Archive for February, 2009

Cartoon for February 28, 2009

February 28, 2009

Consumers face a bizarre dilemma–wait for money to become more valuable? Or risk it becoming worthless?

Cartoon for February 26, 2009

February 26, 2009

Even as the economy drags the United States into oblivion, many Americans keep up appearances of normalcy.

THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: CEO-Bashing for Fun and Profit

February 26, 2009

Obama, Media Grandstand on Executive Pay

SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS–On July 14, 1789 an angry mob invaded Paris’ Bastille prison, igniting a chain of events that became the French Revolution. The insurgents may have been provoked by a prisoner, the notorious Marquis de Sade. “They are killing the prisoners here!” he shouted to the crowd two weeks earlier, on July 2nd. The authorities moved him to another prison before the 14th.

The storming of the Bastille was pretty much a BS event. There were only seven prisoners for the revolutionaries to liberate, several of whom were living lives of considerable ease in fully furnished cells with servants. Yet the Bastille remains a symbol of monarchist oppression smashed by righteous people seeking freedom and equality. Sometimes empty symbolism means a lot.

Not so much here or now. Revolution doesn’t seem imminent in Obamaland, where polls show people pro-Bama despite losing their jobs, and a government bailout for everyone and everything except the people and institutions who actually need help. But revolution’s second cousin–symbolic scapegoating–is all around, like love in the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song minus the beret toss.

“In 1980, according to a Forbes magazine study, executive compensation was 40 times the average worker’s pay; by 2007, that had soared to more than 400 times,” CBS News reported on February 25th. Now that the companies those ridiculously compensated executives were charged with running are tanking, CEO pay is coming under attack by pundits and politicians.

President Obama won headlines and plaudits for a $500,000 income cap on top corporate executives–an idea that I and other progressives have been promoting for ages (and that was derisively dismissed as socialism before the U.S. began sliding into oblivion in September). As with the Bastille, however, there’s a lot more symbolism than substance here.

First, the $500,000 cap doesn’t cover 99 percent of Fortune 500 companies–only those receiving federal bailout cash. Firms like Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and AIG, which got the first round of TARP moolah, won’t be affected. Only a handful of companies would be covered, and even they’ll escape the restriction. First, most CEOs receive relatively low salaries anyway. Most CEO compensation comes in the form of bonuses and stock options, which aren’t subject to Obama’s cap. And even the income cap cab can easily be evaded; CEOs simply have to notify company shareholders.
That’s not all. “[Obama’s income cap] excludes the midlevel execs who also received some of those Wall Street bonuses and who in many cases made the risky bets that sparked the crisis,” reports The Politico.com. There are more loopholes, so many you could drive a gold-plated Hummer through it if you could afford the gas, but you get the idea.

“America needs to understand that this is cosmetic, that this is to appease taxpayer ire,” says “Naked Capitalism” blogger Yves Smith, who has worked on Wall Street for 25 years. But that would be true even if Obama’s cap were real and applied to every CEO in America.

Universally blamed for the fiscal meltdown, Wall Street investment bankers are under fire for taking in billions in bonuses in 2008, a.k.a. The Year America Died. Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate banking committee, grandstanded thusly, vowing to use “every possible legal means to recoup the $18.4 billion in Wall Street bonuses.” Vice President Joe Biden said: “I’d like to throw these guys in the brig.”

Of course, nothing of the sort will happen. The bankers will keep their bonuses; they won’t be checking into the Greybar Hotel any time soon.

What’s gotten lost in the populist uprising is why seven-digit CEO salaries were worth talking about in the first place. They’re a symbol and litmus test of a bigger problem, skyrocketing income inequality, that has gotten worse and worse since the late 1960s. As the rich have grown richer–not just rich CEOs, but everyone in the top one to five percent of income earners–the poor, and especially the middle class, have become poorer and poorer.

The overall social problem of rising income inequality is at the root of our current economic ills. If corporations had paid the vast majority of workers the raises they deserved over the past 40 years, raises commensurate with increases in efficiency and productivity, people would have saved more and borrowed less. The real estate and credit bubbles wouldn’t have grown as big. When they burst, people would have had resources to fall back upon. We are broke, unemployed, and maxed out–not because we bought too much stuff, but because our bosses paid themselves instead of us.

CEO and executive compensation in general aren’t the problem, or even the cause of the problem. They are symptoms of a malady inherent in the capitalist system: the tendency of those who gain an early advantage to monopolize assets and aggregate wealth and influence at the expense of everyone else. You can see it when you play the board game “Monopoly.” More times than not, whoever gets an early lead wins.

It isn’t just CEOs. It’s millions of Americans at the top of the income scale, many of whom consider themselves middle class. Because they earned too much, others earned too little.

Insulting CEOs (while letting them keep their perquisites) may be fun. But it doesn’t begin to address what’s killing the U.S. economy: the rancid notion that one person’s hard day’s work deserves more pay than another’s.

COPYRIGHT 2009 TED RALL

Cartoon for February 23, 2009

February 23, 2009

Afghan wedding parties risk getting blasted to hell by trigger-happy NATO bombers. Surely there’s another way.

Cartoon for February 21, 2009

February 21, 2009

Liberal bloggers and pundits say they’re taking a breather after eight years of Bush. After all, everything’s perfect now!

THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Talking Smack

February 19, 2009

Obama Doubles Down on Bush’s Afghan Disaster

-“If you ask me anything I don’t know, I’m not going to answer,” Yogi Berra once said. President Obama should do the same.

The president’s recent interview with Canada’s CBC television network demonstrates that he doesn’t know much about Afghanistan. But that isn’t stopping him from talking about it–even while he escalates America’s war there.

“Well, I think Afghanistan is still winnable, in the sense of our ability to ensure that it is not a launching pad for attacks against North America,” he told his interviewer.

How is it possible for this well-educated man–like me, he went to Columbia, which had a superb history department–to be so ignorant? Afghanistan has never been a “launching pad” for a single attack, much less plural “attacks” against the U.S. (Or, as far as I know, Canadistan.) It’s true that, until 2000, there were a few camps in Afghanistan. But the vast majority of the training camps loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda or other militant Islamist groups were, and remain in, Pakistan. Moreover, most of the jihadis who trained there wanted to fight countries other than the U.S.: Chechens seeking independence from Russia, Uyghurs waging a low-intensity insurgency against China, Uzbeks trying to overthrow Uzbekistan’s dictator.

German intelligence officials have said that three of the 19 September 11th hijackers had attended such camps. But that’s an incidental fact. If you’re looking for the men responsible for 9/11, you need to start in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Well-connected religious fanatics and government officials in both countries conceived the plot, recruited its personnel, and provided the money. If jihadi training camps bother you, go where most of them are: Pakistan. Afghanistan never represented a significant threat to the United States. And it still doesn’t.

More disturbing still is Obama’s assertion that Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers are even likelier to die than in Iraq, is “winnable.” To be fair to the president, he admits that “you cannot solve the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism in that region solely through military means.” But the key word is “solely.” He’s not only keeping troops there–he’s sending tens of thousands more. U.S. and NATO occupation troops aren’t part of the solution; they’re a big part of the problem.

Hamid Karzai, the former Unocal oil consultant hired by Bush to run Afghanistan’s U.S.-supported puppet regime, knows this. “Entering by force our people’s houses is against the government of Afghanistan,” he told foreign dignitaries in Kabul in December. “This way the Afghan government will be destroyed and it will never be strengthened when in my country, the foreign soldiers go and arrest people, hit them and even kill them.”

But Obama isn’t listening. Just last week, another U.S. air strike killed 15 supposed militants in the northwestern province of Herat. Afghans, who live on the actual ground, said all 15 were civilians.

One quarter of all civilians killed in Afghanistan in 2008 were blown up in U.S. and NATO bombing raids.

“Throughout vast areas of the country, 2008 felt like a slow descent into hell,” wrote Chris Sands in The National, an English-language newspaper in the United Arab Emirates. “Down in Kandahar the Taliban knew they were winning and so did just about everyone caught in the crossfire. Tribal elders who had initially sat on the fence now gave weapons and money to the rebels. They said the Soviet occupation had never been so brutal and, whether that is true or not, they clearly believed it.”

Bush never bothered to clearly define war aims for the invasion of Iraq. Obama is repeating Bush’s mistake in Afghanistan. What would victory look like? He can’t say. He’s all over the place.

“If you’ve got narco-trafficking that is funding the Taliban, if there is a perception that there’s no rule of law in Afghanistan, if we don’t solve the issue of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, then we’re probably not going to solve the problem,” Obama told the CBC.

The opium issue is more complicated than Obama says. True, the Taliban are buying weapons by taxing local poppy farmers. Put the farmers out of business by spraying their crops, however, and they won’t just pay a tithe–they’ll sign up as soldiers. But if the Taliban wins–an increasingly likely outcome–they may curtail or even eliminate opium cultivation as un-Islamic. Letting the Taliban win is likelier to reduce the amount of heroin on the streets of Amsterdam than staying the course.

U.S. and NATO forces aren’t the solution to anarchy in Afghanistan. They’re its cause. Before we came along, the Taliban had consolidated control over 95 percent of the country. Highways were safe. Rapists were executed. Warlords lived in exile. After the 9/11 the CIA brought back the warlords and showered them with bricks of cash worth tens of millions of dollars. Security vanished. Neo-feudalism took over. Allied forces have never lifted a finger to protect ordinary Afghans from the thieves and murderers in their midst; to the contrary, they installed many of them as officials in Karzai’s corrupt government.

If you were a U.S. soldier shipping off to Afghanistan, what would you think you were fighting for? Obama couldn’t tell you. I think I can: to prop up Karzai’s regime until a new-and-improved strongman can be found to replace him, then to prop him up. To flex military muscle against neighboring countries, most notably China, Iran and Pakistan. And to keep a shot at scoring a piece of the action if the Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline oil and gas pipeline is ever finished.

It hardly seems killing, much less dying, for.

COPYRIGHT 2009 TED RALL

Live Chat Re: Controversial Editorial Cartoon Today

February 19, 2009

I’m doing a live chat at 1:15 pm East Coast time today about Sean Delonas’ controversial cartoon in yesterday’s New York Post. Details about the story and the chat are here.

Cartoon for February 19, 2009

February 19, 2009

The U.S. military is offering citizenship to foreigners in exchange for service.

Cartoon for February 16, 2009

February 16, 2009

Why, with overwhelming majority control of Congress, are Democrats still sucking up? Because it feels natural.

Cartoon for February 14, 2009

February 14, 2009

Obama’s bailout plan helps the corporations who caused the economic mess, and not one of their victims.