Archive for September, 2008

The Bailout Failure and the End of Panic Politics

September 30, 2008

I am glad the US Congress is finally tired of panic-driven policy making.

I hate this neo-con style of cramming through terrible legislation with minimal debate.  It’s been disastrous.  First it was the Patriot Act, prepared well in advance by the PNAC but passed in a matter of days without even being read by most legislators. Why?  Because if it wasn’t passed IMMEDIATELY and without reflection, terrorists were going to blow America to the bottom of the sea.  Then the invasion of Iraq, also prepared well in advance by the PNAC, passed effortlessly (apart from a few riots, but that was just the public), without NATO cooperation and without UN sanction.  Why?  Because Saddam was about to attack America (or Israel, or the Kurds, or whoever).

The bailout bill, which in its original form was only three pages long and would have given a private banker (Henry Paulson) unsupervised control of almost a trillion dollars, was only the latest fiasco in an 8 year history of neo-con blackmail and I am relieved the US congress has grown tired of this “now or never” style of legislation.  “Let me tap your phone without a warrant, send your kids to war and transfer your treasury bonds to private banks or Osama bin Laden is going to rape your daughter.  Do it NOW!  No time to think!  End times!  End times!”

I know it’s supposed to be some kind of giant tragedy that the bill didn’t pass in its current form (according to the papers) but why not think things through anyway?  There’s no guarantee it even would have worked.  If you’re a business journalist, buck up!  It’s not like that’s the last economic rescue package the US will ever see.  You’ve got at least a decade of recession (which you would have had anyway) to figure out how to solve the problem of predatory lending. Besides, until a passable bill is hashed out, the US can (and surely will) keep doing what they’re doing:  Nationalize some assets, inject capital into some institutions, oversee a few asset seizures and private buy-outs and act on a case by case basis – just like every other country that is struggling from the sub-prime mortgage crisis (albeit with much less wild-eyed desperation).

The next attempt will almost certainly be superior to this one, just as the 160 some-odd pages subject to debate and negotiation were superior to the initial three page plan Bush started with (which, by the way, is a sure-fire indication that the PNAC didn’t write it in advance – they were wordy as hell.  More likely, Paulson reconstructed it from vague memories of a wet dream).  OK, it wasn’t passed, but I seriously doubt it’s bound for the shredder.  After some more negotiation it will have another kick at the can.

Thank heavens American legislators are growing some backbone.  I was reading about the dangers of the housing bubble years ago.  There has been plenty of time to come up with a plan that could pass a vote.  But no, that’s not the neo-con way.  If defense industry lobbyists haven’t already written you a plan that can pass a vote on the sheer force of public panic, you might as well whip something up at the very last minute and use the same tactics.  The panic approach worked with Iraq, worked with the Patriot Act, why not Wall Street Welfare?  No need to look at the fine print, better to whip everyone into a frenzy so that their elected representatives are afraid to ask questions or consider other options.

Never mind that not looking at the fine print is what caused this problem in the first place.

Good riddance to panic politics.  I’m confident that after some sober consideration some kind of agreement will be reached, but it was madness to stake a trillion dollars on homework churned out the night before it was due.  Hats off to those bipartisan “no” votes.  I think you are right; I think you can do better.

Weirdest. Christmas Card. Ever.

September 28, 2008

Margaret Atwood’s recent dig at Stephen Harper for his arts funding cuts at the Globe and Mail contains a curious factoid of which I was hitherto unaware.

Harper’s idea of what sort of art you should hang on your wall was signalled by his removal of all pictures of previous Conservative prime ministers from their lobby room – including John A. and Dief the Chief – and their replacement by pictures of none other than Mr. Harper himself.

What!?  How did I miss that??  Harper Kim Jonged up a Conservative lobby room and I missed it?  I know the man’s an ass, but that’s a bit… well, I don’t know what that is.  I will ask my boyfriend’s psychoanalyst mother next time we go for Sunday dinner.  I do know it’s something a reasonable person would be embarrassed to do.

Anyway, as the inimitable Ms Atwood says, it’s only a rumor, but I have to know more!  I’ve been looking for independent verification of the breadth of Harper’s penchant for such “redecoration” (and how much of it is tax-funded), and in my travels I came across this:

harp Xmas card

A heartwarming photograph of Stephen Harper gazing at photographs of himself.

This may be yesterday’s news, but I didn’t hear of this before.  I didn’t make it home for Christmas last year, so I had to make do with photos of my loved ones as well.  (Zing.)

The photo reminds me of a piece of my intimate personal history, which I will now share:  I dated a Harper Conservative once.  I enjoyed the beer-fuelled debates, but I soon realized our deep-seated ideological contempt for one another was not a good basis for a relationship and broke it off.  He was upset.  There was drama.  “But where will you ever find somebody better than me?” he demanded, as if he felt the real pathos was my failure to appreciate his unmatchable specialness.

My point is: even that guy wouldn’t have sent out such an audaciously narcissistic Christmas card.

Anyway, I will stay on the job of researching the extent to which Harper’s taste in decorating leans toward that of Chairman Mao.  I might have to file an FOI request if the internet refuses to deliver.  The curiosity is killing me.

Just How Clueless Does Stephen Harper Think You Are?

September 27, 2008

If you think you’re “ordinary”, he thinks you’re pretty damn clueless.  So clueless, in fact, that when you get home after a long day’s work and turn on the TV you tune in to live video coverage of social gatherings of film and television writers, producers, actors, technicians and support staff rather than watching the stuff they’ve created – and then get irritated because you find it boring.

“You know, I think when ordinary, working people come home, turn on the TV and see … a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”  Stephen Harper

So… um…. what channel is that on Steve?  Sorry, I was busy watching Trailer Park Boys.  I didn’t realize “artists expounding on the grant application process over drinks ” was on.  Damn – I sure hope somebody recorded it!

Wait, might as well turn off that VCR.  I just remembered artists expounding on the grant application process over drinks is a pretty thick slice of my own social pie!

A lot of the full time, successful, tax paying artists I know got their leg-up from a tax-funded arts grant program like Canada Council.  Like my friends Lorenz, Pascal and Olivier.  I’m not sure whether Pascal and Olivier have time for many “rich, taxpayer-funded galas” what with their exhausting international touring schedules, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them express their (approving, supportive and uncomplaining) opinions of various grant programs and how to apply, and I know for certain there was liquor involved.  Beer.  Brewed in Quebec.  But I won’t quibble over such small details.

I also know full time artists who got their leg-up via tax-funded arts grant programs like welfare.  I won’t name names, as they will surely be hunted down and pilloried by bureaucrats if they are found to have earned money (albeit far from enough to live on) while chowing at the public trough.  But just between you and me, I’m one of them.

I decided one day I wanted to try writing as if it were a job (5 days a week, all day long) and see if I could finish a novel before my money ran out.  Well, I couldn’t finish a novel before my money ran out, because as soon as I started writing all day, every day, some kind of metaphysical levee seems to have burst and a flood of stories consumed me.  I just had to get them all down.  Before I knew what hit me, I had four novels on the go, not to mention a bunch of short stories, and when my savings ran out they weren’t done!  So I went on welfare (which paid for my rent and, if I was very frugal, enough “spaghetti, garlic and butter” to last through the month) and kept writing for a few more months.  Then my glasses broke, so I had to get a job, since there’s no margin for such things on welfare.  It was write or see.  I had to choose.

After I stopped working in writing and started working in a job which, as any non-creative job does, made me suicidally and catatonically depressed in a manner of months, a painter friend in a similar situation with a much higher tolerance for hardship and discomfort got his work into a top-notch gallery.  Suddenly his paintings were selling for thousands of dollars and flying off the walls.  No more welfare for the painter, tax money flowing to Ottawa. Win-win.

The point of sharing this is to illustrate that welfare, like any tax-funded arts grant program, sometimes produces wealth and sometimes it doesn’t.  But, with welfare, artists are not supposed to work. They can actually get in trouble for it if money changes hands.  They are supposed to be “job-hunting”, but I know from intimate experience that someone who would rather be writing is not a very productive private sector employee, particularly when entrusted with a PC and left to their own devices.  With legitimate arts funding programs, getting artists to do their work is the whole point and there’s no need to be furtive about it.  In fact, there’s every incentive to embrace the opportunity and work harder than they ever have before – mostly because that’s what artists do whenever the opportunity arises, but also to demonstrate they are deserving of the help.

Somebody needs to explain to Stephen Harper that arts funding is not the handout to burgundy-sipping parasites he believes it to be.  It’s venture capital for entrepreneurs.  Seed money.  Plant it wisely and wealth will grow.  Plant no seeds, reap no harvest.  And, like any vital commodity, the culture my country fails to produce will have to be imported.  I know Harper is a big fan of the US, but I’d sit through an episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest before I’d sit through 24 any day.

If I had a TV.  Which I don’t.  Actually, at the moment I’m watching episodes of Heimat (German) on DVD and before that it was Survivors (the 70’s BBC drama, not the American gong show).  But it’s the principle  of the thing!

Obama-McCain Joint Statement of Policy: Boring as Hell.

September 27, 2008

I just watched the US presidential debate thinking there were going to be fireworks, but no.  Only sweeping agreement on just about everything, liberally sprinkled with puke-inducing sentimentality, incoherent xenophobia and delusions of grandeur.

And what did they talk about in the midst of the most catastrophic domestic crisis America has seen in my lifetime?  Nothing but the fiddly details of American foreign policy.  (Who should we bomb?  When should we bomb them?  How successful has our bombing been?  How should we meddle in the affairs of Iran?  What about Russia?  Which of us can come up with a better metaphor for how evil North Korea is?  Isn’t Israel swell? )

Disappointment of the night: Obama calling Venezuela a “rogue state”  (sarcastic clapping).   Nice job, “leftist” candidate.

My verdict:  a tie.  The points gained by McCain in the ad hominem category were perfectly matched by Obama’s glittering generalities.

Booooooo.  Hissssss.

Anyway, unless someone announces a debate between Nader and Paul, I’m done with American politics for a while.  I hear Canada is having an election too!

Bailout to Be Funded by Selling off Retirement and Savings Bonds?

September 26, 2008

 I was browsing through the full text of the bailout plan and this part caught my eye:

For the purpose of the authorities granted in this Act, and for the costs of administering those authorities, the Secretary may use the proceeds of the sale of any securities issued under chapter 31 of title 31, United States Code, and the purposes for which securities may be issued under chapter 31 of title 31, United States Code, are extended to include actions authorized by this Act, including the payment of administrative expenses. Any funds expended for actions authorized by this Act, including the payment of administrative expenses, shall be deemed appropriated at the time of such expenditure.

I had to find out what “any securities issued under Chapter 31 of Title 31 of the United States Code” means, since I’m dying to know where the extra hundreds of billions of bucks is going to come from.  So I went and looked it up.  Dry stuff.  But they seem to be referring to all of the securities held by the US treasury, without exception.

(Admittedly, I had to look up “securities“, too, since all this financial stuff is gibberish to me.)

So does the scheme really involve selling (to private banks) three quarters of a trillion dollars worth of stable and marketable government assets – such as retirement and savings bonds and foreign debt certificates – in order to purchase (ostensibly from the same banks) three quarters of a trillion dollars worth of chaotic, unmarketable assets of questionable value? What does that mean? I don’t know! Maybe someone else can explain!  (Dad?)

McCain Accepts His Intellectual Deficiency, Puts Off Debate

September 25, 2008

Finally!

I think the media is being too hard on McCain for chickening out of his upcoming debate.  Clearly, a man who – as Lehman Bros employees packed their personal belongings into archive boxes – recently proclaimed the “fundamentals of the economy are strong”, urgently needs to get caught up on a few decades worth of economic news. Let him have his emergency study leave, for Heaven’s sake. Better late than never.

While the hilarity of pitting McCain’s unique blend of temper tantrums, dementia and memorized talking points he doesn’t understand against Obama’s flamboyantly reasonable arguments appeals to me on some level, until now I was worried McCain actually thought he knew what he was doing, so I’m relieved at this tacit admission that he urgently needs to stop everything and get some lessons on the economy.

Even now I expect he is studiously following a Power Point presentation on the interplay of “supply and demand” in the free market he advocates. I remember (vaguely) how it works from my school days: The price of goods is determined by weighing how badly people want it against how much of it you have to sell. Several trillions of “dollars” worth of unrecoverable debt (for example) is a virtually unlimited supply of goods nobody in their right mind wants anything to do with. According to my 10th Grade Basic Business course, that means the price should be set at zero dollars or less. In fact, in a proper free market, people might actually be paid to take it away, as is the case with similarly valued products like human excrement.

There is bound to be more to the emergency training sessions than this, though. Like lengthy discussions regarding how Rebublicans can sell legislation that will compel American taxpayers (and their children and spouses) to fork over more than $2000 each to buy back their own excrement just because that’s what the shopkeeper says it’s worth.

Will the nebulous prospect of non-specific impending doom be enough to convince voters who are still considering voting Republican they should let the government force them to buy their poop back? Even though the problem is too complex to be summed up on a bumper sticker? And has nothing to do with queers, terrorists, guns or abortions?

Banker Bailout = Welfare for the Wealthy

September 23, 2008

By now, I’m sure everyone has heard about the US plan to stick American taxpayers with the bill for bank bail-outs to the tune of $700 billion.  It’s hard to put that kind of money in perspective, so I’ve been trying to think of other things that have cost the US $700 billion.  As it turns out, it’s actually $100 billion more than the price tag for the entire Iraq war to date, according to zfacts.

Whether or not you agree with the morality of war, you can’t argue with the fact that the $600 billion America has spent on killing and torturing Muslims has actually bought something.  Soldiers’ wages have been paid, a variety of killing and maiming technologies have been developed, purchased and used up, a sprawling command centre covering 10 square kilometres of prime central Baghdad real estate has been built and fourteen permanent US military bases are under construction.  Meanwhile, in the private sector, billions of dollars worth of no-bid contracts have been handed to companies like Halliburton, who have subcontracted to subcontractors who subcontract to slave traders trafficking in undocumented foreigners who – when they are not being beheaded – are forced to do real work, resulting in measurable goods and services.  Even so, many argue that $600 billion is a shockingly exorbitant sum for a war that, according to Donald Rumsfeld, was supposed to cost about zero dollars, give or take.

Not so with the $700 billion banker bail-out.  Apart from occasional outbursts of confusion, The mainstream media seems pretty supportive, despite the fact this time the money will be used up practically overnight, will pay no-one and produce, purchase and build nothing.  To be charitable, I’ll assume the lack of popular criticism is due to the reverence-inducing incomprehensibility of global Keynesian economics, and not because newspaper editors are bootlicking sycophants to the preposterously rich.

The US government’s plan to borrow about 3/4ths of a trillion dollars to pay off about 3/4ths of a trillion dollars in bad debts is a great deal for bankers.  While the bank’s efforts to recover your bad debts are mainly limited to threatening letters and automated phone calls at supper time, the government’s bad debts are repaid by taxpayers who can have their assets seized by the state or be chucked in prison if they balk at the terms of repayment.  Paulson’s bail-out proposal would create a Shangri-La for financial sector profiteers:  It would socialise the risk and leave the profits private.

This is why this clause embedded in the banker bail-out bill should be troubling to the taxpayers who will be forced to foot the bill:

Sec. 8. Review. Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

How surprising!   A Republican political appointee ducking democratic oversight and accountability!  My guess is the bill will glide through with minimal interference from either side.  If there’s anything both political parties in the US seem to agree on, it’s the sacred right to unfettered, unregulated, undemocratic, unaccountable, irresponsible and unethical behavior on the part of the obscenely rich.

If the bill passes as is, Henry Paulson will have free rein to do whatever he sees fit with that $700 billion.  Following the footsteps of Gabriel Schwartz, he can leave it lying around in his hotel room to be lifted by a dodgy hooker.  Like Jack Abramoff, he can trade it for political favours.  He could send it in suitcases to Iraq to vanish like the $12 billion the Fed shipped over in 2003.  He can stick it in his pocket like Christopher Ward, ex-chairman of the Republican National Committee.

And there will be nothing you, your government, or your courts can do about it.

But don’t worry, because Americans still have recourse to prayer.  Republicans may not be accountable to democratic process or the rule of law, but even they are accountable to God – or at least they think they are.  So pray that, like the $600 billion your government has diverted from public services to pay for pointless foreign wars, the $700 billion over which Paulson will have unfettered control actually pays for something.  Pray this bail-out isn’t the final, desperate hand at the high-stakes poker table where mad-eyed gamblers start trying to recoup their losses by wagering the deed to houses they haven’t paid off.  I think Sarah Palin’s infamous prayer is appropriate:  “That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan”.

(I suppose if you’re not religious, you could always riot.  Or write to your congressperson.)

Republican Sex Lives: Gabriel Schwartz meets Robbin’ Hooker

September 18, 2008

“In an interview filmed the afternoon of Sept. 3 and posted on the Web site LinkTV.org, Schwartz was candid about how he envisioned change under a McCain presidency.

“Less taxes and more war,” he said, smiling. He said the U.S. should “bomb the hell” out of Iran because the country threatens Israel.

Asked by the interviewer how America would pay for a military confrontation with Iran, he said the U.S. should take the country’s resources.

“We should plant a flag. Take the oil, take the money,” he said. “We deserve reimbursement.”

A few hours after the interview, an unknown woman helped herself to Schwartz’s resources.

The theft happened at the Hotel Ivy, a luxury hotel in downtown Minneapolis. (The Colorado delegation was housed at the Four Points Sheraton, several miles away on Industrial Boulevard Northeast.)

The theft occurred early on Sept. 4, hours after Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin gave her speech accepting her party’s vice presidential nomination. A police report said Schwartz told officers he met a woman at the bar and took her to his $319-a-night room.

“Victim reported suspect made victim drinks, told him to get undressed, which is the last thing he remembers,” a police narrative said. “Upon waking, victim discovered money, jewelry gone; total loss over $120K.” ” source

Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy!  Thanks, Richard for the heads up.  You made my day!

UPDATES!  Were you wondering what KIND of lawyer he is? Follow this Link, but be sure to have napkins handy for your tears of mirth and dribbled beverage.  Thanks to Graham Lineham for that gem, and this one where you can hear Schwartz’s insane political views straight from the horse’s ass.  I mean mouth.

Sarah Palin’s Heartwarming Homecoming Event

September 16, 2008

Thanks to April Reign for drawing my attention to this blog account of Saturday’s huge anti-Palin rally in Anchorage.  I understand a thousand some-odd protestors might not sound “huge” to most people, but it was far more “huge” than the pro-Palin rally organized by the GOP in the same city, on the same day.

I can relate the writer’s sense of significance – I went to the pre-Iraq-war protest in Calgary in 2003. Calgary – which probably has more in common with Anchorage than, say, with Toronto – is a conservative, family-oriented, not-very-big city where the residents are highly individualistic. Calgarians are not normally given to accumulating en masse in the streets for any event that is not in some way related to the Stampede.

Of course the five thousand people crowding into Olympic Plaza on that day were nothing compared to the million or so that flooded the streets of London, but it struck me as quite meaningful that such a crowd could be drawn in a city where the residents would normally be inclined to hockey or weenie roasts on a sunny Saturday in February.

I grew up in Calgary and left at 17, mostly because as an artsy, sensitive person I couldn’t bear Alberta’s conservative culture and politics. On that day I felt a surprising sense of fellowship with my redneck neighbours I have never felt before or since, not despite what I had perceived as a lack of social conscience, but because of it: The people gathered in this maddeningly conservative city in a province I have always referred to as “the Texas of the North” showed me that the limit of public tolerance for injustice does not always lie between the “left” and the “right”. In some cases, it lies between the people who wage wars and those whose children have to fight them – and whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have to pay for them.

I find the crowd in Anchorage similarly inspiring. It’s not a small thing for people whose social gatherings are likely to involve tales of solitary confrontations with carnivorous beasts to get together and give voice to their common interests.  Nice photos, too.

A Few Apophatic Reflections

September 12, 2008

I love the incoming links feature of wordpress. You never know what you’ll find!

Where Brad says “for a disturbing look at apophatic theology played out to an extreme, click here”, that’s me. I’m the disturbing look. Looking at a few of his other posts (ie. a Macbeth-esque contemplation of whether or not it’s OK to get a t-shirt that says “theology kicks ass”, concluding that it is fine to buy one because, after all, theology is “really, really cool” – but not OK to wear it because someone might get offended) I actually felt a rush of pride for being disturbing to a person like this. Not because I like to disturb people, but because being disturbed is often the first indicator of an unexamined, oppressive belief system that is begging to be re-evaluated – that’s crack cocaine to an apophatic. I felt like I’d done him a favour, although from our brief discussion it seems he does not feel the same.

Since I have begun to upset the Christians, I thought it might be a good time to elaborate on the perspective for which my blog is named. What I practice is not apophatic “theology”. In other words, it has nothing to do with imposing additional narratives (ie. gods and religions) on my experience of awareness, and everything to do with maintaining freedom from such impositions in order to enhance my awareness.

I have found life is enjoyable to the same degree it is experienced with open eyes, an open mind and an open heart, and upsetting to the same degree that I filter my experience through an inflexible narrative.

The foundation for this perspective was meditation. I didn’t know at the time that I was “meditating”. I thought I was just sitting on the beach – alone, in silence, thoughtlessly, sometimes long enough for the tide to come in and go back out again, a few times a week for several months. Eventually, I experienced a sudden, massive reorganisation of my psychology that has endured to this day.

In the weeks that followed I was in a state of epiphany, stamping out fallacy after fallacy as my altered psychology showed me submerged darkness underlying of everything I believed to be bright. I saw that I could not chase beauty without running from ugliness; that pain is the cost of pleasure; that I could not elevate people I admire without lowering people I find distasteful. I found I could only eliminate “evil” in myself by giving up my attachment to “good” – and everything became infused with goodness. I stamped out the “ugliness” in myself by letting go of “beauty” – and everything became infused beauty. The icing on the cake was that these were new forms of beauty and goodness, and they came packaged with their own dark opposites. After a few cycles, I began to suspect the process of releasing attachments and revealing ever more expansive forms of beauty and goodness was likely to be continuous.

At the time I was busking for a living on the streets of Vancouver. I left in the morning and stayed out all day, hammering away on my guitar and chatting with the sorts of people one meets while loitering on urban street corners. This era of listening to the stories of mad vagrants and the intoxicated graduates of Canada’s residential schools (while piqued professionals scurried by in wide semi-circles) is the first I time I experienced life with my eyes, heart and mind wide open. I had become the embodiment of divine love, truth and beauty: I felt a love which does not judge; I knew a truth which makes no claims; I found beauty in the ugliest of places.

All this seems very much at odds with “theology”. It’s unlikely I would ever have attained this perspective had I been distracted by the study of a god or religion (although nothing is impossible). As far as I have seen, western religions do not encourage their followers to become the embodiment of divinity; they point to a book, or an icon, or an abstract concept and insist that “divinity” lies within. They practice a “love” founded on shared loathing of the wicked. They dictate a “truth” that makes preposterous claims, then condemns the incredulous. Religious “beauty” is founded on the fear of death and decay, or it consists of nothing more than glamour: beguiling words and pretty things. In fact, I suspect the phrase “I became the embodiment of divine love, truth and beauty” makes western religious readers quite “disturbed”, but what can I do? That’s how it felt.

I don’t meditate any more, but I do napitate. I can conk out anywhere – planes, trains, family gatherings – for a period of mental inactivity that looks and feels very much like a nap, except that I am awake and aware of my surroundings throughout. It’s very refreshing, but doesn’t seem to result in any more profound awakenings. That is fine with me, though – I can happily spend my whole life integrating the awakenings I’ve already had.