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