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Cairo In America

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We have seen quite a bit of hand-wringing by those in the mainstream news media about the repression against protests in Cairo during the past few weeks.  What we don’t see on television are the oppressive tactics used against protesters and journalists here in the United States.  Never mind the fact that the Obama administration refuses to prosecute any of the crimes which led to the financial crisis.  Simply protesting against the refusal of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to do his job can result in arrests and beatings administered by police.  At The eXiled blog,Yasha Levine discussed the targeting of journalists by police, hell-bent on squelching coverage of the Occupy movement:

Remember how in November, Bloomberg and the NYPD got a lot of heat from the city’s media establishment for the arrest rampage they unleashed on journalists covering the eviction raid on Liberty Plaza?  Cops arrested more than two dozen accredited journalists from major news outlets, including the New York Post, NPR, AFP and The Associated Press.  Hell, cops even clubbed a couple of reporters for the baggertarian rag The Daily Caller.  As a result, New York’s police commissioner made a big show of issuing an order that instructed police officers not to interfere with journalists covering OWS.

But clearly that was just for show.

Because this month the NYPD has gone out of its way to harass and arrest journalists covering OWS, especially targeting live streamers and indie journalists who can’t be counted on for propaganda support like the mainstream folks.  According to Free Press’ Josh Stearns, who has been maintaining a list of journalists arrested while covering the Occupy Movement across the country, at least five journalists and seven live streamers were arrested by the NYPD in the first half of December.

*   *   *

The NYPD continued harassing indie journalists five days later during the D17 protests.  Some were bashed with batons, others were threatened with having their official press passes revoked. By the end of the day, at least two journalists were arrested, including photojournalist Zach Roberts and Jennifer Dworkin, an independent filmmaker who had worked for PBS.

It will be interesting to see whether a new piece of technology, called the “Occucopter” will enable those reporters to obtain valuable images of abusive police tactics – without getting their own skulls crushed in the process.  The Guardian provided this report:

This week in New York, Occupy Wall Street protesters have a new toy to help them expose potentially dubious actions of the New York police department.  In response to constant police surveillance, police violence and thousands of arrests, Occupy Wall Street protesters and legal observers have been turning their cameras back on the police.  But police have sometimes made filming difficult through physical obstruction and “frozen zones”.  This occurred most notably during the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where police prevented even credentialed journalists from entering.

Now the protesters are fighting back with their own surveillance drone.  Tim Pool, an Occupy Wall Street protester, has acquired a Parrot AR drone he amusingly calls the “occucopter”.  It is a lightweight four-rotor helicopter that you can buy cheaply on Amazon and control with your iPhone.  It has an onboard camera so that you can view everything on your phone that it points at.  Pool has modified the software to stream live video to the internet so that we can watch the action as it unfolds.  You can see video clips of his first experiments here.  He told us that the reason he is doing this “comes back to giving ordinary people the same tools that these multimillion-dollar news corporations have.  It provides a clever loophole around certain restrictions such as when the police block press from taking shots of an incident.”

The American public is no longer content to sit back and do nothing while the Obama administration sits back and does nothing to prosecute those criminals whose fraudulent conduct devastated the American economy.  In my last posting, I discussed the intensifying wave of criticism directed against the President by his former supporters as well as those disgusted by Obama’s subservience to his benefactors on Wall Street.  Since that time, Scot Paltrow wrote a great piece for Reuters, concerning the Justice Department’s failure to intervene against improper foreclosure procedures.  Paltrow’s widely-acclaimed essay inspired several commentators to express their disgust about government permissiveness toward such egregious conduct.  At The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz shared his reaction to the Reuters article:

The fraud is rampant, self-evident, easy to prosecute.  The only reason it hasn’t been done so far is that this nation is led by corrupt cowards and suffers from a ruinous two-party system.

We were once a great nation that set a shining example for the rest of the world as to what the Rule of Law meant.  That is no more, as we have become a corrupt plutocracy.  Why our prosecutors cower in front of the almighty banking industry is beyond my limited ability to comprehend.

Without any sort of legal denouement, we should expect an angry electorate and an unhappy nation.

Is there any hope for America or will we continue on our course of devolution toward becoming a banana republic?  At his Pragmatic Capitalism blog, Cullen Roche brought a glimmer of hope to some of us when he published Saxo Bank’s list of 10 outrageous predictions for 2012.  I was particularly encouraged by the third item on the list:

3. A yet unannounced candidate takes the White House

In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot managed to take advantage of a recessionary economy and popular disgust with US politics and reap 18.9 per cent of the popular vote.  Three years of Obama has brought too little change and only additional widespread disillusionment with the entire US political system, and conditions for a third party candidate have never been riper.  Someone with a strong programme for real change throws his or her hat in the ring early in 2012 and snatches the presidency in November in one of the most pivotal elections in US history, taking 38 per cent of the popular vote.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.


 

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Simon Johnson In The Spotlight

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October 12, 2009

An ever-increasing number of people are paying close attention to a gentleman named Simon Johnson.  Mr. Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, now works at MIT as Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Sloan School of Management.  His Baseline Scenario website is focused on the financial and economic crises.  At the Washington Post website, he runs a blog with James Kwak called The Hearing.  Last spring, Johnson turned more than a few heads with his article from the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The Quiet Coup”, in which he explained that what happened in America during last year’s financial crisis and what is currently happening with our economic predicament is “shockingly reminiscent” of events experienced during financial crises in emerging market nations (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).

On October 9, Joe Nocera of The New York Times began his column by asking Professor Johnson what he thought the Wall Street banks owed America after receiving trillions of dollars in bailouts.  Johnson’s response turned to Wednesday’s upcoming fight before the House Financial Services Committee concerning the financial reforms proposed by the Obama administration:

“They can’t pay what they owe!” he began angrily.  Then he paused, collected his thoughts and started over:  “Tim Geithner saved them on terms extremely favorable to the banks.  They should support all of his proposed reforms.”

Mr. Johnson continued, “What gets me is that the banks have continued to oppose consumer protection.  How can they be opposed to consumer protection as defined by a man who is the most favorable Treasury Secretary they have had in a generation?  If he has decided that this is what they need, what moral right do they have to oppose it?  It is unconscionable.”

This week’s battle over financial reform has been brewing for quite a while.  Back on May 31, Gretchen Morgenson and Dan Van Natta wrote a piece for The New York Times entitled, “In Crisis, Banks Dig In for Fight Against Rules”:

Hotly contested legislative wars are traditional fare in Washington, of course, and bills are often shaped by the push and pull of lobbyists — representing a cornucopia of special interests — working with politicians and government agencies.

What makes this fight different, say Wall Street critics and legislative leaders, is that financiers are aggressively seeking to fend off regulation of the very products and practices that directly contributed to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  In contrast, after the savings-and-loan debacle of the 1980s, the clout of the financial lobby diminished significantly.

In case you might be looking for a handy scorecard to see which members of Congress are being “lobbied” by the financial industry and to what extent those palms are being greased, The Wall Street Journal was kind enough to provide us with an interactive chart.  Just slide the cursor next to the name of any member of the House Financial Services Committee and you will be able to see how much generosity that member received just during the first quarter of 2009 from an entity to be affected by this legislation.  The bars next to the committee members’ names are color-coded, with different colors used to identify specific sources, whose names are displayed as you pass over that section of the bar.  This thing is a wonderful invention.  I call it “The Graft Graph”.

On October 9, Simon Johnson appeared with Representative Marcy Kaptur (D – Ohio) on the PBS program, Bill Moyers Journal.  At one point during the interview, Professor Johnson expressed grave doubts about our government’s ability to implement financial reform:

And yet, the opportunity for real reform has already passed. And there is not going to be — not only is there not going to be change, but I’ll go further.  I’ll say it’s going to be worse, what comes out of this, in terms of the financial system, its power, and what it can get away with.

*  *   *

BILL MOYERS:  Why have we not had the reform that we all knew was being — was needed and being demanded a year ago?

SIMON JOHNSON:  I think the opportunity — the short term opportunity was missed.  There was an opportunity that the Obama Administration had.  President Obama campaigned on a message of change.  I voted for him.  I supported him.  And I believed in this message.  And I thought that the time for change, for the financial sector, was absolutely upon us.  This was abundantly apparent by the inauguration in January of this year.

SIMON JOHNSON:  And Rahm Emanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff has a saying.  He’s widely known for saying, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’.  Well, the crisis is over, Bill.  The crisis in the financial sector, not for people who own homes, but the crisis for the big banks is substantially over.  And it was completely wasted.  The Administration refused to break the power of the big banks, when they had the opportunity, earlier this year.  And the regulatory reforms they are now pursuing will turn out to be, in my opinion, and I do follow this day to day, you know.  These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.

Sound familiar?  If you change the topic to healthcare reform, you end up with the same bottom line:  “These reforms will turn out to be essentially meaningless.”  The inevitable watering down of both legislative efforts can be blamed on weak, compromised leadership.  It’s one thing to make grand promises on the campaign trail — yet quite another to look a lobbyist in the eye and say:  “Thanks, but no thanks.”  Toward the end of the televised interview, Bill Moyers had this exchange with Representative Kaptur:

BILL MOYERS:   How do we get Congress back?  How do we get Congress to do what it’s supposed to do?  Oversight.  Real reform.  Challenge the powers that be.

MARCY KAPTUR:  We have to take the money out.  We have to get rid of the constant fundraising that happens inside the Congress.  Before political parties used to raise money; now individual members are raising money through the DCCC and the RCCC.  It is absolutely corrupt.

As we all know, our system of legalized graft goes beyond the halls of Congress.  During his Presidential campaign, Barack Obama received nearly $995,000 in contributions from the people at Goldman Sachs.  The gang at 85 Broad Street is obviously getting its money’s worth.



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Revenge Of The AstroNerds

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April 20, 2009

I used to be an AstroNerd.  Back in the mid-1980s, I was a member of the Chicago Astronomical Society.   On the second Friday of every month, I would attend the monthly meeting at 7 p.m.  We would usually see slides of the spectacular space pictures taken by an astronomer who had the opportunity to use the telescope at some major observatory and there would be a discussion period.  Back then, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope seemed as though it would never happen because of the tragedy involving the Challenger space shuttle.  At the Chicago Astronomical Society meetings, I was amused by the fact that some of the members were outraged because manufacturers of “hobbyist” telescopes (such as Celestron and Meade) were introducing new scopes, driven by a hand-held computer, allowing the user to view dozens of different celestial objects over the course of an hour.  These complainers had been used to working on calculations as to where to find some binary star or nebula they wanted to see and spending almost the entire night trying to find it.  Suddenly, any spoiled brat with two thousand bucks to spend, could get involved in astronomy with a much greater reward.  To the old-timers:  this was cheating.  At the end of each meeting, I would walk home from the Adler Planetarium and watch Miami Vice.  Although I have yet to purchase a really nice Celestron, I eventually did move to Miami, where there is so much humidity and city light, you can only see a small handful of stars even on a clear, “winter” night.  To escape the reflected urban light, some people take their telescopes out to the Everglades and feed themselves to the alligator-sized mosquitoes.  Others risk death by driving along the two-lane, Overseas Highway (the head-on collision capitol of the world) to go sky-watching in the Florida Keys.

Last week, I was amazed by the television program, 400 Years of the Telescope, broadcast on PBS.   (It’s also available on DVD at the above link.)  I found it shocking that currently, there are a number of absurdly enormous earthbound telescopes under construction.  Apparently, computer technology can be used to enhance the images from these scopes to rival the views from the Hubble.  As for the Hubble, I was surprised to learn that the numerous repairs to that device, beginning with the heroic job by astronaut Story Musgrave, actually included upgrades.  The current image quality from the Hubble is now “hundreds of times better” than its designers ever anticipated.  An example is this photograph of the Orion Nebula taken in 2006.

Given our current economic crisis, astronomy and space exploration are having more trouble than ever obtaining funding.   An example of this is discussed in the current (May) issue of The Atlantic.  (As an aside, this issue has three great articles about the economy here, here and here.)  Thomas Mallon wrote an article about the current effort by a number of scientists and Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, to develop and launch a privately-funded spacecraft that would be propelled by sunlight.  They anticipate that this concept could eventually be used for interstellar flight.  As Mallon pointed out, NASA will soon be out of the business of launching people into space, with no viable plan on the drawing board to continue doing so:

Between the shuttle’s planned retirement in 2010 and a new system’s development, the U.S. government will have to rely on the old Soviet Soyuz to get crews and supplies up to the International Space Station.  Worse, the first of our own new launch vehicles, Ares 1, is already beginning to look unreliable, at least in tests.  American politicians now mostly avoid the old conditional trope “If we can put a man on the moon” — because we can’t, not anymore.

Mallon explained that Ann Druyan has found it difficult obtaining funding because these days, the people with the enthusiasm for space exploration and the money — are using it to pay their own fare for a ride into space:

The Discovery Channel did put up a quarter million dollars to jump-start the renewed effort, and she has her fingers crossed for a few big potential donors she can’t really talk about.  Even so, she can’t get over the general timidity and lack of imagination she keeps encountering, and she’s particularly aghast at the scads of cash some ego-tripping big-money men seem willing to spend on personal space tourism:  “Isn’t the whole planet enough for them?”  Google’s Sergey Brin — whose company the project also appealed to, unsuccessfully, years ago — is yet another billionaire who hopes to romp around in orbit.

Although The Great Recession is having an attenuated impact on the super-rich, its consequences for society as a whole will be incalculable if too much scientific research is put on “hold” indefinitely.  Let’s hope that some billionaires rise to the occasion and save us from falling into a dark age of scientific stagnation.  Come on, Bill Gates  —  give your fellow nerds some help!

The Home Stretch

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October 27, 2008

We are entering the final week of the longest Presidential campaign in our nation’s history.  At the same time, the world economy continues to flirt with chaos and our nation’s equities market indices are diving at a faster pace than Superman’s swooping down from the sky to save Lois Lane from a potential rapist.  Some stockbrokers believe that an abrupt and decisive nosedive in the markets might have a cathartic effect and finally bring us to the long-awaited “bottom”, from which there would be only one place to go:  up.  Rock musician Tom Petty wrote a song about the death of his mother, called: Free Fallin’.  That song has recently become the theme for America’s stock markets.  The situation has become so bad that many fear it may be necessary for the feds to suspend equities trading until all of the nervous investors and frenzied hedge fund managers have a chance to gather their wits.  Would the government really intervene and close the stock markets for a day or more?

There is one authority who earned quite a bit of “street cred” when our current economic crisis hit the fan.  He is Nouriel Roubini, an economist at the Stern School of Business at New York University.  He earned the nickname “Doctor Doom” when he spoke before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on September 7, 2006 and described, in precise detail, exactly what would bring the financial world to its knees, two years later.  As reported by Ben Sills and Emma Ross-Thomas in the October 24 edition of Bloomberg:

Roubini said yesterday that policy makers may need to shut down financial markets for a week or two as investors dump assets. Trading in futures on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was limited today after declines of more than 6 percent.

This week brings us more earnings reports and new housing starts that could send already skittish investors (as well as terrified hedge fund managers) on a “panic selling” binge.  Could this trigger a market shutdown by the government as predicted by Dr. Roubini?  If so, we may find the markets closed for the final days before the Presidential election.  The Republicans and their media trumpet, Fox News, would likely seize upon such a development, characterizing it as validation of their claim that the investing public fears a “socialist” Obama Presidency.  In reality, there would be no way to measure the impact of the election results on the equities markets under such circumstances.  If the markets were kept closed until after the election, there would be quite a number of investors, chomping at the bit to dump their portfolios during the hiatus, ready to do so as soon as the markets re-opened.  On the other hand, Stuart Schweitzer, global market strategist at JP Morgan Private Bank appeared on the October 24 broadcast of the PBS program, Nightly Business Report, and explained what to really expect about the impact of the Presidential election on the securities markets.  Schweitzer believes that regardless of who is elected, once we get past Election Day, there will be a sense of certainty established as to who will be making economic policy going forward into the new Presidential term.  This fact in itself, regardless of what that economic policy might become, will eliminate the element of uncertainty that breeds some degree of the fear in the hearts of investors.

If the stock markets really end up being closed during the final days before the election, we would likely see more havoc than calming.  The timing would prove too irresistible for conspiracy theorists to ignore.  Some would see it as a plot by the Republicans to conceal how bad the economy really is.  Others might see it as a ploy by “Washington elites” (a term used by some in reference to Obama supporters) to conceal widespread fear of putting a “communist” in charge of our nation.  The smartest course from here would be for the Federal Reserve Board’s FOMC (Federal Open Market Committee) to undertake a responsible, public relations role when it meets on Tuesday.  They should be ready to explain to the public what has really been happening in the markets:  an unregulated species of investments called “hedge funds” has been causing mayhem on the trading floors.  Many (if not most) of these hedge funds are going broke and they are attempting to secure a place in the line for Federal bailout money.  They have caused equities trading to function more like eBay:  the only market movement that matters over the course of any given day is what takes place during the final three minutes before the closing bell, when the hedge fund managers dump stocks.  On eBay, the winning bid for an item is usually made during the minute before an auction ends.  Unlike eBay, the stock market numbers can go up or down.  These days, the index movement prior to the closing bell is usually seismic (in one direction or the other).   It was never like this before.  These trading patterns often trigger pre-established “stop loss orders” to sell stocks, usually established by individual investors upon purchase of those stocks.  The result is an avalanche of “sell” orders at the end of the day.  The FOMC needs to explain this disease to the public and let us know the Fed is working on a cure.  Closing the markets in the final days before a Presidential election will not be a cure.  Such a move will just create a scab that will quickly be picked away by an investing public that needs to ease up on the caffeine and go out for a walk.