Obama’s Iago – The ‘Indispensable’ Man

True to his Harvard Law School roots, the current occupant of the White House opted for an elitist approach to the worst economy since the Great Depression. He signed up central banker types, including a former Treasury Secretary and a former Fed Chairman.

“In following him, I follow but myself.”

“Your legacy,” the newly installed Treasury Secretary counseled the recently elected President, “is going to be preventing the second Great Depression.”  Quite a legacy if one ignores on-going recession, permanent high unemployment, rampant health care and higher education costs, legislative gridlock, China ascendant, all played out to the distant fiddling of the inflamed Euro-economy.

“Your Money, Your Vote” debate kicked off by asking Republican presidential wannabes what they would do to buffer America’s anemic economy against the bunga, bunga of Italy’s economy, the world’s seventh largest.  One-time frontrunner Herman Cain announced he would “assure that our currency is sound. Just like — a dollar must be a dollar when we wake up in the morning. Just like 60 minutes is in an hour, a dollar must be a dollar.”  Dollars to donuts, most folks wouldn’t be hiring a financial advisor based on fortune cookie advice.  Clearly, though, there is an element out there that has no problem subjecting the world’s biggest economy to master plans scribbled on the back of bev-naps.

True to his Harvard Law School roots, the current occupant of the White House opted for an elitist approach to the worst economy since the Great Depression.  He signed up central banker types, including a former Treasury Secretary and a former Fed Chairman.  Timothy Geithner, whose five years heading the NY Fed placed him at the helm for the economic meltdown of ’07-‘08, was named T-Sec.  Given his renowned intimacy with New York financiers, Geithner knew how to serve his masters by covering them with a $700 billion TARP at crunch time.  No man is a hero to his valet and Geithner says he could’ve “cared less about Wall Street.” But he had to get credit flowing again, even it went to core perpetrators of the meltdown.

The docudrama “Too Big to Fail” portrayed current Fed chair Bernanke, dropping the D bomb on congressional and banking leaders: go along with the Bush economic team or detonate the next Depression.  Exiting from the actual meet, John Boehner looked drawn and quartered as if he had just faced the Grim Reaper.  But Depression prevention was “not enough” for the incoming President, so he set about to reform a bloated, inefficient health care system by extending it to the 45M uninsured.  The jury is literally still out on that aspect of Obama’s legacy and, like almost everything else in America today, subject to slow death by deadlock.

Meanwhile, Treasury actually realized a profit on the widely despised TARP bailout, even as the banks have opted to sit on trillions while taking record bonuses for themselves.  Mad Money’s Jim Cramer gushed recently that “Tim Geithner did a lot to make our institutions stronger…. He’s one of the greatest Treasury Secretaries we’ve ever had!”  He has become this Administration’s Indispensible Man, the President beseeching him to stay on through the end of his first term.

Geithner’s bank-centric approach has not come without collateral damage.  Bloomberg reported that Geithner-led NY Fed instructed crippled mega-insurer AIG to cross out references to $62B in swap payments to banks like Goldman Sachs, which were made at 100 cents on the dollar, no haircut.  Geithner reportedly assured the banks that the dreaded doyenne of consumer financial protection, Elizabeth Warren, would never head the newly formed bureau.  Though he denied “slow-walking the President,” the T-Sec reportedly ignored Obama’s early directive to dissolve troubled Citigroup (which had previously offered Geithner CEO).

Nothing has suffered more in T-Sec priorities than jobs.  Geithner has intermittently lip-serviced the problem, lately with a Jobs Bill he knows is not getting past Republican blockades.  In fact, the most arbitrary job barrier was thrown up on Geithner’s own turf by federal agencies closely interconnected with Treasury.  On July 6, 2010, OCC, FDIC, NCUA and FHFA, the conservator for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, unloosed a coordinated strike against Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs.  PACE obligations, they contended, would pose a threat to “the safety and soundness” of mortgage products.

Launched in 2008, Long Island Green Homes was the first operational residential energy efficiency retrofit program in the nation.  A typical retrofit is $9,400, averaging yearly savings of $1,114 that generally covers the homeowner’s monthly obligation, secured by the property.  Energy use and emissions are cut over 25%, saving homeowners money, enhancing property value all while putting hard-hit tradesmen to work.

None of this matters much to the holders of a couple of trillion dollars of toxic subprime mortgages.  In PACE, legislatively affirmed in 27 states and promoted by a Vice-Presidential White Paper, they imagined the second coming of toxic instruments and the chance to demonstrate what tight-fisted regulators they’d finally become.  Fact is that if 5% of the nation’s 80M houses were retrofitted it would amount to a 0.6% rounding error of Fannie & Freddie’s total exposure.  At the same time, this shovel-ready work would create 435,000 job years nationwide never to be outsourced.

The Town of Babylon, along with the State of California and several counties, filed suit against FHFA who fundamentally argued that they were accountable to none, even the courts.  A Federal judge in California’s Northern District ruled otherwise and appeals are heading to the next level.  In its suit, Babylon argued that FHFA had unilaterally abrogated state and local sovereign rights in determining what infrastructure could be remediated for a public purpose.  In an aberrant departure from Washington gridlock, a bipartisan group of congressmen (23 Reps/29Dems, with Peter King the sole Long Islander to date) has embraced this principle by sponsoring the PACE Protection Act.  Message to Feds: ‘Hands off our incandescents and back off of our local energy efficiency programs!’  Go figure.

Watching this mountain be made out of a mole hill, Geithner has held himself back behind the wizard’s curtain, as if PACE could conceivably be the straw that breaks the economy’s back.  The Indispensable Man, who corralled the world’s most powerful bankers, could put the leg in legacy by delivering a swift kick to his in-house regulatory bureaucrats.  As Othello’s Iago knew, so should Obama’s Iago, that, “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving.” 

Culture of Corruption

U.S founders maxed individual liberty, freeing Americans, “to give full vent to the good, bad and ugly behavior of which people are capable,” Walter McDougall observes. “Americans became past masters at hustling: both in the pejorative sense of scofflaws, speculators, imposters, tricksters, self-reinventors, and conmen, but also in the positive sense of hard workers, strivers, builders, doers, joiners, and team players.”

Everyone does it.

“It’s a courtesy, not a crime,” the PBA union president declared to a throng of off-duty cops packing Bronx Supreme Court waving signs insisting “IT’S A COURTESY NOT A CRIME.”

Sounded like a ripe example of PR tone-deafness or maybe just the PBA honcho playing to his troops, public be damned!

The police commissioner begged to differ re: fixing tickets.  “Those actions are crimes under the law and can’t be glossed over as ‘courtesies.’”

The PBA honcho retorted: “When the dust settles, and we have our day in court, it will be clear that this is a part of the NYPD at all levels

Everyone does it.  Gotta problem with that?

Almost all Long Island Railroad employees who retired in 2008 did so on disability, adding an average of $36grand to the average annual pension payout, compliments of the beleaguered LIRR commuter.

Joe Rutigliano, former conductor and one-time LIRR union president, put in 570 hours of overtime with nary a single sick day in his last year, jacking up his pension, then fattening it even more with his disability claim.  Surveillance revealed that Jolted Joe went on to play golf regularly.  To add insult to injury (in a manner of speaking), Jolted Joe played public courses where, by statute, he didn’t have to pay green fees because of his so-called handicap (and we’re not talking 13 over par).

Special treatment for the handicapped has become one of those well-intended cobblestones on the road to hell.  Not because it’s not a noble proposition, but because it is so pervasively abused.  Ever notice what percentage of people parking in handicap spaces actually use a cane, crutches or wheelchair?  For the overwhelming majority there is no noticeable handicap.  But, like railroader scammers, they get notes from their doctors enabling them to score privileged parking.

Could faked handicap parking be the gateway scam to major scams like pension fraud?  I, for one, make a point of confronting obvious abusers when the occasion arises.  A couple of days ago, in fact, I was limping through the ‘Y’ parking lot with my son on our way to a workout.  A lean and limber-looking man about my age in his gym outfit was walking jauntily from the ‘Y’, drawing a bead on his car, parked in a handicapped space.

“And what is your handicap?” I asked him.

“Whatya mean?” he shot back.

“Well, you’re parked in a handicap space and I don’t see any visible handicap.”

“It’s none of your business,” he sneered.

“Oh, it most certainly is my business when someone’s running a scam.”

“Look at you,” he said, outraged as could be, “what kind of example are you setting for your son?”

“He sees me do this all the time.  Call a fraud a fraud.  And you’re a fraud, just like those Long Island Rail Road frauds.”

He slammed his door as I took my three prosthetic joints to the treadmill, my son chuckling for good measure.

Back when I was doing grad work in the mid-70s, I bartended weekends at Long Island’s notorious nightclub – the OBI South.  For a stretch, I worked side-by-side at the back-bar with a rough and ready rogue nicknamed the “Snakeman.”  Invariably, at the height of the mad rush, he would call out, as he was ringing up drinks, “Bonus hour…one for us, one for them.”  “You’re all thieves,” the Snakeman told us, by way of touting he was the most honorable of thieves by copping to it.

Everyone’s always done it.  It’s the American way, according to one distinguished historian.

U.S founders maxed individual liberty, freeing Americans, “to give full vent to the good, bad and ugly behavior of which people are capable,” Walter McDougall observes.  “Americans became past masters at hustling: both in the pejorative sense of scofflaws, speculators, imposters, tricksters, self-reinventors, and conmen, but also in the positive sense of hard workers, strivers, builders, doers, joiners, and team players.”

To con others, best one first con one self.  McDougall believes that Americans’ talent for “self-deception” is one key to their success.  “They pretend in order to get along with each other, or to grease the skids of their institutions, obscure the contradictions in their politics and law, or just to sustain their common faith in truth, justice, and the American way.”  In a broader sense, people are compelled to rationalize their circumstances – self-delusion springs eternal.

Charles Dickens charged, upon a visit in 1842, that Americans “will swallow a whole caravan of camels, if they be laden with unworthy doubts and suspicions…. [They] simply cannot bear truth in any form,” and American newspapers contributed mightily with their “pimping and pandering.” By the eve of Civil War, one of those panderers, the New York Herald worried there would be, “another general collapse like [the Panic] of 1837, only on a much grander scale.…  Worst of all is the moral pestilence of luxurious exemption from honest labor infecting all classes of society.”

Sounds like Fox-watching Tea Baggers spit-balling ne’er-do-well Wall Street Occupiers.  Yet, they are a funhouse mirror of one another’s outrage, one against Big Government, the other against Big Money.  Note how many who sermonize against the breakdown in morality are themselves caught with their pants down.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a stolen moment– it’s far more satisfying to point fingers then look in the mirror.

They Are Not Like Us

For average folks, money is not some abstraction, it is literally a matter of survival. For the well-to-do, money is figurative, a measure of who they are and what they can do.

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Rich Boy.  “They are different from you and me. “

Yes and no.

Back in the ‘Greed Is Good’ ‘80s, I observed Don Fisher and his wife Doris belly up to the famous bar in the ‘21’ Club.   Fisher was founder and CEO of The Gap and its subsidiary Banana Republic and Old Navy chains of clothing stores.  Fisher ordered a Perrier and Doris a margarita straight-up.  For any cocktail with juice at the ‘21’ Club, the fruit gets freshly squeezed right in front of you.  The glass rimmed with a wedge of lime then perfectly salted, Doris took a sip and, enraptured, pronounced it the best margarita she had ever had! 

When Walter, the crusty maître d’, arrived to escort them to their table, Doris insisted the bartender make her another of the world’s best margaritas.  Don paid the bar bill with his credit card as Doris marveled over the masterful preparation of her second drink.  The question arose, as they went to their table: what kind of tip had Don left for the best margarita his wife had ever had?  Don, it transpires, had left $3 on a $20 tab.  Three bucks – not even double the tax.  You’d have thought that he could have at least stretched it to $4, a 20% tip for the best margarita of his wife’s life. 

But then you need to break down what that extra dollar actually meant to billionaire Don Fisher.  To the bartender who made the world’s best margarita, the extra dollar would have been split five ways with his co-workers at the end of the night.  So, for the bartender, that extra dollar was actually worth twenty cents.  For Don Fisher, who maybe just returned from China where scaling down from 100% cotton to a blend in those million khaki shorts he ordered, every dollar actually represented a million dollars. 

“Take care of the pennies,” John D. Rockefeller liked to say, “and dollars will take care of themselves.”  In other words, every 1% slashed in costs means millions of dollars in pocket.  A dollar in the hand of the average person means they still have to scrape together another 999 dollars to make the monthly mortgage payment.  For average folks, money is not some abstraction, it is literally a matter of survival.  For the well-to-do, money is figurative, a measure of who they are and what they can do. 

I attended a boarding school along with the Johnson&Johnson heir who owns the Jets as well as the son of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign manager, both fairly representative of the student body.  So it was unsurprising, when it came to pass, that a classmate wound up as finance director for Steve “Flat Tax” Forbes’ 2000 presidential bid.  I had been an avid reader of Forbes magazine when Steve’s flamboyant father, Malcolm, was in charge.  So I was disgruntled when the son dulled both look and content of the magazine in his own image.

In the run-up to his ’96 presidential bid, Steve had confessed, in the Wall Street Journal, that the most traumatizing experience of his life was being packed off to boarding school.  I shared my doubts via e-mail about Steve’s fortitude and presidential qualifications with my classmate who, it turns out, had also been miserable in boarding school with its intolerance of dorks.   “What is it you say you’ve done with your life,” he blasted back, “other than procreate?”

Yes, the rich get richer, they say, and the poor have babies.  Having been born on third base, my old classmate and his patron Steve, think they hit a home run.

A psych prof at U Cal Berkeley who focuses on “Social Class as Culture” has suggested that the wealthy are less empathetic than others. After strapping subjects to physiological measuring devices, those from lower-class backgrounds, as opposed to more privileged, showed more intense vagus activation when exposed to pictures of starving children.  Rich folks, the prof deduces, are more likely to think mostly about themselves.  Doubtless, a tribal imperative is at play here, and “there, but for the grace of God” does not kick in when viewing starving kids. 

What moral failings have contributed to these conditions?  Probing minds of privilege have answers.  To a ’96 query on crime and drug addiction presidential hopeful, Steve Forbes, proposed that a “flat-tax will spur growth and encourage savings, discouraging anti-social behavior.”  “Values and economics,” Forbes believes, “are one and the same, indivisible.” 

…with liberty, and justice for all…but only if you swear allegiance to the Flat Tax 2.0, lately making the e-blast rounds as ‘Fair Tax’, or the latest napkin version, 9-9/0-9, compliments of Forbes’ former campaign chair – Herman Cain.  ‘The Hermanator’ is a perfect example of a Fat Cat courtier.   These courtiers are embodied by the Religious Right.  They intuit which side their tongues are buttered on and proceed to bash EPA standards for mercury emissions at web-sites like www.ResistingtheGreenDragon.com. Or, like Focus on Family, they utter nary a pious peep about Pharma running endless, lurid TV commercials for Viagra, et al, prompting young folks to just say ‘yes’ to sex.

In a world where money rules and crybabies drool, Karmic payback is probably the only consolation.  Three months after chintzing the ‘21’ bartender, Don Fisher’s Gap holdings collapsed by 33%.

 

Main Image: The Empire Builders by Bernarda Bryson Shahn. From left, James J. Hill, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, J. Pierpont Morgan, Jay Cooke or Edward H. Harriman, and Jay Gould, wearing top coats, wearing or holding hats, in a room with a view of Trinity Church in New York City, N.Y.

A Tale of Two Concords

concord: n. a state of agreement; harmony; union

“What I love about New Hampshire and what we have in common is our extreme love for liberty. You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.”

 

So Michele Bachmann went to Concord, NH and mistook it for Concord, MA.  One could argue that if the shot was truly heard round the world, then it was, indeed, heard in Concord, NH.  Only, Concord, NH did not exist during the American Revolution.  Other than the name and New England setting, the two Concords have nothing much in common. Tony Concord, MA, home of the first military engagement of the Revolutionary War, has been taken over by bicyclists and counter-cultural devotees of Thoreau’s Walden Pond and Civil Disobedience.  Concord, NH, is the capital of the state that tells us to “Live Free or Die” on its license plates.  So the Tale of Two Concords is set on our Continental, Blue State/Red State Divide.  Mistaking the two Concords can be chalked up, as is so often the case with Congresswoman Bachmann, to wishful mystical thinking.

To be semi-fair, mistaken identification is fairly common.  Take the pic that accompanied my last post, “Doth We Protest too Little?  A remarkable number of intrepid readers, glancing at the e-blurb, mistook me for Mark Rudd, 60s radical.  Maybe it was the megaphone that misled.  “Is that you???” one long-term friend wrote.  “Still interminably outspoken,” a colleague commented, “and still the same head of gorgeous hair!”

Doppelgängers and look-alike comments have been such a persistent theme in my life that it provided the lead for one of my roman à clefs, Fly Me to the Moon:

All my life people have been telling me I look like someone else.

Once, on my way to a college interview, a cabby mistook me for Mark Rudd, student radical.  (We both sported shades and Kennedy hair, but that’s about it.)  For a teenager with a Che Guevara poster over his bed that was kind of cool.  Not so cool with the admissions folks, perhaps.  New York’s finest had only just flushed Rudd and his cohorts from a week’s long occupation of the college president’s office.  Maybe that’s why I wound up on the waiting list; maybe that’s why I’m still waiting.

During my hunkier years I got the likes of Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot a lot.  You guessed it; I’d grown a mustache.  When he was a Yankee, Dave Winfield popped up often enough for a snappy comeback: “Want to see my Louisville Slugger, baby?”  Most of the time it’s no big problem looking like a mythical tough guy.  Except for the occasional encounter such as the one down in the Caribbean when a sinewy Cruzan was certain I was Chuck Norris. (Yes, folks, the ‘stache was bushy and dirty blond.)  He wanted to work out with me; announced he was a black belt.

“What level?” I asked

“Third degree,” said he.

“Not high enough,” I shook my head.  “Catch me next time down.”

Lately, though, I’ve been getting obscure.  More and more, people are telling me I’m the spitting image of their brother, an old friend, somebody’s husband.  It’s enough to give a guy an identity crisis….

That’s just the way it is for me.  People keep figuring me for someone I’m not.  Which shouldn’t bother a Jack-of-all-trades.  Ask me for directions and I’m glad to oblige, no matter how menial or grand I’m taken for.  Guess I got that well-worn wisdom about me that says I should be good for a few answers….

####

Answers are a given on Jeopardy.  But offer a category like “POLITCAL AGENDAS”, give the answer as “Top priority for fixing U.S. economy”, and the correct question is questionable.  Do we go with, “What is cutting the deficit?” or “What is creating millions more jobs?”?  Again, it depends on what side of the faith-base/ reality-based Continental Divide one stands.  Try as it might, the neo-cortex just doesn’t get the limbic level and the limbic could care less.

We’re always fighting the last war, right?  And so it was with a former neighbor, a decade my senior, who e-mailed to rip me a new butt-hole after “Doth we Protest”:  “It is easier to attack than to build, easier to shout than to think. How much fun you all had…a sense of power at a young age. Jerry Rubin had his fun in Chicago. He grew his hair, spit on Cops, probably smoked weed and had a hell of a time. And later… not too much later, he joined the establishment, vest and all on Wall Street. When working on Wall Street I fantasized about meeting and punching him in the mouth.”  As Rubin was one of the early investors in Apple, he not only bequeathed Yippie street theatre to the Occupy Wall Street crowd, but the tools with which to project their footprint on to the larger stage.  What the Dickens?

It was the best of times for 1%, it was the worst of times for 99%, it had been the spring of hope but was now the winter of despair, in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on reenacting it.  Who knows?  Maybe the twain shall meet in what we’ll call the Reguilded Age.

 

Doth We Protest Too Little?

After interning for Morse in ’68, I served as a Philadelphia parade marshal for the half-million protesters who descended on Washington for the Peace Moratorium in 1969. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff characterized us as, “interminably vocal youngsters, strangers alike to soap and reason.”

On the very day alt-press publisher, Jed Morey, was covering “Occupy Wall Street” insurgents in lower Manhattan, I was taking a meet at a major bank nearby.  While an early morning text from Jed alerted me to the “Anonymous” event, the bank folks were alerting me to potential traffic jams engendered by the 66th convening of the UN General Assembly.  The NYPD so effectively contained and marginalized the protests that I had to wait on YouTube coverage to check it out.  Just as well.  Reminding the “99%” that they’re being had by the privileged 1% is a sharp message, but the rag-tag brigade from Liberty Square crying for attention aren’t the most effective messengers. (At Right – Mark Rudd, leading the takeover of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in 1968)

My forbearers have long challenged authority and questioned conventional wisdom.  Back in 1954, with impending defeat of the French at the hands of the Viet Minh, my grandfather, an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Army, wrote, “It seems highly doubtful whether U.S. intervention would ever be able to hold Indochina.”  As he was born in western Sumatra, he had a better handle on Southeast Asia than most Americans and passed that understanding along to his off-spring. 

So it was in 1965, at age fifteen, I found myself at my first Vietnam rally in the old Madison Square Garden.  Among the keynoters, were famed baby doctor Benjamin Spock, Coretta Scott King and Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, one of only two members of Congress to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which Lyndon Johnson used as a blank check to escalate the conflict.  Bayard Rustin, who had organized the landmark Civil Rights march on Washington in ’63, challenged the Garden crowd of 18,000: “We must stop meeting indoors and go out into the streets.” 

A few thousand of us took up the challenge and started wending our way from 50th & 8th down through the Theatre District and over to the UN.  Filing across seedy 42nd Street in the dark of night, big, beefy red-neck types yelled, “Commies, love it or leave it!”  My 5’3” mother was accompanying me and, with a mouth that made truckers blush, dished dirtier than she got, scaring the be-Jesus out me and the red-necks too, it seemed.  It hardened me for events to come. 

After interning for Morse in ’68, I served as a Philadelphia parade marshal for the half-million protesters who descended on Washington for the Peace Moratorium in 1969.  The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff characterized us as, “interminably vocal youngsters, strangers alike to soap and reason.”  Participants were definitely hairier than earlier peaceniks, but the DC police remained chilled, in stark contrast to the Chicago police riot at the Democratic convention the year before.

The following year I moved from protest to an “environmental teach-in,” helping to organize the first Earth Week.  We drew support from across the board with some sixty corporate sponsors such as GE, Rohm&Hass, Scott Paper and Bell Tel.  At the feel-good culmination in Phillie’s Fairmont Park, Senator Ed Muskie, sponsor of the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970 delivered the keynote and the cast of “Hair” sang “Hello Carbon Monoxide.”  By the end of the year, Richard Nixon, perhaps as a tactical diversion from other deeds, created the Environmental Protection Agency.

Right now, if you go around the country,” Tom Steyer said upon receiving the 2011 Rage for Justice Award, “the fight is about the right of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment.”  Rage for Justice Award is not brought to us by the Day of Rage folks who Occupied Wall Street but from Consumer Watchdog who “expose rip-offs and injustice.”  And Tom Steyer is not your usual activist, but a billionaire hedge fund manager.  He received the award in recognition of facing down the gas-producing Koch brothers and their Texas oil brethren who attempted, in 2010, with Proposition 23, to overturn AB 32 that has turned California into the beacon of the clean energy economy.

“They we’re in a situation where they [Koch bros] were going to make a bet about protecting their bottom line,” Steyer said.  “So it was always a risk/reward bet the way businesses work.  So if they started to get behind that meant that the risks were higher and the reward less likely to pursue the fight.  So that, in a funny way, it’s like being in a fight with a bully.  You know that if you can ever get him scared, he’ll quit.

 “We view the environmental fight as something where the message is really important and the messenger is really important.  We believe that if people are going to understand it, they are not only going to have to hear something true, they’re going to have hear it from someone they trust.”

In the battle against Prop 23, Steyer was aligned with former Marine captain George Schultz who held four cabinet posts under Nixon and Reagan.  In the posturing over tax misrepresentation, Obama finally invoked Warren Buffet’s year-old call to tax the very rich.  While guerilla street theater can be tippingly pointed, establishment messengers of principle will likely gain far more traction in today’s America.  Which is why this 60s organizer found himself at a big bank during the Occupation of Wall Street looking for ways to make energy efficiency pencil out.

Fat Cat Manifesto

Dorian Dale examines the success of Grover Norquist’s No Tax Pledge and argues that the benefits should extend to everyone. Why waste perfectly good tax cuts and loopholes just on the rich?

In the wake of the Big, Bad Debt Deal, Grover “No Tax” Norquist declared victory.  We should all concede.  If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  Every Man & Woman a Fat Cat!  Warren Buffet keeps griping that his secretary shouldn’t be paying taxes at a rate 67% higher than he and his fellow billionaires. So level the playing field.  The Fat Cat Manifesto proposes to extend billionaire/ corporate breaks, subsidies, loopholes and deductions to everyone:

ESSENTIAL POINTS OF THE FAT CAT MANIFESTO:

  1. Any wage earner will avail themselves of the same 15% capital gains rate heretofore available only to hedge fund managers the likes of Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney.
  2. Cars, ATVs, jet skis, bicycles etc. will be depreciated at the same rate as corporate jets.
  3. Backyard gardens will be subsidized at levels comparable to “genteel farmers” like Dave Letterman and the Waltons of Wal-Mart.  The cost of looking for vehicular and housing fuel will also be subsidized.
  4. Joe & Jo Q Citizen will get to incorporate and catch all the breaks of corporations. This follows the logic of the Citizens United v FCC ruling delivered by the activist majority on the Supreme Court in 2010 declaring that corporations are just like citizens and will have unrestricted First Amendment rights to lavish unlimited amounts of money electing their quislings.

Who is this Grover Norquist, Patron Ain’t of taxation misrepresentation?  First, know that he is a Harvard grad, not the effete, elitist type of Harvard grad like Obama and the Winklevoss twins, but the regular-guy type like George Bush and Bill O’Reilly. After his Americans for Tax Reform pitched in to help Reagan chop the top tax rate from 50% to 28% in 1986, Grover declared he was out to “reduce government down to the size where it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub.”  Drowning the Federal government in the tsunami of debt that swept over America in the first decade of the new millennium is not exactly the same principle, but the result is the same. 

To date, Grover has gotten 336 congressmen, 41 senators, 13 governors and 1,247 state legislatures to sign his Taxpayer Protection Pledge otherwise known as the “No Tax” pledge.  Stephen Colbert pressed Grover on whether there were any circumstances under which he would accept a tax increase:

“Terrorists have kidnapped all of our grandmothers and they’ve got them in a subterranean burrow and all of them have been slathered with honey and they’re going to release fire ants into this burrow that will bite them to death.  Their only demand is that we increase the marginal tax rate for the top 2% and they will release them.  Do we increase the tax rate or do we let our grandmothers die from ant bites?”

“I think we console our self with the fact that we have pictures,” quipped Grover

Momentarily jaw-drop speechless, Colbert blurts “That’s the right answer!”

A few years back, Grover served up a bigger whopper of a jaw-dropper to NPR’s Terry Gross.  At the time, Grover was representing for another one of his noble causes – elimination of the estate tax which he had renamed the Death Tax while successfully convincing many average folks that it applied to far more than the top 1%.  Never one to shy away from over-the-top metaphors, Grover was claiming that arguments for higher taxes on rich people echo the ones Nazis used to single out Jews for gas chambers.

“I mean, that’s the morality of the Holocaust,” said Grover.  “‘Well, it’s only a small percentage,’ you know. ‘I mean, it’s not you, it’s somebody else.’” 

It took Terry Gross twenty-six seconds to lift her jaw off her microphone and say, “Excuse me. Excuse me one second. Did you just …”

Norquist: “Yeah?”

Gross: “…compare the estate tax with the Holocaust?”

I ran into Grover’s dad at a fraternal gathering in Langley soon after Gross’ interview and suggested his son might want to reign in the Holocaust Tax metaphor, particularly when he is talking to a Jewish host.  Unbeknownst to me, at that point, was that papa Norquist was the one who had given little Grover his first taste of anti-tax fervor.  Copping bites from his son’s ice cream cone, he labeled each bite “sales tax” or “income tax.”  But was the ice cream loaded with loopholes and subsidies trickled on top?

America has come full spiral since Louisiana’s Huey ‘Kingfish’ Long delivered his ‘Every Man a King’ speech during the Great Depression proposing to ‘Share Our Wealth’ (SOW): “It is not the difficulty of the problem we have; it is the fact the rich people of this country – and by rich people I mean the super-rich – will not allow us to solve the problems.”  Within a year, 7.5 million Americans had joined ‘Share Our Wealth’ clubs. A year later the Kingfish was assassinated.

Today Grover Norquist & Co has convinced the descendants of SOWers that the acronym stands for Spare Our Wealthy.  Super-rich job-creators are the solution, not the problem.  Their cause is everyone’s because we all aspire to be wealthy.  Who Wants to Be a Millionaire then Pay Taxes?  Soon the average Jersey Shore Fat Cat wannabes who get hit with 50% higher tolls to drive over the bridges into Manhattan to maybe glimpse Donald Trump gnawing his way through  rib eye at the ‘21’ Club will be able to deduct those tolls from their taxes.  Got that Grover?

Gangsta Prankstas: Citizen Murdoch and Bill Oh’Really?

The actions of those involved in the evolving News Corp scandal are hardly surprising given the arrogance endemic to the organization as a whole.

Rupert MurdochIf it bleeds it leads.  With the specter of his News Corp getting hacked to pieces by the bloody politicians who have done his bidding, Rupert Murdoch has become the bleeding headline.  The miasma of Murdoch’s brand of “yellow journalism”, to quote frequent Fox News pundit, Congressman Peter King, has hung over Brits (and Yanks) like a London fog.  Now it is being dispersed by blasts from the media mogul’s very own supplicants.

Hacking into the cell phone of a murdered thirteen years-old schoolgirl to make room for false hope and more expressions of family anguish seemed just the ticket to keep a titillating tabloid story going.  Ditto that for terrorist bombing victims and dead soldiers.  There is no place for morality and ethics when titillation, manipulation, power and profits are the four corners of your world.  But sex, lies and payoffs have turned toxic for the Thunder from Down Under.     

Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, who appointed the editor of Murdoch’s offending newspaper as his administration’s chief spokesman, was shocked, shocked by all this appalling behavior: “The people involved, whether they were directly responsible for the wrongdoing, sanctioned it, or covered it up, however high or low they go, must not only be brought to justice, they must also have no future role in the running of a media company in our country.”

On this side of the pond, King wrote FBI Director Robert Mueller, to declare, “It is revolting to imagine that members of the media would seek to compromise the integrity of a public official for financial gain in the pursuit of yellow journalism….  If these allegations are proven true, the conduct would merit felony charges for attempting to violate various federal statutes related to corruption of public officials and prohibitions against wiretapping. Any person found guilty of this purported conduct should receive the harshest sanctions available under law.” 

To what degree has this gangster culture permeated Murdoch States-side operations like Fox ‘News’?  Exhibit A is the Bill O’Reilly Loufa Affair.  This sordid sortie was quickly covered up by $6 million in hush money Fox News president Roger Ailes purportedly paid to make one plaintiff female producer half O’Really’s age go away.   Leave aside the graphic recordings of phone sex and sexual predation contained in the Verified Complaint, Index No. 04114558  filed on October 13, 2004 in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.  In “Andrea Mackris, Plaintiff against Bill O’Reilly, News Corporation, Fox News Channel, Defendants,” O’Reilly rails into Mackris’ hidden microphone about what would happen should one of his victims complain:

“If any woman ever breathed a word I’ll make her pay so dearly that she’ll wish she’d never been born.  I’ll rake her through the mud, bring up things in her life and make her so miserable that she’ll be destroyed.  And besides, she wouldn’t be able to afford the lawyers I can or endure it financially as long as I can.  And nobody would believe her, it’d be her word against mine and who are you going to believe?  Me or some unstable woman making outrageous accusations.  They’d see her as some psycho, someone unstable.  Besides, I’d never make the mistake of picking some crazy, unstable girl like that…

“If you cross Fox News Channel, it’s not just me, it’s Roger Ailes who will go after you.  I’m the street guy out front making loud noises about issues, but Ailes operates behind the scenes, strategizes and makes things happen so that one day BAM!  The person gets what’s coming to them but never sees it coming.  Look at Al Franken, one day he’s going to get a knock on his door and life as he’s known it will change forever.  That day will come happen, trust me.” 

Oh really? Whitey Bolger couldn’t have gangsta-spun it any better, though he wouldn’t have gotten caught on tape.

Implication in criminal activity has not been a disqualifier in the News Corp/Fox world.  Consider Fox pundit Karl Rove, who barely escaped prosecution for his role in leaking the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.  Rove came to his Machiavellian station as “Bush’s Brain” by cutting his spurs on political prankstering.  At 19, Rove assumed a false identity to access the campaign office of a Democratic candidate for Illinois treasurer.  He concocted a campaign flier on a thousand sheets of stolen letterhead promising “free beer, free food, girls and a good time for nothing” and distributed them to derelicts who showed up to disrupt the Democrat’s campaign rally.   Rove’s fingerprints were all over rumors of John McCain’s POW-induced instability and black love child during the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary.

Grand Old Pranksters can track their tradition back through Lee Atwater, Donald Segretti to the godfather of modern political buggery, Tricky Dick.  But it was the grand old man of yellow journalism, William Randolph “You can crush a man with journalism” Hearst who can lay claim to one of the founding principles of Fox family values when he got the boot from Harvard for a bevy of pranks including the imprinting of professors’ names inside chamber (piss) pots.  Or so he claimed; turns out he was expelled for grades.  Could prankstering be a gateway drug for News Corp criminality?

Lawyer for the family of murdered thirteen years-old Milly Dowler provided the most damning judgment upon yet another resignation and arrest of a News Corp exec: “This is not just about one individual but about the culture of an organization.”

“Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel,” said Citizen Kane 72 years ago.  “His paper should be run out of town.”

Founding Father’s DNA

One might ask how is it that the Greatest Generation begat a Generation of Whining Juveniles? Men who prevailed through the Great Depression and World War II, not to mention the 91% top income tax rate in the ‘50s without weeping in public sired kids who tuned-in, dropped out then either Oprified into support groups or Rushed into tea baggers, victims all.

James Watson has nothing really to do with this story except that he did discover DNA and probably knew the Founding Fathers personally

At the intersection of Fathers’ Day and Independence Day, aka Founding Fathers’ Day, consider how we got the way we are.

Revisit your biology course of yesteryear and recall the pre-Darwinian theory of inheriting acquired traits known as Lamarckism.  The French zoologist made the following observation: if a giraffe regularly stretches its neck to reach leaves, its children will be born with longer necks.  Origin of the Species concluded, to the contrary, that evolutionary changes take place over many generations and through millions of years of natural selection.  In the realm of pseudo-scientific causality, Lamarckism was filed away along with bad air as the cause of malaria.

Or so it seemed.  Turns out DNA predestination ain’t necessarily so.  While DNA shapes who we are, epigenetic mechanisms can shape DNA.  Epigenetics evaluates changes in gene activity.  The epigenome has been called software to the genome’s hardware. Good and bad behavior, it is now believed, can be passed along to successive generations.  Body builders who take steroids, for example, may bequeath their shrunken testicles.  It is as the Bible told us: iniquities of the father are visited upon the son. 

Last fall Forbes ran a cover story entitled “How Obama Thinks,” moshed from a book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, by Dinesh D’Souza which deems that the President is channeling his absentee Kenyan father in Mau-Mauing American exceptionalism.  In Dreams from My Father, D’Souza contends, “Obama isn’t writing about his father’s dreams; he is writing about the dreams he received from his father….  To his son, the elder Obama represented a great and noble cause, the cause of anticolonialism….  Obama grew to perceive the rich as an oppressive class, a kind of neocolonial power within America….  Colonialism today is a dead issue.  No one cares about it except the man in the White House.  He is the last anticolonial….  Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.” 

I know a great deal about anticolonialism, because I am a native of Mumbai, India,” D’Souza contends.  Following the strand of D’Souza’s legacy DNA, reveals that his parents are Roman Catholic Brahmins from the small west coast state of Goa, which was colonized by the Portuguese.  Many Goan Christians were distressed when their state was decolonized and annexed by India in 1961, the year D’Souza was born.  Though converted three centuries earlier, Catholic Brahmins retained the Hindu caste system that discriminates against so-called “untouchables” even if they too were Catholic converts.  Indian bishops were rebuked by Pope John Paul II for these practices on his visit to Goa in 2003.  By D’Souza standards, Dinesh extends a family tradition of currying favor with the ruling class by wielding his poison pen for Forbes heir, Steve, whose self-professed, most traumatic life experience was the day big daddy Malcolm packed him off to boarding school.  Best not to delve too deeply into the way Forbes may be channeling the appetites of his old man.

Another intriguing trek down the legacy DNA strand leads to the forbearers of Rush Limbaugh. It might surprise “dittohead” followers of the arch-enemy of Big, Bad Federal government that there is a Limbaugh Federal Courthouse named for his grandfather in Ft. Girardeau, MO, Rush’s hometown on the Mason-Dixon line.  Less surprising, is that the Limbaugh family website cites six ancestors who fought in the Civil War, all for the Confederacy.  Lamarck might have observed that rednecks get more crimson through successive generations.  It provides a cause-and-effect for what one journalist characterizes as “the southernization of American politics.”  The South has risen again, ya’ll.  The conflict continues to course through the true blue veins of red-blooded America; today we call it culture wars.

The epigenomic source for our continental divide can be traced back to the Founding Fathers, Federalists v Anti-Federalists.  James Madison, writing as Publius in Federalist Paper No. 10, sounds off like the anti-colonial caricature of Obama: “the most common and durable source of factions (read special interests) has been the various and unequal distribution of property….  The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man.”  Weighing in for the Antis, the pseudonymous, equally anti-colonial, Cato warned that, “In a large republic there are men of large fortunes, and consequently of less moderation,” that can lead to a house divided against itself.  So factionalism proved out in the dirty presidential election of 1800, when Adams was branded a “hideous hermaphroditical character,” and Jefferson, “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”

Of more recent vintage one might ask how is it that the Greatest Generation begat a Generation of Whining Juveniles?   Men who prevailed through the Great Depression and World War II, not to mention the 91% top income tax rate in the ‘50s without weeping in public sired kids who tuned-in, dropped out then either Oprified into support groups or Rushed into tea baggers, victims all. 

In the lead-up to Fathers’ Day, I asked contemporaries what they learned about fathering from their fathers.  While some overhauled and others merely fine-tuned, all imparted the sense that fatherly influence is more art than science.  So it is with the dynamic legacy bequeathed us by the Founding Fathers.  Our nation is a work-in-progress, open to interpretation.  The Founding Fathers guaranteed the right to claim so-called ‘original intent’, but never etched it stone.

Crowning Joules

This proposal was not unprecedented. In the depths of the Great Depression with oil going for 10¢/bbl, a group of industrial engineers proposed that currency be based on units of energy, like a joule, which is the amount of energy required to lift the weight of one Newton, i.e. a small apple, one meter.

Our new economic basis wouldn’t be gold or dollars; it would be kilowatt hours.” – Buckminster Fuller

Back when I was manufacturing novelties in 1979, the Second Oil Crisis prompted a Eureka moment.  Like the Arab Oil Embargo of ’73-’74, it created long gas lines over night.  In anticipation of a reprise, I concocted the Gas Line to give expression to people’s frustration.

This brainstorm was inspired by the tongue-in-cheekiness of the Pet Rock which was one of the top 10 toy crazes of all time.  The Gas Line was an 18” length of nylon rope tied in a noose that came in a box designed like a gas pump.  Like the Pet Rock, there was an instruction manual: “Burned up because some car just cut in front of you on the gas line?  Stick one end of the Gas Line in his gas tank, light the other end and watch him burn up.”  Thousands of Gas Lines were noosed up and ready to be hung from rearview mirrors across America when, as quickly as the ’79 gas lines appeared, they disappeared.  I wasn’t the only one stuck with inventory; the U.S. government was obliged to shred five billion unused gas rationing coupons.

Between the two oil crises of the ‘70s, the price of oil jumped from $3/bbl to nearly $40/bbl, a level that would not be exceeded, adjusted for inflation, until 2008.  Various energy remedies were engaged, from solar panels on the White House to Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater.  The most sweeping systemic prescription was offered by an Oregon senator:  “Set up a capability in government to budget according to flows of energy rather than money….  Energy is the currency around which we should be basing our economic forecasts, not money supply.” 

This proposal was not unprecedented.  In the depths of the Great Depression with oil going for 10¢/bbl, a group of industrial engineers proposed that currency be based on units of energy, like a joule, which is the amount of energy required to lift the weight of one Newton, i.e. a small apple, one meter.  Commodities were to be priced according to the amount of horsepower or kilowatt hours of energy expended in producing them.  Energy cards would be punched based upon the energy content of commodities purchased.  Consumption would balance production and depressions and unemployment would be avoided.  Or so the thinking went in the Era of Grand Designs.

The Federal Nonnuclear Energy Research and Development Act of 1974 called for an economy based on the “potential for net energy.”  As market pricing insufficiently internalizes externalities such as pollution, net energy analysis factors for the thermodynamic potential sequestered in materials and the energy embodied in capital.  Net energy analysis lays the groundwork for a balanced playing field by measuring, projecting and mitigating emissions from smokestacks, tailpipes and production.

Economists have not been so hot to trot with the energy theory of value.  The gloomy scientists view net energy analysis on par with the labor theory of value, Carnot and Kelvin substituting for Marx and Engels.  Most economists posit that the market price system is most suited to provide mechanisms and incentives for optimal deployment of variable inputs, including energy in its commoditized form.

Energizers would respond that while a dollar is worth more or less any given day, a unit of heat or work is the same in 1933, 1974 or 2011.  Energy is present in all processes and minimizes the ‘apples to oranges’ conundrum by juicing and weighing variables of impacts, material, and capital.  Energy equivalents for human activities such as major surgery would have to be gauged.  While piezoelectric can harvest motion in surgery to recharge an i-Pad, that is hardly compensation for the surgeon.

Cap & trade (C&T), or cap and dividend, its populist variation, are trading regimens or schemes, as the Europeans call them.  C&T is modeled on the successful mitigation of acid rain during the administration of Bush Senior. It is designed to be a market maker for the cost of carbon embodied to one degree or another in all generation and production.  Detractors of C&T say, among things, that it would become another murky trough for the giant vampire squids of Wall Street.  Thus, last year, C&T got knee-capped by the fossil fuel shills in Congress flying under the anti-tax flag. 

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a C&T program that joined ten Northeastern states.  Beginning in 2008, carbon credits auctions have financed clean energy programs like Green Jobs/Green NY.  Recently it has come under assault and been abandoned by New Jersey, other states to follow, perhaps.  The harbinger of this fallout came last fall when Koch Bros-financed Americans for Prosperity bused Tea Baggers from Jersey to lower Manhattan to protest a periodic carbon credits auction.  Given that carbon dioxide was fetching a measly $1.86 a ton, the Kochs clearly have no compunction about pulling the plug on life-support for energy efficiency.

How receptive would the Kochs and their fossil fueler cohorts be to the monetization of energy?  Fellow Libertarians like Ron Paul have been urging for decades that we bring back the gold standard.  But energy is far more fungible and, unlike gold, available in ample quantity to supplant trillions in paper currency. 

To show support for Crown Joules, how about a hangman’s noose for your rearview mirror?   I happen to have some ready to go.

Mayday Mayday May Day

The eclipse of John Paul’s beatification by the elimination of bin Laden, is a striking reminder, if one were needed, of conflicting forces of good and evil a rage in our world.

Pope John PaulWho will remember that the May Day killing of Osama bin Laden began with the beatification of Pope John Paul II?

Thirty years ago, on May 13, 1981, John Paul was greeting the throng in Vatican City.  As he was taking a second spin around St. Peter’s Square in his open-air white Jeep, four bullets fired from a semi-automatic pistol struck him.  Two shots lodged in his lower intestine producing massive blood loss.  He survived and thrived for twenty-four more years, cries of ‘Santo Subito!’ – ‘Sainthood Now!’ – ringing out upon his passing.  On the first of May, Anno Domini 2011, his successor beatified him, marking the fastest track ever to sainthood. 

The eclipse of John Paul’s beatification by the elimination of bin Laden, is a striking reminder, if one were needed, of conflicting forces of good and evil a rage in our world.

As death stars aligned in early ‘81, the attempted assassination of the Pope occurred within seven weeks of the attempt on President Reagan.  While Reagan’s assailant was a star-struck nut, the Pope’s would-be assassin hailed from sinister forces.  In the Evil Empire narrative of the final round of the Cold War, the Turk shooter in St Peter’s Square was a “trained sniper” sponsored by the Bulgarian KGB working for their Soviet masters.

According to a 1978 CIA assessment, the elevation of the Archbishop of Krakow should “prove extremely worrisome to Moscow if only because the responsiveness of his papacy is likely to evoke in East European communist societies.”  And four years later, “the Soviets may be particularly sensitive to the issue because of the Western press implications that General Secretary Andropov, during his tenure as head of the KGB, might have played a role in the attempt (on Pope John Paul’s life).”  William Casey, Reagan’s DCI and a Knight of the Order of Malta, fully fathomed the fulcrum of faith in the upending of Communism.  

Archbishop Karol Josef Wojtyla was every inch a product of the Polish Catholic Church, the pre-eminent buttress of national identity through the travails of Napoleonic invasion, Nazi conquest, and Communist suppression.  Returning to Poland in mid-‘79 as Pope, John Paul held mass before more than a million in Warsaw in defiance of laws against public gathering and religious worship. “Don’t be afraid,” he counseled the crowd.  “The future of Poland will depend on how many people are mature enough to be non-conformist.”  It marked the beginning of the end of the Evil Empire.  

The Pope’s passion for his people’s freedom did not extend to the plight of the peoples of Latin America.  In “Liberation theology”, which had taken root in ‘68 when Latin bishops determined to rededicate the Church to the downtrodden, John Paul saw the threat of Communism wrapped in a challenge to Church hierarchy.  The newly installed Pope took it upon himself to campaign vigorously against “the popular Church.”  In his first major Papal trip early in ‘79, John Paul faced five million of the faithful in Mexico City and denounced liberation theology: “When they begin to use political means, they cease to be theologians.”

On his fifth trip to Latin America in ’85, the Pontiff flew into the Andean mountain town of Ayacucho, stronghold of a burgeoning insurgency – the Sendero Luminoso, aka the Shining Path.  He appealed to the Maoist revolutionaries:

“I beg you, with pain in my heart, and at the same time with firmness and hope, that you reflect on the paths you have taken.  In the name of God, change paths!…  We need to promote the dignity of man and help to transform unjust situations and structures that violate dignity….  We must not heed those who reduce the poor to sociopolitical or economic abstractions.”

Later that day, the Pontiff touched down in Lima.  It was precisely 8:38pm on a mild, late summer night in the Peruvian Capital.  The Pope’s plane was on the tarmac less than a minute when a total blackout blanketed the entire city of six million.  The Sendero, in a precision strike, had blown up five of the six high-voltage transmission towers feeding Lima.  In sync, lanterns, shining from various directions, formed a hammer and sickle on the slope of a nearby hill for John Paul to see.  God said, “Let there be light”; the audacious Shining Path said otherwise, letting the Pontiff know it could have been lights out for him.

Seven years later, Sendero’s leader, who many supposed was commanding the impending takeover of Peru from the rugged heights of the Andes, was ferreted out in an upper class neighborhood in Lima.  Among other factors, investigators were alerted to amounts and types of garbage coming from the two-story safe-house.  Like the terror masters who would succeed and exceed him, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Osama bin Laden, the ego-maniacal “Fourth Sword of Communism” couldn’t hack the Spartan life in a mountain hideout.

Over time, the Pope’s Turkish assailant has variously implicated Bulgarians, Palestinians, Mossad and, last November, the Vatican secretary.  In the global cross-currents of signals to kill, some are received through fillings, others in the scrawl of telecasts.  The lethal results are indistinguishable.  And what of the simultaneous deliverance of polar opposites?  Sorting it all out, requires the omniscience of a saint.