Rock Star Journalists

Hackers and bloggers, investigative journalists, whistleblowers and scholars are collaborating in a way that speaks to what the Internet was intended to be. All under the watchful eye of Anonymous.

Celebrity chefs have had their day. The new rock star celebrities are journalists. They’re bigger than the brands they represent and are, in the words of Thoreau, “counter friction to the machine.” They speak truth to power and believe balance and objectivity are bullshit because lies and criminality do not deserve equal time with the truth.

Take, for example, Matt Taibbi and the late Michael Hastings who took Rolling Stone from an anachronistic music industry journal and turned it into a rabble-rousing political juggernaut. The U.K.’s Guardian newspaper is scooping American journals at every turn, making them out to be the establishment sycophants they truly are. Sites like Alternet, Truthdig and Truthout are publishing profound progressive material for the world to see on subjects that were formerly under the exclusive purview of local alternative weekly publications. Hackers and bloggers, investigative journalists, whistleblowers and scholars are collaborating in a way that speaks to what the Internet was intended to be. All under the watchful eye of Anonymous.

This is truly the new golden age of journalism. Any question that arises from this statement should be put to rest by the ignominious manner in which the government has assaulted those who challenge it. The cover story in the July 2013 edition of the Long Island Press by Chris Twarowski and Rashed Mian (rock stars in their own right) tells the story of the fearless crusaders of this generation by tipping a cap to the dissidents and truth tellers of old. As we note on our cover image (inset) these were people who were vilified in their time by the ruling class and vindicated over time by the working class. Some are famous, most are not. Yet each had the courage of their convictions and righteousness on their side.

For us, the Bradley Manning trial is the tip of the spear. His revelations, published through Wikileaks, broke open the floodgates and allowed a new journalistic sentiment to pour through. It is not a sentiment shared by the corporately controlled broadcast and print media in the United States, but it is pervasive among this new breed of advocacy writer. And while the indefatigable journalists such as Alexa O’Brien and Kevin Gosztola who are covering it every day are hardly household names, they ought to be. It’s why we chose to pay homage to them in telling the story of PFC Manning.

Recently my wife and I attended a talk at the New School with journalist and author Jeremy Scahill who was being interviewed by the Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman about his new book, Dirty Wars. The auditorium was overflowing with attendees trying to catch a glimpse of Scahill who is arguably the biggest rock star in the field of investigative journalism right now; a distinction challenged only by Scahill’s good friend Glenn Greenwald, also of the Guardian, who brought to light the NSA revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden, now the most sought after man on earth. The only two people in the audience to receive louder ovations than Scahill were Dr. Cornel West and Scahill’s mentor Amy Goodman. This was a progressive paradise that could have been an advertisement for NPR tote bags.

Ackerman was a solid choice to interview Scahill as he is also well known as a national security and government reporter for Wired Magazine, having only recently made the move to the Guardian. The Guardian’s ascendency in the U.S. is part of the intriguing backstory to the Snowden affair. Just how far under the skin of the U.S. government the U.K.-based news organization has travelled is evidenced by a recent Ackerman story confirming that the U.S. military “was filtering out reports and content relating to government surveillance programs to preserve “network hygiene.””

Network hygiene. Interesting terminology.

Perhaps it is because the Guardian is based in the U.K. that it is immune to U.S. propaganda. What’s so utterly disturbing is that Americans seem to have little defense against it. We swallow terms like “hygiene” hook, line and sinker instead of recognizing it for what it is: censorship. Our media are complicit in this linguistic cover-up, repeating government jargon and name-calling, thereby legitimizing it.

Want to counter the investigative journalism of Jeremy Scahill? Call him a terrorist sympathizer.
Looking to turn the public’s attention Edward Snowden’s revelations of the U.S. illegal data collection and wiretapping of basically the entire planet? Say he emboldened the terrorists.
Frustrated by Glenn Greenwald’s lack of respect for authority? Have lackeys in the U.S. media suggest that he too is a traitor.
Want to teach other would-be whistleblowers a lesson? Lock up Bradley Manning and strip him of all his constitutional rights by putting him in solitary confinement then parade him through kangaroo court under the guise of due process.

The people on our cover didn’t fall for any of this bullshit. They spoke truth to power and several died for their “sins.” But each of them was vindicated over time. Someday, hopefully Bradley Manning will be as well. But this will only happen if the rock star journalists of today continue to burn bright enough to illuminate the dark corporate propagandists that seek to discredit their work and shield us from the truth.

Tea Partisanship

Entitlement programs don’t imply that people have some childish sense of entitlement as some Republicans would have us all believe; the programs are precisely referred to as such because we are entitled to receive them.

Boehner and ObamaPart IV of The Season of Our Disconnect

Perhaps the best, most succinct commentary I heard regarding the acrimonious debt ceiling debate was during a BBC broadcast this past week. When asked what the sentiment was in Europe regarding the countdown to American debt default that Congress narrowly avoided on Aug. 2, the reporter said there was a sense of bewilderment that the United States would voluntarily default on its obligations when so many countries were struggling against doing so involuntarily. Not only did this highlight how silly the entire debacle really was but there’s something about hearing it delivered in a British accent that makes it sound all the more ridiculous.

The Republican Party, of which I have been affiliated with since coming of voting age, has never behaved so badly. This is a party that touts itself as pro-business and anti-tax, with every member running amok trying to out-Ronald Reagan one another. Yet anyone who runs a business will tell you that cutting costs can only achieve so much and that, at some point, revenue has to increase proportionate to the growth of expenses. Theoretically that means these pro-business Republicans should recognize the need to increase revenue, i.e., taxes, and any increase in revenue should be ascribed to expenditures with no direct, offsetting revenue line.

Since the greatest single unfunded liability in America is defense and military spending, which accounts for 25 percent of the budget, this area seems like the most logical place to cut expenses. Instead, the Republican Party has waged an all-out assault on entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which Americans have fully supported for decades. They demonize these programs, sullying them as “entitlements,” and deriding them as welfare-like benefits for ungrateful, undeserving idlers living off the government teat.

Entitlement programs don’t imply that people have some childish sense of entitlement as some Republicans would have us all believe; the programs are precisely referred to as such because we are entitled to receive them. Why? Because we have already paid for them. Check out your pay stub – it’s called FICA. Republicans are trying to terrify Americans with the misleading threats of disappearing future Social Security payments and dwindling Medicare coverage because they’re trying to obfuscate the fact that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have cost the nation nearly $3 trillion between the direct cost of the engagements and subsequent social costs such as veteran care. There’s no pre-tax line item or fee for “Wars We Didn’t Ask For” on your paycheck. We have been giving the government the funding necessary to keep these programs alive for generations and they keep blowing money on conflicts we never wanted. Giving the American government Social Security and Medicare funding is like lending cash to your meth-addict uncle who promises he’s on the wagon and just needs a few bucks to get back on his feet. He’ll disappoint you every time.

And then there’s Reagan. True-blue Republicans who like to evoke imagery of the Gipper could use a refresher course and a reminder that when President Reagan cut taxes in the beginning of his administration, the jobless rate jumped above 10 percent (higher than under Obama) and the federal deficit grew to a then-unprecedented level. Desperate to get things under control he raised taxes seven times during his administration and increased federal spending so much that he left office with a tremendous deficit despite myriad tax hikes. Moreover, total tax revenue as a percentage of GDP was more under Reagan after his initial tax cuts than they are today and we just fought two, decade-long wars. Middle-class Republicans should also recall how Reagan nearly doubled the Social Security withdrawal (your money for “safe keeping” remember) but capped it at a certain income level. Or as Matt Taibbi writes in his recent book Griftopia: “That means that a married couple earning $100,000 total will pay roughly the same amount of Social Security taxes that Lloyd Blankfein or Bill Gates will.” This was nothing short of a heist on the middle-class in America, the memory of which is something today’s Republican leaders have entirely backwards.

Throughout the tenure of the Obama administration, Republicans, who are working to please Tea Party activists−the lowest common ideological denominator in the GOP−have continued to distort Reagan’s legacy and persist in blowing up America’s revenue line while adding unfunded liabilities on the expense line. Now they’re smashing our piggy banks to pay for their transgressions while continuing to extend the most favorable corporate tax environment in the history of the country.

Dig this. According to the Congressional Budget Office, corporate income tax accounts for only 1.3 percent of GDP (compared to individual income taxes, which are 6.2 percent of GDP). The last time it was this low was in 1983 when corporate tax was only 1.1 percent of GDP and the federal deficit was so big Reagan increased taxes every year thereafter. According to the Brookings Institute, the last time corporate income tax receipts were so low was in 1940. In the 1950’s, the golden era that Republicans really love to imagine reliving, the average was 4.76 percent of GDP. That’s quadruple what it is today. Shrinking corporate tax receipts is just one of a host of lopsided tax issues that favor corporations and wealthy Americans and force the government to borrow eye-popping sums of money.

The Democratic Party under the feckless and waffling leadership of Barack Obama has likewise capitulated to the right wing lunatic fringe. Because Democrats aren’t putting up a fight and caving to every unreasonable demand made by House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party’s whipping boys, a corrosive new partisanship has emerged in America. Ignorant, ill-informed zealots running a government against the people have officially hijacked Abraham Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people and for the people.

 

The Dow of Poo

Of all the opiate-like recovery indicators, it’s the Dow Jones Industrial Average that offers the greatest high when injected into the American psyche and, in this case, keeps the bubble inflated.

 

Tao of PoohPart III of The Season of Our Disconnect

Benjamin Graham and David Dodd published a book titled Security Analysis in 1934 that would become a staple financial resource for the investment industry. In the foreword of the sixth edition the great Warren Buffet himself described their book as a “roadmap for investing that I have now been following for 57 years.” With the stock market crash of 1929—a result of the excesses during the preceding decade—fully in the authors’ rearview mirror, they described the collapse in stark, honest light:

“The relaxation of investment bankers’ standards in the late 1920s, and their use of ingenious means to enlarge their compensation, had unwholesome repercussions in the field of corporate management. But it may not be denied that devious and questionable means were frequently employed to secure these large bonuses to the management without full disclosure of their extent to the stockholders.”

The sound investment philosophy behind Security Analysis followed assiduously by the old Oracle of Omaha and tens of thousands of investors who came before him was established as a reaction to the corrupt practices of the Roaring Twenties. Here we are again, lo these many decades later, none the wiser. Taxpayers have been picked up by the ankles and shaken furiously for any remaining change, having been duped by the same Wall Street con artists who employed “devious and questionable means” as described above. Only this time, less than a century later, the bankers weren’t doing swan dives out their windows because they did learn one invaluable lesson from the past: If you’re going to bilk the system, make sure when it all goes bad that you control the release valve on the money flow by installing bankers inside the tank.

While most of America didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes of the recent financial crisis, people like Buffet sure did. Though no longer the wealthiest person in the world (he’s the third), Buffet has maintained his reputation as the preeminent investor on the planet for quite some time in a folksy and unassuming way. He’s the Wilford Brimley of investing, giving us a wink and telling us to eat our oatmeal and buy IBM. But his $5 billion bailout (what else can you call it?) of Goldman Sucks in 2008 shows that the old codger knows a good bet when he sees one, even if the company is rolling with loaded dice. (He got his money back, with a handsome interest payment, and retained warrants on $5 billion more of Goldman stock at what looks to be a favorable strike price.) From a bird’s-eye view, here was the con in a nutshell: Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein and company fleece the government for gobs of free money during the bailout—with people like Buffet backstopping their liquidity—to buy up the shitty investment packages they created, sold to their investors, and then bet against themselves.

That part is history. The ensuing game of smoke and mirrors—to restore sanity and transparency into the shit show they created—was to get the government to pony up billions more for their coffers at no cost (and no risk) so they could “invest” this money back into the economy.

Only it never went back into the real economy, instead weaving its way through the banking backchannels where free money flowed to investment banks, who gave it to hedge funds, who invested in government-backed securities, mega-corporations and, yes, even the same kooky “off-balance sheet” investments like swaps and derivatives being traded on offshore exchanges none of us can track. If you failed to spot the point where it actually came back to the taxpayers or funneled through the economy, you’re not crazy because it never happened.

Buffet may have built the most successful investment enterprise in history with Berkshire Hathaway by following the sound advice of people like Graham and Dodd, but it probably didn’t hurt to know that out of all the players in the multiple-bailout fiascos beginning in 2008, Goldman Sucks would wind up on top since nearly everyone involved in engineering the bailouts were former Goldman Suckers or beholden to them. Now we’re stuck in a bizarre carnival mirror economy with high unemployment, low consumer confidence, dwindling savings, and a global debt crisis while we’re being told at the same time the country is in a recovery, Wall Street firms and major corporations are posting incredible profits and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is trading above 12,000. Quite the disconnect, indeed.

It’s called a bubble, and it’s the last one left.

When I asked my friend Peter Klein, a financial advisor on Long Island, how he would characterize our current situation, he referred to it as “the stimulus bubble.” Now the question isn’t whether the bubble will pop, but when. And it’s people like Lloyd Blankfein that are holding the pin. But like every bubble, the average person never fully realizes when he or she is floating inside of it, particularly when receiving mixed messages like the ones above. But of all the opiate-like recovery indicators, it’s the Dow Jones Industrial Average that offers the greatest high when injected into the American psyche and, in this case, keeps the bubble inflated. As average citizens we tend to look at the Dow as the answer to the eternal Ed Koch question: “How am I doing?” Every top-of-the-hour market report on radio and television begins with a Wall Street update tethered to the performance of this antiquated measure of economic health.

For his part, Peter takes little comfort in the Dow’s astounding recovery from its low of around 6,600 in 2009, preferring to monitor indices such as the S&P 500 or the Russell 2000, which have a wider breadth and reach. The Dow, after all, is only comprised of 30 companies with familiar names like Coca-Cola, WalMart and General Electric, which give the illusion that these are somehow the type of corporations our economy is based on. It’s not that these are bad companies or even that the Dow is a lousy index, it’s just that they’re no longer relevant in today’s economy as an indicator of performance. Furthermore, it doesn’t claim to be. The problem is that the Dow is financial pabulum being fed to us by the media and Wall Street alike.

Because the Dow has traditionally been the criterion by which the average person gauges America’s overall economic health, there is a tendency to believe in its healing power. And to an extent it does make a little sense. After all, stocks don’t invest in themselves, right? The money has to come from somewhere. So, if the trading volume is still high, and our major corporations are swimming in investment cash, the logical question is: “Where is the money coming from?” When I asked Peter about this, he didn’t hesitate to respond: “Hedge funds are more or less controlling daily market flows.”

This is an astounding revelation, considering hedge funds didn’t even exist 20 years ago. But today, they are the henchmen that front the investment bank cartel because unlike mutual funds that dominated institutional trading before the rise of the hedge fund, these funds can be leveraged. So not only have the investment banks like Goldman seeded these funds with investment money, they provided them with tremendous loans comprised of…you guessed it… taxpayer money. All it takes is a little reverse engineering and logic to figure out why the Dow is still riding the wave while most Americans are out to sea believing a life raft is coming at any moment. Essentially, we’ve been had, because the only safe harbor is what writer Matt Taibbi sublimely refers to as the Grifter Archipelago—islands of entities teeming with corporate raiders accountable to no one and in control of everyone. It’s a beautiful thing, really, if you’re one of them.