Searching For The Center


I thought it made sense to talk to a self-described centrist about the partisan gridlock that is paralyzing the budget process, with the 2011 budget unresolved since last fall and 2012’s not even on the table.  Meanwhile we limp along from impasse to impasse on a bi-weekly basis to avoid shutting down the government.

But yesterday’s interview generated a ton of mail from unhappy listeners who were annoyed at me for not challenging what they saw as Republican talking points dressed up in bi-partisan language.  On the other hand, I’m sure to many listeners I came across as being a partisan, and indeed my guest scolded me for being so.   Even though I thought I was trying to make a point that went beyond political partisanship to political ownership.

Perhaps I’m old fashioned but one does not invite guests over to berate them in public, when the purpose is to elicit information.  But clearly I should have been more forceful in making the point that since it appears Wall Street buys both parties, the real divide in America is between Main Street and Wall Street, not between Republicans and Democrats.

I was sternly rebuked for expressing my suspicion that partisan gridlock is more about a cynical electoral calculation than an ideological divide.  It seems to me it’s not so much that the Republicans want to sabotage the economy to gain full control of the government, but that from day one they have resisted any effort to help the economy recover from the recession with its resulting collapse of tax revenues. 

Republicans may want to take advantage of the crisis to shrink the hated government, but while they say they want to cut the bloated public sector, their legislative agenda is really about transferring public money into private hands.  Indeed their priority seems to be to dig the deficit hole deeper by going to the mat to continue tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent. 

Which leads back to my main point that it’s the wealthiest one percent who appear to be running the show.  They are not so much engaged in sabotage to tank the economy, as they are impeding the recovery for the many, while reaping all the benefits for the few. 

Again it is not about a rhetorical ritual on Capitol Hill, but an economic fact in an increasing polarized country, where less income trickles down to more and more Americans, while fewer and fewer extract more and more wealth.  After allowing Clinton and Obama to court them for their campaign money, Wall Street has now jilted the party of the people to return to the country club comfort of the party of plutocrats.

This is not to say that the Republican Party does not have a Main Street component.  That constituency was evident when House Republicans resoundingly rejected George W. Bush’s first TARP bailout.  They were true to their free market principals back then, but since the boiling mad Tea Party entered the hallowed halls of Congress, it no longer about dividing but conquering.

As Mitch McConnell made clear after the 2010 Republican resurgence, they are not about compromising with their learned colleagues anymore, their priority is to run the Muslim imposter with a fake birth certificate out of town and rescue the country from un-American socialist freeloaders.

Although we are told the key swing voters who decide elections are in the center, it is difficult to find where the center is and what it means today.  I am sure the founding fathers had compromise and consensus in mind, but we are living in a divided country where the red and the blue sides are heading in opposite directions.

With the New South and “Christian” values voters now controlling the Republican Party, historical delusion and spiritual dogma increasingly dominate their discourse.  Meanwhile blue states like California seem more comfortable embracing the challenges of the future than sticking to the certainties of the past. 

We will just have to see if somewhere over the rainbow coalition there is a better land that we dreamed of for all in the future.  But in the real world of today, the clear winners in America are the color of money.  They are the few, the powerful, the pillagers and the puppeteers.  And they are laughing all the way to their banks.   

Wall Street's Useful Idiots

The KGB used to refer to gullible western peaceniks as “useful idiots” who were easily manipulated to further the Soviet’s cynical Cold War agenda.  Having been a “useful idiot” myself, since I worked against the nuclear arms race, I take exception to that description but it does ring true today in another context.

The Tea Party, a populist movement galvanized by outrage over Wall Street’s rampant greed and the taxpayer bailout that rewarded their excesses, now fairly fits the definition of “useful idiots”.  But this time they serve a different totalitarian “evil empire”, Wall Street.  Every one of the Tea Party’s representatives in Congress and their newly elected governors, are unflinchingly pursuing Wall Street’s legislative agenda, that is diametrically opposed to populist American values.

So much for grassroots, but we already knew that professional Republican operatives like Karl Rove and Dick Armey had corralled the movement.  Now it is clear they have captured it; teabag, teapot, cup and saucer, sugar and all. 

True there are some rumblings against the Afghan quagmire from the Libertarian wing of the Tea Party, but most of the noise is about the deficit and the need for deep budget cuts.  And to a man and a woman, they are faithfully parroting Wall Street’s line as they foist the deficit hoax on the American people with a mantra the mainstream media have obediently echoed. 

Little wonder the Republicans are making headway rewriting recent history to blame the economic crisis of 2008 on big government regulation, not Wall Street’s reckless endangerment of the global economy.  In recent hearings in the House they have exposed their legislative priorities that unwaveringly reflect their fidelity towards their main paymasters. 

Their first two targets, chosen by the Koch Brothers and the Tea Party’s Wall Street backers, are women, Lisa Jackson the head of the EPA and Elizabeth Warren, the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Aided by smear campaigns orchestrated by the Wall Street Journal and the dominant right wing media, they threw everything they could to slime and tarnish these women to not just discredit them, but to undermine the credibility of the agencies they head and thus diminish their effectiveness in oversight. 

But the real agenda enacted by the “useful idiots” for the big five banks, is to preserve the bank’s ability to bleed the middle class dry.  Since wages have been flat for working Americans and the Middle class since the 1970s, household debt has doubled as a share of personal income over the 30 years up to the crash of 2008. 

Apparently the banks want more blood out of this stone, with unbridled access to fleece the nation’s debt slaves.  Elizabeth Warren is a speed bump on their path to a plantation economy.  While the household debt crisis is much more dire and closer to home, the national debate is focused on an abstraction and a distraction, the national debt.

Although the deficit was largely caused by unfunded losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with the massive bailouts to staunch the bleeding as Wall Street imploded, you would never know that today.  The zealous deficit hawk and Wall Street billionaire Peter Peterson has cleverly spread his money around to rewrite history and lay the blame on big government spending, in particular Federal entitlements and State public employee benefits.  Of course government spending is to blame, but it was taxpayer money spent on the wrong things; unnecessary wars and rescuing unconscionable financial fraudsters.

Again, since it is clear the Kochs got exactly what they paid for and so did Wall Street, we return to political campaign finance as the root of all evil.  Although Clinton offered up the Democratic Party for sale to Wall Street, and then Obama closed the deal, in 2010 the Democrat’s fair weather friends screwed them and gave their money to Wall Street’s traditional friends the Republicans. 

Surely they will do it again in 2012, since the evidence is they are helping Republicans now.  While Wall Street extracts more wealth for themselves, the oligarchs are helping wreck the economic recovery for Main Street, presumably to ensure their hirelings win big next time and they end up with the whole enchilada.

So why has Obama not come to Elizabeth Warren’s defense?  Why not turn the tables on these cynical revisionists who are throttling his economic recovery?  Why not recapture the outrage against Wall Street that the Democrats allowed the Tea Party to run away with in the first place?Make the Tea Party explain their fealty to these same champions of free enterprise who ripped us off in 2008, and are at it again; but this time with an apparent political agenda to create a one party corporate plutonomy. 

Oil and grain speculation, on top of poor harvests, are driving up the price of gas and food, and as the economic recovery falters, the Republicans chances of winning back the Senate (where many more Democrats are up for reelection), not to mention the White House, are looking better and better.  Will we wake up too late when the Tea Party’s backers will be able to totally elimination the EPA?  Will we sit by and watch that uppity woman Elizabeth Warren burned at the stake?

The Cool Cat Versus The Mad Dog

After a lot of dithering, President Obama acted at the last minute to prevent Qaddafi from eradicating the last pockets of a rebellion, reversing a revolution that had spread across most of the country and was poised to eliminate the dictator. 

While the Libyan opposition and most of the world press had already written off Qaddafi, the President knew otherwise from U.S. Intelligence assessments.  With Obama’s deliberate caution buttressed by a war-weary Defense Secretary and a skeptical Secretary of State, it looked like the superpower would sit this one out, until the last minute.

Something happened, and while the Arab League’s call for a No Fly Zone seemed to change the diplomatic landscape, reports that it was Susan Rice at the U.N. and Samantha Powers on the N.S.C. weighing in on Hillary that changed the day, don’t measure up.  True it was unusual to have the French leading the charge.  However cynics suggest Sarkozy was driven to repair his tattered image of palling around with dictators.  But there has to be more to this.

Since the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs just admitted the end game is uncertain and that a stalemate is possible, it seems clear the U.S. military was reluctant to join the war party.  And no sooner had the shooting started; the Arab League began to have second thoughts about civilian casualties although the League’s head Amr Moussa has since retracted his remarks in the absence of credible evidence.  

Now the Congress is weighing in with a coalition of critics from opposite sides expressing concern over the lack of strategic clarity and diplomatic purpose.  Clearly there is none, aside from protecting civilians from further slaughter by a demented despot. 

But that has not been a priority in recent world affairs and it has never been applied universally.  Sure it is not a good idea to give the Syrians a green light to slaughter their restive population, not that they care what we think, or to give Ahmadinejad permission to take the gloves off against his opposition. 

Apparently the Russians and the Chinese felt sufficiently shamed by international approbation to abstain from vetoing the intervention and why Germany and Brazil joined them is worth further explanation.  But this latest war remains short of answers except for the possibility that it is in fact about stopping the slaughter of civilians. 

And since there is such a sorry record of international indifference to slaughters protected by sovereignty, have we become too jaded to accept it a face value?  Of course there is the oil factor and Europe needs Libya’s oil, but we are not intervening in the oil-rich Gulf.

Since Bush junior’s wrecking crew gave intervention a bad name, we have been bogged down in the wrong wars while sitting on the sidelines uncertain about what to do about the right rebellions. 

But this is a slippery slope with a whole lineup of righteous interventions waiting as the world’s dictators cling to power with a callous determination to kill as many of their own people it takes.  Syria could be next, and Saudi Arabia; from the strategically important all the way down to murderous regimes that do not affect our vital interests like in the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe. 

Along with a belief that if the good guys don’t act, then Al Qaeda will fill the void, my suspicion is that, in spite of the official denials, there is an understanding that the only way the military intervention in Libya makes sense is to remove the Qaddafi family. 

A divided Libyan would be the worst outcome, with the oil fields stuck between the eastern and the western halves.  And it is likely that even Qaddafi’s inner circle has little loyalty to the greedy family of spoiled brats who have plundered the country.  

Perhaps there will be a coup inside the regime, but if the head of the snake is cut off, it is very likely that the regime will collapse and the opposition and most of the tribes will come together without the great slaughter of score-settling that is predicted.  

If killing the Qaddafis is the unspoken plan, then it does pose some troubling questions about how to deal with criminal regimes in an era of global transparency.  With an International Criminal Court able to indict criminal heads of srate, but incapable of bringing them to trial, short of sending in foreign armies to exact street justice, what kind of new world order is that?

Wall Street Strikes Again

Striking like serial predators, Wall Street’s wealthy plutocrats, who were just recently rescued by the beleaguered taxpayer and made whole after they had taken the world economy to the brink of collapse, are now fleecing Main Street again.  Have they no shame? No, they are laughing all the way to the bank.  Meaning the Goldmans and Morgans of the big five who are back running their private casino with impunity.

With Brent crude climbing to over $115 a barrel and U.S. crude to more than $105 a barrel, speculators’ net long position in U.S. crude oil futures rose 2% to a record high last week in the third straight record in price hikes since oil reached $147 a barrel in September 2008. 

Although we are told unrest in Libya and Bahrain are causing the spikes, I spoke yesterday with the former director of the Division of Trading and Markets at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission who have oversight over the oil futures market and he had a very different version of what is behind the price at the pump.

Michael Greenberger made it clear, just as “60 Minutes” did in their investigation following the price run up in 2008, that it is the speculators who are driving up the price, not unrest in foreign lands as is so ritually reported.  Apparently the big banks we bailed out after they ripped us off and devastated our economy, like bookies, offer to take bets on whether vital commodities like oil and grain will rise or fall. 

But the window of opportunity at Wall Street’s private casino is only open to their big super-rich clients who have placed a $40 billion bet that oil will go up.  Well guess what?  It will go up because the price is being driven up and it’s the average working stiff on Main Street who is reeling from the recession that feels the pain, as he and she gets gouged at the pump as a result. 

There is something obscene about the already rich getting richer off the backs of the poor, profiting from a rigged process that does nothing but damage the overall economy.  Particularly at a time when we are barely recovering from the recession they created.

When gas was almost $5 a gallon back in 2008, Morgan Stanley was buying oil futures contracts and having giant tankers full of crude cruise in circles to drive up the price.  It wasn’t OPEC or Exxon sitting on supply, it was Wall Street, and they are doing it again. 

The recent and watered down Wall Street reforms gave the Commodity Futures Trading Commission the power to set position limits to curb excessive speculation but the Republican commissioners are sabotaging the implementation signally to Wall Street that they can plunder with impunity. Incidentally the commodities market is supposed to be for end users of oil and grain like refineries or Pillsbury and Kellogs. But the vultures have swooped in and cornered the market making us all pay more for basic needs.

The question that arises is how can working Americans and the downsized Middle Class survive another Robin Hood in reverse raid on their almost empty pockets?  After the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich with the sub-prime housing bubble, can we survive this latest rip-off at the pump?  Will the rising costs of energy and food knock us back into a double-dip recession?

And how long can we pretend we have a democratic meritocracy when it is increasingly obvious that our plutonomy is a rigged system that favors the inheritors and investors.  How long can American capitalism survive if it is all about extracting wealth for the few, not creating wealth for the many?

The Revolution That Is Not Being Televised

In the wake of King Hamad’s three month emergency declaration, today in Bahrain the king’s goons cleared the protesters out of Pearl Square and glimpses of their brutality were caught by amateur cameras.  Within a few feet of the riot police, a man who is crying out “peaceful - peaceful” is shot twice at point blank range.  What we are not seeing is the mayhem at hospitals that are surrounded by troops with soldiers roaming the wards shooting suspects getting treatment.

But unlike Tunisia and Egypt where the revolutions were televised, and both the media and social media played a crucial role and their success, the Bahraini uprisings will not be seen on Al Jazeera Arabic.  For the simple reason it’s too close to home and the rulers of Qatar, who own Al Jazeera, don’t like what is happening next door.

Neither do the Saudis who are behind the crackdown. The ailing Saudi king has been leaning on his Bahraini royal cousin to get tough from the beginning, and finally he sent troops in to give King Hamad some backbone.  Earlier, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had urged the king to compromise and meet some of the demands of his people, warning that baby steps towards reform will not be sufficient. 

All the while Bahraini state media and Saudi media have been stirring the sectarian pot by characterizing the protesters as heretics and agents of Iran.  This racist and demeaning characterizations of Shiites goes back to a seventh century split in Islam that makes the catholic/protestant split look positively gentlemanly.

Why do these reactionary rulers stoke the sectarian fires instead of ladelling out a little social justice?  Because they are medieval!  Like fawning royal watchers giddy over what Kate Middleton might wear at the royal wedding, we have treated the Gulf rulers like kings instead of crooks. 

The Al Saud family’s thousands of princes are embezzlers of gigantic proportions and the wealth of the top princes cannot be measured because they are state secrets.  But if their billions were revealed, the Forbes list would need some serious adjustment. 

And King Abdullah, who we obediently label as a reformer, is the same bloodthirsty tyrant who recently called Obama every day yelling at him to allow his friend Hosni Mubarak to mow down those ungrateful students in Tahir Square. 

Imagine what they do to their own students who challenge the monumental scam the Al Saud’s have going, where as absolute monarchs, the only avenue of political expression allowed is to petition the royals for mercy.  Having reduced their people to beggars, on top of that, they impose the Wahhabi religious police on them.

The regime’s witch hunters invade the most intimate recesses of their citizen’s lives to the point the men are sexually repressed to the breaking point, and the woman are either property or slaves-in-waiting.  They don’t have time to think of anything else, let alone rebellion

So as Ahmadinejad and his horrible regime across the Gulf lick their chops at the prospect of shredding the Saudi military paper tiger, we can only ponder how again we got it so wrong.  How could not have our whole political and economic arrangement in the Middle East resting on such a thin straw? 

But after having taken their bribes for decades, how can our leaders urge these barbaric potentates to ease up a bit on their people before they blow it all?  Apparently they are not listening and we are heady for the abyss. 

Greed and God are too great.  And we are so pathetically dependent on their oil that we have no excuse but to suck it up when the spigot is turned off.  The only good news is that the young educated Saudis hate the regime and it’s religious oppression. So if it does turn out like Egypt then we will be lucky.

If it does not, then the Iranian regime with be over the moon.  But then again we have been so good to them lately.  We got rid of their enemy the Taliban and then their arch-enemy Saddam.  And George W, Bush just handed them Iraq.  Giving them Saudi Arabia on top of that is truly icing on the cake.