Friday, August 10, 2007
In this piece Noonan provides us with yet another example of how conservatives really feel about the average American. You see, not only do conservatives experience fear and loathing at the idea of having to interact with the common folk somewhere in cyberspace, but they also feel the need to fret about interactions with the struggling masses while shopping for clothes and handbags.
Peggy Noonan has recently taken to the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal of all places to inform the world that she is aware of and agrees that "We are living in the second great Gilded Age, a time of startling personal wealth." She then goes on to describe the signs of this Gilded Age, which has risen once more to envelope America from sea to shining sea:
In the West, the mansion after mansion with broad and rolling grounds; in the East, the apartments with foyers in which bowling teams could play....The Dow Jones Industrial Average has hit 14000. The wealthy live better than kings. There isn't a billionaire in East Hampton who wouldn't look down on tatty old Windsor Castle. We have a potential presidential candidate who noted to a friend that if he won the presidency the quality of his life would go down, not up.
And like so many others who have noted the rebirth of the Gilded Age in America, she realizes that there is something else to the story of so many billionaires scoffing at the Old World, aristocratic wealth and luxury of yore while they shit in solid gold toilets. Noonan notes that the "gap between rich and poor is great, and there is plenty of want, and also confusion."
And yet, as she contemplates these confusing, Dickensian times of growing disparity between those living better than kings and those who find themselves, day by day, sinking ever deeper into that abyss of want and epidemic financial insecurity, she can only turn back to the images of those spreading mansions and sky-rocketing stock markets:
What the superrich do for a living now often seems utterly incomprehensible, and has for at least a generation. There is no word for it, only an image. There's a big pile of coins on a table. The rich shove their hands in, raise them, and as the coins sift through their fingers it makes . . . a bigger pile of coins. Then they sift through it again and the pile gets bigger again.
You see, Ms. Noonan can't quite find the appropriate word to articulate exactly what it is that, if one could strip away the complex explanations of the world of global finance, the Market, ever increasing corporate profits, free trade, etc., could begin to explain how these billionaires were able to acquire these bigger and bigger piles of coins. Thus, she must rely on the imagery of the Gilded Age to convey her understanding and impression of how these billionaires have acquired so much.
I can understand her confusion. It certainly is hard to nail down exactly what these masters of the universe do because they wear so many hats and have their fingers in so many pies. Noonan correctly points out:
A general rule: If you are told what someone does for a living and it makes sense to you--orthodontist, store owner, professor--that means he's not rich. But if it's a man in a suit who does something that takes him five sentences to explain and still you walk away confused, and castigating yourself as to why you couldn't understand the central facts of the acquisition of wealth in the age you live in--well, chances are you just talked to a billionaire.
I can certainly sympathize with Noonan on this point. It's hard to give a specific job description to one of these billionaires who probably owns stock in a few multinational corporations that make their huge profits off of the cheap, third-world, slave-wage labor of 12 year olds in an impoverished Indian village, while at the same time owning stock in one or more of its subsidiaries in the United States that has grown its profit margins by outsourcing decent waged jobs with benefits and pensions to countries where the work can be done without basic minimum wage guarantees or labor and environmental laws and regulations. Such a billionaire is also likely to sit on one or more boards of any number of big corporations in which he is partly responsible for the financial and political maneuverings that are essential to things like vast mergers and acquisitions and the flow of finance through the world's markets as it enriches one billionaire after another, all the while sanctioning the dole out of vast sums of money in the form of campaign contributions to politicians and parties (on both sides of the aisle, to be sure) that will write and support legislation that greases the wheels for such financial gamesmanship (like taking a $20.00 bill out of the petty cash to buy some Xerox paper) and contributing even more sums to conservative and corporate friendly think tanks to support people (like Ms. Noonan herself) who write articles and papers on economic policy and in defense of the system that secures his wealth and who thus assist in providing a pseudo-intellectual and ideological cover for out of control free market, free trade, and globalization policies.
Up until this point, what Ms. Noonan is saying is making sense to me, but I lose her right after the first sentence of the previous paragraph. After Noonan remarks on the mysterious and inexplicable ways that billionaires amass such wealth she writes:
There are good things and bad in the Gilded Age, pluses and minuses. I write here of a minus. It has to do with our manners, the ones we show each other on the street. I think riches, or the pursuit of riches, has made us ruder. You'd think broad comfort would assuage certain hungers. It has not. It has sharpened them.
Yes, what outrages Noonan about this new Gilded Age with its rampant inequality and endemic financial insecurity and rising poverty juxtaposed, in her imagery, beside metaphorical billionaires rolling in their gold coins is...manners. Specifically what Noonan views as symbols of "the pushiness of the Gilded Age":
I walk into a shop on Madison Avenue daydreaming, trying to remember what it was I thought last week I should pick up, what was it . . .
"Hi! Let me help you find what you're looking for!" She is a saleswoman, cracking gum with intensity, about 25 years old, and she has made a beeline to her mark. That would be me....
In another shop, as soon as I walk in the door, "How are you today? How can I help you?" Those dread words.
"Oh, I'm sort of just looking."
"I like your bag!"
"Um, thanks." What they are forcing you to do is engage. If you engage--"Um, thanks"--you have a relationship. If you have a relationship, it's easier for them to turn you upside down and shake the coins from your pockets.
Of course she does concede that there are remnants of snobbishness in "the big stores (Macy's, Duane Reade drugstore), where [the sales people] ignore you" but obviously the biggest symbol of decaying manners and the boorish "pursuit of riches" are aggressive sales clerks who must do their part in sustaining the absolute wealth of the superrich by keeping the store's sales revenues at ever higher and higher levels because that is what their paycheck essentially depends on, if they are not working on commission, in which case a comparably insignificant amount of the profit from their sales is pretty much their paycheck.
After enduring such a traumatic experience, then walking out into the street only to be confronted by "the woman with the clipboard" who is concerned with the environment and is making Noonan feel a little uneasy, she ends her screed with an observation of another conspicuous image that has become all too common to our consumerist and money hungry society--the unrelenting use of the cellphone and blackberry:
It is possible that we are on the cellphone because we are lonely and hunger for connection, even of the shallowest kind; that we BlackBerry because we hope for a sense of control in a chaotic world; that we are frightened of stillness and must interrupt conversations; that we are desperate to make the sale in the highly competitive environment of the Banana Republic on 86th Street and must aggressively pursue customers.
Could it really be that a Gilded Age dominated by billionaires and the superrich whose vast wealth depends on a system that, by its very nature and design, creates and feeds off endemic financial insecurity, rising gaps between the rich and the rest of society, undermining of the middle classes, "plenty of want, and also confusion," and consumerist, workaholic, and get ahead at whatever cost cultural imperatives gone mad might make people "hunger for connection" or "a sense of control in a chaotic world"?
Of course not, Noonan only brings this up so she can be dismissive of this possibility and instead ends with this stunning insight:
It's also possible we have grown more boorish. I think it's that one. Many things thrive in the age of everything, including bad manners.
For a second there it looked as if Ms. Noonan was going to fall into the abyss of a little self awareness and delve into the possibility that the biggest "minus" of this second great Gilded Age might be the apt observation that, no matter what the specific explanation, at the bottom of "the utterly incomprehensible" nature of "what the superrich do for a living" lay pure, unadulterated greed and that a society whose economic, cultural and social institutions have come to be dominated by greed is just not good for anyone. But, being the true conservative that she is, Noonan took one look at that abyss and turned right back around to gaze in enchanted bewilderment at the billionaires and scoff at the sales clerks and their boorish manners.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
He really is like a windup doll, isn't he? No matter what's going on in the outside world, no matter what problems we're facing, no matter what the political situation is, you pull the cord and he says "Tax cuts!" It's like he's the Manchurian President.
Pretty much sums it up to me. One of the most frightening things about King George is that no matter the reality of what we face as a nation he always sounds like a broken record--stay the course, fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here, we are making progress in Iraq, tax cuts, more tax cuts, privatize (insert pretty much anything here).
As King George's approval ratings plunge ever lower (as they will no doubt continue to do) and as Republicans increasingly try to make the case that King George is not really a conservative or has betrayed conservatism (as they no doubt will continue to do), we just need to remind them and everyone else that King George is still faithfully reciting solutions from the ideologically conservative answers to anything and everything guide book. Only a true conservative would propose yet more tax cuts when we already have a spiralling deficit, grossly defunded government services, major problems with out country's infrastructure, a war that is projected to cost us over a $1 trillion, especially if Bush continues with his surges, a potential economic catastrophe about to let loose because of the housing market, rising income inequality, more and more people without adequate health coverage or no coverage at all, soaring gas prices, inflation...well, you get it. No honest conservative Republican should have anything to fear from King George because he is nothing if not truly conservative:
President Bush said yesterday that he is considering a fresh plan to cut tax rates for U.S. corporations to make them more competitive around the world, an initiative that could further inflame a battle with the Democratic Congress over spending and taxes and help define the remainder of his tenure.
....The focus on economic issues on Bush's last day in Washington before leaving town today for most of the rest of the month reflected a White House strategy to confront Democrats on tax and spending issues. With most of his second-term domestic legislative agenda in tatters and his strategy in Iraq under bipartisan fire, Bush appears eager to return to familiar issues that animated the beginning of his presidency and might rally disaffected Republicans behind him again.
One such case involves former Army Specialist Brian Rodrigues who served in Iraq as a combat engineer. Rodriguez "started getting bills for $700 for lost or damaged government property this summer. Although he was discharged some four years ago, bills recently arrived demanding payment, but giving no details on what or why -- nor do they offer a way to dispute the charges." This is happening to other veterans as well. According to a goverment report in 2006 "more than 1,000 soldiers [are] being billed a total of $1.5 million. "
These "debt of service" bills could put the furtures and financial stability of theses veterans and their families at risk. Rodriguez is trying to challenge the bills that he has received from the Army, but in the meantime he "will be reported to credit agencies next month." The article also quotes veterans' advocate Tod Ensign who describes what Rodriguez and others like him are facing: "They'll just pound him and call him, call his employers, and make his life as miserable as they can until he pays up." Ensign believes that this is "part of the military's push to be run more like a business."
This has been going on for some time. According to this Washington Post article from April 2006, soldiers are being billed for payroll "errors," as well as lost or damaged equipment. The post article states that the "underlying problem is an antiquated computer system for paying and tracking members of the military. Pay records are not integrated with personnel records, creating numerous errors. When soldiers leave the battlefield, for example, they lose a pay differential, but the system can take time to lower their pay." The system is so bad that it listed 400 soldiers killed in action as owing money to the government.
The post article quotes former Army finance officer Michael Hurst who studied the issue as saying that this problem resulted from a "complete leadership failure." Hurst says the military should have began to address this problem years ago.
I suspect that this is more than just a leadership failure, that it is, in fact, yet another symptom of a broken a system. How else can one explain why, in a country with the most powerful military in the world and in a country that spends as much on the military and defense as we do, troops are returning from war to face a financial crisis caused by a defunct military computer system that cannot accurately handle basic payroll functions and coordinate that with effective tracking of troops that have died or have been injured. With the billions we spend on defense there is no excuse why our military's computer systems should be so outdated and riddled with systemic problems such as these.
I'm still not exactly sure how the bills for equipment shortage fit into all of this except that the military is unable to keep an accurate track of battlefield injuries and integrate that with an accurate adjustment of inventory of lost or damaged equipment. Whatever the exact relationship between the inventory and payroll computer problems, it is evident that the basic IT infrastructure of the military has been in need of a significant overhaul for a long time. Either way, the fact these underlying deficiencies in the computer system were not addressed at an earlier point and the fact that basic computing and payroll systems are so outrageously deficient this far into the war points to more than just a leadership failure. In my opinion an ongoing failure of this sort has as much, if not more, to do with a system in which billions of dollars are wasted in a contracting system that is nothing but an egregious war-profiteering scheme and in which the Defense Department has prioritized privatization and the interests of private corporations over the well being of the nation's military.In short, this phenomenon, which has been labeled by critics as "financial friendly fire," is just one more example of the troops becoming the victims of small government and free market ideology, an ideology whose core tenets include the belief that privatization, in the form of turning as many sections and functions of the federal government as possible over to private companies, is cheaper and more efficient in any context, including once effective and efficient functions of the US military. This process has proven to be, not only a massive transfer of tax payer money over to private corporations, but a practice that has caused incalculable damage in the Iraq war and one that has overwhelmingly contributed to the ever spiraling cost of the war from the very beginning. Thus, billions have been wasted that should have been put to better use in keeping basic military infrastructure up to par. But perhaps more to the point, this system creates a disincentive to insure that our military is efficiently funded and that funds are allocated in the most effective way.
Financial friendly fire is part of an ongoing list of atrocities that have resulted from this uber-privatization of the system. Troops returning from war are also dealing with inadequate healthcare and underfunded veterans' services, and troops in combat have been dealing with deficiencies in adequate and proper equipment. As early as 2003, for example, when problems with equipment shortages facing the troops were becoming apparent, Paul Krugman noted:
Military corner-cutting is part of a broader picture of penny-wise-pound-foolish government. When it comes to tax cuts or subsidies to powerful interest groups, money is no object. But elsewhere, including homeland security, small-government ideology reigns. The Bush administration has been unwilling to spend enough on any aspect of homeland security, whether it's providing firefighters and police officers with radios or protecting the nation's ports....There's also another element in the Iraq logistical snafu: privatization. The U.S. military has shifted many tasks traditionally performed by soldiers into the hands of such private contractors as Kellogg Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary. The Iraq war and its aftermath gave this privatized system its first major test in combat - and the system failed.
(Emphasis mine). The war in Iraq has already costed us about $500 billion and is estimated, under the best of circumstances, to cost over a trillion dollars. A significant amount of that cost can be traced to the privitization of services once performed by the government and the military that have been handed over to private companies. In his article "The Bushites have Outsourced our Government to their Pals," Jim Hightower writes:
Since the BushCheney regime took office, Halliburton's government contracts have increased by a stunning 600%, including more than $10 billion in Pentagon contracts - many of them awarded without the fuss and muss of competitive bidding.
In return, Halliburton has delivered gas-price gouging, contaminated food and water, and a consis-These are our "savings" from privatization A 2006 federal audit of $1.7 billion in Pentagon purchases found that taxpayers were soaked for excessive fees from contractors and for tens of millions of dollars in waste. One reason was "poor contracting practices." Such as? The audit reports that 92% of the contracts were awarded without verifying that the contractors provided accurate cost estimates, and 96% of the work was inadequately monitored. 2 Hightower Lowdown June 2007 tent pattern of overcharges. It has been caught hiring Third World laborers to do its grunt work in Iraq, paying them as little as $5 a day, and then billing Uncle Sam more than $50 a day for each worker. In a February analysis of $10 billion in waste and overcharges by various contractors in Iraq, federal investigators found Halliburton responsible for $2.7 billion....
Hightower notes that "people see Halliburton as the face of privitized war in Iraq," but Halliburton is only one of many such contractors whose billions of dollars in profits amount to a rape of the US treasury and an outright theft of money from taxpayers through privatization, which has been the foundation of the Bush administration's handling of the war (as well as many domestic and intelligence activities):
Given the rampant corruption and waste that marks such policies, I cannot view these "debt of service" bills as anything but actions that are forcing the troops to directly pay for part of the financial cost of the war through the type of negligence that is produced by and that sustains a system that has created and maintained the enormous profits of these private contractors. This financial friendly fire may not be the result of a deliberate scheme to transfer part of the financial cost directly to the troops, but this did not occur in a vacuum. The underlying problems that have caused these computing and billing failures, combined with patterns of deficiencies in equipment, the veterans' healthcare system, and other veterans' services, along with unchecked waste and an alarming lack of accountability, amount to nothing less than gross negligence and are the inevitable result of a deliberate policy of favoring privatization over what is best for the military and the troops at any cost.
In fact, the Bush Administration has pushed its love for privatization so far that it now relies heavily ona private mercenary army to carry out its mission in Iraq. In January 2007 Jeremy Scahill noted that in his State of the Union speech Bush addressed "the very issue that has made the war's privatization a linchpin of his Iraq policy - the need for more troops." Scahill writes:
The president called on Congress to authorize an increase of about 92,000 active-duty troops over the next five years. He then slipped in a mention of a major initiative that would represent a significant development in the U.S. disaster response/reconstruction/war machine: a Civilian Reserve Corps." Such a corps would function much like our military Reserve. It would ease the burden on the armed forces by allowing us to hire civilians with critical skills to serve on missions abroad when America needs them," Bush declared.
This is precisely what the administration has already done, largely behind the backs of the American people and with little congressional input, with its revolution in military affairs. Bush and his political allies are using taxpayer dollars to run an outsourcing laboratory. Iraq is its Frankenstein monster.
The Los Angeles Times reported in July 2007 that "the number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show, raising fresh questions about the privatization of the war effort and the government's capacity to carry out military and rebuilding campaigns." According to the State and Defense department figures obtained by the Times, "[m]ore than 180,000 civilians - including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis - are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts" a fact that "shows how heavily the Bush administration has relied on corporations to carry out the occupation of Iraq - a mission criticized as being undermanned."
The Bush Administration has deliberately relied on private contractors and increasing privatization in general, not only as a means to supplement needed forces, but as a means to avoid accountability and oversight of the ways in which it allocates competing resources, addresses competing priorities, and carries out its policies. This privatized corporate shield from accountability prevents the Bush Administration from having to insure that the military's infrastructure and equipment needs are up to par and from having to deal with fallout from its failures. Having a private military force that is equal to or outnumbers US military personnel means that you don't have to care as much about what is happening to the people you send to fight your wars and that operations can be carried out without the bothersome interference of government and public accountability. After all, where does the overhaul of a computer system with systemic problems that handles basic personnel functions that are essential for the effective operation of the military fall on the list of priorities when so much of the occupation and other military functions can be outsourced to private companies who will be paid with tax payer dollars?
The Bush administration's belief that it should not be held accountable for anything is no doubt a significant part of the reason that the Bush Administration will not hold defense contractors and companies like Halliburton accountable for their war-profiteering even while the troops are going into debt because of a defunct computer system. If the military needs the estimated 1.5 million dollars that it has billed veterans for, then the Bush administration should go after the war profiteers and recover the billions in tax payer money that they have stolen and wasted.
But Bush's politicized Justice Department has never had any intention of doing this and "has opted out of at least 10 whistle-blower lawsuits alleging fraud and corruption in government reconstruction and security contracts in Iraq, and has spent years investigating additional fraud cases but has yet to try to recover any money."
This Boston Globe article from June of this year further points out:
The government's reluctance to join in any of the civil suits has sparked allegations of political interference.
One witness, Alan Grayson , a lawyer who represents several whistle-blowers, told the House subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security that the Justice Department has been stonewalling and dragging its feet in investigating the whistle-blowers' claims of fraud.
"In our fifth year in the war in Iraq, the Bush administration has not litigated a single case against any war profiteer under the False Claims Act," Grayson said....
Historically, the False Claims Act has served as an important tool in recovering money defrauded from the federal government. Last year, it was used to return more than $3 billion in domestic cases, but has recovered only about $6.1 million from Iraq since the war began. Those recoveries, however, were the result of settlements between the Justice Department and two contractors -- not civil lawsuits or prosecutions.
(Emphasis mine). Thus, do we really have to wonder why it is that only $6.1 million dollars in settlements has been recovered out of the possible billions in waste and over-priced services that the Bush Administration could recover from these greedy, war-profiteering bastards but the Pentagon is billing veterans for an estimated $1.5 million. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that these war profiteers have a lot of friends and influence:
Outfits like Halliburton, DynCorp, Blackwater, L-3, Titan, Custer Battles, Triple Canopy, and Wackenhut are reaping billions of our tax dollars doing military work that the Bush-Cheney Pentagon has outsourced. Not coincidentally, nearly all of these corporations are big-dollar donors to Republicans and/or are run by executives with tight GOP ties.
(Emphasis mine). Kurt Vonnegut once wondered about the inhumanity of those who would make the preposterous claim that criticizing the way this war has been handled and the basis upon which it was launched endangered the morale of the troops when soldiers were already "being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas." Maybe that was only the beginning. Now thousands of rich kids' toy soldiers are coming home to be the rich kids' debt slaves.