Monday, May 31, 2010

Vietnam 1964 - Part I

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I left Owensville in the last days of July 1964 or early days of August to catch my flight on a twin-engine plane from Evansville. I recall leaving early, before my 30-day leave was over, to make sure I wasn't late. I always feared being late for assignments. That flight to Chicago was my second in my entire life at that point, but there would be many in my future. It didn't dawn on me that flying wasn't entirely safe. I caught a B-707 at O'Hare to San Francisco where I boarded a bus to Travis Air Force Base to catch the long flight to Vietnam. It was a wonder that I made it to Travis. I had no idea where I was. I recall a conversation in Rhode Island, a month earlier, with a guy I didn't know and who for all I knew didn't know how to get to Travis either, about how to get to Travis. I figured that if I made it to Travis, where my orders directed me to go, then I would make it to Vietnam. "Where is Travis Air Base?" In California. "Where, in California, exactly?" (I at least knew California was on the West Coast.) Between San Francisco and Sacramento. (Well, that narrowed it down! I doubt that I had a clue on where either of those cities were.) "So, do I get to Travis by going to San Francisco? Or to Sacramento? Just how, exactly, do I do that?" Fly to San Francisco and take a bus to Travis.

So, I arrived. It was a miracle. At check-in I was told that my flight would depart in four days. Man, was I early! It was my first lesson, the same lesson repeated a thousand times since, that in the military I would constantly hurry up and wait. There was no need for me to cut my leave short, but I did it repeatedly over my entire Navy career. I never learned the lesson.

Four days later I boarded a C-141 cargo jet bound for Saigon and learned another lesson; flying with the military did not include comfort. I and about 150 other men crammed ourselves into the plane and took our aluminum-framed seat that did not recline and was covered with pallet webbing riveted to the frame that faced backwards toward the rear of the plane and the two large cargo pallets that our duffel bags were stacked and tied on. I recall worrying about getting a "good" seat as we boarded the plane in the hot sun, I in my dress blue uniform, usually worn in winter but also for traveling, sweaty and near the end of the line. I was lucky. I took a seat in the last row facing the cargo pallets, the only row with leg room. We soon took off and began our fifteen hour flight without heat, no arm rests, no fuselage insulation and with plenty of cold air blowing through the plane; I shivered the entire flight. I wondered where, in the pile of duffel bags, was my P-Coat and if I could get it. I couldn't. I managed to get a thin wool blanket, but it helped very little. The flight crew wore heavily insulated green flight jackets, the same jacket that Durward brought home from the Navy and that he used to keep warm in the freezing zero-degree North Atlantic weather. It was that cold in that plane.

Somewhere over Guam we flew through severe weather and the plane hit a deep air pocket and plummeted about five thousand feet before recovering and regaining altitude. It was a jarring experience, to be on the fourth flight of my life and to suddenly learn that shit happens, almost literally, on aircraft. One crewman was hurt in the plunge because he wasn't strapped in a seat. Everyone else had buckled up when the rough ride started. I was so glad when that plane touched down at Tan Son Nhat Air Base, Saigon, and I couldn't wait to get off. Fifteen minutes later I walked through the door into a blast of hot and humid air and I was sweating before I walked twenty feet. From the freezer to the frying pan. Whew, was it hot in Vietnam. The crew had already tossed their jackets and had stripped down to their t-shirts and the cargo pallets were placed on the tarmac and we lined up in the stifling heat to find our duffel bags. It seemed an hour or more before we boarded a green, school bus-type bus to go to our next, and hopefully final, stop in Saigon. It wasn't a final stop, but on that day it was good enough. I was fed up with traveling.

First impressions are lasting and, thinking back, it was from that first hour that my impressions started the path to my later doubts about the war and formed into a question: What are we doing here? The first thing I noticed after we entered the city, about a mile from the air base in those days, was the smell, the constant noise of automobile horns and the complete lack of traffic rules. The air seemed to be filled with an acrid, vinegary smell and was especially strong around the Vietnamese bus driver but also seemed to flow through the open windows. I couldn't point out its source. And the traffic. We had arrived during the afternoon rush-hour. It seemed that vehicles, cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, mopeds, and even oxen, kept generally to the right side of the road, but the path ahead was up for grabs and if there was a lane dividing line, it wasn't always observed and could barely be seen. You took the path that was available, and if it was suddenly filled by another vehicle or pedestrian, you blew the horn and swerved into on-coming or cross traffic to get through. Complete chaos. A few videos, here and here (I hear a policeman's whistle in this one) or here, show that it hasn't changed nor have the buildings and roadside trash changed.

And then there was the bizarre, black-red-teethed smiling old woman who, at the center of the city, here (you should see a traffic circle joining five or six streets), apparently walking from the Center Market (the large red-roofed building) and not three feet from my bus window, looked up at me directly in the eye and smiled. I was so shocked by her appearance that I didn't respond. Her black-red stained teeth were so dark that she seemed to have a black hole in the center of her face. I learned later that her teeth were stained with beetle nut, a mild stimulant.

At no more than ten or fifteen miles from the air base, we finally arrived at our hotel-barracks nearly an hour later. I recall that the room they lead us to contained around fifteen cots, a blanket that we wouldn't need and a pillow. We kept our duffel bags on the floor at the foot of the cots. There was no air conditioning. I immediately took a shower and lay down. I woke up about nine hours later around three in the morning, hungry, but no place to eat and not knowing where to eat anyway. I waited for the morning.

Vietnam was about as alien to me as anyplace I could have gone. It was 180 degrees from anything I imagined and anything I knew. I wasn't sad or afraid to be there. In fact, I was excited and had I been a tourist it would have been the most interesting experience I could have hoped for. But, there was the war. And, where was that war? It turned out, unexpectedly to me at the time, that battles were not fought in Saigon, at least not in 1964. Saigon was a relatively safe place in a country at war. That's not to say that it was completely safe, however. There were bombings, mostly of bars, restaurants, government buildings, market places and an occasional bombing of a U.S. facility. But all of those would come later. In my first week in Saigon, it seemed like a peaceful place.

There was also the shock of the bars and the bar girls who, putting it delicately, were really, really forward. And, I mean really forward! You get the picture. My naive and inexperienced mind could barely take it in. I'm sure that on that first night when I first walked into that bar that the face of every bar girl in the place lit up and said, "there is two or three hundred American dollars walking in," as they rushed and pushed each other aside to get my attention. Well, the winner had my attention quickly, because I was overwhelmed with attention unlike anything I'd seen or experienced back home around the girls I knew there. I didn't have to search for a bar, either. There was one directly across the street from the barracks, the shortest distance from A to B, so that's where I went.

I think I was very lucky in learning my next lessons before payday, probably after that very first two or three hour bar night after getting back to the barracks. Had I learned it following payday, I wouldn't have made it to the next one. The first lesson was that I would need self control on buying those drinks for those girls, which was a shot-glass of black tea that cost the price of scotch or bourbon. It was expensive and after that night I had about five dollars in my wallet and no idea when payday was. I was paid a few days later and I did go back to the bar, with better resolve to control myself, to see the same girl I sat with the first night and who I'd taken a liking to. But, the second lesson about bar girls on the second time is that they are butterflies, fluttering from one flower to the next. She was sitting with another sailor. In these cases, the lessons were learned early and quickly. It was a game of survival - to the next payday. From that point forward I began learning how to fight that other war, well beyond the borders of Vietnam, in battles of wit on how to occasionally go to an Asian bar without leaving with an empty wallet while the enemy bar girl was trying to empty it. The best offense seemed to be, "want to sit by me? That's okay. I'm more than happy for your company. But, and no disrespect, don't expect anything." Funny thing. When accompanied with a smile, I made more friends with bar girls and bartenders by that approach than any other. They would stop by between other customers just to talk more often than not. I won. I used the same approach nearly everywhere and I got to know more people in other countries than I ever imagined. I hope they won, too.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

John Adams is a Kick

Well, I lied. Those two books I said were my next books are not. Instead, I saw David McCullough's John Adams on the shelf and couldn't resist buying it. After all, I've seen the movie, so I should read the book. And, I can already tell that it's going to be a good book and I can't help quoting from it. Page 54:

"In November 1762 [John Adam's] friend Richard Cranch and Mary Smith were married, a high occasion for Adams that he hugely enjoyed, including the customary round of 'matrimonial stories' shared among the men 'to raise the spirits,' one of which he happily included in his journal:

     The story of B. Bicknal's wife is a very clever one. She said, when she was married she was very anxious, she feared, she trembled, she could not go to bed. But she recollected she had put her hand to the plow and could not look back, so she mustered up her spirits, committed her soul to God and her body to B. Bicknal and into bed she leaped - and in the morning she was amazed, she could not think for her life what it was that had scared her."



Monday, May 24, 2010

The Great Con Job - Selling Perverted Views of American Values and History

The other day I said on FaceBook that the Texas State Board of Eduction's (SBOE) new Social Studies and History standards is a sure path to Hell because of the textbooks are skewed to the specific fanatical political and religious beliefs of the nine board members who approved the texts in a nine to five vote. My comment was challenged. "If you're going to criticize it, you need to quote it," my challenger said. Not really. From all of the information available on the Board of Education members, I already know that they come to the table with extreme ideological views and beliefs, which they claim will reclaim America's founding values. That, too, is a mythological America. It never existed. Those that are pushing the standards have openly admitted to being Christian Fundamentalist and ultra right-wing conservatives, so I know their beliefs will be woven into the texts and education standards that follow the views and beliefs of what I call The Great Con Job on America. That Great Con Job has convinced many in America on ideas and beliefs that are, in fact, skewed and perverted for the benefit of a few. Never the less, I went looking through the Texas SBOE standards for proof of my claim.

Before I go there, however, I need to say that my problem is with inflexible ideology that is subtly infused into our lives, presumably to attain a Utopian ideal. There is no such thing as Utopia. I'm more in favor of Benjamin Franklin's "moderation in all things" than I am in values touted by the extreme left or right and through a lot of reading I've found that we, as a nation, have been sold on ideas that have brought us much of the grief we now experience. Most of the selling has been done through public relations firms that have influenced us in so many ways that it is difficult to know right from wrong in any aspect of life, from our religious beliefs to the acceptability of congressional earmarks and lobbyists to "small government" or no government, anti-tax movements, privatization, and laissez-fare markets. And, in all public relations efforts to change what we do and how we live and what we believe you'll find one underlying means of obtaining the end goal; a perversion of language.

For example, Conservatism doesn't mean conservatism anymore. The basic idea of conservatism to Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (Oxford World's Classics), was to conserve government institutions that are necessary for the function of society and survival of the country, a higher patriotic ideal, but in America today the conservative movement agrees more with the unruly mobs that destroyed the French Government's institutions in its Revolution. France suffered more because necessary institutions were destroyed. Today's moderns conservatives claim, like President Reagan did, allegiance to Abraham Lincoln's general conservative ideals, but Lincoln lived in the time of and agreed with Benjamin Disraeli, a great English conservative who followed Burke's philosophy, and Lincoln's Administration would be starkly liberal compared to today's conservative views. The modern conservative appears to see no value in any government function - the whole thing, according to conservative leaders, should be turned over to private industry. Lincoln went to war to preserve the union and its institutions, a stark difference to turning it over to private industry and to many ideas expressed in the Tea Party movement. It is a perversion of language, mostly very subtle, that is leading the way to convincing us of changed ideals; such as the idea that freedom, patriotism and democracy are synonymous with free enterprise, laissez-faire, unleashed capitalism or that Reagan, Lincoln, George Bush and the Tea Party movement are philosophically aligned. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

One of my favorite examples of the power of public relations is the advent of America's favorite, and so-called "traditional" breakfast, bacon and eggs or ham and eggs. Ask Benjamin Franklin what his favorite breakfast was and he would likely say tea, crumpets and perhaps porridge, a traditional English breakfast. But, ask any modern day American and they'll likely say "bacon (or ham) and eggs." So, how did we come by our traditional breakfast? It happened because the pork and poultry industry asked Edward Bernays, the father of American Public Relations, to help them sell more bacon, ham and eggs. Bernays surveyed 5,000 physicians in the 1920s and all physicians recommended a hearty breakfast, but they did not specify what constituted a "hearty" breakfast. Bernays publicized the survey results in newspapers nation-wide, but he added a small perversion to the results by equating "hearty" with bacon, ham and eggs. Sales of bacon, ham and eggs skyrocketed. America had its traditional breakfast, ironically, less than a hundred years ago.

Even more troubling are the changes in Christian beliefs in America. Somehow, Jesus has become a new conservative under the movement influenced by people like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others. My Dad would have called these people fanatics and fruitcakes. But, they and their ideas are mainstream today through establishing movements such as the Moral Majority and colleges and book publishing companies and heavy use of public relations firms. Even ideas for recruiting youths to churches is bizarre as you can read here about churches using the most violent video game available, Halo 3, to attract youths to their churches. And, for adults, the attraction has moved from worship to praying the prayer of Jabez for more wealth and using the Parable of the Tenet for life investing advice. And, suddenly, Jesus is purported to support war against Arabs through Tim Lehaye's best "Left Behind" sellers and his and others' ministries and it's okay for Israel to take other people's land, Arab land, for their settlements. In fact, many so-called Christian emails passed around advocate insurrection in Israel against its neighboring countries to fulfill the "promise land" prophecy when in fact in Jesus' time there were a mixture of ethnicities and races no different than today. Sort of like prodding God to fulfill his promise. I suspect that we shouldn't prod Him. It seems to me that He keeps his promises when we keep ours by living in peace with our fellow man. Otherwise, all bets are off.

The pervasiveness of wrong-headed teachings, myths and magic and ideas are so prevalent that I get a kick out of people who tell me "that doesn't happen in my church." My answer is "wanna bet?" Or, when I'm told that I don't believe in God because I don't buy what a person is telling me. My answer is, "It isn't God that I don't believe, it's you." The religious right has done an extraordinary job at public relations; it's converted nearly an entire nation to paganism and they don't even know it. God is now a fertility god for women who can't get pregnant, or a Realtor for house buyers or a protector for NASCAR drivers. How bizarre can we get? All that while we fly the American flag in glorious pride and fly Air Force war planes above our Christian Blessed celebrations. We truly don't know what we do. We are Rome.

So, with that lead where is the perversion of language, the slight nuance in the use of words, in the SBOE standards that I have a problem with? It doesn't take long to find an example. In fact, I was surprised to find without the slightest effort on the first page wording that follows exactly what I talked about above; equating freedom, patriotism and democracy to our capitalistic system. I found it here, on page one of the Text of Proposed Revisions to 19 TAC; Chapter 118. Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Economics with Emphasis on the Free Enterprise System and Its Benefits; Subchapter A. High School. The words in the title, "...with Emphasis on the Free Enterprise System..." should be warning enough to know that we're going to study a libertarian view of economics, with "Emphasis." Free Enterprise is the libertarians' favorite word, that is their jargon, shouted from the highest mountain as gospel. But, here's the disturbing quote on page one:

"Economics with Emphasis on the Free Enterprise System and Its Benefits builds upon the foundation in economics and social studies laid by the social studies essential knowledge and skills in Kindergarten-Grade 12. The course will apply these skills to current economic situations. The content enables students to understand the importance of patriotism, function in a free enterprise society, and appreciate the basic democratic values of our state and nation as referenced in the Texas Education Code (TEC), §28.002(h)."

Since when is a free enterprise economic system implicit or explicit to patriotism and basic democratic values? Or when did we become a free enterprise society? These are just more libertarian jargon and influence that have surfaced in the last forty or so years. There is nothing democratic about capitalism nor is capitalism necessary for democracy. I know countries that are just as patriotic and democratic as we are yet do not rely entirely on a free enterprise system nor do they allow capitalism to rule over their societies. In fact, neither do we. It is, after all, just an economic system that we use for livelihood, and nothing more. Our economic system should not influence our justice system, for example, even though it does, mostly with unfortunate results. We can, if we want, choose not to participate in free enterprise and make a living by other means. We have controls and regulations for most enterprises to protect consumers and the environment. We pay taxes for necessary government services to oversee enterprises and that's what we should do. And, in the face of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, mostly caused by negligence and egregious lack of controls and oversight, is there anyone now who would begrudge government controls over the oil industry? Yet the libertarians, such as Rand Paul and CNBC hosts such as Larry Kudlow still believe in self-regulation and that's what they preach. Paul even suggested that the free enterprise system could more effectively govern civil rights, such as minority access to businesses, better than the government or law can. Are you kidding me? The irony and the underlying ignorance regarding the BP oil spill is that I hear blame placed on President Obama for the so-called lack of government response, yet the deregulation and laxity over oil companies started a long time ago by convincing Americans that businesses could self-regulate. Past Administrations were more negligent in developing plans to handle the magnitude of the Gulf oil spill just as they were negligent in investing in America's infrastructure, which, by the way, would have gone a lot farther in helping free enterprise than favoring and subsidizing oil companies ever could. But, I'm sure the lessons taught in Texas schools will follow the general ideology of patriotic self-reliance and self-regulation, the libertarian philosophy. And, if some students are less fortunate, whether it's their fault or not, and are not quite lucky enough to make it out of poverty, or they are victims of legal credit card usury or Wall Street gambling or an unfortunate medical tragedy - well, that's tough. Those things that make us victims are, after all, free enterprise. Caveat emptor, "buyer beware," is a term we've learned to accept as well, a fate we expect in the market. One wonders why we must beware when we buy in good faith products we expect to be usable and reliable. Why isn't the opposite our standard? Caveat venditor, seller beware? Sell us good products, or else.

Language used in the standards on §113.35. United States Government (One-Half Credit) are troubling too:

"(8)  Government. The student understands the American beliefs and principles reflected in the U.S. Constitution. The student is expected to:
  • (A)  explain the importance of a written constitution;
  • (B)  evaluate how the federal government serves the purposes set forth in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution;
  • (C)  analyze how the Federalist Papers explain the principles of the American constitutional system of government;
  • (D)  evaluate constitutional provisions for limiting the role of government, including republicanism, checks and balances, federalism, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and individual rights;
  • (E)  analyze the processes by which the U.S. Constitution can be changed and evaluate their effectiveness; and
  • (F)  analyze how the American beliefs and principles reflected in the U.S. Constitution contribute to our national identity."
On the surface, these standards appear innocent and something everyone hopes our children learn. But, I would like to see the underlying text that supports the standard (8)(D), specifically what is being taught regarding "...limiting the role of government..., popular sovereignty, and individual rights." I hope the students read the Federalist Papers and that they get the parts about both government and citizen responsibility. But, in a state whose governor touts seceding from the union, apparently with popular support, and whose Tea Parties are openly anti-government while shouting "freedom," and with a Board of Education that openly admits to similar radical beliefs, I'm very suspicious of the intent of the standard. In fact, I would bet that Texas schools are growing just more fanatical and ignorant Tea Partiers parading around with misspelled signs. That's a sure path to anarchy. Texas has a problem. Of course, Texans will stay ignorant, but that's what most public relations is all about; to convince people of the beliefs of a few and keeping them ignorant of truths. Do the majority of Texans really want to secede from the union? What do they think they'll gain by that?

But, my view is go ahead - do it. Our taxes will be lower back in the USA if we don't have to pay for Texas. Texas can then deal with its own international treaties, pay for its own armies, its own passports to go to Louisiana or New Mexico, its own border guard, its own Coast Guard to clean up oil off its own coast and, by the way, figure out how to keep all those corporations that have moved to Texas in recent years. It's likely they will want to move back to the USA. But, if Govna' Perry can pull Texas out of that mess, more power to him. But, alas, he is only wind and nothing more. Why, in God's name, is he Texas' Governor? Why is he anything in Texas Government?

There are more slight, subtle words in the standards that indicate to me that there is an ulterior, libertarian, free market and capitalistic motive behind the standards and it wouldn't surprise me to find Christian fundamentalist ideals and beliefs in the standards. The term "free market" is used a lot, sometimes in places where "capitalism" would seem more appropriate. Free markets is another libertarian term and I suspect it is linked to freedom and democracy and that will be the message that most students will carry for the rest of their lives. The "Free Market" philosophy is also the major influence behind bank deregulation that ultimately caused the housing market bubble and crash and the Great Recession we are in. It's truly sad, though, that those few who do sort out the truth some years later will be powerless to change ingrained ideas. And, that's what is happening today. We have a chance to do something good for our country, to move to the more moderate center, but we have a movement that's turning its back on American society and government for the sake of corporations and Wall Street and hypocritical Christian values and it can't be convinced otherwise. It's like trying to convince America that bacon and eggs isn't, really, its traditional breakfast. Good luck with that.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

KY - Primary Election Results - Rand Paul Needs More Votes

With all the hype about Rand Paul's landslide win, you'd think he will be a shoo-in in November. But, the way I read the primary results here, KY - Election Results, it looks to me that he needs more than 315,000 votes to win in November. It was, after all, only a primary election.

Paul received 206,000 votes out of 352,000 Republicans who voted in the primary; 59% of the Republican vote. But, 521,000 Democrats voted in its primary; about 1.5 Democrats for each Republican. Let's hope that margin holds true in November.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Interesting Perspective on Derivatives

I think I've found the next two books I'd like to read in this story: Janine R. Wedel: Shadow Elite: Derivatives, A Horror Story: "...elites .... invariably try to hang onto power--not so much by controlling the physical means of production, but by also dominating the cognitive map, or social discourse. What really matters not what is publicly discussed, but what is not discussed. Social silences, in other words, are crucial."

Perhaps the two books, Shadow Elite, by Janine Wedel and Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J. P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe, by Gillian Tett will explain what would happen if there are NO derivatives at all. The phrases always heard publicly discussed about derivatives are, "they're necessary tools... bankers must have access to these tools... banks must distribute RISK by using derivatives." That's the mantra, over and over again.

What derivatives really do is cover the banker's asses when they make really, REALLY risky loans to people, businesses AND COUNTRIES that have piss poor credit. With derivatives, the bankers are assured a profit even when the loans default. That, it seems to me, is motivation to loan money to those who WILL default. Meanwhile, you and I, either as a customer or as an investor, or both, lose out at one end or the other and, as Goldman Sachs says, "that's our problem."

And, of course, there are those physics equations that are the backbone of the derivative that only a physicist can interpret; just another layer of darkness to hide the truth from all outside of the tribe.

The books should be interesting; bankers gathering in tribes to manipulate the financial system. It sounds like a good ole boy's club to me and they always seem to operate in the Dark Side.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Elena Kagan and The Case that Opened the Door: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, U.S. Supreme Court Case Summary & Oral Argument

Yesterday I watched Rachel Maddow play an audio clip of Elena Kagan, President Obama's Supreme Court pick, arguing for the Government in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, U.S. Supreme Court Case Summary & Oral Argument case. The point Rachel tried to make was that Kagan stood her ground well, with considerable strength, in the face of Chief Justice Roberts' questions and the questions of Justices Scalia, Breyer and Alito, all right-leaning justices. Clarence Thomas didn't ask any questions. But, what I heard Kagan do was essentially stutter, hem and haw and not give a very good response at all. In fact, she sounded tremendously weak in the face of their questions. My impression was that maybe President Obama made a wrong choice; she didn't sound like a legal scholar or advocate for the common person at all. Rachel didn't do very well supporting Kagan, in my opinion.

So, I listened to the "Reargument," the last summary arguments made by the attorneys before the court made their final deliberations and decision, myself. My head is spinning. For Citizens United (appellant) was Theodore B. Olson, an astonishingly brilliant attorney, as lead attorney with Floyd Abrams as second there on behalf of Senator Mitch McConnel. Elena Kagan was lead attorney for the Government (appellee) with second Seth P. Waxman on behalf of Senators John McCain et al.

I don't claim to know enough about the law to follow the details of the arguments, although I found the entire thing, approximately 1-1/2 hours, spell binding. And, Solicitor General Kagan did much better, in my opinion, in the whole rather than that small audio bite Rachel used. But, I can get a sense of which way the wind blows. Olsen came to court with one claim, that the law was unconstitutional, a very broad claim that Congress was limiting free speech in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. Kagan, however, came to court with five specific claims, two of which were that corporate funding could be traced directly to Quid Pro Quo, the corporate buying of favors from Congress, and shareholder protection, a new claim for the governing law.

It was the two claims that the court majority jumped on for its final decision and more emphasis was placed, it seemed to me, was to thwart the shareholder protection claim. Chief Justice Roberts said, "so it IS shareholder protection that is your claim," to Kagan. "You're taking the side of a Paternalistic Government, a Big Brother watching over us." From that point on, he, Scalia, Alito and Breyer directly and indirectly referred to that claim in their questions. The wind was clearly blowing toward a decision for Citizens United and against Big Brother Government.

I can't help but think the point Kagan should have made is that a corporation or organization spending tons of money for or against a particular candidate is actually saying that all of its members, employees, customers, shareholders are speaking with one voice and I can't believe that's true. At least a member of a union has a choice not to contribute his or her money to any political ad the union leadership may choose. But, corporations or organizations with corporate membership speaks for the board of directors and CEOs only. No choices are given to employees, customers or shareholders. She should have challenged Chief Justice Roberts' claim when he said that all investors in a corporation DO agree with the corporate leadership. That's a mind-boggling statement for a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to make. Where is and how could he know the proof for that kind of claim? Where is the data to support that claim?

The idea that a handful of people, CEOs and board members, can speak with their own passion and beliefs for all others was repulsive to James Madison. He devoted an entire Federalist Paper explaining how to cure "the mischiefs of faction," such as is created when a small number of people band together to speak for many adversely to the rights of others.

Madison said, "There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests."

He went on to suggest that controlling its effects was key to curing factions, such as what Congress attempted to do with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. But, the Supreme Court appears to have gotten hung up on the "Big Brother" problem, the typical conservative "big government" stand. Who says the court isn't political? In effect, the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Citizens United gave corporate employees, customers and shareholders "...the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests" as the corporate board and leadership. It's funny that today I received an email from Arkansas' Bill Halter for U. S. Senate campaign claiming that the U. S. Chamber Of Commerce and other Republican organizations are funding deceitful ads against him and for Senator Blanche Lincoln, a pro-corporate Democrat voting against most of Obama's reforms. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is decidedly against Obama in all things. Many corporations have left it, which speaks volumes about it not speaking in one voice. It's the kind of faction that Madison spoke about. And, then there is Pacific Gas & Electric Company that is spending $35 million for the deceitful Proposition 16 campaign in California. It, too, does not speak for its customers and shareholders, many of whom are supporting a law suit against it for its deceitful claims but, because of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Citizens United, it can spend its money, paid by its customers, on deceitful political ads.

So, we need a law to control the effects of corporate political spending. It's too bad that Kagan couldn't have framed her arguments differently. But, alas, it may not have mattered with a conservative court anyway. Contrary to the conservative claim that liberal judges are activists, it is their own judges that are activist judges.

Rachel, pick a better audio to make your case.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Republicans agree to Financial Reform Deal - Screwed Again

Now is this a good deal? Ezra Klein
- Wonkbook: FinReg deal; Obey tired of explaining the Senate; Republicans take on Fannie and Freddie
: "Republicans and Democrats reach deal on too-big-to-fail".

I had to read this at least four times, so let me recap. The $50 billion fund (that to-big-to-fail companies paid into) to dissolve a wayward company has been dropped, the FDIC will liquidate "faltering" to-big-to-fail companies "by borrowing money from Treasury," i.e., tax payers, and "Congress would have to approve the use of federal debt guarantees."

It sounds like to me that the Republicans are laying the expense of liquidating these to-big-to-fail companies squarely on the backs of you and me, the taxpayers. How is that not being screwed again?


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Are We Learning Anything Yet?

The market is down today, primarily because of Greece's debt and its effect on the Euro, which is also down on the Foreign Currency Exchange market. And, profit-takers are taking profits. It was only a few years ago that everyone was flocking to buy Euros, as opposed to dollars, because it was the "thing" to do. The other day Paul Krugman pointed out that the nay-sayers about the Euro were probably right; countries that joined the union fell into the Euro trap. Once they accepted using the Euro for their currency, they were forever trapped from using their own country's currency in managing debt. The only way out of bankruptcy from that point forward is to cut wages and try, I say "try," to manage inflation or deflation. They can't print money anymore to do that; that's for sure. So, there is Greece whose greedy politicians got in way over their heads in debt, with the help of Goldman Sachs and other global banks, and fraudulently hid their debt to join the European Union. And today there are riots in Greece - because of the trap. I think the lesson is that there is no easy money and no easy way and no short cuts and no short term gains without eventually paying the price of negligence.

Another story today comes from the U. S. Department of Interior, specifically the Minerals Management Service who gave British Petroleum (BP), and all other oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, huge exemptions to standard safety and spill precautions so their company expense would be minimized. Countdown's Keith Olbermann pointed out the negligence of BP Oil and that a single safety valve costing only $500 thousand was not used on that TransOcean Deepsea Horizon platform because it was "too expensive." He also pointed out that the executives of those companies made twenty times the cost of that valve. Watch the video. The point here is, as is true of all companies, that the bottom line is profit and compensation and short term gains. It is not about the "right thing to do" for corporations. Huge risks are taken that bite us in the ass eventually. Contrary to what we've been fed for 40 to 50 years, companies are not more efficient than the government.

And then there is the movement, including the Tea Partiers, that suggests that President Bush II wasn't the worst president we've ever had. Laura Bush was on Oprah Winfrey yesterday and Oprah ask her about how she felt about the criticism of President Bush. "It hurt," she said, "because people don't know him." One of his daughters said essentially the same thing; that people would think better of him if they knew him. They have a uniquely personal perspective and it's probably true. If I were to have a beer with him, I would probably like him personally. I may find him funny and personable. But, I don't want to have a beer with my president. I want him to be a good, the best he can be, for this country. Bush was a terrible president. He neglected his country, hedged on infrastructure, underfunded our schools, promoted self-regulating policies for industry and in fact created a "culture" in his administration of "hands off" regulating and, of course, we went to war in two countries primarily because of his "gut feelings" and his extra-large ego. He implemented President Reagan's laissez faire economy, international belligerence and "debt doesn't matter" policies like no other president has done. Every where we turn, we find destruction, negligence and decay.

In fact, all of us accepted the laissez faire libertarian philosophy, small, hands-off government philosophy and the Republicans continue to spout it. Ideology, the great and deep rut that trapped all of us and is now biting us in the ass. Diligence and clear thinking could have saved us much of our heartache today. Good government that pays attention is what we want, not necessarily small government just because that's a cute thing to say.

Diligence means more than listening to "cutesy" phrases a politician or pundit says, like Sarah Palin's "how's that changy thing goin' for ya'." It means paying attention. It means learning about who you're voting for and what they really stand for. If all you can do is be star-struck and just want more of what we've done the past 50 years, then please don't vote. I've had enough of that.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Big Executive Payday Ripoff

The thing that caught my eye in this article, Big Paydays for Chiefs of Top Media Companies -, is that CBS Corporation made $227 million in 2009 and nearly 20% of it went to its top executive, Leslie Moonves, who was paid $43 million. Does anyone else think that's a bit much?

I can't bring myself to buy CBS's stock for that reason. Hell, I don't even like Katie Couric let alone anything else on CBS. Come to think of it, what else IS on CBS? I don't think I know.


Sunday, May 2, 2010

We are a mean, vengeful society: 12-Year-Old To Be Tried As Adult For Dad's Fiancee's Death - Pittsburgh News Story - WTAE Pittsburgh

In this story, 12-Year-Old To Be Tried As Adult For Dad's Fiancee's Death - Pittsburgh News Story - WTAE Pittsburgh, a young boy killed his stepmother-to-be while she slept when he was eleven years old. He killed her with a child-shotgun his father bought for him. The prosecutor has charged the boy as an adult, with first-degree murder, and Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto cited the "execution-style" as one reason to try the boy as an adult. According to KGO talk-show host, Pat Thurston, the boy has been held in the state prison, which became too expensive because of the specific "protection" the boy needed while there, and then transferred back to the adult county jail and then to the county juvenile facility.

Judge Motto said, as additional justification for the adult charge, that the woman "was totally defenseless at the time her life and the life of her unborn fetus was taken by a shotgun blast to the back of her head. There was no indication of any provocation by the victim that led to her killing. A more horrific crime is difficult to imagine." A psychiatrist for the prosecution said the boy is evasive, resentful and refuses to accept responsibility, and that, apparently, is more reason to charge the boy as an adult.

Do you see the same problem I see, here? It seems to me that the judge and prosecutor want the boy to see the crime the same way they do, a horrific crime. But, that there was "no provocation," and he is evasive, resentful and refuses to accept responsibility appears to be the very reasons that he should NOT be charged as an adult. The boy doesn't have a clue as to the seriousness of what he's done. And, so far, he's been treated like crap and he's angry about it. The prosecutor and judge are taking the easy way out. They don't want to go to the trouble of figuring out how this happened. They don't want to spend the time and the money for child psychologist and counselors and whatever else to figure this boy out.

And, there is that "child shotgun." Where did that come from? I had no idea this country sold child shotguns until I saw one. Was it only last October while I was visiting my niece and nephew in Johnson, Indiana? Or was it the year before? On that Saturday we were sitting outside talking when a man, perhaps in his late thirties or early forties, parked his pickup in the driveway. He and his son, no older than ten years old, were Deer hunting. The season had just opened, a month early, for "child" season. They were both dressed to the camouflage "t," except for the orange vest each wore. The boy carried a shorter shotgun - a child shotgun. It was nearly as long as he was tall.

They stopped to talk. The man said something along the lines of, "we had to do this today because we have to go to church tomorrow," as explanation of hunting on Saturday. He asked where a good spot was to wait for Deer. As I sat watching and hearing what the man said, I couldn't help thinking how bizarre the whole thing was. I remember thinking that I needed to SAY something to the man. I wanted to ask the man, "ARE YOU STUPID?" I remember the urge to ask that question was so strong that I was barely able to keep my mouth shut. I wanted to ask, "YOU ARE TEACHING YOUR SON TO USE A GUN AND YOU'RE GOING TO CHURCH TOMORROW?" "ARE YOU AN IDIOT?" "DO YOU NOT SEE ANY HYPOCRISY IN THAT?" I didn't. I should have.

So, here we are with young Jordan Brown killing his stepmother-to-be with a child shotgun his father bought for him, perhaps with the same bizarre ideas and thoughts in mind that were behind the hunter-father's reasons for buying his son a child shotgun. And, somehow, the judge and prosecutor turn reasoning on its head to charge the boy as an adult when, in fact, the father is the real idiot in the whole, sorry story. If I were the judge, I would be looking at the illogical logic behind buying the goddamned gun and what illogical logic the father planted in the boy's brain about using the gun (or did the father expect the boy to figure it out himself?) instead of thinking that the boy should be able to reason along the same lines as he, presumably an adult, does. It appears to be the boy's terrible fate that a lethal combination of idiots, his father, the prosecutor and judge, have aligned against him. In addition to the boy's defense attorney, where is the community that should be angry over the injustice in their court?


Saturday, May 1, 2010

My Individual Retirement Account (IRA) My Ass..ets

Like most people, I have an IRA that is managed by someone else, such as TD Amreitrade or JP Morgan. Actually, I have one at both. Both have played catch-up the past two years or so and are pretty much back where they were in 2007. I have some, very limited, control over the TD Ameritrade account, but zilch control over the JP Morgan account. I've just finished a review of those accounts and compared them to another brokerage account I own that I control completely. My IRAs have failed miserably to keep up with the one I control for two reasons: 1) those damn management fees, and 2) the typically accepted so-called investment advice you hear on CNBC and everyplace else that sells mutual and exchange traded fund (ETF) and stock market advice, such as Suzie Orman.

Let's take number two, first, that so-called investment advice, which, again, comes in two parts. The first advice you typically hear is that "old" people should not be in the stock market, which is, of course, a bunch of hogwash. The second thing you hear is to buy stock and hold it forever, which is also hogwash. In October 2008 when the stock market took that scary dive of 700 points or more, Suzie Orman told everyone over the age of 50 who was watching Oprah Winfrey that they shouldn't be in the stock market. So, everyone 50 and older sold their stocks and millions lost billions of dollars that day. All that sell-off also drove the market down another 700 points or so over the next few days, causing yet more to sell and lose billions. The spiral-down. My dentist did too. Suzie scared him so bad that he lost nearly $500,000 in a single day..., by selling out. I didn't sell.

That's not to say, however, that I wasn't afraid. I was scared. My accounts were down big time. And, I was ready to push that "sell" button. But, that red ink next to those stocks I owned scared me more. I'm a tightwad and can't stand to lose money. Why, I ask myself, do I want to sell GE and lose $40,000? About that time I heard Warren Buffet say, "the market is NOT going to go away. It will come back. Now's the time to buy, not sell." So, I thought about that and told myself "he's right." GE is a good company that makes the best turbines, locomotives, builds the best hydro-electric dams and sells the best toasters and, to top it off, it still has a good balance sheet even if down a bit. Why in hell would GE disappear? The answer is, it wouldn't. It will adjust to the recession and come back. So, I took Warren's advice, as scared as I was, and moved a chunk of money from savings to my brokerage account and bought GE at $6.00 a share. Damn, that was cheap! I wish now that I had moved ALL my savings and bought more GE, and others. But, I was chicken. There was, after all, that so-called advice that "old" people shouldn't be in the stock market by safe Suzie and CNBC that stuck in my mind after years and years of drilling it in my brain. And, since I'm old, I hedged my bet a little by playing it TOO safe.

I also ask myself why I had held onto the stocks so long? I had held them so long that the long-term gain was actually less than a savings account, around 2% per year. I could have sold them at their peaks, or close to it, and made a lot of money and used that money to buy them back when they were down, and stocks always go up and down, even in bull and bear markets. All this thinking finally lead me to a final question: "Whose money is this, anyway?" Theirs? Or mine? The answer, of course, is "mine." And, the answer to the next inevitable question is that I need to manage my own money and my own portfolio because "they" don't know a damn thing about those things. And, in order to do that, I need to learn as much as I can about companies... not stock markets. Stock markets are for buying and selling company stocks, and that's it - period. The price you pay and the amount you make, however, is related to the company, so that's what you need to know about.

And that brings me to point number one, those damn management fees. You get dinged on a managed account at two levels, the first (highest) is the management fee on the mutual or exchange traded fund level, those fund managers. The second (lowest) is the management fee the brokerage charges you for "managing" your account. A double whammy. After the management fees are taken, you get the rest. ETFs are the latest fad in managed funds, "exchange traded funds." These are nothing more than mutual funds that can be bought and sold anytime during the trading day on the stock market, just like a stock. That's supposed to be a big deal, the selling point of ETFs. But, it's not a big deal. It's just more hoopla to make you think you're a big investor.

Take, for example, ETF iShares Barcleys 1-3 Year Credit Bond Fund (Symbol: HYG). Like mutual funds, all of these ETFs give you a chart for investing $10,000 and show you how much you would have in 10 years. That's supposed to be a big deal, too. HYG shows a chart over three years and it says I earned $1,185 on that $10,000 investment from February 2007 to February 2010. That's $395 per year, and that's 3.95% interest per year, about like a Certificate of Deposit (CD). But, if you read the "Management's Discussion of Fund Performance," it says the "total fund return" was 10.84%. Wow. What happened to the 6.89% that I didn't get? The answer is "management fees." This specific fund has $5.5 billion in assets. That means the management fee is around $378 million a year, most of which could be going into your account.

Listen, folks, there is no goddamned way that management of buying and selling bonds needs that much money to manage it. Buying and selling bonds is easy, no matter if your buying $100 worth or a billion dollars worth, and at Barcleys' level is probably done by a computer. I would be surprised if managing the fund takes more than three or four accountants who constantly audit the transactions, and only a "sample" of transactions at that. And, for that, they need hundreds of millions? No way. Nope. Most of it is going for that corporate jet they take to the Bahamas.

So, what to do? Well, the money is "your" money, not theirs'. So, my advice is to learn how to invest yourselves. You may not be able to get full control of your IRA or 401k, but you can start a small "learning" account, of a few thousand dollars with a discount brokerage, like TD Ameritrade. If you want to invest in bonds, get a copy of the iShares Bond Funds 2010 Report to Shareholders, scan through it for one that gives a good "total" return, and look at the individual bonds it invests in, say the top ten bonds it buys. Go buy them and then see how much each bond earns. As you accumulate cash, buy some more. Also, contribute a little of your paycheck (or social security check) each month to your investment account so you can buy more. Also, keep a percentage of your investment account in cash, say 15 to 20% in case you need it. You can then get that 10+% interest (or dividends) per year instead of giving most of it to a fund manager.

After you learn, then see if there's a way to take more control of your IRA. You may not be able to avoid that low-level management fee, but you may be able to replace all of those mutual funds and ETFs with a selection of stocks and bonds that make up your own fund. After all, if you know how to buy and sell stocks and bonds, you're doing the same thing those managers are doing.

Bonds are fixed income investments and they are good for getting better returns than your bank gives you. (A note about "munis," Suzie Orman's favorite bonds. They may be tax-free, as she likes to point out, in some cases, but they are also the debt that cities and municipalities have. And, at the moment, those cities and municipalities are not doing so hot in paying off that debt. So, make sure you know how the municipality is doing financially.) After you get a handle on bonds, learn how to find "good" companies, so you can buy and sell stocks. Give me a call or send me an email. My advice is free. I'll tell you the truth about what I think about any public company out there.