'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Class War in Kreuzberg 

The global recession reignites old, enduring conflicts:

When Berlin resident Simone Klostermann returned from vacation and couldn’t find her Mercedes SLK, she thought it had been towed. Police told her the 35,000- euro ($45,000) car had been torched.

“They’d squirted something flammable into the car’s engine block in the gap between the windshield and the hood,” said Klostermann. “The engine was completely destroyed.”

The 34-year-old’s experience isn’t unique in the German capital. At least 29 vehicles were destroyed in arson attacks this year, most of them luxury cars, according to police. The number is already about 30 percent of the total for 2008. The latest to go up in flames was a Porsche, on Feb. 14, two days after a Mercedes was set alight in a public car park.

While youths in Athens protest by throwing Molotov cocktails, in Paris by toppling barricades, and in Budapest by hurling eggs at politicians, protesters in Berlin rage at their economic plight by targeting the most expensive cars -- symbols of German wealth and power.

Gentrification, unemployment and social inequality are the perpetual sources of discontent:

Berlin has a history of political protest, with anarchist demonstrators regularly clashing with police on the streets of Kreuzberg during May 1 marches. Kreuzberg, which abutted the Berlin Wall, is represented in parliament by the Green Party’s Hans-Christian Stroebele, a former lawyer who defended members of the Baader-Meinhof gang in court.

Likewise, arson attacks on cars are not new: a Web site, “Burning Cars,” was set up to track the incidents in May 2007, one month before a summit in the northern German resort of Heiligendamm of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. There have been 290 attacks on cars since then, among them 55 Mercedes and 29 BMWs damaged or destroyed by fire, the site records.

“I wouldn’t advise someone to park their Porsche on the street” in Kreuzberg, Berlin police commissioner Dieter Glietsch told the Taz newspaper in June last year.

Kreuzberg was the center of a European squatters movement, ideologically inspired by autonomous groups and anarchists, during the economic distress of the 1970s. They were removed from many of their buildings after German reunification, as they were in the Lower East Side of New York City by the Dinkins and Giuliani administrations, which experienced a similar phenomenon in the mid-1980s. I thought that the neighborhood's anti-capitalist, anarchist identity had been eradicated through ongoing gentrification thereafter, but, apparently, not nearly as much as I had been lead to believe.

Hat tip to the Angry Arab News Service.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

The World According to Bono 

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Obama and Iraq: An E-mail Exchange 

Upon submission of his budget to Congress, Obama officially publicized that he intends to keep 50,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely. Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to have an e-mail exchange with someone about Obama's planned withdrawal of troops, as described in the media.

You might find it interesting in regard to how his supporters go about defending him. Please note that you will have to click on the link for the entirety of Chris Floyd's article about the plan referenced in my first e-mail, out of respect for the intellectual property of Floyd and Counterpunch, as well as trying to prevent this post from becoming even longer.

From: Richard Estes
To: xxxxxxxxxx
Subject: The War in Iraq: Going Around in Circles
Date: Feb 25, 2009 11:24 AM

two things to keep in mind before reading this article

(1) the draw down of troops, as proposed here, mirrors a proposal by one of Rumsfeld's aides in 2005, and subsequently adopted by Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign; and

(2) the Bush administration frequently announced plans for troop reductions without implementing them, because the reality of Iraq had the unfortunate tendency to intrude upon their plans and disrupt them

Obama's Non-Withdrawal Withdrawal Plan

It would be superfluous in us to point out that a plan to "end" a war which includes the continued garrisoning of up to 50,000 troops in a hostile land is, in reality, a continuation of that war, not its cessation. To produce such a plan and claim that it "ends" a war is the precise equivalent of, say, relieving one's bladder on the back of one's neighbor and telling him that the liquid is actually life-giving rain.

But this is exactly what we are going to get from the Obama Administration in Iraq. Word has now come from on high – that is, from "senior administration officials" using "respectable newspapers" as a wholly uncritical conduit for government spin – that President Obama has reached a grand compromise with his generals (or rather, the generals and Pentagon poobahs he has inherited -- and eagerly retained -- from George W. Bush) on a plan to withdraw some American troops from the country that the United States destroyed in an unprovoked war of aggression. Obama had wanted a 16-month timetable for the partial withdrawal; his potential campaign rival in 2012, General David Petraeus, wanted 23 months; so, with Solomonic wisdom, they have now split the difference, and will withdraw a portion of the American troops in 19 months instead.

But the plan clearly envisions a substantial and essentially permanent American military presence in Iraq, dominating the politics and policy of this key oil nation – which was of course one of the chief war aims of the military aggressors in the Bush Administration all along. By implementing his war continuation plan, Obama will complete the work of Bush and his militarist clique. . . . .

From: xxxxxxxxxx
To: Richard Estes
Subject: Re: The War in Iraq: Going Around in Circles
Date: Feb 25, 2009 9:15 PM


Great job in streaming nonpartisan commentary!

The facts and only the facts as we are allowed to see them...

From: Richard Estes
To: xxxxxxxxxx
Subject: Re: The War in Iraq: Going Around in Circles
Date: Feb 26, 2009 8:02 AM

I assume, then, that you concede the accuracy of what I have posted here, as you haven't actually presented a single fact or argument in contradiction.

But, consider this, from antiwar.com today:

[Just one day after reports came out regarding the Obama Administration’s 19 month withdrawal plan from Iraq, the Pentagon was detailing the enormous number of troops that would remain on the ground after Obama ostensibly fulfills his promise to remove all combat troops, and all the combat they’ll be engaging in.

After the “pullout,” as many as 50,000 troops will remain on the ground, and despite being touted as a withdrawal of combat troops, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell conceded that some would continue to “conduct combat operations,” and Iraq would still be considered a war zone. The rest would be what he described as “enablers.”

President Obama promised a 16-month pullout from Iraq during the campaign, but backed off the promise under pressure from the military. Since then he has spoken of a “responsible military drawdown,” but even as he is set to officially unveil this new plan the question of when the troops will actually be out of Iraq entirely seems like it will remain unanswered.]

Go the original posts for media links relied upon for those statements:


but, I am curious, do you really believe that Rumsfeld didn't have an aide that proposed a similar draw down plan, and that Hillary's proposal during the primaries wasn't similar? if so, go here:


I am, however, hopeful that you will release me from the obligation to post links as to draw down announcements by the Bush administration, as they were numerous, and would require a lot of time to track down

the sad fact is that Obama, after telling people during the primaries that he was going to get the US out of Iraq, is essentially implementing a plan for a permanent US presence, and ongoing violence against the Iraqis, that was contemplated not only by his primary opponent, but by the Defense Department of the President he replaced

It is unfortunate that you find that aggravating, but that is, unfortunately, the reality, unless Obama makes a surprisingly different announcement than what his aides are advising the media to expect

and, I am perfectly willing to have this discussion on the entire list, and people can decide if they are willing to pay a price for Obama progressivism, such as it is, bank bailouts and all, with the lives of Afghans and Iraqis

From: xxxxxxxxxx
To: Richard Estes
Subject: Re: The War in Iraq: Going Around in Circles
Date: Feb 26, 2009 9:10 AM


I'm neither aggravated nor refuting your position. It is not my intent to present an argument in contradiction. I commend you; yet you take it as an assault on your commentary. I have better things to do with my time than fight a progressive agenda when I know its a futile battle. Here's one irrefutable fact: the public, including pundits, experts, think tanks, et. al., is ill informed to make policy decisions given the national security issues. The President of the United States takes an oath to defend the United States Constitution. Ensuing history judges a commander-in-chief's policy and application of executive privilege.

I for one would not judge a President until history has played itself out, or at the very least, unless I am informed enough to do so; not relying on propaganda such as antiwar.com .


From: Richard Estes
To: xxxxxxxxxx
Subject: Re: The War in Iraq: Going Around in Circles
Date: Feb 26, 2009 10:05 AM

Sadly, you are waiting for the verdict of history, while the proponents of these wars are actively working to continue to perpetuate them in Iraq and Afghanistan and expand them to Pakistan. How many will die in these countries as a result? What is the chance that the people there will respond with violence towards Americans as it is now becoming obvious that the US has no intention to abandon its control over their societies?

Unlike you, I consider myself sufficiently informed to say that these policies are wrong, and should be discontinued. It is our obligation as citizens of this country, even not of the world, to make our independent judgments about these things, and express them, consistent with our values. To abdicate this responsibility through reliance upon the purported special insight of the President and his advisors, an insight that, much like the purported insight of Popes, has shown itself to be faulty numerous times, is something that we should never do.

As for antiwar.com, the report that I posted is supported with links to news articles that say exactly what it says, I guess it is up to you if you want to disregard it. I mean, do you really believe that the troops left behind in Iraq, whether 50,000, 75,000 or 100,000 (don't be surprised if the final number goes back and forth in response to events), won't be engaged in "combat operations". If so, just say so. But, if you want to confirm it, you can go back to the link to the post I provided, and then access the links to the supporting articles themselves.

If we continue to pursue these policies, while pouring unlimited resources into the rescue of people who invested in the US banking and financial system, the future will be grim indeed. And, then, you and I will face the verdict of the people who find themselves suffering gravely as a result. It won't be pleasant.


From: xxxxxxxxxx
To: Richard Estes
Subject: Re: The War in Iraq: Going Around in Circles
Date: Feb 26, 2009 10:16 AM

There's no need to bellittle yourself with personal attacks and character assaults. Unlike you, I consider myself sufficiently informed to say that, sadly, you have yet to learn to agree to disagee. I am an educated individual who has an opinion; whether or not you agree - that's up to you.

And there you have it.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Life and Times of Binyam Mohammed (Part 3) 

Barbara Ehrenreich responds to the discovery that her satirical article about how to make a hydrogen bomb with a bicycle pump, published in 1979, resulted in the indefinite detention and torture of Binyam Mohammed:

But post-9/11 America was an irony-free zone, and it's still illegal to banter about bombs in the presence of airport security staff. It's not clear how the news of Mohamed's H-bomb knowledge was conveyed to Washington--many documents remain classified or have not been released--but Smith speculates that the part about the H-bomb got through, although not the part about the joke. The result, anyhow, was that Mohamed was thrust into a world of unending pain--tortured at the US prison in Baghram, rendered to Morocco for eighteen months of further torture, including repeated cutting of his penis with a scalpel, and finally landing in Guantánamo for almost five years of more mundane abuse. He was just released and returned to Britain today.

As if that were not enough for a satirist to have on her conscience, the United States seems to have attributed Mohamed's presumed nuclear ambitions to a second man, an American citizen named Jose Padilla, a k a the "dirty bomber." The apparent evidence? Padilla had been scheduled to fly on the same flight out of Karachi that Mohamed had a ticket for, so obviously they must have been confederates. Commenting on Padilla's apprehension in 2002, the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized: "We castigate ourselves for failing to grasp the reality of what they're [the alleged terrorists are] trying to do, but perhaps that is a good thing. We should have difficulty staring evil in the face."

I am not histrionic enough to imagine myself in any way responsible for the torments suffered by Mohamed and Padilla--at least no more responsible than any other American who failed to rise up in revolutionary anger against the Bush terror regime. No, I'm too busy seething over another irony: whenever I've complained about my country's torturings, renderings, detentions, etc., there's always been some smug bastard ready to respond that these measures are what guarantee smart-alecky writers like myself our freedom of speech. Well, we had a government so vicious and impenetrably stupid that it managed to take my freedom of speech and turn it into someone else's living hell.

Perhaps, I shouldn't quibble, as Ehrenreich expresses her righteous outrage in such a compelling manner, but it would have been nice if she had acknowledged that the prospect of such horrors remain as the Obama administration has not undertaken measures to prevent them.

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The Life and Times of Binyam Mohammed (Part 2) 

From the Daily Mail, courtesy of Lenin's Tomb:

A British ‘resident’ held at Guantanamo Bay was identified as a terrorist after confessing he had visited a ‘joke’ website on how to build a nuclear weapon, it was revealed last night.

Binyam Mohamed, a former UK asylum seeker, admitted to having read the ‘instructions’ after allegedly being beaten, hung up by his wrists for a week and having a gun held to his head in a Pakistani jail.
It was this confession that apparently convinced the CIA that they were holding a top
Al Qaeda terrorist.

But The Mail on Sunday can reveal that the offending article – called How To Build An H-Bomb – was first published in a US satirical magazine and later placed on a series of websites.

Written by Barbara Ehrenreich, the publication’s food editor, Rolling Stone journalist Peter Biskind and scientist Michio Kaku, it claims that a nuclear weapon can be made ‘using a bicycle pump’ and with liquid uranium ‘poured into a bucket and swung round’.

Despite its clear satirical bent, the story led the CIA to accuse 30-year-old Mohamed, a caretaker, of plotting a dirty bomb attack, before subjecting him to its ‘extraordinary rendition programme’.

During his eight-year imprisonment, Mohamed has allegedly been flown to secret torture centres in Pakistan, Morocco, an American-run jail known as the Dark Prison near Kabul in Afghanistan and, finally, to Guantanamo Bay.

Sadly, we can expect more tragedies of this kind, except that they are likely to take place at Bagram air base in Afghanistan instead of Guantanamo. I have always believed that the practices associated with the so-called "war on terror", such as indefinite detention, torture and rendition, have been driven more by the desire to abuse Arabs and Muslims in response to 9/11 than by security concerns. One can certainly construe the experience of Mohammed as proof of it.

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Zionism 6 

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Life and Times of Binyam Mohammed (Part 1) 

The consequences of the so-called "war on terror" as personified in the gruesome experience of Binyam Mohammed:

Mohammed arrived in Britain in 1994. He lived in Wornington Road, North Kensington, and studied at Paddington Green College. For most of this time, said his brother, he rarely went to a mosque. However, in early 2001 he became more religious.

The Observer has obtained fresh details of his case which was first publicised last summer. He went to Pakistan in June 2001 because, he says, he had a drug problem and wanted to kick the habit. He was arrested on 10 April at the airport on his way back to England because of an alleged passport irregularity. Initially interrogated by Pakistani and British officials, he told Stafford Smith: 'The British checked out my story and said they knew I was a nobody. They said they would tell the Americans.'

He was questioned by the FBI and began to hear accusations of terror involvement. He says he also met two MI6 officers. One told him he would be tortured in an Arab country.

The interrogations intensified and he says he was taken to Islamabad; then, in July 2002, on a CIA flight to Morocco. His description of the process matches independent reports. Masked officers wore black. They stripped him, subjected him to a full body search and shackled him to his seat wearing a nappy.

In Morocco he was told he had plotted with Padilla and had dinner in Pakistan with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the planner of 9/11, and other al-Qaeda chiefs. 'I've never met anyone like these people,' Mohammed told Stafford Smith. 'How could I? I speak no Arabic... I never heard Padilla's name until they told me.'

During almost 18 months of regular beatings in Morocco, Mohammed says he frequently met a blonde woman in her thirties who told him she was Canadian. The US intelligence officer told The Observer this was an 'amateurish' CIA cover. 'The only Americans who historically pretended to be Canadian were backpackers travelling in Europe during the Vietnam war. Apart from the moral issues, what disturbs me is that, as an attempt to create plausible deniability, this is so damn transparent.'

According to Mohammed, he was threatened with electrocution and rape. On one occasion, he was handcuffed when three men entered his cell wearing black masks. 'That day I ceased really knowing I was alive. One stood on each of my shoulders and a third punched me in the stomach. It seemed to go on for hours. I was meant to stand, but I was in so much pain I'd fall to my knees. They'd pull me back up and hit me again. They'd kick me in the thighs as I got up. I could see the hands that were hitting me... like the hands of someone who'd worked as a mechanic or chopped with an axe.'

Later he was confronted with details of his London life - such as the name of his kickboxing teacher - and met a Moroccan calling himself Marwan, who ordered him to be hung by his wrists. 'They hit me in the chest, the stomach, and they knocked my feet from under me. I have a shoulder pain to this day from the wrenching as my arms were almost pulled out of their sockets.'

Another time, he told Stafford Smith: 'They took a scalpel to my right chest. It was only a small cut. Then they cut my left chest. One of them took my penis in his hand and began to make cuts. He did it once, and they stood still for maybe a minute watching. I was in agony, crying, trying desperately to suppress myself, but I was screaming... They must have done this 20 to 30 times in maybe two hours. There was blood all over.'

In September he was taken to Guantanamo Bay where he has been charged with involvement in al-Qaeda plots and faces trial there by military commission. Stafford Smith said: 'I am unaware of any evidence against him other than that extracted under torture.'

As you might have guessed, the physical toll of such abuse is extreme:

During a medical examination at Guantanamo about 10 days ago, a British doctor who'd been sent to assess Mohamed's fitness to travel reportedly found him suffering from bruises, organ damage, stomach complaints, malnutrition, sores on his hands and feet and severe damage to ligaments, as well as emotional and psychological damage.

Mohamed was on a hunger strike from late December until shortly before he was released and was being force-fed through tubes.

One of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, alleged that Mohamed's abuse had continued at Guantanamo Bay until recently.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is still proceeding with plans to expand a detention facility at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, so that so that it can increase the number of people imprisoned there from 700 to 11,000.

Conditions appear to be as bad, and possibly worse, than those experienced by detainees in Guantanamo:

According to the few lawyers representing prisoners there at the request of relatives, many Bagram detainees were turned over to U.S. authorities by former enemies or neighbors who wanted to settle an old score or collect a bounty from the U.S. -- a contention supported by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International; news reports from the Associated Press, The McClatchy Company newspapers, and Time magazine; and even former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf's recent memoir, In the Line of Fire. Yet those imprisoned have no way to prove-or even to claim-their innocence.

Conditions at the detention center are atrocious, according to lawyers, news reports, and organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the London-based group Reprieve. Ruzatullah's habeas petition alleged that Bagram detainees are crowded together in wire-mesh cages without toilets or running water and "are regularly tortured and abused, including being starved, severely beaten, forced into painful, contorted body positions, 'waterboarded,' exposed to extremely cold temperatures, and sexually humiliated." In December 2002, the Pentagon has acknowledged, U.S. soldiers beat two Bagram detainees to death. Although officers allegedly involved in the deaths were prosecuted -- five were convicted, but none received a sentence of more than three months in prison -- the Pentagon vehemently denies accusations of systemic torture or abuse at Bagram.

In one publicized instance, a woman has been held in solitary confinement there for 4 years. No one knows what has become of her. And we aren't likely to find out, as the administration has just argued in court against granting anyone incarcerated there the right of judicial review.

Similarly, the administration also authorized the continuation of renditions. But don't worry, incoming CIA director Leon Panetta is going to make sure that these detainees aren't going to be subjected to torture like Mohammed. Hence, in the new Orwellian world of Obama progressivism, given the prohibition of such practices in his executive order, we can obviously conclude that there's no need to provide them with access to the courts either.

Let's just say the obvious: Obama is smarter than Bush, and doesn't want to undertake travels abroad with his family under a cloud of war crimes charges after leaving the White House, so he's creating a paper trail to create a defense of plausible deniability. After all, you wouldn't want them to be afraid to enjoy themselves in Madrid, Barcelona, Paris or London, would you? A few weeks after he leaves office, the media will then feel free to expose the horrors of what he permitted on his watch.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

The Hedge Fund President 

Absolutely amazing. Even Bush wouldn't have dared to do this:

Banking chiefs, who have come under sharp criticism for not making more loans even as they have accepted billions of taxpayer dollars to prop themselves up, say it is the markets, not the banks, that are squeezing American borrowers.

The Obama administration hopes to jump-start this crucial machinery by effectively subsidizing the profits of big private investment firms in the bond markets. The Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve plan to spend as much as $1 trillion to provide low-cost loans and guarantees to hedge funds and private equity firms that buy securities backed by consumer and business loans.

The Fed is expected to start the first phase of the program, which will provide $200 billion in loans to investors, in early March.

Yes, you read that right, you don't need to go to the optometrist. Obama believes that global credit markets can be revived by shoveling as much as $1 trillion dollars to hedge funds and private equity firms to effectively subsidize their profits in bond transactions.

Under Bush, Paulson and Bernanke initiated the policy of trying to ignite a recovery by pouring trillions into the banks. As we all know, this policy has failed as the banks predictably hoarded the money, but the failure has not encouraged Obama to abandon it, but, rather, to expand it, by putting even more money directly in the hands of hedge fund and private equity fund managers. Instead of recognizing that the existing system of global finance and credit provision is irreparable, Obama continues to expend unlimited sums to recreate it, and he has already expressed his intention to consider cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits to pay for it. Truly, he's a disciple of the Chicago School of Economics.

As for the intended recipients of these funds, they are among the most contemptible hypocrites in recent memory. How often have we seen these fund managers lecture us about the virtues of the market and the evils of government intervention as they enriched themselves? How often have we heard them assert that regulations protecting workers, consumers and the environment are horrible inefficiencies that must be relaxed, if not removed, with the most ideal system being one in which the market regulates itself. Now, they are running to get a spot near the front of the line so that they can start receiving their government money. And, did I forget to mention that these fund managers pay a much lower tax rate on their income that nearly all of us??

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Death of Detroit (Part 5) 

As related here by Yves Smith at naked capitalism, President Obama has decided to place Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council chair Lawrence Summers in charge of overseeing the extension of federal financial assistance to the automobile industry. Smith describes the pitfalls of doing so in his typically entertaining, enlightening style, but glosses over the obvious.

As with the bailout, Geithner and Summers will act to ensure that capital, that is, the investors, are favored over the proletariat, that is, the workers, thus serving to further depress demand and intensify deflation. They will continue to channel federal funds for the benefit of what Michael Hudson and others have described as FIRE, the finance, insurance and real estate sectors of the economy, to the detriment of tangible production and consumption. As Hudson explained last week over at Counterpunch in relation to Geither's skeletal plan to revive the banks:

The three-pronged Treasury program seems to be only Stage One of a two-stage “dream recovery plan” for Wall Street. Enough hints have trickled out for the past three months in Wall Street Journal op-eds to tip the hand for what may be in store. Watch for the magic phrase “equity kicker,” first heard in the S&L mortgage crisis of the 1980s. It refers to the banker’s share of capital gains, that is, asset price inflation in Bubble #2 that the Recovery Program hopes to sponsor.

The first question to ask about any Recovery Program is, “Recovery for whom?” The answer given on Tuesday is, “For the people who design the Program and their constituency” – in this case, the bank lobby. The second question is, “Just what is it they want to ‘recover’?” The answer is, the Bubble Economy. For the financial sector it was a golden age. Having enjoyed the Greenspan Bubble that made them so rich, its managers would love to create yet more wealth for themselves by indebting the “real” economy yet further while inflating prices all over again to make new capital gains.

The problem for today’s financial elites is that it is not possible to inflate another bubble from today’s debt levels, widespread negative equity, and still-high level of real estate, stock and bond prices. No amount of new capital will induce banks to provide credit to real estate already over-mortgaged or to individuals and corporations already over-indebted. Moody’s and other leading professional observers have forecast property prices to keep on plunging for at least the next year, which is as far as the eye can see in today’s unstable conditions. So the smartest money is still waiting like vultures in the wings – waiting for government guarantees that toxic loans will pay off. Another no-risk private profit to be subsidized by public-sector losses.

Accordingly, one should perceive the selection of Geithner and Summers to oversee efforts to revive the automobile industry as part of a larger effort to revive the bubble economy of the last 15 years. What does this mean? Further subsidization of investors by the government and the workforce so as to create future speculative opportunities. Workplace protections will be eroded, if not eviscerated, while a program is developed, probably in association with the development of so-called green technologies for automobiles, to attract future investment.

In the unlikely event that Geithner and Summers succeed in their regressive effort to return to the bubblicious world of the Clinton and Bush presidencies, don't be surprised if one of the first bubbles of this brave new world emerges in spinoff companies associated with GM, Ford, and, if it survives, Chrysler. Companies free, of course, from the constraints of a unionized workforce. Eric Janszen of iTulip, has already generally anticipated such a development in relation to alternative energy, and the distressed automobile industry looks like a good laboratory for it.

As for the automobile workers themselves, they obviously had good reason to distrust Obama during the 2008 election, despite attempts to characterize their suspicion of him as racist. They are about to get royally screwed by a President from a political party that poses as their protector. Just in time to face the prospect of lower social security and Medicare benefits upon retirement.

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The Quagmire 

From today's New York Times:

President Obama will send an additional 17,000 American troops to Afghanistan this spring and summer in the first major military move of his presidency, White House officials said on Tuesday.

The increase would come on top of 36,000 American troops already there, making for an increase of nearly 50 percent. In issuing the order, Mr. Obama is choosing a middle ground, addressing urgent requests from commanders who have been pressing for reinforcements while postponing a more difficult judgment on a much larger increase in personnel that the commanders have been seeking.

In a written statement issued by the White House on Tuesday evening, Mr. Obama said that deteriorating security in Afghanistan demands urgent attention and swift action to address a problem that has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.

Last year, I explained that Obama communicates about Afghanistan in a confused way that reveals a fundamental lack of understanding about what is transpiring there. Nothing has changed. Incapable of implementing a coherent policy, he is instead resorting to the tried and true method of new troop deployments to mask it. Given the obvious dissatisfaction of the Obama administration with Karzai, one wonders how long before he ends up like Diem.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Destroy All Remaining Drafts of that Letter 

Remember a couple of weeks ago when it appeared that the Obama administration was going to send a letter to Tehran as a gesture towards reestablishing relations? Forget about it, the neoconservatives have won this one.

At his press conference on Tuesday, President Obama quite deliberately repeated the old canard that Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons, as did his incoming CIA director Leon Panetta in testimony before Congress. As recognized by antiwar.com, they did so despite a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate to the contrary:

While the Iranian government continues to express its desire to improve relations, Obama and associates just keep hurling accusations at Iran’s civilian nuclear program. There’s one thing the administration is missing though, and that’s evidence. Officials concede there is no evidence that undercuts the 2007 findings, but like the Bush Administration, the newcomers don’t seem to want fact to get in the way of good rhetoric.

Indeed, Tuesday, February 10, 2009 may be recalled as a seminal day in the history of the Obama administration. It was the day in which President Obama publicly embraced the broad contours of the neoconservative policies of his predecessor, while his Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, announced a bank rescue plan that perpetuated the principle of saving US banks at all costs bequethed to him by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke. The transcripts of their public comments on this most important day of all days should be filed away for future reference.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The outcome of the Israeli election has sounded the death knell for the two state solution 

I'm shocked, shocked to discover today that the Zionist project is racist. The marvel is that anyone ever thought it was otherwise.

Maybe, we can impose a siege and control the entry of all goods, services, medical supplies and industrial equipment into Israel until they change their mind. A couple of years of starvation and impoverishment just might do the trick. Oops, I forgot, we only support that when it's done to Palestinians.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Film Notes: Milk 

I finally went to see Milk last weekend, after my wife and I got someone to take care of our son for a few hours. I recalled that there was a bittersweet tone among those friends of Milk who attend the premiere of the film last fall. After seeing the film myself, I can understand why.

While Milk has become a mythic figure in death, he was someone in life who brought people together and encouraged them to seek personal fulfillment within a passionate collective enterprise. For him, gays and lesbians could not live happily as individuals unless they secured the rights of all gays and lesbians.

Milk was adamant that they had to come out to everyone, especially to their families, as a statement of personal independence and group solidarity. For him, to stay in the closet bordered on treason, and, if forced to choose between one's family and the gay community, the choice was obvious, as indicated by one of the most compelling moments in the film, as well as the YouTube video that introduces this post, a video that relies upon the audio of an excerpt of Milk's most famous speech.

The brilliance of the film is director Gus Van Zant's recognition that Milk built his movement not just through mass outreach, but upon an accumulation of intimate moments, such as the one when he first meets Cleve Jones, and then, later, when Jones, who initially disdains Milk, returns to participate in his political campaigns after seeing Barcelona gays and transvestites fight back against the Franco police while on vacation. It is hard to imagine anyone making this film other than Van Zant, as he is known for the idiosyncratic personal touch that he applies to his material in films such as Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and Elephant.

Here, Van Zant investigates the intersection of the personal and political to compelling effect. Whereas another director would have insisted upon inflating Milk and his friends into larger than life figures, Van Zant deliberately diminishes them, and thereby humanizes them. Milk is the star, the diva, as he might have said, but van Zant instead focuses upon his ability to bring people together and empower them. Sean Penn's performance has been rightly praised, but it is his willingness to draw out the defects as well as the strengths of Milk's character that renders it masterful. Milk achieved his political success at great cost in his personal life. Penn conveys this well, raising it above the soap opera that often taints most film biographies.

As a result, Van Zant has sited much of the film within interiors: inside Milk's business, Castro Camera, within his home, amongst the cramped office spaces for supervisors and their staff within City Hall. Larger crowd scenes, such as protest marches and debates, are filmed with a focus upon the personal interaction of Milk and his associates. From such intimacy, the electricity that so energized the gay rights movement emerges.

And it was powerful, indeed. As gays in San Francisco and around the country celebrated their new found freedom of personal expression, often sexually polygamously, they feared, and rightly so, that they would be driven from the jobs and their homes, and possibly even killed, by a silent majority of resentful and bigoted people. They recalled what Hitler had done to them not more than 30 years earlier, while confronting police harassment and violence. The struggle to prevent the passage of Proposition 6 in 1978, an initiative that would have required school districts to fire openly gay and lesbian teachers as well as their straight defenders, crystallized this fear.

If they know one of us, they vote two to one against it, intoned Milk, mantralike, to anyone within earshot. Hence, his anger when the wealthy gay establishment advised that gay and lesbians keep a low profile during the campaign, and his belief that it was a matter of life and death to come out of the closet. Milk debated the initiative's proponent, John Briggs, up and down the state, in front of frequently hostile evangelical crowds, and turned the tide. But he knew that it was about more than Proposition 6 as he was really saying, If they know one of us, they will accept us two to one. He has been proven right, and the recent victory of Proposition 8 is partially atributable to the decision of the opposition campaign to follow the advice that Milk rejected in 1978.

If the movie has a weakness, it is the failure to fully bring across to the audience the rapid social transformation that occurred during the gay migration to the Castro. When Milk opened his store in 1969, the Castro had no independent identity, as evidenced by a scene in the film with a sign nearby promoting the Eureka Valley Merchants Association in the background. By 1978, the young gays and hippies that had displaced the original, predominately Italian American inhabitants were being priced out through escalating rents and home prices.

Milk spoke to this populist resentment, even as he toned down his image, cutting off his pony tail and dressing in conservative suits. He reached out to people across all walks of life, bringing together gay hustlers who lived on the streets, gay professionals, union members and senior citizens, among others. He placed the struggle for gays rights within a broader movement for social and economic reform. Back then, it really did look like you could change the world from inside Castro Camera. Now, it seems like it can't even be done from within the White House. No wonder there was a nostalgic, bittersweet sensibility among those who knew him as they watched the premiere.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

they've failed and they are going to fail again 

Many of you are probably familiar with Nouriel Roubini's analysis of the collapse of the global economy, and he has little new to say here in this CNBC interview this morning, except, perhaps, a subtle emphasis that time is running out to get things right. The revelation is the insistence of Nassim Taleb that a recovery is not possible without getting rid of the people in the government and the economy that created this crisis.

Taleb is also adamant that the culture of moral hazard whereby the government backstops the speculation of bankers and investors must end. Roubini comes off the bench to drive the point home when he notes that the economy will not recover until there are incentives for people to invest in real, tangible economic activity. Unfortunately, the probability of these things happening remains nil.

Hat tip to Calculated Risk.

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the perils of negotiating with yourself 

Even a pallid Keynesian like Krugman recognizes that the stimulus bill is a disaster:

What do you call someone who eliminates hundreds of thousands of American jobs, deprives millions of adequate health care and nutrition, undermines schools, but offers a $15,000 bonus to affluent people who flip their houses?

A proud centrist. For that is what the senators who ended up calling the tune on the stimulus bill just accomplished.

Even if the original Obama plan — around $800 billion in stimulus, with a substantial fraction of that total given over to ineffective tax cuts — had been enacted, it wouldn’t have been enough to fill the looming hole in the U.S. economy, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will amount to $2.9 trillion over the next three years.

Is is too soon to suggest that the President Obama has already proven himself to be an abject failure? He celebrates a bipartisan compromise in the Senate that eviscerates his economic program, falling back upon the true and true method of declaring a victory where none exists in the hope that most people will be temporarily deceived. Or, maybe, he really does care more about everyone in the DC power elite getting along than he does about whether the rest of us have jobs.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

A Note on the Stimulus Plan (Part 1) 

Perhaps, it is a little too late to post on this subject. The House has already approved a version of President Obama's stimulus plan, and the Senate will act soon upon another one. There has been a great deal of comment by people from nearly all political persuasions, as well as upon blogs that focus on the economic turmoil that has engulfed the US and much of the world.

But, even so, it is important for leftists to step back a moment and consider whether the stimulus plan is the appropriate response to the accelerating downturn. With the exception of Marxists and anarchists, there has been near unanimity, especially among liberals, that a Keynesian version of shock and awe in the hundreds of billions of dollars, if not a few trillion dollars, is necessary to arrest the deflationary, depressionary spiral.

Is this true, though? Some readers may recall my December citation of Financial Times reporter Martin Wolf for the proposition that the US, as a country already running enormous trade and budget deficits, is ill-suited under classical Keynesian doctrine to deficit spend the global economy into a recovery. Instead, the US is likely to spend itself into bankruptcy through a Keynesian stimulus program and an ongoing bailout of the banking system unless Americans are willing export more, import less and accept sharply reduced domestic budget deficits. Or, to put it more bluntly, the US is likely to go bankrupt unless Americans are willing to accept a lower level of consumption and a curtailment in public services.

I am very sympathetic to this view, so much so that I believe that we should have pursued another approach from the inception of this crisis. Hopefully, it is not too late to do so, and such an approach would have been centered around two principles: First, the US should, along with other countries, reorganize the global financial system through liquidation and consolidation. The G-7, along with China and India, would do so through the creation of a multinational authority empowered to immediately write down bad debt and liquidate insolvent institutions, so that the remaining ones can lend money to one another, and thereafter to the general public, without fear of the unknown. Recapitalization of banks would be financed through transaction fees placed upon the transfer of financial instruments in global markets. Nationalization would be a last resort, resulting in public ownership and the creation of governance structures consistent with such ownership.

Second, within the US, the federal government would deficit spend primarily for the purpose of providing a safety net for those facing severe hardship as a result of unemployment and the loss of the homes. Along these lines, unemployment insurance funds, now within the jurisdiction of individual states, and, in many instances, bordering on insolvency, would be completely federalized for a specified period of time, say two or three years. The federal government would then pour billions into these funds so as to guarantee a much more generous minimum benefit, say 60% of one's salary prior to discharge, with a maximum yearly benefit amount of around $50,000. Of course, these benefits would be untaxed at both the state and federal level.

Such a program would be matched by a loan modification program whereby the banks would be required to refinance the mortgages of people facing foreclosure at existing market rates for those properties. They are already begrudgingly moving in this direction, as they are going to have to eat the losses, anyway. After all, why foreclose on the mortgages when they can instead create a new stream of income by substituting new ones, especially as they are desperate for new transaction fees and revenues going forward.

The problem, as documented frequently in recent months by Mr. Mortgage, is that the terms of modifications currently offered by lenders are extremely adverse to borrowers, so much so that they are analogous to renting the properties, with the borrowers responsible for additional interest payments, property taxes and maintenance. As Mr. Mortgage correctly observes, the only way for the housing market, and, indeed, the US economy to recover, is for lenders to provide permanent principal balance reductions. Instead, the government is allowing lenders to create a new generation of debt that will expose its toxic character in a few years.

I am admittedly no economist, but I believe that the overall cost of these measures would have been much less than what has already been expended upon the banks through the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, and even less expensive than the current stimulus plan moving through Congress. Of course, there should be no tax cuts, but infrastructure improvements are worthy of consideration, as long as they are effectively targeted to employ large numbers of people to address known deficiencies, such as an improved transportation system, including mass transit and school construction. Employment through infrastructure programs would reduce the amount of funds required to federalize the unemployment insurance programs of the states and guarantee a reasonable benefit amount.

Overall, my approach is based upon the notion that wealthy speculators in the financial sector should be subjected to the brutalities of the market that they celebrated as it enriched them, if only, in some instances, for a brief period, while those of us who were involuntarily subjected to the consequences of the financial catastrophe that they created should receive extensive financial assistance to avoid losing our homes, our families, and, in extreme cases, our lives. Unfortunately, the incoming Obama administration, like the Bush one it replaced, is doing the opposite, devising new ways to channel government funds to bankrupt banks while avoiding the appearance of doing so. It is hard to see how this is going to arrest the free fall in the global and domestic economies.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

SEIU and the Prospects for a Progressive Movement in the US 

At at time in which the financial sector of the US is receiving trillions of dollars in federal assistance, much of it deficit financed, and millions of Americans are on track to get foreclosed out of their homes, you'd think that the Service Employees International Union, commonly known as SEIU, would have something better to do:

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) wants its members to believe that their union is just like the alluring but ultimately nightmarish hostelry immortalized by The Eagles. It’s a place of permanent imprisonment only "programmed to receive" workers and their dues money, not let either go elsewhere when the rhetoric of “progressive unionism” wears thin and the rank-and-file becomes restive. According to proprietor Andy Stern, once you’ve checked into SEIU, you can never leave.

Tens of thousands of Stern’s disgruntled “guests,” who work in west coast health care facilities, are about to disprove this claim. Their bags are packed and they’re headed out the door of Stern’s “Hotel California,” as soon as federal (or local) labor law permits. After a bruising internal battle—in which an estimated ten million dollars of their own money was used by Stern to undermine and attack them—rank-and-filers in Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers (UHW) have formed a new union of their own. Launched on January 28, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) is seeking to retain bargaining rights long held by UHW, until Stern placed it under trusteeship the day before.

Workers made a collective decision to flee SEIU after the long-threatened take-over of its third-largest affiliate. As previously reported in CounterPunch, Stern began brandishing this club last March. When UHW had the audacity to question SEIU’s management-friendly approach to health care organizing, bargaining, and politics, the SEIU president launched a multi-faceted counter-insurgency campaign. Now, several hundred out-of-state SEIU staffers have been dispatched to California as a full-time occupation force. At huge expense to the union treasury, their mission is to replace 100 elected UHW leaders, purge UHW’s own 500-member staff, seize the local’s offices and assets, and inform employers that they should no longer deal with UHW representatives about any labor-management issues. According to Stern, this highly disruptive intervention in a well-functioning local is necessary “to restore democratic procedures” and “protect the members’ interest.” After “UHW has been stabilized”—which could take 18 months to three years, based on past SEIU practice—“elections for new officers will be held.”

Sal Roselli, the President of United Healthcare Workers-West, recently explained the dispute from his perspective:

A couple of years ago, Andy Stern decided that he wanted to control the relationship between our nursing home employers, be able to establish top-down sweetheart deals that sacrificed workers’ rights and the ability of workers to advocate for their patients. Our members stood in the way of that, decided that we weren’t going to stand for it, resisted it, and ever since then, he’s been trying to force these workers out of our union.

During 2008, in multiple different ways, our members have demonstrated in a very democratic way that they want to stay united with the hospital workers in our union. Third-party-supervised democratic secret ballot votes, over 95 percent of our members voting to stay united with hospital workers in our union, are being dismissed.

Last month, Andy Stern conducted a bogus vote, where 309,000 SEIU healthcare workers in California received a ballot with two choices: one, to force the long-term care members out of our union, where he would appoint the leaders of this new union, or two, dissolve our union altogether, merge all healthcare workers in California into one union, and he would appoint the leaders of this new union. Our leadership decided to boycott this vote, because they were both false choices. Out of 309,000 ballots mailed out, only 24,000 folks voted, and that was with huge resources to get people to vote. So only eight percent of the folks voted. Andy Stern declares that’s union democracy, the workers have spoken, they want a separate union of long-term care workers in California. And that’s the issue before his executive board today, to take that vote to create a new union and force these long-term care members out of our union.

And ironically, while this is all happening, our union has been settling contracts with these national for-profit nursing home employers that have realized the dreams of our nursing home workers for over the last fifteen years, including acute hospital standards that we’ve been fighting for: third-party resolution of staffing disputes; stronger language for workers, healthcare workers, to advocate for their patients than exist anywhere else in the country; and good wages and benefits to stabilize the work force in nursing homes. Simultaneously, Andy Stern’s trustee in southern California is settling with these same employers, compromising collective bargaining rights for the workers, compromising the workers’ ability to advocate for their patients.

In a similar episode, SEIU was defeated in its attempt to push Puerto Rico teachers into a management friendly union closely connnected to Puerto Rican Governor Anibal Acevedo Vila. SEIU is centered around a model of business unionism, a model whereby favorable relationships with employers so as to increase membership are valued more than the interests of the members themselves. Last April, SEIU members shouted down speakers and attacked some participants at a Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan, because Rose Ann DeMoro, the Executive Director of the California Nurses Association, was scheduled to speak. In some instances, CNA and SEIU compete for members, and CNA is generally known for a more politically assertive, more independent approach.

Meanwhile, SEIU, along with the AFL-CIO, is backing a health care plan that may bury the prospects of implementing a single payer system in the US. For those of you who are interested, there are numerous sources of additional information associated with these internal labor disputes available over the Internet. My purpose here is to highlight the enormous challenge we face in bringing about progressive change in this country. If SEIU, the self-described largest and fastest growing union in North America, is primarily interested in consolidating power through deals with management that disempower its members, and is willing to expend significant resources to defeat those within the union who object, then how can we expect to create a movement that will transform our society for the better?

It will certainly be very difficult. Historically, labor unions have played an essential role in support of civil rights and labor rights, and have, in some instances, participated in antiwar movements as well. Because of their financial and organizational resources and their increasingly diverse membership, they can elevate the visibility of any issue with which they associated themselves. They are, quite literally, with the possible exceptions of ACORN and immigrants rights groups, the only organizations in the US with the capability of organizing a significant part of the middle and lower classes around an agenda of progressive social and economic change.

During the fall presidential campaign, my liberal Democratic friends insisted that the election of Obama would ignite a new progressivism. I saw no prospects then, as I see no prospects now, for such a development. As James Petras wrote recently about South America in relation to the political consequences of the global recession: . . . . we are in an unstable period where both capitalism and socialism are weak. The question becomes which side will be able to intervene, reorganize and recompose its forces to take advantage of the other. As long as unions like SEIU insist upon focusing their efforts upon internal factional disputes, the answer to this question, at least in regard to the US, is not a promising one.

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