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The ruling oligarchy of America

Posted on December 29th, 2009 in Economy,War by Robert Miller

As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, it is hard to avoid identifying the prominent initials of the person who is most readily associated with the worst decade of our lives–GWB. He was not alone, but as one misstep followed another, he operated as if his guiding hand was that of Medusa, as each of his efforts seemed to turn to stone. Almost nothing, foreign or domestic, went the way Americans expected of their government: Katrina and the fake evidence leading to the invasion of Iraq as but two examples. The guiding Medusa-like hand was in fact that of Dick Cheney, GW’s  most accomplished co-conspirator in the high crimes and misdemeanors committed by the worst presidency in the history of America, bar none! In eight years, the two of them managed to completely misalign our country in ways that still blur our capacity to see how off course we are as it seems like we must turn to celestial navigation to get our country back on a more familiar route to a safe harbor. It’s like we have to return to the original founding documents of our country to figure out who we are supposed to be. Bush, Cheney and their Neocon pals grabbed the instruments of government and steered our ship of state into the hands of a ruling oligarchy that remain in control of our policies and our financial future. The process was far too easy for comfort, as it relied on the fusion of fears and forces that have been long smoldering in our country, including the military-industrial complex and revisionist McCarthyism used against anyone suggesting that there are better ways than war to solve our problems. Under GWB, the true character of our militarism became painfully apparent. As the election of 2000 eventually demonstrated, Bush was elected as a non-president for America, but the un-elected executive serving the oligarchs, the new rulers of America. Bush is gone, but we have a sitting president who told us he would free us of the oligarchs  once he was in office, but he seems unable to mount a significant assault against their grip on our government and our sociopolitical institutions.

We shouldn’t be confused: Bush and Cheney were not the puppet masters in this new American play, but rather the obliging puppets, whose strings were pulled by the oligarchs of high finance and multinational corporate power, aided in part by people like Rupert Murdoch. The oligarchy includes the richest 1% (~ 3 million) of our population that received huge tax cuts and garnered about 2/3 of the real income growth that took place during the Bush years: it wasn’t much, but they got most of it. The ruling oligarchy is evident in the decisions we make that get us into new wars and diminish our constitutional freedoms. But perhaps more insidiously, another looming crisis lies within the financial sector, reflected in the way with which we are dealing with our deep recession and the bailout solution that has been applied to solve it. The solution was not aimed to serve our interests, but exclusively those of the ruling oligarchs of America.

With high unemployment that promises to loom far into our future, we continue to ship jobs to China and have a huge trade imbalance with them as we buy, buy, buy, but don’t sell much to them in return. Indeed, we give the store away.  The normal manner in which trade imbalance is dealt with, is to change the rate of currency exchange until a balance of trade is achieved, with neither side gaining significantly over the other–just trading for goods and services that are unique to each country.  We can readjust the value of the Chinese currency against the dollar on our own, but we refuse to do so, claiming that the Chinese must do it, which is how we hide behind the demands of the oligarchy, who continue to see high value and profit in the trade imbalance, all for purely selfish reasons–those of greed.  Our unbalanced trade with China, though it’s costing American jobs and serves to rapidly diminish our manufacturing capacity, is what Wall Street wants, so they can use the cheap labor of China, coupled to unlimited access to American markets, quite irrespective of what those policies do to the American worker, because destroying the American labor movement is sort of a bonus. In that way–the Wall Street way–corporate profits remain high and the stock market will continue to show good returns for the right kinds of  investments. The right kind of investment is not investing in American growth and its future. These financiers now know that they can safely build another bubble and get rewards from the taxpayers if they overextend their drive for higher profits. If you think the American way out of our high unemployment is through manufacturing ourselves into a new green economy, think again. China is already the largest manufacturer of photovoltaic solar panels, using American-based technological developments to aid in their design and production: we provide the fruits of our research to them for free.

Whereas, we go to war on borrowed money by selling bonds to countries like China, we deal with our financial problems at home by attempting to re-inflate our economy, so the big banks recover their original investments while we absorb their losses through the creation of new, unheard of levels of public debt. Today we hear that our deficit spending is approaching record levels, but what’s left out of the conversation is that the Bush-Paulson buyout plan for the financial sector has saddled us with $ 12 trillion in bad investment debt (“toxic assets”), for which we have assumed financial responsibility that will be passed on to the American public, requiring new long-term taxation policies that are likely to keep the American worker in a state of near serfdom for as far into the future as we can see. This debt never makes the news, but it is gradually sinking the American ship.

The general public expresses their outrage at the exorbitant bonuses paid to bank executives, while missing the much larger rape of our public financial resources through the economic enslavement of Americans with a plan that cannot succeed without committing our economy to repay their bad debts at their original face value–thus the $ 12 trillion in “under the radar-screen” “toxic investment,” public debt. If you want to read more about the essence of this debt and be better informed (but no less depressed) about the continued success of our ruling oligarchs, read Michael Hudson’s article in CounterPunch, or Nomi Prins‘ article on the same topic. Today, we are ruled by the same oligarchs for whom Bush and Cheney were the stage puppets. Obama has agreed to replace them on stage through a partnership with Larry Summers, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geitner. Collectively, they too are just the tools of the oligarchs.

Take for example the $ 50 billion program designed to renegotiate home mortgages for “troubled homeowners.” This sounds like an act of generosity for people having trouble making their mortgage payments. But in reality this bill turns out to be a huge benefit for large banks and was designed with them in mind, including  Citibank and Bank of America, as their just reward for making bad loans. It goes like this: the treasury takes on the bad debt that banks are stuck with, while negotiating with troubled homeowners to renegotiate their monthly payments down to 38 per cent of their income. But, whereas one might expect the banks to take their losses on this arrangement, justly earned by their behavior,  the treasury will make up the difference, so that the banks wind up will full repayment of their loan at its original value, plus a new government guarantee that the remainder will be insured by the government, providing the banks with a clean sweep and rosy record books. This is taking place, despite the fact that it was their over-zealous loan policies that got us into this fix in the first place. Treasury is hoping that the re-inflation of housing will eventually solve the problem of this debt, by returning these toxic assets to their original value, but we remain in a period of significant deflation, not the inflationary trend needed to reduce this debt level. If the banks had to contribute part of their resources for “troubled homeowners,” the money for this program could go much further in helping people with unmanageable mortgage debt. But, when the $ 50 billion has gone, that will be the end of the program. In the meantime, foreclosures continue and are seeping into people that have decent jobs, as higher payments get triggered in by the original mortgage arrangement. If this country was really committed to helping homeowners, they would put a freeze on foreclosures and allow judges to restructure homeowners debt, but efforts to do either have been defeated in Congress.

When Obama tells us he is worried about our debt, he doesn’t tell you which form of debt he is talking about. Collectively the give-away to the financial sector, for the trauma that their actions caused, amounts to providing them with payback at face value before the stock market deluge fully developed. Nice arrangement for them and a disaster for us. You can see the oligarch’s success with the overdue reform in our healthcare system, which permeates the bills recently passed by the House and Senate. While we can identify some improvements in how the insurance industry deals with those covered by their policies, the bills do very little to attack the structural problems of our healthcare system, such as employment-based insurance and the introduction of true cost-containment methods. At the same time, the healthcare bill will add as many as 30 million new enrollees to the insurance company’s  patient portfolios, with some government support for premiums, all going to enhance the profits of these insurance companies. The lack of a good and broad public option plan will mean that cost-containment issues will continue to haunt us, just as employment-based health insurance costs will continue to rise. There is little in either bill to keep these inflationary trends  in healthcare costs from changing their trajectory.
So, as we turn a corner on the first decade of the new Century, we are leaving behind a decade-long string of nightmares. But we have a string of new nightmares in our future, as well as  continuity with the old ones that remain in the current glide path towards our financial insolvency. I have only provided a small list of Bush’s trail of transgressions in favor of the oligarchs, all achieved by imperiling the country’s future.  But,  Juan Cole has a more complete list on his blog. Our governement’s response to Katrina told us how the olicarchs felt about treating people in poverty. Now we are fighting to avoid having our middle class be the next in line for Katrinaization. But, it doesn’t matter too much whether it’s excessive flood water or excessive debt. If one doesn’t kill you immediately, the other shortens your life and leads to a very diminished set of expectations.

The problems we face today actually began with Microsoft. As they started their meteoric rise to unimaginable levels of profit, beginning in the 1980s, other corporate masters saw this new stratospheric level of profitability and said, “why not us?” Major shareholders were saying the same thing: “why not us? Using the new Microsoft model, every corporation wanted extreme new profit margins to satisfy the new demands of their share holders and they placed the responsibility for achieving this in the hands of their CEOs. The trend for more wealth and profitability began when corporations took significant gains in productivity and, instead of giving some of it back to the workers responsible for those gains, saved and reported them as additional profits, shooting for eye-level performance with Microsoft, as determined by the value of their corporate stocks. The old corporate profit margin of 12% had to give way to 25% or more in order to sustain the march to greater corporate wealth. The gold watch for employees got converted to the gold parachute for the CEO, while workers earnings stagnated, even though their productivity grew and grew. The old corporate model fell by the wayside and new trends, like “re-engineering” and “downsizing” became the euphemisms for corporate greed and higher profits. How a software company can make mounds more in returns than the more creative inventors of the computer hardware has always perplexed me when thinking about just rewards for creativity. But the Microsoft model remains in effect today and will be there unless someone shoots it down!

Yet, hope springs eternal and perhaps in the decade ahead, the American public will begin to discover that the mission of our ruling class oligarchy does not have our economic interests in hand or even a healthy planetary future within their gun sights. With images of a vast new wealth as their sole vision, they can afford to reach the high ground, as the ocean fronts advance (moving to places like Aspen Colorado) with Blackwater mercenaries for protection, as they hold on to what they have, gardening under domes if necessary  with enslaved Americans serving as a source of cheap labor–eventually as cheap as China’s.  What will it take to make our future look brighter? Believe it or not, we are only a few dozen progressive legislatures away from controlling both the Senate and the House  by a progressive majority. To do this, we will have to hold onto the ones we have and successfully challenge some of the corporatist Democrats in their  primaries to begin the long journey back from these troubled times. Doable? yes!  Likely?, who knows?
Happy New Year!

Extinction of the gastric-brooding frogs in Queensland Australia

Posted on December 21st, 2009 in Environment,Evolution,Science by Robert Miller
Gastric Brooding Frog

Gastric-Brooding Frog

It was a PBS program that alerted me to the extinction of a frog called the gastric-brooding frog. These animals reproduce by the female swallowing the fertilized eggs and keeping them in her stomach until the young emerge as fully formed frogs. The young fertilized eggs/tadpoles secrete an unidentified substance that stops acid production in the female’s stomach and shuts down her entire digestive system, converting it from a means her own  sustenance into a brood pouch. After the appropriate developmental period, lasting from 36-43 days, the little frogs, about 21 to 26 of them, come out of their mother’s mouth as fully formed and ready for action (see image). The delivery process apparently takes place in the water. Two different species of these frogs were known as the Southern and Northern gastric-brooding frogs, indigenous to Queensland Australia.  Now it appears that both species are extinct. They have not been seen in the wild since the 1980s and attempts to maintain them in captivity were not successful. Like most disappearing amphibians, the cause of this extinction is unknown, but the three leading hypotheses include global climate change, fungus infections and habitat destruction, all three of which can be related to human activity, including an increasingly understood global threat to amphibians from a fungus infection.

Species extinctions of course are part of evolution. But biologists have argued that we are in the early or intermediate phase of the sixth mass species extinction, with the last one taking place some 70 million years ago when the dinosaurs became extinct, quite likely from an asteroid which struck the earth in the Yucatan Peninsula. But the new extinction phase we are in now is entirely man-made and, if it should reach the dimensions of the dinosaur extinction, we need to act with an emergency plan: I would suggest, as one of our first actions, we put all of the Republicans on the last ice flow out of Antarctica. I will personally escort George Will to catch one of the earlier break-aways. It’s probably too late to organize and catch the last one out of the Arctic.

I have previously written on the disappearance of the Golden Toad in Costa Rica and commented more extensively on the problems facing amphibians globally. Having used amphibians for research during most of my career, I have watched in horror, as I see these animals depleted on a massive scale, for a variety of reasons, each of which can be traced to our incursions into their habitat or the changes we have helped to generate in the quality of their environment. Some of these changes, like those that might be attributed to global climate change, are not easily identified and require skilled and knowledgeable field biologists working with climatologists to figure out the problem, the stimulus for which is often species extinction or severe species decline. Even then our right wing detractors can and do claim that “it’s only a theory.” Unfortunately that criticism can be applied to every scientific dictum that we have, yet the predictability of these “theories” has generated some of the most astounding successes in our technological and scientific history.
One case in which I was personally involved, led to funding for one of our animal suppliers to move his aquatic amphibians (tiger salamanders in the aquatic phase) from a toxic site to a safer environment, at a cost of about $20,000. This emergency move was necessitated by the introduction of a nearby giant pig farm/factory,  which created a toxic waste dump that putrefied the surrounding water. These kinds of problems are happening all over the world and amphibians, because they are sensitive to both aquatic and land pollution, with delicate skin that can’t usually tolerate dry climate changes, are now serving front-line duty as our canaries in the mines of global climate change. What will the world do for entertainment if our little frogs and toads are eliminated? Will we only know Kermit the frog as a puppet and not the animal types from which he was dervied? Paris Hilton can’t last forever and neither can her front page replacement, Tiger Woods. Yet, what are we actually doing about it? If Copenhagen is any example of our state of readiness for action, we are not doing nearly enough and we are not doing it fast enough to save amphibians from large-scale extinction. But then, do we really care? If Rush Limbaugh can dismiss poor Americans as undeserving of healthcare, what would he say about the current and future state of our amphibians? Thanks to politicization of our policies related to global climate change and its impact on species extinction, our policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has gone way beyond gender preference in the military to include the animals whose abundance we once took for granted. How about a three minute inclusion in our evening news on “the species that we lost today.” A little video clip of a gastric-brooding frog giving birth to her little frogs coming up from her stomach and out her mouth should be competition for Paris Hilton, especially if it spills over onto Sesame Street–Kermit needs competition. If we had learned about the “substances” that the little tadpoles release to shut down the mother’s gastric secretions, we might have a new form of medication for the dreaded heartburn and its subsequent development into Barrett’s esophagus and/or esophageal cancer.

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Bill Moyers and I agree on a Christmas stocking gift

Posted on December 19th, 2009 in General by Robert Miller

Last night I watched the Bill Moyer’s Journal on PBS. At the end of his always interesting hour, he said he had been reading and re-reading books and recommended Chalmers Johnson’s most recent book, “Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic,” which was actually published a couple of years ago. This book was the last of Chalmers Johnson’s trilogy which began with “Blowback” followed by“Sorrows of Empire.” Blowback  was first published before 9/11 with modest sales, but when 9/11 hit, sales of his book and his subsequent books took off. They were among the books that Ron Paul recommended to Rudolf Giuliani during the Republican primary election last year. These three books provide a riveting, sobering analysis of where we are as an empire and why we cannot sustain the current version of our empire, as we devolve into a military empire that goes to war on borrowed money, where each new war is vastly more expensive than its predecessor. Today we have a expansive military-industrial complex that is still fed by the manufacturing of Cold War airplanes and other hardware that are unlikely to be of any use to us. We have increasingly secret black  budgets within the military (not just the CIA) that have virtually no oversight and seem out of control, with Congress merely serving as a cheerleader.  We have exceeded the Cold War budgeting for the military because of a few thousand terrorists, while during the Cold War, we were told that millions of communists wanted to devour us, which of course turned out to be utterly preposterous.

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