Thursday, October 29, 2009

South Carolina Legislature Rethinks Socialism, Taps Stimulus $$

The state legislature in South Carolina acted Wednesday to send millions of dollars in benefits to the unemployed, reports Yvonne Wenger of the Post and Courier. The state legislature acted to correct an "oversight" that prevented the use of stimulus funds, Wenger reports, extending benefits for five months. About 113,000 residents have exhausted their benefits so far this year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dispatch from the Unserious Empire

On the White House's chess game with the military, I've really got to hand it to them. Their "credible partner" position is a well-constructed ruse for buying some time.

Upside, the position calls out the elephant in the room, i.e., Hamid Karzai's highly in-credible government. It waits to see the outcome of the predicted-here November run-off election between him and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Does anyone seriously think Karzai, having fixed 30% of the votes in the prior election, isn't going to run the same play again? When he wins, the White House can pen the Pentagon and coup d'etat Republicans in by saying, "Look, you've got a fine plan for nation-building there, but you yourselves have said it requires a credible partner to work. Which we unfortunately don't have. What's military theory say have to say about this new situation?"

Downside is, the White House's position is a lawlerly, even pharisaical ploy unlikely to achieve much else. It was just a political punt, and puts off the hard decisions of reallocation. Or as history will call it, withdrawal, defeat, ignomy. Worse, if the challenger is somehow elected, Afghanistan will remain a country with a puppet government everyone hates, one which will continue to generate a major insurgency. Unlikely as it may be, the military could point to an Abdullah Outcome and say, "Look, here's your credible partner. Ante up."

Wheels within wheels, but the net-net is we're still left with a war and an exceptionalist mindset which are together responsible for not having universal health care domestically, for an increasingly patronage-based economy, and for generating motivation for well-deserved vengeance on US civilians across much of the world.

For a more professional take, check out Frontline’s interview with former Col. Andrew Bacevich, author of the bestseller 'The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.' The interviewer and Bacevich discuss the short tours of duty Marines have in Afghanistan and how that's contrary to basic principles of counterinsurgency doctrine. They have this exchange:
Bacevich: “A serious imperial country is a country that is willing to send its young men, and now young women, to these far-off places and leave them there indefinitely. That's not what I would hope we would do. But if indeed you're serious about fixing a place like Afghanistan, that's the level of commitment that probably would be required.”

Interviewer: “We're a reluctant empire?”

Bacevich: “We're not a reluctant empire. We're an unserious empire."
For all their sins, China, Russia, Holland, Spain, England, these weren't fly-by-night operations. America has been, turning on its partners as soon as the price in Rome got right. As T. Boone Pickens bitterly complained, the Iraqis are going to let Chinese companies drill in the most desirable oil fields left on earth; I remain fervently against the Iraq invasion and detest oil companies, that's sheer lunacy. Every person killed and maimed in the effort to bring Iraq and its resources into the United States' orbit is mocked.

Bacevich points out in his book that the failure is systemic, and can't simply be hung on the NeoCons, who are far from the only Americans who believe in preemptively managing history with illusion. Military service, once civic function, has transformed into an economic enterprise, one directly and indirectly employing a large fraction of Americans. I and my partners were once again asked to be in the pay of that effort today, times have been tough, and it has given us reason for personal pause.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Psyche's News Roundup

14 Americans Killed In 2 Afghan Helicopter Crashes
Fareed Zakaria - Zakaria: Obama should weigh troop level carefully - -Think Before Surge
The 'benefit' of Somalia's pirates - Channel 4 News Now | the fishermen are able to catch up to £200 worth of fish per day in an area where the average daily earnings are less than £5

Saudi journalist, Rozanna al-Yami, faces lash over sex talk | The Australian A Saudi court has sentenced a journalist to 60 lashes after she was charged with involvement in a TV show in which a Saudi man talked about sex.
BBC NEWS | Europe | German on trial for Muslim murder
Iraq Ministries Targeted in Car Bombings; Over 130 Dead -

Reid: "The Public Option With An Opt-Out Is The One That's Fair" (let the South opt-out; Rhobama not thrilled with public option but will go along)
Schumer: We Prevailed On White House That Public Option Was The Way To Go | TPMDC (Obama favored Queen Olympia Snowe's plan?)
Scott Berman - Health care reform is moral battle for the soul of a nation --

Healthcare system wastes up to $800 billion a year | U.S. | Reuters ("For one example, a paper-based system that discourages sharing of medical records accounts for 6 percent of annual overspending")
Dems push for benefits to start by 2010 - Carrie Budoff Brown -
Obama's Pointless Pursuit of Olympia Snowe | Newsweek Voices - Howard Fineman | Obama's pointless bipartisanship (a lightbulb grows in Fineman)

Calculated Risk: SF Fed: Recent Developments in Mortgage Finance
Trying to Rein In ‘Too Big to Fail’ Institutions -
How the U.S. Blew Trillion-Dollar Trade of Century: Mark Fisher - (print the money)

McDonald’s Closes in Iceland as Crisis Makes Chain Unprofitable -
We attacked the bankers, but took our eyes off the whole rotten system | Gary Younge | Comment is free | The Guardian
Detroit house auction flops for urban wasteland | Special Coverage | Reuters

Forget the rush on that H1N1 swine flu vaccine; 62% of Americans have no intention of getting it anyway | Top of the Ticket | Los Angeles Times
Asteroids should be next small step for man in space, panel tells President Barack Obama - Telegraph
Beliefs - Changes in Religion All Over the Map, Report Shows - 6 out of 10 Americans pray one or more times each day; high percentages report feeling close to God, experiencing God’s presence or guidance on most days

Don't Feed the Animals: 10 Things You Didn't Know About Sexual Biology (Couples Edition)
Emily Howell, the virtual composer making waves in the computer world - Times Online
Circulation drops at U.S. newspapers as readers turn to online news sources --
Internet set for change with non-English addresses

Hasta la Vista, baby: Ars reviews Windows 7 - Ars Technica
Every Windows 7 Keyboard Shortcut You'll Ever Need - Windows 7 shortcuts - Gizmodo

Friday, October 23, 2009

Texas, the Eyes of Justice Are Upon You

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

On October 13, we lost a resolute champion of the law, a man who left his impact the lives of untold numbers of Americans.

His very name made his life's work almost inevitable, a matter of destiny. William Wayne Justice was a Federal judge for the Eastern District of Texas. That's right,he was "Justice Justice." And he spent a distinguished legal career making sure that everyone - no matter their color or income or class - got a fair shake. As a former Texas lieutenant governor put it last week, "Judge Justice dragged Texas into the 20th century, God bless him."

Dragged it kicking and screaming, for it was Justice who ordered Texas to integrate its public schools in 1971 - 17 years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision made separate schools for blacks and whites unconstitutional. Texas resisted doing the right thing for as long as it could. Many of its segregated schools for African-American children were so poor they still had outhouses instead of indoor plumbing.

This small town lawyer appointed to the federal bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered Texas to open its public housing to everyone, regardless of their skin color. He looked at the state's "truly shocking conditions" in its juvenile detention system and said, repair it. He struck down state law that permitted public schools to charge as much as a thousand dollars tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.

And Justice demanded a top-to-bottom overhaul of Texas prisons, some of the most brutal and corrupt in the nation. He even held the state in contempt of court when he thought it was dragging its feet cleaning up a system where thousands of inmates slept on the dirty bare floors of their cellblocks and often went without medical care. The late, great Molly Ivins said, "He brought the United States Constitution to Texas."

Some say that justice stings. William Wayne Justice certainly did - and his detractors stung back with death threats and hate mail. Carpenters refused to repair his house, beauty parlors denied service to his wife. There were cross burnings and constant calls for his impeachment.

After he desegregated the schools he was offered armed guards for protection. He turned them down and instead took lessons in self-defense.
The rest here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Has The US Housing Market Bottomed?

Lord Wife and I drove back yesterday AM from dropping Running Boy (age 5-1/2) and Mr. Grunt-n-Grab (age 11 months) at their respective stations. We were listening to National Public Radio since it was finally being safe to go back. NPR recently directed its longest-ever local fund drive, ending it only after resorting to stories like "How My Cello Wound Up in Poland."

While we crossed under the freeway, a young reporter quoted a disappointing housing starts report from September. She then invited a Subject Matter Expert from Columbia University onto her segment, and it went like this:
NPR Reporter asks the Expert questions, he fluently rattles off data, we draw closer to home. Reporter asks another question, Expert begins to deliver a matter-of-fact, dismal interpretation of housing market prospects. NPR Reporter suddenly interrupts to say, "I'm sorry--I have to cut you off now."
Lord Wife and I looked at each other with arched brows. Rookie reporter surprised by a vet producer, and-or a "Let A Smile Be Your Umbrella" reporting policy becoming painfully obvious? Not 100% sure, but in context it seemed like an openly Pravda Moment on NPR.

The Main Stream Media has by consensus already called the bottom on the real estate market, often citing a stabilization or drop in the rate of foreclosures. On the surface, that's very comforting data. As a homeowner, I certainly don't want to see more of my remaining equity go up in smoke. But...I also have to face facts, which involves objectively thinking about whether there is cause for being perky, and if so, what it is. This in turn means remembering how bankers think, which is to say, they greatly prefer not to.

In short, at some point banks stop foreclosing on properties in hard-hit locales, so I strongly suspect a lowering foreclosure rate is a false-positive indicator. This local tendency may have become a national reality. Either way, aggregate stabilization is being impacted by banks not wanting to take on properties that won't find buyers quickly. Apart from further driving down a bank's on-hand portfolio value, foreclosure costs and hassle factors are high. From the lender's perspective, a property must re-sell in a reasonable time. It must be appealing enough that someone will bid significant cash for it at a sheriff's auction.

There's an unspoken truth here that banks and real estate professionals are keenly aware of: houses do not go up in value. Unless maintained and updated, their value goes down. This is far more true for a McMansion 5 miles from Microsoft than for a grimy hovel in Detroit: if the McMansion sits unoccupied for two years without regular (and to the bank, bothersome) maintenance, its value plummets. The Detroit hovel is a walk-away, and for the attractive McMansion, everything hinges on how fast it can be re-sold. The bulk of properties are in between those extremes, but they're still subject to the same pressures. The more properties that sit empty, the more reluctant banks are to take on more.

A much stronger indicator for measuring "the bottom" would be to track the number of foreclosure filings compared to the number later sold at auction, observing percentage, time to sale, and foreclosure/auction price ratios. But that data isn't tracked officially. Even that data would fail to measure when someone walks away and the bank simply doesn't bother to file foreclosure. Walk-aways by both borrower and lender have already become common in some of the most depressed markets, as described in this local article from Dayton, Ohio:

In some instances, lenders don’t even bother to file a foreclosure. Figures by RealtyTrac released this week show foreclosure filings in the greater Dayton area are down almost 21 percent.

John Carter, housing inspector with the city of Dayton, finds the decline in foreclosures “very scary,” because houses are continuing to go vacant.

For every 100 houses that he orders boarded up, he said, 40 to 50 properties have a mortgage but no foreclosure filed. When he contacts the banks, they sometimes tell him they have no plans to foreclose.

“That makes it look like the foreclosure numbers are going down, but in actuality the banks are not even starting foreclosure,” Carter said. “So there’s no number to track now.”

I'm not trying to stop anyone from buying or selling a home, rather have pointed out basic problems with the Party Line's reasoning. At best, there are wide blind spots in the metrics being used by top prognosticators, the market really has bottomed, and we got lucky. Yet it seems more likely it has not, and officials are trying to talk the market up while looking through their binoculars backwards. These are mostly the same folks who told everybody you can't get hurt buying a home.

Calling the bottom is generally less important than having cash to put on a porch rail. Just as with previous Recession/Depressions, there are major opportunities for people willing to convert paper into property, and it's hard to think of a safer long-term investment in this environment than free and clear ownership of real estate.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Unaware Of Their Own Irony

I'll sneak in one more drive-by post.

In the first government analysis of the Stimulus Bill, the Southern states, after throwing partisan shit-fits against it, are receiving the majority of its benefits. This is ironic, but typical, and has been the case since FDR's New Deal. They're all bluster and bombast, full of hortatory pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps sermons in the front of the building, then they're constant crybabies in the alley out back. Maybe we should look at it as war reparations.

Money Well Spent?
The health care sector has spent $263 million this year lobbying Congress for changes to reform plans, a government watchdog group estimates.
That works out to roughly $500,000 per Congressman and Senator just this year, quite a bit higher for many key committee members and none for people like Russ Feingold, Dennis Kucinich, Marcy Kaptur, Ron Paul, et al. (Hopefully et al.)
If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You Might Not Get There

A week or so back a story came out in the WSJ reporting the president had just finished reading Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.

The book's narrative arc concerns a White House "being marched into an escalating war by a military viewing the conflict too narrowly to see the perils ahead," urged on by a hyperbolic Pentagon that saw commies under coffee tables while committing unbelievably basic mistakes on the ground. As the story goes, Tom Donilon (a long-time Biden ally), the deputy national security advisor, gave Rahm Emanuel a copy of 'Lessons,' then Rahm went to pass it on the prez but learned he was already reading it, so he loaned it to David Axelrod. Obama passed his own copy on to Biden, whereupon it became required reading for all of Washington and sold out of bookstores. It still must be back-ordered on Amazon.

The Pentagon, now hyperventilating about islamo-fascists under coffee tables, prefers a different narrative arc, one conveyed in A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. This work has the US military finally figuring out how to apply COIN principles and win, which it was manifestly starting to do by 1971-72, only to have its plug pulled after 8 previous years of patient learning and sacrifice, all wasted by a White House too focused on political gain. Various generals have been pressing the book on their subordinate chains of command since 2005, the WSJ article relates, and it is currently sold out at Amazon.

The broad lines of debate are exposed. Regular readers (Jon in particular) might expect me to dump on the military's choice of exemplar, but not in this case. Creighton Abrams took over Vietnam's command from William Westmoreland in 1968 and promptly switched the strategic focus to protecting villages from incursion and training a truly effective indigenous army (ARVN). Abrams was one of the best military minds in the 20th century in both combat and command, and given a couple more years' head start and 500,000 men, he probably would have succeeded in at least partitioning Vietnam's narrow isthmus. The book is an excellent choice on which to base an argument of COIN and see-it-through.

The White House's book is similarly well-chosen, in that its focus is on McGeorge Bundy, one of the so-called "best and brightest" or "wise men" in the Kennedy Administration, in which he served as National Security Advisor. Having been born to one of Boston's elite families and pledging as member #322 of the Skull and Bones society while at Yale, he was tapped at age 30 to serve on the Council of Foreign Relations while the Marshall Plan was being implemented in Europe as an anti-communist firewall. From there he went to serve as Harvard's youngest ever Dean of Faculty. In the Kennedy Administration, he was an outspoken hawk for escalation, but was first of the early hawks to change his mind and advocate cutting the losses. Like the current think-tankers paid to wind up generals, airwaves and representatives, Bundy knew nothing about war's conduct. He had never studied it.

The arcs don't apply particularly well because Afghanistan is far larger, less stable, more permeable, hostile, and diverse than Vietnam. Afghanistan is a failed state starting from a point of near-zero cohesion, whereas Vietnam had two systems of governance, each entertaining useful thralls of competing ideologies, each on the cusp of establishing a post-Colonial national identity. In Kabul, no one collects the garbage, the Karzai government huddles behind sandbags collecting drug money while it piles higher, and every time the author of a strategic plan relieves themselves on a toilet in the US embassy and flushes, they literally shit on the city's residents. The city's sewage system is its streets.

The Obama Administration's only strategic goal in Afghanistan is to simply contain al-Qaeda, which has already been accomplished. They're re-fighting Vietnam while al-Qaeda openly blossoms orange and red in Pakistan, and it seems that Vietnam is aiming too high.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"You Can't Take The High Horse, And Then Claim The Low Road"

Ohh, but yes, you can. Just for old time's sake and some perspective after the first Nobel Prize ever given to a US President for merely restoring dignity and respect for protocol, I looked up some old Dubya bloopers. The main problem was choice overload, of course, but the compilation above is a good selection. The clip below is instructive, too, because Bush's pre-recorded speech to an international audience is being fed through his earpiece at a volume high enough to be picked up by his podium's microphones. His answers to the reporters' pre-submitted questions are all pre-recorded as well, and are fed through the Telepreznit's magic earpiece. Maybe Obama deserves the Prize after all.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Bright Shining Showdown

Give the picture above a close look; it's the first time the President of the US and the commander of his ground forces in Afghanistan met 1-1. Today is the Year Eight of the war they're conferring over, and their body language is telling. Obama's posture is patient, explanatory, verging on remonstrative; Stanley McChrystal's is taut, defensive, and tilting to one side. The general looks like he might be struggling to maintain his composure while thinking, "I could spatter his head like a bug."

Obama's intellectual training was primarily by Socratic method, which emphasizes dialectical questions designed to get one party in a debate to tellingly contradict themselves, strengthening the inquirer's point. I have been very critical of the President for asking for a report he knew would, in a word, suck. In his defense, maybe he didn't know it would suck this badly, and didn't expect it to collapse so easily upon an amateur's inquiries. For example, BHO may have asked self-contradicting questions like these:
"Are you telling me that 40,000 more troops are enough to decisively defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, once and for all?"

"How will these new troops limit al-Qaeda's continuing growth in Pakistan, where we know it's becoming a deadlier domestic and international threat?"

Stanley A. McChrystal is a Crusader, a third-gen Military Industrial Complex product deeply in the pocket of the NeoCons, and Fred Kagan, who authored the bribe-the-Sunni-insurgents-and-leave plan known as The Surge in Iraq, is his strategy advisor. He has gone on 60 minutes to tout his plan. He has given a speech to an international crowd in London. His allies, one would hope not his own office, leaked his classified troop request report to the press. His disdain for Obama, his commander-in-chief, is visible, quotable, and wholly insubordinate. Obama is likely too smart to fire him, and McChrystal is probably too dumb to resign. I suspect McC's superior, Gen. David Petraeus, has masterfully set up a good soldier to take a fall for him.

When it comes to making war or anything else, Fred Kagan and the NeoCons are turds in a picnic cooler. One must assume the questions, simple questions above were put to their report, and no good answers were blurted. Obama today announced, as expected, that there will be no withdrawal. That sounds bland and depressing enough, but he also set no timeline on a decision for escalation, no numbers on additional troops at all. In other words, it is the omission which speaks loudest, and he's breaking the news to the NeoCons softly. Refer again to the body language in the picture above.

In D.C. Newspeak, Obama's announcement today signifies No Buildup. There may be a token compromise (a.k.a. Operation Kevlar Chandelier), but bottom line, this is an infuriating hog-tying for the NeoCons and their Generals, and they're off in basements and bars this evening uttering vile oaths, making pacts and desperately sharpening knives. Having been brilliantly stalemated, the best they can do is cry, "leisurely," and "too deliberate!" For once since his election, I stand in admiration and applaud: Barack Hussein Obama didn't give them the satisfaction of a clear "No."

Sunday, October 04, 2009

California Screamin'

I'm heading towards Hollywood and Vine to close down an un-airconditioned office a few stories above the walk of fame for a client. I'm waiting out tough times underneath a palm tree, waiting for the stop light and economic shoots to turn green as a cunningly bleached blonde sits up high in an onyx Porsche Cayenne Turbo SUV. She crosses our path in front and dawdles to turn left while a little white dog nestles on her breast looking down at me and nervously at the cars, the kind of dog that's not good for much but luxuriating or tossing up in the air to punt over a fence.

The girl's wearing goggle-sized sunglasses and maybe she'll turn 20 years old while she waits for oncoming traffic to clear and my friend, an L.A. resident, who has been fielding my questions about the Governator's budget crisis follows up with, "They just announced they're cutting summer school and child care programs for migrant workers." "Oh, yeah," I sigh. "Now that makes a hell of a lot of sense. That's really cutting the fat out of a budget! Bold leadership. Political courage!"

To my right, a sun-baked caucasian man, fiftyish, drags down the sidewalk like a grimy, dessicated crustacean with about an hour to live, trailing a torn t-shirt devoid of color, dust in his hair sticking up in the air ike free beauty parlor product, greasy gray jeans hanging off him obscenely. No one at the bus stop sees him, he's magic, he's an invisible man. So I'm sitting there thinking, look pal, it's right here, the future is being spelled out in front of your face on a big mind-reading neon sign just like with Steve Martin in LA Story. Stop for a minute and read.

California's got it all. It's the #1 Death Factory and
it's the #1 Dream Factory in the US and the world. Tops in arms production and entertainment. 8th biggest economy on the planet, huge wine producer, agribusiness, no slouch in the ganja department. Companies like Apple, Google, Disney, Miramax, and YoYodyne are all in California. It is the most fungible entity imaginable.

Yet it's bankrupt, its bonds are junk, it is now paying state worker in scrip and its population is shrinking for the first time since the conquistadores brought the plague.
Now, I'm thinking at the stoplight, we must be suffering from a philosophical conundrum. A triumph or failure of Reaganomics, of scientology, of pull yourself up by your bootstraps, trickle down Wysocki, trickle down. If you can keep your income inequality when all around you are losing theirs then you will be a man my son.

America has never viewed its working classes through the sentimental fug of an Edwardian music hall, but when treated well one time they promptly payed back with the greatest explosion of prosperity and technology in known history. But that's a bygone era, constantly memorialized and milked for every last drop of hope in repeating a Greatest Generation. California, particularly its coastal southern cities, provides a juxtaposition of glittering got-it-made success and violent squalor, with pernicious polarizing influences and taxes that keep regressing. It's the Big vs. the Little Lebowskis, and it's actually hard to tell who's winning--half the time the plot's entertaining, half the time it's frightening, and half the time it's disastrous. Because it's California, the halves add up.

But uh-oh. Cali's attached. It's kind of attached to the US like a skull, in fact. Am I looking at the future of my entire country? Well, it was America's bellwether state of the 20th century, so yes, it would seem so. Reading Will California become America's first failed state?, a competently researched and interviewed article in the Guardian, triggered the above memory of a recent trip to L.A., and the upshot of it is that public services will be shut down to reduce the budget gap, that's not going to be enough, and people will think of something because Californians are innovative.

Metaphorically, to take California's lead, the United States has a case of brain cancer, and it's not ready to start dealing with it in any serious way. Delusion is the order of the day. The recession is over, I'm sure you've heard. Tide's still up, sky's still blue and the myth of the California Dream is going to die hard, like a butthole surfer screaming "whooaaa, duuuude," as he bashes up repeatedly against the stony crags of Monterey.

To end on a glass half full, as required, California dreamers hang it out innately, they don't know any different, which means America's problems tend to crop up first and most prevalently in that state. Presumably, so will solutions.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Finally An Attack Democrat For Health Care Reform

Here's how it's done. Rep Alan Grayson (D-FL) goes on the offensive with guns blazing at precisely the right time. Grayson stood up in Congress and said that the Republicans are a bunch of Neanderthals who don't even have a health care plan: "What their plan amounts to is, 'Don't get sick, of if you do--die quickly." You can imagine the swinging that ensued on the monkey bars after that one, to which Grayson replied, in paraphrase: "Tough shit. I meant exactly what I said. You losers have no plan."

Here's some nice dining room talking point ammo he shoots in the above interview:
122 Americans die every single day because they don't have health care
Simple. Clean. If anybody wants to argue with that statement, they expose themselves as either not very interested in the benefits of being an American citizen or just mouthing someone else's shit-stirring.

Everybody from people who are happy with their Medicare to somebody looking for another cardboard box to sleep in knows that the medical industry is in need of a proper beating and has generally stopped making sense. The far left and far right should at least be able to agree on that.