Ayatollyah So!

Rosy neo-con visions of sugar plum oil fields and Jeffersonian democracy fairies transforming the Middle East have blurred beyond recognition over the past decade. So, it’s a good time to change the subject and refocus

“For lust of knowing what should not be known, We take the Golden Road to Samarkind.” 

                –James Elroy Flecker’s play Hassan

There was a mysterious blast at a manufacturing facility outside Teheran last November.  This past week the Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs told the annual Herzliya security conference that the Iranians were setting up to produce a missile with a 10,000 kilometer range that could hit the United States. U.S. analysts were quick to point out that known Iranian missiles have but a maximum range of 1,200 miles—enough to reach Israel….  Go to the video tape to watch a “concerned” President Bush in the fall of ’02: “Iraq has a growing fleet (of UAVs) that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas…for missions targeting the United States.”  

Not for the last time will we be misled by rhetorical mushroom clouds into the fog of war with its Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” In the lifted lyrics of John “Beach Boy” McCain, do we “Bomb, bomb, bomb…bomb, bomb Iran”?

In The Partition of Palestine, Kermit Roosevelt (Teddy’s grandson) asked, “Will the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine jeopardize the position of the United States in the Middle East?”  He thought it would in 1948; moreover, it would “ease the path of Soviet infiltration.”  A comparable rationale was offered when, as Our CIA Man in Teheran, Kermit spearheaded TPAJAX, which ousted the country’s elected prime minister after he proposed nationalizing its oil, a sovereign assertion that would’ve placed Iran, in our estimation, “behind the Iron Curtain.” 

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Bollywood handsome head of Egypt, made a parallel move three years later in 1956, by nationalizing the Suez Canal. Wielding Israel Defense Forces as the tip of their spear, England and France sought to regain the Canal and oust Nasser. While the U.S. applied economic pressure on the Brits and French behind the scenes, it was newly installed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who got Third World cred for threatening to use nuclear weapons in support of Egypt.  Nuclear brinkmanship didn’t work so well when Khrushchev went eyeball-to-eyeball with the U.S. over Cuba in ’62…and blinked.

Two more clashes with Egypt brought Israel and their most potent Middle East adversary to the Camp David peace accords in ’79. It would usher in more than three decades of peaceful coexistence with Egypt even as the Shah was falling to the cursed Ayatollahs. Twenty-six years of fealty and cut-rate oil out of the Shah’s regime was a darned good return on the paltry five-figure amount Kermit Roosevelt claimed in expenses. For all the scorn heaped on Jimmy Carter, Camp David remains the most sustained contribution to Israel’s security.  

Israeli intelligence didn’t anticipate the Arab Spring spreading to Egypt and, once it did, Prime Minister Netanyahu beseeched the U.S. to stand by Mubarek. Subsequent election of the Muslim Brotherhood on Israel’s passive southern front combines with the five-year old Hamas electoral victory on their western flank to make Likudniks very nervous. Netanyahu’s neo-con alter-ego, Newt Gingrinch, has weighed in: “I think we may, in fact, be having an anti-Christian spring. I think people should take this pretty soberly.”  

Rosy neo-con visions of sugar plum oil fields and Jeffersonian democracy fairies transforming the Middle East have blurred beyond recognition over the past decade. So, it’s a good time to change the subject and refocus. And where better to draw a bead on than that spinning Axle of Evil—Iran? Ever ready to play Mad Mullah to Zealous Zionists, Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei has trash-talked, yet again, about removing the “cancer” that is Israel. “So far,” Khamenei boasted to the “Islamic Awakening and Youth Conference” in Teheran last week, “the Iranian nation has kicked them in the mouth at every stage.”

One bold “Awakening” attendee held up a pesky sign—“Syria?”to remind everyone that growing numbers of Syrians will never awaken again, thanks to the brutal crackdown of Iran’s close ally, Bashar “The Butcher” al-Assad. The fall of Assad would blow a huge strategic hole in Iran’s hegemony. Add to that equation the Persian Spring, which was quickly quelled by Khamenei/Ahmadinejad in a forceful flash-freeze. Deep-seeded discomfort with the Arab Spring is one response Israelis and Iranians share in common.  

Given the rough neighborhood Israelis live in, how far off is Armageddon if the mullahs get the bomb? The specter of nuclear Iran was raised in 1992 by Israel’s then Prime Minister Peres as well as current P.M., Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu who predicted back then that Iran was three to five years away from getting the bomb.  Before the Shah was toppled in 1979, one intelligence report had him setting up “a clandestine nuclear weapons development program.” A looming Iranian bomb has been sighted more frequently than the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot.  

Recently retired Mossad director Meir Dagan, reflecting substantive differences in the Israeli intelligence and defense community, said that an attack on Iran would be “a stupid idea…. The regional challenge that Israel would face would be impossible.” With last year’s exodus of Dagan along with the chief of general staff and the Shin Bet director, “there is no one to stop Bibi and (Defense Minister) Barak.” Lest one dismiss the long-serving Dagan as a weak sister, heed the words of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “Dagan’s specialty is separating an Arab from his head.”

As oil hovers around the $100/bbl mark, traders have currently dismissed the saber rattling as so much bluster. But with 40 percent of world oil transported through Iran’s Strait of Hormuz, conflict would drive the current price up anywhere from 25-75 percent sending a gallon soaring close to $6. Add these sobering facts: Iran has 25 percent more people than Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and land mass nearly four times that of its neighbor, Iraq.  

In the guestimate of the current Israeli chief of staff, the Iranians possess enough fissionable material to package four nukes at some point. The Israeli nuclear arsenal is approximately two orders of magnitude greater, an order of magnitude lower than the usual Israeli eye-for-an-eyelash ratio. The South Koreans have reconciled themselves to a nuclear North whose Martian leadership makes the mullahs look like hippies. Moreover, since Nagasaki, no nuclear nation, no matter how extreme, has been reckless enough to use a bomb. That restraint won’t prevail forever.

Can the Likudniks constrain themselves, resigned to sanctions of the economic and targeted variety?  Mysterious explosions, the Stuxnet virus and elimination of a half-dozen nuclear scientists have markedly crimped Iran’s weaponization. Soon the capacity of the Iranian central bank will be SWIFT-moated, severing their capacity for secure electronic financial exchange. “Iran’s economy has always been sick, but now it seems worse than ever,” said a Teheran bank employee about the prospects of more sanctions. Nonetheless, pre-emptive strikes like the ones Israel executed against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 remain mighty tempting.

As we mull all this over, return to my formative yesteryears, when mullahs were mere whirling dervishes, and consider the following Sufi tale, the Persian variation of Aesop’s Fables:

Two clever young men sought to puncture the reputed wisdom of the Mullah Nasruddin.

“You will hide a chicken behind your back,” one clever fellow instructed his clever friend, “and we will ask the Mullah whether the chicken is alive or dead.   If he says ‘alive’, you will break its neck. If he says dead, we will produce the living chicken.”

They came upon Mullah Nasruddin and put him to the test.

Nasruddin scratched his head, offered an indulgent smile and responded, “It’s in your hands! It’s in your hands!”

 

Main Photo: Richard Williams illustration from the Mullah Nasruddin series
Photo: M-Star oil tanker damaged in an explosion in the Strait of Hormuz 7-28-10

Fracking: The Ultimate Scam Revealed

By touting natural gas as the clean-burning fossil fuel that is cheaper to use and helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the industry has nailed the PR trifecta: cheaper, cleaner and patriotic.

gas mask hydrofrackingOne of the great joys of writing, as in science, is the accidental discovery. To wit: penicillin. And while this entry hardly ranks near Alexander Fleming’s pharmaceutical breakthrough, it does relieve a particular itch that has been nagging my brain. For months I have been vexed by the discrepancy in pricing between crude oil and natural gas. (Wait, I know how tedious commodities can be but I promise you this column is worth sticking with.) Unable to settle on any fundamental market-based explanation, I placed the issue on the mental backburner. It was only when I decided to update a series of articles on the role of speculation in the commodities markets that I happened upon the most plausible solution to this puzzle.

First, a little context. Over the past couple of years New York State has been flirting with the idea of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The discovery of enormous pockets of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation that runs from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York to as far as Ohio, has led to a modern-day gold rush in the region, with Pennsylvania several years ahead of New York. While the gas has always been there, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium when controversial chemical enhancements invented by Halliburton were added to a difficult horizontal drilling technique that accessing this gas became feasible.

Almost immediately, however, environmental concerns began to mount. Stories of contaminated groundwater, intense air pollution and, most recently, a ruptured fault line and mini-earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio, on Dec. 31, have begun leaking into public consciousness. Gasland, a documentary by Josh Fox, increasingly agitated environmental organizations, and high-profile activists such as actor Mark Ruffalo have helped fracking reach the tipping point in the media. Once seen as a panacea for rural land owners in depressed parts of the country, fracking has become a pariah in the environmental community, setting the stage for yet another battle between the oil and gas industry and environmentalists. Caught in the middle of the entire fiasco at the moment is Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is cautiously moving toward legalizing fracking in New York, though his public reticence highlights how tenuous this decision truly is.

Early on, I came down firmly against fracking in New York, and the Long Island Press was in the vanguard of reporting on it downstate. So I’m on record quite clearly as to why I believe fracking to be a disaster for New York, or anywhere else for that matter. No need to rehash this position. Still, one piece of the broader issue was missing—until now.

Here’s the issue: Fracking is expensive. The prolonged low market price of natural gas is the most logical deterrent to increasing drilling because it barely pays to pull the gas out of the ground. Moreover, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that natural gas demand in the United States should rise only 11 percent over the next 25 years compared to a projected rise of more than 300 percent in China over the same period.

Here’s where the market rationale gets murky. Analysts point to increased demand for fossil fuel in developing economies as the primary reason behind the steady rise in oil prices. Goldman Sachs’ most recent forecast of Brent Crude Oil, commonly known as “sweet light crude,” is $120 a barrel for 2012, with most market analysts following suit. A weak dollar, the ongoing crisis and uncertainty in the Eurozone, a burgeoning conflict between the U.S. and Iran, and continued growth in China, India and Brazil are the oft-given reasons behind these prognostications.

Historically, natural gas and oil prices have generally moved in tandem, and with natural gas gaining momentum as the fossil fuel of choice, it only makes sense that they would continue their mirrored trajectory. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Crude oil remains stubbornly high and creeping ever higher while natural gas remains depressed.

A closer look reveals that the world has record stockpiles of both fuels, and has developed incredible potential for new sources such as the Marcellus Shale play or the tar sands in Canada. Then there are the yet-to-be-developed fields in Iraq that, according to the New York Times, are “expected to ramp up oil production faster than any other country in the next 25 years, with a capacity…more than traditional leaders like Saudi Arabia.” Or, if you prefer, the real reason we went to war in Iraq.

Excess supply, new discoveries, and sluggish demand—and yet only natural gas is acting appropriately in the markets. This behavior is undeniable proof that the invisible hand of speculation is at work, which naturally begs the question as to why traders would suppress the price of gas but not oil.

For this answer we must turn back the clock once again and revisit several acts in Congress over the past two decades that made it possible for banks to merge with investment banks and trade commodities without limits and without transparency. Much of this trading is done on the Intercontinental Exchange, a trading platform that was founded and owned by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and BP. When you understand that markets today are dominated by investment banks and oil companies, who are at times one in the same (Morgan Stanley’s direct holdings in oil companies, fossil fuel infrastructure and transportation companies make it one of the largest oil companies in America), it is possible to fully comprehend the psychology behind natural gas pricing. Oil companies and investment banks have the ability to move the market by forecasting prices and investing in their own products through opaque exchanges that they own, so no matter where prices are they are making money.

Now you’re ready for the secret behind the fracking con job.

As previously mentioned, domestic natural gas is difficult to procure. The process is devastating to human health and the environment, and the effects are irreversible. To gain momentum and influence public opinion, the oil and gas companies have launched an ingenious propaganda assault on America. By touting natural gas as the clean-burning fossil fuel that is cheaper to use and helps reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the industry has nailed the PR trifecta: cheaper, cleaner and patriotic. And with an earnest pitchman like T. Boone Pickens, who wouldn’t believe it?

The problem is none of the above is true. First, natural gas might burn cleaner than oil but the process to extract it is so harmful it doesn’t matter. And second, because the same companies who are in control of the product are in control of the pricing, once they sew up the drilling rights they can simply jack up the price. This leaves the final argument that is wrapped in the American flag and served with a side of apple pie: reducing dependence on foreign oil for the sake of the union.

For the truth, let’s check in with the rest of the world to see what they say. (This was the happy accident that prompted this column.)

According to India’s leading daily business newspaper, the Business Standard, “the increasing shale gas production in the U.S. has led to a surplus, likely to increase in the coming years. The U.S. is, therefore, eyeing export to countries like China, Japan, Korea and India… In the past, the U.S. has been an importer of gas.” The article goes on to quote A. K. Balyan, chief executive officer of Petronet LNG, India’s largest liquefied natural gas importer, who states, “With an increase in U.S. gas production, the gas receiving terminals need to be converted to exporting terminals.”

Ta-dah!

The average life of a fracking site is seven years. At best. The environmental and human health catastrophe is forever. All of the current talk of job creation and reducing dependence on oil is a sham. Our natural gas stockpiles are higher than ever and the demand for natural gas, by our own country’s admission, will remain basically flat until 2035. The oil and gas companies are planning to export gas from the Marcellus Shale region to the same developing economies we’re supposed to be competing against. How’s that for homeland security?

The real insult? American oil and gas companies are willing to risk the health and welfare of our own citizens by fracking on our land in order to export fuel they claim is more beneficial to the environment. Normally, our companies are busy screwing up other countries in pursuit of their natural resources for our own consumption. As if this isn’t bad enough, they are finally committing the cardinal sin of shitting where they eat.

Let’s do the right thing for once: Ban fracking now. There’s no other way.

JANUARY 11th – FINAL DAY FOR PUBLIC COMMENT ON DEC WEBSITE. CLICK HERE

Main Photo Image: Photograph from AP. April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day.
Long Island Press cover image. Original art by Jon Sasala
T. Boone Pickens
. AP Photo.

This article was published in the January 5th, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Fat Cat Manifest: Rev. Ike’s Thinkonomics

If you guaranteed most folks an income next year of one million bucks, but it came with a 70% tax rate, what percentage would sign on the bottom line? Do you suppose there would be a huge groundswell of tea baggers with five-figure incomes turning up their noses on principle over this outlandish top marginal tax rate (which still prevailed in Reagan’s first term)? I, for one, would sign up in a heartbeat then register Republican and rejoin the NRA, lest anyone try to get their mitts on my remaining $300,000.

“As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” –Proverbs 23:7

If you guaranteed most folks an income next year of one million bucks, but it came with a 70% tax rate, what percentage would sign on the bottom line? Do you suppose there would be a huge groundswell of tea baggers with five-figure incomes turning up their noses, on principle, over such a top marginal tax rate (which still prevailed under Reagan)? I, for one, would sign up in a heartbeat then register Republican and rejoin the NRA, lest anyone try to get their mitts on my remaining $300,000.

The income gap between the top tier and everyone else continues its seismic expansion. Nonetheless, only one-third of Americans, when surveyed, see themselves as ‘have-nots.’ On the contrary, recent census data finds that “a record number of Americans — nearly 1 in 2 — have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.”

Liberals shake their heads over how wage slaves continue to vote against their own economic interests in favor of Fat Cat bennies like terminating the estate, er, death tax. Like Huey Long’s fictional alter-ego, Willie Stark, kept saying to his minions: “You’re a hick. Nobody ever helped a hick but a hick himself.” Average mokes being played for suckers resonated back in the Great Depression. Not in today’s Great Recession.

A captive (audience like the American Public) can become in thrall to their captor’s cause. So suggests the Stockholm Syndrome. It was invoked to defend media heiress Patty Hearst for her gun-toting, bank-robbing spree with the Symbionese Liberation Army after they had kidnapped her. The prosecution case portrayed a poor little rich girl acting out, posing all radical chic in her Ché beret and M-1 carbine. It is probably a symbiosis of both, as it is for the American consumer – conditioned to be who we wannabe.

Back when Patty and her SLA pals were liberating God knows who, I was a young man on the make, angling to become a millionaire before I turned 30. I started up a couple of promising ventures, raised a bunch of bucks, but, alas, came up short. Subsequently, I took to quipping that, “I have a negative net worth, but a wealth of self-esteem.” Though, truthfully, that may well have been a pre-existing attitude.

In college, I became intrigued with dynamic ‘visualizing’ through Maslow’s ‘self-actualization,’ particularly its commercial applications. I wrote a paper on Holiday Magic and other nominal purveyors of cosmetics which were really in the business of selling ‘distributorships’ via pyramid schemes. It was classic bait-and-switch, mesmerizing marks in revivalist-style marketing confabs featuring ‘Mind Dynamics.’

Then I went on a pilgrimage to the rococo Palace Cathedral in Northern Manhattan’s Washington Heights to catch the Prosperity Gospel of the Rev. Ike. While Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter’s mother was AfroAmerican, his paternal fore-bearers, like mine, came by way of the Dutch East Indies. Rev. Ike’s was a “do-it-yourself church” with a biracial congregation whose “only savior…is the God in you.” And he wasn’t talking about “that stingy, hard-hearted, hard-of-hearing God-in the-Sky… you learned about in Sunday School.”

A self-professed heretic, Rev. Ike stood four-square at odds with St Paul: “the best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.” As one of the pioneering televangelists, the Rev. Ike reached an estimated congregation of 2.5 million. Critics brayed that he played his flock for suckers, a condescending, sanctimonious judgment that sold his flock short. Rev. Ike was almost always square with them. “Be proud of the way I look because you spend $1,000 a week to buy my clothes,” and “my garage runneth over.”

In one sermon he nailed the pious Focus on Family types who shill for special interests in the name of the Lord:

Oh the Games People Play now
Every night and every day now….
People walking up to you, now
Singing glory Halleluiah, now
As they try to sock it to you, now
In the name of the Lord.

Like Lady Gaga, Rev. Ike channeled the yearnings of followers who live vicariously through their icons. Devotees could Be Like Ike by Thinking Like Ike. Rev. Ike’s Thinkonomics teaches the Mastery of Mind and how that mastered mind can be a magnet for money: “If your mind can conceive it, then you can achieve it!” This mantra was lifted virtually verbatim from Napoleon Hill’s 1937 classic, ‘Think and Grow Rich’ which, in turn, draws on the ‘autosuggestion’ of Émile Coué’s “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” It all goes back, as Rev. Ike reminded his flock, to Proverbs 23:7.

My parents, in their diametric ways, bore out Milton’s observation in Paradise Lost that, “the mind is its own place and in itself in his life, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Rebounding from a career-ending stroke at 52, my father, Ernest, retained his comprehension even as his speech remained truncated. His pat phrases emerged mostly upbeat, like “Up & up!” “Always laughing!” and remained so “Till the end!”

As an advisor to captains of industry, Ernest liked to share a Sufi-style anecdote on Dale-Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Noting that his clientele, not unlike Rev. Ike, had done quite nicely by themselves, if not by others, he would refer you to Baudelaire: “Brigands are convinced – of what? That they must succeed. And so they do succeed.”

Indefinite Detention: NDAA for Fiscal Year 2012

When the courts are no longer responsible for trying its citizens and the president is given the exclusive right to arbitrate in cases the military deems to be matters of national security, we have already descended far down the slippery slope toward fascism

Originally published in the Dec. 22nd edition of the Long Island Press

Every policy in Washington is developed over time and influenced by myriad factors. Even singular foreign policy events such as the Monroe Doctrine or declarations of war are the culmination of assiduous planning and debate that take into account a progression of economic, national security and human factors. Because every policy is based upon building blocks of understanding relative to the time and circumstances in which they were developed, there is always a reason why even the most divisive or treacherous idea gains support, for better or for worse.

Such is the case with section 1031 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012 (NDAA), a provision commonly referred to as the “indefinite detention” clause. The NDAA itself has already passed both houses of Congress and currently awaits President Obama’s signature. The detention provision has garnered a great deal of attention from the blogosphere and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as it marks a decidedly dangerous shift in procedure and rights with respect to detainees in the War on Terror. The section, authored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), gives the military the ability to indefinitely detain anyone it deems to be connected to the War on Terror, thus superseding the authority of civilian courts.

The NDAA itself is a fairly routine bill that organizes funding for the military. It does not appropriate funding, which is important to understand. The original language in the 1031 amendment was troublesome enough to prompt a strong rebuke from several members of Congress and the President who threatened to veto the bill if it included this measure as written.

The revised measure attempts to codify the language with respect to detainees and assuage the fears of those who viewed this as undermining our Constitutional rights and a threat to the democratic process. The reason is that the original language was vague enough that the possibility of detaining U.S. citizens and legal aliens indefinitely without due process was left open to interpretation.

The language was “clarified” by referring specifically instead to al-Qaeda and its affiliates and exactly who has the ability to authorize detention should a person be suspected of having ties to a terrorist organization. In an attempt to calm the waters surrounding this amendment Sen. McCain—ironically the most notable former detainee in the U.S.—issued a statement saying, “the language in this bill will not affect any Americans engaging in the pursuits of their Constitutional rights.” The ACLU begs to differ.

On its website the ACLU specifically tackles the revised provision with the following: “Don’t be confused by anyone claiming that the indefinite detention legislation does not apply to American citizens. It does. There is an exemption for American citizens from the mandatory detention requirement (section 1032 of the bill), but no exemption for American citizens from the authorization to use the military to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial (section 1031 of the bill). So, the result is that, under the bill, the military has the power to indefinitely imprison American citizens, but it does not have to use its power unless ordered to do so.” They go on to quote Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said section 1031 “does apply to American citizens and it designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland.”

Inside the Beltway there has been great consternation over this provision. Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) put forward an amendment to water down the McCain/Levin provision (S.Amdt. 1107: To revise the provisions relating to detainee… to S. 1867) but it was voted down 61 to 37 in the Senate (the two senators from Alaska did not vote). Even FBI Director Robert Mueller has expressed concern that this language will inevitably lead to confusion in the field as to who has superseding authority during a terror investigation. The thought of the military being able to access and interrupt a civilian terror investigation and round up suspects unilaterally is a threat to every level of U.S. law enforcement. The fact that it potentially extends to American citizens, despite Sen. McCain’s claims to the contrary, speaks to the ambiguity of even the final language.

At first it seemed as though President Obama balked at this provision out of his understanding of the impact on American civil liberties and Constitutional rights; that the POTUS was back on message from his campaign and defending personal freedom. As it turns out, this couldn’t be further from reality. Incredibly, the White House reversed its stance and withdrew its opposition to the bill after the language was changed to include a stipulation that granted exclusive authority to arbitrate the detention provision away from the Secretary of Defense and directly to the president. In effect, Obama simply consolidated detainee power and privilege into the office of the president.

It’s important also to remember that this bill is not an appropriations bill. Unlike other spending bills that have been in the news this year that require passage to prevent certain government agencies from running out of funds, the NDAA does not fund the Pentagon, it organizes its expenditures and establishes certain rules and provisions. Therefore, nothing would theoretically be interrupted if this bill doesn’t pass. In other words, the POTUS has little to lose in fighting this provision. Instead, he caved. Again.

The question is: Why should this concern Americans? Remember that policy doesn’t develop in a vacuum. Sections 1031 and 1032 don’t stand on their own. When taken in conjunction with the Patriot Act and the government’s decision in 2009 to extend three controversial provisions that include granting the government the ability to collect information and conduct wire tapping and surveillance in secret without obtaining warrants, the detainee provision gets a little alarming. Add to this the extension of the “lone wolf” provision of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to track anyone around the world regardless of their affiliation, and things become even more ominous.

Again, each of these provisions has theoretical and practical merit, particularly when considered within the post 9-11 context in which they were established. Taken together, however, and the dangerous crack in the defense of our civil liberties begins to grow.

Take, for example, the case of Tarek Mehanna of Massachusetts. Mehanna, it would seem, despises America. He even went so far as to seek Jihadist training abroad though he was rebuffed. Today he is being prosecuted, not just for attempting to join a jihadist organization, but also for promoting jihadist material online. A recent Mother Jones article links the Mehanna case to the killing of “Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical U.S.-born Imam whose ability to give sermons in colloquial English made him the symbol of a new era of homegrown extremism.” Most of us harbor little sympathy for either of these men, but the government’s response and action toward both in conjunction with the steady erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act and the indefinite detention clause of the NDAA speak to the steady rise in domestic militarization.

When the courts are no longer responsible for trying its citizens and the president is given the exclusive right to arbitrate in cases the military deems to be matters of national security, we have already descended far down the slippery slope toward fascism. This is not hyperbole but rather a strict interpretation of fascism as an ideology that revokes individual rights under the cloak of nationalism and consolidates domestic tribunal authority under the military controlled by a singular authority.

There are two reasons most Americans care little about the debate surrounding the detention provision. One is that most people are law-abiding Americans to whom criticizing America and promoting terrorist speech is anathema. That’s a good thing. The other is that most people probably haven’t even heard of it because the debate, while raging behind closed doors in Congress and inside the blogosphere, is largely absent in the traditional media. The only plausible explanations for this omission are either that corporate media outlets don’t think it’s important or they are afraid of the potential consequences to their coverage.

Let’s assume that the issue of whether the military should be allowed to supersede an FBI investigation of U.S. citizens and indefinitely detain suspects without evidence or the requirement to divulge any of its actions is important to all of us and examine the latter. What could traditional news outlets be concerned about? Take everything covered to this point and consider the following scenario:

A credible journalist reporting on the Mehanna case would need to cite the remarks Mehanna posted on the Internet that prompted authorities to investigate him and consider him an imminent threat. This same journalist would now be technically guilty of exactly the same crime as Mehanna if he is convicted on this count and U.S. law establishes the precedent that reporting jihadist sentiments is an act of terrorism. This would be treasonous behavior calling into question the strength and breadth of the First Amendment. Theoretically the government can not only begin surveillance and wire-tapping on the journalist, the military can decide to intervene and indefinitely detain this person without due process.

Think it can’t happen? Well, technically it can because this entire scenario would be legal in the eyes of the government under the strictest interpretation of the new law. Of course it can happen. This is McCarthyism minus the hearings and histrionics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It was during the McCarthy years that indefinite detention was first contemplated and even briefly enacted, though it was never officially implemented or acted upon. For as long as that journalist/blogger/activist/whomever can be considered a “Lone Wolf” or perhaps linked to affiliates of al-Qaeda—an organization that is by nature indefinable—his or her constitutional rights as a citizen can be suspended. The War on Terror as conceived by George W. Bush and codified domestically under the Patriot Act, is an active and permanent war in the spirit and definition of the Cold War. If the Bush Doctrine allowed the U.S. to wage war on nations without provocation, then the McCain/Levin provision brings the doctrine home.

The moment Obama affixes his signature to the bill will mark a seminal shift in our democracy. It will also mark the tragic moment that the Obama presidency becomes indistinguishable from the Bush Administration.

 

Main photo: AP – A June file photo of the sun rising over Camp Delta detention compound at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, in Cuba.

Below right: AP file photo of Robert Mueller. Below Left: AP file photo of Tarek Mehanna

ProPublica: EPA Confirms Fracking Linked to Contamination

The agency’s findings could be a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening, and are likely to shape how the country regulates and develops natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale and across the Eastern Appalachian states.

Feds Link Water Contamination to Fracking for the First Time

by Abrahm Lustgarten and Nicholas KusnetzProPublica, Dec. 8, 2011, 8:18 p.m.

In a first, federal environment officials today scientifically linked underground water pollution with hydraulic fracturing, concluding that contaminants found in central Wyoming were likely caused by the gas drilling process.

The findings by the Environmental Protection Agency come partway through a separate national study by the agency to determine whether fracking presents a risk to water resources.

In the 121-page draft report released today, EPA officials said that the contamination near the town of Pavillion, Wyo., had most likely seeped up from gas wells and contained at least 10 compounds [1] known to be used in frack fluids.

“The presence of synthetic compounds such as glycol ethers … and the assortment of other organic components is explained as the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field,” the draft report states. “Alternative explanations were carefully considered.”

The agency’s findings could be a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening, and are likely to shape how the country regulates and develops natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale and across the Eastern Appalachian states.

Some of the findings in the report also directly contradict longstanding arguments by the drilling industry for why the fracking process is safe: that hydrologic pressure would naturally force fluids down, not up; that deep geologic layers provide a watertight barrier preventing the movement of chemicals towards the surface; and that the problems with the cement and steel barriers around gas wells aren’t connected to fracking.

Environmental advocates greeted today’s report with a sense of vindication and seized the opportunity to argue for stronger federal regulation of fracking.

“No one can accurately say that there is ‘no risk’ where fracking is concerned,” wrote Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, on her blog. “This draft report makes obvious that there are many factors at play, any one of which can go wrong. Much stronger rules are needed to ensure that well construction standards are stronger and reduce threats to drinking water.”

A spokesman for EnCana, the gas company that owns the Pavillion wells, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an email exchange after the EPA released preliminary water test data two weeks ago [2], the spokesman, Doug Hock, denied that the company’s actions were to blame for the pollution and suggested it was naturally caused.

“Nothing EPA presented suggests anything has changed since August of last year– the science remains inconclusive in terms of data, impact, and source,” Hock wrote. “It is also important to recognize the importance of hydrology and geology with regard to the sampling results in the Pavillion Field. The field consists of gas-bearing zones in the near subsurface, poor general water quality parameters and discontinuous water-bearing zones.”

The EPA’s findings immediately triggered what is sure to become a heated political debate as members of Congress consider afresh proposals to regulate fracking. After a phone call with EPA chief Lisa Jackson this morning, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told a Senate panel that he found the agency’s report on the Pavillion-area contamination “offensive.” Inhofe’s office had challenged the EPA’s investigation in Wyoming last year, accusing the agency of bias.

Residents began complaining of fouled water near Pavillion in the mid-1990s, and the problems appeared to get worse around 2004. Several residents complained that their well water turned brown shortly after gas wells were fracked nearby [3], and, for a time, gas companies operating in the area supplied replacement drinking water to residents.

Beginning in 2008, the EPA took water samples from resident’s drinking water wells, finding hydrocarbons and traces of contaminants that seemed like they could be related to fracking [4]. In 2010, another round of sampling confirmed the contamination, and the EPA, along with federal health officials, cautioned residents not to drink their water and to ventilate their homes [5] when they bathed because the methane in the water could cause an explosion.

To confirm their findings, EPA investigators drilled two water monitoring wells to 1,000 feet. The agency released data from these test wells in November that confirmed high levels of carcinogenic chemicals [2] such as benzene, and a chemical compound called 2 Butoxyethanol, which is known to be used in fracking.

Still, the EPA had not drawn conclusions based on the tests and took pains to separate its groundwater investigation in Wyoming from the national controversy around hydraulic fracturing. Agriculture, drilling, and old pollution from waste pits left by the oil and gas industry were all considered possible causes of the contamination.

In the report released today, the EPA said that pollution from 33 abandoned oil and gas waste pits – which are the subject of a separate cleanup program – are indeed responsible for some degree of shallow groundwater pollution in the area. Those pits may be the source of contamination affecting at least 42 private water wells in Pavillion. But the pits could not be blamed for contamination detected in the water monitoring wells 1,000 feet underground.

That contamination, the agency concluded, had to have been caused by fracking.

The EPA’s findings in Wyoming are specific to the region’s geology; the Pavillion-area gas wells were fracked at shallower depths than many of the wells in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere.

Investigators tested the cement and casing of the gas wells and found what they described as “sporadic bonding” of the cement in areas immediately above where fracking took place. The cement barrier meant to protect the well bore and isolate the chemicals in their intended zone had been weakened and separated from the well, the EPA concluded.

The report also found that hydrologic pressure in the Pavillion area had pushed fluids from deeper geologic layers towards the surface. Those layers were not sufficient to provide a reliable barrier to contaminants moving upward, the report says.

Throughout its investigation in Wyoming, The EPA was hamstrung by a lack of disclosure about exactly what chemicals had been used to frack the wells near Pavillion. EnCana declined to give federal officials a detailed breakdown of every compound used underground. The agency relied instead on more general information supplied by the company to protect workers’ health.

Hock would not say whether EnCana had used 2 BE, one of the first chemicals identified in Pavillion and known to be used in fracking, at its wells in Pavillion. But he was dismissive of its importance in the EPA’s findings. “There was a single detection of 2-BE among all the samples collected in the deep monitoring wells. It was found in one sample by only one of three labs,” he wrote in his reply to ProPublica two weeks ago. “Inconsistency in detection and non-repeatability shouldn’t be construed as fact.”

The EPA’s draft report will undergo a public review and peer review process, and is expected to be finalized by spring.

 

Big Pac with Cheese

The super-spending group asked the Federal Election Commission whether it could produce an ad that was 201Cfully coordinated201D with a candidate 2014 without having it count as a coordinated communication under federal election law.

FEC Deadlocks (Again) on Guidance for Big-Money Super PACs

by Marian Wang ProPublica, Dec. 2, 2011, 12:21 p.m.

A bold request from American Crossroads, a conservative Super PAC founded by Karl Rove, apparently struck a nerve with hundreds of people who don2019t typically pay much attention to the more obscure aspects of campaign-finance law.

The super-spending group asked the Federal Election Commission whether it could produce an ad that was 201Cfully coordinated201D with a candidate 2014 without having it count as a coordinated communication under federal election law.

Coordination, as we2019ve noted [1], is the one crucial restriction on Super PACs, groups that are otherwise unfettered by the limits that apply to candidate campaigns and traditional PACs. Provided they don2019t coordinate their spending with candidates, Super PACs can raise as much money as they want from anyone they want, even corporations and unions.

The request by American Crossroads was prominently parodied [2] by comedian Stephen Colbert, who was joined by nearly 500 others in flooding the FEC with comment letters that, as one commissioner put it, were 201Cnot very complimentary [3]201D about what American Crossroads was trying to do. The commission is usually 201Clucky to get one or two comments,201D said Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat.

Yesterday, Weintraub and the five other FEC commissioners met to decide whether a 201Cfully coordinated201D ad could be considered uncoordinated. The result? A 3-3 deadlock.

201CThe commission is unable to reach a conclusion on this request,201D said the FEC2019s chair, Cynthia Bauerly, after several heated exchanges between the commissioners failed to produce consensus.

To be sure, the group2019s request [4] [PDF] was unusual 2014 and so forthright about its aims that more than one commissioner praised the group for its candor: American Crossroads stated its intent to create an ad that 201Cwould be fully coordinated201D with candidates, that 201Cwould be thematically similar201D to the candidates2019 own re-election campaign materials, and would feature candidates in the actual ad.

The purpose, the group stated, would be 201Cto improve the public2019s perception of the featured Member of Congress in advance of the 2012 campaign season.201D

The three Democratic commissioners voted to deny the request [5], arguing that, even setting aside the FEC2019s coordination rules, such an ad is essentially a donation of something of value to the candidate for the purpose of influencing an election, or an in-kind contribution. The Republican commissioners disagreed, arguing that their Democratic counterparts were judging the ad by a broader standard than the FEC2019s own coordination rules, which are exceedingly narrow [1].

As we reported last month, the FEC, made up of three Democratics and three Republicans, has frequently deadlocked [6] on key issues like the rules governing these increasingly influential Super PACs. And when the commission can’t make up its mind, groups have the choice of taking the FEC2019s deadlock as a de facto green light and plowing ahead anyway.

In other words, American Crossroads could look at this 3-3 split and still produce the ad it wants to 2014 taking a calculated risk that if its actions are challenged down the road and the FEC’s makeup doesn’t change, the commissioners would surely deadlock again in the enforcement process.

Whether American Crossroads will indeed choose that path remains to be seen. After all, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska appeared in supposedly independent, uncoordinated ads earlier this year, arguing that they were 201Cissue201D ads. Republicans have complained [7], but the FEC has yet to sanction Nelson or the funders of the ad.

In a statement, American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said the group is “reviewing the FEC statements and evaluating options,” but that the more important question is how the vote will affect Nelson, who “has already taken action identical to what we asked about.”

 

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.

Remember the Fifth of November

After everything that went down involving the corrupt practices behind the financial collapse in 2008, I find it amazing that only two people have been found worthy of prosecution thus far. I find it less amazing and more ridiculous that both of them happen to be brown.

Sandwiched between Halloween and Thanksgiving is a new American holiday known as Bank Transfer Day, which takes place this year on Nov. 5. Rejoice.

The movement against Corporatocracy has taken hold and found its footing. And while the media struggle to parse a bumper sticker message from the Occupy Wall Street movement, the occupiers continue to grow in numbers, awakening America’s dormant revolutionary spirit. Bank Transfer Day is one of the first tangible manifestations of the Occupy phenomenon whereby Americans are encouraged to move their money from large public banking institutions to community banks and, more specifically, member-owned credit unions.

Don’t be misled by Chicken Little pundits on Fox News. This is not a run on the banks and it will neither cripple the economy nor coerce Congress into enacting prudent regulatory reform. But it will send a small and important message to the American financial oligarchy that people are paying attention and ready to take action against institutional greed and corruption.

If you are one of the tens of thousands of Americans who are planning on participating in this holiday, there are a few practical rules of engagement to heed. The first is to put away your Guy Fawkes mask when removing your hard-earned money from a bank. While Nov. 5 is indeed Guy Fawkes Day in England and his likeness is symbolic of Anonymous, the group largely credited with the more surreptitious planning behind Occupy Wall Street, wearing a mask into a bank and demanding money— even when it’s your own—is still a pretty terrible idea.

Moreover, it is important to understand the overall health of the institution you’re considering moving your money into. Although it is unlikely most of us will move sums that exceed federal deposit insurance guarantees, risk is a consideration in any financial transaction. Because federal law requires every bank and credit union to maintain minimum capitalization and liquidity standards, a significant growth in deposits in a short period of time without income producing instruments such as home mortgages and auto loans to offset deposits can overwhelm a small institution. In fact, some smaller banks and credit unions may be unable to increase their deposit base, forcing them to turn potential customers away.

It is wise, therefore, to treat Nov. 5 as the beginning of a process, not an event. Consolidating debt and improving your personal credit rating are important first steps that should be taken to solidify your personal foundation. At this point, you will be able to more easily move deposits as well as loan obligations on your personal assets to a community bank or a credit union. A great banking relationship is one that works both ways.

One of the primary reasons small, stable banks are having a difficult time in this recession is the onerous burdens placed upon them due to the passage of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in early 2010. Despite the honorable intent implied in the name of the bill, Dodd-Frank did more to handcuff our economy than help consumers. In fact, the regulatory burden placed on community banks and credit unions is so disproportionate that it favors larger financial institutions that are sitting on (literally) trillions of dollars instead of pumping them back through the economy via the consumer. These banks and investment banks have the personnel and financial wherewithal to handle the mountains of paperwork required to eventually turn consumers and business owners down for loans. What we’re left with is a sadly ironic low-rate lending environment that no one can participate in. The Obama administration has taken the stance that any reform is positive despite the fact that this exact scenario played out for more than a decade in Japan with similar results. The combination of Congress’ Dodd-Frank Act and the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing policy has essentially brought the banking sector to a grinding halt for the majority of Americans. There is no such thing as a “character loan” anymore. Fall one month behind on your mortgage payment or fail to pay your credit card bill on time and you are out of luck. And as for the giant Wall Street firms that got us into this mess and continue their reckless behavior to this day—it’s business as usual.

The Occupy Wall Street protestors are keeping a tally of the number of protestors arrested for exercising their constitutional right to peaceably assemble versus the number of Wall Street bankers busted. It’s more than 1,000 to 1. The one is former hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam (Left). This number may double, however, as prosecutors have set their sights on another man named Rajat Gupta (Right), former partner at McKinsey and Company. After everything that went down involving the corrupt practices behind the financial collapse in 2008, I find it amazing that only two people have been found worthy of prosecution thus far. I find it less amazing and more ridiculous that both of them happen to be brown.

But take heart, my dear revolutionaries. Progress and change are upon us all. If you believe it is useless to resist the will of mega-corporations and government, witness the decision by several banks, most recently Bank of America, to rein in their proposed new banking fees. This was a victory for the consumer and a testament to the power of protest. This effort was successful for the same reason Bank Transfer Day will signal a real shift of dollars. It is also the reason why Republican presidential nominee Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan is being revealed as an anti-poor regressive policy, the Citizen’s United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court is being ridiculed, and war veterans have joined protests across the nation.

The reason, my friends, is that the jig is up. The 99 percent have woken up and they’re pissed.

It will take time to untie the thousands of knots the 1 percent has tied in the financial system, effectively choking off the money supply from flowing throughout the economy. It will be done one knot at a time. And for those who believe that the Occupy Wall Street movement is simply a plan for the redistribution of wealth in America, it’s not. This is about creating equitable access to wealth and the ability for people everywhere to thrive on a level playing field that properly rewards equal measures of risk, planning, luck and diligence – the fundamentals of entrepreneurship that comprise the so-called “American Dream.” At a minimum this is about creating a system that does not punish those who seek to earn a fair wage for an honest day’s work.

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.