Archive for March, 2009

THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: What Obama and Hitler Have in Common

March 31, 2009

Broke and on a Losing Streak, Obama Doubles Down

Contrary to myth, the Nazis weren’t crazy. But during the winter of 1944-45, with the Allied and Soviet armies closing in on Berlin, German leaders made an insane decision. Instead of doing whatever they could to hold out as long as possible, they sped up the Holocaust.

The Nazis’ policy of accelerated genocide deprived the war effort of increasingly precious resources. Soldiers and paramilitaries were pulled back from the battlefront in order to arrest and guard ever-increasing numbers of Jews and other “enemies of the state.” As battle after battle was lost, trains assigned to transport reinforcement troops were reassigned to ship the regime’s victims to the death camps.

Killing Jews was the Nazis’ top priority. It came ahead of everything else–even their own lives. Total madness.

But who are we to judge? Here we are 64 years later, doing the same thing. The U.S. is locked in a last-ditch struggle for survival, and the U.S. government is diverting vital resources to its own top priority: killing Muslims.

President Obama and the Democrats always asserted that Afghanistan was the “good war”–the one thing George W. Bush did right before he “took his eye off the ball” by invading Iraq. Not me. I realized that the invasion and subsequent occupation were doomed from the start. My Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment came while watching Afghan villagers sobbing outside a house being searched by U.S. troops. “The Russians never violated our homes,” an old man told me. As in many societies descended from nomads, Afghan culture dictates that a man’s home is truly his castle. “Even when they came to kill you, the Taliban knocked on the door and waited for you come out. They didn’t touch your wife or daughter. They never came inside. Never.”

I stared at the house’s front door, smashed and splintered after having been kicked in, and thought: They’ll never forgive us. Women were shrieking inside the house. The soldiers yelled at them: “Shut the f— up!” At least they did it in English, so they couldn’t understand. Hearts and minds.

I went to my rented room and filed a story with the headline: “How We Lost Afghanistan.” It was December 11, 2001.

Bush spent the following seven years sending more and more troops to Afghanistan: 8,000 at first, then 18,000, then 30,000. Afghan resistance fighters killed more and more of them. It became more dangerous to serve a tour of duty in America’s “forgotten war” than in Iraq. The more the size of the U.S. occupation force increased, street-level violence, warlordism and opium poppy cultivation spiraled out of control.

Chaos doesn’t come cheap. It costs $390,000 to sustain one American soldier overseas for one year.

Now Obama is “doubling down” on a “new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy,” reported The Washington Post. “Along with the 17,000 additional combat troops authorized last month, Obama said he will send at least 4,000 more this fall…” There were 38,000 when Obama took office. Soon there will be 55,000. By early next year, at least 70,000. Thousands of more will be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan. There have been few protests. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, we must be out of our collective minds.

I stand nearly alone in my long-running criticism of the Afghan war. But even if you disagree with my pessimistic assessment of the foreign policy repercussions of the “good war,” surely we can find common ground on the economic front.

The U.S. is broke. One cause is the $3 trillion we’ve already wasted on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (With compound interest, that debt comes to over $10 trillion–or a dozen $700 billion Wall Street bailouts.) In a move that echoes Hitler’s misdirected obsessiveness, Obama is about to waste even more money we don’t have. According to the Pentagon’s notoriously rosy projections, Obama’s “Afghan surge” will increase the cost of that misbegotten quagmire (remember when right-wing pundits ridiculed those of us who used the Q-word to describe Afghanistan?) by 60 percent, up from the current $2 billion a month.

Millions are losing their jobs and their homes. Is this best the possible use of our federal taxdollars?

Obama says his war aims in Afghanistan are to fight insurgents, “train Afghan Security Forces,” improve the Afghan economy and reduce opium production. Of course, some of these goals are self-actualizing. If the U.S. withdrew, there wouldn’t be any insurgents. And Afghanistan wouldn’t need so many more security forces to keep order.

As for the Afghan economy and narcotics, Obama doesn’t stand a chance. “We’re pretty good about getting rid of old governments, but not really good at building new ones. I don’t think any other country has that skill, either,” said Gordon Adams, professor of foreign policy at American University and former Clintonista. “We can burn millions of dollars and lose thousands of American lives pretending we know how–but we don’t know how.”

And anyway: so what? As the real unemployment rate in the U.S. surpasses 20 percent and we sail off the cliff of fiscal oblivion, how can Obama justify spending hundreds of billions dollars more? To reduce unemployment in Afghan cities (while increasing it in the countryside, which depends on opium farming)? Even if Obama meets his metrics in Afghanistan, what’s in it for us?

In this Depression there’s still one gig with high job security: write a column for The New York Times that repeatedly gets everything wrong. Columnist David Brooks, one of the Dying Grey Lady’s resident neocons, agrees with Obama that seven years of bombing wedding parties isn’t enough. “This energetic and ambitious [Afghan troop surge] amid economic crisis and war weariness–says something profound about America’s DNA,” says he.

Maybe it does. Seventeen percent of Americans have German roots, more than any other ancestry group.

COPYRIGHT 2009 TED RALL

Cartoon for March 30, 2009

March 30, 2009

It’s true: financial markets are reacting favorably when bad news is less bad than previously forecast. If there’s a better indication of a country in despair, I don’t know what it is. We’re pathetic.

Cartoon for March 28, 2009

March 28, 2009

This is the kind of cartoon I expected lots of my mainstream cartoonist colleagues to have come up with.

But I couldn’t find any, so I went ahead with the idea anyway. I hope I’m right and that I was first and only, in which case this is an instant classic. Otherwise it’s just another typical mainstream cartoon.

Drawing dinosaurs was fun, though.

Cartoon for March 26, 2009

March 26, 2009

I’m confused. First the banks and other companies requesting government bailouts claimed they would go under if they didn’t get them. Now they’re offering to return the money because the conditions are too onerous. So they didn’t really need the money in the first place, right? Or am I missing something?

THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why We Hate Them

March 24, 2009

Mistreated Customers Fuel Populist Rage

“Populist anger in America is the anger of dispossession,” writes Newsweek‘s Rick Perlstein. “The delinking of effort and reward has become all too manifest. That always makes Americans angry. We do not like to reward those who do not produce.”

That’s not it. This is about abused customers. After decades of insults, they can’t believe they’re being made to save companies that treat them like crap.

I’m a calm person. Yet my most recent bank statement featured three items that brought my blood to a fast boil. One was a $10 “income wire transfer fee.” A newspaper that publishes this column paid for it by wiring the money to my account. The bank charged me ten bucks–for depositing money! Money that, by the way, they invest in what the banking industry calls “the overnight call float.”

The same statement included a $3 fee for using an ATM that belongs to a different bank. Compared to my bank, loan sharks are sweethearts. If I take out $20 every day and pay three dollars each time, that’s 15 percent interest a day–or 5,475 percent a year. Did I mention that the fee was a mistake? I never use ATMs at other banks. To straighten out this $3 fee, I’ll have to waste my time explaining myself to someone at a call center in India, typing my account number into a keypad so I can repeat it by voice after waiting on hold.

Then there’s what my bank calls AN IMPORTANT CHANGE CONCERNING THE PROCESSING OF YOUR CHECKS EFFECTIVE MARCH 20, 2009: “As checks you have written are presented to us for payment during the course of a business day,” they explain, “we will place a hold on available funds in your account of those checks, resulting in a reduction in your available account balance throughout that day.” This is Bankese for: “You will pay bounce fees even when you have enough money in your account for checks to clear.”

I won’t even mention the time they hit me with a $120 fine in a single month–twelve separate fees at $10 a pop–for being stupid enough to use the line of credit they once begged me to take.

I hate my bank. My bank is Citibank. Citibank sucks.

If Citibank wasn’t an evil, customer-hating band of fee vultures, I might not be quite so annoyed at the fact that its parent company, Citigroup, had just received $20 billion in direct investment plus $306 billion in loan guarantees from the U.S. government (i.e. us), of which I am a subsidiary. That’s $1,100 per American citizen, plus compound interest paid to Chinese investors who buy U.S. Treasury obligations. The fact that Citigroup “didn’t produce” has nothing to do with it. I would rather set $1,100 on fire than hand it over to Citigroup.

Which brings us to the American International Group. As you know, AIG executives sparked populist anger by paying themselves $165 million in bonuses after accepting a government bailout. “Take away taxpayers’ sense of ownership stake in an issue (especially, as with AIG, when taxpayers literally own the company) and their rage will not go away,” says Perlstein. “It festers…And that’s when the ‘bad’ kind of populism–the hateful kind; the violent kind; the demagogic kind–can flourish.”

Wrong again. Americans’ “ownership stake” in AIG isn’t why they’re in torches-and-pitchforks mode. Those bonuses only amount to 55 cents per person–no biggie. The Iraq War will cost us at least $10,000 each. The reason we’re enraged is that AIG is an insurance company.

We hate insurance companies.

Health insurers are the worst. They repeatedly deny claims they know are legitimate because many sick patients will give up fighting and eat the expense. They arbitrarily decide that tests, procedures, and even life-saving operations are “optional.” They literally murder their customers! Insurers even “make use of sophisticated data tools dubbed ‘denial engines,’ which are touted to reduce reimbursements by three to ten percent,” says U.S. News & World Report. But homeowner insurance companies aren’t better. State Farm’s refusal to pay victims of hurricane Katrina because their policies covered wind but not flooding is typical. “They said, ‘If a tornado came through and two days later the water came, it’s all flood,” remembers a Katrina victim in Louisiana.

They were lucky State Farm told them anything. Other storm survivors spent hours on hold, trying in vain to get through to companies that had happily collected their premiums for years.

Banks like Citibank and insurance companies like AIG may well be “too big to fail,” as Obama’s team at Treasury argues. So don’t let them fail. Nationalize them instead. And send their current and former executives to Bagram.

Also writing for Newsweek, Robert J. Samuelson calls our contempt for corporate leeches “a dangerous mindset” that “justifies punitive taxes, widespread corporate mandates, selective subsidies and more meddling in companies’ everyday operations.” Gee, how terrible that would be, what with them doing so well without meddling from the guvmint.

I have a suggestion for Mr. Samuelson and the high-flying captains of industry he champions: If banks and insurance companies want taxpayers to save their steak-fattened butts, let them accept some changes that will make Americans like them better. For banks, no more fees on checking or savings accounts. Period. For credit card companies, reset all interest rates at one percent over prime. Give customers a full month to pay their bills. No more unilateral changes in rates. For insurance companies, the presumption should be that all claims are legitimate unless proven otherwise. If a doctor approves it, pay out without being asked twice.

Oh, and one more thing: Get rid of phone trees. Fire the half-a-world-away call centers. Ban voice recognition systems–“say yes or no–I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” Hire actual people to answer the phone. Make them pick it up on the first ring and transfer calls to the proper department.

I’d pay $1,100 for that.

COPYRIGHT 2009 TED RALL

Cartoon for March 23, 2009

March 23, 2009

The arctic melts. The gulf stream stutters. Average temperatures rise. Species go extinct. Yet no one takes the destruction of the environment seriously. What would it take for that to change?

Cartoon for March 21, 2009

March 21, 2009

Americans aren’t cut out for austerity. And there, ladies and gentlemen, lies our greatest hope for economic recovery.

Cartoon for March 19, 2009

March 19, 2009

Bankers that received federal bailouts are complaining that the government is changing the terms and conditions of their loans after the fact. Sounds familiar.

THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Change You Can Parse

March 17, 2009

Obama Abandons Bush’s Talk, Keeps His Walk

You can’t blame Dick Cheney for being annoyed at Barack Obama. Obama is closing Guantánamo. He’s ordering the CIA to interrogate prisoners according to the rules written in the Army Field Manual, which doesn’t allow torture. He’s even phasing out such classic Bushian phrases as “enemy combatant” and “war on terror.”

But the dark prince of neoconservatism should relax. Obama’s inaugural address may have promised to “reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” but—in all the ways that matter—he’s keeping all of Bush’s outrageous policies in place. Sure, he talks a good game about “moving forward.” But nothing has really changed. From reading your e-mails to asserting the right to assassinate American citizens to bailing out companies whose executives pay themselves big bonuses, Obama’s changes are nothing but toothless rhetoric.

Closing Gitmo, reported The New York Times, was merely “a move that seemed intended to symbolically separate the new administration from Bush detention policies. But in a much anticipated court filing, the Justice Department argued that the president has the authority to detain terrorism suspects there without criminal charges, much as the Bush administration had asserted. It provided a broad definition of those who can be held, which was not significantly different from the one used by the Bush administration.”

What will happen to the 241 POWs still at Gitmo? They won’t be called “enemy combatants” anymore but most won’t be going home. “The filing signaled that, as long as Guantánamo remains open, the new Administration will aggressively defend its ability to hold some detainees there,” wrote the Times. Where will they go after that?

Welcome to Gitmo II—courtesy of Barack Obama.

Countless victims have been tortured by U.S. military personnel at Bagram, the U.S. airbase in Afghanistan where Bush imprisoned 600 people without charges. Some were murdered in the camp’s notorious “salt pit.” “Even children have not been spared,” says Amnesty International.

Now Bagram is being expanded—nearly doubled in size—in order to accommodate 200-plus detainees from Gitmo, as well as future POWs from Obama’s expanded war against Afghanistan. As bad as Guantánamo was, conditions at Bagram are worse.

Unless you believe indefinite detention without due process to be torture, Obama says his detainees won’t be tortured. Mostly. Probably. Maybe. The Washington Post quotes an Administration insider as saying that the CIA will enjoy “more leeway” than the Army Field Manual allows, in order to “take into account the differences between battlefield interrogations and those aimed at eliciting intelligence about terrorist groups and their plans.”

Extraordinary renditions, the Times reports in a different article, will continue under Obama. “In little-noticed confirmation testimony recently,” says the paper, “Obama nominees endorsed continuing the CIA’s program of transferring prisoners to other countries without legal rights, and indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects without trials even if they were arrested far from a war zone.”

During the 2008 campaign Obama’s critics accused him of saying nothing, albeit beautifully. Now that we’ve gotten to know him a bit, it’s time to refine that assessment: He’s just a weasel. An eloquent weasel. But a weasel who says the right things while doing the opposite.

On March 9th Obama ordered federal agencies to suspend Bush’s infamous “signing statements,” sneaky documents issued after the signing of a bill that ordered government agencies not to enforce the very same bill he’d just approved in front of the cameras. Signing statements, says the American Bar Association, use one-man dictatorial rule to negate the people’s will as expressed by Congress and are thus “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers.”

“Yet two days later—literally—Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill and appended to it a signing statement claiming that he had the Constitutional authority to ignore several of its oversight provisions,” writes Glenn Greenwald of Slate.

Greenwald regrets having to quote the vile Rich Lowry of the right-wing National Review magazine. So do I. But even the right is right sometimes:

“Barack Obama has perfected a three-step maneuver that could never even be attempted by a politician lacking his rhetorical skill or cool cynicism. First: Denounce your presidential predecessor for a given policy, energizing your party’s base and capitalizing on his abiding unpopularity. Second: Pretend to have reversed that policy upon taking office with a symbolic act or high-profile statement. Third: Adopt a version of that same policy, knowing that it’s the only way to govern responsibly or believing that doing otherwise is too difficult.”

This week’s example is Obama’s grandstanding over $165 million in bonuses paid to executives of American International Group (AIG), which received billions in federal bailout money. He feigned outrage: “How do they justify this outrage to the taxpayers who are keeping the company afloat?” But his Treasury Department knew about the bonuses—which amount to roughly 55 cents per American—ages ago. He also knows there isn’t much the government can do legally to claw the money back.

Unlike the word count limit of this column, Obama’s perfidy knows no limits. He’s already become more dangerous to democracy and basic human rights than George W. Bush. Unlike Bush, he has no political opposition. Cheney may nitpick, but most Republicans are happy to see Bush’s policies remain in place. Meanwhile, liberals remain loyal, silent, and tacitly pro-torture.

COPYRIGHT 2009 TED RALL

Cartoon for March 16, 2009

March 16, 2009

Teen unemployment is 21%. But why do we care? Kids shouldn’t work anyway. It adds to adult unemployment and reduces their attention to their schooling, which should be their top priority.