Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Great Recession Porn: Cattle Rustling is Making a Comeback

When the going gets tough, the tough...rustle cattle apparently. You read that right, the ongoing slow crash of the economy has led to a resurgence in cattle rustling. Here is Reuters with the details:
Cattle rustlers, casting aside saddle and spurs for modern horsepower, are roaming the West with four-wheel drive and GPS technology in a resurgence of livestock thievery considered a hanging offense on the old frontier.

State livestock officials said the increase in cattle crimes was linked to the slumping economy, soaring beef prices and the advent of handheld global positioning systems that allow rustlers to more easily navigate the wide-open range.

They said contemporary thieves may find it more convenient and lucrative to pick off a couple cows, worth as much as $2,000 a head, than to rob a convenience store.

"When the market is extremely high, the bad guys come out," Idaho State Brand Inspector Larry Hayhurst said.

Hayhurst said the incidence of cattle gone missing under suspicious circumstances in Idaho during the past three months had already surpassed the 250 such reports he received for all of last year. That coincides with spikes in cattle thefts in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Wyoming and elsewhere.
It strikes me that rustling cattle, even using modern technology and transportation, would be an awful lot of work. Which is yet another indicator that plenty of people who would otherwise be content to remain gainfully employed and not ever resort to criminal activity are becoming increasingly desperate as the Great Recession rolls on.

Gary Johnson Discovers that the Republican Party is Just Not that Into Him

Former New Mexico Governor and Republican presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who like former Louisiana Governor and fellow candidate Buddy Roemer, has had to cool his heels in frustration while the Republicans have invited the likes of crazy ass Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum into their debates, has finally after many months realized that the party doesn't much care for guys who go around wearing peace symbol tee-shirts out in public. Here is Talking Points Memo with the details:
Disgruntled former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson says he is considering leaving the Republican slate and running as a third-party candidate in the 2012 presidential election.

“I feel abandoned by the Republican Party,” Johnson, who has been left out of most of the Republican debates, told the Sante Fe New Mexican newspaper this week, saying he might seek the Libertarian Party’s support.

“The Republican Party has left me by the wayside,” said Johnson, whose polling numbers have recently been so low that they are often not even being picked up by pollsters.

“If I’d have been included in 16 of the last debates we wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” he said.
Pardon me, Gary, but what the fuck took you so long? After all, you should have known that you weren't going to get very far with this:
Johnson, 58, holds dear libertarian values such as low taxes and limited government and wants to legalize marijuana. He is also a fitness fanatic, having competed in a number of “Ironman” triathlons and climbed Mount Everest.
And yet you are trying to win the nomination of a party that believes low taxes are only for the rich; supports every effort to INCREASE government in the areas of defense war, torture and domestic spying; fully supports the war on drugs and is so anti-health and physical fitness that it just declared pizza a vegetable suitable for school lunches. You and Buddy Roemer should have woken up to the fact that the Republican Party left you behind a LONG time ago in its quest to become America's first fully fledged bastion of fascism. In fact, Ron Paul should also acknowledge the fact and leave the party once and for all. Because all you libertarian types are doing by remaining within that lunatic asylum is helping to enable pretty much everything you claim to stand against.

The Rose Bowl Parade is Starting to Wilt

While the chicanery continues in the financial markets, propping up the stock market in an effort to convince the easily misled that all is well with the economy, stories continue to appear demonstrating that on Main Street the economic crash remains ongoing. The latest casualty, as reported by the New York Times on Monday, is the Rose Bowl Parade:
...the sputtering economy and municipal budget cuts are presenting new problems for the Tournament of Roses.

Several cities have had to abandon plans to put up floats for the parade, after doing so for decades. One company that had built floats for 25 years announced that it was going out of business, after its most reliable customers dropped out of the parade. And Occupy protesters threaten to show up 40,000 strong along the parade route to blanket the area with their message that “not everything is coming up roses.”

As if anyone needed reminding.

Nearly every city in Southern California — and in hard-pressed regions across the country — is struggling with deep budget cuts, trimming back park services and reducing the city staff. In the last few years, five cities have dropped out of the parade and several more considered doing so, only to be rescued by private money. Other cities have drastically scaled back their floats to save money. And few of those who left expect to re-enter the parade anytime soon.

The City of Long Beach, which faced a $43 million gap in its $400 million budget, had put a float in the parade every year for nearly nine decades. But with cutbacks all over the city, including in its tourism department, the decision to drop out was hardly difficult, Mayor Bob Foster said.

“It just doesn’t rank high on a priority list during times like this,” Mr. Foster said. “I don’t relish the decision, but I don’t think people are going to argue that we should keep a float when we are cutting libraries.”
I must say that is a rare bit of common sense being shown there by City of Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster. No sir, it certainly does not make sense to spend money on such a frivolity at the expense of vital city services. Note the key factoid Mayor Foster's quote: the city has had a Rose Bowl float for NINE DECADES, meaning that even during the depths of the Great Depression it was able to afford to do what it now can no longer afford to do. That seems pretty significant to me.

Even more significant, the cutback in Rose Parade floats extends beyond just municipal governments to corporate America:
Even some of the most longstanding companies that sponsored floats have bowed out. For the first time in anyone’s memory, there will be no team of Clydesdales representing Budweiser and St. Louis. The company, now a subsidiary of a multinational corporation, decided to drop out of the parade to focus on sponsorships that “reach a higher concentration of beer drinkers” and “more directly discuss the Budweiser brand.”
Love that bit of weaselly corporate FlackSpeak Budweiser is using to try to excuse the fact that their pisswater beer won't be represented in the parade this year. As a serious beer drinker myself, I'll save you assholes the trouble and "discuss the Budweiser brand" for you--it's shit. Frankly, I wouldn't even pour it into the troughs used to water the Clydesdales because that would constitute an act of animal cruelty.

Moving on, it's also nice to see that the Occupy Movement is getting involved in protesting the Rose Parade:
Occupy protesters say they plan to bring 40,000 people to the parade and form their own “human float” at the end of the route.

“We’re in a crisis situation, and we can’t pretend that everything is as hunky-dory as people in power want us to believe, when there are tens of thousands of people unemployed here,” said Peter Thottam, the lead organizer for the Rose Parade protest. “The parade has been a cultural embodiment of corporatization and militarization of our society. There are thousands of people there, and millions of people watching it on television, and we want to bring our message to them.”
Damn straight, Mr. Thottam. Although I must say that it appears as that within a few years it will be the peak oil-induced economic crash rather than your protests that spell the overdue end of this whole silly spectacle.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

State Budget Cuts Cause Layoffs at Washington State University

One of the more laughable notions coming out of the mouths of conservatives these days is that cutting government spending doesn't cost people their jobs. It's almost as ludicrous as the idea that tax cuts don't cause budget deficits. Don't get me wrong. Unlike many liberals and progressives, I realize that government spending is unsustainable and that tax increases even on just the wealthy who can afford to pay them would do no more than delay the ultimate day of reckoning for government finances.

No, the reason I focus on the layoff effects of government funding cutbacks is to highlight yet another area where good paying jobs are being destroyed, never to return as the economy continues its peak oil-induced downward grind. The latest story highlighting this phenomenon concerns the effect of cuts in state funding going to Washington State University:
...the fact that the state has cut a whopping 60 percent of its support for WSU in the past four years, prompting more than 500 layoffs at the university - about 12 percent of its workforce - is a big deal. Many fear that even bigger cuts are coming.

Real estate sales and construction in Pullman are down, while unemployment is up. That's unusual for a local economy that historically has been immune to big swings.

Whitman County for years enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in the state, in part because half the jobs are government jobs. Unemployment stood at 4 percent as late as 2008, before starting a steady upward march. The rate reached 7.5 percent in July, still lower than the state average of 9 percent.
Of course, the budget cuts have had another, more perverse effect:
So far, retail trade seems to be holding up, in part because the number of students continues to rise despite huge tuition increases. Tuition has approximately doubled in the past five years, to more than $10,000 per year.
Right here, you can see what I have been saying about college tuitions and student loans being in a bubble that is about to burst in a very big way. Tuition has DOUBLED in just the past five years and yet they are STILL laying people off? Obviously, that rate of increase will not be sustainable for very long. One can only imagine what's going to happen when these students finally wake up and realize that the $10,000+ per year they are paying for tuition is a ticket not to a middle class lifestyle the were "promised," but instead to a lifetime of debt slavery.

Time Magazine Does it Again

Several years ago back when Chimpy Bush was still despoiling the Oval Office, there was a notorious incident in which Time magazine ran a cover story overseas about an upswing in violence in Afghanistan while the domestic U.S. cover featured celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. At the time, many who were against the America's wars took it as proof that the mainstream media was trying to suppress bad news about one of America's ill-advised overseas military misadventures.

As you can see by the image above, Time has gone ahead and done it again with its December 5th issue. While the overseas cover stories are about the resurgence in violence in Egypt, the domestic cover story is an utterly frivolous piece about anxiety. This time, however, there doesn't seem to be any pro-war agenda as the Egyptian story does not involve American imperialism. In fact, if you look closely at each cover you'll notice that the Egypt story and the anxiety story each appear in both the domestic and overseas editions. The difference is merely in the chosen cover art. So the agenda now seems to be avoiding placing an unpleasant image on the cover that would keep people from buying the magazine.

If what I suspect is true, we really have become a nation not of sheep like so many doomers like to say, but of ostriches, determined to bury our heads in the sands and ignore unpleasant realities at all costs. The problem with ignoring reality, of course, is that sooner or later it will show up at your doorstep anyway in very bad mood, ready to forcibly demonstrate to you the the folly of your ways.

Salon: Deplore Black Friday's Excesses, Just Don't Change Your Behavior

It cannot be repeated enough that the biggest reason why mainstream liberalism is so completely ineffectual is because it sold its soul to corporate America a long time ago. Case in point is an article by Andrew Leonard that appeared this past weekend on about the excesses of Black Friday. It starts off promisingly enough:
Here’s a Thanksgiving recipe guaranteed to deliver a nervous breakdown impervious to even the most bleeding-edge psychopharmaceutical wonder drug. Go to YouTube, search for “Black Friday commercials,” start watching, and then, once you’ve sated yourself on grown men screaming at Justin Bieber, remakes of Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” and, most distressingly, the continuing adventures of the Crazy Target Lady, ask yourself this question:

What does it all mean?

I stared into this heart of retail panic darkness, and the more I clicked and pondered, the more confused — (mind-boggled? fascinated? flabbergasted?) — I became. The Crazy Target Lady, so proud of her OCD — obsessive Christmas disorder — is not funny. She’s scary. She’s why people trample each other to death. She is wrong.

There is a point in our culture beyond which camp and kitsch no longer make the least ironic sense, where consumerism loses its last mooring to civilization, where even seemingly legitimate protest devolves into farce. That point is Black Friday.
You're absolute right, Mr. Leonard. So clearly, the answer is to derail the crazy train of mindless American consumerism, right?
Let me be clear. I am not opposed to vigorous sprees of retail spending. For the sake of the U.S. economy, I would love to see a robust Christmas shopping season and I plan to do my part. I find the notion that we should “occupy Black Friday” and withhold our consumer dollars as a way of hitting back at the 1 percent just nutty. Voluntarily subtracting demand from the economy hurts us. A general consumer strike would result in more layoffs and pay cuts and bankruptcies and foreclosures. Sure, Wal-Mart would take a hit, but so would Wal-Mart employees.
I don't recall the last time I saw a writer so completely contradict himself with two successive paragraphs. You simply cannot assert that consumerism is losing its "last mooring to civilization" and then turn around and say you would love to see a "robust Christmas shopping season." That's called trying to have your cake and eat it, too.

What's most distressing is Leonard's utter inability to see that consumerism itself IS the problem, not just the Black Friday teevee ads that whip the more dimwitted members of our society into the kind of frenzy where they are willing to trample, assault, and pepper-spray one another in order to lay their hands on that deeply discounted video game. The teevee ads have become so diabolical because they reflect the fact that corporate America is desperately trying to prop up a zombie economic model that, thanks to peak oil and resource depletion, is already dead even if the body hasn't yet stopped twitching.

But the contradictions in the article don't end there. Almost immediately after proclaiming that he will be "doing his part" to fuel this insanity, Leonard goes on to write:
But there’s also a point where healthy consumerism becomes out-of-control marketing-driven commodity fetishism, and when we find ourselves checking our smartphones for last minute online deals while standing in line for a chain store opening at midnight on Thanksgiving, we are clearly too far gone. That’s insanity.

And corporate America knows this. The retail moguls are counting on it. They are outright encouraging it — and role-modeling the appropriate behavior for us. The Crazy Target Lady is not a joke. Watch her cannibalize her gingerbread man, or strategize her reverse psychology shopping techniques, or show off her shopping utility belt: You cannot avoid the dual conclusion that a) she is not a healthy woman, and b) she is America. She might be a lunatic, but it’s a culturally approved lunacy — the kind that keeps the American engine of capitalism all stoked up. The message that keeps getting blasted across my TV is that we should all be more like her — doing our patriotic duty to boost fourth-quarter retail sales. Sure, you can laugh at her. But then get in line and keep your credit card handy.
Yep, and you can stop kidding yourself because you are buying right into it too, asshole. It doesn't matter if you are too "hip" to be taken in by Target's crazy lady ads, or whether you wouldn't be caught dead standing in line outside a Walmart late on Thanksgiving evening, you are part of the problem. Depleting the planet's remaining resources to buy a bunch of useless shit you don't need to prop up the soulless, dehumanizing and climate-destroying American way of life is just as immoral whether you do it the day after Thanksgiving or you wait around until December 15th.

Even more hypocritical is Leonard's praise of the online petition against the early box retail store openings:
But, of course, the big story of this year’s Black Friday has been the welcome news that at least some subsection of the population of the United States has come to the realization that it’s time to step back from the brink. The budding protests against the decision by some of the country’s biggest retailers — Target, Macy’s, Best Buy, Kohl’s — to move the start of their Black Friday sales to midnight Thanksgiving, or even earlier, is laudable.

The nearly 200,000 signatures on part-time Target employee Anthony Hardwick’s petition to “Save Thanksgiving” is proof that both employees and customers of Target are beginning to see this endless race by retailers to one-up each other as dehumanizing and ridiculous. What does a Target employee forced to go to work at 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving have to give thanks for?
Gee, the public was so outraged about the Thanksgiving night openings that Black Friday sales INCREASED by around 7% this year. So fat lot of good those petitions did. Because you see, Mr. Leonard, all the petitions in the world don't mean a damn thing. The only way you can show your displeasure that will matter to the scumbags who run these chains is to WITHHOLD YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS from them altogether, NOT just on the day after Thanksgiving.

But no, you go ahead and "do your part" for the economy as you have pledged to do. Keep trying to have it both ways. Express dismay at how out of control things have gotten but don't ever consider changing your ways or that there might actually be a different and more sustainable way to do things. And maybe next year you can write some more drivel about how out-of-control Black Friday is so you and your oh-so-sensitive readership can feel better about yourselves by looking down your noses at those people who are taken in by the crazy lady ads. Because clearly, mindless consumerism only loses its last mooring to civilization when it is the dirty unwashed masses doing it rather than those above-it-all sophisticates who read

Bonus: in case you haven't been "lucky enough" to see them, one of the Crazy Target Lady ads

Monday, November 28, 2011

Joe Rogan Podcast on the Occupy Movement

Joe Rogan is a stand up comedian who hit the jackpot a decade ago when he was hired to be the host of the reality teevee show, Fear Factor. To his credit, once he made the big bucks Rogan didn't keep whoring himself out to the American mainstream media machine to make more, but instead used the financial freedom to begin saying what he wants to say via his standup routines and his regular podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.

Rogan's recent podcast on the Occupy movement has been made into a video featuring images of the protests while he and his cohosts free associate about what it all means. Personally, I believe that if Bill Hicks hadn't died nearly nearly 20 years ago at the way-too-young age of 32, he'd be saying similar things today.

Federal Judge Does the Banksters Bidding in Harrisburg Bankruptcy Case

Just like in Europe, if the banksters don't get what they want from the popularly elected "leaders" of a bankrupt government entity, they will find some unaccountable, unelected officials to do their bidding instead, as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has now found out to its chagrin:
A federal bankruptcy judge on Wednesday dismissed the petition by the City Council of Pennsylvania's debt-choked capital of Harrisburg, saying it had been legally barred by state law from seeking bankruptcy protection and, in any case, had no authority to file it.

Federal bankruptcy Judge Mary D. France issued the ruling after hearing more than two hours of arguments by lawyers as to whether the bankruptcy petition, filed last month by a divided City Council, satisfied various legal issues and could move forward despite the objections of the city's mayor, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, Dauphin County, bond insurers and others.

A City Council member said the group will decide whether or not to appeal. In the meantime, the Corbett administration is moving to take over many of the city's financial operations in a bid to force it to pay down about $300 million in debt tied to the city's ill-starred trash incinerator.
Memo to the citizens of the state of Pennsylvania: your current governor is quite obviously in the back pocket of the banksters. I don't care what your partisan affiliation is, this scumbag should be defeated the next time he faces the voters for wanting to take your tax money and give it to Wall Street assholes to protect them from taking losses on their own bad bets.

Occupy Harrisburg.

Bonus: in the end, is there really any difference between the banksters and the gangsters?

The Return of Debtors Prisons: Collection Agencies Now Want Deadbeats Arrested

When most people think of the concept of a debtors prison (assuming they ever think of it at all), it probably conjures up visions of a Charles Dickens novel. The whole concept sounds as archaic as Victorian England. We have certainly evolved far beyond such an unenlightened notion, right? Sadly, no, as reported last week by Yahoo Finance:
As if life wasn't already tense enough for Americans who can't pay their debts, collection agencies are now taking advantage of archaic state laws to have some debtors arrested and sent to jail.

More than one-third of US states allow debtors to be arrested and jailed, says Jessica Silver-Greenberg in the Wall Street Journal.

Judges typically grant arrest warrants when the debtors have failed to show up for court dates or failed to make court-ordered payments.

Of course, the reason debtors have failed to make court-ordered payments is often the same reason they didn't pay their debts in the first place: They don't have any money.

In September, a 53 year-old woman named Vivian Joy was stopped for a broken tail-light in Champaign, Illinois. And then, because the cops discovered that she still hadn't paid $2,200 to a collection agency, she was cuffed and carted off to jail.

Joy's excuse?

She doesn't have any money.
Well, duh. That would typically be the reason that someone wouldn't pay their bills. Because, you see, most people in our mindless consumer culture are addicted to credit. If you don't pay your bills, your credit will eventually get cut off. Many would sooner chop off one of their own limbs rather than ever allow that to happen. Credit is almost like a illegal narcotic for these people. Sticking them in jail, where among other things they now can't work and earn any money to pay their debts, is just plain stupid. Anyone who would advocate for it is not only a heartless Randian stooge, but an incompetent one as well.

Alas, my home state seems to be crawling with them:
Jailing debtors for not paying their debts is apparently especially popular in Illinois.
Illinois, of course, ranks right there with California in terms of its budget being out-of-whack. Many school districts, hospitals and state contractors have to wait for months to receive promised payments. Aside from hypocrisy of a state government that has its own trouble paying its bills jailing debtors, there is also the fact that it can hardly AFFORD to keep more people in its jail cells.

Credit Yahoo Finance for getting it exactly right on this issue:
This practice, needless to say, is preposterous. If people can't pay their debts and have no prospect of being able to pay their debts, they should declare bankruptcy. And the debts should be written off. Companies don't go to jail when they default. Neither should people.
No, companies certainly don't get thrown in jail for not paying their debts. In fact, if they are big enough, the government BAILS THEM OUT. All of this is just more fuel for the Occupy fire, that I suspect will continue to be fanned by the sheer greed and stupidity of the elites until it becomes a nationwide conflagration.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Not All CEOs Are Scumbags

Reading this blog, some might get the impression that I believe that all corporate managers who make the decision to lay off workers are evil capitalist scumbags. Actually, I recognize that a failing company must try to cut costs in order to survive. It's when mismanagement and financial shenanigans are the reason for the cuts that I object. That, and the callous attitude often displayed in their press releases.

So I have to at least give kudos to the CEO of Presstek Inc., which announced made a layoff announcement on Tuesday:
Presstek Inc. will slash its workforce in an attempt to regain profitability after posting a third-quarter loss of more than $5.4 million, the company announced Monday.

The printing equipment company, which employs 130 people in Hudson and 450 overall, would not say how many employees will be laid off, from which facility or how long its “profit improvement action” would take.

The company, which is based in Greenwich, Conn., also has a manufacturing facility in South Hadley, Mass., a distribution center in Des Plaines, Ill., and European headquarters in the United Kingdom.

CEO Jeff Jacobson said in a conference call that most of the cuts would be achieved through “headcount reductions and realignment of responsibility to right-size our business.” An $11.2 million cut represents about a quarter of the company’s annual operational expenses.

“Obviously, we will have to cut very deeply,” Jacobson said in response to a question by NHBR the number of layoffs involved.

Jacobson added that when he announced to his employees on Friday the severity of the cuts, “it was my darkest day” as a CEO.
Now that is language more appropriate for announcing that real people are going to lose their jobs. In fact, CEO Jacobson had more to say:
You put your blinders on” so that the company would do “what you have to say to stay vibrant,” Jacobson said to conclude the conference call. But when the blinders come off, Jacobson said he could see “human beings you know and care about as victims of the economy.”

He said some of the blame lies with “a group of people in Washington who just care about being elected,” but in any case, he promised that the workers “we have not come though this pain” without becoming a more stable company that won’t have to make such drastic cuts in the future.
That "group of people in Washington" most certainly doesn't care about anything other than getting elected. What's amazing is that they think they can despite showing no leadership whatsoever in a failing economy.

Attention Whore Michelle Bachmann Also Running a Fake Presidential Campaign

A couple of weeks ago in the wake of the Herman Cain sexual harassment scandal, I called out Cain for not being a serious presidential candidate and merely running for the publicity and financial benefit. Well, now comes confirmation that Michelle Bachmann has essentially been doing the exact same thing:
If you had any doubt that Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign is little more than a vanity effort designed to snag camera time and sell copies of her hastily written memoir, add this to the evidence locker: According to internal campaign documents, her own treasurer says she has no plans to field employees or volunteers in Florida, Texas, Michigan, or California, and the campaign hopes at best to raise just $30 million—a lot less than it generally takes to win a national primary.

That's according to the Bachmann campaign's application for a liability insurance policy, which a source forwarded to us. (We agreed to only publish portions of it.) The application, which appears to have been filled out by hand last June by Bachmann's campaign treasurer Nancy Watkins, lays out Bachmann for America's fundraising and staffing plans through roughly June 2012, or just two months before the Republican National Convention where Bachmann wants us to think she expects to accept the GOP nomination. Let's just say she's thinking small.
The article continues:
The application also lists the campaign's projected revenues at $30 million through June 2012. Again, not nothing. But consider that in 2008, Mitt Romney raised $65 million—and spent $110 million, owing to his personal wealth—to lose the nomination, and it seems like something of a lowball number. When John McCain sat down to forecast his path to the nomination in early 2007, he predicted a haul of $71 million in that year alone.

In other words, people who think they can actually win don't think you can do it for $30 million. You can, however, become a household name and build a cult-like following of religious fanatics who will buy things from you. Like books.

Of course, the application is just some paperwork that a campaign functionary filled out several months ago, and it may not have accurately reflected the thinking of the campaign or Bachmann. For that, it's much better to look at what Bachmann is up to now. Like this Friday—Black Friday—when she'll be at the Mall of America signing books.
Because that's what our presidential campaigns have descended to these days: just another fucking reality teevee show. The Republican party ought to be ashamed of itself for letting the likes of Bachmann and Cain into their debates, especially while keeping out Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson, both former governors and candidates who actually have some real ideas of how to fix what ails the country.

For all you have done, Michelle Bachmann, to coarsen American political discourse and serve as a massive distraction to the very serious problems ailing the country just so you can feed your insatiable thirst for fame and fortune, I hereby declare you to be a Real Attention Whore of Genius.

Bonus: World Party nailed it more than 20 years ago.

Warning: Tough Decision Ahead on the Payroll Tax

I've written here before about how the Social Security system is fundamentally insolvent and how Obama's decision to cut the payroll tax has hastened that program's ultimate day of reckoning. Well, don't look now, but the failure of the so-called "super committee" to cut the federal budget deficit has created a situation whereby the payroll tax break is about to expire. Here is CNN with the details:
With the super committee's failure, lawmakers are now facing a year-end legislative challenge that could have an outsized impact on the economy.

At issue: Whether to extend the payroll tax holiday, or let it expire.

Employees normally pay 6.2% on the first $106,800 of their wages into Social Security, but this year they've only been paying 4.2%. That tax break, however, is set to expire January 1.

Failing to extend it would amount to raising taxes during a rough economic patch -- something that President Obama would like to avoid.

Obama is expected to ramp up pressure on Congress Tuesday during a visit to New Hampshire, where he will call on lawmakers to extend the payroll tax holiday.
No, restoring the full payroll tax does NOT amount to "raising taxes." It is instead a way to sustain a program that is already running in red. It's called paying your damn bills, and it is something that this spoiled rotten country needs to get used to sooner or later.

But, as always, you can count on an economist to provide the very worst analysis available:
Economists at Capital Economics expect that consumption growth will suffer "a very sharp slowdown in the first quarter of next year if the payroll tax cut is not extended," according to a research note released Monday.

And Moody's Analytics estimated in August that letting the tax cut expire would reduce growth by as much as 0.5%, and called extending the cut one of the "most straightforward" ways to "reduce some of the coming fiscal restraint."
As I stated last summer in my post, "GDP Checkmate: Four Choices of the Apocalypse," the time for putting off hard decisions about the nation's economic future by borrowing insane amounts of money is rapidly coming to an end. Better to lose the "consumption growth" that would disappear from restoring the payroll tax now than suffer a much larger crash when America does finally start to experience the same "bond vigilantism" now being experienced by the PIIGS nations in Europe.

My guess is that the payroll tax cut will be "saved" when the Republicans agree to allow it to continue in exchange for eliminating the scheduled automatic cuts in defense war spending because of the super committee's failure. If that does happen, it will mean that this whole deficit cutting exercise was nothing but a bit of pure wankery.

Long term, of course, Social Security is doomed anyway. But keeping the payroll tax cut is like stepping down on the accelerator as we speed towards the edge of the cliff.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Night Music Video: "When the Wheels Don't Move" by Son Volt

I've been a big fan of Son Volt singer/songwriter/guitarist Jay Farrar going all the way back to the early 90s when he and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy played together in the outstanding alt-country band, Uncle Tupelo. On the most recent Son Volt album, Farrar wrote what as far as I know is the only true peak oil aware song yet recorded by a major artist.

Hubris and greed
Let the fossil fuels burn
No way to keep the wings in flight
When the turbine engines don't move

Going green, a casino catch phrase
Ethanol's made of smoke and mirrors
Who makes the decision
To feed the tanks and not the mouths
When the wheels don't move

Sign of the Times: University of Maryland Cuts Eight Sports Programs to Save Money

image: the University of Maryland football team isn't the only sports team at the school falling on hard times.

I've written here before about how rising college costs represent one of the biggest bubbles in our economy and how it is likely to pop in the very near future. And now, right on schedule, comes a story from Bloomberg that confirms the first signs that the bubble is starting to burst:
The University of Maryland, which has one of the smallest operating profits from football among major public universities, plans to cut eight sports to save money, school President Wallace D. Loh said.

Men’s cross country; tennis; swimming and diving; indoor track, and outdoor track are to be eliminated, as well as women’s water polo; acrobatics and tumbling, and swimming and diving. The sports will be discontinued on June 30, 2012, Loh said in a letter yesterday on the university’s website.

Loh said the teams would be given the chance to raise enough money by that 2012 deadline to fund themselves for eight years. A similar offer in 2010 at the University of California, Berkeley, led to five threatened sports being saved.

Maryland made $1.8 million in football revenue during the 2010 fiscal year, ranking 49th of the 53 public schools in college football’s six biggest conferences, according to research compiled by Bloomberg News. Football and men’s basketball are the only two revenue-producing sports at the school and they help subsidize other athletic teams at the university, according to Loh.

“We are different from many other public research universities in that we receive no state support,” Loh said yesterday in a news conference. “We have a financial model for two programs, only two programs, which have to subsidize all the rest of the sports. It is a national model that is faulty, that is inequitable, and that is unsustainable”
Yep, I partly agree with you there, Mr. Loh, your system is in fact quite inequitable and unsustainable. But the problem doesn't lie with your sports program...the problem lies with an entire university system that makes students into debt slaves to obtain degrees that have become nearly worthless in a slowly collapsing economy. So while this sucks for the University of Maryland swimmers and tennis players, it is in fact just the tip of a VERY big iceberg.

So Where are the New Jobs Coming From?

I’ve written here a number of times before about how the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) manipulates the official unemployment numbers; particularly with its “Birth-Death Model” that adds phantom jobs to most of the monthly job reports. And don’t get me started about the fact that the official unemployment percentage counts out “discouraged” workers who have dropped off the long-tern unemployment benefit rolls. Everyone who is paying attention knows that you can’t trust the government employment reports. That’s just a given.

Nevertheless, it is just as obvious that while the economy does not appear to be creating jobs, or at least not creating enough new jobs to keep up with population growth, the free fall in the employment numbers that we experienced in the latter half of 2008 and the first half of 2009 has halted at least temporarily. For this reason, those pundits who oppose the Occupy movement can get on the teevee and plausibly state for those not paying attention that the protesters should shut their mouths, take a shower and go get a job.

All of which begs the question, where are the new jobs that are being created coming from? It is hard to tell from looking at the BLS’s monthly reports. From glancing at the overall 2011 data, the biggest gains seem to be in the categories of Leisure and Hospitality; Professional and Business Services; and Education and Health Services. Note before we continue that, nebulous as those descriptions are, they don’t include people who actually MAKE things for a living.

So let me take a crack at this issue based solely upon the anecdotal evidence of what I see going on around me every day. And yes, I realize that the Washington D.C. area is atypical in having been spared the brunt of the Great Recession because of the insane levels of federal deficit spending. If you’ll bear with me for a moment, however, I think you’ll agree that these categories are probably typical of what is happening elsewhere as well.

Fast Food Restaurants: particularly the hip, new “upscale” fast food chains like Chipotle, Baja Fresh, California Tortilla, Chop’t, Five Guys and Pita Pit. Every new strip mall that gets built around here seems to include at least one of these franchises, and they also are springing up in places where other stores have closed. Also popular in our area these days are fancy cupcake bakeries, which I shit you not can charge up to five bucks for one lousy cupcake. No, I don’t get it, either.

Bank Branches: I reported a story awhile back about how some of the financially strapped big banks were closing some of their branches. But around here openings of new locations do not appear to have slowed down at all. Most incredibly, a couple of miles from my house a newly constructed TD Bank branch was built right next to a HALF EMPTY strip mall. Why they thought it was a good investment to build a whole new building when there was plenty of empty retail space right next door is beyond me.

Pharmacies: I swear, sometimes it seems as though were it not for CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid, there wouldn’t be any job growth at all. For years now, they’ve been building drug stores around here almost as quickly as they’ve been putting up new bank branches. It does seem like they will not be content until they have put one on every single street corner all across the land. Just who it is out there with such a burning need to be running into the drug store all the damn time is another question.

Dollar Stores: I’ve written before about my friend Joe, who was laid off from his retail manager’s job at the beginning of this year and was out of work for eight months before landing a gig at a newly constructed Dollar Tree location. I haven’t mentioned this to Joe, but dollar stores depress me even more than Walmart or Target do. They are the absolute nadir of the American shopping experience, selling discounted cheap, crappy goods from all over the world to customers often as downtrodden-looking as the merchandise. There is a real air of desperation about these places, as if everyone involved knows that they represent the last rung down on the ladder before utter destitution.

Box Stores: some big box chains like Lowes and Sears have fallen on hard times and have been closing stores recently, but plenty of others seem to be cropping up to take their place. What they all have in common is their complete dependence on relatively cheap oil, diesel and gasoline to bring in their products and well as their customers. The whole business model is likely only a few years from complete collapse, and yet they keep on building the damn things.

So what do all of those categories have in common? They are the kinds of places where even if an unemployed person is lucky enough to land a full time gig, they are not going to make enough money to afford to take out a mortgage and buy a house. And the collapsed housing market remains the key as to why the economy is not “recovering,” whatever the manipulated government statistics may say.

It’s bad enough that the mainstream media goes into orgasmic gyrations while hyping a manipulated and pathetic monthly jobs number like 90,000 jobs added. But it’s even worse when you consider that they make no effort whatsoever to determine the quality of those new jobs or how much they pay. It is all just more of the Lies We Tell Ourselves, and will continue to tell ourselves until one day a financial tsunami comes along and washes away the whole creaking edifice once and for all.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Mortgage Insurer PMI Group Declares Bankruptcy

More housing market carnage was reported this past week with the bankruptcy of a mortgage insurance company:
Mortgage insurer PMI Group Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Wednesday, following the seizure last month of its main operating unit by Arizona insurance regulators.

PMI's filing came one day after Richard Gama, an Arizona Superior Court judge in Phoenix, rejected its request to overturn the seizure by the Arizona Department of Insurance.

That department took control of PMI's main unit, PMI Mortgage Insurance Co., on Oct. 20, and directed that it pay claims at just 50 cents on the dollar.

The seizure came two months after Arizona told PMI to stop writing new policies because the company did not have enough capital.
The article continues:
PMI's bankruptcy reflects broad deterioration among mortgage insurers, many of which suffered big losses as the nation's housing downturn and weakened economy left the industry facing large claims on unpaid home loans.

In its bankruptcy petition, PMI said it had more than $225 million of assets and $736 million of debts as of Aug. 4.
More than half-a-billion dollars in the hole? THAT'S gonna leave a mark on a few creditors' balance sheets. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the housing industry is kaput. There is no driver for good jobs in this economy, especially for young adults looking to enter the marketplace for the first time.

That's what those not among the one-percenters who have been ridiculing the Occupy movement need to get through their thick skulls. You can deride the protesters as smelly hippies all you want, but at heart the protests erupted because millions of these kids are waking up to the fact that they have no future in this economy. And guess what? If THEY don't have an economic future, neither do you. Because there won't be anybody to buy your house when you retire so you can cash in your equity, or to pay the Social Security and Medicare taxes needed to support you. So if I were you I'd stop poking fun and get out there and join them before it's too late.

Friday Rant: Yes, Virginia, Our State Will Suffer Most from Defense Spending Cuts

I'm a 20-year resident of the Old Dominion, but I don't expect anyone to play the world's smallest violin for my state upon reading this recent article from
Virginia, Hawaii and Alaska may suffer the most economic harm from defense cuts of as much as $1 trillion during the next decade, a Bloomberg Government study shows.

Those three states are the most dependent on U.S. military spending, the study found. Virginia, home of the Pentagon and the Norfolk naval base, tops the list with 13.9 percent of its gross domestic product derived from defense spending. Hawaii ranks second, at 13.5 percent, and Alaska is third with 10.7 percent. All other states are in single digits, the study showed.

Bloomberg Government examined military spending by state as Congress considers budget cuts that might threaten the economies of states such as Virginia, where the Defense Department spent $56.9 billion in fiscal 2009, the last year for which comprehensive data were available. The spending came in the form of payroll, contracts and grants.

“It is a big-ticket item for Virginia,” said Richard Brown, the state’s secretary of finance. “That would be quite a blow to Virginia if there would be a major hit.”
So where is the bulk of all that cash to Commonwealth going, anyway?
The Defense Department awarded $38.7 billion in contracts in Virginia in 2009, including $5.3 billion to Northrop Grumman Corp. of Falls Church, Virginia, $1.6 billion to Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. of McLean, Virginia, and $1 billion to CACI International Inc. of Arlington, Virginia.
Ah, so that explains all the damn McMansions they seem determined to build on every square foot of undeveloped land around here, or why the upscale Tysons Corner shopping mall is chocked full of the types of overpriced, useless shit people who have too damn much money to spend like to buy. Oh, well, that's the way is goes. Let's get hacking on that defense budget shall we?

Why no, we can't do that or the terrorists will win, or your children will be forced to speak Chinese, or something like that. Or so sayeth Obama's Secretary of Defense:
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned of a “hollow force” if a congressional supercommittee fails to produce a 10- year plan that can pass Congress, which would trigger automatic spending cuts. Defense budget cuts might reach $1 trillion in that scenario, which the Pentagon says would hurt national security.

“It’s a ship without sailors,” Panetta said at a Nov. 10 Pentagon hearing. “It’s a brigade without bullets. It’s an air wing without enough trained pilots. It’s a paper tiger.”
Fucking-a, Leon, and it's about goddamned time America stops speeding towards bankruptcy at 200 MPH just to appease you fuckers in the Pentagon. Or perhaps you've never taken in the wisdom of the 16th President of the United States. You know the one...waged a war in which over 600,000 Americans became casualties? Got himself assassinated in the process. Yeah, that guy knew a thing or two about war making. Here's what he he had to say:
“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.” - Abraham Lincoln
And guess what, Leon, that is just as true today as it was when Honest Abe said it more that a century-and-a-half ago...even more so. Yeah, some madman in Russia or China could someday decide to launch the nukes in our direction, but all they would get out of that is atomized, not a drink from the Ohio River. Instead, we ARE committing suicide, just like Lincoln warned. Only it is FINANCIAL suicide and you and your ilk are the ones holding the gun to our collective temple and squeezing the trigger.

If there are any of you out there reading this blog who still maintain event a latent bit of support for Obama, I want you to read and reread scumbag Panetta's quotes above until they sink in. Whether you meant to or not, THAT is what you voted for, not peace and love and hope for all mankind.

And don't say, "but it wasn't Obama who said it," or I swear I take you over my knee and paddle your behind. Obama appointed this fucker. Panetta is now the official spokesweasel for the military-industrial complex. He is mouthing Obama's true policy position of defense war spending at the expense of everything else. Vote for President Hopey-Changey again next year, and THIS is what you'll be voting for, only without the excuse that you had no idea what Obama was going to do once he got into office.

So don't cry for us here in Virginia. Even though my state stands to suffer the most from proposed cuts in defense spending, I still have one thing to say to soulless cretin Leon and his perverted array of push button generals entrenched in that five-sided monstrosity on the banks of the Potomac River: Bring 'em on!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Maybe Sponsoring an NBA Arena is NOT a Smart Business Decision

I didn't get my wish from earlier this year that the NFL season would be cancelled by the dispute between the billionaire owners and the millionaire players. But I still have hope for the NBA, which seems to be firmly determined to commit collective suicide over its selfish inability to divide up the billions of dollars it normally vacuums from the pockets of its idiotic fans every year. With that as a backdrop, I found this recent story to be of interest:
Power Balance has filed for bankruptcy protection, and officials with the Sacramento Kings -- the team that plays at the company's namesake arena -- have responded.

"We maintain close communications with Power Balance and are aware of their decision to file for voluntary protection available to them through the courts," the organization said in an electronic statement.
Guess I'm not a hip dude, because before reading this I had no idea what Power Balance was or what the company produced. Fortunately, the article enlightened me:
Power Balance is a wristband company based in Southern California.
Damn...seems like you'd have to sell an awful lot of wristbands to be able to afford the many millions it takes to get your company name plastered on a stadium. So how'd they get in financial trouble, anyway?
TMZ reports Power Balance filed last week, and just settled a $57 million lawsuit from someone claiming a product is misleading.
So how the hell can a wristband be "misleading," especially to the tune of $57 freaking million? Are those solid gold and platinum wristbands they are selling?

Anyway, the article ends on a positive note:
So far, there's still no NBA season for 2011-12.
I'll drink to that.

Eating Less Chicken Due to the Recession?

Just in time for Thanksgiving. At first, this report about layoffs at some chicken processing plants down in Alabama looked pretty routine:
More than 360 employees at two Wayne Farms facilities in Morgan County may be laid off around Christmastime, company officials said.

Wayne plans to eliminate as many as 5 of the 6 lines at the Further Processing East plant at 110 Plugs Drive in Decatur., Additional layoffs will come from the Further Processing West plant next door.
But then there was this little tidbit:
The plants make cooked and prepared chicken products, sold to restaurants and grocery stores. Officials say there's a reduced demand for chicken, leading to the cuts.
A "reduced demand for chicken?" Sure make you wonder doesn't it. Maybe it struck a chord with me because my own father had a lifelong aversion to chicken. He developed his distaste for poultry growing up as a child in the latter half of the Great Depression when the only meat the family could afford was chicken. My dad ate steaks his whole adult life, usually ones he grilled himself. As kids, my brothers and I found our dad's aversion to chicken to be amusing, and to taunt him sometimes we'd answer "Kentucky Fried Chicken!" when he would ask us where we wanted to go eat.

The only logical reason demand for such a basic meat staple could be dropping is that people are getting too poor to afford it anymore. Because it sure isn't due to them suddenly all being able to afford to run out and buy steak.

Apology Not Accepted

I’m sorry, Madame, but this (from Talking Points Memo) just isn’t going to cut it:
University of California-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi on Monday apologized to students for last week’s pepper-spraying incident, where a campus police officer at point-blank range sprayed down a group of sitting protesters.

“I feel horrible for what happened on Friday, Katehi told a rally of students. “If you think you don’t want to be students in a university like we had Friday, I’m just telling you, I don’t want to be the chancellor of the university we had on Friday.”
Well, since you WERE the chancellor of the university on Friday, you really should do the honorable thing and GTFO. But sadly, no:
Katehi has been under growing pressure to resign, but so far she’s staying put. “The university needs me,” she told ABC’s Good Morning America Monday morning. In an interview with NPR affiliate KQED, Katehi said the university police were not supposed to use force. She said, “as a human being,” she was “horrified” by the pepper-spraying images. And in front of students later on Monday, the chancellor admitted she must work to earn back the students’ trust.

“I know you may not believe anything that I’m telling you today, and you don’t have to,” Katehi said. “It is my responsibility to earn your trust.”

The crowd chanted “Shame on you” and “resign” at Katehi after she finished her remarks, AggieTV reported.
Let me put this as bluntly as I can, Ms. Katehi, so that even a dimwitted academic such as yourself can understand it: apology not accepted. You are the “leader” of a university that employs brutish thugs who have no inhibition against pepper-spraying students for engaging in non-violent protest. The same students, incidentally, who pay thousands of dollars a year for the “privilege” of attending your morally decrepit institution—many of whom have no doubt put themselves in hock with massive amounts of student loans in order to pay your salary, among other frivolous expenses.

Being in charge isn’t all about getting the big office, all the perks and the high salary. You’re also the one who gets to take the fall when things go wrong. When your employees fuck up so massively and deliberately, YOU should be the FIRST one to go. That’s called accountability, something which we have far too little of in this country these days.

In fairness, you’re obviously not the only one. The entire management team of every Wall Street firm that was complicit in crashing the economy back in 2008 should have been similarly removed from their positions and then vigorously prosecuted for their actions. The entire defense and foreign policy team of the Bush administration that was complicit in launching the Iraq War and engaging in torture and rendition should be on the dock at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The current occupant of the White House, who utterly failed to prosecute the criminals on Wall Street and in the Bush administration and in fact has committed his own set of heinous war crimes in Afghanistan and with his drone missile campaign, should also at a minimum do the honorable thing and resign.

Does all of that seem far too extreme? If so, it is only because you have become inured to the idea that accountability is only something that happens to little people and not the movers and shakers of our society. When President Hopey-Changey said almost immediately upon inauguration that we need to “look forward,” he was signaling that he was not going to hold those responsible for wrecking the economy and lying us into war accountable for their actions. Upon hearing those words, any right-thinking person should have immediately begun demanding Obama’s impeachment for dereliction of duty.

Much as rhetorical con men like Obama like to try to complicate these issues, it really is very simple. Either you innately recognize that giving $700 billion in taxpayer bailouts to financial criminals; or launching a war against a country that did not attack our own and posed no military threat to us; or operating an unaccountable concentration camp on foreign soil; or torturing defenseless prisoners; or wantonly assassinating American citizens without trial; or bombing innocent villagers with drone missiles; or not reporting to law enforcement a sexual predator preying on children in your midst; or tear-gassing, billy-clubbing and pepper spraying non-violent protesters seeking economic justice is morally wrong, or you do not. And if you do not, you are the enemy and should be considered as such regardless of position, education level, social standing or political affiliation.

Your apology is not accepted, Ms. Katehi. And I suspect that this is only the beginning.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Navy to Lay Off 3,000 Sailors

If you are open minded, you learn something new every day. For example, before today I didn't know the active duty military could actually lay off its members:
Imagine joining the Navy ten years ago with a career in mind. Now, sailors with that career plan are getting pink slips as the military looks for places to save money.

Since June, 16,000 mid-career sailors have been waiting to find out if they will be forced out early.

Last week, the Navy began its layoffs when the first of two rounds of personnel cuts were announced.
And here I was always under the impression that a military career at least gave you job security. Also remember, all of this is happening before the mandatory cuts required by the failure of the deficit reduction "super committee" to reach an agreement kick in. As I've said before on this blog, every dollar of federal spending cut means potential job losses, either directly of indirectly. When you consider that we have a trillion-and-a-half dollar imbalance badly in need of correction, that's a pretty sobering fact to consider.

Alert the One Percenters - Titleist is Laying off Workers at its Golf Ball Factories

Not that you would probably suspect this from reading my blog, but I am not exactly a fan of the great sport of golf (insert eye roll emoticon here). Hanging around a perfectly manicured country club lawn trying to bang a little ball into a small hole with a bunch of well-to-do twits who have no clue what's really happening to the economy is just not my idea of a good time. So this report from the New England Business Journal didn't cause me to go into panic mode:
Seventy-seven temporary and regular employees were laid off at the end of October at Titleist golf ball plants 2 and 3, company spokesman Joe Gomes confirmed Tuesday.

Gomes called the layoffs part of the regular cycle of adjusting to market demand, which he said has been softer than expected.
What I really like about this article, however, is seeing the Corporate Flack tie himself in verbal knots:
"This is more of a seasonal thing," he said. "It's the regular way we do business depending on custom orders, the time of season, the time of year, so that's not unusual. just got done saying that the layoffs were because demand was "softer than expected," fuckwit. Tell the fucking truth for once in your useless life. You're selling fewer golf balls because there are fewer goofballs out there who can still afford to put on a blindingly clashing outfit and spend three hours humiliating themselves on the links every weekend. There, was that so hard?

Bonus: My man Lewis Black on being a golfer.

Ha-Ha! Foreclosure Firm Whose Halloween Party Mocked the Evicted Closes

Buck up, Occupiers. It may have been a tough weekend of police abuse, but you have definitely changed the tenor of the national conversation, as evidenced by this development. Normally, I would never cheer upon hearing that people are losing their jobs, but I'm making a BIG exception for these alleged human beings:
The 89 employees of a New York law firm specializing in foreclosures who dressed as homeless people during an office Halloween party last year have been thrown out on the street.

Steven J. Baum P.C., a firm that specialized in foreclosures, is closing its doors a month after photos showing employees celebrating Halloween by dressing like the homeless surfaced in a New York Times column by Joe Nocera.
Even better is the blurb below from an e-mail Baum himself sent to Nocrea:
The firm announced the shuttering via press release and was reported by the NYT:

“Disrupting the livelihoods of so many dedicated and hardworking people is extremely painful, but the loss of so much business left us no choice but to file these notices,” said Mr. Baum in a press release issued on Monday. A firm spokesman said it would have no further comment beyond the release…

On Saturday, Joe Nocera, The Times columnist who originally wrote about the firm’s Halloween party, published another column about the controversy. In it, he quoted an e-mail that Mr. Baum had sent him last week.

“Mr. Nocera — You have destroyed everything and everyone related to Steven J. Baum PC,” said the letter. “It took 40 years to build this firm and three weeks to tear down.”
No, Mr. Baum, sorry to break it to you since you are obviously a whiny little John Galt-wannabe, but it wasn't Mr. Nocera who did you in, it was the FREE MARKET, as in people are FREE in the modern market NOT to do business with flaming fucking assholes like you. As recently as a couple of years ago you and your slimeball, bottom feeding colleagues probably could have gotten away with this little stunt with few taking notice or caring. But times are changing. People are fed up with economic predators destroying the livelihoods of working and middle class Americans and then literally laughing all the way to the bank. And how stupid were you to take PICTURES of this abomination, anyway? Clearly, it was about time that you clueless Social Darwinists got selected out of the marketplace.

I sincerely hope that you and your colleagues will soon experience what you were making fun of at that Halloween party. But hey, take heart. At least you already own appropriate outfits.

More Newspaper Layoffs as the Dead Tree Publications Slowly Die

image: could the headline on the left be a big part of the reason why the Grand Rapids Press is in deep financial trouble?

You have to wonder how long it will be before smaller newspapers give up trying to hang on with reduced content and simply fold altogether. This article doesn't say how many employees the two Michigan papers in question had to start with, but I can't imagine that this layoff notice doesn't represent a significant decimation of their respective work forces:
The Grand Rapids Press and the Kalamazoo Gazette will lay off more than 200 workers combined as part of a massive corporate overhaul, according to letters sent to the state early this month.

The Grand Rapids Press will lay off 146 employees in January, according to a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) letter sent to Manager of the Workforce Investment Act Stephanie Beckhorn on Nov. 2.

According to another Nov. 2 letter, the Kalamazoo Gazette will lay off 77 employees.

The 223 positions being terminated range from officer managers and clerks, to press operators and technicians, to sales people and editors.

Both layoffs will be effective Jan. 2, 2012.
It is likely getting to the point where these smaller papers will be reduced to mostly featuring wire service content with little local news whatsoever. Which, of course, will make it much easier for corruption among municipal government officials to thrive.

Unlike with the decline of hard copy books, this development is not nearly as distressing to me. Newspapers might have had a chance to save themselves these past 10 years has they continued to play their traditional role of being a watchdog against government abuses. Instead, most became companionable lap cats, rarely questioning the status quo while focusing on the same utterly irrelevant, celebrity-obsessed trivia as television. By doing so in the Internet age, they managed to make themselves completely irrelevant to the point where I won't miss them when they're finally gone.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Top 0.1% Earn Half of All Capital Gains

Ummm...this is not the kind of story that I ever thought would have appeared on the website of Forbes magazine:
Capital gains are the key ingredient of income disparity in the US-- and the force behind the winner takes all mantra of our economic system. If you want even out earning power in the U.S, you have to raise the 15% capital gains tax.

Income and wealth disparities become even more absurd if we look at the top 0.1% of the nation's earners-- rather than the more common 1%. The top 0.1%-- about 315,000 individuals out of 315 million-- are making about half of all capital gains on the sale of shares or property after 1 year; and these capital gains make up 60% of the income made by the Forbes 400.
Even more surprising, Forbes provides the history of the capital gains tax that shows just what an historical anomaly the current capital gains tax rate is:
The reduction in the tax from 20% to 15% continued the step-by-step tradition of cutting this tax to create more wealth. It had first been reduced from 35% in 1978 at a time of stock market and economic stagnation to 28% . Again 1981, at the start of the Reagan era, it was reduced again to 20%-- raised back to 28% in 1987, on the eve of the October 19 23.2% crash in the market. In 1997 Clinton agreed to reduce it back to 20%, which move was an inducement for the explosion of hedge funds and private equity firms-- the most "rapidly rising cohort within the top 1 per cent."
So it should be pretty obvious that with the country facing billion-and-a-half dollar annual deficits for the forseeable future what the first course of action should be, right? Yeah, right.
Make no mistake; the battle that is to be fought over the coming attempt to reverse this reduction in capital gains will be bloody and intense. The facts are clear according to the Congressional Budget Office more than 80% of the increase in income inequality was the result of an increase in the share of household income from capital gains. In fact, you can go so far as to claim that "Capital Gains income is the most unevenly distributed-- and volatile-- source of household income," according to Laura D'Andrea Tyson, University of California business professor and former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Clinton.
I beg to differ. In order for the battle to be "bloody and intense," there actually has to BE a battle. In fact, it should have been being fought these past three months during the "super committee" deliberations on the reducing the deficit. The fact that it wasn't tells you all you need to know about the chances that it is going to happen anytime soon.

The article then concludes with the kind of flourish that you normally only see in a Matt Taibbi Rolling Stone piece:
No wonder the super wealthy plutocrats obtained the largest share of national income-- 25% of the nation's wealth- greater than any other industrial nation in the the period of 1979 to 2005. Make no mistake; after unemployment-- this disparity between the 1%-- 3 million-- or the 0.1%-- the 300,000-- and the other 312 million citizens of the U.S. has become the major theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement-- and an important national debate.

I commend you to the late Justice Louis Brandeis warning to the nation that " We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." We have to make up our minds to restore a higher, fairer capital gains tax to the wealthiest investor class-- or ultimately face increased social unrest.
Damn...someone over at Forbes must have been passing around their supply of weed on a giddy Friday afternoon, or something. That's the only explanation I can think of as to how this story got the green light.

Peak Vehicle Miles Travelled Shows the True State of America's Economy

Related to this morning's post, I ran across the above chart of annual vehicle miles traveled (plotted monthly by 12-month average) the other day on the excellent peak oil blog. As you can see, from the mid-1980s (just after world oil prices collapsed after hitting their initial peak in the late-1970s due to greater fuel efficiency in the United States and the coming online of the last "supergiant" oil fields in Mexico, Alaska and the North Sea) until 2008 total annual vehicle miles driven in the United States climbed steadily upwards with no significant break. All told, they actually increased by an astonishing 66% during that period.

The spiking of gasoline prices above $4.00 a gallon in the summer of 2008 and the resulting market crash that fall led to the first significant drop in miles driven in over two decades. Since then, the number has struggled to recover and actually appears to be getting ready to dip again.

Forget the stock market, or the GDP numbers or the manipulated official unemployment statistics, this chart is a much more reliable indicator of the state of the real economy. Except for a small portion of the population who live carless in the big cities, personally owned vehicles are absolutely essential for most people to engage in economic activity. Moreover, most goods are transported to their point of sale via trucks.

Clearly, this chart shows that the government's response to the economic crisis--massive amounts of unsustainable federal deficit spending--merely arrested the crash of the real economy and is holding it in a state of suspended animation. How much longer that effort can keep propping things up is anyone's guess. Sooner or later the sharp drop in annual vehicle miles driven is going to resume, along with a resumption of the economic crash.

Bonus: There are a lot of great driving songs that celebrate the all-too-brief and dying era when Americans could just take to the road whenever they felt like it. But my favorite is this little 1989 gem from the criminally unappreciated indie-rock band, The Vulgar Boatmen.

The Proposed "Pay-Per-Mile" Tax is a Shockingly Dumb Idea

I've written on this blog before that one of the biggest problems with our complex modern industrial society is that a substantial portion of the population is fundamentally incompetent, even in areas in which they are supposedly expert. Case in point is a recent suggestion put forth by so-called transportation "experts" as to how to solve the severe underfunding of the nation's federal highway fund, as reported the other day by CNN:
Drivers often forget that they pay for highway construction and maintenance through federal fuel taxes: 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel. "The notion that the road has ever been free is sort of a self-delusion," said Neil.

But the fuel tax is running out of steam, experts warn, because more efficient vehicles are using less fuel and rising fuel prices discourage driving. As tax revenue falls, so does the nation's ability to pay for road construction and maintenance.

The solution, say many transportation experts, is to replace -- or supplement -- fuel taxes with a per-mile tax on every vehicle in America.
Okay, so how exactly would such a harebrained scheme work, anyway?
Imagine 254 million vehicles.

That's the number of cars, trucks and motorcycles that a tax per mile system would have to monitor.

Some proposals call for using GPS satellites to gather mileage data on each vehicle.

Whoa. Really?

When it comes to tracking their vehicles, Americans tend to be really touchy about protecting their privacy.

According to a University of Iowa poll, only about 20% of drivers would choose a pay-per-mile tax system if GPS tracking is involved.

The anonymous driver will soon be an extinct species, says Neil.

"You can't drop off the grid. Ten years from now, it will be virtually impossible to drive a car that doesn't have an electronic signature," said Neil.

"It doesn't matter whether you have OnStar or you rent a car -- it's going to have a 'black box.' If you've got any kind of navigation, The Man -- with a capital M -- knows where you are."

University of Iowa research shows that the public would be more willing to accept per-mile taxes if its monitoring technology doesn't record a vehicle's specific location.

Taking your vehicle to have someone read the odometer every year -- like some states do with emissions testing -- might be an option.

But some experts fear that method might be too expensive. Also, the resulting once-a-year tax bill might be too much for some drivers to pay.

One idea tested in Minnesota eliminates GPS and uses cell phone text messaging technology.

During fuel stops at gas stations, a device that already exists in most cars would text the car's mileage information to a "back office" data base.

The office would then adjust the price of fuel at the pump based on each vehicle's mileage driven.

Implementing any system would be tricky, says Paul Hanley, who headed the Iowa study. Retrofitting existing cars with the required technology would be almost impossible, he says.

The cheapest and least difficult option says Hanely, would be to install devices in new cars and slowly transition to the new system as the nation's entire fleet of vehicles turns over.

It takes about eight years before 90% of our vehicles are turned over, Hanley says, and more than 10 years to convert the fleet to nearly 100%.

"It's inevitable," says Hanley, who's been conducting a real-world test of a pay-per-mile system with more than 2,500 drivers in 12 locations from coast-to-coast. Per-mile taxes "with a combination of tolls is coming as we move away from the fuel tax."
Sorry about the length of that excerpt, but I felt I had to include it all to demonstrate just how breathtakingly stupid this whole idea is. From privacy concerns, to the cost of administering the program, to the logistics of getting a monitoring device on every car, to the unaffordability of a lump sum annual tax payment--the whole concept is so riddled with real world practical flaws that it should have been rejected outright before it ever received coverage in the mainstream media.

Then you have the most obvious drawback of all in that this scheme PENALIZES people who buy fuel-efficient vehicles. After all, what fucking sense does it make from an energy conservation standpoint that a Hummer, which barely gets double-digit miles to the gallon, should be taxed at the same rate as a hybrid that gets 50 MPG, especially when the smaller, lighter hybrid is likely to cause less wear and tear to the roadways that then need to be repaired?

One question that the CNN stenographer reporter should have immediately asked Mr. Hanley is, why exactly are we "moving away" from the fuel tax when raising it seems to be a far more simple solution? Actually, the reporter does at least mention the possibility a bit farther down in the article:
The best and least complicated solution is to raise the fuel tax, which hasn't changed since 1993. But that idea comes with its own set of political challenges. Many members of Congress would likely oppose any kind of tax hike.
Oh, so we're supposed to unquestioningly swallow the idea that Congress would oppose any sort of increase in the fuel tax, but would merrily go along with a complex and damn near unworkable scheme such as this? Okay, I'll play along. Maybe they WOULD in fact agree to implement this idea. If so, why do you suppose that would be? You don't think it might be because wealthier Americans, including the one-percenters who are the biggest campaign contributors, are the ones most likely to be driving those Hummers and other gas guzzlers, do you? Or that big business would get the contracts to manufacture and install the monitoring devices? Man, and I thought I was cynical.

The only good news here is that it is extremely unlikely that America's car-centric, business-as-usual economic model is going to hold together long enough for this nefarious scheme to be implemented. I merely highlighted it to serve as yet another example of how the elites and their totally compromised so-called "experts" are deviously and tirelessly thinking of new ways to fuck over the rest of us, even if the idea in question clearly shows just how incompetent they are.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What's the Matter with Oklahoma?

Damn near everything, as it turns out. This list of record breaking meteorological and geologic events is pretty eye-opening:
State records set this year have ranged from the lowest temperature (31 degrees below zero in Nowata in northeast Oklahoma) to snowfall in a 24-hour period (27 inches, also in Nowata) to the largest hail stone (a spiky, six-inch piece recovered in Gotebo, in southwest Oklahoma).

This year also produced the state's highest-ever-recorded surface wind speed (151 miles per hour near El Reno, outside of Oklahoma City) and biggest known earthquake (5.6 magnitude, breaking the 1956 record).

On Wednesday, Governor Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for 20 counties because of earthquakes, tornadoes and severe storms.
The article could also have mentioned that this year was the hottest summer on record for the state.

The weather events, of course, are likely being exacerbated by climate change. But what about the earthquake?
The reason behind last week's earthquake in Oklahoma is still eluding scientists though they think it might have been connected to the growing use of hydraulic fracturing.

The process, commonly called 'fracking', pumps water into the earth in an effort to release natural gas and oil.

Scientists first noticed that small earthquakes in Oklahoma- with magnitudes between 1 and 2.8- near a fracking site in August, though they did nothing to stop its usage.
It sounds to me like Oklahoma has become ground zero of a perfect storm of natural events resulting from mankind's insatiable thirst for fossil fuels. But that's okay, ma. People who worry about shit like this are just a bunch of damn hippie socialists. Fire up the Suburban, we're goin' to the mall.

Bonus: They really need to change the lyrics of this song.

Florida GOP Voters Suddenly Realize that More Spending on War Means Less for Them

So what’s a warmongering Republican presidential candidate to do who wants to place the boot heel of the American military upon the neck of every “rogue regime” around the world where the locals actually have the audacity to be living on top of America’s oil? Ever since President George Bush the Lesser lied the country into the Iraq War, it always seemed that you could reliably count on Republican voters to mindlessly back whatever harebrained military misadventure the neoconservatives could cook up next.

But not anymore, apparently. As reported by the Miami Herald, according to a recent poll likely Republican voters in Florida appear to be waking up to the fact that America’s out-of-control military spending is hitting them in their pocketbook:
Florida Republican voters have a clear feeling about cuts to Medicare and Social Security: Don’t do it, according to a new poll by the AARP.

By wide margins, the survey shows that Republicans of all kinds — whether they’re Hispanic, moderates or in the tea party — would rather fix the nation’s budget by withdrawing from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, eliminating foreign aid or eliminating so-called tax loopholes.

But despite these sentiments of GOP voters, many of the Republican frontrunners for president are more likely to support trimming benefits than raising tax revenues or getting out of foreign entanglements.

“There’s a major disconnect between what the candidates and other folks in Washington want and what the voters think when it comes to Social Security and Medicare,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP’s interim Florida director.

“For the candidates and lawmakers, Social Security is a budget problem we need to fix the math on. Medicare is a budget problem we need to fix math on,” Johnson said. “But this isn’t about math for voters. This is about voters’ retirement.”
So what were the specific results of the poll?
When specifically asked if they favored Medicare cuts over withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, only 9 percent wanted the former and 66 percent favored the latter. The numbers were similar for Social Security.
Wow—that’s pretty overwhelming. Enough so that you would think the more belligerent Republican presidential candidates are probably running scared right about now, right? Well, not so fast:
The poll also reflects an irony, of sorts, with voters: The candidates who most want to withdraw from foreign wars, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, were among the least likely to be favored.
Face palm! Herein lays the real problem with public opinion polls. Respondents are likely to say whatever dumb shit they think sounds good when the pollster calls them, but unless they are willing to actually change their behavior when they go to vote, nothing is going to change in the real world.

Rationally, these people may realize that the wars represent a threat to their cherished government benefits in a time of gigantic budget deficits. But many people vote based upon their emotions rather than logical thinking, and the politicians are well aware of that. It's the same dynamic that will cause millions of liberals and progressives disgusted by Obama's selling them out on nearly every issue of importance to them to traipse back to the polls and cast another ballot for him next year. Which is why you can also expect this result to have exactly zero effect on the presidential campaign and that the eventual Republican nominee, whomever he or she turns out to be, will continue to aggressively promote unfettered American Exceptionalism, regardless of the costs.

Bonus: Doug Stanhope doesn't care what your opinion is.