Mar 24, 2009

Throwing My Shoes at PBS

I never thought I would be in this space of wanting to throw my shoes at the television set when Frontline was on. For many years I have been praising the professional journalism of Frontline, talking the show up to my friends, referring to its programs to help people experience good television journalism. Its stories have been hard hitting, have been thorough, have been stunning at times.

But no more.

Tonight, their program on the deficit, "Ten Trillion and Counting" was an abominable piece of reporting, leaving out whole sides of the story and carrying the water for the Concord Coalition and the Pete Peterson campaign and its I.O.U.S.A documentary. I have no way of proving it, but it felt as if the Peterson campaign was an eminence grise. At the very least, it seems as if the producers and the reporter of the Frontline program had thoroughly digested the Peterson campaign's message and decided to do their own variation on the theme. It's a gut instinct, because they never mentioned Peterson except in the most oblique way, by a short interview with the former controller of the US, David Walker, who is the president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and who, for a number of years now, even before his resignation from the position of the Controller, has been worrying about the deficits and the national debt.

I have recommended the I.O.U.S.A. film before, but with the proviso that the attacks on Social Security and Medicare needed to be taken with considerable skepticism. In all of the attacks on them carried out by the Peterson campaign, not one mention is ever made of the terrible imbalances and inequalities that have led us to this miserable economic situation. And although Medicare and Social Security receive the brunt of the blame for the projected increases in the debt, absolutely nothing is done to question the overall misguided priorities of our federal spending policy in other areas, particularly the bloated defense and national security budget, not to mention the persistent subsidies for the health and pharmaceutical companies, big oil, tax havens and loopholes for global corporations, and the poor oversight of the financial sector which led us into this fiscal wilderness and now is receiving our bailout money to socialize its losses.

The first half of the show, however, did a pretty good job of showing the enormous ballooning of the deficit under George W. Bush's presidency, but leaving out that in addition to the $10 trillion in debt he ran up, he also squandered the surplus anticipated after the budget cutting of the Clinton administration. While the Republicans come in for some criticism, the heavy reliance upon Republican Congressmen and Senators, particularly the self-righteous and smug Judd Gregg, leaves the viewer with the message that these voices are the voices of reason.

Then the second half begins its critical projections of how medical costs are going to swamp the economy without once even mentioning the the opposition to the current health care quagmire. Don't hold your breath if you were looking for words about the about the overblown expense components in health care, or over treatment, or failures to prioritize preventive care; or the bloated defense and national security budget, or the billions of dollars that we have shelled out to subsidize the criminal venality of the richest Wall Street and hedge fund managers, or the obscene profits made by mega corporate health care providers and pharmaceutical companies (particularly in the prescription drug bill, which was in essence, an entitlement program for big pharma).

I sent a comment in to the Frontline people, but I suspect they will not post it, so I thought I would put it up here for the record:

"The damage you have done to the journalistic reputation of Frontline by airing this program is immeasurable. Not one word about the terrible drain of the defense budget or corporate subsidies to the largest profiteers in history, not one word about the continuing avoidance of taxes by corporations and the super rich, not one word about how the social security trust fund was raided over the past two decades to "offset" previous deficits, not one word about the class inequalities that have become even greater in the past four months by bailing out the moneyed interests and large banks, minimal words about the extraordinary profits made by corporate health care and pharmaceutical interests, heavy reliance on the arguments of the Peterson campaign to reduce the deficit without any reference to it at all, nor any considered and credible rebuttal; the list can go on. In fact, to be honest, I was anticipating a sponsor advertisement from Peterson's campaign somewhere. Then I understood that this program was in essence a soft advertisement for it.

"Worst of all, you relied much too heavily on the crowd that pushes platitudes around Washington Week's round table, rather than on some credible economists or critics of the overall priorities of our economy--with the exception of Mr. Ito. Thus, there was nothing to create perspective, including the clear observation from one of your own slides that the times of the lowest federal deficit also corresponded to the times of highest taxes.

"In short, this program hardly qualifies as good solid journalism. Bring back the true Frontline spirit and stop this hogwash.

"That being said, I doubt if this will see publication in your comments section. Yet I wonder how many other faithful watchers of the Frontline series would also be in accord with my feelings. I am beyond mad. Here's throwing a few shoes at you."

No, the message of the show, on top of the current bad news this week of the bailout of toxic assets in order to keep supporting rich investors and mega-banks, was clearly that the ordinary American who has contributed faithfully to his social security and medicare trust funds should now prepare for higher taxes and shrinking benefits.

The interviews relied heavily upon conservative or centrists voices throughout. A lot of centrist journalists clarified facts or context rather than provided analysis. An inordinate amount of time was spent criticising the president for the failure of his bi-partisanship. I tallied 52 interview clips. Not one progressive voice among them--possible exception, Matt Miller, but hardly giving an alternative view, merely clarification and commentary--not one critical of the general theme of the show, which is to say, basically, the Peterson Foundation message.

Some people were interviewed for the program and had substantial things to say from the progressive side, but they got no airtime: Paul Krugman, Joe Stieglitz, James Galbraith, all were interviewed on crucial segments (on the deficit and on health care) but fell to the cutting room floor. That is to say, two Nobel economists received no exposure (except for a 1.5 second unattributed clip of Stieglitz's voice at the starting montage). Their interviews are available if you drill down in the website, and what was their message? They offered an alternative view to the panic over the debt and some alternatives, and they called for single payer health care to counter the increases in medical costs and insurance. Even Greg Ip, the writer for The Economist, had some countering arguments about the debt, but those to fell onto the cutting room floor.

This was sloppy reporting and editing to my mind. PBS should be ashamed. First of all, they should be ashamed for their almost wholesale adoption--without mention of--the Peterson message with absolutely no counter argument. Interestingly enough, Krugman, in one of his interviews, actually mentioned the Peterson campaign and criticized it quite nicely. Secondly, they should be held to account for the damage this particular show
has done to the historical integrity of Frontline programming. It is second class journalism at best, supporting an unfounded assumption, then pasting in testimony to support it rather than presenting competing viewpoints.

William Greider has done a great piece on the Peterson campaign in The Nation, and I recommend it highly for a logical counter argument.

UPODATE AND CORRECTION: in the email to Frontline I erred in referring to the journalist from the Economist as Mr. "Ito"; the name should have been "Ip"; that's what you get for having spent too much time watching the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Mar 19, 2009

Dammit, will you put the AIG Bonuses in Perspective?

The last time I used a calculator, $135 million (the amount of the AIG retention bonuses) was .073% (not 7%, not .7% but .073%) of the total $183 billion that has been given to AIG beginning in September of 2008. So what the hell is everybody indignantly yelling about the bonuses for? Why are you guys screaming about the shame of the bonuses? Start screaming about the stuff that matters.

If AIG's Liddy in his testimony was telling the truth, the biggest news he revealed was that the AIG Financial Services operation in London was in a run off situation, and that the retention bonus were to retain the folks handling the run-off. The deal makers he said, were gone. That is to say, he intended (15 years too late if you ask me) to close the business. If so, that's a good thing.

People, where in the hell is your indignation about the remaining $182,865,000,000 that AIG has sucked up so far to pay its "promises" on its credit default swaps, or, as the big shots like to say, to pay to its "counter parties"? You ever heard about the free lunch? Well, you're seeing it in action here. Privatized profits and socialized losses that were supposed to be insured.

The first infusion to AIG back in the third quarter of the year was for $85 billion, and in the last quarter of the year, they declared the largest quarterly business loss in history of $61.7 billion. It looks to me like they made a cool net of $23.3 billion. And what do you think caused the quarterly loss? Since the rest of the AIG operations--those that might legitimately be called "insurance"--were making money, where else did the loss go except to pay off the rich banks and their shareholders and the hedge funds? So now the bailout is up to $183 billion and the smart money says they will ask for more. Check out the counter parties they have paid money to, and you'll find the biggest recipient is Goldman Sachs. Ring a bell? Then there's UBS. Ring a bell with any of you Phil Gramm afficianados?

Look, when you buy insurance on something you have to have an insurable interest. Not only that, when an insurer writes insurance, it must have a modicum of reserves to anticipate losses. AIG has always been notorious in its legitimate insurance operations for always over estimating losses so that it could justify higher premiums and make more money on its investments. Did they have reserves for their credit default swaps? Nope. Why aren't we trying to find out how many of the credit default swaps that AIG sold were actually based on an actual ownership of the underlying security?I suspect that among other things, that is what Andrew Cuomo, the Attorney General of New York, is trying to determine.

You know the insurance bastards are exerting influence when the Obama administration, whose big pledge was to the veterans, proposes using insurance for their medical care. General Shinseki should resign, not push it.

I say, if a default swap was written based on ownership of a genuinely primary asset--an actual bundle of mortgages, let it stand. As for the rest, based on derivatives of an asset, or a derivative of a pool of derivatives, let it fail.

Because if you take your eye off the little gnat of the bonuses buzzing around your eyes, you'll have to pay attention to the mountain top demolition going on just a little bit further down the valley. You know who is getting all the money on this rape of the financial landscape, this boondoggle? The people who had pot full of money to start with. The people who have been taking the money all along as productivity increased and your raises didn't, and as they fiddled with inflation to decrease the cost of living allowances to your retired mom and pop, and now you as you look to retire, as they toyed around with "managed care" so they could increase your deductibles and co-pays.

Don't believe a word when they use the word "affordable" in regard to health care. That just means that the insurance companies will still be in the game. Lest you still believe in insurance companies having your best interest at heart, see "AIG" above.

Move your money to a local credit union, and if you really need a credit card, get it from them. Credit unions are able to lend money. The more you deposit the more they will be able to lend--safely. The financial grubbers and greedy guts guys who are handling this financial crisis and to whom it is now all too apparent, President Obama has his allegiance, aren't lending money.

That's because everybody in the United States (except the moneyed elite, the pundit class, the politicians, the mega corporate bosses, the rentiers) have gotten hit upside the head by the practical notions that they should have been following two decades ago. Now they understand they have enough stuff already and they want to save, repair, patch up, make do, grow their own, read a good book, go for a walk around the block rather than in Provence. What the hell do they need a new car for? They certainly don't want to put themselves in more debt when they are close to underwater in their house. Most of all, they are scared shirtless that they won't have a job by the end of the year. So save at a credit union or a local bank. Boycott Citibank and the other big ten. Drive them under. Let them tank.

Saving the banks won't rescue the economy. Producing good useful stuff will save it.

Outlawing credit default swaps on derivatives. That might save it.

Redeeming the IOUs in the social security system with legitimate bonds will save it.

Investing in energy conservation will save it.

Paying teachers better will save it. Cutting class sizes will save it.

Cutting the defense budget by a third (to start) will save it.

Providing a living wage will save it.

Unionizing will save it.

Getting the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Germany and Italy and Okinawa (for a start) will do it.

Getting rid of government insurance for new nuclear power installations will do it.

Sending the IRS after the real money and the corporate scams, not the chicken diddle, will do it. Increasing taxes to where they were when Reagan entered office will do it--though that's just a start.

Keeping the inheritance tax will do it. Or maybe making it a
real "death tax": 95% for everything over $1 billion will drive more money into charities and foundations. (And it won't drive Forbes out of business. I still have six months to go on my gift subscription.)

Providing jobs for people to spend on necessities, home improvements, paying down their primary debt (house, car) will do it.

Cutting out the greedy middle men and corporate bureaucracies (worse than any government bureaucracies) in this sorry-ass scam we call health care will do it.

Putting some good usury laws back onto the books, so that when people do want to borrow they can do so without getting fleeced will do it

But above all letting the big banks go the way of everyone and every company whose liabilities exceed their assets, especially when it's due to capitalist stupidity and excess, will do it. Let them sink and crunch and break up and get transformed ("creative destruction," for all you Libertarians out there) like every other business or household that has gone bankrupt. That will really do it.

I say let them go down, let the banks go into receivership, break up the monopolies, break up the "too big to fails." Those bastards who own the banks and the hedge funds will always have enough money to survive.

Yes sir, I'm preaching class war, here, except--if we're damn lucky--it's only round five of a ten round match, and the fat cats won the first five. Let 'em have it. Either pummel the hell out of them or knock them down for the night. Even a drawling and corrupt referee might have to stop counting after 30 seconds if he knows what's good for him. Because we may be unlucky and it might really be round nine. Because we really can't tell can we? Or maybe we can't remember. If it's one thing we do know for sure, the fix has been in for a long time, Lefty, so stride on out there when the bell rings and knock that monster on its ass.

Mar 12, 2009

Poet of Tor House: Robinson Jeffers (1887 - 1962)

I'm not feeling very optimistic. The Israeli lobby has just muscled in on Obama's National Security Council, Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to form a government which can only expand further the creeping injustice and oppression against the Palestinians, the conservative talking heads are screaming about an increase of taxes at the top margin to 39.6% (forgetting that for most of Reagan's eight years it was 50%, for Nixon, 70%, for Eisenhower 90%) and calling for Ayn Rand book clubs to rise up and rediscover John Galt.

Personally, I would like to see the moneyed elite of this country decide to go on strike, and set off to found their own gated community, preferably on one of those Pacific atolls that will be underwater in twenty years or so. The right wing screams of class warfare, forgetting once again, as Warren Buffet reminded us, that the class war has been going on for thirty years now and the moneyed class has already won. Obama has only reluctantly included single payer health insurance on the discussion table, but it is so obvious that his administration has been ensnared in the moneyed class's protectionist racket. The insurers and the pharmaceutical companies may be "fighting for their lives," as some optimistic proponent of single payer claimed, but they've got the high ground in the battle, the big guns, the money and the tanks and plenty of moxie.

It's a dark time. It's time for some dark poetry: "Shine, Perishing Republic":

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and deca-
dence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stub-
bornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thick-
ening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught--they say--
God, when he walked on earth.

The poem was probably written sometime between the first World War and the 1920's since it was first published in the 1925 edition of The Roan Stallion and other Poems. We know this because Jeffers refers to his "children," most likely his twin boys, born to him and his wife Una in 1916. I have an old yellowing copy of the Modern Library's edition (1935) of Jeffers' poems which I found for two dollars somewhere in Philadelphia during the sixties. The paper, nearly brown now on the margins, has held up surprisingly well for a seventy-three year old book. Almost as old as Jeffers when he died.

For those of you who have moments of dark doubt as to the world we seem to be leaving to our our daughters and sons, the poem speaks to that darkness, with its images of rot and decay merely being the American version--sort of a cynical and condemnatory tone as opposed to Whitman's optimism. The long lines have always made me think that Whitman was in Jeffers' mind when he wrote this. The mood is flinty, unrepentant--his version of the prophet's "all flesh is grass," except he applies it to his country, warning his boys to learn well that we are not forced to become corrupt, and in such a classic American way, holding out the purity of the wilderness as the alternative. Head for the mountains when the corruption gathers at the foot of the monster.

Jeffers is not democratic; he is not progressive or liberal, he is not libertarian or conservative, and in fact, he suggests that the love of man whether from loving the acquisitive self as the unbridled capitalists do, or your neighbor as yourself as the Christians profess, will only cause the trouble:
be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
It is such deep trouble it manages even to ensnare God, when "he walked the earth." Whether this is the image of Jesus or the image of God in the Garden of Eden, it's not a pleasant thought. As I say, this poem is for the dark moments like this, "heavily thickening toward empire."

You can imagine the poet, perhaps after a hard day constructing his stone house in Carmel, looking out at Point Lobos across Carmel Bay and sitting down to write. The house was begun by him and then finished over the years--along with a 40 foot stone tower--with the help of his twin sons, each stone fitted and cemented as Jeffers isolated himself on the West Coast in what is now, of course, the very symbolic town of wealth and privilege. From the house, called Tor House, he critically watched the country through the First World War, the Jazz Age, the Great Depression, World War Two, the Korean War, and finally died there in 1962 at the beginning of the country's Vietnam misadventure in paranoid defensive colonialism. He was 75. In 1963 a posthumous volume of poetry was published, called The Beginning and the End and Other Poems. I bought that one as well, thinking at one time that I would write about Jeffers some day. The two volumes sit in my library. The longer poems are difficult to struggle through. Some of the shorter ones, like this one, "Shine, Perishing Republic," can stay with you forever.

Mar 10, 2009

Ambassador Freeman Withdraws

I am not so immodest as to believe that this controversy was about me rather than issues of public policy. These issues had little to do with the NIC and were not at the heart of what I hoped to contribute to the quality of analysis available to President Obama and his administration. Still, I am saddened by what the controversy and the manner in which the public vitriol of those who devoted themselves to sustaining it have revealed about the state of our civil society. It is apparent that we Americans cannot any longer conduct a serious public discussion or exercise independent judgment about matters of great importance to our country as well as to our allies and friends.

The above quote is from Ambassador Charles ("Chas.") Freeman's email to his friends explaining why he withdrew from the nomination to be the head of the National Intelligence Council. The full text of the email is here.

I have heard Ambassador Freeman on numerous occasions speak about foreign affairs, have read his speeches, and have heard him interviewed on a few occasions on Ian Masters' "Background Briefing" and "Live from the Left Coast" (a two hour radio show broadcast on KPFK in Los Angeles on Sunday mornings, 11-1 Pacific Time. It is much more valuable than all the Sunday current affairs shows.) You may not always agree with Freeman, but the man is a straight talker. He calls an occupation an occupation, an attack an attack, a charade a charade.

It is laudable that he was asked by Admiral Dennis Blair to lead the Council. However, it is very disappointing to find that the "team of rivals" concept that the President touted as he was preparing to enter office has not been put into practical application in this case. President Obama would have been well-served by national intelligence estimates prepared by a group with Freeman at the head. However, as Freeman so clearly states in his email, his tenure on the Council would have been less than efficacious given the constant second-guessing and criticism that would have attended every report. It is a good thing, however, that we have seen the Israeli Lobby once again in action, especially since the attacks on Freeman have been lead by a former executive of AIPAC, Steve Rosen, who has been indicted and is awaiting trial on charges that he spied for Israel. (For more on the extent of Israeli spying, see James Bamford's latest, The Shadow Factory, and this comprehensive, well documented essay by Christopher Ketcham, "Breaking the Taboo on Israel's Spying Efforts on the United States.")

We will continue to see the influential fingers of the Israeli Government and its supporters in our politics until one of these days Americans will understand that both houses of the legislative branch are beholden to another government, and so cowardly that the vast majority will not take the necessary steps to throw off the undue influence, while a vociferous minority will toady to the lobby and do their bidding. The day will come when those fingers will be bitten off. For now we have to follow these events carefully and keep the history as accurately as we can.