MTV to Put a Bit More Music Back, in the A.M.
From the New York Times courtesy of the Huffington Post newswire:
MTV is adding more music videos to its schedule — at 3 a.m.
On Monday the network starts “AMTV,” a six-hour block for music and advertising experimentation. From 3 to 9 a.m. Monday through Thursday, it will show music videos, news, interviews and performances, harking back to the network’s origins as a 24-hour home for music videos.
Now, of course, the network is more synonymous with unrealistic reality shows like “The Hills” than with music. Over the years the network, a unit of Viacom, has relegated music videos to its less popular digital channels and intermissions between shows.
Critics of MTV say that its music brand is all but irrelevant now, since countless music videos and songs are only a click away on YouTube and other Web sites. The network canceled “TRL,” its long-running video countdown, last fall after years of sagging ratings. Mr. Friedman acknowledged that music had not always drawn “the level of viewership we hope for,” but nonetheless he said, “we know our audience wants more of it.”
Funny. I always thought TRL was canceled because it sucked. Silly me, guess I was wrong.
At any rate, I'm kind of looking forward to this. I mean, it could be awful, if they play like only five or six videos over and over, you know, like TRL did, but six hours is a long time by television standards, and I'm hoping for some oddball stuff to break through, especially during the wee hours. I'll never forget the day I started losing interest in MTV: I saw an episode of Remote Control and I didn't get it. I was still in their target demographic, a teenager, but I just didn't understand how Remote Control was supposed to be something I liked. And what the fuck did it have to do with music videos? Maybe I was old before my time, but the all video format was pretty fucking cool, and abandoning it alienated me as a viewer. Really, one of the appeals of Beavis and Butthead a decade after the format change started was getting to see cool music videos I wouldn't have otherwise seen.
So this is a welcome change. Maybe I'll start to care about pop music again. Weirder things have happened.
Here, check out some old school MTV promos:
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
MTV to Put a Bit More Music Back, in the A.M.
Posted by Ron at 10:00 PM
Angie Harmon: I'm Not Racist Because I Disagree With Obama
From FOX News courtesy of the Huffington Post newswire:
Angie Harmon is not afraid to come out and say she doesn’t like how President Obama is handling the job — but she’s sick of having to defend herself from being deemed a racist.
"Here's my problem with this, I'm just going to come out and say it. If I have anything to say against Obama it's not because I'm a racist, it's because I don't like what he's doing as President and anybody should be able to feel that way, but what I find now is that if you say anything against him you're called a racist," Harmon told Tarts at Thursday’s Los Angeles launch of the new eyelash-growing formula, Latisse. "But it has nothing to do with it, I don’t care what color he is. I’m just not crazy about what he's doing and I heard all about this, and he’s gonna do that and change and change, so okay … I'm still dressing for a recession over here buddy and we've got unemployment at an all-time high and that was his number one thing and that's the thing I really don't appreciate. If I'm going to disagree with my President, that doesn't make me a racist. If I was to disagree with W, that doesn't make me racist. It has nothing to do with it, it is ridiculous."
More astute observations here.
I wholeheartedly agree: one is not a racist simply because one disagrees with our African-American president. But then, this is weird to me. I criticize President Obama nearly every other day, and I have not yet been called a racist for doing so. At least, not to my face. So why does Ms. Harmon feel the need to state what seems so obvious? For that matter, who is this woman, anyway, and why should anybody give a fuck what she says one way or the other?
Apparently, she's some sort of Hollywood starlet, which probably explains my first question: bigtime entertainment insiders practice a sort of pack liberalism, and dissenters, I imagine, are attacked by wolf-like good-vibes stupid-shit celebrities such as Barbara Streisand and Alec Baldwin. On the other hand, as a bleeding heart liberal, I don't really carry the racial baggage that conservatives like Ms. Harmon do. So maybe I get a break because of my left-wing bona fides. Nixon going to China and all that.
But the TV bimbo definitely raises a good point. It's just that her assertion is much more applicable to the way that critics of Israel's government are branded anti-Semites by America's rabid Israel worshippers than it is to this most likely exaggerated notion that criticizing Obama is tantamount to racism.
Oh well. At least she's still got her money.
Posted by Ron at 1:33 AM
Monday, March 30, 2009
From AlterNet, left-leaning journalist and Master of Divinity Chris Hedges opines on the depressing social role higher learning plays in contemporary culture and politics:
Universities Are Turning into Corporate Drone Factories
Frank Donoghue, the author of "The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities," details how liberal arts education has been dismantled. Any form of learning that is not strictly vocational has at best been marginalized and in many schools has been abolished. Students are steered away from asking the broad, disturbing questions that challenge the assumptions of the power elite or an economic system that serves the corporate state. This has led many bright graduates into the arms of corporate entities they do not examine morally or ethically. They accept the assumptions of corporate culture because they have never been taught to think.
Only 8 percent of U.S. college graduates now receive degrees in the humanities, about 110,000 students. Between 1970 and 2001, bachelor's degrees in English declined from 7.6 percent to 4 percent, as did degrees in foreign languages (2.4 percent to 1 percent), mathematics (3 percent to 1 percent), social science and history (18.4 percent to 10 percent). Bachelor's degrees in business, which promise the accumulation of wealth, have skyrocketed. Business majors since 1970-1971 have risen from 13.6 percent of the graduation population to 21.7 percent. Business has now replaced education, which has fallen from 21 percent to 8.2 percent, as the most popular major.
The values that sustain an open society have been crushed. A university, as John Ralston Saul writes, now "actively seeks students who suffer from the appropriate imbalance and then sets out to exaggerate it. Imagination, creativity, moral balance, knowledge, common sense, a social view -- all these things wither. Competitiveness, having an ever-ready answer, a talent for manipulating situations -- all these things are encouraged to grow. As a result amorality also grows; as does extreme aggressivity when they are questioned by outsiders; as does a confusion between the nature of good versus having a ready answer to all questions. Above all, what is encouraged is the growth of an undisciplined form of self-interest, in which winning is what counts."
This moral nihilism would have terrified Adorno.
The way I see it, I got lucky.
I got my BFA in theater back in 1991. Scared shitless of the whole professional actor thing, I pursued the better part of valor: I went back to school to get another degree. People had been telling me for a couple of years that I would make a good director; figuring what had really inspired my interest in theater and acting over the years were the great movies and television programs I had grown up with, I enrolled in UT's Radio Television Film department. While finding the screen incredibly interesting, I ended up being horrified by the everyday functioning of the industry--I was particularly horrified by one particular longtime television producer who had retired to a post as a television production teacher, but that's another story. Disgusted by what I had discovered, I decided the film maker path was better less traveled. By me, anyway.
But surprise, surprise. I ended up gaining something wonderful that I didn't even realize existed.
The academic study of film and television is a fairly recent phenomenon compared to the study of literature or economics or biology. That is, when scholars started taking movies and TV seriously back in the 60s, there were no existing university departments in which to sequester their work. Consequently, the field was fair game for any academic who could justify chasing after it. English professors, political scientists, anthropologists, economists, psychologists, Marxists, feminists, philosophers, and various other scholars researched, analyzed, and made assertions about movies, television, their industries, how these cultural products are received, and what influence they have. Thus, film and television studies were interdisciplinary and critical from multiple perspectives at the very beginning. This hodge-podge approach was copied and expanded when universities began founding RTF and mass communications departments.
Some thirty years later, I found myself taking courses in all these areas as part of the requirements for my RTF Bachelor of Science. I came there to become a film director, but was blown away by the scholarship. That is, studying RTF made me discover, inadvertently, education's ostensible holy grail: critical thinking. After a few years of analyzing everything from the film Witness to Star Trek to shitty self-indulgent Brian Eno experimental ambient videos in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, and on and on, I discovered that I had gained a knack for looking at art, culture, and politics from multiple angles, and for making value judgments about what I have observed--it's not enough to note that a movie is shitty or great; one must ask what it is about the system that created the movie, what it is about why people respond to it in the ways they do, and what it all means for the powerful and the powerless.
It is now relatively easy for me to expand this intellectual approach to...well...everything.
But like I said, I think I just got lucky. I mean, sure, I was on the debate team in high school, so I already had a feel for politics and economics, and I had only recently completed my study of theater, so I was on fire for "art," whatever that means, but really, I studied RTF more out of a desire to be a professional student than anything else. And it's not even film studies that are so great: I saw many of my fellow students' eyes glazing over during lectures while I felt my eyes opening up--it was particularly distressing to see the lessons from theory classes utterly ignored in production classes. I don't know. It just all came together for me at that point, but apparently not for others.
Anyway, the point here is that, these days, it is relatively easy to earn a Bachelor's Degree without discovering that holy grail called "critical thinking." Indeed, university studies in general are very much unlike what I got studying RTF. That is, during the twentieth century, especially after WWII, almost all American colleges and universities decided to adapt Henry Ford's industrial model to higher education, artificially creating specific "departments" for academic specialization, essentially driving a spike into the heart of the renaissance man who had previously been the desired outcome of university study. No longer would students have a broad grasp of multiple topics; instead, they would "specialize" in one field, and one field only. No longer would university graduates reflect on society and their role within it; instead, they would become "professionals" who pursue careers.
In my humble opinion, the worst thing that's happened to the concept of college is the popular notion that one must possess a degree in order to have a better job--thrown by the wayside is past conventional wisdom, now pie-in-the-sky foolishness, that university study exists to make better human beings, better citizens, better wisdom for guiding society in ever wiser directions. Throw degree-as-financial-investment together with today's hardcore specialization of university departments, and you don't simply get a bland and narrow-minded education: you get the "moral nihilism" Hedges mentions above. Knowledge without context. A recipe for confusion at best, and self-destruction at worst.
And that's pretty much where we are right now. This isn't some recent conspiracy, and in all probability not even a conspiracy at all. We've been headed in this direction for a long time. As industry, and its controlling corporate structures, have gained ever more influence over our most foundational institutions, we, America's college graduates, have all unthinkingly ended up eagerly serving their interests, believing that we are instead serving our own--I mean, we are serving our own interests, individual career interests, but individual interests and a healthy nation are two entirely different things. Today's "best and brightest" are, in fact, brilliant people, but brilliant in only very limited areas, brilliant but blind, unable to see or acknowledge how their work affects the entire tapestry known as society.
It drives me mad, but I have no idea what to do about it.
Posted by Ron at 1:21 AM
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Pat Boone Syndrome
But Pat Boone Syndrome is not as simple as just covering another artist's song. Many, many artists have done great things with other people's music, giving new perspectives or new emotions, creating interpretations that add to what the song has to say. Pat Boone Syndrome has none of these endearing qualities. Artists that suffer from this ailment perform songs in a way that is safer than their original versions and less complicated, adding nothing to the content of the song.
It's late and after a very busy dinner shift at work, I'm tired, not much blogging energy tonight. But the above excerpted essay did catch my attention recently, and it's definitely worth a few words.
Any rock music fan who came of age in the 70s or 80s very probably has or once had a bias against so-called "cover" songs. You know, one artist doing a song originally popularized by another artist. The music industry's reassertion of creative control over its acts in recent years, and its accompanying sense of music-as-product, has very likely blunted such a bias for people under thirty or so, but, once upon a time, the only real rock bands out there were the ones who wrote and performed their own songs. Fuck you, Whitney Houston wailing out your shitty version of an only so-so Dolly Parton tune. Fuck you, early 90s piece-of-shit techno no-name band who covered 10cc's classic "I'm Not In Love." Fuck you boy bands. Fuck you shrill divas. Fuck all of you who aren't capable of writing songs, which is where the real creativity is.
Of course, my personal exploration of jazz over the years has made this attitude, for me, impossible to maintain. All the jazz greats were, and still are, into interpreting songs. "Duke's Place" done by Duke Ellington is great, and waaay different from the same tune, also great, performed by Louis Armstrong with Duke on piano, or even Duke's earlier version of the song, also great, called "C Jam Blues." All great, all unique statements of musical art, all the same song. The anti-cover bias simply cannot exist in jazz; it misses the point entirely.
Nonetheless, there are some rock covers that continue to be worthy of scorn and derision. Pat Boone's cover of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" is a case in point.
Here, check out the original:
Now check out what Pat Boone did with it:
But, like I was saying, it's not covering a song that's the bad idea here: rather, it's covering somebody else's song for all the wrong reasons; it's failing to interpret the song. When an artist plays somebody else's tune and succeeds, however, it's like magic.
Another case in point. The Rolling Stone's "Satisfaction." Check it out:
Contrasted with Devo's radical departure:
I'm still a bit disturbed, thirty years after first hearing it, by how far Devo takes it. But hey, that's fucking powerful. That's art.
Posted by Ron at 2:41 AM
Friday, March 27, 2009
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Board of Education evolves into sideshow
From the Houston Chronicle:
Ever seen a cat-dog? Of course not! That just proves it’s impossible for one species to evolve into another.
The human brain seems not to have changed since homo sapiens first appeared 150,000 years ago. That means evolution is false.
We don’t have every bone, so the fossil record undercuts the theory of evolution.
A few scientists have fudged proof of evolution, so that calls into question all the other evidence.
These are the brilliant observations and insinuations of a particularly dangerous right-wing fringe group: the seven-member social conservative bloc of the State Board of Education. (The cat-dog example, if you must know, is the brainchild of Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, who seems to be incapable of understanding that it takes millions, if not billions of years for so-called macro-evolution to occur.)
If the Legislature is the circus, the Board of Education is the sideshow. And this week, they’re back in town.
The event in Austin would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high.
The 15 board members hold in their hands the future of science curriculum in Texas public schools for the next decade. This week, after what promises to be another intense round of debate, they’ll cast final votes on how to teach evolution.
Increasingly, I'm having nothing but contempt for the creationists. They're fucking stupid. And, no, I'm not at all being narrow minded here. Creationists are total fucktards. I mean, okay, an individual can believe any stupid shit he wants, you know, like Santa Claus, or UFOs, or the Loch Ness Monster, or the Astros winning ninety games this season, anything. But the creationists want to force their loony tune bullshit on the whole fucking country, and damn the consequences.
These are fucking science classes we're talking about here. And creationism, intelligent design, whatever you want to call it, needless to say, just isn't science. You know, the government doesn't require evolution to be taught in Sunday school; why the fuck do the creationists insist their backward-ass bullshit be taught in public school?
Filthy fucking witch doctors. They should just go back to their grass huts, caves, and trailer parks. This world isn't for them.
Posted by Ron at 10:11 PM
QUIS CUSTODIET IPSOS CUSTODES
Means "Who Polices the Police?"
From the Houston Chronicle:
FBI says Conroe sergeant stole $28,000 from bank
A Conroe Police Department veteran accused of robbing a Montgomery County bank where he also worked as a security guard was released on $100,000 bail Wednesday, but with conditions.
Arrested on Tuesday, Tindall is accused of stealing more than $28,000 from the First Bank of Conroe last August, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is charged with one count of bank robbery. Tindall was off-duty when the bank was robbed, police said.
Investigators say co-workers from the bank and the Police Department recognized Tindall as the thief on surveillance videotapes that captured the robbery even though he wore gloves, a white helmet with a clear visor, aviator-style sunglasses, a dark-colored jacket or shirt, blue jeans and athletic shoes.
And Tindall didn't simply steal this money: he robbed it. The difference is important to note because robbery, compared to theft, involves violence or the threat of violence, making it a much worse crime. As if theft wasn't bad enough. At least he wasn't on duty when it happened; on the other hand, Tindall used his status as police officer to put himself in a position to get some inside info to help with his bank job plans.
This is so fucking trashy, like a scene from GoodFellas or something. Perfect for Conroe.
But then, this isn't really about trashiness or Conroe, either. We live in a country where cops rape women they've pulled over for speeding, snort coke they've ripped off from dealers on the dashboards of their squad cars, sell drugs, beat the fuck out of prisoners, arrest people for "driving while black," and on and on and on. Trashy cop-robbers in Conroe fit very nicely into this pattern.
Like I always say, this isn't another case of a bad apple gone wrong: we have a chronic, systemic problem with cops violating the law, constantly, all the time. There is something about being a cop, or at least something about being a cop in the way we understand the term in the US, that makes this kind of behavior so common. That is, American police culture is confrontational, hyper-masculine, authoritarian, self-aggrandizing, arrogant, and mired in us-versus-them attitudes that result in an above-the-law sensibility, and pressure good cops to keep their mouths shut when they see bad cops being bad.
This will not change until police culture changes. I don't expect this to happen anytime soon.
Posted by Ron at 12:46 AM
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
LEARNING ABOUT THIS GREAT RECESSION
Democracy Now Interviews Paul Krugman
From Democracy Now:
AMY GOODMAN: Paul Krugman, what would a new system look like? What would you advocate?
PAUL KRUGMAN: I think, in the end, we’re going to have to go back to something that is kind of like the system that emerged from the New Deal, which was tightly regulated banks and financial institutions, limits on risk taking, fairly high taxes for high earners, which—it turns out that, you know, low tax rates create incentives, but the incentives are actually to play dangerous games with other people’s money. A lot of things need to be updated for the twenty-first century and information technology and so on, but basically, our grandfathers got this thing right. Our grandfathers understood that finance is useful but dangerous and needs to be very tightly hedged about with regulations.
Click here to watch, listen to, or read the rest.
Last night I was hanging out with my ex celebrating her birthday. (Happy birthday, Becky!) We were channel surfing the TV after a while, and lingered for a bit on Charlie Rose interviewing some economists about Obama's bank bailout plan. The conversation just went on and on. I turned to Becky and said, "you know, I feel like I've got a pretty decent layman's understanding of all this, and could explain it if you wanted, but it's so fucking complicated that it would take a while, and I'm sure that fifteen or twenty minutes into it you'd be regretting asking me about it."
"All I know is that it's terrible," said Becky. Indeed. Can't argue with that.
And that's essentially where most Americans are coming from on the banking crisis. They know it's terrible, which it is. They know it's all like some big rigged game, favoring the inside gamers, and fucking everybody else, which is also true. Beyond that, however, it's one big Gordian Knot. I've been trying to use this space to educate whoever happens to drop by, mostly friends and a few net-surfing strangers, but I fear that explaining even my limited understanding of events is as eye-glazing and off-putting as, say, memorizing the Periodic Table, or reading Joyce, or whatever else put you to sleep in high school.
It's a damned shame that we don't teach economics K-12. I mean, really, economics and politics are ultimately indistinguishable in terms of real power, and the educational establishment just doesn't give a shit. It's almost as though they want us to be ignorant so as to make us more controllable. But that's another story.
The bottom line is that there's some serious shit going down right now, and most people have virtually no understanding of it, which means they have no say in the matter. So I strongly urge you, dear reader, to educate yourself, if you haven't been doing so already. This interview with Krugman is a good start--he can get wonkish at times, but his forte as a public intellectual is putting complicated terminology and ideas into plain everyday language. But you should go beyond the talking heads. Read up on John Keynes, the economist behind FDR's New Deal, who is now extraordinarily important because the current economic crisis is very similar to what the nation was facing back in the 30s. But you should also read up on neoliberalism, the now failed economic paradigm that replaced Keynesianism in the 70s, and is now responsible for this Great Recession. Read liberals; read conservatives. Compare and contrast. Don't feel like you need to master it all, like you need to understand everything. You won't. It's just too much information. Even economists are admitting today that there's a lot they don't know about what's happening. Just try to get a handle on the discussion. Just get yourself to where you can follow along. Believe me, you'll be in a much better position than you were when cries of "deficit!" seemed like a reasonable objection to the stimulus bill.
And do yourself a favor. Limit your self-education to no more than thirty minutes a day. It will prevent information overload and the frustration which usually accompanies it. More importantly, it will keep you from wallowing for hours in depressing and frightening news the way I do--man, in some ways it's like watching 9/11 on TV over and over again, if you know what I mean.
This Matt Taibbi essay from Rolling Stone is really good, too: "AIG is what happens when short, bald managers of otherwise boring financial bureaucracies start seeing Brad Pitt in the mirror." Check it out.
Posted by Ron at 10:35 PM
Monday, March 23, 2009
From the Houston Chronicle:
EPA: Toxic emissions in Texas drop in 2007
Texas industries released fewer toxic chemicals into the environment in 2007 than the year before, according to newly released federal data.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest statistics show that the state’s emissions dropped 7 percent, outpacing the reductions of the nation as a whole.
Still, Texas remained one of the biggest polluters among states, behind Alaska, Ohio and Indiana in the release of chemicals that cause cancer, neurological damage or other ills.
Harris County, meanwhile, continued to lead Texas — and ranked No. 11 among counties nationwide — with the release of 39 million pounds of toxic chemicals. The county, home to 321 chemical plants, factories and refineries, reported a 4 percent reduction from 2006 to 2007.
Brazoria County ranked second in the state with 31 million pounds, and Jefferson County was third with 21 million pounds.
The EPA’s annual Toxic Release Inventory tracks the emissions of 650 chemicals at 22,000 facilities nationwide. Although the inventory has become a widely used resource since it started in 1988, it has been criticized for relying on industry-reported estimates.
Well, misleading headlines aside, the opening paragraphs of the article tell you just about everything you need to know. Texas emissions are down, but on a sliding scale, Texas continues to have incredibly toxic air. That is, when you weigh four hundred pounds, losing twenty is nice, but barely scratches the surface. When you're at rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.
Of course, the saddest part of this is that we don't even really know that Texas has cut toxic emissions by seven percent: this an industry figure, not something researched by the EPA; worse, it's an industry estimate--they don't even know, or at least, they don't want to reveal the actual numbers. For that matter, we don't even really know how bad Texas pollution actually is.
And the punchline to all this, for me anyway, is that I've spent most of my life in Harris County, the worst in Texas, and one of the worst in the nation. Maybe. If the industry reported figures are accurate, which I'm pretty certain are not. Even funnier, when I was teaching, I spent six years living in East Harris County, which is the worst in the county.
I'll be lucky if I don't end up with eye cancer or something equally rare and bizarre.
Posted by Ron at 7:11 PM
OBAMA'S NEW BANK BAILOUT PLAN
The New York Times' resident Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman on the latest version of the bank bailout plan:
Financial Policy Despair
But the Obama administration, like the Bush administration, apparently wants an easier way out. The common element to the Paulson and Geithner plans is the insistence that the bad assets on banks’ books are really worth much, much more than anyone is currently willing to pay for them. In fact, their true value is so high that if they were properly priced, banks wouldn’t be in trouble.
And so the plan is to use taxpayer funds to drive the prices of bad assets up to “fair” levels. Mr. Paulson proposed having the government buy the assets directly. Mr. Geithner instead proposes a complicated scheme in which the government lends money to private investors, who then use the money to buy the stuff. The idea, says Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, is to use “the expertise of the market” to set the value of toxic assets.
But the Geithner scheme would offer a one-way bet: if asset values go up, the investors profit, but if they go down, the investors can walk away from their debt. So this isn’t really about letting markets work. It’s just an indirect, disguised way to subsidize purchases of bad assets.
But the real problem with this plan is that it won’t work. Yes, troubled assets may be somewhat undervalued. But the fact is that financial executives literally bet their banks on the belief that there was no housing bubble, and the related belief that unprecedented levels of household debt were no problem. They lost that bet. And no amount of financial hocus-pocus — for that is what the Geithner plan amounts to — will change that fact.
So what Obama is proposing is a public-risk/private-profit venture. If these unnamed investors picked by the government to buy up what economist and uber-blogger Atrios calls "Big Shitpile," that is, the mortgage-backed toxic assets, manage to make some money in the process, they get to keep it, if they lose money, however, they've lost taxpayer money, our money, not theirs.
How can this possibly be described as harnessing "the expertise of the market"? Market incentives simply do not apply in this situation. To these investors, it's Monopoly money, free money to wheel and deal, with no chance of loss. For them, anyway. To the American people, however, these probable losses are very real, indeed.
Look, the bottom line here is that most of the money lost in these toxic assets is gone forever, burned up by the bursting of the real estate bubble, and the only way out is for the government, the American taxpayer, to eat the loss. The only question is how we're going to eat it. What Obama and his Treasury team of Wall Street insiders want is to preserve, as much as possible, the banking and finance system that caused the mess in the first place, and to spread around to these people as much wealth as possible, greatly upping the ante on what capitalists call "moral hazard," or more simply, rewarding lunatic financial behavior with cold hard cash, thereby guaranteeing that lunatic financial behavior will continue.
There's gotta be a better way.
Krugman briefly spells out the time honored solution to such crises: the government guarantees much of this debt for solvent banks, while taking over and reorganizing insolvent banks. Historically, this works. Yes, taxpayers would take a huge loss, as we did during the S&L crisis of the late 80s, but the traditional route deals directly with the "moral hazard" problem, removing permanently the financial entities that caused the crisis, and does so much more efficiently, spending less taxpayer money, than the bizarre Monopoly money scheme Obama's banker pals are proposing.
If President Obama is really serious about this harebrained plan, I think it is now safe to say that in many ways he is little better than Herbert Hoover was during the opening years of the Great Depression. Or George W. Bush during the last eight years. Okay, in many ways Obama is actually better than Bush, who would have tried to tax cut us out of this Great Recession, but for this crisis, the financial and banking crisis, Obama is exactly the same as Bush. That is, like Bush, Obama is Wall Street's man.
And that's change I cannot believe in.
Posted by Ron at 12:17 AM
Saturday, March 21, 2009
From Hullabaloo courtesy of Eschaton, blogger Digby opines on one crusading reporter's reaction to former California Congressman Gary Condit's recent exoneration of his former intern and lover's 2001 murder:
The man is gulty of having an affair, which destroyed his life, and which had nothing whatsoever to do with the disappearance and murder of Chandra Levy. Gary Condit didn't even break any laws. But DePaulo still insists that he is some sort of sociopath --- and excuses her own disgusting behavior by comparing his "crime" to homicide saying he deserved the twisted obsession in which she and her cohorts drowned themselves that horrid summer. (But then that particular illness had been prevalent in Washington for some years at that point, hadn't it?)
I submit that she is the one with the problem, a big one. And it's a problem that renders her incapable of being a reliable journalist. If she cannot see that wrongly accusing someone of being a murderer requires a serious reevaluation of where she went wrong and a sincere apology for doing it, then she can't be trusted. She obviously has no ethical compass.
This horrible little screed is the most vivid example of everything that's wrong with American journalism I've seen in quite some time --- the adolescent shallowness, the shrill sanctimony, the arrogance with which they wield their power, the sheer immorality of wrongly accusing someone of a heinous crime and feeling absolutely no remorse.
Yes, well, arrogance and stupidity often walk hand in hand, especially for bigtime journalists, as comedian Jon Stewart continually observes. But what's really disturbing here is the corporate news media's tendency to pander to America's lust for vengeance. CNN's former prosecutor and professional cunt Nancy Grace is an obvious example, as was all the media cheerleading for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but this shit is all over the journalistic landscape: cute little Ashleigh Banfield is currently advocating hard prison time for teens who send or forward naughty pics of themselves through cyberspace. Creepy.
Really, what's most disturbing of all, however, is that Americans are in love with revenge, and that sacrificial scapegoats sate this hunger well. I mean, this is a cultural strain that goes all the way back to the Salem witch trials. You'd think that a nation as sophisticated and advanced as ours would have long ago come to the realization that vengeance is utterly useless, counterproductive even. Revenge doesn't do anything good at all: it doesn't make the streets safer; it doesn't reduce crime; it doesn't reverse the effects of crime; it doesn't bring back murdered loved ones; it doesn't make anyone rest easier at night. It does nothing but perpetuate anger and hatred. Crime, too, for that matter.
So if vengeance is so counterproductive, why do we love it so much? Answer: "'Vengeance is mine,' thus sayeth the Lord." Christianity, which oozes from the pores of all Westerners, whether they're Christians or not, especially Americans, is all about revenge. The entire system of thought is based on revenge: indeed, Hell is the ultimate manifestation of God's vengeance. That's what the universe is about, avoiding or receiving God's vengeance. And such theology is deeply embedded in Western thought. Americans love seeing bad things happen to people we hate, and Americans hate lots of people.
I'd like to blame this on the fundamentalists, who are particularly bloodthirsty, but the notion of revenge is so widespread, so popular, it just wouldn't be fair--besides, some fundamentalists are starting too see writing on the wall that says their era is kaput, and I have no doubt that American Vengeance will be with us for many years to come. No, vengeance, as a philosophy of right and wrong, is extraordinarily secular at this point. And it's just awful.
As the Klingons say, "vengeance is a dish best served cold." Or not at all.
Posted by Ron at 10:44 PM
Friday, March 20, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
U.S. births broke record in 2007; 40% were out of wedlock
From the AP via the Houston Chronicle:
However, the teen birth rate was up for the second year in a row.
The birth rate rose slightly for women of all ages, and births to unwed mothers reached an all-time high of about 40 percent, continuing a trend begun years ago. More than three-quarters of these women were 20 or older.
For a variety of reasons, it’s become more acceptable for women to have babies without a husband, said Duke University’s S. Philip Morgan, a leading fertility researcher.
Even happy couples may be living together without getting married, experts say. And more women — especially those in their 30s and 40s — are choosing to have children despite their single status.
Meanwhile, U.S. abortions have been dropping to their lowest levels in decades, according to other reports. Some have attributed the abortion decline to better use of contraceptives, but other experts have wondered if the rise in births might indicate a failure in proper use of contraceptives. Some earlier studies have shown declining availability of abortions.
Cultural attitudes may be a more likely explanation.
A few observations.
1. It's time for white racist assholes to shut the fuck up about the problem with black single mothers. This isn't a black problem, if it is indeed a problem at all; this is an American problem. But like I said, it may not even be a problem. If single women want to have children, they should be able to do so without shame or social stigma, and with a great deal of help from the government, you know, free day care, free health care for both mothers and children, for everybody really, steep increases in the minimum wage, which tend to drive up all wages, and on and on. We really need to craft a society that is family friendly. Damned shame that all those "family values" idiots are dead set against such a thing.
2. It's well past time to define the word "family" as being something that includes much more than groups of people consisting of a father, mother, and their children. Really, in practice, that's happened some time ago. It's only the corporate media and asshole politicians who haven't caught up yet. Unfortunately, that also means the law hasn't caught up with reality yet, either.
3. Regardless of whether we have the will or ability to make the US more family friendly, you know that some of these single mothers didn't want to be mothers at all, especially the teenagers: "abstinence based" sex education has got to go, got to be replaced by comprehensive sex ed, which teaches kids how to use condoms, and why they are so extraordinarily important, rather than ignoring them, or lying about birth control failure rates. Likewise, forty years of anti-abortion propaganda has to be reversed. There is no shame in having an abortion if you don't want to be pregnant. Society shouldn't guilt people into having children they don't want.
And if we can get everybody on the birth control bandwagon, abortion, as an issue, would be exceedingly rare in incidence. Why can't the "pro-life" people understand that?
Posted by Ron at 10:51 PM
AIG: CORRUPT TO THE CORE
From Newsweek courtesy of Eschaton:
The Next AIG Scandal?
Most of this as-yet-undiscovered problem, Gober says, lies in the area of reinsurance, whereby one insurance company insures the liabilities of another so that the latter doesn't have to carry all the risk on its books. Most major insurance companies use outside firms to reinsure, but the vast majority of AIG's reinsurance contracts are negotiated internally among its affiliates, Gober says, and these internal balance sheets don't add up. The annual report of one major AIG subsidiary, American Home Assurance, shows that it owes $25 billion to another AIG affiliate, National Union Fire, Gober maintains. But American has only $22 billion of total invested assets on its balance sheet, he says, and it has issued another $22 billion in guarantees to the other companies. "The American Home assets and liquidity raise serious questions about their ability to make good on their promise to National Union Fire," says Gober, who has a consulting business devoted to protecting policyholders. Gober says there are numerous other examples of "cooked books" between AIG subsidiaries. Based on the state insurance regulators' own reports detailing unanswered questions, the tally in losses could be hundreds of billions of dollars more than AIG is now acknowledging.
AIG spokesman Mark Herr took strong exception: "We strongly disagree with Mr. Gober's analysis, which lacks a fundamental understanding of our commercial insurance operations' inter-company risk sharing agreements or even the basics of statutory accounting. Our primary regulators, including New York and Pennsylvania, regularly review our statutory filings as well as our intra-company risk sharing pool, and have raised no objections to this structure. They have repeatedly stated that we have sufficient financial strength to meet our obligations. In fact, in today's hearing on AIG, Joel Ario, Pennsylvania State Insurance Commissioner, commented that the insurance companies of AIG remain strong and well capitalized."
Right. Well, Enron said pretty much the same thing, "you don't understand." For that matter, Enron was also cooking the books, shifting around balance sheets and accounting deficits between multiple subsidiaries and whatnot in order to hide the fact that it was a paper tiger. And same thing with regulatory agencies: everybody thought Enron was in great shape until the day it no longer existed.
Granted, this potential AIG fraud is suggested by just one guy's analysis, but given the overall Wall Street cultural context, one of outrageous greed mixed with corporate contempt for regulation and reality, as well as the insurance giant's current credit default swap debacle mixed with its bonus scandal, I'd say there's enough here for an investigation. Sadly, as the article observes, there is no such thing as federal insurance regulations; only the states regulate insurance, which means only the states have legal power, at the moment, to look into this.
And that's kind of crazy, too. How is it possible that a firm as enormous as AIG, a firm with octopus tentacles all over the fucking place, is by and large out of the feds' reach? I've known for a long time how terrible neoliberal anti-regulation mania is for the country, but I'm starting to think it's far worse than I could have ever imagined. And what I've already imagined is pretty fucking horrible.
This is all so psychotic.
Posted by Ron at 12:23 AM
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
BAILOUT FOLLIES GET REALLY FUNNY
From the New York Times courtesy of Eschaton:
Cuomo Details Million-Dollar Bonuses at A.I.G
Mr. Cuomo did not name the bonus recipients, but the numbers are eye-popping, given A.I.G.’s fragile state. The highest bonus was $6.4 million, and six other employees received more than $4 million, according to Mr. Cuomo. Fifteen other people received bonuses of more than $2 million, and 51 people received bonuses of $1 million to $2 million, Mr. Cuomo said. Eleven of those who received “retention” bonuses of $1 million or more are no longer working at A.I.G., including one who received $4.6 million, he said.
A.I.G., which is now 80 percent owned by the government, paid out the so-called retention payments, saying the bonuses were needed to persuade workers to remain at its financial products unit. But the payouts have caused a public furor, and the White House said on Monday that the Treasury would write new requirements about the bonus money in the next $30 billion that it provides to the insurance giant. Already, the government has given A.I.G. $170 billion.
Just in case you haven't been following the hairy details of the banking and credit crisis, the reason AIG must be bailed out is that this is the company that insured, via an obscure financial instrument known as a "credit default swap," the majority of those now toxic "mortgage backed" securities. That is, they're now in hock for billions because so many investment banking firms bet the farm on these stupider-than-shit "investments" in subprime loans on houses, many of which are now in foreclosure, and AIG, for a fee, agreed to pay if these bets failed. And when the real estate bubble burst, these bets failed bigtime.
I'm still agog over the sheer stupidity of it all. It was stupid to make mortgage loans to people who couldn't pay them. It was stupid to bundle those loans into "securities" to be bought by investors. It was stupid for ratings agencies to rate these "securities" as triple A, the safest available. It was stupid for investors to buy them. It was stupid for AIG to insure them.
But everybody on Wall Street was in on the game; everybody covered their eyes and ears and pretended that it was going to work out with them getting richer. And because everybody was in on it, the entire system of finance now teeters on the brink of utter disaster. And AIG is at ground zero. If they fail, the whole shithouse caves in. On the whole fucking world.
Only the bailout has forestalled the inevitable. I say "inevitable" because if the White House and Congress continue on their present course, handing over warehouses of money without strings to the greedy idiots who caused the crisis in the first place, the wolves of Wall Street will repeat their mistakes. With our fucking money this time.
That is, AIG is insolvent. We own their ass. They only exist because of massive injections of capital by the Fed. This capital infusion has kept them from going under, and AIG knows it all too well, but they're behaving as if there were no crisis, as if their own actions haven't placed us all in grave economic danger. In many ways, these outrageous bonuses of taxpayer dollars they're handing out are no surprise at all. That's Reaganomics era business-as-usual--for many years now, CEOs of major corporations, for instance, have gotten millions and millions in bonuses whether their companies performed well or not. The whole upper eschalon of corporate capitalist culture is about enriching tribe members at the expense of whoever they can rip off. Historically, it's their workers who have been fleeced, receiving stagnating wages and fewer benefits while their productivity increases, so that executives can party like it's 1999. But right now, with AIG, it's the whole fucking country they're ripping off. And they don't give a fuck what we think about it. They've never given a fuck what anybody thinks about it.
I hope you realize that they've got tribe members working in very high positions in the White House. When the administration first responded to outrage over these bonuses last weekend, the story was along the lines of "well, you know, it's a contract and all, and you just can't break a contract." Never mind the fact that the bailout of the big three automakers forced unions to void their contracts while making wage and benefit concessions--workers aren't part of the tribe; so that's okay. I guess. But the point is that the whole contract issue is bullshit. And once it became clear how pissed off people are about the bonuses, the White House quickly changed its tune.
The bottom line here is that the federal government needs to get serious about resolving the finance crisis. That means raping and pillaging. Taking no prisoners. Nationalizing these "too big to fail" failed institutions. Firing all these assholes who caused the crisis, and who continue to profit from it. I know that some observers, NPR earlier today for instance, assert that these people are the only ones who know enough about the issues involved to actually fix them, but these bankers and executives cannot be trusted. At this point, I'd feel safer if Wall Street was run by third year undergrad accounting students from Big State U--at least they'd cost a whole lot less.
By the same reasoning, Obama needs to fire the entire Treasury Department. They're in the tribe. They're the ones who keep playing footsy, fucking around, handing over mountains of money with no oversight because they won't hurt fellow tribe members, or violate their holy belief in free markets. It's almost funny that they've already violated their own beliefs, but can't come to terms with what they're doing, or summon the willpower to go all the way.
One must now wonder whether President Obama is part of the tribe, too, or if, instead, he made a genuine mistake in hiring these bozos. The latter is forgivable. The former is not.
Posted by Ron at 12:27 AM
Monday, March 16, 2009
ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S NOTORIOUS
Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the American daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, is recruited by government agent T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a group of Germans who have relocated to Brazil after World War II.
While awaiting the details of her assignment in Rio de Janeiro, Alicia falls in love with Devlin. His feelings for her are complicated by his knowledge of her wild past. When Devlin is ordered to convince her to seduce Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains), one of her father's friends and a member of the group, Devlin tries to convince his superiors that Alicia is not fit for the job. But upon seeing Alcia again, he puts up a stoic front, prioritizing duty over love. Alicia concludes that he does not love her, and she eventually weds Alex.
So I dug up an appropriate Alfred Hitchcock trailer for yesterday's post, and while doing that I came upon one of my favorite Hitch films in full, divided into eleven parts. Notorious isn't brilliant; it's not Vertigo or Psycho or anything along those lines, but it's extraordinarily solid, and a piece of technical virtuosity, especially the interplay between quick cutting and long takes. But really, what it's about to me is the mythical South American post WWII Nazi conspiracy narrative, champagne, Carey Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. It is almost impossible to go wrong with such a combination. In the hands of Alfred Hitchcock, it's pretty badass.
You really ought to watch this.
Here's part one:
Posted by Ron at 9:27 PM
The Criminal Injustice System
From CounterPunch, a new essay by former Reagan administration economist and current conservative dissident Paul Craig Roberts:
I am familiar with psychological studies that conclude that eye witness accounts are wrong half of the time. That is enough to discredit eye witness testimony as evidence; yet, police and juries always bank on it.
The American criminal justice system is incapable of admitting that it makes mistakes. The criminology bureaucrats claim that those inmates who proclaim their innocence are in denial and, thus, cannot be rehabilitated and, therefore, remain dangerous. In truth, it is the bureaucrats who are in denial and constitute a danger to justice.
The criminal justice system has nothing to do with justice. It is a massive producer of injustice. The agenda is to clear court dockets and to produce high conviction rates. These high rates are achieved through coerced plea bargains.
On February 12, CBS News reported that two Pennsylvania judges have been charged with sending kids to privately operated detention centers in exchange for $2.6 million in payoffs.
The US has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world. With 5 percent of the world’s population, the US has 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates. Recent research by the Pew Center concludes that one in every 31 Americans is in prison or jail or on probation or parole.
I hope and pray that I am never ever ever ever somehow caught up in the grips of this American institution, the criminal justice system, that is clearly and obviously out of control. Roberts does a nice job of touching on some of the major Kafkaesque absurdities and contradictions of the anti-crime industry, but he left out one of the major issues: American "justice" is horrifyingly skewed toward innocent people of color, especially African-Americans; extraordinarily unfair, but fortunate for me, my white skin affords some amount of protection against this bureaucratic monster.
I've posted countless times here at Real Art about how police forces across the nation are often little better than predators. I've posted on how jury duty is for me at best problematic, and at worst immoral. But none of that really gets across the sheer enormity of the scandal: the police and the courts are about processing people, some guilty, some innocent, for reasons that have little to do with determining the truth, little to do with justice. It's all so much more about the careers of cops, judges, lawyers, and politicians, what's good for them. Not about what's good for the people, good for the nation.
This ought to be front page news every fucking day. This ought to be right up there on President Obama's priority list, along with the economy and terrorism. But it's not. Almost nobody is talking about it. For a long time, I've wondered if I'm a bit weird to be so nervous about cops. Increasingly, with each death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence, with each story I read about police misbehavior or bizarre overzealous prosecution, I'm starting to think my fear of police is healthy.
After all, they have the power to upend your life, or take it away permanently, whether you've broken the law or not. And they have legions of people in business suits working for the government ready and gleefully willing to stamp the process with a legal seal of approval.
Ever seen Hitchcock's The Wrong Man? Check out the trailer:
Fiction yes, fantasy no.
Posted by Ron at 1:38 AM
Saturday, March 14, 2009
CAUGHT ON TAPE: LAISSEZ FAIRE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
From Comedy Central courtesy of Eschaton, the Daily Show episode everybody's talking about:
From Merriam-Webster Online:
lais·sez–faireA little background. For about a week now, John Stewart has been lambasting cable business news channel CNBC for being wrong about pretty much everything regarding the many years of runup to the financial meltdown and Great Recession we are currently enduring. I've been checking clips of this stuff out over at Crooks and Liars, and it's been a fun ride. But with each successive episode, with each new response from CNBC, Stewart's tone has become incrementally as serious as the subject he has been addressing. That is, it was riotously funny to watch a clip of Jim Cramer touting Bear Sterns stocks a few days before they fell so dramatically that the Fed had to bail them out, riotously funny to see clip after clip of this shit, but after a couple of days, it was just painful: the awful truth, that the mainstream news media is just as responsible for the horrible state of our economy as the Wall Street wolves, corporate lobbyists, and bribe-drunk politicians who poured the gasoline and lit the matches, kind of kicks you in the gut.
1 : a doctrine opposing governmental interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights
2 : a philosophy or practice characterized by a usually deliberate abstention from direction or interference especially with individual freedom of choice and action
: psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously
As I've said several times here before, comedy is serious business. Or it ought to be.
And this Daily Show episode is no exception. In fact, it's so serious that it gets downright weird. Stewart pounds CNBC's Jim Cramer, former hedge fund manager and host of the network's stalwart show Mad Money, relentlessly, rubbing his nose in his own bullshit again and again. Cramer sputters and stammers, providing no satisfying answers to Stewart's questions.
I mean, short of "look, we're just a propaganda vehicle for Wall Street, and when they blow it, so do we," there are no satisfying answers Cramer can give. I've got to give the man some credit, though. He was nice. He was good natured. He was honest. Okay, he wasn't telling the truth, either, but not because he was lying. That is, in order to lie, one must consciously misrepresent the truth. Cramer is obviously one of those right-wingers, among many, who honestly believes his own bullshit. He's a true blue free market fundamentalist, a neoliberal, a supply-sider, a bigtime cheerleader for the laissez faire economics that have driven this country for the last thirty years. And now the whole theoretical framework has totally fallen apart. Cramer's not a liar, not an asshole. It's just that his beliefs are now utterly at odds with reality, and that hasn't quite set in yet.
He's suffering what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Indeed, most conservatives are suffering cognitive dissonance, and reacting in various ways. Compared to people like, say, Rush Limbaugh, who simply ignores reality and ramps up his anger as a coping strategy, Cramer's reaction is downright uplifting.
It remains to be seen what will come of all this. An entire segment of American society must necessarily now rethink its cosmology, and its own self-worth, if it wants to participate in rebuilding, rather than destroying, the nation. Most of them are not evil assholes like Limbaugh; like Cramer, they're nice people who genuinely believe their now discredited economic ideas are helpful to most Americans. It's kind of sad thinking about twenty million or so fellow countrymen coming to the conclusion that they've unwittingly supported for years ideas, policies, politicians, and institutions that have harmed their country. And that's how this interview with Jim Cramer ultimately makes me feel, sad.
On the other hand, I've always been very much of the opinion that it's not really funny unless someone gets hurt. Judged by that standard, this Daily Show episode is the funniest thing I've encountered in recent memory.
(Hat tip to my buddy Reuben for inspiring me to post on this)
Posted by Ron at 10:03 PM
Friday, March 13, 2009
Thursday, March 12, 2009
FAT CAT CORPORATE HONCHOS FROM ANOTHER UNIVERSE
From Bloomberg courtesy of Eschaton:
Dimon Says System Can Be Saved If ‘Vilification’ Ends
Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co., said the U.S. can rescue its banking system by the end of the year if officials start cooperating and stop the “vilification” of corporate America.
“When I hear the constant vilification of corporate America, I personally don’t understand it,” Dimon said in his speech. “I would ask a lot of our folks in government to stop doing it because I think it’s hurting our country.”
It is a legitimate argument to assert that the great things corporations have accomplished outweigh their great misdeeds. I don't know that this is necessarily true, mind you, but it's a reasonable argument to make. After all, corporations, as an economic force, have provided me with this relatively inexpensive computer on which I am now typing. Corporations bring me the wonderful bounty of food I eat everyday. A small corporation currently employs me. And on and on. On the other hand, corporations pollute the environment, subvert our precious democracy, drive us to war, and sometimes straight-up murder people, and get away with it. You get the idea. Interesting argument, lots of good points on both sides.
But to not understand why people would think of corporations as villains places one squarely outside of this reality. In another universe, in fact. In the last decade we've watched as energy corporations used their political leverage to rewrite state regulations, and then gamed them to fleece consumers of billions. We've watched the Enron and Worldcom debacles. We've watched our pets die from eating tainted food; we've suffered through endless E. coli and salmonella scares. We've watched carbon emissions ramp up the greenhouse effect, which is now changing our climate for the worse. We've watched an endless parade of politicians from both major parties accept the legal bribes known as campaign contributions and then repay these favors with countless bad laws.
We've watched irresponsible greedy bankers like Dimon place our entire economy in dire jeopardy.
And Dimon doesn't get why corporations are villanized? Totally from another universe.
Posted by Ron at 10:31 PM