Monday, September 4, 2017

The Good American

Picture a paunchy middle-aged man in a baseball cap, tossing and turning in fitful sleep on his Barcalounger. Call him Jake. He is a good American. He waves the flag on the Fourth of July, supports the troops, always roots for Team USA in the Olympics and never reads books. He hasn’t traveled outside of the United States because, as he often tells his kids, “there’s plenty to see right here.” He believes in God because everyone he knows believes in God; besides, being an atheist in America is still faintly disreputable, even mildly subversive, like being a socialist, and it can be personally and professionally damaging in large parts of the country. But he isn’t religious. He may go to church once or twice a year, but he usually just watches football on Sundays.

He thinks evolution, like climate change, is “just a theory.” He thinks this because credible sounding people on TV often say it. This is, in fact, how he gets all of his opinions: He hears credible sounding people on TV making assertions over and over and over again until gradually, subtly, they morph into his own beliefs. His friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers acquire their beliefs the exact same way.

This is how he came to believe that tax cuts are good but big government is bad; that free markets are natural and efficient, but socialism, whatever it is, is inefficient and potentially evil, although some social programs are okay for people who’ve lost work “through no fault of their own.” This is also how he came to accept the fact that America, despite its inherent goodness, is surrounded by enemies who seek to harm it, and so he never questions the military budget or the latest bombing campaign, even though he often thinks wars in the Middle East are pointless because “those people have been fighting for centuries and war is all they know.”

This is why he thinks America is soft on crime, in spite of the fact that it has more prisoners than any other country in the world. After all, didn’t he just see a story on the news about a pedophile who was released on parole and immediately went out and molested another child? This is also why he thinks Black Lives Matter is the exact equivalent of the KKK and that political correctness is responsible for provoking violence on the right. This is why he’s recently concluded that the country is moving too far to the left.

He falls asleep in his recliner every night with the TV on. Is he watching ESPN or FOX NEWS? Does it matter?

In his dream, he is approached by a tall, benign looking man in a light gray suit. At first Jake is startled by this stranger entering his living room, but then he recognizes the man and settles comfortably back in his chair. It is only Mr. Smiley, who often visits him in his dreams. As always, he wears a pale pink tie and has an American flag pin in his lapel.

“Hi, Jake. I’m sorry to bother you.”

“No worries, Mr. Smiley.” Jake replies. “It’s all good.”

“But, you see, we need your cooperation again.”

“Why’s that?”

“I know you care about America.”

“I do.”

“You were there for us when we needed to defend against against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.”

“Better to fight the terrorists over there than over here.”

“Our thoughts exactly,” Mr. Smiley says. “And you were very understanding when we didn’t find any of those weapons. You were grown-up about it.”

“Stuff happens,” Jake says.

“Yes,” Mr. Smiley replies. “Stuff happens.” He steps closer until he is standing over Jake like a teacher hovering over his pupil. “And you understood when we had to take, uh, extra legal measures against terrorists and other people of interest?”

“After 9/11 the gloves had to come off.”

“Precisely! In the fight against terror, we can’t allow our hands to be tied by outdated legal concepts that, let’s face it, aren’t suitable for the modern world.”

“Well, I suppose.”

“Jake, the Constitution was written in horse and buggy days. This is the twenty-first century. Things are more … complicated now.”

Jake fidgets uncomfortably. Mr. Smiley is prepared for this reaction. It happens often. “Thomas Jefferson believed the Constitution should be re-written every generation. I believe he said, ‘You can’t expect a grown man to wear a boy’s coat.’”

“No kidding?”

“No kidding, Jake. In fact, I think Jefferson would strongly approve of the reforms we’ve made. We’re changing coats.”

“Well, I guess when you put it that way …”

“And you were also there for us when we needed Americans to pitch in and help out the banks.”

“Well, I didn’t really understand all that.”

“Of course not. That’s why we let the experts handle all of the details. You did your part, we did ours. That’s the essence of teamwork. Doesn’t it feel good to be part of a team, Jake?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“I know many of you were concerned about giving the banks all that money to use as they saw fit, but let me ask you this, would you feel comfortable telling a brain surgeon how to do his job?”

“Well, no, I guess not.”

“Of course not, because you’re not qualified to judge. They’re doing amazing things on Wall Street, Jake, complicated, fantastic things that laypeople like us can’t begin to understand. It would be highly inappropriate, maybe even rude, to presume to tell them how to do their jobs, don’t you think?

“You always have a way of putting things, Mr. Smiley. ”

“Do you believe in the free market?”

“I do.”

“Do you believe in helping our job creators so they can help us?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Right now, our corporations are struggling under one of the highest tax rates in the western world, thirty-five percent. It’s almost as bad as communism, Jake. They provide us with everything we need, and society repays them by looting their profits. It’s shameful and un-American.” Mr. Smiley shudders as if he’s just touched a wet doorknob or stepped in a pile of poo. “And the abuse our CEOs have to take. The world hasn’t seen anything like it since Nazi Germany!  But they put up with it, even though they only make five-hundred times what their lowest employees make. I daresay they should make a thousand, two thousand times more, given the abuse they take. Don’t you agree, Jake?”

Once again, Jake is confused. Something about Mr. Smiley’s words discomfits him, but he can’t figure out what it is, and he is powerless to resist Mr. Smiley’s logic.

“We’d like to lower that rate to fifteen percent. Are you with us, Jake? Will you join the team and be part of the big win?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I knew we could count on you. Americans always do the right thing.”

Mr. Smiley turns to go. As he nears the door his image begins to fade like a dissolving cloud. His voice cuts in and out and slowly becomes inaudible, but Jake clearly discerns the words “higher insurance premiums” and “unforeseen exigencies in the market,” “unfortunate” and “can’t be helped.” There are some final garbled words about the “moral responsibility of paying one’s debts” before Mr. Smiley vanishes completely, but by that point Jake has slipped into a happier dream: Tomorrow is Sunday, and Sunday means fantasy football …

A Labor Day Treat

In honor of Labor Day, please watch this Orwellian “training” video Wal-Mart shows its new hires. It is obnoxious anti-union propaganda delivered by annoying performers who, if there is any justice in this world, will be immediately kicked out of the Screen Actors Guild. It is not enough that struggling people must work horrible jobs for minimum wage. They must also receive political re-education to get their minds right. Not the condescending tone and the assumption that the employees are complete idiots. I can tell you from personal experience that this is one of the worst aspect of jobs like these. In addition to shitty hours, shitty pay, asshole bosses and zero benefits, management treats you like a special ed kid. It is thoroughly degrading in every, as it is no doubt intended to be.


Friday, September 1, 2017

There Were No Explosions At The Arkema Plant

You may have heard that there were explosions at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas near Houston, but you’d be wrong. There were no explosions. There never have been any explosions, and there never will be any explosions. There were only a series of small pops:
Authorities said Thursday morning that there weren’t “explosions” at the facility but, rather, “small pops” followed by smoke and fire.

But Richard Rennard, an Arkema executive, said it was impossible to know for sure, since all the employees had left the site.

“These things can burn very quickly and violently; it would not be unusual for them to explode,” Rennard said at a news conference. However, he said: “We believe it hasn’t been a massive explosion; it’s just been these vapor release valves that popped” in one of the box vans.
See? No explosions, just “small pops” that produced fire and smoke. What part of that don’t you understand?

I’m reminded of an interview with a military man describing a plane crash near an air force base some years back: “The aircraft decelerated and rapidly lost altitude, which caused it to impact with the ground.”

I'm also reminded of the heroic U.S. invasion of Grenada, which wasn’t an invasion, but a “pre-dawn vertical insertion.”

Then I’m reminded of the fifth grade, when the teacher was reprimanding my best friend for losing his homework. “I didn’t lose it,” my friend said, “I temporarily misplaced it!”

And I’m forced to reflect on the sad fact that our political, business and military leaders talk just like a fifth grader lying about not doing his homework.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Invisible Hand In Houston

Even in the face of tragedy, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well:
There have already been more than 500 complaints about price gouging during Hurricane Harvey over the weekend, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told CNBC on Monday.

That includes reports of up to $99 for a case of water, hotels that are tripling or quadrupling their prices and fuel going for $4 to $10 a gallon, he said in an interview with “Closing Bell.”
There are also reports that a woman in a second story apartment was charging people $300 to come upstairs and escape the flood. Natural disasters come and go, but the market is eternal.

The Texas attorney general is threatening to slap these upstanding capitalists with fines of $20,000 or more. Apparently he didn’t get the memo, handed down by Fox News and John Stossel in the wake of Hurricane Sandy: Price gouging is good! It even quoted Milton Friedman, who is second only to Ayn Rand in the right wing’s pantheon of free market divines: “Price gougers save lives!”

There is, of course, a lot of disturbing talk about charity and coming together, but there are also hopeful signs that, once the waters have receded and the rest of the country is looking away, market discipline will reign supreme on the Gulf Coast:
Homeowners suffering flood damage from Harvey are more likely to be on the hook for losses than victims of prior storms — a potentially crushing blow to personal finances and neighborhoods along the Gulf Coast.

Insurance experts say only a small fraction of homeowners in Harvey's path of destruction have flood insurance. That means families with flooded basements, soaked furniture and water-damaged walls will have to dig deep into their pockets or take on more debt to fix up their homes. Some may be forced to sell, if they can, and leave their communities.
Many of them might have to pull up stakes and go, where? Detroit? Cleveland? Gary, Indiana? Maybe they can become fulfillment associates at Amazon for $12.50 an hour (or warehouse workers for fourteen, if they have college degrees). Yessir, when God shuts a door he always opens a window. Every disaster is an opportunity. Economists call this creative destruction, and pundits of the George Will/Charles Krauthammer variety, who never have to experience it themselves, always sing its praises when rationalizing the latest outbreak of bank fraud, corporate malfeasance or mass layoffs.
“There’s going to be a huge uninsured economic loss here,” said Pete Mills, a senior vice president at the Mortgage Bankers Association.

[…]

Hunter of the CFA said that homeowners without flood insurance can possibly apply for federal disaster relief benefits, but those come in the form of low interest loans, a burden for those already struggling with too much debt.

“If you have $30,000 in damages, you can get maybe $25,000,” Hunter said. “But there will be interest, and then you have your mortgage. You’ll have two loans on your house.”
In other words, they’re screwed. But you know who won’t be screwed? The aforementioned Pete Mills, senior vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association. That’s because the Mortgage Bankers Association, which “represents originators, servicers, underwriters, compliance personnel, and information technology professionals” in the mortgage industry, is curiously exempt from the laws of the free market, having strategically defaulted on a $75 million loan of their own at one point without any ill consequences to themselves (and for which the Daily Show took them down good and hard). One can only assume that the invisible hand just mysteriously favors some groups more than others.

So, as you can see, there is reason to hope in this season of despair. Neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor catastrophic flood nor toxic chemical spills can affect the laws of American capitalism. The are with us always.

Monday, August 28, 2017

We’ll Never Learn

I’d like to take this opportunity to blatantly politicize the catastrophe in Houston. Before I begin, however, I’d implore everyone to stop describing such events as “biblical.” I’d wager that modern disasters dwarf anything seen in the biblical times. There is just so much more nasty shit that can go wrong in our marvelously complex world. A city of over two million people flooded with toxic water beats a plague of locusts any day.

English is one of the most varied and nuanced languages in the world. Use it. Come up with something new, Mr. and Mrs. Pundit (and while you’re at it, stop using the word “surreal” to describe anything out of the ordinary.)

Let me go out on a limb and say America will learn all the wrong lessons from this biblical god-awful shit storm in the Gulf. Do not expect our society to begin thinking seriously about global warming. Do not expect us to change our ways one iota. In short, do not expect us to soberly reflect on this tragedy and its implications for the future. That is what mature and responsible adults do. We are not mature and responsible adults. This is the soul of contemporary America:


It is loud, loutish, grossly juvenile, militantly ignorant and stupidly aggressive (which is why, incidentally, I don’t think Donald Trump is an aberration, but is in fact is the perfect expression of who we really are). It is easily distracted by shiny objects and utterly incapable of thinking in terms of fundamentals. It is the malleable plaything of demagogues, con men, and asinine pundits who actually have people believing that cutting taxes on billionaires is good for the middle class, that permanent war is normal and healthy, and that global warming is a hoax. In the face of rising temperatures, we have people who think its cute to make their trucks do this:



Nations have distinct characters and character is destiny. We are exhibiting all of the same dysfunction as the the Greenland Norse, the Easter Islanders, and many of the other extinct civilizations chronicled in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Like them, we are stubbornly resistant to change. We simply cannot and will not imagine any other lifestyle than the one we have. Nor can we honestly face our problems. Instead, we retreat into pathological denial and double-down on all of the stupid and destructive ideas that are responsible for bringing us to this pass in the first place.

Do expect the free market theologians and privatizers to swoop down on the Gulf like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, imposing market discipline and spreading charter schools around.  At this moment, Betsy DeVos is probably on her knees with all of the other pernicious evangelicals in the Administration, giving thanks to her barbarous God for this heaven-sent catastrophe.

Do expect the corporate media to avoid mentioning climate change and focus instead on human interest stories and maudlin puff pieces about our heroic first-responders. Do expect the wicked Texas Republicans who voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy victims to change their tune and discover a new found love of big government spending.

The good new is that my predictions are often wrong. I hope I’m wrong again.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Pigs In Space

The space race is alive and well, but it’s not being conducted by nation states. As befits a degraded world run by oligarchs, this latest iteration of interstellar stupidity is being carried out by arrogant billionaires whom our culture, for reasons I will never, ever understand, considers to be visionaries.

According to Bloomberg Technology, which I’ve never been bored enough to consult until now, 16 of the world’s richest 500 people are invested in space travel projects to the tune of 513 billion. Apparently, they think humanity has done such a bang-up job managing the earth that we simply have take our show on the road. The universe must not be deprived of our gifts. The thought of some distant, forlorn alien species living without free markets, globalization, credit default swaps, corporate mission statements, fragmentation bombs, Wal-Mart, mountaintop removal and the iPod is just too fuckin’ much for a compassionate human to bear. It’s a wonder any of us can sleep at night knowing there’s never been a TED Talk in Alpha Centauri. Opportunity costs be damned, we must spread our wisdom through the galaxy.

The usual suspects are involved, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Obama’s kitesurfing partner and brand new BFF, Richard Branson. But there are some strange names on the list as well, such as Sheldon Adelson, a casino billionaire who was Newt Gingrich’s pimp daddy in the 2012 Republican primaries, as well as one Ricardo Salinas, described as a “retail and banking billionaire.”

Yes, in the future, Mars will be bustling with casinos, Amazon fullfillment centers and banks, all hooked up to the Internet with access to Facebook and the Washington Post Online. The only thing missing will be a native population to exploit. Maybe they can fly up the Bangladeshis after global warming completely floods out their country.

Our society’s greatest luminaries will be able to chill out among themselves, far from the sweltering earth, basking in each other’s genius and debating such relevant topics as the latest iPhone, the future of AI, or whether it’s better to use your left or right hand when masturbating. Markets and entrepreneurship will be praised, but the billions of dollars of government subsidies they’ve received will be kept strictly on the QT. Genius grants, you see.

I wish them luck. I hope they fly as far as my dreams can carry them, out into the distant reaches of space where there is nothing but cold dead planets and hostile alien creatures that feed on pretentiousness.

Trump Delivers To His Constituencies

The generals are in charge and they got exactly what they wanted, a permanent war in Afghanistan. Its details will be kept from the public and it is guaranteed to bring giant military budgets forever and ever. The military-industrial complex will win out, no matter what stuffed dummy sits in the White House.

(The comedian Bill Hicks used to say that every new president is taken into a secret dark room and shown footage of the Kennedy assassination from an angle no one else has ever seen. He’s then asked, “Any questions, Mr. President?” I’m starting to think something like this must be true.)

But don’t worry, Trump’s other main constituency will soon get its biggest wish too. According to CNBC, “multiple Wall Street strategists” are laying odds that the one thing Congress can get done this year will be, wait for it, tax cuts. The bad news is that Republicans probably won’t be able to cut the corporate tax rate to 15 or 20 percent as they’d hoped, but will have to settle for 25 percent instead. Nor will they be able to “eliminate popular deductions, like those for mortgage interest, charitable giving, or state and local property taxes.” Nothing in life can be perfect, I suppose. Perhaps they can eliminate those popular deductions next year, when, with any luck, the little people will be distracted by a brand new war or hit TV show.

If  you look past Trump’s strategically outrageous tweets, you can see and smell a familiar thing. It’s called business as usual in America.        

Friday, August 11, 2017

What Do Foreigners Think of Ivanka?

This is from Raw Story about Ivanka Trump’s upcoming visit to India:
How do foreign leaders deal wth First Daughter Ivanka Trump? According to one anonymous diplomat quoted by Hindustan Times editor-in-chief Bobby Ghosh, the key is to flatter her and make her feel important — just as you would do with a visiting member of a royal family.

“We regard Ivanka Trump the way we do half-wit Saudi princes,” the diplomat told Ghosh. “It’s in our national interest to flatter them.”

The diplomat also told Ghosh that he found it “a shame” that the U.S. was now being ruled by what looked like a royal family — “but that is America’s shame, not Modi’s, or India’s.”
Remember, she’s the smart one of the family.

Can we file this under making America great again? 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

I Already Miss The Mooch

On paper, Anthony Scaramucci is everything I despise: an arrogant, greedy, faux tough guy master-of-the-universe Wall Street hedge fund prick; a crassly materialistic, hyper-masculine adolescent man-child who brags about killing his enemies, skull-fucking his competition, and grabbing pussy; the kind of guy who uses terms like “cock block” and “front-stabber” and thinks he sounds bad ass doing it.  To top it off, he has the seedy, loquacious manner of a car salesman or a late night TV huckster selling oyster shell enemas or personal power DVDs. He’s just like Jordan Belfort, the guy portrayed by Leonardo di Caprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. They’re cut from the exact same piece of greasy wax paper. They thrive like gut flora in American culture and they always will because that is what we are and that is what we value.

Still, I just can’t bring myself to dislike the guy. He was just too goddamned entertaining, and I simply can’t hate anybody who makes me laugh that hard. Hearing this sleazy, cologne-drenched guido answer a BBC reporter that, in fact, he had “no idea what’s going on with chlorine-rinsed chicken” but he’d gladly get back to her about it is just too, too good. It’s more than the sternum can bear. (It’s at about the 1:32 point of the video here.). He told us Steve Bannon tries to suck his own c**k and that Reince Priebus is an effing paranoid schizophrenic. He threatened to fire the entire communications staff at the White House because youse guyz in the press wouldn’t give up the leakers. He was the funniest clown in the biggest clown show on earth, and we won’t see his like again for at least another week.

There’s an element of genuine tragedy in Mooch’s speedy rise and fall. This preening cock-of-the-walk thought he was going to be first minister to the king — Cardinal Wolsey to Henry VIII, Mark Antony to Caesar, Boo Boo to Yogi — and then, poof, just like that he was gone, cut down and publicly humiliated in a mere ten days by a bigger, badder, more loudmouthed jerk than himself. Poor Mooch. He gave up everything to serve Trump. He sold his house. He sold his hedge fund. He committed everything to his new life in Washington. Then, tragically, in what should have been the best week of his life, Mooch traversed the full spectrum of defeat: He lost his job, his wife, his pride, his dignity, and he even missed the birth of his child. What did the White House say about Mooch’s inglorious shit canning? “He served his purpose,” an aide said.

Mooch sold his soul for Trump, and Trump shivved him in the balls, loudly, gleefully and in full public view. There can only be one vulgar wannabe alpha-male in this house, Mooch, and you ain’t it.

“The President has really good karma,” the Mooch said of Trump in his maiden speech to the nation, “and the world turns back to him.” Indeed. Indeed it does, Mooch. Now go get your fuckin’ shine box.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for him. Almost, but not quite. Will there be a book deal? A tell-all expose about his vertiginous ten days in the White House? Perhaps a biography, an investment guide, a get rich quick manual — Let the Mooch show you his ten easy tricks for making money, fulfilling your true potential, and living the America dream! An appearance on Dancing with the Stars? A regular gig on Fox and Friends? Perhaps a tearful moment of clarity with Whoopie Goldberg on The View. Then a reality TV show: Cruising with the Mooch or Being Scaramucci. A late night infomercial selling hair care products.  The possibilities are limitless. America always has a place at the table for guys like the Mooch.


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Friday, July 7, 2017

Carl Sagan Predicted Us

Here’s quote from Carl Sagan’s book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Not bad for 1995:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness...