Saturday, July 26, 2008

Cant Canned

Joe Bageant, long may he wave his middle finger, has given space over at his blog to what he says are the observations of a nameless big-noise political consultant on the current state of our politics, and Obama's not-exactly-noble place in it.

I get the sense it was written for publication in the ink press, and turned down, as it glows with a clear-eyed disdain for everything in sight, from well-meaning lefties to the malign ruling class, and ends up by noting, as if drawing back a curtain in front of a shocked audience, that Barry is not the messiah.


Our lecteur tells us that Obama's success is mainly because we are now trapped in a post-political age:

The two primary features of the post political age are a politics completely drained of all its contents and ability or willingness to be used as an agent of change in social or economic policy, and its full integrations into the world of American popular, consumer and entertainment culture. To such an extent that there exists today a seamless web between our political, economic, media and consumer cultures wherein the modes and values of one are completely integrated and compatible with the others.

It should not come as a surprise that the dominant ideas and mores of popular culture have become the dominant ideas of our society. Popular culture is the breaker of customs, prejudice, tradition and relevant historical knowledge.

Here let's note that the whole point of American culture--political, religious, literary, educational, and popular--right from the get-go, was the smashing of tradition, custom, and, as a necessary result, prejudice. Things just happen faster now.

The results, though, trouble some:

In such a setting our political choices like our consumer choices, regardless of the product, are primarily about what makes us more fulfilled and feel better about ourselves.

As if the election of Andrew Jackson was all about the prudent desire of the landless to reform the banking system, or that Kennedy's popular appeal lay in his tough stance towards the Soviets and willingness to address his Catholicism.

Then our disappointed consultant goes from silly to insulting:

One of the most telling facts about the Obama's constituency outside of African Americans (whose support needs no explanation) is that it is a coalition of people who need or demand the least amount of social benefit from our government. They are the under politicized younger voters and upper middle class whites. The two groups, coincidently, are the ones most influenced by trends in consumer popular culture and have the greatest of ease using the latest technologies.

How is this stupid? Let me count the ways: taking black support as built in (let the GOP nominate Judge Thomas and see if that holds, shall we?) Overlooking hispanic constituencies and those working poor who find Obama a better choice that his opponent. Then try to explain how younger voters are under politicized this cycle.

Finally, as someone born into our lower upper class, let me point out how useless the "upper middle class" label rilly-rilly is, untied to any hard demographics, geography, or income breakdowns. One might stylishly observe that a lot of incomes are breaking down now and, as a result, there is a enormous body of educated, well-informed citizens who have seen the possibilities once inherent in American society crack up and blow away these last 25 years, and just might feel like voting for someone who addresses that demoralizing loss directly, in his actions, speeches, and writing.

Our commentator's central fallacy, however, is the idea that a vote cast "to feel good about oneself" is by force mistaken. Tell you what, one of the high points of my life was standing on line for an hour in the lobby of Brooklyn Borough Hall in 1992 waiting to vote for Bill Clinton, still the finest president of my lifetime, which, it pains me to report, stretches back to Ike's second term. I felt damn good about myself that day, and still do.

Then, in a sagacious final vent of warmed-over air, Bageant's correspondent warns us:

His very presence, the color of his skin, the very strangeness of his name is the best guarantee of his betrayal of the expectations of the constituencies that will vote to elect him. Barack Obama is in short order a far more reassuring prospect for the continued dominance of the financial elite than another four years of neo-conservative rule which in an almost historically unique combination of greed, ill will, incompetence and stupidity have brought the country to the edge of disaster.

Audacity yes, change hardly.

Gotta love that final, stale rhetorical flourish he or she uses to plant their early memorial stone on the Obama administration.

The nature of any phenomenon, during its unfolding, is the difficulty of understanding it. This is what's driving a lot of people deeply invested in a dependable future crazy about Obama. The nature of our system is that only ambitious and confident politicians get elected president. I am pleased to accept a man of great intelligence and wise instincts, whose ultimate self and ambitions remain ambiguous. The old orders are not falling before him, but collapsing on their own, a fact which our writer gets right. Less understood by anyone, including--I submit--the candidate himself, is what will come in its wake.

Under these uncertain circumstances, grass-roots organizing (one more element of Obama's success overlooked by our essayist), involving as many as possible in the process of government, becomes important for its own sake. When Obama accepts the nomination at that stadium in Denver, word is it will be in front of 60,000 people who got their tickets only by registering new voters. When the time comes, it might look like it is all about him, but it won't be.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Buffaloed In Buffalo

Is it my imagination, or did the McCain campaign officially throw a rod yesterday? Let's recap: he goes to visit Poppy Bush, where he natters on about Iraq, (I love the word Insists in that headline) even as the candidacy of his opponent is apparently lighting a way forward among the actors over there. (And here let me ask if Mrs. Clinton was now the presumptive nominee, would our asshole-in-chief have bothered his hot head with withdrawal time horizons?) The picture of the two aged dissemblers together, their watery eyes aglow with exhaustion and fear, their mouths in a cheerful rictus of denial, were the perfect counterpoint to the pictures of a cool, focused, and young, Obama on the world stage.

Next old John lit up my life with what is quite possibly the stupidest campaign ad ever, guaranteed to embarrass all but the dumbest of his backers, and even give a few of them pause. For we live in a huge country in an information age, and the idea that a forty-something black man from Chicago, a state legislator until two years ago, is to blame for $4-a-gal gas is a blast of senile nihilism that might get anyone under 80 mocked out of a VFW bar.

Then after this day of triumphs, how did our aged hero celebrate the effective scuttling of his campaign? I pleased to report he was in Buffalo for dinner at my second cousin's home. Alas, I do not know the ambassador nearly well enough to call this morning to see how it went (we meet only at funerals), or to advise him to save his money this cycle.

In recovering from my own dyspeptic yodel of a couple days ago, I had to ask myself why I think Obama will win the election handily, given what I consider the dysfunctional nature of the wide voting public. I came up with a bunch of reasons, main one being hard times; then the stinking war, then Obama's youth and energy, his smile and ability to charm. Then there's the fact that McCain is a painfully poor campaigner who is rapidly being outpaced by events, which yesterday's action articulated to a fair-thee-well. This might be the first candidacy ever to be over before the convention, which, incidentally, gives every promise of being the least-watched and most embarrassing to witness yet devised.

I predicted here not long ago that the press will soon have no choice but to toss McCain over the side. I believe this is what we see happening now in the coverage of Obama's grand tour, and the whole Maliki interview business shows Barry holding kings and aces. The MSM acts in sorrow of course, but business is business and it seems events are forcing their nervous hands. Lacking the loyalty and security of people like my cousin Tony, they will need to get right with the new guy if they have any hope of surviving their bottom-line stresses in the coming years.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

It's All Goo

For a publication mainly dedicated to the exercise of power and the utter awesomeness of buying stuff, this report from the Times executes a pretty good sketch on how the average American citizen fell into debt peonage. What it does not say, of course, was that this enslavement of the average mook was exactly the plan of finance capitalists, executed with the broad support of the GOP and more than a few crucial enablers in the Democratic delegation.

But I'm in a weird mood and see no need to stop there. Other de facto criminal actors are those institutions which, seeing the premium they could charge the powerless who most needed their help, nearly doubled their fees inside a decade while encouraging the assumption of a mountain of debt to cover the costs. I am referring, of course, to private colleges and universities, who have not only normalized the burden of indebtedness among the young, but have also fostered a culture of super cool avarice (Ivies, I am looking at you!) needed to pay off the loans as soon as possible, while providing new waves of leverage-mad shock troops each spring to help edge the financial system towards the post modern absurdity (hat tip B. Ritholtz) it has become.

Wahtever, y'know, dude.

It would be one thing if the country's debt obligations, now failing, had gone to buy the average Joe and Jane something enduring and truly enriching, something we might see today as an evolved culture, a genuine benefit of a higher education--aware, confident citizens; handsome, livable cities; generous social programs and secure lives. But no, somehow the average lost American only got slobby--fat, infantile, misinformed and arrogant, until he or she first gets sick, after which many become plain mean. Their consolations are not the life of the mind, which I don't think I need to tell you has its own moral hazards, but spectator sports, eating, shopping, and bubbling anger. The shame is that rather than Art and the tools of understanding, America sold itself for homes full of crap, with enthusiasm, and that the political party mainly in power for the last thirty years gleefully shouted down anyone who presumed to say that there was something wrong with that. It was, after all, a winning agenda.

Lately I have come to the conclusion that there will be no great collapse and no big recovery. Instead we'll witness an inevitable and steady reducing as society makes due with less. J.H. Kunstler and others are fond of predicting widespread social disorders, but I think those who will object the most to the coming changes will be the ones least likely to do anything violent about them, too old and overweight, too accustomed to watching TV and doing what they are told. Not bad people, but sick and worn out. Change will come from those creative quarters, and people, which have been left untouched by the needs and uses of finance.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Copyright Infringement Theater Presents. . .

The truth.

Banks Shot

Headline in today's Times: Confidence Ebbs for Bank Sector and Stocks Fall, a dandy example of Timespeak useful for delivering lousy news. Ebbs is a nice word for lost, and sector does a fine job in metaphorically walling off the panic. After all you can't expect the nation's clarion to proclaim: Confidence Lost as Banks Fail. Plenty of time for that later.

What I find completely absorbing about our current situation is how a press and commentariat, indeed an entire management class, trained to focus only on the current quarter and, maybe, the next, must now consider a timeline which not only includes the last eight or so years of really shitty decisions, but a future that right now is menacingly stretching out past the limits of definite awareness. How do some of them cope? By insisting that a definition dictates the state, specifically that what we are facing isn't a recession because a recession is six straight months of no growth.

Barry Ritholtz, whose terrific The Big Picture financial blog is officially added to my very exclusive roll today, knocks that argument down without breathing hard.

Judging by the puzzled and angry reaction in the markets to the Treasury stepping in to apply makeup to the corpses of Mac and Mae, I'll venture to say the real unwinding has begun. As stated here last time, the securities of those two USGOV-supported operations were once wellsprings to vast pension pools, not to mention sold to a lot of foreign govs, like China, as dollar investments. This evaporated equity of investors small and huge hardly figures into the news accounts of Treasury's new "support" of the failed U.S. money spinner. What no one wants to think about is the radically logical case that if a financial enterprise is "too big to fail" it is also might be too big to save.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Money Balks

At the end of the day, six trillion dollars is a lot of money, and the idea that the nation can step in and prop up a debt to that amount over at Fmac and Fmae is nonsense. That the country now must choose between the nonsensical and the unthinkable should give the stronger among you some idea how exquisitely screwed we are.

Once upon a time, like 15 years ago, Frannie and Freddie shares were touted as no-miss, US Gov-certified investments, and they really were--the bottom-dollar pillars of a lot of large-scale pension mutual funds. That the shares are at this writing, verging on worthless, is, I am ambivalent to report, game, set and match for the latest, most spectacular failure for finance capitalism.

10,600, or thereabouts, is where the Dow stood when that squalid little man became president. He will be lucky if it is bobbing above 9,000 when a broken nation finally sends him back to the land of the jackass. But you know? Nobody can fuck things up so completely all by themselves. I blame the little war criminal for a lot (and I do believe he will pay for at least a few of his bad-faith bargains in whatever time he has left on earth), but what we are presented with now is the complete unravelling of a cultural enterprise of reflexive theft, one where the robbers had been making the laws for many years.

For such a criminal class to thrive for so long, more and more bystanders, at home and on TV, needed to be paid off, which required greater and greater returns. Looks like invading a Middle East oil exporter was a bad idea, and keeping interest rates low to, somehow, spend our way to victory, even worse. That Phil Gramm thinks the new Depression is in everybody's heads makes a lot of sense, as that is exactly the last known residence of what had been the GOP-induced prosperity.

The latest broadsides in clueless, hateful old white-guy rhetoric, apparently Job One over at Factory McCain, has left me wondering just how long the big-organ press will stay loyal. Maybe they really will all go down together. However, it is one thing to support a loser, quite another to back an idiot. Meanwhile Obama, the prince of our disorder, might be wondering how things got so weird so fast.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Mark Of Genius

All of you should have a look at Roy Blount's appreciation of Mark Twain over at Time. It's a little too slick, but that's because it has to be read by people who don't do a lot of reading. Blount also over-praises Ron Powers' biography, which mainly employs Sam Clemens for misty-eyed hosannas to the era of unregulated entrepreneurial capitalism (at least through about the first 50 pages, which is where I stopped.)

But Blount knows his man, and salts the piece with choice quotes, chief among them this beauty:

As it happens, many [contemporary issues] were also the issues of [Twain's] day, and he addressed them as eloquently as anyone has since. The idea that America is a Christian nation? Andrew Carnegie brought that up to him once. "Why, Carnegie," Twain answered, "so is Hell."

Hell for me is having to watch John McCain on a high definition TV screen, where he appears to have mastered the difficult skill of looking both sickly and arrogant at the same time. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person to notice this, and as the old man lumbers around the country in front of increasingly bland and tiny audiences, no amount of petting and tender love from the endangered media is going to get that sway-backed old calvary nag the blue ribbon at the fair.

And speaking of gelding: Jessie Jackson--what the fuck? I mean, really. One might observe that the Rev has internalized all the castration fantasies the White Man has entertained towards the Black for the last, oh, 500 years, and is ready to spit it back out when crossed. Then again, it could just be a southside Chicago thing, the rage of an increasingly out-of-it precinct captain towards the new guy. Barack has jumped out of that same enormous pool of hope and dysfunction which has kept the Rev. Jackson in bread and butter chips for two generations, and the Rev likely sees his flock heading towards the exits.

It is astonishing to contemplate, but after a recent wearying conversation with an 80-something friend in New York (one of those Upper West Side Commie types) I get the feeling there is a distinct cadre from the old civil rights crew who have pledged their lives, fortunes and honor to the very reasonable proposition that no black man would be elected president of the United States in their lifetimes. Now that one will be they feel let down by the people they reliably hated most, which can be vexing and disorienting. No room for old rainbows when a new day dawns in DC.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

There Will Be Blockheads

Nowhere in this otherwise pretty good rundown of the inane policies that led to $4-a-gal gas, is any regard for the price pressures inherent in starting a Persian Gulf war, or of supporting a military with the daily oil needs of Switzerland.

But that's okay. I'm used to a pointless press. Visiting New York and seeing the Times every day, I appreciate anew what a bubble guide the Gray Lady really is, the preferred version of events presented to a well-compensated set of prisoners.

Always lacking in these what-went-wrong policy examinations, and I'm also thinking of a recent story in my dreary hometown paper on the decay of the urban core there, is any sense of the part of the equation played by. . . newspapers. Always sensitive to the failure of Politics, which is always a bi-partisan affair, papers never consider their own role in the dysfunctional polis.

For newspapers are no less beholden to Detroit than the current senators from Michigan. Advertisments for new and used automobiles have been the lifeblood of your daily rags for two generations, often calling for regular automotive sections just gushing with classified adverts. I'm not saying that regular and hard-hitting reporting and editorials regarding CAFE standards and public transit in the Times, Chicago Trib, or Wash Post would have made a difference, but it's not like they tried either.

Lurking in the undertow of the Times piece is however something far more crucial to future policy than the myth of a responsible and crusading press, namely the failure of a free market to deliver efficient and needed social changes. For a quarter century the predominate philosophy of Big Business and the GOP has been the wisdom of what people want. The market will tell us when to change, Detroit said, and Detroit was right. But they were not expecting the market would, in the space of a year, kill the prevailing desire for their main products and force them into the vestibules of bankruptcy.

Want to know what an Obama administration might look like? How about mandated large-scale industrial polices and selective use of tariffs? And then the free market dodos can line their cages with the nearly worthless paper otherwise known as shares of General Motors.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008