Tuesday, November 13, 2007


November 8, 2007

"We are experiencing among our clients an awakening that the United States is in big trouble," said Erik Nielsen, chief Europe economist at Goldman Sachs.


What triggers the the ups and downs of a nation's economy? Are the "up" periods a sign that government, industry and bankers are doing a good job, putting sound policies in place and being good stewards of the nation's finances?

Well, those in charge during the good times sure don't miss an opportunity to claim just that kind of credit.

Then what about "down" times, like the ones we are just now heading into? When the nation's economy slips into recession, or worse, the same folks who during the good times couldn't take enough credit for it, have a different message: "Well, you know, s---t happens."

I used to work for a guy like that. When things were going well he was all about "what a great job we're doing." When things went terribly wrong though he wasn't interested in finding out why. Then the message was, "Now, now Steve, it's not about blame."

I never bought it. (And, BTW, the company can now be viewed in the files of the federal bankruptcy court, for which no one was to blame, of course.) Personally I always figured that credit and blame are opposite sides of the same coin. That you can't have one and while being immune from the other.

So, in the coming months you are going to be hearing a lot of "well s--t happens" excuses out the current administration as the economy slumps toward -- who knows what. But understand, shit does not just happen when it comes to economic policies and their repercussions. In the current case anyone with half a brain could have seen it coming.

How do I know? Because someone with half a brain did see it coming -- me. Let me be clear, I am not the sharpest pencil in the box -- never have been. And that's not false modesty either. And I have the old report cards to prove it. (I have one enduring memory of my high school algebra teacher, Father Andre, staying after class to try to help me understand algebra 101. Twenty minutes later he was lightly thumping his forehead against the blackboard muttering, "Leave, just leave, please, go, now....")

I digress. Despite being saddled which such a cognative handicap, way back in December 2002 even I could see where Bush's Reaganomics redux was heading, and I can prove that too. I wrote the following in an article for the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle:

"The jury is still out on the Bush tax cuts, but signs are not good. As with Reagan's tax cuts, less money is flowing into the federal treasury, new revenues have not materialized and defense spending has soared. In less than two years, the $5.6 trillion tax surplus forecast by the Congressional Budget Office in 2000 has vanished. The national Platinum Card is back in use. ....On the deregulatory front, those 1994 Contract With America chickens came home to roost with a vengeance beginning in December 2001 with Enron's collapse. Enron was followed in short order by dozens of other marquee U.S. companies....Once again, loosened federal oversight -- rather than sparking innovation, investment and growth -- enabled an orgy of self-dealing, insider abuse and other skullduggery.

One might think such a dismal batting average would sober up even the most rabid fiscal jihadist. On the contrary -- even though a recent New York Times/CBS News poll shows that two-thirds of the country thinks the money from the now-vanished federal surplus should have been used to help save Medicare and Social Security, not subsidize a trillion-dollar tax cut -- conservatives see their historic mid-term victory last month as a mandate to finish the job.

What about the expensive failures of the past? Conservatives say the only reason things went badly was that liberals gummed up the works, first by snookering George H.W. Bush into breaking his no-new-taxes pledge (he raised them in 1990), and then by aiding and abetting Clinton during his eight-year reign.

Diehard conservatives don't give up. This time, they say, they'll get it right. (Full 2002 Article)

And so it came to pass. George W. Bush and his neo-con co-conspirators put Reaganomics on steroids. Their tax cuts, totally nearly $2 trillion, reversed the flow of capital. Instead of "trickling down," to water the once richly productive fields of America's middle class, enormous sump pumps sucked capital away to top off the reservoirs of the wealthy, healthy and well-connected.

Ah, but wait, there's more. Then, like medieval monarchs of 12th century Christendom, they reached into the national treasury for hundreds of billions more to fund bloody wars against Islamic nations far, far from home. And when that money ran out they mortgaged their kingdom's future to fight on.

Had they simply stuck with the whole crony capitalism thing the economy would have eventually weakened from blood loss and toxic levels of corruption. And it would have slipped into recession. But to throw a war of choice in on top of that, well, that's a lot of "shit happening," even for the US of A. Now we are heading for something worse than just recession and inflation (stagflation.) Just where we're headed is anyone's guess. Only the direction is known, and it's down.

If the US economy were a patient here is how their chart would read between appointments.

A Comparison of Currencies and Commodities
from the beginning of the Bush administration with values as of 11/7/07

If you don't already understand, all those numbers tell the same story. Oil is not reaching for $100 a barrel because oil is worth anything close to that. It's because the US dollar is falling in value and oil producers, while slippery little bastards, are not stupid. They aren't about to let the US buy their oil with cheaper and cheaper dollars. So they are demanding more bucks for a barrel. Eventually they will do as China is about to do, detach the value of their products and currencies from the value of the US dollar. When that process is complete the US dollar will find itself

The other currencies are a reflection of the same thing.

Gold is more complicated. Gold prices are a measure of two things at once: the value of the dollar and fear. When gold goes up so fast and so far it's because some of the smartest financial minds in the world see a storm coming. The higher gold goes the lower their financial barometer must be reading.

If the numbers in the table above reflected instead the 7th year of a Democratic administration, what do you think those big-talking, arrogant, father-knows-best GOP types would be saying right now? Do you think they'd be just shrugging it off with a, "well, you know, stuff happens?"

I don't think so. Stuff did happen though, and lots of it. And we don't need DNA analysis to know whose stuff it is that's about to hit the fan.

Duck and cover my friends.

November 1, 2007

Don't Ask. Don't Tell

There seem to be folks on the right who remain unclear on the concept -- not the least among them, Attorney General nominee, Michael Mukasey.

The concept they can't seem to get a firm fix on is whether or not the interrogation technique known as "water-boarding," -- making a person think he or she is being drowned -- is or is not "torture."

I don't know about you, but it sure as hell sounds like torture to me. But there are still those in this administration and Congress who support the technique and claim it is not torture.

I have a solution.

But first let's see how humanity has chosen to describe something that does qualify as torture:

Websters: Torture is any action taken against another person that causes, "anguish of body or mind agony: something that causes agony or pain. Anguish: "extreme pain, distress, or anxiety."

The International Red Cross: Torture: existence of a specific purpose plus intentional infliction of severe suffering or pain;

MedTerms medical dictionary: Torture: An act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person, for a purpose such as obtaining information or a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion..."

When asked during his confirmation hearings if water-boarding was torture, Mukasey said he couldn't really say, since he was not familiar with the details of the technique. Which is a kinda hard to swallow since the technique has been described in excruciating detail in the popular press since it first burst into the national consciousness a couple of years ago -- thanks to Vlad the Hoser at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But all the publicity surrounding water-boarding seems to have left at least some public officials on the right unclear on whether it's torture or not torture. Some seem to feel that water-boarding is no more cruel than forcing a cat to take a bath.

Which is why I've concluded the only solution is to stop telling and start showing. And what better way to get a handle on the concept than for those who support the technique to step up to the plate and declare, "I say water-boarding is not a form of torture, as described by national and international law. And. to prove it I am submitting myself to the process."

Let the learning begin!

And what better place to hold water-boarding demonstrations than a well -- the well of House and the well of the US Senate.

Proponents who claim water-boarding is not torture because it "causes no physical injuries, leaves no marks and causes no permanent harm," should therefore have no problem, right? Climb on the water-board and take a spin.

But, there's more than just a quick demo. For this demonstration to be useful it must be a genuine interrogation in every way possible. That means not only using the same equipment used at Gitmo and other secret interrogation centers, but the same assumptions. Those the CIA water-board are assumed to know something useful or to possess secrets.

So the members of Congress and administration who agree to be water-boarded must also be assumed to hold a secret. Otherwise it's not an interrogation. Since it has to be an incriminating secret let's make it so.

"Have you ever cheated on your spouse?"

Maybe none of them ever cheated on their spouse, just as some of the people the CIA have water-boarded were not terrorists after all. But hey, guilty people always deny guilt when first asked, so one must ask repeatedly, water-board them repeatedly until they cough up the assumption(s) -- true or otherwise.

Here's how I imagine these demonstration sessions would go:

Senator Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, is strapped to a water-board in the well of the Senate. Interrogators lay a terry cloth towel over his face, lean the board back and begin pouring copious amounts of water over the towel. As the towel becomes soaked Senator McConnell finds it impossible to breathe. He coughs, then starts choking. He tries to turn his head to each side but blocks prevent it. He struggles but his hands and legs are strapped to the board. He suddenly realizes he's on for the full ride.

Just as the Senator appears ready to black out, the two interrogators remove the towel and raise the board. A doctor checks the Senators' pulse and blood pressure. In a couple of seconds McConnell is coughing, spitting and breathing again.

The senator opens his eyes showing real panic as they dart from side to side.

Interrogator: "Have you ever cheated on your wife?."

Sen. McConnell: "No, no, really, I never did. Never did. So, fine. I see how it works. Now please untie me."

Interrogator: "Ah, not in the mood to talk yet. Okay, have it your way, Senator. Jack, lower the board again."

Sen. McConnell: "Whoa fellas! Not again. No. Wait. Please wait. Okay. Fine. Yes, yes, sure I cheated. Yep I did. Now untie me."

Interrogator: "Not so fast, partner. All you've told us so far is that -- as we suspected -- you cheated on your wife. Now we need to know how many times and with whom."

Sen. McConnell: "Okay guys, this has gone far enough. I get the point. It's torture. People will say anything to get you to stop. Okay. I get it. Whatya want me to say and I'll say it. Now let me off this damn board."

Interrogator: Oh, I wish it was that easy, Senator. But when we water-board suspected terrorists we are told we must connect the dots. You remember connecting the dots, don't you? If we let everyone off for giving us a nugget or two, well, that wouldn't do at all, now would it? We have to finish our interrogation. Now, one more time Senator, how many times did you cheat and we want names."

Senator McConnell: "Never and with nobody. This is stupid!. I just said that so you'd untie me."

Interrogator: "Okay Jack, lower the board."

Senator McConnell: No, no, NO! Wait. Okay. Many times. More than I can count. You wanna know with who? Okay, I did Madeline Albright, Helen Keller, Mother Teresa, (twice, missionary position, of course,) -- Ophra, Jackie Kennedy.... ah, all the DC Madams' hookers and, one night -- while Larry Craig and I were out drinking -- a strangely attractive ewe. Now, let me go!

The Senator is released.

"None of what I said was true," McConnell shouts when free. "None of that would stand up in a court of law."

The interrogator slaps his assistant on the back and laughs.

"A trial? Ha. We don't need no stinkin' trials in our line of work, Senator. Okay, who's up next?"

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe McConnell, Mukasey and others who doubt that water-boarding is torture might take repeating dousings without spelling any beans, true or otherwise. And, when their interrogators finally give up, they'll hop off the table and declare their faces have never felt more fresh and clean. Some might even cut back in line for a second ride.

If that happens I'll happily admit I was wrong -- water-boarding isn't torture after all.

But before I can come to that conclusion I need those who say it ain't so to put their own nervous systems where their mouths are.

I'm still waiting -- though I won't hold my breath. (Pun intended)