Saturday, December 17, 2011

Counter this Culture!

The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac, 1958

Jack Kerouac wrote a bunch of books in the fifties, using his ‘automatic’ writing style, like a jazzman. No re-writes, only one time to get it right. The Dharma Bums (‘dharma’ means ‘truth’) is one of these books, which included “On the Road.” Kerouac’s writing style inspired a younger poet named Gary Snyder to adopt that same zen. Some critics would call Kerouac an amateur, but when you think of it, laboring over each word or sentence with a nail file might be easier than letting it all come out well the first time. Ask John Coltrane.

Gary Snyder, under the pseudonym “Japhy Ryder,” is Kerouac’s fellow ‘bum’ in this book – along with other pseudo-nonymous fellows like Allen Ginsberg (“Alvah Goldbook”); Michael McClure (“Ike Oshay”); Neal Cassady who appears in “On the Road” too (here as “Cody Pomeroy); Kenneth Rexroth (“Reinhold Cacoethes” – don’t laugh); Alan Watts (“Arthur Whane”) and John Montgomery (“Henry Morley” – a truly eruditely odd individual and Berkley librarian). And who knows, maybe Ferlinghetti or William Burroughs are buried in here too somewhere, under some verbal rock.

The younger Snyder actually teaches Kerouac a thing or two. Like orthodox Buddhism, which was in fashion among the literati of San Francisco in the 50s. They’d done got sick of Jesus evidently. And mountain-climbing. And camping. Both had a thing for nature, and really the ‘high’ points of this book are Kerouac’s meditations on mountain-tops, in deserts, under trees and on the beach. Snyder gets Kerouac to buy a little tent, sleeping bag and cook set. Kerouac eventually sleeps more in the sleeping bag outdoors than inside his shack at Cortes Madera in Marin County, just over the hill from Muir Woods.

The book has a simple layout. First the greatest poetry reading of American time - the October 13, 1955 Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco. Ginsberg read “Howl” and Snyder read “A Berry Feast.” Kerouac encouraged the crowd and bought wine for all. Then Snyder, Kerouac and Montgomery go up and down 'Matterhorn' Mountain in 2 days – and that says something for amateurs. Snyder finally makes it, while Kerouac enjoys the Buddha of quitting just before the peak. Kerouac follows that with a cross-country hitch-hiking and hopping-trains trip back to North Carolina, where his family lives, to test his camping skills. And if you’ve ever let yourself be guided by the accidents of the road while hitching, you will enjoy his description.

After that, Kerouac and Snyder settle into a shack at Cortes Madera, have naked, drunk bongo parties, savor their simple foods and do that Buddhist thing, or at least talk the Buddhist talk. You see, Snyder is scheduled to go to Japan and join a Zen monastery of some sort, and that hangs over most of the book. Snyder encouraged Kerouac to become a fire lookout as he had done, so Kerouac gets a job on Desolation Mountain up in the Cascades near the Canadian border, the same place as Snyder. Kerouac spends two months alone on a mountain above the clouds doing everything but seeing fires – mostly getting close to nature and satori. There the book ends.

How real was Kerouac’s Buddhism? Kerouac is really a very American soul, and his Catholicism saturated his Buddhism, which he saw as one thing. Watts, the ortho-Buddha-boy, said Kerouac had “Zen flesh but no Zen bones.” Even in the Dharma Bums, Kerouac (who’s pseudonym in this book is “Ray Smith”) gives Snyder’s Buddhism a running critique. Later, of course, Kerouac dropped the Buddha talk and walk. He later died of alcoholism, which is a sub-note lurking in this book like an infestation of ants.

Kerouac’s writing, if you’ve never read the beast, veers between colloquialism and poetry, in long drawn-out sentences. It is always accessible. He’s child-like and childless. This book gives a good picture of American life in the artsy margins. A bunch of refugees from capitalism - like Snyder, who was basically an anarchist - refuse to do an honest day’s work if they can help it, and live to enjoy life instead. When money, perhaps, was not the only thing. A lost time, indeed. When regular people had some standing, and simplicity was not a curse-word.

And I bought it at Mayday Books.
"HOWL" is also on sale at the Mayday.
(written with as few edits as possible, K-style.)
Red Frog, December 17, 2011

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Look Who We’re Calling 'Comrade!'

The 5% and the 10% and the 20%

The well known 1% figure used by Occupy Wall Street was first popularized by Joseph Stiglitz, a Keynesian. He said the 1% own 35-40% of the U.S. economy. That, however, is not the majority of the economy, nor the only people who made money over the last 30 years from Wall Street. A 35% stake in a company is not the same as outright control. That would be 51%. Nor is it overwhelming control – 70%-80%. The U.S. is quite frankly 'owned' just like a large corporation. Thinking that our problem is only the 1% obscures the allies of the 1%.

Nearly half (47%) of all members of Congress are millionaires - and two-thirds of the Senate. Democrats are actually wealthier than Republicans in both houses. Al Franken has assets of nearly $13M. Even Michelle Bachmann is a millionaire, but not on that level -Yahoo News, 11/16/2011 and Center for Responsive Politics.

“The average income of the richest tenth of the world population is now about nine times that of the poorest tenth, the Paris- based OECD said today in a report. The gap has increased about 10 percent since the mid 1980s. Mexico, the U.S., Israel and the U.K. are among the countries with the biggest divide between rich and poor, while Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Czech Republic are among those with the smallest gap. – Bloomberg, 12-5-2010

In the world, 10% of the population owns 85% of the wealth – Wikipedia

The top 10% owns 71% of the U.S. economy – Ron Paul, Think Progress and Fairfield Academy.
The top 10% own 66% - Oberlin Revue.
The top 20% own 85% - Domhoff.

Academics favor looking only at the 1%, the ‘400 individuals’ of the 1% and the quintile (20%) methodology. I think, frankly, this obscures a more accurate analysis of the U.S. class structure. But it comes up with gems like this: 6 members of the Walton family (Wal-Mart) own as much as the bottom 30% of the U.S. population - Sylvia Allegretto, an economist from UC – Berkeley, 12/8/2011

“President Bush said during the third election debate last October that most of the tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans. In fact, most - 53 percent - will go to people with incomes in the top 10 percent over the first 15 years of the cuts,” - Primer-Wealth

“The top ten percent of households owned 82 percent of all stock-market wealth... The top ten percent of the U.S. population owns 81.8 percent of the real estate, 81.2 percent of the stock, and 88 percent of the bonds. (Federal Reserve Bank data in Left Business Observer, No. 72, Apr. 3, 1996, p. 5)”. - Primer-Wealth. Also Richard Wolff.

The top 9% increased their earnings in the last 25 years, while all other groups lost. – 673Bn increase for top 1%; $140bn increase for top 4%; $29Bn increase for top 9%. - Mother Jones, “It’s the Inequality, Stupid.”

Everyone but the top 10% has lost an average of $900 on pre-tax income -Wikipedia

In 1998 the top 5% owned 59% of the wealth – Richard Wolff

Bottom 90% of population have 73% of debt. – My Budget 360. At least we lead in something!


“In 2006, 7% of all households were millionaires - 9.3 million people were in these households.” – Wikipedia.

What is the number of millionaires now? (based on net worth over $1M - Financial Assets - minus household value, car/household goods value) There are 3.1 individual millionaires re financial assets - High Net Worth Individuals - in the U.S. If each household is 4 people, that means 12.4% of the population; 3 people, 9.3%. Some are children, of course. And remember – this is a MINIMUM of a $1M. Most have over that.
- based on Wikipedia 2010 / WSJ 2011 figures.

Re: Blacks and Hispanics – since 2006, wealth fell 66% among Latino families and 53% among black families. So the wealth ‘gap’ is also an ethnic / national origin gap. – PEW Center.

“There are about 5.5 million U.S. households with at least $1 million in assets (excluding home, etc.), or about 5 percent of the population. Millionaires control 56 percent of the country’s wealth” - Fidelity, second-largest U.S. mutual- fund company. – Bloomberg, 11/6/2011

The Millionaire "Next Door"?

From Obama, yesterday pretending to be Teddy Roosevelt, all the while never having busted a trust: “Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year.” – Obama, 12/7/2011

Note the distinction between those who earn a million a year, and those who ‘have’ a million dollars in some form. Bloomberg noticed this right away. Obama does not use the method of most analysts who look at this metric. These analysts do not include the value of the house, car, furnishings or contents when they estimate millionaires. Only capital from other sources. Having a real million in assets is not the same as earning a million a year either. Evidently both kinds of millionaires - those who have a real million and those who have a million in all assets - are in Obama's desired base. Only those, rhetorically at least, who make a million a year are not. I won't go into a description of the Democrat's donor base at this point - suffice it to say many make a million a year. Obama and the Democrats are still #1 in donations from Wall Street this year, or perhaps a near #2.

Here Obama makes a play for the upper middle and upper class vote – you know, people who are lawyers, managers, doctors, professors, some small businessmen, even teachers, but who aren’t quite in the real millionaire club. And even the real millionaires. This has been a solid voting base for the Democrats. Obama himself is actually in the not-quite-a-true-millionaire club, if you include the value of his large home in Chicago's Hyde Park. And evidently he's also making a play for the real millionaire' next door.' The one 90% of the population probably don't live next to.

December 8, 2011
A Tip of the Hat to Rick and his Wonder Dog
Red Frog

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

They Don’t Call them the “Dark Ages” for Nothing

The Dark Side of Christian History, By Helen Ellerbe, 1995

This short history of the truly dark ages, written by a pagan feminist, reminds us what Christianity did to Western civilization over a long, long period. This is not pretty stuff. And I quote Ellerbe: “As it took over leadership in Europe and the Roman Empire collapsed, the Church all but wiped out education, technology, science, medicine, history, art and commerce.” Nice. And not for 20 years either. Elements of direct Church rule lasted from its embrace by Emperor Constantine around 324 A.D. (sic) to the last of the Inquisition and witch hunts in the late 1700s.

Orthodox Christianity, as Ellerbe calls it, sold its soul when it became the official doctrine of the Roman Empire. The many tendencies of Christianity were crushed into one by people like Saint Augustine. Ellerbe seems to be a sort of early semi-Christian pagan, who feels affinity for the Gnostics, Kabbalism and Mary Magdalene, all extirpated from the official Bible. Echoing Nietzsche, she details the Catholic, and later Protestant, assault on human enjoyments like dancing, sex, drinking, theater, art, reading, nature and love, replacing them with the authoritarian principles of male chauvinism, obedience, fear and punishment. Which, as she uncharacteristically points out, any ruling class in the world would appreciate – especially the Kings and barons of Europe.

Ellerbe details the destruction of Jews, ‘witches’ and heretics brought about by the Inquisitions and the witch trials. She points out that book burning was also a method to combat heresy, which certainly sounds familiar. The trials were many times for material gain, as Inquisitors were allowed to seize the land and property of those condemned. The exact number of dead is unknown, but Ellerbe estimates in the millions. The Church openly authorized the holy use of bloody force and torture against ‘sinners’ and pagans. It also contributed to the spread of the Black Plague by opposing cleanliness, killing cats and dogs that were thought to be 'allies' of witches, and opposing any medical treatment but bleeding.

Ellerbe interprets the Crusades as part of the Church’s attempt to solidify its hold over Europeans by forging an alliance against the evil ‘Muslims’ – who, while obscurantist in their own way, did not drop to the depths of brutality as did the Church. Though a similar history could be written about the bloody rule of another group of desert fundamentalists, let's say the Saudi Wa'hhabists. The rape of Constantinople in 1204 stands as a monument to that most Christian ferocity. The Church destroyed the Carthars of southern France's Languedoc region in the Albigensian crusade, as they differed with the Catholics in a more liberal direction. Up to a million people of southern France were killed over 30 years of war, depopulating that part of France for many years.

Even Martin Luther’s attempt to correct the Catholic Church in 1517 did not really take Christianity in a new direction. Luther was as pro-Augustine and anti-Jewish as the next Catholic, and Ellerbe puts both trends in the same camp of orthodox Christianity. Ellerbe quotes Luther as calling for Jews to be enslaved or thrown out of “Christian lands;” that their ghettos and synagogues should be burned. In seems very clear that Nazi ideology in the 1930s was nothing but a return to earlier forms of Christianity. The 30-Years War was fought directly over Catholic/Protestant issues. The massacre of 10,000 Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s Day in France was more of the same. The founding of the U.S. by Protestant fundamentalists at Plymouth Colony and Boston would become a death knell for Native Americans. The first Thanksgiving was an accidental blip that Pilgrim colonists made up for 16 years later when they took revenge on a Pequot village of 400 souls over land issues, butchering all.

The Witch Hunts, which still existed in the U.S. in 1692, only ended in the late 1700s in Europe. They focused on women, who were many times mid-wives or carriers of herbal medical knowledge, both which threatened the Church. Ellerbe contends that the witch hunts destroyed Western herbal medical knowledge, and this accounts for why the tradition almost died out. Witches were burned, tortured, sexually abused – even girls as young as 9.5 years old could be accused. Ellerbe points out that, “Areas of political turmoil and religious strife experienced the most intense witch hunts.” Poor, older women – the classic knowledgeable ‘crone’ – were first and easy targets. The witch trial was both Catholic and Protestant church official policy. Figures of witch killings listed in Wikipedia are large undercounts, according to Ellerbe. She cites one Bishop of Wurtzberg who claimed 1,900 lives in 5 years, and a Lutheran prelate, Benedict Carpzov, who claimed to have sentenced 20,000 ‘devil worshipers.’ Orthodox Christian ideology made both the existence of God and the Devil necessary, and certainly, the devil must have his minions.

Ellerbe goes on to deal with the modern world, and in this part of the book, she fails. She spends time denouncing Darwin for being a ‘social Darwinist” (he wasn’t), ignoring his actual scientific accomplishments. She also denounces pre-Einstein science as purely a continuation of orthodox Christianity, due to its alleged infatuation with controlling nature. However, the scientific method has nothing to do with 'controlling nature.' She should note that it is scientists who are at present leading the fight against religious obscurantism's hostility to global warming, and in favor of environmentalism. It might be noted philosophically that Ellerbe’s pagan idealism is closer to Christianity in method than to science, and that it is she who shares the irrational mysticism of the fundamentalist Christlian, though in a different form.

Ellerbe promotes circular time as the correct and 'natural' way to view the world, all based on the seasons. She criticizes the concept of linear time promoted by religion, science and watches. However, she seems to be unfamiliar with the notion of spiral time, which more closely corresponds to the dialectical interplay of nature and linearity, combining the two concepts. After all, even in nature, every year is not the same - the theory of the anthropocene chronological period we are in shows that nature is not merely 'circular.' And as we know, time sometimes runs backwards in society in an historic and economic sense. Of course, for each individual, the clock always 'ticks.'

Ellerbe has no economic analysis whatsoever of the whole period of the dark ages, as if Catholicism and Protestantism happened in a material void. As a result, she cannot account for orthodox Christianity's relation to slave or peasant society or the birth of capitalism. Elerbe is an idealist who believes that the ‘divine’ needs to be wrestled away from the church. She believes that the source of orthodox Christianity was (and is) only a ‘belief structure’ and an ‘ideology’ held by evidently 'bad' or 'incorrect' people – and has nothing to do with material economic reality.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!

Red Frog, November 29, 2011

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Third Rail: The American Class Structure

Namoi Wolf - Guardian, November 26, 2011 - Excerpts:

  • “Wonkette and reported that the Mayor of Oakland acknowledged that the Department of Homeland Security had participated in an 18-city mayor conference call advising mayors on "how to suppress" Occupy protests."

  • "As the puzzle pieces fit together, they began to show coordination against OWS at the highest national levels."

  • "For the terrible insight to take away from news that the Department of Homeland Security coordinated a violent crackdown is that the DHS does not freelance. The DHS cannot say, on its own initiative, "we are going after these scruffy hippies". Rather, DHS is answerable up a chain of command: first, to New York Representative Peter King, head of the House homeland security subcommittee, who naturally is influenced by his fellow congressmen and women's wishes and interests. And the DHS answers directly, above King, to the president ..."

  • "Our system of government prohibits the creation of a federalized police force, and forbids federal or militarized involvement in municipal peacekeeping.

  • "So, when you connect the dots, properly understood, what happened this week is the first battle in a civil war; a civil war in which, for now, only one side is choosing violence. It is a battle in which members of Congress, with the collusion of the American president, sent violent, organized suppression against the people they are supposed to represent. Occupy has touched the third rail: personal congressional profits streams.”

  • Red Frog, November 27, 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

No Turkey Pardoned Dept: Wouldn’t You Love to Be Locked in a Cage?

“Fear of the Animal Planet – the Hidden History of Animal Resistance,” by Jason Hribal, 2010

In this somewhat poorly-organized book, Hribal nevertheless takes a topic that few have dealt with – basically, what animals think of confinement and overwork. As you might guess, they do not like it any more than humans enjoy a tiny uncomfortable cell or heart attacks. While this might be obvious to vegetarians or environmentalists, it is not to some people. Of course, if you own a dog, or live on a farm, you might have an inkling. Animals think, have feelings like pain, have a social life, have memories, use tools, and have strengths that humans do not, like a dog’s sense of smell, a cheetah’s swiftness, or a gorilla’s strength. In essence, the difference between ‘animals’ and humans is many times quantitative, not qualitative. Marx drew the qualitative distinction at the ability of humans to ‘create’ and produce. However, humans are actually animals too. In spite of this, philosophers like St. Augustine called for the trial and execution of animals for ‘crimes,’ Rene Descartes’ believed that animals were ‘machines’ and Adam Smith thought they were ‘property.’ Of course, capital believes humans are variations of all three.

Hribal focuses on animals caged in zoos, aquatic parks, circuses, breeding farms and research facilities, calling many animals by their human-given names. He tells the stories of elephants, gorillas, orcas, orangutans, chimpanzees, polar bears, tigers, sea lions and dolphins who have attacked their ‘trainers’ or keepers, or even strangers who have harassed them. The animals do not normally attack randomly – they actually seek out those who have harmed them. The dirty secret is that zoos, circuses and aquatic parks almost never admit what has really happened – everything is an ‘accident’ or just ‘acting up’ – when the real cause is confinement, control and its consequences. Hribal also details innumerable escape attempts by animals. Even though they know the sometimes deadly consequences of escape, they do it anyway, preferring that to continuing caged labor. The orangutans are so intelligent that they pick locks, observe when electricity is accidentally shut off on fences, and have even ‘shorted out’ an electric fence to escape.

One of Hribal’s continuing points is that not only are these animals caged, but they are also working animals who earn thousands or millions of dollars for their owners, in exchange for a pittance of fish or straw. And, like humans, the animals are nearly always overworked – sometimes to sickness and sometimes to death. Remember "Clyde," the famous orangutan from Eastwood's film "Every Which Way But Loose?" Clyde was beaten to death by his trainers for stealing a doughnut after the film was over.

Hribal starts out detailing the story of “Jumbo” the most famous elephant of all time, who became upset with his vicious English trainers and was killed by a train while escaping. Until it was outlawed in the U.S, circus and zoo animals were regularly hung, shot innumerable times, decapitated and executed in various manners for the crime of escape or retribution. And then there is “Shamu” – Seaworld’s longest living orca, if you believe the 50-something orca’s all named “Shamu” are the same whale. The many Shamus and his fellow aquatic animals have made millions of dollars for Seaworld as the flagship act. Caged animals only live half as long as those in the wild, but “Shamu” lives forever – or at least as long as the Seaworld Corporation. Many times the mother animals have to be killed in order for the ‘babies’ – of elephants or sea lions let’s say – to be taken away. These institutions were and still are directly responsible for decimating wild populations in their pursuit of the next performer.

Recently, a small zoo owner in Zanesville, Ohio let his animals go, and they were gunned down by the local police. The owner shot himself right after letting them out, perhaps in a fit of guilt. After you have read this book, I think you will refuse to attend circuses, zoos, aquariums or support most research on animals. Protecting animals is part of the same worldview as protecting the majority of humans. To paraphrase Marx, you can judge a society by how it treats the most vulnerable – in this case, the most vulnerable are animals.

Postscript: Jeffery St. Clair wrote the introduction to this book. St. Clair gets a dig in against Castro, who enjoys the zoo in Havana. Then in a somewhat odd attack on Marx, he accuses Marx of calling his enemies ‘baboons’ – and then details all the horrible things that capitalists have done to baboons – as if Marx did them! Even for an anarchist, that is a stretch. In addition, I could find no reference to Marx calling anyone a ‘baboon.’

For a defense of Marx on the question of animals, see, “Marx, Myths and Legends – by Lawrence Wilde” on the net, quoted here*. Of course, John Bellamy Foster also defends Marx on issues of the environment and nature against erroneous liberal and anarchist attacks.

Wilde: “A clarion call for the liberation of animals is cited approvingly by Marx in On the Jewish Question (Marx, 1975: 172). The words themselves belong to Thomas Münzer, the leader of the German Peasants’ Revolt in the early sixteenth century. What attracted Marx was Münzer’s view that under the dominion of private property and money, nature is treated in such a contemptuous way that it is debased. Münzer had concluded:
‘...all creatures have been turned into property, the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth; the creatures, too, must become free.’ “*

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, November 18, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Pictures are worth a ... many words

Militarized "police" in Chapel Hill, North Carolina advancing on Occupy protesters who had squatted in an empty car dealership. Notice the Lawyer's Guild member falling backward, the two drawn M16s or AR15s and the .45 handgun. Iraq? No, just the fruit of the Department of "Homeland" Security. Which we paid for.

An 80+ old activist lady, after being pepper-sprayed in Occupy Seattle.

Lastly, Craig wanted me to post this picture of jailbird Eugene Debs. This free sticker with your Holiday Book purchase.

And I got it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 11/21/2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Yuppies, Foodies, Cheapskates, Drunks, Oh My!

“Waiter Rant – Thanks for the Tip – Confessions of a Cynical Waiter,” by Steve Dublanica, 2008

Workers don’t usually tell their tales. Well, this one did - the front of the house speaks! If you’ve ever been at a restaurant table, uncomfortable with the inability of a loved-one to make a simple food decision, or the demanding micro-attentions an aging in-law makes on servers, it has not gone unnoticed by those other than you. Dublanica writes a waiter’s blog of the same name, and got his book contract through that. He’s taken the inspiration from his posts and made a book out of it.

The Waiter hates demanding yuppies who have to have special tables, or ‘know the owner’ or parade their arrogant - and sometimes incorrect - foodie proclivities before the wait-staff. Or those who don’t tip well, or at all. The Waiter estimates 20% of diners are ‘socially maladjusted psychopaths.’ Of course, this Waiter works in New York. Thinking of eating out on Mother’s Day? Forget it – crowded, guilt-laden pandemonium. Valentine’s Day? Another crowded con with elbow-to-elbow diners.

As Dublanica puts it: “Today, waiters are expected to be food-allergy specialists, sommeliers, cell-phone-rule enforcers, eye candy, confessors, entertainers, mixologists, emergency medical technicians, bouncers, receptionists, joke tellers, therapists, linguists, punching bags, psychics, protocol specialists and amateur chefs.” Then he goes on about food porn from there.

It all actually makes you not want to eat out. Of course, if you read “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain about ‘the back of the house,’ you really won’t eat out.

Dublanica worked at an intense upscale Italian restaurant in Manhattan for 7 years before he burned-out as the head waiter/manager. Before that he waited a restaurant that was so dysfunctional he couldn’t last a year. He now works a low-key place that doesn’t pay as well. He was 31 in 1986, when he ‘fell into’ working as a waiter, after stints in a sexually-repressed Catholic religious school and a crooked health clinic. If you only thought old-country Greeks and Italians lasted that long in the waiting business, you guessed wrong. Throughout the book Dublanica worries about his status as an aging ‘loser,’ and while not the best part of the book, he finds it necessary to dwell on it constantly. Which is a gauge of how devalued the trade of waiter is.

The Waiter is kind to the ‘back of the house’ staff, as the cooks are called. As he puts it, if they made Mexicans from Pueblo illegal in the U.S., there would be no one to cook in restaurants. The restaurant industry would shut down. He knows that cooks contend with brutal hours, burns, cuts, low pay and crazy demands. However, he’s not so kind to the owners of these restaurants, who are many times petty, crazed tyrants. Or some of his fellow waiters, who backstab in order to get ahead. As he analyzes the wait-staff, a good proportion are ‘live for the moment’ alcoholics and druggies who get high on nights with $250 in tips. Though he’s not afraid to souse his exhausted miseries in three-martini late-nights after work. Vampiric? Hell, yes.

Of course the favorite topic of any waiter is tips. 15%-20% is expected, at least in the U.S. Among his other duties, however, Dublanica is not a sociologist, so he might be surprised to find some – even many - societies do not have tipping, and certainly not on the U.S. scale. American customers subsidize waiter wages, as dreadful state laws mandate tiny minimum wages for wait-staffs. This is a simple gift – call it corporate welfare - to the restaurant industry. And customers know it. It creates a ‘feast or famine’ atmosphere among U.S. restaurant staffs instead of some reliable baseline of pay. Tipping is not expected or required in India, China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Finland, Spain, Cuba, etc. Sometimes it is only countries that are close to the American tourist or model that tipping is similar to the U.S., like Canada or Mexico. What is striking is that tipping in many countries has no mandatory level, and if it is done, is only for exceptional service or for kindness. The U.S., alone in the world if you believe Wikipedia, mandates a 15%-20% tip. Think about it.

The Waiter’s most miserable moment came when his restaurant, the fictional ‘Bistro’ as he calls it, suffered a failure of air-conditioning and the ‘POS’ computer system on the same very hot New York night, as crowds of hungry people lined up outside the door. ‘POS’ seems to be the order/billing software. Demanding customers, a boss calling him every three minutes to make him explain, clueless waiters who did not know how to add up bills without a computer, a dining area that reached 95 degrees and a kitchen that reached 110 nearly brought down the whole restaurant. Somehow, Dublanica pulled the restaurant through without having to close it. The show must go on. Dublanica also shows great generosity of spirit and psychological understanding to troubled souls who reveal themselves in restaurants. As one woman said to him while watching him gently talk a drunken lady into leaving the Bistro, “You’re not just a waiter, are you?" No, he’s not. No one is 'just' anything, of course.

Among other high-profile guests, he once waited on The Gladiator – Rusell Crowe. Crowe was the only one who publically identified him as the “Waiter” behind the “Waiter Rant” blog. Dublanica was flattered – and surprised.

Over the past 30 years, with the financialization of American life, and the destruction of private time, restaurants meals have grown in ‘necessity.’ I call it the privatization of the family meal. Instead of inexpensive, healthful food skillfully prepared in a low-key way at home, eating is now supposed to be a public event involving being served as if we were still children – or bosses. The food is lower quality, of excessive quantity and the prices are higher than most home meals. People who constantly go to restaurants even lose cooking skills. The U.S. restaurant industry survives on the backs of immigrants, bad government laws and low pay. If a government was to mandate a living wage and other benefits for workers in restaurants, many restaurants would disappear. As far as I’m concerned, that would not be bad at all. A restaurant that cannot provide health care, decent wages, regular hours and normal work conditions does not deserve to exist. And we don’t need them either.

And I bought it at Half-Price Books,
Red Frog, November 15, 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

Marionettes at the Gates of Dawn

What Piper Plays the Tune?

Certainly not Syd Barrett. This week George Papandreou advocated allowing the Greek people to vote on whether to accept the ‘rescue’ package offered by the ECB, EU & IMF. The moment he stopped speaking, there were howls of outrage and anger from the assembled Euro Heads, from the corporate Press, from the Pundits, from every capitalist voice. The DOW swooned 300 points. How DARE he bring the people into this? Did you hear one voice in the media commending this action? One?

The right in the PASOK, including the finance minister, called for his removal –– and threatened to bring down the government. After several nasty phone calls and private meetings with the EuroHead – i.e Angela MerkelPapandreou backed down. It was odd and somewhat poignant to see a man who had cravenly agreed to every single demand by the banking sector and the powers that be suddenly grow a spine – and just as suddenly collapse it. This is, after all, the Second International we are talking about here. Perhaps it was the sweetness of the 50% haircut Merkel/Sarkozy had pushed on the banks, in exchange for a larger financial bailout fund. Of course, the real people who forced that 50% haircut were the Greek people - by saying ‘hell no.’

Papandreou was replaced by a U.S. educational product, Lucas Papdemos, a Harvard and Columbia professor, graduate of MIT, senior economist at the Boston Federal Reserve and a member of the Trilateral Commission. I.E. the banks have their 'technocratic' man in place.

If this sounds familiar to what the ruling elite did, in a trivial way, around the Twins stadium debate (and what is still going on with the Viking stadium,) you’d be right. It is also what the Congressional ‘super-committee’ is all about – an undemocratic star chamber assigned to be head butchers. Increasingly, as capital finds itself in trouble, it will do away with ‘democratic’ procedures and go straight to edicts and back-room deals. Democracy is a window-dressing that is dispensed with if necessary – or if not needed. Which is why the U.S. only needs two parties, right?

Now Italy is the next one on the hot seat. The clown Berlusconi has said he will resign, and Italian government bond debt, as of November 9, is almost at the bailout-point. The markets are swooning again. The Guardian estimates that 1 trillion Euros will be necessary to bailout Italy. And that is getting very close to an amount no entity can afford. Banks that over-leveraged themselves loaning money to every door-post in sight might not be 'rescued' if the rescuers don't show up. As Galbraith pointed out, this is not a Euro crisis or a 'sovereign debt' crisis, it is at bottom, a banking crisis brought about by over-leveraging. The real question here, then, is what objective amount of debt is 'too big to succeed?'

What did our President say in response to Greece? The U.S. had earlier refused to give more money to Europe through the IMF, and opposed the EU proposal to tax financial transactions. Here is Obama speaking during the recent G20 meeting in Cannes. (Really?! Cannes?) about the Greek situation: “They're going to have a strong partner in us," Obama said, "but European leaders understand that ultimately what the markets are looking for is a strong signal from Europe that they're standing behind the euro."

“…what the markets are looking for...” You see, the ‘markets’ talk. Or perhaps they are ventriloquists and have others talk for them? Perhaps they are now ‘people’ and have ‘freedom of speech’ just like corporations? Is Obama the direct translator of the ‘markets’ – marketese perhaps? It seems so. Of course, Wall Street opposes the tiny tax on financial transactions, because it might slow down program trading or speculation. And that is also the position of the U.S. government. And Wall Street also supports austerity for the European and U.S. working class. Wall Street – “The City” in London, the Parisian Bourse, the German Frankforters and the Swiss – or should I say Suisse - bankers - look like they do have another marionette.

And indeed the day Papandreou backed own, the markets rocketed back up. They are the epitome of ruling class opinion - like a thermometer stuck in a babies bottom. In fact, it is almost axiomatic that how the markets behave dictates what the politicians say - sometimes immediately, sometimes a few days later.

Red Frog
November 7, 2011
94th Anniversary of the outbreak of the October Revolution in Russia through armed insurrection in Petrograd, New Style Gregorian Calendar. (Oct 25, 1917 Old Style Julian calendar)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Everyone in a Trailer Isn't Trash

“Why the South Lost the Civil War,” by Richard Beringer, Herman Hattaway, Archer Jones and William Still, 1986

This is an example of my reading a book so you don’t have to. This tome, written by four professors, attempts to answer a question that doesn’t seem to be one, but actually is. Many students of the Civil War – and other wars – assume it was the superior manpower and industrial strength of the northern states that lead to Appomattox, and, incidentally, the ending of slavery. Even modern-day Confederates want to believe this. The ‘revisionist’ view – which is also hinted at in “The People’s History of the Civil War” (available at Mayday) and other books – is that internal weaknesses within the southern people lead to the defeat. As the Vietnamese and other guerrilla wars prove, mere dominance in numbers or ordinance or technology does not create victory.

What was the fatal flaw of the Confederate cause? Asked in this way, the answer is pretty obvious. But for die-hard Confederates, who imagine God on their side, Bobby Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest in the saddle, and a ‘War of Northern Aggression,” it is still confusing. Even unionists of that day who rejected the Emancipation Proclamation – like the Democrats lead by McClellan and other Copperheads – thought it was only the power of the original Union that triumphed.

The authors trace the defeat to a failure of ‘Southern Nationalism.’ They point out that the south was similar in culture to the north, except for its overwhelmingly agricultural roots, and especially those roots in slavery and the plantation system. So the real and only basis of ‘southern nationalism,’ at bottom, was the slave system, and the existence upon slavery of a planter class. And this was, as Marx pointed out, a historically regressive system, which is why he supported the north in the Civil War. This should not come as news to most modern people. The twist however – and I put this in the face of bourgeois northern bigots who talk about’ rednecks,’ ‘crackers’ and ‘trailer trash’ as especially a southern phenomena – is that it means the majority of southerners ultimately wanted slavery to end in order to end the war. Their ‘southern nationalism’ was skin-deep.

A geographical map of the south will show the areas of most resistance to the war. Mountain areas and wood zones show the regions where few slaves were held, and most southerners were poor white working people eking out a living. East Tennessee and Kentucky, western Mississippi, wooded northern Alabama, the mountain areas of western Virginia (which became West Virginia because of the Civil War), western North and South Carolina and northern Georgia, and the swamps of southern Louisiana were all outside both the cities and the large farms and plantation zones. The “State of Jones” (reviewed below) was in the piney woods of western Mississippi. “Cold Mountain” is in western North Carolina. None of these people had an immediate financial stake in slavery. Their farms were either too small or unproductive to support slaves, or they could not afford slaves or – as in the case of Newton Knight, their religious and political beliefs prohibited slavery. Painting all southerners as supporters of the Confederacy is a foolish mistake. In fact, as most historians now recognize, if secession had been put to a popular vote, it would have failed in many southern states.

The conflict at Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for soldiers turned many southern Unionists into reluctant supporters of their ‘state.’ Robert E Lee was only the most well-known one. These authors show how, as the war progressed, support for the ‘southern’ cause diminished, desertion from the armies increased, protests against hunger grew and non-compliance with the draft and Confederate army property requisitions increased. Peace societies became more public in the South after 1863 and the defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Old pro-unionist politicians (who still supported the war) won a majority in North Carolina in the 1863 election. By the end of the war, the majority of the southern population preferred re-union over continued warfare. And this, the authors contend, is the real reason the south lost.

They go into many of the conventional arguments about its failure in some detail. Some think that an excessive concentration on ‘states rights’ did not allow the south to win. The authors clearly show that in the main two states whose governors conflicted with Jeff Davis – Georgia and North Carolina – both states sent more men and goods to the Confederate armies than states that did not conflict with Davis. One North Carolina politician, William Holden, famously said that “It was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” This echoed the thoughts of Newton Knight, who objected to the Confederate rule that planters with 10 slaves were exempt from service, and was one of the reasons why the "Knights' turned against the Confederacy.

The authors show figures that indicate the Union blockade of southern ports was very porous. They describe how southern military organization was superior to the Union’s in that it recruited people from the same locales to join existing units, instead of creating new, green units of unaffiliated people, as the Federals did. As to the issue of industry, the south was able to quickly create a large metal-working, armaments and clothing industry under central control of the Confederate government. While I do not agree with their assertion that Confederate soldiers were as well supplied as Union soldiers – many sources conflict with this – they consider this not to be the decisive question. They do show how there were always guns, bullets and cannons at least.

The main contribution of the authors is to compare the thoughts of classic military strategists who studied Napoleon and Frederick the Great – Clausewitz and Jomini – against actual military events during the war. They contend that the south actually had a military advantage through its huge territory, interior lines and mainly defensive strategy, citing both Clausewitz or Jomini. So, again, why did they lose except through extra-military issues? And here they point out that Davis and the Confederate government put all its emphasis on military victories and none on ‘propaganda’ or morale-building or paying attention to the condition and opinions of the civilian population. As we know from Vietnam and other wars, like Iraq, the opinions of the U.S. population play a role in the withdrawal of troops. However, when the war is actually in the territory of the population (unlike Vietnam or Iraq) this can be decisive.

Another contribution of this book centers on its coverage of how religion impacted both northern and southern peoples’ morale. As might be expected, both sides thought ‘God’ supported their cause. Almost every church in the U.S. split into a pro-slavery southern wing and a pro-union (and maybe anti-slavery) northern wing, even the Catholic Church. Many religious preachers joined the armies, the most famous being Leonidas Polk, a Tennessee planter and a bishop in the Episcopal Church, who found his way to the Confederate army. Polk was later blown in half at Pine Mountain near Marietta, Georgia, by a shell from one of Sherman’s batteries. So I guess God really ‘did’ support the North. And this odd idea – odd to an atheist at least – began to creep into Confederate thinking. If ‘God’ allowed the ‘Yankees’ to win, then either he was ‘testing’ southerners in their faith, or else he was ‘chastising’ them for imagined failings. As time went on, some southerners even decided that God wanted the north to win because perhaps slavery ‘was’ a sin. And there goes your morale and your morals – at least for a believer.

The most unusual point they make is that they delineate how the Confederate government created a centralist state and economy during the war. This should terrify the present southern Republicans and Libertarians. The South actually initiated a draft a year before the north. Writs of habeas corpus were suspended at the same time, and martial law declared. Impressment of goods by government soldiers was legalized, though they were supposed to pay a ‘reasonable amount.’

Basing themselves on the 1978 work of Raimondo Luraghi’s “Rise and Fall of the Plantation South,” the authors describe how the Confederate government took over 39 iron furnaces, ‘nationalizing the whole productive power of existing manufacturers” for war production. The government provided 50% loans to create new industry, limited profits, fixed prices, built publicly-owned mills like the giant Augusta, Georgia, Powder Works – the largest nationally-owned factory system in the world at that time. Shipyards were put under government control, and new ones built under government ownership. This forced industrialization changed Richmond, Augusta, Columbus, Atlanta, Macon and Selma into industrial centers. They, however, only later passed laws limiting planters from producing cotton, as cotton brought in higher profits than food. Many blockade runners were carrying cotton, and not getting food back, but only luxury goods for the upper class. As such, centralization did not fully extend to the planter class and their plantations. Since the Confederate government was based on this class, that made sense.

My main issue with these authors is the idea of ‘victory,’ which is the bulk of the book. They do point this out tangentially, but not in a direct way. If victory means the end of direct slave labor, than the Civil War can be considered a complete victory. But if ending slavery also meant equal democratic rights for Black people, equal property rights for Black people, the provision of land and an end to sharecropping and the plantation system (especially in the Mississippi Delta) than the Civil War was not a victory. The violent defeat of Reconstruction through guerrilla warfare by ex-Confederates and the ex-planter class showed that they – now private farmers and businessmen – actually won the longer war for white supremacy. In place of slavery, black people got the KKK, Jim Crow segregation, share-cropping and the poll tax. It was the northern capitalist class that sat by and watched and essentially collaborated with the southern capitalists on this issue. So that is perhaps why the South 'lost' the Civil War - they saw it as only a series of battles in a longer war.

It was only after 90 years that the Civil Rights Movement punctured segregation and gained some democratic rights like voting for Black people. And even now, those voting rights are under attack, as was shown in Florida in 2000. Black people are still the poorest and most exploited southerners, and still discriminated against, segregated and disdained. The “civil war” still continues and will not be finished until the modern reincarnation of the planter class and their allies – are removed.

And I bought it at a garage sale in Athens, Georgia
Red Frog – November 5, 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do?

The Meta-Meaning of Ridiculous Cop Shows

I watch cop shows. I admit it. Not sure what it is. The out-side normal characters? Knowing the enemy? The bad guys getting collared or shot? Because of course the real ‘bad guys’ of the world always have high-priced attorneys. Gritty attempts at realism? The science of forensic everything? A cornucopia of large handguns? Corpses getting Y-shaped stitches? Or just the proximity of real hard death.

Whatever it is, cop shows have replaced cowboy shows in the pantheon. ‘Law and Order’ is the granddaddy of them all, although now its shrunken to just “Special Victims Unit.’ They specialize in prosecuting sexual abuse using cynical or troubled but self-righteous cop characters. At one time it played on ‘ripped from the headlines’ story lines, which actually seemed political sometimes. Now they barely go there – evidently having run out of headlines. It also frequently avoided the standard ‘black/Latino/white weirdo/Mafia’ targets, but instead pilloried affluent assholes. So that you might cheer when they got nailed. However, on L&O, you could also count on them threatening some guy with a gun or a punch or an occasional water-boarding – just to get them to talk. Always justified. Or telling some scared schlub that if they didn’t hand over the information – why, they’d get a subpoena! ‘Not that,’ exclaims the frightened frog, ‘ANYTHING but that!’ L&O proved that rappers could be cops - see “Ice-T” - and that cynical actors and former comedians like Richard Belzer can make money anyway.

Then there was the ‘tall bending guy’ on 'L&O - Criminal Intent' – Vincent D’Onofrio, who set the stage for a whole new group of cops – the magic ones. He would be able to get the Stone Reaper to confess in a few minutes. More on that later. It was no accident, however, that everyone behind the scenes hated this guy. After all, who can put up with a pompous mind-reader?

The most ridiculous show in the cop parade is ‘CSI-Miami.’ Not a show passes without a dressed-up CSI in a plunging neckline and high heels bending over a dead body. The CSI lab is a Pixar fantasy of high-resolution graphics, colorful lighting, reflected glass and uber-computers. Every database in the world seems to be instantaneously connected to the CSI lab in Miami, including the ‘paint chip’ world master database. And of course, who can forget the Hemingway of Cops, David Caruso. This one man single-handedly drives his giant gas-guzzling black Hummer up to the camera, slides on the shades, gazes into the sun and says, “Crime doesn’t pay – it only pays me.”

CSI-Miami spawned CSI-Vegas (of course!) and CSI-NY (inevitable). You can get your fill of forensic science trivia and dead bodies from no finer sources.

Then there are the shows I call the ‘flack jacket fantasies.’ You know, where you watch storm-troopers in heavy protective gear, large handguns and assault rifles, storm into houses, warehouses and burrito joints on every show. “Criminal Minds’ is one of these, along with NCIS-LA and NCIS itself (the father-ship). Criminal Minds has a bunch of FBI ‘profilers’ who suss out the ‘un-sub’ (short for unknown subject) in groupthink sessions, aided by a curly-headed nerd genius that they hope young hip people can identify with. Buff ex-military guys, surf guy and a beautiful female cop adorn the NCIS-LA set, which is ‘set’ in a fucking large historic mansion, run by a tiny woman with glasses who they are all scared of. There are no ugly women in cop shows, remember this – except this one old lady. Oh, and one show features a tubby nerd-computer genius who gets them all their computer info – she’s the only other exception. Of course, most of the corpses are beautiful young white women too. Even though most murder victims are minorities.

LL Cool J, another rapper, found a home on NCIS-LA as a buff cop who could outrun getaway cars. NCIS itself features Mark Harmon as Jethro Gibbs, gruffly getting info from his scamp-like staff and a good-looking tattooed-pierced lab-rat girl sucking down 64-ounce shit sodas. How cool is that?

There are a few ‘missing persons’ shows too, like “Without a Trace” – not sure what demographic this appeals to – nervous mothers with children? Every show usually has an 'older' person anchoring the crews. The most obvious is "Blue Bloods" where Tom Selleck has graduated to elder statesman. This show attempts to return the cop show to the 'Irish family' angle, as if being a cop was just a noble family profession and nothing else. Of course, when the whole familiy sits around the table eating, while Papa rules the roost, I'm not sure if I'm not seeing the Corleone family instead.

My favorite, and symptomatic of the ‘trend’ started by Law & Order’s D’Onofrio – is “The Mentalist.” The lead, Patrick Jane (‘Jane’ for short – how’s that for not macho?) drives a Citroen, does not carry a gun, and lounges around the police station on a couch until the real cops need him. He’s just an advisor, you see. While they go off looking for facts like dumb cops, he intuitively understands the criminal and goes off on a completely different psychological tangent – bringing the cops into the picture at the end. Jane is handsome, wears a sports-jacket and vest and hates psychics, religious phonies and self-help gurus. The show sets up frequent clashes between Jane and the latest ‘mystic.’ He stands up the to police brass and also boldly exposes the bad guys or the rich assholes in public, which is something we’ve all wanted to do, but somehow never got around to. So you gotta like this guy. Except he works for the cops.

The magic angle has spawned shows like ‘Unforgettable” (at least I think that is what it is called) about a woman cop who never forgets anything. And the “Ghost Whisperer” about a woman that can visualize the dead and how they got that way. (This show must have been named after the ‘dog’ whisperer and the ‘horse’ whisperer. I can see the story pitch in Hollywood now…) Visualizations of bullets going through bodies or knives through thighs abound in all these shows, as the cops ‘figure out’ what happened – in their heads.

The worst enemy of the police in show after show is ... dum, de dum dum ... 'Internal Affairs,' who are always depicted as evil, manipulative trouble-makers who are never right.

So what are the meta-messages? Cops are fucking geniuses – even psychic. Cops are hip and really good looking. Cops have lots of guns, but we knew that. Cops have all the information at their finger-tips. Cops need to break the rules frequently. TV, in fact, is one big advertisement for the hipster police state.

Now we have to compare the TV cops and FBI with the actual ones we meet every day. The ones who shoot black guys because they’re nervous. Who enjoy evicting people from their houses. Who volunteer for overtime in order to thump anti-Republican demonstrators. Or FBI agents who collar anti-war activists and socialists. Or 'blue-blood' cops who invite the CIA onto domestic turf to spy on ethnic groups. Or DEA cops who raid pot farms and burn thousands of plants. Or cops who escort scabs through picket-lines. Or FBI agents that couldn’t get a terrorist unless they set up a terrorist plot themselves. Or BATF agents who sell guns to the Mexican cartels. Or county deputies who makes sure anti-Wall Street demonstrators don’t put a stick under their tarps. Or if they are in Oakland, CA, practice using 'bang' grenades and rubber bullets on unarmed sleepers. Or cops who arrest farmers for having Monsanto corn blow onto their property. You get the picture. Almost none of us have met a TV cop in real life. But they sure crowd the airwaves.

Why isn’t there an ‘anti-cop’ show on TV? Other than “Reno 911” perhaps? You know the answer.

Red Frog
October 26, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, then Expropriate It

The Big Short, by Michael Lewis, 2010

Michael Lewis wrote “Liar’s Poker” (reviewed below) about the financial crash of the late 1980s, based on junk bonds, insider trading and the S&L industry. Lewis is pro-capitalist, but an honest observer and reporter, and that is a valuable thing. “The Big Short” is the best look at what was going on inside Wall Street in the period leading up to the crash of 2008. Like Kevin Phillips book, “Bad Money” (also reviewed below) it focuses on the period before 2007, culminating in the implosion of the sub-prime derivatives market in 2007 with the forced sale of Bear Stearns. Lewis reminds us that this Wall Street circus has actually been going on since the 1980s, when many derivative products were first ‘invented.’ As Lewis puts it, “the bonus pool remained undisturbed” since then.

The key characters of this ‘mystery’ are those who saw that the mortgage industry and the investment banks had created a colossal Frankenstein, which nearly brought down capitalism, and has still deeply wounded it. They themselves went from a cynical view of what Wall Street represented to a social view. As Steve Eisman put it, lecturing Bill Miller, a hot-shot investor in Bear Stearns: “The upper classes of this country raped this country. You fucked people. You built a castle to rip people off. Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience. Nobody ever said, “This is wrong.” And no one ever gave a shit about what I had to say.”

To this day, nothing has changed. And we can thank not just the big media whores, who have created a myth about a mere ‘crisis of confidence,’ or the ostensible ‘protectors of the public’ like the SEC, but also the Democratic and Republican parties, who are for the most part the political arms of Wall Street. Lewis himself does not go into how deeply these forces reinforce Wall Street. That is for others to do. But as he puts it, “…pretty much all the important people on both sides of the gamble left the table rich.”

What Eisman, Michael Burry, Greg Lippman, John Paulson and a few other hedge fund managers did (including White Box, located her in Minneapolis) was actually understand what was factually going on. Lewis carefully explains the structure of Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and the specific errors of the ratings agencies. He shows how a “one-eyed money manager with Asperger’s syndrome” like Michael Burry (the first money-manager to understand the coming collapse of the mortgage market, and by extension, its ‘asset-backed cousin’ the CDO and the CMO in 2004) could, just by reading the prospectuses (which no one but the lawyers who write them ever do...) and studying a website of details on mortgage loans, figure out what CDO’s were going to fail first.

No one – not even the rating agencies – actually had the intimate facts on what mortgages had been bundled into what derivative. Nor did the rating agencies ever carefully vet the details of each ‘product’ – they skipped that part too. Instead, they accepted the assumptions of the Wall Street firms. There is even a statement that the models used by the ratings agencies did not include a possibility of a drop in housing prices. The rating agencies were more interested in just getting paid by Wall Street firms. Lewis calls them, “Nobodies … in blue JC Penny suits.”

Burry and analysts like Eisman looked at both specific and more general statistics on home loans, like what states the CDOs originated out of, or how many mortgage loans were ‘without paper’ or ‘second loans’ or balloons or for high amounts. They found the errors in the ‘FICO’ scores and the “Black-Scholes” option pricing models used by traditional Wall Street analysts. The funniest part of the book is Eisman insulting each and every financial and Wall Street CEO he ever met by telling them exactly what he thought – that their optimistic views and hazy understanding was bullshit. Hilarious, to the point, and absolutely unbelievable. In a way, the whole Street and industry had agreed that only 5% of house loans would go bad, and house prices would always rise. That was their faith, their 'party line.' As Eisman pointed out, all it took was a 7% failure rate for a CDO to default. The rates eventually reached 40% in some pools of loans.

Some of these guys started out as ‘value investors” like Warren Buffet. What these money managers did, once they understood the inflating capitalist mortgage and derivative bubbles, was to buy credit default swaps (CDS) on various CDO’s. CDS’s are like insurance on the failure of a certain investment, but cheaper than buying options. So in a way they were ‘shorting’ the whole U.S. mortgage machine, which had become the largest part of Wall Street’s ‘products.’ A 'short' means you wager money that the price of a product will decline. Hence the name of Lewis’ book. Once they did this, they took out traditional short options on the stock value of various financial institutions, mortgage companies and hedge funds backing mortgage-‘securities,’ just to rub it in. They knew their prices would decline when the bubbles popped.

At a certain point, as the CDO market began crashing in mid-2007, they sold the CDS’s to frantic Wall Street firms, because they knew that some of the CDS’s were guaranteed by AIG or Bear Stearns – both firms they realized could fail. And they did. Eisman, Burry, Lippman and others made millions while Wall Street/The City/The Bourse/Frankfurt capital markets firms lost billions of dollars, and ultimately, the U.S. government, and the U.S. taxpayer, had to step in with trillions to prop up what were now legally called ‘banks.’ Bernie Sanders now puts the number at $16T, not just $800B in TARP funds.

Some people will read this book in order to understand how to make money on Wall Street. Marxists and revolutionaries read it in order to understand financialization, which seems to be a terminal disease of world capitalism. Lewis considers the pebble that started this avalanche of financialization to be the moment that his original target in ‘Liar’s Poker’ – John Gutfreund – turned Salomon Brothers from a partnership to a corporation, thus transferring the risk from the partners to the shareholders. There is some truth in this contention, but it seems another small pebble in the overall pattern of financialization – which really got started when the derivatives market in currencies developed after Nixon ended Bretton-Woods in 1971.

As Christopher Ketcham recently put it: “The One Percenter seeks only exchange value, as opposed to real value. Thus foreign exchange currency gambling has skyrocketed to seventy-three times the actual goods and services of the planet, up from eleven times in 1980. Thus the “value” of oil futures has risen from 20 percent of actual physical production in 1980 to 1,000 percent today. Thus interest rate derivatives have gone from nil in 1980 to $390 trillion in 2009. The trading schemes float disembodied above the real economy, related to it only because without the real economy there would be nothing to exploit.”

Lewis is wrong because the risk has not just shifted from the partner to the shareholder – the risk has now been transferred to the public at large. And the ‘public at large’ is now the guarantor. Derivatives themselves are empty suits, they were not just invented by empty suits. You will hear the rhetorical homilies about how commodity futures are ‘farmers guaranteeing their product price in the future.” Since commodity speculators have taken over the trading pits, as Ketcham points out, these ‘honest farmers’ are less than 3% of the commodity futures market. The problem is far deeper than one single legal change.

Unfortunately, Ketcham is wrong too. The 'real' economy includes Wall Street. The real problem is ‘the system’ – one which cannot survive at this point without the debt casino of Wall Street. This constant narrative of left-liberals that the 'bad' financial capitalists are ruining everything - and we should just 'regulate' them more - is belied by financial capital's empirical support for the expansion of monopoly 'manufacturing' capital all over the globe. The present state of global monopoly corporations would not have been possible otherwise. Financialization is not a ‘growth’ upon capitalism, but its logical conclusion.

And I bought it at Jackson Street Books, Athens Georgia
Red Frog, October 20, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Topeka Says “JUST LEGALIZE IT!!”

In a move sure to get Charlie Sheen and Chris Brown looking to take up residence in the Ward-Meade Mansion, The City Council of Topeka, Kansas voted 7-3 on Tuesday night to save money by decriminalizing…. wait for it…. domestic violence!

Over 30 domestic violence cases (18 since September) have been dropped in the area because no one will prosecute. The Shawnee County District Attorney responded to cuts to his (note the shocking pronoun) budget by delegating misdemeanor cases to the City. The cuts haven’t gone into effect and won’t until next year, but best to be proactive, I guess. The City responded in the only responsible way by making misdemeanor domestic violence not illegal under State Law. Hey, 423 such cases were prosecuted last year. All that court time, counseling, therapy, and infrastructure to support victims ain’t cheap.

The City Council is banking on the decriminalization forcing the hand of the DA’s office since domestic violence remains a crime under State Law (for now.) The idea is basically “hey, if we can’t prosecute at the City level because there is no City Law violation then the County has to pick up the tab, Right?

Wrong. DA offices all over the country prioritize some cases over others. Misdemeanor charges are dropped for any number of reasons all the time. Nothing says that has to change. Domestic abuse cases are tragically under-prosecuted as it is. This pissing match between the City and the DA’s office has only managed to send a public message that women are second-class citizens and if anybody wants to slap one in Topeka he probably won’t get punished.

This is just one more example of the seemingly never-ending shift to the right in “mainstream” politics. Slash every budget and encourage people to just get stronger and richer if they don’t want to be victimized.

But at least the National press has gotten behind this, right? Christ, after I was told about this repeal being considered I had to read about it in Forbes. Fuck everybody.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

American Fiction Writers - Follow-up to a Smack-down

Alexander Nazaryan had an interesting article in a recent on why American writers have not recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. He also appeared on NPR talking about this issue. Nazaryan says that recent "American' fiction is dominated by 'great white male narcissists.' (Phillip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike ...cough cough...). In this, he is following David Foster Wallace, who accused them of that in 1998. After you stop laughing, I think unfortunately this extends to many U.S. female writers too. The white guys get the awards, but the women bring up the rear in the self-same department. Self-involvement is the heart of middle-class fiction, after all. This is not to say that all literature does not borrow from a person's life - the question is, how much?

Toni Morrison, a black woman, was the last U.S. citizen to win a Nobel in 1993, probably for "Beloved" - which was a great book, but not about Toni Morrison. Take heed.

Nazaryan and others locate one of the promoters of this small-bore navel-gazing preoccupation in the MFA programs at our esteemed universities, which counsel - 'write what you know.' And this truism disguises the fact that what many peole know is ... not much! Female writers are urged at the Loft and other centers to write 'memoirs' - even if nothing in their life is memorable. We are treated to endless stories of addication and disfunction, as if literature was purely therapy. In this culture, middle-class writers shy away from large social issues in order to fit in politically and culturally. They would rather write about personal issues like infidelity or adultry than unemployment - which they probably haven't experienced anyway. It is all disguised, sometimes, as 'art for art's sake' when they are feeling especially peckish.

So the comparison I did between "Prague" and "Petrol Bombs" is typical of the real problem. There are no more John Steinbecks or Upton Sinclairs. At least not on the NY Times bestseller lists.

Red Frog, 10/11/2011

Monday, October 3, 2011

Middle Class v Working Class FICTION SMACKDOWN!:

“Prague, a Novel,” by Arthur Phillips, 2002 / “Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs,” by D.D. Johnson, 2011.

The Americans who eat in Budapest cafes: The Scots who work in burger joints:

In my continuing interest in fiction, I chose these two books accidentally. The first book seemed relevant because I wanted to read something about central Europe. And of course the joke is, while the book is titled ‘Prague,’ that city of the Czech Republic, its really about Prague’s somewhat less glamorous cousin, Budapest, Hungary. The supposition is that all the trendy American tourists who want to go to Prague may pick it up and read it. Ha ha. The second book fits in with the ‘anarchist’ theme, so I got that too.

‘Prague, a Novel’ was a ‘national bestseller,’ got kudos from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, and many other newspaper credits. It even has a somewhat cute ‘readers circle’ question section at the back, so you can take it to your book club. Phillips hails from Minneapolis, went to Harvard and seems to be an all-around young and handsome genius. He is squarely in the upscale hipster writers camp.

The book centers on a group of young expatriates sitting around the bars and cafes of Budapest right after the Soviet Army pulled-out of Hungary in 1989. This lead to the collapse of the deformed workers state there, and the slow restoration of capitalism. Johnny on the spot, these Americans now smell an opportunity, or ‘something different.’ The group includes: Emily, a bland cheerleader whose job is being a go-fer for the American ambassador; Charles, a suave and arrogant American/Hungarian investment banker looking for investment opportunities in the ‘new’ Hungary; Mark, a gay post-PHD researching a book on nostalgia; Scott, the inevitable English-as-a-Second-Language teacher and blond athlete, and also an angry and sarcastic young man; and John, his brother, who has just followed big brother Scott to Budapest and seems to be looking for love, or something.

So the first question any reader asks themselves is: Do I even want to sit at a table with these people? Thought about it? OK, don’t answer that. It doesn’t help much that it starts with a beer-laden ‘can you tell the truth?’ party game.

This is not so much a story of the ‘ugly’ American as it is a story of the useless American. Some of the book touches on humor – John’s infatuation with the doltish Emily being a long thread. Or John’s infatuation with his brother, a rude loser underneath. Mark has a hilarious desire to re-create and live in the past, catching it just at the corner of his eye while the rest of us remain oblivious. The book details the group’s contacts with the alternatively impressive, poor, sad or crude Hungarians. The plot of the book centers around Charles attempt to invest in a famous and heroic Hungarian publishing company, the “Horvath Press.” Since this is not so much a cliffhanger as an inevitability, the book really centers around drinks, dances, meals at restaurants, cafes, bars and nightclubs, with a some sex, meals and drinks in apartments thrown in. Charles succeeds in bringing back the Horvath Press to Budapest from Vienna. Emily continues to walk in and out of the embassy. Mark gives up on nostalgia and leaves. Scott marries a Hungarian girl and moves to Transylvania. And John, who seems to be the most sensitive, finds love with the women he didn’t expect, and still yearns after the woman he did expect.

It is called a ‘novel of ideas’ but I failed to locate any. It is charged with being a ‘caustic satire,’ but the fun is actually quite gentle. It is called ‘elegant and entertaining.’ For some it must be. I eventually started turning the pages quickly, as gradually, nothing happens. Of course, no one in the book gets to Prague. Other than name-dropping parts of Budapest – the Gellert baths, Adrassy Utca, the Gerbeaud restaurant, the Buda hills, the Castle and various squares – the book was not about Budapest, nor the Hungarian people, let alone Prague. It was about some young, vaguely interesting, Americans. So even in a foreign country – the real topic of any good American – is themselves.

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books
Red Frog, September 13, 2011

“Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs”

So imagine you are sitting at another set of tables – this time in a burger joint in Dundule, Scotland in 1998 called “Benny’s Burgers.” No wine, no table cloths, no serviettes, just paper napkins and lots of beef. The action is not happening at the tables. It is in the back room and the kitchen, where a large set of disgruntled Scottish lads and lassies are so pissed about their menial lives that one of them forms “Benny’s Revolutionary Army” and several become anarchists or revolutionaries.

The book opens during a smoky confrontation with police at the 2000 World Bank summit in Prague, somewhere around Wencelas Square. Unlike the deadbeats from Budapest, these folks actually get to Prague, and find the revolutionary worm has turned. It follows a love-sick burger-flipper, the invisible Wayne, who travels across Europe after the 1999 Seattle protests – to Prague in 2000, Mayday in Parliament Square in 2000, Thessaloniki’s riots in 2003, to Paris, back to London and again, Dundule. It is not just the ‘struggle’ but various revolutionary or plain sexy girlfriends that lead him on. The scenes are set in the bars and Benny’s of Dundule, and its “Breast Mountain’ of garbage, to a London squat, then Greek dorms overrunning with thousands of leftists, to various parent’s homes and back to Scotland. Petrol bombs explode in Greece, the black bloc moves from street to street, pathetic protests fail to make a dent in Paris, and Benny’s Burgers gets well-defaced several times around the world.

Johnson’s use of Scottish brogue is great, as is his description of the gang of political working-class ner-do-wells and the officious tripe they encounter. Time jumps around in the novel, first ahead, then behind, but eventually it makes sense. There is a hilarious conservative Indian wedding where the groom, a sub-manager at Benny’s, sounds more like Kumar from “Harold & Kumar” than a Punjabi prince. Johnston also gets in some fierce digs at the British Socialist Workers Party, and later, various anarchists types, including the declining stages of the “Anarchist Book Fair.” Another scene where he robs his exes apartment using a cab is pure slapstick. His comment about one of his exes? “She still kissed like a Labrador.” “Petrol Bombs” is funnier than “Prague” by a long-shot. Of course, you have to appreciate crude, straight-forward humor.

Eventually Wayne tires of anarchism (after being dumped by his French anarchist girlfriend, Manette) and goes home, stealing valuable antiques from another ex-girlfriend’s female partner on the way – the cab story. He finally ends up in Manchester. The only similar link between these books is that both central characters look for love in all the wrong places. Which seems to be the only place to look.

The winner of the Smackdown? “Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs” by a TKO for humour, dialect, politics and action.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, October 3, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

From the Anarchist Book Fair:

“Anarchism and its Aspirations” – by Cindy Milstein, 2010

This short book has been described as a good introduction to modern anarchism. I’ve reviewed several books in the anarchist tradition or close to it: “The Coming Insurrection,” “Non-Violence Protects the State” and “Facing Reality,” the work of CLR James (however, a council communist), and the Situationist ‘Society of the Spectacle,” (all reviewed below.) However, this book is different in that it tries to layout the politics of anarchism in 122 pages.

I expected much more. In fact I was somewhat shocked by how naïve this book seemed. Of course, there are various brands of anarchism, and not all of them can be judged by these writings. Milstein points out that anarchism is primarily an 'ethics.' And the ethic leads to the destruction of capitalism, any state and hierarchy – and this all in one time period, simultaneously. In other words, communism now. And it is to be done by free and happy people who will reach the true, the good and the beautiful. Milstein centralizes the role of ‘ethics’ in anarchism – as if anarchism was kind of a hyper-humanism or hyper-liberalism. She uses the term ‘substantive humanism’ and ‘libertarian socialism’ to describe it. The phrases “class consciousness’ and ‘class struggle’ are nowhere to be read. The working class makes no appearance. Milstein does endorse much of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, but not his view of the state. Milstein considers the state to be a separate entity from capital, representing a third force in society, not the expression of the ruling class, as Marxists understand it. However, what economic class this ‘state’ represents is unclear. She brings forth no factual basis for the existence of this ‘third force’ or economy, but her intent here is not factual or scientific analysis.

Hatred of an abstract 'state' is also popular on the libertarian right, which some say is the anarchism of small capital. And it is, of course, the main target of the Republican Party - or at least those parts of the state that don't benefit them. So the left anarchist attack on the 'state' finds echoes in the broader culture. And this may explain the ease with which some youth accept anarchism.

Milstein insists that modern capitalism can exist without corporations – and indeed that is a truism. But monopoly indicates what form is really in control now – and it is not shoe-store owners. She praises anarchist attempts to build counter-institutions, and I have no problem with this. Of course, a counter-culture is not the product of anarchism alone – populism, Marxism and simple cooperation among people lead to various co-operative endeavors being constructed. You have only to look at the grain co-ops from the 30s or the food co-ops of the 1960s to see this. However, a ‘counter-culture’ was tried in the 60s, and failed to overwhelm the capitalist system – because you cannot ignore the system away. Capital, as it did to the former workers’ states, will attempt to destroy or undermine anything that does not conform to it.

This leads to another thing missing from Milstein’s book – the idea of a revolution to overthrow the state. Milstein ignores the question of force, as if the capitalists will just disappear when their oil wells, car factories, steel mills and wealth are taken from them. The implication is actually that you can just ‘work around’ the state, and ignore it. She praises what could only be called ‘charity’ efforts by anarchists in this regard. Yet, as even churches understand, the scale of misery in the society cannot be ameliorated by charity alone. Much as Republicans theorize otherwise, and evidently, some anarchists too. Without Welfare/WIC, unemployment insurance or social security/Medicare, etc., the working classes in this society would be even more destitute.

Milstein’s argument against Marxism is a somewhat inaccurate one – that a ‘classless yet statist society’ is undesirable. (p. 81) Well of course it is. Because it is impossible. States do not need to exist if classes disappear. Milstein evidently does not agree that a state exists because classes exist. It is not really clear why she thinks states exist except perhaps that ‘mean people’ organize them! People do not set up a bureaucracy, system of laws protecting private property, and back them up with many armed bodies of men if there is no significant economic privilege to maintain. In a way, Milstein also disappears economics, replacing it with a hostility to ‘hierarchy’ in any form. Of course, what is actually behind her criticism is the very real experience of Stalinism and bureaucracy in the workers states, and the congealing of the Leninist party into a bureaucratic organization. However, anarchism is not the only political force in the world that noticed this.

Milstein believes in direct democracy (although she makes some nods to the practical necessity of electing delegates at times) but, along with the other invisibilities, never mentions elections or voting. Anarchists believe on principle in not engaging in the political arena, I suspect, and that is the reason.

Milstein is not totally sanguine about anarchism. She seems to be aware of some of its limitations – even calling the anarchist founders ‘naïve’ over their endorsement of the essential ‘goodness’ of human nature. She also says that some ‘street actions translate into nothing more than counter-cultural version of interest group lobbying…” And her take on small-group actions (perhaps the ‘black bloc’…)? “There is ultimately something slightly authoritarian in small groups taking matters into their own hands …”

What Marxists, democratic socialists and anarchists can agree on, I think, is that society should eventually be run by workplace and geographic councils. Of course, the whole issue right now is just getting there. And there's the rub.

And I bought it at the Anarchist Book Fair from Mayday Books!
Red Frog, September 25, 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Last Battle of the Civil War?

James-Younger Gang Attempt to Rob Northfield Bank – 1876; Reenactment in Northfield, September 11, 2011.

I stopped by Northfield this weekend to check out the reenactment of the James-Younger gangs raid on Northfield back in 1876. The town has been putting this show on since 1948. The bank and hardware store are preserved as a historical site and museum. Dark black circles surround certain large holes in the old bricks of the hardware store, where old bullets are reputed to have struck.

I call it the last battle of the Civil War, although we might reflect that the civil war is still going on. Unlike old histories, such as George Huntington’s 1896 “Robert and Hero,” which does not mention the issue; or the 1972 film the “Great Northfield, Minnesota Bank Raid,” full of idiotic historical fantasies as big as the 'mountains' looming over the town, neither focuses on the strong Civil War connection.

The raiders did not come to the town because it had ‘the most money’ west of the Mississippi, although it was one of several banks targeted in southern Minnesota. To get sympathy from ex-Confederates, Cole Younger mentioned to the press that Benjamin Butler, an abolitionist union general, had money in the Northfield Bank, as did Adelbert Ames, former Reconstruction governor of Mississippi. (See Ames mentioned in the review of the ‘The State of Jones,’ below.) In doing this, he implied that this was one of the reasons they chose this bank to rob. However, Younger was wrong, as it was J.T. Ames, the brother of Adelbert Ames, who sat on the board of directors of the bank. Butler’s daughter had married Adelbert Ames, so there was indeed a family connection at the bank - a Union connection.

There is an argument as to whether Adelbert Ames was in Northfield on that day - the re-enactors say he was. Or whether one of the Ames brothers was addressed as ‘guvnuh’ by a southern voice as he crossed the bridge to the Ames mill (now owned by Malt-O-Meal), which caused Ames to glance at the riders and see pistols under their linen dusters - also claimed by the re-enactors. This alerted Ames and supposedly lead him to follow the riders back into town. However, it is no secret that Joseph Heywood, the bank teller killed by Frank James, and others in the street in Northfield shooting back, were former Union soldiers. Heywood fought at Chickasaw Bayou, Champion’s Hill and finally at Vicksburg under Sherman and Grant, after which he got sick. Anselm Manning, who killed raider Bill Stiles/Chadwell, had been a Union soldier. The Younger brothers – Cole, Bob & Jim - fought with Quantrill and the James brothers – Frank & Jesse - had ridden with Bloody Bill Anderson’s blood-thirsty guerrillas. All fighting for the South as irregulars in the Confederate Army.

Raiders Clell Miller and Chadwell/Stiles were killed by the armed citizens of Northfield that day. Cole and Bob Younger were injured. During the manhunt, lead by Union veteran William Murphy and also organized by J.T. Ames, the Missourians fled towards Madelia, Minnesota. There Charlie Pitts was killed and the three Younger brothers shot up and captured. The three were later sentenced to Stillwater Prison, where Cole Younger started the prison newspaper. Only the James brothers escaped, though, typical of this history, there is a bit of doubt whether one or the other was in Northfield. It was admitted to by several of the band, but Cole Younger tried to deny their presence, which is something any smart 'pard' would do. Six of eight of the gang were killed or captured (though some claim there was a ninth gang member on the edge of town), and this ended the exploits of the gang. The re-enactors take great pains to point out that the James/Younger gang was no bunch of “Robin Hoods’ but were instead interested only in buying good liquor, prostitutes and high-quality horses and guns. They gave their money to no one but themselves.

The roots of this raid in the Civil War are unmistakable. The James brothers participated in the Centralia massacre, where more than a 100 unarmed Union soldiers were killed and mutilated. These Missouri bushwhackers, who were part of a movement that had also burned down Lawrence, Kansas and killed dozens in cold blood there, lived up to their name, again, even in 1876. Both Heywood and a Swedish immigrant, Gustafson, died that day. Killing unarmed tellers and conductors was the gang's habit. But the ex-Confederate raiders met the same fate at the hands of Minnesota farmers and unionists in Northfield as the Confederate Army met in the battles of Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Missionary Ridge and Nashville, all battles where Minnesota units distinguished themselves.

Lessons? There’s only one way to deal with a slaver… and their modern equivalent, a fascist, if they ever show up again.

And I saw it in southern Minnesota!
Red Frog, September 12, 2011