Monday, January 28, 2008

Chalmers Johnson on the myth of "free" trade

An excellent review of what sounds like an important book exposing the reality behind the propaganda phrase "free trade."

The book in question is "Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism" (2007, Bloomsbury Press).

All I can say right now about the book is this: It's about *#$!& time an economist laid this out in a nice, compact and appparently witty book. This book should be required reading for every politician who is a member of the Democratic Party, starting with Hillobama. And that goes double for corporate media pundits. Of course, to quote one of my all-time favorite political one-liners:

"It is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it." (Upton Sinclair).

(Edited)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Second verse, same as the first...

This is what I posted about last Sunday. No change as far as I can see. The lemmings are still streaming over the cliff, and Kennedy family members are falling over themselves endorsing each side of the same political animal known as Hillobama.

Sigh.

I continue to wonder whether Democratic Party voters realize how either Hillary Clinton or Obama Barack unites Republican voters more in opposition than any of their own candidates unite them for a positive message. And corporate media can't wait to lap up Republican Party talking points about Obama and Hillary in the summer and fall, either.

Too bad Peter Noone wasn't born in the USA...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Business section writer recognizes New Deal works. No surprise here.

The San Diego Union-Tribune, usually a right wing paper, has published a column by a business section writer that is must reading. It is about a little known New Deal program that changed, for the better, the way houses are financed, and managed to protect many homeowners during the Great Depression of the 1930s from losing their homes. It also had the effect of protecting banks, which otherwise would have taken over more homes, which would have lowered further the price of homes to a point that would have created further adverse social dislocation.

The article is so great that I restate it here in case readers don't wish to sign up for the San Diego Union-Tribune web page (it's a free signup, as with many newspaper web sites):

FDR'S ANSWER TO LOAN MESS WOULD PROVE USEFUL TODAY

By Dean Calbreath
UNION-TRIBUNE

January 20, 2008

Once upon a time, there was a nation where, during an era of prosperity, large numbers of citizens used short-term, interest-only loans to purchase their homes. They were apparently unaware that once the good times ended, they would be saddled with unbearable debt. Which is exactly what happened in America roughly 75 years ago.

During the Roaring '20s, the typical mortgage was an interest-only loan that ended with a massive balloon payment. That bears a slight resemblance to the adjustable interest rates that were so popular in recent years.

As the country lurched into the Depression, banks froze up and could no longer dole out credit – sometimes not even to the most qualified of borrowers. Because homeowners could not refinance, their only recourse was the soup line. By 1933, the year that President Roosevelt took office, many of those payments were coming due, resulting in 1,000 foreclosure filings a day.

Which is why Roosevelt felt compelled to create a program that could have some useful applications today.

During his first year in office, Roosevelt created the Home Owners Loan Corp., or HOLC, to help debt-laden borrowers pay off their mortgages. The HOLC took borrowers out of their high-interest loans and put them into 15-year loans – financed through federal bonds – with rates fixed at about 5 percent. Unlike many government bureaucracies, this was specifically designed to be a short-term program, intended to extend loans for three years and then oversee those loans for an additional 15 years.
With the HOLC and the Federal Housing Administration, the Roosevelt administration virtually created the long-term loan, which soon evolved into the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.

The loans took some getting used to. Nat Rogan, who headed the HOLC operations in San Diego and Imperial counties, took pains to explain to borrowers that they needed to pay the principal as well as the interest on their loans.

“This policy is in keeping with sound mortgage lending and in the real interests of the homeowner borrower, as proved by generations of experience among financial institutions,” Rogan said.

The local business community had nothing but praise for the program, which not only helped people keep their homes, but also funded home-renovation projects that provided employment for construction workers.

“San Diego's not to be counted as a laggard in matching up with this opportunity,” said the city's Merchants Association. “No other single enterprise will employ so much useful labor.”

From 1933 to 1936, more than 1 million people relied on HOLC loans, covering one out of five mortgaged homes. Close to 80 percent of the borrowers made good on their payments and kept their houses. When the HOLC shut down in 1951, it returned a slight profit to the government.

“It was a huge success,” said Leonard Rosen, who heads the Pitbull Mortgage School in La Jolla. “It was one of the things that Roosevelt did that he never got enough credit for, because it wasn't sexy. His real goal (with the HOLC) was twofold: to create stability from both an economic and social perspective.”

Rosen said that many of the elements of the Home Owners Refinancing Act, which created the HOLC, would be useful today.

In San Diego County, the number of defaults more than tripled from 8,843 in 2006 to 28,984 in 2007, according to data released this month by Default Research, a real estate tracking firm in Pennsylvania. Although foreclosure rates of the early 1930s still tower over today's rates, foreclosures and defaults are advancing at a dangerous pace, as borrowers struggle to keep up with their adjustable-rate mortgages, lending mechanisms that were not available in the Roaring '20s.

“Our problems of today do not begin to approach those of 1933,” Kevin Pollock, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told Congress last year. “But I suggest that HOLC could be usefully studied by anybody thinking about this issue.”

Jack Guttentag, a Wharton School economist who was formerly chief of the domestic research division at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said the HOLC has greater strengths than some of the mortgage fixes being proposed by the White House, Congress or the Federal Reserve.

Guttentag said the Bush administration's main proposal has been for lenders to voluntarily freeze adjustable-rate mortgages for borrowers who have not missed a payment on their loans but who would have problems making payments once the rates adjust upward.

Economists estimate that Bush's proposal would help as little as 7 percent of troubled borrowers. “That takes a little pressure off, but it's only for people who meet a very difficult standard,” Guttentag said. Moreover, the proposal would keep borrowers in adjustable-rate mortgages rather than transfer them to more stable fixed rates.

Unlike Bush's proposal, a HOLC-like fix to today's mortgage crisis would essentially extend prime loans to subprime borrowers, putting them into long-term, fixed rates rather than the temporarily frozen adjustable rates promulgated by the White House.

HOLC loans would also be open to far more borrowers than Bush's narrowly crafted proposal. Under Roosevelt, after all, HOLC loans often went to help borrowers who had lost their homes buy them back out of foreclosure. Few people in the White House, Federal Reserve or Congress would envision enacting such a daring program today. But the fact is, it worked.

The proposals from the Federal Reserve and Congress so far have mostly concentrated on tightening mortgage-lending standards, which is like closing the barn door after the cows have already been slaughtered and served up on the dinner table.

Among the proposals are plans to require more documentation from borrowers, to ban or severely limit the use of adjustable rates and to clamp down on subprime lending. While those proposals might have helped a year or two ago, the problem now is that credit is too tight, rather than too loose.

“Those are counterproductive ideas,” Guttentag said. “The market has changed so dramatically that clamping down on lending requirements has done no good whatsoever and may do some harm.”

Dave McDonald, president of the San Diego chapter of the California Association of Mortgage Brokers, agreed.

“The Federal Reserve is tightening up the guidelines at absolutely the wrong time,” McDonald said. “It's a reactive policy instead of a proactive policy. As it is now, a lot of people who are paying their bills and got into their lending programs rationally won't have a loan program to go into (after their interest rates rise).”

Although academics praise the HOLC, they doubt that it will be re-created in today's political environment. “It won't meet the Bush administration's requirement that little or no government funding be involved (in a mortgage fix),” Guttentag said.

But maybe Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his newfound affinity for Roosevelt, might be willing to make a stab at reviving the HOLC.

In his State of the State speech this month, Schwarzenegger said he drew inspiration from Roosevelt.

“FDR did not ignore the problems of the Depression because times were tough,” he said. “No, he addressed those problems in big visionary ways because times were tough. He saw the problems, and he acted on behalf of the people and the nation.”

Well, here's one Roosevelt program he could consider. Not only did it address a problem in a big visionary way, but it even turned a profit in the end – something that cannot be said of many government programs.

MF Blog final comment: I'm sending this to John Edwards. Any Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama fans want to send it to their candidates?

Can Hillobama be stopped?

Why voters in the Democratic Party caucuses and primary thus far wish to be lemmings going over a cliff with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ("Hillobama") requires an ugly explanation of people using their "gut feelings" and relying upon corporate media presentations that tell them Clinton and Obama are the only "practical" choices.

With Obama praising Reagan (!), continuing to believe there is a "crisis" in Social Security, and thinking he can make nice with the corporate, financial industry and pharmaceutical industry representatives who gave him money, it is possible that Obama is now to the right of Hillary Clinton, in terms of rhetoric. Both, however, have decided they can only win and govern by being good bankers or Republicans who think of the commonweal from a banker's perspective.

Yes, Hillobama are preferable to any of the Republicans running, and preferable to the corporate media third party darling, New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg (how isolated in their thinking do corporate media personalities have to be to think that Americans would want to vote for a Jewish mayor of New York City who is a financier?). But really, my question to Democratic Party voters at this time is whether they wish to stand up for FDR's New Deal values, which are clearly making a comeback among the general populace. Edwards best represents those values.

And also, why not vote for the guy, Edwards, who does best (meaning better than Hillobama) against every Republican standing? It is more practical to vote for a guy who does best against Republicans, than someone with high actual (Hillary) or hidden (Obama) negatives.

My most practical and remaining hope is for a brokered convention that leads to Al Gore accepting a draft. However, this January 19, 2008 op-ed from Joshua Spivak in the Los Angeles Times, tells us that the so-called "super-delegates" are Hillary Clinton supporters. Sigh.

My advice, for what it's worth, is to vote for Edwards to at least block an outright coronation of either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. It is amazing how much a corporate media blackout or discounting of Edwards can accelerate the lemmings effect of otherwise intelligent and committed voters. Folks, this is not the time for Democrats to nominate a nice banker for president.

(Edited)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Before Martin Luther King: Civil rights struggles in the American South

The Washington Post Book World has a poignant review of a book about civil rights pioneers in the Deep South in the years after World War I. The book is entitled "The Radical Roots of Civil Rights: 1919-1950" by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore.

This history of the civil rights activists and revolutionaries in the period of the post-World War I to post-World War II period is not as known as it should be. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not spring from nowhere--and he knew that very well himself.

The mainstream civil rights narrative does include the long road to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but that limits the narrative to a legalistic one. The social activist narrative, so important in telling the story of civil rights expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, has long been lost. Perhaps this because it involves those who were economically radical and, more likely, because the narrative involves the Communist and Socialist Parties--which alone among the American political parties were most willing to put its membership into harrowing situations to develop the organizations and political movement for racial equality.

There is an amazing book that is largely unknown outside of academic circles, entitled "Hammer and Hoe," by Robin D.G. Kelly. That book details the Southern Tenant (sharecropper) movement in ways that illuminate the era. I was privileged to know one of the Communist heroes of the southern sharecropper labor movements highlighted in that book. That movement was as much a fight for political rights as economic rights, and the Communist Party hero of that book was, ironically, a white man originally from Minnesota: Clyde Johnson. Clyde and his wife, Anne, both now deceased, were wonderfully warm, humane and caring people. They withstood assassination and lynching attempts, endured deep hunger and almost starvation, and fought for the rights of people who most of America could care less about at that time of the 1930s. Ann and Clyde were trade unionists first and foremost, who ended up formally leaving the Communist Party at the start of World War II, having had enough of the party's cynically motivated ideological twists and turns.

Still, it is the story of the black southern tenant farmers and other African-Americans (such as Nate Shaw), who fought for economic and political rights in this period Ms. Gilmore has written of, which need to be told and made more known.

(Edited)

Monday, January 07, 2008

Obama still likely to win in New Hampshire, but can Edwards snag second place?

UPDATE: January 8, 2008, 6:05 Pacific Time with 21% of the precincts in New Hampshire reporting: So much for my trusting corporate media's rush to judgment about the Obama train. If he wins, it will be close. Otherwise, voters who were planning to vote for Hillary Clinton have done so. Hillary is not imploding at this point, though there is some talk about her campaign being concerned about future cash problems. I am disappointed Edwards did not climb to a close third behind Hillobama, but at least he got some limited traction.

ORIGINAL POST:

New Hampshire was never friendly territory for Edwards, but who knows if the Hillary campaign is going up in flames like the Hindenburg. One thing is for sure, Obama is on a roll, but Edwards may be, too. See this interesting Rasmussen data as of January 6, 2008.

Meanwhile, Norman Solomon lays out a case for Edwards, and Ezra Klein calls Edwards the true "Oprah" candidate because he gets personal with people the way Oprah does. A commenter named "Petey" in the comments to Ezra Klein's blog says Obama is Gene McCarthy, Edwards is RFK and Clinton is Humphrey. Could be. Still, that would also mean that Edwards loses in New Hampshire, as I think, had RFK entered the race in late 1967, and competed in the New Hampshire primary (held in mid February 1968), RFK would likely have lost to LBJ (Humphrey was not in yet) and just split the anti-war vote.

Cool and detached does better than hot and personal in New Hampshire. That's why an Edwards second place finish could give Edwards momentum to survive a further loss to Obama in South Carolina and allow Edwards to compete and possibly win states like California and other states with more progressive and populist voters.

"Charlie Wilson's War": Oversimplified history

I am not here to knock "Charlie Wilson's War", the film. Instead, I am writing to knock the book upon which the film was based, so that, when seeing the film, people can simply enjoy the performances and story and not walk away thinking Charlie Wilson "won" the Cold War.

The problem with the book is that the author, George Crile, had a penchant for oversimplifying history with good guys and bad guys. It was as if he was allegeric to identifying the structures in which people work. Crile is the person most responsible for the flawed CBS documentary in 1982 that turned General Westmoreland into the singular bad guy responsible for losing America's war against Vietnam--when in fact Westmoreland was not even remotely alone in refusing to accept CIA estimates regarding VietCong and North Vietnamese troop movements in 1967 and 1968. Westmoreland was as much following the orders of President Lyndon Johnson's White House advisers as being his own man. Crile managed to obscure the turf war between the Pentagon and the LBJ White House against CIA analysts--all in the service of a "good story."*

See this July 18, 2005 post of mine for more information on Westmoreland and his failed libel suit against CBS concerning that documentary.

In "Charlie Wilson's War," Crile wrote a "good guy" story about the eccentric Congressman, Charlie Wilson (D-TX), and Wilson's efforts on behalf of the Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan who were fighting a Soviet puppet government there. I recall Wilson's efforts in real time, and Wilson himself was largely seen as either a sideshow barker or a joke. What Crile didn't want to recognize was that, even if Charlie Wilson did not exist, the U.S. government was still going to funnel millions of dollars in aid to Islamic fundamentalists fighting the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan. That decision was made by many powerful people in and about Washington, DC and in the deepest corridors of power. The support for the Afghan rebels was systemic, not riding on the fortunes of a single Congressman in charge of a mere sub-committee. Just look, for example, at the money the Reaganites raised and funneled into Nicaragua--despite strong Congressional opposition. The support for the Afghan rebels was far deeper and wider, which tells us Wilson's efforts played a relatively small role.

The support for the Afghan rebels, which were led by Islamic fundamentalists, began under President Carter in 1979, as Carter's National Security Council chairman, Zbigniew Brzezinski has correctly stated. This was before Wilson became a cheerleader for Islamic fundamentalists. And Reagan, and his advisers, who claimed to see Commies and Ruskies everywhere, expanded this policy in 1981. Again, to think that Wilson, who was known as a boozing womanizer, often dating socialites and beauty pageant contestants, was really the glue holding together America's support for the Islamic fundamentalist rebels against the Russians is amusing at best.

This
article by a former CIA analyst, Peter Dickson, from the web site operated by a great investigative journalist, Robert Parry, provides additional information as to how the American efforts (including Wilson's) in Afghanistan created a monster in South Asia and worse, led the U.S. to embrace the nuclear ambitions of Pakistan. Heckuva job, Charlie! And heckuva job, American leaders from Carter to Reagan to Bush I to Clinton to Bush II.

*Crile passed away at the relatively young age of 61 in 2006. Ironically, his life story, and that of his storied family, would make at least a great book.


ADDENDUM: Here is Chalmers Johnson on the film and book. He is not happy with the film or the book for similar reasons, though I think he is more upset about the film than he should be. To me, it's hard to blame filmmakers for relying on a flawed book that did receive lots of kudos in many corners of the literary world.

(Edited)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Important articles on Islam that move political debate forward

The New York Times Book Review this morning has some great articles on the "officially sanctioned threat of Islam" that move the debate, in the corporate media, forward.

The first is by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who ultimately finds a Western anti-jihadist too pessimistic about the prospects of the West against Islamic fundamentalists. This is important as I had read some other works by Ali to be just as pessimistic. This fear of the Islaimc horde has a pedigree from the first years of the Cold War, where the bed-wetting war mongers in the US at that time kept telling us how the Communists were so well organized, and we were too "free," that we'd be taken over by the "Commies" if we did not give more power to the likes of J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy. That the Communist threat was overblown did not permeate our national consciousness until after the Soviets collapsed under their own weight. Ali is starting to understand this, but still lacks a specific understanding of American leaders' fear mongering, especially during the Cold War, to set up what Gore Vidal calls "The National Security State."

My criticism of Ali is her over the top attack on "multi-culturalism" and the "Romantics". Yes, in the universities, the proliferation of "women's studies," "black studies," "Jewish studies," "gay studies," "Asian-Pacific Islanders studies," has become a scandal. But, really, that is not a threat to our freedom and will not undermine our nation's ability to withstand Islamic fundamentalism. Her attack on the "Romantics," never defined for the casual reader, is frankly misguided. The Romantics were a movement of poets, writers and artists in the early 19th Century in England who did not extoll "unreason," but were seeking to respond to those who were in the economic and political elite who were using the banner of "reason" to pursue and defend cruel and unreasonable public policies. If Ali had really understood Dickens' "Hard Times," with its deliciously sharp attack on the teacher, Mr. Gradgrind, she would not be so quick to turn the "Romantics" into early 20th Century French "Da-daists" who did promote absurdity for absurdity's sake.

(No time today to provide you links, but links may not be as easy to find on the web, other than Dickens' "Hard Times" book, for example).

In another article, Tariq Ramadan provides what is admittedly a didactic analysis of the Koran. But the importance of the article, and why it is worth the effort to read, is his demand for a rebirth of a universalist and pluralist interpretation of the Koran. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Professor Khaleel Mohammed of San Diego State University (he spoke at my synagogue last month), who also promotes a universalist and pluralist understanding of the Koran. Such Muslims are out there, and corporate media would do well to promote them to the American people. It would strengthen their voices, and in turn, help other Muslims in America--and perhaps elsewhere--to realize that fundamentalist Muslims are often bad Muslims in their promotion of oppression and violence. And it would help strengthen voices outside America to help Muslims understand why bin Laden is a murderer who uses the Koran to cover his murderous intent and conduct.

There are other articles, including this article about the Nazis' "project" to promote anti-Jewish hatred in Arabs, that are worth reading, too. The article about Muslim hatred of Jews in the 20th Century being a Nazi "project" properly states the point is easily oversimplified and ignores the fact that the rise of Israel, often seen as a colonial outpost of the West and later the U.S., spurred Jew hatred more than the Nazis had been able to promote.

In any event, the entire issue of this week's New York Times Book Review is well worth a read--and reflecting upon. It is not whether we agree or disagree with the articles. It is how they improve our understanding and how the articles can help move us beyond the often silly and simultaneously fear-mongering rhetoric that permeates our corporate media.

(Edited)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Follow up: Scientists who doubt human contribution to climate change

In a post from December 17, 2007, I linked to an article that appeared in what sounded like a legitimate science journal, written by four scientists with expertise in climatology, who were very skeptical of a significant human contribution to climate change, or more popularly, global warming. In the post, I had wondered whether there would be a response from those who have insisted there is a significant human contribution to climate change.

Now, over two weeks later, I decided to check around the web for reaction and the result is fairly quiet, but not totally quiet.

I found one blog post from a science-oriented person, Greg Laden, who noted one of the four authors of the study, Fred Singer, is from a notorious think tank with heavy oil company funding. My problem with that argument is that this is merely guilt by association, and does not explain the other three scientists arriving at the same conclusion. Also, if the science journal which published the study, The International Journal of Climatology, a publication of Britain's Royal Meteorological Society, is peer-reviewed, then a drive-by attack based upon an association of one of the authors is insufficient to persuade me the study is not worth refuting or at least discussing.

However, there is a more substantive response to this study at RealClimate, dated December 12, 2007, which directly takes on the report and finds it wanting. I apologize for missing this the first time around. In reading the post from RealClimate this morning, I don't claim to understand much of the analysis, but the gist is that, if one takes updated figures from sources the four authors had found legitimate, or uses other reasonable models ignored by the four authors' in their analysis, the conclusion of the four scientists is largely undermined.

Also, in researching the RealClimate web site, I found this post from 2005 that identified earlier peer-reviewed reports voicing skepticism of human contribution to climate change which were given prominent corporate media attention, but which were later refuted, or otherwise significantly challenged. Per this post, Astromoner and Professor David Douglass, one of the four co-authors with Fred Singer, had teamed with Singer before in producing a skeptical conclusion regarding human contribution to climate change (NOTE: the original Yahoo! article mispelled Professor Douglass' name as "Douglas", but this article shows the correct last name spelling).

Perhaps the RealClimate smack down, and the previous history of two of the four scientists, explains why the right wing noise machine has not taken up this study as a reason to challenge the climate change consensus among most scientists with climate expertise. If my speculation is correct, it also shows how factually-challenged the climate change skeptics truly are at this point.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Iowans: Please support Edwards at the caucuses

Edwards made a speech today, covered by CNN, that was a knock-out. It hit the policy issues that need to be heard, about corporate power undermining our elective government, about the growing inequality in our nation, our failed foreign policy and our inequitable and wasteful health insurance system.

Edwards has earned the vote of working class and thoughtful people in Iowa and elsewhere.

Here is a link to his Thirty Six Hour Marathon and his Thirty Six Ways to help the working class in our nation.

Here
is a link to a poll that shows him tied with Hillary Clinton in Iowa.

Separately, I just read that Congressman Kucinich has asked people to make Obama their second choice at the Iowa Caucuses. The only thing I can figure from this ridiculous announcement by Kucinich is that he wants to undermine Edwards' campaign. That is a crass political move unbecoming of Kucinich. Edwards is the only other candidate besides Kucinich who speaks truth to corporate power, as even Ralph Nader recognizes. If Kucinich was truly interested in ensuring a progressive agenda for working class Americans, he would have told his supporters to make Edwards their second choice in Iowa. Shame on Dennis.

And again, let's support Edwards, starting in Iowa. Edwards is the only person who is providing a viable alternative to the corporate owned candidacy that should be called by one name: "Hillobama."