Saturday, November 29, 2008

Killing for a bargain

In what ought to go down as one of the most disgusting events of 2008, shoppers massed outside a Long Isalnd, NY Walmart yesterday morning and trampled store employees (killing one) on their way into the store for the early bargains.

According to this article from Msnbc.COM,
Other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, and customers stepped over him and became irate when officials said the store was closing because of the death, police and witnesses said.

Police are trying to ID the proximately guilty parties by viewing store security tapes, but may not be able to ever figure out exactly who trampled whom. So they may all get off scott free.

Worse, our culture of unlimited self-gratification, made even more urgent by our patriotic necessity to consume for the good of the state, will also be getting off scott free this year as every year.

If none of the people involved in this atrocity is arrested, it would at least be poetic justice for all of them to be required to join the Rev. Billy's Church of Stop Shopping.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Capitalism's dirty little secret

In a blog of today's date on MSN Money entitled Why a bailout won't save Detroit, Anthony Mirhaydari addresses the issue of market saturation vis the US auto industry. He points out that
"The United States now has 981 cars for every 1,000 people of driving age compared to 613 in the United Kingdom and just 24 in China. As a result, no amount of government aid will stop the factory closures and layoffs. "

It seems to me that this is the problem with capitalism in general -- it's based on the premise of unlimited demand, and unlimited natural resources, without which, companies can't survive. And it's especially a problem for enormous, capital-intensive businesses that need a constant supply of new business just to pay the upkeep on their physical plant.

We, the people (referred to as "consumers" by economists and marketing people) exist, as far as capitalism is concerned, to consume the output of these huge enterprises. Rather than making products as a response to demand, these businesses make the products first and it then becomes our patriotic duty as citizens to consume those products. This cart-before-the-horse situation can only be maintained through a combination of manipulating people's desires and extending them credit to finance the purchase of products they can't afford (and often don't need).

Hence, the annual media hand-wringing about the Christmas retail season and whether "consumers" will do their duty and buy lots of stuff no one needs in order to keep the economy on track.

The current economic slowdown (train wreck might be more accurate) seems to demonstrate that, without constant maintenance of the demand stimulation machinery in conjunction with an endless supply of cheap credit, people stop being "consumers" and revert to a state of just buying what they need. Needless to say, this is a terrible problem for the captains of industry.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bailing out the behemoths

As someone who has been driving small, fuel-efficient foreign cars since the late 60s, I don't have much respect for the people at the top of the US auto industry. People who as recently as last year were lobbying against fuel economy standards that my '68 Saab and '63 VW had already achieved. People who once stated that "Americans will never drive front wheel drive cars." People who built big fat gas guzzlers and assured us all that "that's what America wants" while at least 5 Asian car makers got rich making small and efficient cars for the same market.

Until proven with solid numbers, I flatly refuse to believe the received wisdom of the US auto trade press that American car companies can't compete because US labor costs are so much higher than they are everywhere else. This is pretty hard to swallow -- first, because, for at least a decade, Japan and Europe have had higher standards of living than the USA. Second, because the US has one of the least effective union movements in the world. And third, because the Japanese at least seem to be able to make excellent automobiles either in Japan or here in the USA and they seem to be able to make money at it.

The undending nonsense that issues from mouthpieces for the big-3 (as they have been called, but maybe not much longer) does not lend credence to their claims that the economy -- and not their management -- are responsible for their plight. For instance, recently, during a PBS interview, a GM spokesperson said they hadn't invested in hybrids because they didn't feel it would have been a good business decision. The PBS interviwer pointed out that Toyota was "eating your lunch" with their Prius hybrid, an observation that provoked only a sullen expression from the spokesperson.

I think Michael Moore's excellent film, Roger and ME, captured the arrogance that underlies decision-making at GM, if not at other US auto makers.

However -- and this is a big however -- the big three are a major source of employment for Americans and of tax revenue for entire regions of the country. Punishing those people for the sins of corporate automotive leaders is unfair and economically worse than unwise.

Certainly if giving money with no strings attached to the likes of CitiGroup is OK as government policy, then it ought to be OK to give it to the arguably more strategic auto industry.

It is not clear whether bankruptcy and reorganization mightn't be a better option for the big three than a simple taxpayer handout, but, if the handout were actually given with appropriate controls -- unlike what is being done with Wall Street -- there might be some possibility of a salubrious outcome.

Moe, Larry, and Curly

Each time I read, hear, or watch a news item on the economy, I expect to see the Three Stooges giving a press conference. Actually, that's really an insult to the holy three, who, I'm sure, would be a welcome change in this climate of venality and stupidity rewarded with taxpayer cash.

Our illustrious Treasury Secretary (late of Goldman Sachs, where he lobbied for some of the things that have helped to sink the economy) told Congress that, unless they passed a Wall Street bailout plan tout de suite, the economy would implode. And, just to ensure the speedy passage of said plan, there could be no time to put rules, regulations, preconditions on how the bailout money was to be used.

Within a couple of weeks, I read a story in The Financial Times about how CitiGroup wasn't sure how they were going to use the $25B they had just received from the American taxpayer. They might want to use it to fund a buyout of another bank. Huh??!! I asked out loud as I heaved the paper across the room. Can they do that? And why doesn't the Financial Times article say anything about how bizarre it is? I thought the money was supposed to re-capitalize their lending operations so that more money would be available in the economy for borrowers? Foolishly, I had assumed that Congress had at least insisted on this as a condition of the bailout. Wrong!!!

A few days ago, leading bankers were called to a Senate committee to discuss this very issue. However, all they got was a polite request to behave themselves. And, in response, they got statements from bankers like "we have no intention at this time of using the funds for any other purpose."

It should be obvious -- but apparently is not -- that the public shouldn't be asking these guys to behave; that's what got us into this mess in the first place: the assumption that big, pwerful men at the helms of big, powerful corporations would behave in the public interest if left entirely to themselves. The public should be telling these smug, rich, self-indulgent, cold-blooded SOBs what will be done to them if they don't behave.

Apprently, though, that's not to happen. Amazingly, despite the clear fact that lack of government oversight has allowed these overpaid CEOs to run amuck for years, now unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money are being handed over them with no strings attached.


This is the ultimate test of the will of the people versus the will of big business: if, after demonstrating just how ruthless they are, if, after going on a binge of reckless "investing" that has led to the meltdown in the world economy, if, after showing how unrepentant they are, these guys are allowed to continue with business as usual, then we are all in big trouble. If we the people are too cowed to fight back against corporate greed, then we are well on our way to becoming Argentina or some such 3rd world paradise.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

I quit! Nyeh nyeh!!!

I recently received an email which was a fantasy on President Bush writing a kiss-off letter to America. The core concept of this missive was that we Americans have been very unfair to Mr. Bush and that he has done an exemplary job while putting up with totally unjustified attacks from those goddamn libruls.

My own version of such a letter might be something like this:
Dear America:

I quit! No, not to avoid impeachment; it's defintely too late for that now. And anyhow, that industrial shredder van that's been parked at the vice president's house for the past 4 years has chopped up the paper trail that they'd need to make a decent case for impeachment. Not that there would be one of course.

No, I quit because I'm sick of being reviled and made fun of.

Take the Iraq war for instance: the idea that I would lie to start a war -- why that's totally erogenous. Let me tell you how the Iraq War idea came about. When my dad was president during Gulf War I, Paul Wolfowitz came to him with a proposal to finish off Saddam Hussein while we were in the neighborhood (so to speak). Dad threw this idea in the waste basket, but, fortunately, I was standing behind the door in the Oval office, and, when Dad went off to take a leak, I grabbed Wolfowitz's proposal from the trash and held on to it.

When I became president, I hired Wolfowitz because I really liked his idea of pre-emptive war; just think if you could invade everyone who was going to do harm to our great USA before they could get a chance to do it! What a great idea!

So, some of us folks in my administration (smart people like Don Rumsfeld, Richard Pearl) were trying to figure out how and when we could take Saddam out before he could attack us. Then, when Saddam told Osama ben Laden to attack the World Trade Center, it seemed like high time to get the bastard.

So where's the lie? Maybe Saddam didn't attack the World Trade Center personally, but we know he was on the phone to Osama ben Laden all the time telling him what to do. And, with thousands of weapons of mass destruction just waiting to be used against Amerika, it was only a metter of time before something worse happened.

And the economy - I'm realy sick of the whining libruls claiming I broke the economy. I just did what any red-blooded American conservative would have done: I complained loudly about the tax-and-spend libruls, then ran up the largest budget deficit in American history. Well, I mean, whose fault is that really? We had to go to war to protect precious American freedom, which we wouldn't have had to do if Bill Clinton had shown some balls and really taken out Osama bin Laden like I did.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dear Sen. McCain

There will be plenty of monday morning quarterbacking about why you lost, but I doubt it will be as insightful as my own in-depth analysis. I say that only because of the low level of received wisdom already spewed out from the media on this subject and, frankly also because of the media-reinforced idea that the entire significance of Sen. Obama's win is that he is African-American -- as though a monkey had learned to speak, a notion reinforced by your own carefully-worded concession speech.

A few years ago, I thought you were a decent guy -- for a Republican: you had made some pointed remarks about the religious right, you were pro-stem-cell research, you would at least admit that the Iraq war was incompetently managed (if not the more significant fact that it was unjustified)

Once you decided to run for President, however, you seemed to abandon your maverick credentials as you began an uninterrupted campaign to appeal to the worst elements of your party.

For me, you committed four big offenses during your campaign:

1. First, you made a pilgrimage to the high priests of religious intolerance, hoping to add their endorsement to your coffer of support. Unlike Obama, who seemed able to appeal to Christians without having to drag a fetus into every conversation, you went whole hog for the support of people who think evolution is a hoax, gay people should be burned at the stake, and that God blesses America and curses other countries we don't agree with.

2. Second, you assserted that, in spite of 30 years of conservative economics in control of public policy, we needed MORE of same in order to restore the economy to health. It's your bad luck that the economy happened to be imploding during the campaign -- as a clear result of deregulation feeding corporate greed -- but, hey, as Joe the Plumber would undoubtedly say, "shit happens!"

3. You chose Sarah Palin as your running mate. While Barack Obama chose a seasoned, intelligent, less liberal senator as his running mate -- sending a signal of his intent to move toward the middle -- you chose someone inexperienced, more conservative than you are, with a voice like a rusty gate hinge -- sending a signal that you wanted to pander to the right wing of your party rather than move toward the center.

4. Last -- and definitely not least -- you ran the most negative campaign I've ever witnessed. This is not just my opinion; you even alienated members of your own party and Republican political operatives, who thought your unrelenting (and mostly grossly exaggerated) attacks on Obama were a tactical mistake, if not a downright insult to the political process. And, even when you seemed to be toning down the nasty rhetoric, your running mate seemed all too eager to ramp it up.

This is one of the most pusszling things about your campaign, considering that you were the recipient of the same kind of treatment from the Karl Rove machine in 2000 and were angered, hurt, and repelled by it. Apprently, based on the current campaign, only because you hadn't thought of it first.

Last, you lost because Sen. Obama was clearly superior -- not because he was African-American -- but because he is intelligent, disciplined, charismatic, knowledgeable and, perhaps, most important, was willing to "stick to his guns" about what he thinks is right and not simply pander to the worst fears, worst tendencies, and worst people of his base.