s minorities, a President with no associations with racist views in a newsletter, and a more progressive Supreme Court.

I think it's far from clear that the issues in bold are insign[i]ficant or outweighed by the horrible positions Obama has taken.
No, it's not "far from clear." Obama's assertion of an unrestricted "right" to murder whomever he chooses for whatever reason he likes is of the greatest "significance," and it "outweighs" every other item.

As I noted, since Greenwald did not endorse Obama in his column (and has not, to my knowledge), I view this as different in that sense from the Ellsberg-Chomsky argument. Nonetheless, failing to identify the full meaning of the claim to absolute power -- and why the claim is fundamentally different from every other issue -- remains a grievous error, one which necessarily must lead to horrifying and tragic results.

III. The Lesson of History

The twentieth century saw a series of conflicts and catastrophes that are terrifying to contemplate. Yet as I have sometimes remarked, as awful as the slaughter and devastation were, what sometimes almost seems worse to me is that it appears we have learned nothing at all.

Over six years ago, on September 30, 2006, I wrote "Thus the World Was Lost" after the passage of the Military Commissions Act. Most people have already forgotten that Act; it is almost never mentioned now. We have learned nothing, and we remember nothing. After discussing that Act and its meaning, I noted: "People often exhibit a visceral rejection of comparisons of our dire predicament to the rise of Nazi Germany." I addressed that rejection in the earlier article.

I then offered some excerpts from a book by Milton Mayer. I thought of editing the excerpts for inclusion here, but I then decided to repeat the excerpts as I had first posted them. The continuing relevance of these passages grieves me more deeply than I can find words to express.

This is what I wrote:

Finally, I offer several excerpts from Milton Mayer's illuminating and frightening book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45. I will not belabor the parallels,and I leave you free to draw what conclusions you will.

In Chapter 14, "Collective Shame," Mayer refers to the "excesses" of the "radical" Nazis, and discusses how some people attempted to oppose them [the highlights throughout are mine]:

"Yes," said my colleague, shaking his head, "the 'excesses' and the 'radicals.' We all opposed them, very quietly. So your two 'little men' thought they must join, as good men, good Germans, even as good Christians, and when enough of them did they would be able to change the party. They would 'bore from within.' 'Big men' told themselves that, too, in the usual sincerity that required them only to abandon one little principle after another, to throw away, little by little, all that was good. I was one of those men.

"You know," he went on, "when men who understand what is happening--the motion, that is, of history, not the reports of single events or developments--when such men do not object or protest, men who do not understand cannot be expected to. How many men would you say understand--in this sense--in America? And when, as the motion of history accelerates and those who don't understand are crazed by fear, as our people were, and made into a great 'patriotic' mob, will they understand then, when they did not before?

"We learned here--I say this freely--to give up trying to make them understand after, oh, the end of 1938, after the night of the synagogue burning and the things that followed it. Even before the war began, men who were teachers, men whose faith in teaching was their whole faith, gave up, seeing that there was no comprehension, no capacity left for comprehension, and the thing must go its course, taking first its victims, then its architects, and then the rest of us to destruction. ..."
A few pages later, Mayer tells the story of a chemical engineer, who brought Mayer "even closer to the heart of the matter..."
One day, when we had become very friendly, I said to him, "Tell me now--how was the world lost?"

"That," he said, "is easy to tell, much easier than you may suppose. The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany. It was I who lost it, and I will tell you how.

"I was employed in a defense plant (a war plant, of course, but they were always called defense plants). That was the year of the National Defense Law, the law of 'total conscription.' Under the law I was required to take the oath of fidelity. I said I would not; I opposed it in conscience. I was given twenty-four hours to 'think it over.' In those twenty-four hours I lost the world."
The engineer recounts how his refusal to take the oath would have meant the loss of his job, and that he would have had difficulty getting another, at least in his chosen field. But he tried "not to think" of himself or his family -- but of "the people to whom I might be of some help later on, if things got worse..."

He finally took the oath: "That day the world was lost, and it was I who lost it." But in fact, the engineer did save lives:
"For the sake of argument," he said, "I will agree that I saved many lives later on. Yes."

"Which you could not have done if you had refused to take the oath in 1935."


"And you still think that you should not have taken the oath."


"I don't understand," I said.

"Perhaps not," he said, "but you must not forget that you are an American. I mean that, really. Americans have never known anything like this experience--in its entirety, all the way to the end. That is the point."

"You must explain," I said.

"Of course I must explain. First of all, there is the problem of the lesser evil. Taking the oath was not so evil as being unable to help my friends later on would have been. But the evil of the oath was certain and immediate, and the helping of my friends was in the future and therefore uncertain. I had to commit a positive evil, there and then, in the hope of a possible good later on. The good outweighed the evil; but the good was only a hope, the evil was a fact."
As their conversation continues, and to make the case for the engineer's decision to take the oath as strong as possible, they agree that "only" three million innocent people were slaughtered by the Nazis, while the engineer saved as many as a thousand lives. The engineer asks:

"And it would have been better to have saved all three million, instead of only a hundred, or a thousand?"

"Of course."

"There, then, is my point. If I had refused to take the oath of fidelity, I would have saved all three millions."

"You are joking," I said.


"You don't mean to tell me that your refusal would have overthrown the regime in 1935?"


"Or that others would have followed your example?"


"I don't understand."

"You are an American," he said again, smiling. "I will explain. There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages in birth, in education, and in position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or, indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared, and each one of these hundreds of thousands was, like me, a man of great influence or of great potential influence. Thus the world was lost."

"You are serious?" I said.

"Completely," he said. "These hundred lives I saved--or a thousand or ten as you will--what do they represent? A little something out of the whole terrible evil, when, if my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
The claim of a "right" to murder anyone for any reason is the greatest expression of evil we can imagine. Both Obama and Romney claim the President has such a right. Obama has actualized his belief on many occasions. Any individual who claims such a right cannot, by definition, represent a "lesser evil" of any kind. He claims as his own the greatest evil possible. Every other issue, no matter how important it may be in itself, no matter how passionately we may feel about it, is necessarily less significant.

For the German engineer, taking the "oath of fidelity" represented a "certain and immediate" evil. The same must be true of support for a person who claims the right to unrestricted, unbounded murder. As the engineer said: "I had to commit a positive evil, there and then, in the hope of a possible good later on. The good outweighed the evil; but the good was only a hope, the evil was a fact."

It is a fact that Obama and Romney both claim the President possesses absolute power, the power over life itself -- and this with regard to every human being alive. It is a fact that a vote for Obama or Romney means that you support their claim. Demand that anyone who says he or she will vote for Obama or Romney declare: "I vote for Obama/Romney proudly. I am proud to be a knowing accomplice to their murders, including the murders of innocent human beings."

Make them say it. I still have hope for the future, but whatever hope I have rests on our understanding, identifying and accepting the meaning of what we are doing. To vote for Obama or Romney is to be a knowing accomplice to their murders. If that is what you are, say it. Say it -- and be damned.

Then we can defend ourselves.

(There remains much more to be said, including how one stops supporting evil. I will begin to deal with that in the next article on this subject.)
posted by Arthur Silber

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cable News and Banker Assholes Galore: Made Not Born? Golden Parachutes Not Gold For Shareholders

Have I mentioned how little I can stand the sight (not to mention the hearing) of Chris Matthews/Neil Cavuto-type blowhards lately?

Seems my ranks are finally growing.

In that regard anyway.

Now, faux blowhards? That's different.

Oct 28, 2012

How Fox News Created A New Culture of Idiots

Cable news has created an entirely new breed of blowhards - and the style has infected banking and even the arts
How Fox News created a new culture of idiots
Excerpted from "Assholes: A Theory"

Assholes largely share a thick sense of moral entitlement. Just as hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, late 19th and early 20th century businessmen like Cecil Rhodes, Albert Beveridge and John D. Rockefeller all felt a need to invoke entitlement on a cosmic scale, in effect sensing that something might be majorly amiss. In stark contrast with the grandiose reasoning of the era of colonialism, the asshole in more recent modern life often requires little or no pretext of larger cause for the special privileges he feels entitled to enjoy.

He will usually have some sort of rationalization ready at hand — he is not the psychopath who rejects moral concepts altogether — but the rationalizations are becoming ever thinner, ever more difficult to identify. This newer, purer style of asshole often just presumes he should enjoy special privileges in social life as a matter of course and so requires little by way of reason for taking them as the opportunity arises.
The older style of asshole is comparatively easy to sort into types, according to their different thick entitlements. To the extent we can identify a definite moral outlook and confidently reject it as wrong, we can even take comfort in our sense of clarity about how the asshole goes awry. The newer style of asshole is more disquieting because he is harder to pin down. His thinned-out and shifting rationalizations won’t necessarily settle into any particular sustained moral perspective that we can confidently identify and challenge as wrong.
Instead, his sense of entitlement is mainly identifiable in functional terms, as the stable disposition to come up with some such rationalizations or other, as the situation requires. Because the newer breed of asshole is harder to pin down, we will pay even greater attention to the details of our exemplars, if only to illustrate that there is indeed a newer, thinner, and purer asshole style. (And, again, where you don’t share my moral and political opinions, you might think of different examples of the same general type.)
*   *   *
Earlier assholes presented examples of self-aggrandizement in the name of a larger moral cause. The newer style of self-aggrandizing asshole needs little or no such pretext.
Donald Trump plainly likes being on the air. He is convincingly portrayed as an asshole in the documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” (answer: Trump, as one man’s greed and ego brought down a whole sports league). Lately, however, Trump has become something closer to a media buffoon — except that he does not seem to be joking. Like Falwell, Trump believes there is something important in his appearing and reappearing in the news and on TV, without betraying any sense that a lot of us have a hard time seeing what that important something would be.
In Trump’s defense, it may be said that he is merely an “ass-clown” or, still more charitably, an elder master of the attention-getting  game  now played  daily by  the Facebook youth. He may in that regard seem a role model, an accomplished media entrepreneur, and while this isn’t quite a public service, it is at least the kind of thing modern society loves. In a culture of narcissism, you don’t need any special reason to lay claim to the attention of others; you simply get attention as you can, as anyone else of course would (“if you don’t flaunt it, you don’t got it,” to reverse a familiar saying).
On the other hand, if we find our current zeitgeist mistaken, on the grounds that laying claim to the attention of others does require good enough reasons — whether for the sake of modesty or just for the sake of not adding to the deafening contemporary media noise machine — then we can view narcissistic attention seeking as a way of acting like an asshole. Our narcissistic age thus might help explain why assholes seem to be everywhere of late.
With the invention of twenty-four-hour TV news cycles, the wonders of technological change have created assholes specifically designed for TV. The cable news asshole is self-aggrandizing but not purely so; there is a slight pretext of service there. While few of them nowadays would pretend to be engaged in distinguished public service in the fourth estate, many will say they are really pleased to be giving people what they want.
People apparently want to listen to blowhards. Thus Chris Matthews has a popular show on MSNBC. The faux blowhard Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central blows harder, except that Matthews is not staging a ruse. He traffics in attention-grabbing — every day is D-day intensity, even when he is saying little of consequence, as though little or no reason to claim our attention were required. Another left-leaning bloviator, Keith Olbermann, at least offers moral outrage as grounds for our concern, even as he is a worse asshole for feeling entitled to set aside any sense of measure in making outrageous, indulgent moral criticisms.
When it comes to cable news assholes, however, we need not bother to attempt evenhandedness between left and right. The right-leaning version of being “fair and balanced” — that is, Fox News — is our gold standard. It pioneered the genre; it dominates in viewers, ratings, and profits; and it leads the way in innovation of the new asshole styles. We therefore pause to dwell on the case.
Neil Cavuto, a Fox News host, was actually called an asshole on the air. Here is an exchange from his show about fiscal stimulus and its relation to job creation with the mild-mannered AFL-CIO chief economist Ron Blackwell:
Ron Blackwell: Why don’t you let me finish my thought?
Neil Cavuto: You never answer a basic question.
Blackwell: I’m answering you right now.
Cavuto: Why will spending work?
Blackwell: These programs created jobs but not net creation. We lost more jobs because of the recession than were created by these programs.
Neil Cavuto: Wait a minute, Ron. You’re the chief economist there. Where did you get your degree? A baking school? Where are you cooking up these numbers?
Ron Blackwell: Oh that’s an insult. You’re a joker. You’re an asshole.
Blackwell apparently felt it was not sufficient to call Cavuto a “ joker.” Cavuto was not trying to be funny, nor is he dull or uninformed and pretending to be otherwise. Cavuto fully grasps the difference between job creation and net job creation, and he knew full well what point Blackwell was making. He therefore cannot be classified as a mere “ass,” with the suggestion of donkeylike stubbornness of mind combined with obliviousness to basic concepts or the social situation. Cavuto in fact staged a ploy: a dodge. He shifted attention away from the point made to the qualifications of the person making it in order to score dialectical points with the audience.
This is at the very least an asshole move. One often can permissibly shift attention in a conversation, but here it is at best unclearly justified. Interrupting Blackwell several times and then accusing him of not answering his question does not count as even half-cooperative discourse, not even by the low standards of American politics. Even that would not have been so bad if Cavuto had meant to initiate something like a meta- conversation between the two speakers, a conversation in which Blackwell could have later complimented the tactic of diversion with a “touché!” or “well played, sir.” Cavuto betrays no hint of metacooperation. He simply feels entitled not to wait his conversational turn. He does not have to actually listen to an opposing perspective, even from the person he is talking to. Cavuto could perhaps argue that the host must exert heavy control over the terms of debate, because polite terms will not do. Or maybe he feels justified in his bullying as long as he is scoring points in a kind of televised game show, with influence, profit, and fun as his justly deserved reward. Either rationale could constitute a sense of entitlement — something like the right to rule, or at least to shut the opposition out, while taking the moral high ground.
Bill O’Reilly is the original cable news asshole and among the  founding Uncompromising Arbiters of Real American Values Who Heroically Fight Corrupt Liberals as a Moral Bulwark Against the Decline of Civilization. So it is interesting to observe that O’Reilly has become less of an asshole in recent years. Why is unclear. He enjoyed marked success as a politico-asshole entrepreneur. But with others flooding into a new, well-rewarded role, perhaps he was out-assholed on both the political left and right.
What to do then? Out-asshole the out-assholers? Perhaps O’Reilly didn’t have it in him. Perhaps this just seemed unappealing or lowly. Perhaps he was admirably tempered by an authentic need to be, or at least be seen as, the Reasonable Common Man. If so, this is laudable and good, and it takes some of the edge off watching him. It even encourages appreciation for his mastery and formidable display of the dark asshole arts in verbal debate: the selective outrage, marshaled in defense of the victimized common man; the dogged quibbles over petty details; the seizing of any interlocutory moment of weakness (such as a pause for thought); the refusal to see and understand, supposedly on righteous principle but mainly to distort and distract. One would almost admire his scrappy tenacity were he a real underdog rather than a very rich and extremely influential member of the political elite. (The real victimized common man has stagnating wages and uncertain work, perhaps a TV but not his own show on TV.)
It is not just Fox News commentators but Fox News itself that has the appropriate, in-your-face, I’m-entitled-to-do-this, especially-because-you-dislike-it vibe. Which should not be surprising from a tightly controlled outfit in which everything flows from a single source, chairman Roger Ailes. Ailes has personal flaws that do not necessarily make one an asshole but that clearly shape the coverage, including his paranoia and his extreme politics.
We find more telling evidence by considering the man in a happy moment, a victory lap. In an event celebrating Fox News’s success, Ailes said of the competing networks’ talent, as though sharing in the agony of their defeat: “Shows, stars, I mean it’s sad, you know? . . . I called and asked them all to move to the second floor wherever they were working. Because when they jump, I don’t want it to hurt.” By which he meant that he wouldn’t mind at all if his competitors not only lost the contest but felt humiliated enough to kill themselves. He meant of course to gloat but also to show his contempt. He meant to broadcast his contempt and to have a laugh about his being in a position to advertise it.
The comment was at least poor sportsmanship. A longtime practitioner of blood sport media politics, Ailes has emerged as its undisputed heavyweight champion. Politics is indeed a rough sport, but there are still boundaries that while crossed are nevertheless there, or sort of there. It is possible to have a minimal sense of respect among fellow sportsmen, seen as equals off the playing field, and even to display grace in both victory and defeat. Ailes’s comment suggests that he makes little effort at this, even as he does make an effort to draw attention to the fact that he cares not. He keeps it personal, on and off the court.
Ailes is a poor sport but not in a set contest fairly won. His main victory was to redefine the whole sport itself — that is to say, to redefine news. While American TV journalism has always walked a fine line between informing the public and satisfying media capitalism’s demands for viewers, ratings, and ad dollars, the line was more or less there, and it represented respect for what some regard as the fourth branch of government and a democratic society that depends on real news.
Ailes obliterates that line with his “orchestra pit theory,” which he puts as follows: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?” The implication of course being that TV can and should cover the sensation rather than the substance, that it should move still further away from professional journalism and toward infotainment in a pure ratings contest.
Fox News has changed the game and won, with an ever-thinner pretext of service. (It has very little actual news gathering and reporting staff; it freely crosses its own purported division between reporting and editorializing; and it now boosts for and even instigates protest movements and financially backs specific political candidates.) For its loyalty and attunement to its fans, it has been richly rewarded with outsized profits and unprecedented political influence.
If we ask why Ailes fought so long and so hard for all this, however, the answer is not simply the ample rewards. His victory lap comment also suggests fundamental contempt. It suggests contempt not just for his competitors but for a society of people who have always counted on news with a lot of information shaped by a good-faith attempt at impartial presentation. Our fundamental need in a democratic society, for each of us to make up our own mind, now goes unmet by the whole media environment. It reflects not the minds of equals deliberating together about what together to do but the tenor and voice of a single asshole’s mind.
Cable news assholes are distinctive for their knowing awareness but willful disregard of how they are perceived by others. They are flush with Frankfurtian “bullshit,” where bullshitting (speaking without regard for the truth) is something that can be done with a tacit understanding among speaker and audience that truth is not being told.  A quite different class of asshole, by contrast, is marked by his utter failure to appreciate how he is seen.
Such was the display in Paris at the fashion show debacle wrought by Kanye West’s rough transition from pop music performer and producer to clothes designer. West had promised, with his fashion debut, to “change the course of fashion.” When ill-fitting dresses, pants, and jackets, styled with bits of fur, were not well received, West complained bitterly, but not simply out of rudeness. As one reviewer explains:

What  was  most  confounding  about  Mr. West’s  behavior, after years of obsessive study of the industry, was that he demonstrated very little understanding of how he might actually be perceived by retailers and editors who have a vast amount of experience at detecting utter nonsense.
West is not exactly shameless, which would require his having a clear sense of how others regard him. He is interesting more because he seems unable to piece that regard together, even from readily available material. Nor is it that he lacks a basic human capacity of self-observation, caused by some cognitive malfunction. His album Graduation begins “Mr. Fresh, Mr. . . . by his self he’s so impressed,” and the track “Barry Bonds” shows some grasp of how this must look to others: “I’m high up on the line you can get behind me / But my head so big you can’t sit behind me.” But beyond general impressions, and his awareness of obvious sneers (he complained in Paris that the fashionistas keep looking at him “like I’m Hitler”), West seems unable to pick up his reflection in the eyes of others, from what is evident to all. Would fur in the summertime really be the Second Coming in the fashion world? Was it unthinkable that people would question that as a design idea?
West is also awfully rude (he constantly swears, and famously crashed Taylor Swift’s MTV award acceptance speech, insulting Swift to boot). And of course many a self-styled, self-described genius has lived in massive error about his greatness. West is of special interest because he seems almost unable to move from huge self-absorption to a rudimentary grasp of the public world.  He probably is able, and so we recoil from his failure to treat others decently. But the sense of inability is enough to turn pure revulsion into mixed sympathy. For all we really know, we, too, could be a brain in a vat, or subsisting on an experience machine, or living inside the Matrix. (How would you know otherwise?) It is hard to watch someone who is in effect living that out, someone who is trapped in a giant delusion.
It is instructive to compare West to asshole artists such as Pablo Picasso or Ernest Hemingway or Miles Davis. None were mistaken about their greatness. All were wrong about what their greatness entitled them to by way of special treatment from others.  Here it is harder to be understanding. It is indeed desirable for a society to afford its great artists special opportunities for creative production for the good of all. But there are limits, and many true geniuses do manage well enough to abide by them, perhaps by nurturing a grounding sense of gratitude for being endowed with special creative privilege. Those who don’t are pure asshole. They take full credit for their achievements and expect further benefits in return, despite the fact that their success would never have happened without society’s gift of creative opportunity. (Artists who must fend for food or fight against an invading army tend not to get a lot of art done.)
Things could easily have gone differently and the artist would never have succeeded. Gauguin, for example, might have never made it to Tahiti if the boat from France had encountered bad weather or mechanical troubles, much as many great talents fail simply because they are ahead of their time. We put up with the artist’s delusion that his work is only to his credit, that it is we who are chiefly in his debt, because we find our world better with his artworks in it. Without that, however, the asshole artist becomes thoroughly repugnant. Imagine a failed artist who is not a genius, who continually demands further creative privilege, perhaps at a significant cost to society, and who cannot be moved by or even grasp gentle advice that he should consider working at Starbucks, where people are actually served. This guy, we want to say, is an asshole in spades.
Artists are of course usually more prone to self-loathing than to delusions of grandeur. The same cannot be said of bankers of late. Bankers, as a culture, have an extraordinary sense of their own importance with a correspondingly extraordinary sense of entitlement to monetary reward. This amounts to a grand delusion, which the recent global financial crisis has helped almost everyone except bankers to see through. Bankers sit somewhere in between West and Picasso: not entirely delusional about their importance but wildly delusional about what that importance means.
To see this, we should rehearse some properly uncontroversial truths. Financial markets do indeed have an essential function in a capitalist society. A capitalist society’s guiding idea is precisely that a society will put its savings to its most productive uses, for the sake of an overall improvement in living standards, by allowing resources to be allocated by financial markets rather than centralized decisions. The goal is not freedom per se. It is not enough that traders are left free to transact (and so pool information, spread risk, and so on). If the basic purpose of financial markets is to be served, the functioning system has to actually lead to improved living standards by boosting production in the real economy. This by no means happens automatically. World history is replete with financial crises that did lasting and catastrophic damage to whole economies (e.g., the Great Depression, the “lost decades” in Argentina or Japan) and to people’s whole lives (e.g., people lost their homes, retirees lost much of their savings, eager workers were left unemployed, college graduates saw worse employment prospects over the longer haul, and so on).
 In recent decades, after many insisted that “this time is different,” because the risks of crises have been reduced, the 2008-9 financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession made it abundantly plain that painful crises can and will continue to break out. Few issues compare in importance with whether financial markets function in the right way, such that their basic function in a capitalist economy is well served.
To continue with basic truths: with the United States, where the crisis first broke, as an example, the economy saw its greatest rise in general prosperity during the “boring” postwar years, before  financial “innovation,” when  the  “best and brightest” did other things, largely of a scientific or engineering nature.
A key cause of the recent crisis (among many causes) was that, through mathematically sophisticated “innovation,” firms and traders were allowed to take on far too much risk. Once it became clear that the prices of fiercely complex financial instruments had little connection with the real value of real assets (e.g., homes), the whole system unraveled. The markets have continued to function only because large firms were bailed out by governments, with taxpayers picking up the tab. With little choice in the moment of crisis, society in effect assumes the risk so that firms and traders can continue to reap huge rewards.
We consider how this might reflect a larger culture of entitlement in chapter 7. For now, let us focus on particular people and, in particular, an unusually candid conversation among two bankers and two journalists in a Wall Street bar. The journalists are suggesting that the bankers should be grateful to society that it bailed out their industry and saved their jobs. The bankers disagree, arguing that their jobs are to their own credit and, in particular, their smartness.

Jane Feltes: You think you got to keep your job because you’re smart?
You got to keep your job because you guys got bailed out. You guys got bailed—
Bar Patron 2: No, no, no, no, no. That’s not what happened with my job. I mean, survival of the fittest.
Bar Patron 1: Because I’m smarter than the average person.
Davidson: And even if the government bails out your industry that failed, you still say it’s because you’re smarter.
Bar Patron 1: No. The government bailing out an industry was out of necessity for whatever the situation was. The fact that I benefited from that is because I’m smart. I took advantage of a situation. Ninety-five percent of the population doesn’t have that common sense. The only reason I’ve been doing this for so long is because I must be smarter than the next guy.
Bar Patron 1 credits his job entirely to his own talent. Notice that he does not deny the plain fact that society has just bailed out  the  whole  industry,  saving  many  “smart”  people  from together wrecking the whole system. What he claims is that this plain fact is nevertheless wholly irrelevant to what bankers are due. The feeling seems to be widely shared in the industry. Bankers feel very sure of their entitlement to enormous benefits, and therefore feel mystified and even victimized by the suggestion that they are overpaid. Indeed, in interviews with bankers about the Occupy Wall Street protesters, bankers privately say that their critics lack an appropriate sense of gratitude.
To say that this point of view is a massive delusion is of course to assume that there are good reasons, available to all, for taking the facts of the matter to be otherwise. There are many widely cited reasons for this. There is, for example, the sheer enormity of social costs of the crisis: by some estimates, enough to put the banking industry out of business if it was actually asked to pay for the damage done. There is the implicit government subsidy, which allows “too big to fail” banks to take ever-greater risks, knowing that they’ll be bailed out if things go too far south, allowing bankers to take huge profits while taxpayers assume the risks. And, if nothing else, there is the fact that the run-up to the recent crisis involved fraud on a massive scale, which has largely been left unpunished, with profits intact. With some exceptions, few have paid for breaking the law.
Why do these reasons fail to move general banker opinion? Bar Patron 1 might simply be reasoning as a psychopath: he’s not using moral concepts like deserts or gratitude but simply reporting what happened — the government bailed out the industry — and then reporting that he has in any case, in the “survival-of-the-fittest” manner, profited as a result of his smarts. That is no reason, however, to think that he shouldn’t feel grateful for having his industry bailed out, for being able to keep his well-paid job. Yet Bar Patron 1 seems to be saying precisely that he owes no debt of gratitude, a clear moral claim. In that case, his reasoning is better put as follows: he deserves his rewards, because our system reliably and justly rewards talent, and because he is especially smart. He must be smart, because he is in fact well paid, and because our system is in fact the kind of system that reliably metes out just deserts.
This thesis is of course pretty rich in light of the fact that our current system has just done inordinate damage to the real economy (unless of course the system is reliably rewarding the talent for doing inordinate damage). But let us assume that Bar Patron 1’s perspective is grounded more in a philosophical outlook than in facts. Bar Patron 1 seems moved not by facts but by a certain idea of a capitalist society, the idea that, in a free market, people get what they deserve.
Even on philosophical grounds, however, this view is exceedingly hard to defend. That is true according to none other than the archconservative twentieth-century apologist for capitalism, F. A. Hayek. He writes:

There is little a man can do to alter the fact that his special talents are very common or exceedingly rare. A good mind or a fine voice, a beautiful face or a skilful hand, a ready wit or an attractive personality are in a large measure as independent of a person’s efforts as the opportunities or the experiences he has had. In all these instances the value which a person’s capacities or services have for us and for which he is recompensed has little relation to anything that we can call moral merit or “deserts.”
The billionaire investor and oracular philosopher Warren Buffett echoes the point:

My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.
In other words, ideas of deserts just don’t justify the going rate of rewards. Bar Patron 1 cannot infer his IQ or his deservingness from his paycheck.
Some bankers inadvertently confirm the point by offering plainly bad arguments in place of the appeal to deserts. Some argue, for example, that bankers should be appreciated because, as one money manager put it, “Financial services are one of the last things we do in this country and do it well. Let’s embrace it.”
This, again, is not exactly credible after the banking sector has just caused the largest crisis in seventy years. In any case, the financialization of the economy is less a matter of inherent skill than decades of political decisions that in effect passed up opportunities to invest in infrastructure and education that might have supported high-skilled manufacturing. Globalization might then have had a chance of bringing rising wages instead of a three-decade period in which increasingly productive workers have in effect not seen a pay raise.
Given the thinness of the arguments, the honest bankers are perhaps those who resort to cosmic grandiosity. Thus Lloyd C. Blankfein, head of Goldman Sachs, quips — with a definite whiff of Rockefeller or Beveridge or Rhodes — that bankers are “doing God’s work.” Blankfein may not be an asshole, but this is an asshole remark, even if it was mildly ironic. It implies not just that bankers are “doing good things” but that their work is somehow within God’s plan or somehow brings them closer to God.
Even if the comment was merely a joke, it was a “fuck you” type of joke, given that it was made in public in the wake of a crisis that had just upended millions of lives. It suggests complete obliviousness to how others will hear the remark, though not simple cluelessness. The man is hardly an idiot, and so his obliviousness is better seen as expressing a sense of entitlement, in this case, apparently of an unspecified God-sized kind.
This attitude among the new bankers stands in marked contrast with bankers of an earlier era. Consider the former Goldman CEO John Whitehead, a member of the civic-minded “Greatest Generation” that ably steered the dynastic wealth of Rockefeller and the like toward the social good. In lamenting that executive compensation today discourages the long view, and so has “got to be changed,” he explains why Blankfein, and by implication the new generation, “doesn’t get it.”

[Blankfein] never thought that if the public is losing their jobs and we’re in a recession, it isn’t a very good time to talk about the justification for a $60 million bonus. He doesn’t get it! . . . He says, “ I’m the CEO of the best financial service firm in the world. And I’m the CEO, I’m its head man. I deserve to be paid more than anybody else. And I’m prepared to fight for it, and boast about it. Because I’m proud of it.”
But, much as with Bar Patron 1, Blankfein’s appeal to deserts rings hollow in an industry that almost drove the global economy off a cliff.
We might put the general lesson this way: the banker’s position of high reward is a privilege. The position itself exists only because of societal need and design. That any particular banker holds a given position is in large measure good luck. Since many people are hardworking enough and smart enough to do the job (again, financial markets worked better from a crisis-avoidance point of view before they became mathematically sophisticated), any given banker is replaceable: it would be equally well for society, or indeed better, if someone else took his or her place, especially if he or she is very talented, since talent is more important in medicine, teaching, or science. For those who do work in finance, the enormous benefits are a societal gift but with conditions attached.
The financial system needs to be organized so that it reliably works to the benefit of real people in the real economy. When this requires significant reorganization—including such things as reserves requirements, international securities taxes, the segregation of investment and finance, expansion of IMF and ECB last-resort lending capacity, breaking up “too big to fail” banks — then bankers have no reasonable complaint. If a given banker doesn’t like the gift, he or she can give it back (and seek work at Starbucks, a good high school, or a biology lab).
The banker’s sense of special entitlement is therefore akin to that of our imagined failed asshole artist. Neither the banker nor the failed artist has produced the goods, and yet both go on complaining about not getting what they deserve, seemingly unable to grasp how this could be a colossal, delusional mistake.
This hardly means that all or even most bankers are delusional assholes; some genuinely do understand why the public would be enraged. Carmine Visone, an older-school Lehman Brothers managing director, could never believe his social worth was what he was being paid and so served the homeless out of gratitude and responsibility to society. Still, a delusional banking culture makes being an asshole especially easy, which may itself explain why asshole bankers seem in abundance lately.
Excerpted from “Assholes: A Theory” by Aaron James. 

And as a last comment, "Bankers delusional?"

Surely you jest.

(In Shakespeare's terms anyway.)

The Effects of Golden Parachutes

The indefatigable Lucian Bebchuk has written another empirical paper (Dealbook summary), this time with Alma Cohen and Charles Wang, on the impact of golden parachutes (agreements that pay off CEOs generously in case of acquisition by another company) on shareholder value.
Looking just at the question of whether a company is acquired and for how much, they find out that golden parachutes work about how you would expect. Companies whose CEOs have golden parachutes are more likely to get acquisition offers and are more likely to be acquired, presumably because their CEOs are les likely to contest takeovers. On the other hand, these companies tend to sell for lower acquisition premiums, again because their CEOs are more likely to be happy to be bought out.
“So far, so good,” Bebchuk writes. But the problem is that when you take a longer view, golden parachutes appear to be bad for shareholder value. Companies that adopt golden parachutes have lower risk-adjusted stock returns than their peers—despite the fact that they are more likely to be acquired. Some other factor is outweighing the positive effect (for the stock price) of more frequent takeovers.
Bebchuk proposes one explanation: Golden parachutes make being acquired relatively painless to CEOs. Therefore, they are less afraid of being acquired; and, therefore, they are less concerned about maximizing shareholder value in the first place.
Here’s another possibility: Companies are more likely to grant golden parachutes to their CEOs if they have: (a) CEOs who care more about maximizing their personal wealth than about their companies; (b) boards who are more concerned about doing favors for the CEO than about doing what’s right for the company; or (c) both. Those are not the kinds of companies you want to be investing in, since they’re likely to screw up all sorts of other things in addition to their executive compensation policies.

Friday, October 26, 2012

He Knows God's Mind (REALLY! Just Ask Him), Budget Cuts Push Spain's Jobless To 25 Percent, & BoA Only Loses $80 Billion This Week!

He really does.

Just ask him.

Or tune in.

As millions do.



 Beck: God ‘guided’ Romney to lose final debate 

Where are the granny glasses, Glennie?

And the blackboard?

Our oracle.

Budget Cuts Push Spain Jobless To 25 Percent

People wait to enter a government-run employment office in Madrid September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Susana Vera

People wait to enter a government-run employment office in Madrid September 4, 2012.
(Credit: Reuters/Susana Vera)
MADRID | Fri Oct 26, 2012
(Reuters) - Spain's unemployment rate hit a record high in the third quarter, with one in four out of work and more expected to lose their jobs in 2013 as the next phase of government cutbacks kicks in.

At exactly 25 percent, Friday's official number was the highest since the Franco dictatorship ended in the mid-1970s, and gives fresh impetus to calls by labor unions for a general strike next month.

That action is part of an increasingly vocal protest campaign against successive waves of spending cuts and tax hikes that, critics argue, has only served to put more people out of work rather than getting to grips with Spain's economic crisis.

"Weaker growth than expected, coupled with austerity, could easily see unemployment hit 26 percent next year," said Silvio Peruzzo, economist at Nomura in London.

The rate was 24.6 percent in the second quarter, and analysts had expected Friday's National Statistics Institute data to show a rise to 25.1 percent.

The number out of work stood at 5.8 million.

Of European Union countries only Greece, mired in an even more brutal recession than Spain and battling to stave off bankruptcy, has a higher jobless rate.


Friday's data puts further pressure on the government as it debates whether to seek international aid while it battles to bring down the public deficit in line with European Union demands in a recession that shows no sign of letting up.

Government forecasts show the economy contracting next year by 0.5 percent, but economists in a Reuters poll this week said they expect it to shrink three times faster.

"There is a debate over the optimistic growth outlook for next year by the government, which is given little credibility," Nomura's Peruzzo said.

Spain's financing needs are largely covered for this year, and its cost of borrowing from debt markets has eased significantly since August thanks to the European Central Bank's promise to buy the country's bonds should it call for financial help.

Its 10-year bond yields were higher on Friday, rising around 6 basis points to 5.69 percent.
But austerity measures worth over 60 billion euros ($78 billion) by 2014, are likely to crimp growth further, and cast more workers out of work.

Meanwhile, labor reforms pushed through this year aimed at making it easier for companies to hire and fire have encouraged many to make mass layoffs as demand remains fragile.


The government expects the economy to shrink 1.5 percent this year, while the official outlook is for the unemployment rate not to fall below 24 percent until 2014.

Peruzzo said the outlook would only improve if Spain is granted more time to cut its public deficit, a move that is backed by the International Monetary Fund to help struggling euro zone countries.

"I've been out of a job for six months and am looking for work wherever I can get it," said German Herrero, 42. He said he lost his job at Vodafone after 12 years of service and had left his family behind in the eastern city of Albacete to search for work in the capital.

"If this fails, then I may think of going to England next year," he said.

The economy slipped back into recession at the end of last year. The government says 2013 will be the final year of recession for Spain, a view shared by the euro zone's largest bank Santander.

On Friday Madrid's transport system slowed to a skeleton service as workers protested against salary cuts. Protests have mounted over the past weeks, particularly against cuts to the country's healthcare system and education.

Some people in work have cause to complain too, going without paychecks as companies struggle to meet payments, while others have welcomed early retirement packages in fear of worsening times ahead.

"I'm happy as I was given early retirement at 55, but the situation is grim and Germany has the country by the neck," said Jose Albalt in a wet Madrid on Friday morning. He said he was offered a retirement package last year when the bank he worked for was merged with another and 1,200 jobs were lost.

Spain's banking system is undergoing a major restructuring process after property investments they made during a decade-long boom soured when the economy began to crash.
(Reporting by Nigel Davies; editing by Fiona Ortiz and Patrick Graham)

So far this week, Bank of America has only lost $80 billion!

Will the good news never end? (Of course, they had $2.2 trillion in the game (so they're still ahead).)

24 Oct 2012

Bank Of America’s Countrywide Acquisition Gets 2.5% Worse

Bank of America bought Countrywide Financial in 2008 and it’s fair to say that went poorly; the Wall Street Journal totted up total Countrywide losses at about $40 billion but that was in July so they’re probably, like, $80 billion by now. If you were trying to figure out the maximum past and future losses you might start with the fact that Countrywide Financial originated about $2.2 trillion of mortgages between 2003 and 2007; ignoring anything before that you might ballpark the upper bound at $2.2 trillion. Let me draw you a Venn diagram, because this is now that kind of blog:

Eventually that yellow circle can grow to the size of the blue circle, but no bigger: the absolute highest number of fraudulent mortgages that Countrywide could have written is “all of the mortgages it wrote.” Right? No, wrong, of course:

Federal prosecutors sued Bank of America on Wednesday, accusing the bank of carrying out a mortgage scheme that defrauded the government during the depths of the financial crisis.

In a civil complaint filed in New York, the Justice Department cited the bank’s home loan program known as the “hustle.” Prosecutors say the program, which Bank of America inherited with its purchase of Countrywide Financial during the crisis, was designed to churn out mortgages at a rapid pace without proper checks on wrongdoing. The bank then sold the “defective” loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-controlled housing giants, which were stuck with more than $1 billion in losses and many foreclosures.
I think – could be wrong – but I think this is the first time somebody has sued Countrywide for selling fraudulent mortgages that somebody else was suing Countrywide over? The DOJ’s complaint is here, and it covers prime loans originated at Countrywide and sold to Fannie and Freddie between 2007 and 2009 (by which time it was BofA-owned). Meanwhile Fannie and Freddie are independently trying to get back money from BofA for what I’ll assume is a significantly overlapping pool of mortgages? Pretend there’s another Venn diagram here, or just read pages 61-62 of BofA’s 10-Q:

Our current repurchase claims experience with the GSEs is concentrated in the 2004 through 2008 vintages where we believe that our exposure to representations and warranties liability is most significant. Our repurchase claims experience related to loans originated prior to 2004 has not been significant and we believe that the changes made to our operations and underwriting policies have reduced our exposure related to loans originated after 2008.

Bank of America and legacy Countrywide sold approximately $1.1 trillion of loans originated from 2004 through 2008 to the GSEs. As of June 30, 2012, 12 percent of the original funded balance of loans in these vintages have defaulted or are 180 days or more past due (severely delinquent). At least 25 payments have been made on approximately 66 percent of severely delinquent or defaulted loans. Through June 30, 2012, we have received $39.1 billion in repurchase claims associated with these vintages, representing approximately three percent of the original funded balance of loans sold to the GSEs in these vintages. We have resolved $27.8 billion of these claims with a net loss experience of approximately 31 percent, after considering the effect of collateral.
So that’s vague and there’s probably some non-overlap – e.g. 2009 loans? – but, still, Fannie Mae seems to be trying to get money back on a lot of the same mortgages at issue here.

The DOJ lawsuit doesn’t contain much that will surprise anyone. Countrywide sold prime mortgages into GSE pools; starting in 2007 it saw the handwriting on the wall for the subprime business so shifted its focus into prime; it brought the same shoddy underwriting and desperate desire to incur liability1 to its rejuvenated prime business that had made it such a success in subprime; events transpired. Mostly it’s 46 pages of (1) everyone was incompetent, (2) nobody verified income in the no-income-verification loans, (3) when they found defects they hid them, and (4) there were some shifty-looking changes in procedures and compensation practices whereby Countrywide went from “try to originate lots of good mortgages” to “try to originate even more lots of mortgages with no quality standards whatsoever and also there’s a bonus for steamrolling quality-control checks.”

Also it’s got a terrible name. One of these days there’s going to be a lawsuit about a mortgage lender’s Fast Reply – Alternate Underwriting Data program, FRAUD for short, and we’ll all get a slightly bigger chuckle over that than we did over:

After a pilot test in 2006 led by two senior managers transferred from Countrywide’s Consumer Markets Division, FSL [CFC's "Full Spectrum Lending" division] fully implemented its new model for loan origination – the “Hustle” – in mid-2007. The Hustle (or “HSSL”) was the term for FSL’s new “High Speed Swim Lane”2 model for loan origination. Operating under the motto, “Loans Move Forward, Never Backward,” the Hustle aimed to reduce the amount of turn time on loans.
Why is the DOJ bringing this $1 billion case instead of just, like, handing off its Hustle info to Fannie and Freddie to use in their multi-billion dollar ongoing putback disputes? I mean, you can probably go ahead and count “grandstanding” on your list of reasons; everyone wants to have some mortgage lawsuits and Preet Bharara probably wants to have more than anyone else.

But also fun reasons! For one thing, the whole “leave it to Fannie to demand putbacks” route is somewhat complicated by the fact that BofA is being snitty about Fannie’s putback demands and has stopped selling it mortgages as revenge/sulking. “Good riddance” is I suppose one possible answer for Fannie? But apparently not? I dunno. Anyway the la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you approach that BofA has adopted to putback claims probably works less well against federal prosecutors, so this suit at the very least puts more pressure on BofA to cough up some money.
Also: a lot of money.

The DOJ is suing under statutes including the False Claims Act, which provides a penalty of “3 times the amount of damages which the Government sustains,” and the
FIRREA, which provides penalties of up to $1 million per violation for crimes affecting federally insured financial institutions.

This is important for your Venn diagram: not only might Countrywide have to pay twice for the same mortgage – once to Fannie/Freddie on a putback, once to the DOJ on this lawsuit – but this lawsuit itself might lead to triple damages plus $1 million per mortgage.3 If Countrywide was in fact massively fraudy in 2007-2009, there is good reason to make that massive fraud more costly than just buying back all the mortgages that it originated: because next time, someone contemplating cutting corners with the GSEs (or whoever the next victim is) will think “ooh that could lead to massive penalties” rather than “well, if I don’t get caught, I win; if I do get caught, I just go back to where I am now.” That’s how you learn, I guess.4

Most interesting to me though is this paragraph of the complaint:5

Relator Edward J. O’Donnell is a resident of the State of Pennsylvania. From 2003 to 2009, Relator was employed by Countrywide Home Loans, first as a Senior Vice President, and later as an Executive Vice President.
That dude’s gonna be rich! He seems to have been a risk management and quality control officer at Countrywide, and he seems to have brought this case as relator in February – probably miffed because Countrywide actually paid bonuses to originators who could refute quality-control checks! – and gotten the government to join it now. And relators get a cut of any money the government recovers in False Claims Act lawsuits.

One important reason for the DOJ to bring this case is just to reward Edward O’Donnell for his – not really that exciting but whatever – whistleblowing on Countrywide. Fannie and Freddie employees reviewing Countrywide loans and demanding putbacks are doing their jobs, but they’re not going to get rich doing so, and they can’t necessarily dig up all the finest dirt on Countrywide operations. Giving this guy a couple hundred million dollars for providing that dirt, as the DOJ basically can do, should get other disgrunted quality control officers to come forward with similar dirt on other fraudy situations. Though – won’t it also get them to sit on that dirt until it’s grown into a really valuable fraud?

Another day, another BofA mortgage suit [FTAV]

Federal Prosecutors Sue Bank of America Over Mortgage Program [DealBook]

U.S. ex rel. Edward O’Donnell v. Bank of America [via Reuters]

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Sues Bank Of America For Over $1 Billion For Multi-Year Mortgage Fraud Against Government Sponsored Entities Fannie Mae And Freddie Mac [DOJ]

This reminds me of my second-favorite motivational speech I’ve ever received from a boss – after of course “don’t fuck it up.” I was a young lawyer off to negotiate some contract and asked a partner if he had any advice for me. He thought for a while, then replied, “don’t incur any liability.” If only Countrywide had thought of that.

2. Also, um, “swim lane”?

3. I mean: it won’t. But whatever.

4. This deterrence argument is obvious but importantly wrong: the putback liability itself far outweighs Countrywide’s profits on originating a loan. Countrywide’s misbehavior was not primarily selling the loan to Fannie/Freddie; it was making the loan in the first place. And the cost of a putback is not primarily due to CFC’s fraud; rather, it’s due to the collapse in the housing market and the collateral’s loss of value. So you don’t actually need the treble-damages deterrence, though I guess that’s no reason to stop you from seeking it.

5. Also the paragraph before it which reads in its entirety “Plaintiff is the United States of America.” Perhaps you’ve heard of us?