Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Cartoon for April 20, 2009

April 20, 2009

When everyone’s losing everything, those who manage to hold on to what they have look lucky.


April 14, 2009

Americans Lose Their Savings and their Minds

When the revolution comes, the tribunal will turn to two sources to determine who should be arrested: a list of the 500 highest-paid CEOs and the Styles section of The New York Times.

Real unemployment is over 20 percent. Millions of people are losing their homes to foreclosure. We’ve been at war for eight years, with nothing to show for it but a million-plus corpses and trillions in new debt. The United States, in the midst of full-on economic collapse, is teetering on the brink of political implosion. Which has driven some people to…doga.

“Nationwide,” an article in the April 9th Times Styles section explains, “classes of doga–yoga with dogs, as it is called–are increasing in number and popularity.”

Doga. The name alone inspires lovely fantasies of firing squads. Above the piece and above the fold are photos of dogs being levitated, stretched, and used as weights. Understandably, they generally look puzzled, if not mystified. The online version has a slideshow chronicling the torment of a yellow mutt, his hind quarters being yanked into the heavens by his ever-so-serious Spandex-clad owner. Downward-facing-dog gone wild. The poor beast wears that Admiral Stockdale look: who am I? why am I here?
Why are you doing this to me?

Times reporter Bethany Lyttle, who probably never dreamed she’d end up writing this sort of thing when the thought of becoming a journalist first crossed her mind, paints a grisly tableau in but 45 horrifying words: “In Chicago, Kristyn Caliendo does forward-bends with a Jack Russell draped around her neck. In Manhattan, Grace Yang strikes a warrior pose while balancing a Shih Tzu on her thigh. And in Seattle, Chintale Stiller-Anderson practices an asana that requires side-stretching across a 52-pound vizsla.” One wonders, will she have the animal put to sleep in the event of weight change? Will she buy an entire set of dogs, to cover the weight range as her fitness improves?

During the last few months Times political writers have been wondering aloud why Americans haven’t reacted to losing their jobs and houses by rioting. Here, just a dozen ever-shrinking pages away, is the answer. They’re freaking out, all right. But being Americans, they’re freaking out weirdly.

If you’ve read this far–and I wouldn’t blame you if you’d already thrown this down in disgust–you’d might as well know what doga is. Doga!

“Doga,” reports The Times (which doesn’t run comics or advice columns because those features aren’t serious enough), “combines massage and meditation with gentle stretching for dogs and their human partners. In chaturanga, dogs sit with their front paws in the air while their human partners provide support. In an ‘upward-paw pose,’ or sun salutation, owners lift dogs onto their hind legs. In a resting pose, the person reclines, with legs slightly bent over the dog’s torso, bolster-style, to relieve pressure on the spine.”

Ready! Aim! Fire! No need for caskets. A shallow grave will suffice. But there’s more.
Skeptics of doga, by taking the idea seriously, unintentionally provide the best quotes. “Doga runs the risk of trivializing a 2,500-year-old practice into a fad,” the paper quotes a yogi in, naturally, Portland (the one in Oregon, obviously). Ya think? “To live in harmony with all beings, including dogs, is a truly yogic principle. But yoga class may not be the most appropriate way to express this.” She thinks about this stuff. Me, I’m holding out for boga–yoga with bugs.

Doga is the perfect end-of-empire moment for a nation wallowing in self-indulgence. The Romans puked out their engorged guts in their vomitoria; we drop $20 a class to drape our yowling schnauzers over our flabby tummies. And as with every great American trend of mass idiocy, controversy swirls arounds doga.

Brenda Bryan, a 43-year-old dogi and yogi (doyogi? yodogi? bowwowwowyippiyagi?) in Seattle, has written the book on doga. “It’s a new field so there can be confusion about what doga is and isn’t,” she says. Why be confused? I know what doga is. Doga is stupid.


Cartoon for March 8, 2009

March 8, 2009

The collapse of the New Economy leads to a reversal of the old conservative report to the downtrodden.

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.


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 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.


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.


February 10, 2009

Could It?

PARIS–Most Americans don’t care what happens in France. But the oldest country in “Old Europe” remains the Western world’s intellectual capital and one of its primary originators of political trends. (Google “May+1968+Sorbonne.”)

The French are reacting to a situation almost identical to ours–economic collapse, government impotence, corporate corruption–by turning hard left. National strikes and massive demonstrations are occurring every few weeks. How far left? This far: the late president François Mitterand’s Socialist Party, the rough equivalent of America’s Greens, is considered too conservative to solve the economic crisis.

A new poll by the Parisian daily Libération finds 53 percent of French voters (68 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds) favoring “radical social change.” Fifty-seven percent want France to insulate itself from the global economic system. Does this mean revolution? It’s certainly possible. Or maybe counter-revolution: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s nativist (some would say neofascist) National Front is also picking up points.

One thing is certain: French politics are even more volatile than the financial markets these days. In yet another indication of How Far Left?, the Communist-aligned CGT labor union is on the defensive for not being militant enough. “We’re not going to put out the blazing fires [of the economic crisis],” the CGT’s secretary general said, trying to seize the initiative by calling for another strike on February 18th. “We’re going to fan them.”

Two new entities, a Left Party (PG) umbrella organization trying to unify opposition to the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy (who’d be to the left of Obama in the U.S.) and the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), have seized the popular imagination. The NPA claims to have registered more than 9000 “militants” willing to use violent force to overthrow the government if given the word.

“Only combat pays,” read a banner at the NPA’s first convention.

Communism is dead, most pundits–the mainstream, stupid ones anyway–have been telling us since the USSR shut down in 1991. As it turns out, the libertarians were wrong. Half-right, anyway: Human nature may be inherently individualistic, as free market capitalists claim, but it’s also inherently social. When economies boom, most people are sufficiently satisfied to leave well enough alone. Who cares if my boss gets paid 100 times more than I do? I’m doing OK. As resources become scarce, however, we huddle together for protection. The sight of a small rich elite hoarding all the goodies violates our primal sense of fairness.

“In Soviet times,” a man in present-day Tajikistan told me, “we lived worse than we do today. But we were all the same. Now we live a bit better, but we have to watch rich assholes pass us in their Benzes.” Which would he choose? No hesitation: “Soviet times.”

In America, a French cliché goes, people are afraid of the government. In France, the government is afraid of the people. With good reason, too: the French have overthrown their governments dozens of times since the Revolution of 1789. The French are hard wired with class consciousness. Strikes, demonstrations and general hell-raising are festive occasions. Only when things spin totally out of control–as when Muslim youths rioted in the suburbs of Paris and other cities–are conservatives like Sarkozy able to make headway.

Riots over police brutality by disenfranchised minorities make the French nervous. But contempt for American-style “harsh capitalism,” where citizens pay $800 a month for healthcare and write nary a letter to their local newspaper to complain, is 100 percent mainstream. The French don’t think they should have to suffer just because some greedy bankers went on a looting spree.

Even Sarkozy is getting the message. “We don’t want a European May ’68 in the middle of Christmas,” he warned his ministers in December. He shelved proposals to loosen regulation of business. Arnaud Lagardère, CEO of the Lagardère Group, told the financial daily Les Echos: “We’re seeing, in renewed form, the most debatable aspects of Anglo-Saxon capitalism called into question.”

The French and Americans face similar problems. But their temperamental differences lead them to different conclusions. An average working-class Frenchman possesses a deeper understanding of economics, politics, history and economics than most college professors in the U.S. Go to a bar or café, and sports will be on the television–but not on people’s lips. They’re talking politics and how to force their leaders to protect their quality of life.

Americans, on the other hand, don’t expect direct help from their government. They’re giving Barack Obama time to see whether his economic recovery program will work. It won’t, of course; economists say so. But indolent hopefulness is less work than chucking Molotov cocktails.

Back in France, the NPA sets off rhetorical bombs Americans wouldn’t dream of. “We’re not a boutique party out to get votes, or an institutional mainstream party, but a party of militants,” says the NPA’s leader to the Le Monde newspaper. “We’re real leftists, not official leftists.” The NPA is currently negotiating a temporary alliance of convenience with the Communists.

A communist revolution in western Europe would be greeted by curiosity and derision in the U.S. state-controlled media. But if such a social upheaval were to protect French living standards from a global Depression spinning out of control, it might also prove inspiring to increasingly desperate Americans.



February 5, 2009

In France, the Left Returns

PARIS–Two improbable new political parties have been born in France. One claims to already have the support of 15 percent of the population –not merely of the French republic but of the entire European Union. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, that’s big. And mainstream pundits expect that number to double within a year.

France’s resurgent left has been born of a movement borne of a level of mass rage and popular resentment the likes of which no one has seen here since the 1930s. Like Americans, French voters are terrified as securities markets falter and companies lay off tens of thousands of workers. They’re furious about bank bailouts that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of euros, with little to no accountability as the beneficiaries spent the money on everything except helping the ordinary people and small businesses who need it most. But unlike the United States, the incendiary rhetoric of France’s left has seized the popular imagination and is redefining the acceptable range of political debate.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon quit France’s Socialist Party a few months ago, decrying his former comrades as out of touch. Now he’s the co-founder of France’s Left Party (PG), a coalition of left-of-center parties. A week earlier, Olivier Besancenot formed the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), which he says has 9000 “militants” dedicated to the overthrow of the liberal economic system that has dominated Europe since the end of World War II. Anti-capitalist!

Even in left-leaning France, there wouldn’t have been enough wine in all of France to convince a politician that he could successfully market the NPA’s battle cry–they want nothing less than “a total break with capitalism”–to the voting public. “The right to happiness,” a PG deputy said flatly, “is still a new idea.” And that’s what they’re selling.

The Left Party seeks to unite France’s left-of-center factional parties–communists, socialists, greens and members of the New Anti-Capitalist Party–under an umbrella alliance that would preserve their ideological differences while focusing their attention on dismantling the free market system that many agree has brought France to the brink of economic ruin.

To this American’s eyes, revolution is in their air. One week ago, labor unions and leftist political parties declared a national strike, forcing schools, banks, transportation links and government offices to close. More than a million Parisians marched in the streets, calling for the ouster of [conservative French president Nicolas] Sarkozy. (Adjusting for France’s population, that’s the equivalent of five million demonstrators in Washington demanding that Obama step down.)

“There is room for everyone with legitimate political opinions, a PG official said in a radio interview. “This does not include the right.” What should French conservatives do, he was asked? “They should leave the country.” “Down with Sarkozy,” a sign hanging from a city hall in the Auvergne region read, “Death to the capitalists.” The Auvergne is one of the country’s most conservative regions.

What does “anti-capitalism” mean? Besancenot, head of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, foresees a society where “the majority controls and expropriates wealth. Nowadays, the fruits of one’s labor is stolen by a minority; we will ensure that everyone gets his or her fair share.”

Communists have always been around, especially in France. But the mainstream Socialist Party (PS) has expressed a willingness to unite with its erstwhile rivals. The PS, PG and NPA all say they’re setting aside factionalism. The last time France’s Left was this unified was 1936, when a similar anti-capitalist coalition formed the Popular Front government.

Of course, there are cynics…on the left. “I’m not going to close down my shop and waste the afternoon marching in the streets unless it’s for real revolution, for a real popular movement,” a store manager told me. These demonstrations are just to prop up the official left, which supports the status quo,” he continued.

Capitalism is in crisis, both here and in the United States. Is it doomed? No one knows, but the future of minimally regulated free markets is anything but certain.


THIS WEEK’S SYNDICATED COLUMN: Hopelessness You Can Believe In

January 26, 2009

Why Obama is Scarier Than George W. Bush

Dave Eggers preceded his memoir “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” with a section titled “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of this Book.” It’s a brilliant attempt to disarm the reader and preempt criticism. Among its warnings, referring to chapter four: “The book thereafter is kind of uneven.” (Disclosure: Eggers edited my work at two magazines in the ’90s.)

Barack Obama shares Eggers’ talent for managing expectations. “There will be false starts, there will be setbacks, there will be frustrations and disappointments,” Obama said upon his arrival in Washington. “I will make some mistakes.” In other words, don’t expect much.

The soaring optimistic rhetoric of the campaign (“yes we can”) is no more, replaced by the sober, string-synced cello strains of Yo-Yo Ma. So is Obama’s million-dollar smile. The Dour One is demanding patience. And he’s getting it, for now: “Most respondents [to the New York Times/CBS News poll taken January 19th] said they thought it would take Mr. Obama two years or more to deliver on campaign promises to improve the economy, expand health care coverage and end the war in Iraq.”

Setting the bar low seems to be working. Seventy-nine percent of Americans say they’re optimistic about the next four years under Obama.

Sad, pathetic Americans! Like a dog that’s been beaten eight long years, they’re so psyched about the fact that their new master doesn’t drool and speaks coherent English that they’ll follow him anywhere. The media is in love with The One and so, therefore, is the public. No one questions him.

Frightening but true: Barack Obama is even more dangerous to liberal ideals than George W. Bush. Obama, who didn’t appoint a single liberal to a senior position, has neutered the left. “Protesters, a fixture of every inauguration since President Nixon’s in 1973, were few and scattered on Tuesday as Barack Obama assumed the presidency,” reported the Times.

The antiwar types have thrown away their signs. The sight of the first black president has the fair weather pacifists goo-goo-ga-gaing over a man who plans to transfer U.S. occupation troops and the carnage they bring from Iraq to Afghanistan.

No demonstrators in the streets. No reporters asking tough questions. A political honeymoon based on nothing. Didn’t we learn anything from 9/11, when 90 percent of Americans, and the media, and Congress, issued George W. Bush a similar blank check?

People think things will be better four years from now, but there’s little reason for hope. America faces radical problems. Radical problems require radical solutions. Unfortunately, Obama’s proposals, and the moderates and conservatives with whom he has filled his cabinet, are woefully inadequate to the challenges at hand.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman calculates that there’s at least a $2.1 trillion hole in the economy–an “output gap” between production capacity and consumers’ ability to buy goods. Filling that hole would require direct investment (like Obama’s public works proposal) of at least $1.5 trillion. But Obama’s plan only contains $355 billion, of which only $136 billion would be spent within the next two years. It’s better than nothing, but not by much. Obama wants to plug a gushing artery with a Band-Aid one- tenth the size of the wound.

It’s churlish to predict that Obama’s approach won’t work. But even Obama admits it won’t. He promises to create 4 million new jobs by 2011. But we’re currently losing 4 million jobs every five months. If Obama delivers, 25 million Americans will have lost their jobs by 2011. (The math differential is due to the fact that population growth increases the workforce by 2.8 million jobs annually.) With unemployment figures like that, no one will doubt that we’re in a real Depression: breadlines, suicides, the whole bit.

Obama’s order to close Guantánamo and the CIA’s secret “black site” torture prisons within a year is heartening. But as with his other initiatives, it doesn’t go far enough. The detainees should have been freed, paid a generous compensation package, and received a formal apology by the U.S. government on Day One of his Administration. Gitmo should have been shuttered immediately. All the torture criminals from Bush to the U.S. Navy guards should have been thrown in prison and put on trial.

Instead, Obama’s goons (they’re his now) will keep torturing the detainees for at least another year. Some detainees may still be subjected to kangaroo courts. And Obama’s executive orders contain weasel words that let him take back America’s renewed commitment to constitutional rights with the snap of a finger. The orders, reports the Times, “could also allow Mr. Obama to reinstate the CIA’s detention and interrogation operations in the future, by presidential order, as some have argued would be appropriate if Osama bin Laden or another top-level leader of Al Qaeda were captured.”

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration creeps who personally ordered the murder and torture of innocents kidnapped by the military, including young children, will not face prosecution.

During the campaign, Obama promised there would be “no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens.” He has since changed his mind. Obama will keep the USA-Patriot Act. Habeas corpus, eliminated by the Military Commissions Act, won’t come back.

The biggest reason hope doesn’t stand a chance is Afghanistan, where Obama plans to send the soldiers he wants to pull out of Iraq. The international community, which understands that the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan had no more to do with 9/11 than the war against Iraq, will not take kindly to this escalation. Moreover, the war against Afghanistan is even less winnable than Iraq. At a time when we can least afford foreign adventurism, Obama plans to pour billions of dollars and thousands of lives into an Afghan charnel house with no prospect of victory.

Bush faced energetic opposition. Obama, on the other hand, is adored by the very people who should be shouting at him the loudest. Conservatives lost their credibility by supporting Bush, leaving Republican voices out in the cold.

Give the man a chance? Not me. I’ve sized up him, his advisors and their plans, and already found them sorely wanting. It won’t take long, as Obama’s failures prove the foolishness of Americans’ blind trust in him. Obama isn’t our FDR. He’s our Mikhail Gorbachev: likeable, intelligent, well-meaning, and ultimately doomed by his insistence on being reasonable during unreasonable times.


Cartoon for January 15, 2009

January 15, 2009

Bush—er, Obama—can’t come up with $1 trillion to fill what Paul Krugman describes as a nearly $3 trillion hole. Yet he, and no one else, ever questions the wisdom of escalating our other doomed war, the one against the people of Afghanistan.