Monday, September 29, 2008

Week of 09/29/2008

Pass the Bill, Pass the Bill
– by David Matthews 2

A hard-working man was invited by his rich friend to dine with him in one of the finest restaurants in the city. The hard-working man was hesitant to accept the offer, mostly because he had heard that the meals were extremely expensive. But he was assured by his rich friend that he would help out if there was a problem with the bill.

So the next night the hard-working man showed up at the five-star restaurant wearing his best (and only) suit. His wealthy friend met him at the doorway and told him that he invited some more friends to join them. Pretty soon it was a party of ten at this restaurant where the cheapest item on the menu cost as much as the hard-working man made all week.

The ten of them had a nice light-hearted conversation, discussing the various issues of the day, laughing, joking, enjoying drinks and appetizers. Then the courses came, and it was one delicious serving after another. The champagne flowed freely, and toasts were made to their new best friend, the man who worked hard for a living.

After the dessert and before the coffee, the first of the “new friends” said that he had to leave. Last-minute emergency and all, but don’t worry, his friends will cover his part of the tab. The second one had a phone call that he had to take, but never made it back to the table.

The hard-working man started to get nervous. Did they at least leave some money to pay for their part of the bill? Did they pay their part of the bill already? He quietly asked his rich friend about that, but his rich friend said that you really don’t ask such a question in the restaurant.

Nerves… not to mention a few glasses of wine and two cups of coffee… eventually got the better of the hard-working man, so he had to excuse himself to use the men’s room. That was an extravagant place to visit, in and of itself. It was bigger and more luxurious than any bathroom he had ever been in.

But when he returned to the table, he discovered that, much to his horror, all of his “friends” had left, and the waiter was there with bill. It was a sizable bill, and one that he would end up selling most of his belongings and giving up all of his life savings to pay. Even more insulting was the fact that the ones who had left the earliest had ordered and consumed the most expensive items on the menu.

Does that sound familiar? It should for most Americans.

The American people are getting stuck with “the bill”, and it doesn’t matter what kind of “bill” it is. We’re getting hit with it and we’re expected to pay it all.

When corporations fail, we’re the ones that end up paying for it. We lose jobs. We lose a source of income which helps sustain the local economy. And until we can get new owners for the area, guess who gets to pay for the property taxes for the building and land that it sits on? That’s right, we do.

And what happens when those corporations fail because of fiscal mismanagement? It’s not the fault of the workers. They work hard and do everything in their power to deliver the kind of service people expect, but the executives are more worried about placating the board of directors than in making the business work. Or perhaps the company is bought out in one of those wonderful mergers that you read about in the papers. Don’t worry about the investors and executives. They’ve all got golden parachutes and first dibs on any money from the remains of the dying business. We just get stuck with the bones.

In fact we get stuck with A LOT of bones.

Have you noticed that when a new store comes into town they never want to take any of the already vacant buildings or land that has already been developed and are looking for new owners? It’s true. Your local Wal-Mart or Target or Best Buy doesn’t want to take over a building that already exists. It costs them too much to raze the structure and level the land. No, they want to buy their own land, clear it out, and put up a brand new building there. Then they grow on it and put up a whole bunch of new mini-malls alongside of it, ignoring all of the other half-empty mini-malls and full-sized malls, and actually taking business away from those places, which are probably already struggling in the first place.

And if business sours, then those stores get closed, adding them to the collection of empty buildings that nobody wants to pay a property tax on. So guess who gets to eat that cost? The hard-working taxpaying Americans do, that’s who!

But that seems to be a common problem, doesn’t it?

People keep on talking about making corporations and big businesses pay the price for being profitable. They want to tax the oil companies for making obscene profits while Americans are getting raped at the pumps with higher prices.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The only problem is that you can’t really tax businesses, because they aren’t the ones paying them.

The problem is that businesses don’t see taxes as such. They consider taxes to be nothing more than just another overhead cost. They put it in the same category as the costs for supplies and the cost for electricity and the cost for salaries and pensions and benefits. All of the essential elements that they have to factor in when they set the price of their product.

So guess who REALLY get to pay for the taxes that we impose on businesses large and small. Come on, guess! You know who pays for it, don’t you?

That’s right… WE DO! We, as consumers of the products that we purchase from businesses large and small, are the ones that end up paying for the taxes that are assessed on them.

If you hit a company up for an additional 5% in taxes simply for being so damned profitable, then they have to find a way to transfer that 5% to their consumers. They’re certainly not going to eat the difference themselves. It doesn’t matter if you yourself are the direct consumer or if there are layers of middlemen between you and them, the fact of the matter is that YOU are the that ends up paying for it with higher prices.

And guess what happens if you “punish” the businesses TOO much? They end up closing shop and finding some other place to go. Someplace where the “overhead costs” aren’t that punitive. Someplace like China or India. And then guess what happens? Yeah, we get stuck with yet ANOTHER empty business building on ANOTHER plot of land that WE end up eating the property taxes on.

Have you noticed that the bill keeps on getting passed back to us, no matter what we try to do?

Residents in the Atlanta area have been dealing with a drought situation for the past few years. Not just this year, but for SEVERAL YEARS now, and there has been an executive order issued by Governor Sonny Perdue to get people to cut back on their water use. That executive order is still in effect as of this column, and it doesn’t look like it will be rescinded anytime soon.

So the residents and businesses in the Atlanta area have been doing that. They’ve been cutting back on their watering habits. They’ve let their grass go brown, bearing the brunt of the threats of homeowners associations. They’ve stopped washing their cars, or at the very least went to carwashes and paid to have their cars cleaned for them. They’ve done everything expected of them… only to be told that they will be rewarded for their efforts by still higher water bills! And this is coming from THE GOVERNMENT no less! The same government that has been telling people to cut BACK on their water use and then turns around and says “we can’t afford to eat the cost of this so we’re passing it on to you!”

Again… the bill gets passed back to us and we’re expected to cover it!

Health care is another big issue. Getting sick is getting too expensive for people. That’s why there is medical insurance. But even that is getting too expensive. So now they’re passing the bill… passing the bill… and passing the bill yet again. And guess where it’s going? GOVERNMENT! And guess who pays for that? WE DO!

And then we have people who are not here legally, and if they get sick then they don’t have the insurance to help pay for the costs. Or we have people who ARE here legally who also don’t have the insurance needed to pay for the costs of that health care. And hospitals are told that they have to cover those costs. But then guess what happens? Yeah, because they’re a business, they end up passing the costs on down to the consumers… which is the insurance companies, who then jack up their rates to cover the difference. Guess who ends up losing out on that? Yeah, WE DO!

It all keeps on getting passed back to US, doesn’t it? Just pass the bill… pass the bill… pass the bill… someone will pay for it eventually… just keep on passing it down.

And speaking of bills… we have the Congress and the White House that are equally hell-bent on passing a HUGE stinking whopper of a bill down to us to pay. And pay to the tune of hundreds of BILLIONS of dollars!

They want us to bail out WALL STREET! The very same greedy sell-your-mothers-to-make-a-buck institutions that set up rules that ended up screwing MILLIONS of hard-working Americans out of their homes are apparently in dire straits because they ended up screwing TOO many people and now it’s come back to hurt them. And they’re expecting US to pick up the tab for them! The very people they bamboozled!

Worse yet, our “rich friends” in Washington, who have more in common with those screw-the-poor members of Wall Street than we ever will, are telling us that it’s okay… that they have it covered. But they’re not telling us that WE are the ones that will end up eating this bill. And we will end up paying for it by putting ourselves even deeper and deeper into debt.

Let’s get brutally honest here… we can’t afford to keep on getting stuck with the bill! We really can’t! We are quickly approaching a saturation point… if we haven’t reached it already… where no amount of money that we print will help us. We are in debt up to our eyeballs to lending institutions, partly because OUR OWN GOVERNMENT told us after 9/11 that the greatest thing that we can do for America is to go shopping, and now we’re being told that WE have to bail out those same lending institutions because they can’t afford to keep screwing us over! And now our government is putting us so deep into debt that we will end up owing more to the Bank of China than to Social Security, and that will be at a time when we will really need the latter!

One of the reasons why we have massive corporate failures and massive Wall Street failures and massive bank failures is because we have effectively eliminated the one thing that kept most of these groups stable, and that was the FEAR of failure! We eliminated the RISK that goes with failure.

Let’s go back to the party of ten at the restaurant. Suppose the “rich friend” told the waiter that all the people in that dining party were responsible for paying their own checks, and that all nine participants were told so before they ordered. Furthermore, they would be told that the Maitre D was under orders to call the police on anyone who attempts to walk out before paying their own check. Do you really think that ANY of those diners would have even thought of walking out? Probably not. In fact, they probably wouldn’t have been so eager to order up so much expensive food if they knew that they would have to pay for it all.

Well the same thing needs to apply here. We need RISK put back into the equation for these financial players. That’s what our “rich friend” SHOULD have been doing, if our “friend” was really that. After all, it was “our friend” that brought us into the restaurant in the first place.

REAL friends don’t leave their friends stuck with the bill.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Week of 09/22/2008

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New Deal 2008: To Big To Bail
– by David Matthews 2

“Too Big To Fail!”

A scant two decades ago, that kind of idea would have been considered a vile obscenity in the minds of most Republicans.

Ronald Reagan’s GOP would have spat in the face of anyone who suggested that it was the government’s job to bail out failing corporations for making bad decisions. They remembered bailing out Chrysler in 1979 and they said that governments shouldn’t be doing that. They adhered to the liaise-faire mentality that businesses need to stand or fall on their own. That’s why they started dismantling all of the regulations imposed on business, because they believed that any kind of government action stifled growth.

It’s a good thing that former President Reagan is dead, because if he saw what the inheritors of his party have been doing for the past few years, and he wasn’t addled with Alzheimer’s, then he would be wondering if his beloved party had been subverted by the communists.

Fortunately for Reagan, he was hindered by Alzheimer’s, so he couldn’t see how the Savings and Loan institutions collapsed in the late 80’s. That should have been a harbinger of failures to come, but unfortunately our government is legendary in its shortsightedness.

“Too Big To Fail!”

That has been the mantra of the GOP of late. Screw liaise-faire! Save the businesses at all costs!

We got a double-shot of that mantra in 2001, immediately after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While we were quaking under our bedsheets over the terrorists, our government under George W. Bush was telling us to go shopping. To hell with fighting the enemy, we needed to fight lagging sales!

And then, when people were afraid to fly and the price of fuel was climbing, the airlines DEMANDED to be bailed out as well. Airlines were going bankrupt, after all, because they supposedly “couldn’t compete” with low fares and rising overhead. So the Congress and the White House GAVE the airlines what they wanted. They got their bailout, because they were considered “Too Big To Fail”.

Of course back then nobody complained about that bailout, because the people that would were too busy worrying about terrorists, and part of the bailout involved needed changes to airport security. Who cares if a few billion more had to be spent to help the airlines if the plan also gets to make them a little bit safer, right?

But now we have more than just a couple of airlines looking for federal help. Now we have banks, lending institutions, even a major insurer looking for help. They made some stupid decisions and now they need help because they’re on the verge of collapse.

And they’ll get it too. They’ll each get help from the government, because they’re all deemed to be “Too Big To Fail”.

But not everyone that needs help will get it. For thousands of hard-working Americans, there is no help for them. They are the ones that were driven to failure even before the first institution showed signs of trouble. Sadly, they are the REAL REASON why these institutions are on the verge of insolvency in the first place… and our government doesn’t want to do anything to help them.

Let’s backtrack a couple of years. 9/11 happened, and our government tells us to spend like there’s no tomorrow. And to help make it easier for us to spend like there’s no tomorrow, certain rules are changed. Banking rules are changed so lenders can make more kinds of loans available for the masses. Interest rates were still low thanks to the mini-recession of 2000.

More people started owning homes and refinancing their current homes. Developers were building houses like crazy. Housing values skyrocketed. Times seemed good.

Then the interest rates began to creep up. And people suddenly realized that those new mortgages that they got talked into were the kind that REALLY began to get more and more expensive over time and as the interest rate climbed. They were owing more than their homes were worth, and for many of them, they were owning more than they could afford to pay.

Before long, bankruptcies and foreclosures happened. And along with the changes to banking rules, bankruptcy rules were changed so that people were stuck with the bad debt. The banks began owning a lot of these homes. A few houses may not be too bad, but when whole neighborhoods are getting foreclosed one after another, and housing values sink for those not yet foreclosed, that causes trouble.

And this is the point in time where we are told that the tragedy REALLY begins. Not with the thousands of hard-working Americans that suddenly end up with overinflated homes and mortgages that they can no longer afford, nor with the thousands of hard-working Americans that have either been foreclosed or otherwise forced to abandon their homes, but with the fact that the lending institutions cannot absorb the sheer volume of failures that they helped to create! And because you have investment groups putting their money into these lending institutions to help stock plans and retirement accounts, those too are in trouble.

THESE are the groups looking for some government help. And THESE are the groups that are going to get it too… because they are all deemed to be “Too Big To Fail”.

Not only will those “big guys” be getting help, but the White House is pushing for a HUGE honking all-in-one bailout of those institutions whereby the United States government will be absorbing all of those “bad loans”… the ones that already failed because the owners are already unable to keep up the payments… thus free up the burden being placed on the institutions that helped CAUSE the problem in the first place.

How huge? Adding in the bailouts already provided recently for Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, AIG, and Bear Sterns, we’re talking a cool TRILLION. That’s a lot of zeros, and I don’t just mean numerically.

And the hard-working Americans? The ones that got pressured to get a mortgage or to refinance that mortgage and then get suckered into a raw deal that many of them didn’t have to take? Too bad! You still end up losing your money and/or your homes. You might try that 800-number the White House set up, but otherwise you’re on your own. You’re just not “big enough” for the government to care.

The White House is spinning this to be akin to Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for the 21st Century, a way to kick-start the economy and keep the money flowing for the “big boys”. I, however, see this differently.

Let’s get brutally honest here… what we are being railroaded into accepting is nothing short of a RAW DEAL, not a “New Deal” for America. It’s a RAW DEAL because it bails out the perpetrators of the problem instead of helping out the REAL victims.

There is a lot more going into this whole meltdown crisis than just bad loans. The bad loans are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the kinds of problems our economy is being forced to burden.

We have developers that have over-developed. Here in the Atlanta area, this commentator is just within walking distance of several major construction projects that have been pushed on through to completion, even though there been little or no interest in occupying those projects. Stores and office complexes that go up empty and stay empty. Subdivisions that are so desperate for residents that they will offer free gasoline and free furniture leases. That kind of problem will not be resolved through this bailout.

We have those thousands of hard-working Americans that have ALREADY lost their homes that will not be able to get them back, and thousands more that will lose theirs in the near-future. There’s a lot of talk about saving the LENDERS, but this commentator doesn’t hear anything about trying to convert the risky loans that are not yet bad but will be soon. There’s no talk about SAVING the homes of those affected the worst by this. The banks are getting their money. They lose little compared to those who stand on the verge of losing their HOMES.

Let’s think about it this way… by the time the loan is considered “bad”, and thus within the radar of this all-in-one bailout, the family has already been forced out of the house. They’ve lost any kind of equity that they put into the home. That has an impact on the surrounding neighborhood, and surrounding homes start to lose their value too, further complicating the issue. That’s not something that our government tries to “save”.

But if you think about it… our government is USED to spending big money to bail out overinflated things that they deem to be “Too Big To Fail”.

Think about the billions they spend on trying to “fix” programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. Programs that they believe are “Too Big To Fail” simply by the very nature. They will move to save these programs at all costs, even if it means driving the United States further and further into debt.

Even when we’re not talking about money, our government seems hell-bent on protecting anything it deems to be “Too Big To Fail”, even if it really cannot fail to being with. Think about all of the times when our government claims to act on behalf of the “institution of marriage” or for various religious institutions. They act as though those institutions are on the verge of collapse when they rush through dictatorial moralistic laws, but in truth the only thing threatened is the power-hold some of those self-professed “champions” have over society. That too is considered to be “Too Big To Fail”.

And what is it that truly makes these financial institutions “Too Big To Fail”? It’s not really the money in as much as it is the influence it wields.

Ordinary people like you and me are small players in Washington. Too small for them to notice. But lending institutions like Freddie and Fannie and AIG and Bear Sterns can afford to hire lobbyists. The same groups, and the same lobbyists I might add, that were responsible for encouraging Washington to change the rules just five years ago are now pushing for bailouts. They’re looking for help, and they’ll get it too… because they are so big that they can hire people to make the case that they need it more than the vast majority of Americans that are truly in trouble.

And what do the ordinary Americans get out of this deal? People keep on talking about accountability when it comes to the petty criminal, but the perpetrators of this kind of mess will get away with it. We won’t even see the kind of frog march spectacle we saw with Enron and WorldCom. Nobody responsible for this mess will be inhabiting Martha Stewart’s old prison cell anytime soon. The only people being forced into accountability are the ordinary taxpayers.

There is a word that has been carefully removed from the discussion when it comes to the “big boys”. That word is RISK. For the average American, there has always been the risk of losing everything you own. Even a small business owner knows about risk. But the large institutions… the ones that can afford to hire lobbyists and sponsor campaign fundraisers… there really is no risk involved, and they have known it for quite some time. They know that if things go bad all that they have to do is petition the government to bail them out, and they’ll get it… simply because they are considered “Too Big To Fail”.

The question that nobody wants to ask, though, is when “Too Big To Fail” drives US into failure. There are plenty of people that say that we are pretty much there already.

If we really want to help ourselves and help out ALL sides of the equation, then we need to bring RISK and accountability back into the discussion… and tie it closely to the bailout plan. The ordinary people who file for bankruptcy are made to feel like dirt when they go through the process. So too should the institutions that get bailed out. They should have the Mother of All Audits visit their businesses. Every executive decision, every deal, and every arrangement carefully scrutinized. People up on top need to lose their jobs, as well as their golden parachutes.

And more importantly, those businesses leaders pushing for bailouts need to know that if they screw up again that there will be no government help for them afterwards. That their next major financial screw-up WILL be the last. That “big” or not, they WILL FAIL!

This whole problem started because the WRONG people were bearing ALL of the burdens of the business. And as long as the WRONG people continue to shoulder ALL of the burdens, the problem will not go away, no matter how many bailouts we provide. That’s the REAL spirit of the Reagan Era sentiment about business. As long as that imbalance exists, governments will always be pressured to step in.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Week of 09/15/2008

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Celebrity and the Presidency
– by David Matthews 2

Tom was a well-known author.

Ted was a famous explorer and outdoorsman who had a stuffed animal named after him.

Rich appeared on a prime-time television variety show.

Ron made movies and worked with animals.

Will played a musical instrument on TV.

Most of them never met each other, and only one of them is still alive today, but they all had two things in common.

They all were celebrities.

And they were all elected President of the United States of America.

You can probably guess who most of them are. “Tom” is short for Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence (amongst other great works) before he became the second U.S. President. “Ted” is short for Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt... who became the inspiration for the “Teddy Bear”. “Rich” is short for Richard, as in Richard Nixon, who made the first-ever cameo on NBC’s TV series “Laugh-In”. “Ron” is Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood film actor who was best-known for working with a chimp in the movie “Bedtime for Bonzo”. And of course “Will” is short for William Jefferson Clinton, and his stint opening up for the now-defunct “Arsinio Hall Show” by playing the saxophone with the band helped to boost his presidential campaign.

They were, in their own rights and in their own unique ways, celebrities. With the obvious exception of Nixon, they had all been famous before their ascendency to the highest elected office in the nation. In fact it can be said that their name recognition and their status AS a “celebrity” helped in their campaigns.

So why is it that people are treating “celebrity” as though it’s now a dirty word?

Senator John McCain is quick to call fellow Senator Barack Obama a “celebrity”, likening him to infamous celebrities like Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears. Obama’s defenders have since pointed out that for the longest time McCain himself was treated by the media as a political celebrity simply because he never really worked within “the establishment”. Mind you this is the same “establishment” that has now pledged to do anything and everything to help McCain win in the November elections, even using the same tactics that effectively sabotaged his 2000 campaign.

But though madness… and perhaps a touch of senility… there is method to this attack.

The oldest complaint that has been made of Obama and his relatively young career is that he is an “elitist”. That he is too much of an upper-crust, smug, intellectual that looks down on the rest of society with pity and goads it along with mock praise and half-hearted ideas that never could work but make people feel good.

It’s hypocritical, of course, because the people who throw about the phrase are pretty much guilty of projecting their own flaws onto others. But then again, we’re dealing with presidential politics, and hypocrisy has been a required element for quite some time now.

Accusing a candidate of being “elitist” because of how they carry themselves or how they talk tries to take away the claim of the accused of being a champion of “the common man”, because as we all know, the “common man” is not an intellectual person. The “common man” doesn’t live with upper-crust America. The “common man” is pretty much a moron and a slob. The “common man” aspires for a life of middle-class mediocrity in a subdivision while going to tractor-pulls and shopping at Costco, not hanging out with Hollywood superstars and attending posh events with Nobel laureates.

Bill and Hillary Clinton certainly tried to cultivate the idea that they were champions of the “common man”, especially with Bill’s southern drawl and his history of coming up from poverty. But behind the drawl and the “aw shucks” image was a wife that was anything BUT “common”. And it was reflected in where the Clintons went to on their summer vacations in the 1990’s. Sure Bill may TALK like a “common man”, but the “common man” doesn’t attend exclusive resorts and play volleyball with the creators of the NBC series “The West Wing”. The “common man” doesn’t have the knowledge or the finances to turn a $1000 investment into $100,000 overnight. In short, there is a lot about Bill and Hillary that is NOT “common”.

George W. Bush certainly appealed to the stereotypical “common man”. Here’s a guy who wasn’t an honor student. He has a history of drug and alcohol excess. He fumbles, bumbles, and mangles the English language like a frog in a blender. He talks and swaggers like a Texas redneck. Everything that you would expect of a “common man” leader, and he eagerly flaunts it.

Unfortunately that “common man” appeal also works against us in the world stage. More often than naught we’re smacking our heads wondering what the hell we just unleashed. We didn’t elect a diplomat, someone who could tackle the nuances of intellectual discord and slice through the lies and manipulations and still have us sound as magnanimous as we expect. No, we elected a redneck dry-drunk who acts like he’s still looking to settle the last bar fight he was in.

Clearly we want someone who works FOR us, but yet somehow still be just a little bit better than us.

And there’s really nothing wrong with that! There’s nothing wrong with expecting more of ourselves than what we are right now. That’s the real secret behind all of the changes in society.

But politicians love to stir the populist kettle and claim to be no different than the rest of us. Hillary’s sudden development of a southern drawl, and her desire to enjoy “a beer and a shot” at a local bar is a great example of this. At least when her husband visited the local McDonald’s at the start of his Presidential tenure it was genuine. It was something that he did when he was governor and he WANTED to continue it as President if not for the hassles from the Secret Service. Hillary’s sudden “common woman” appeal, though, had all of the appearances of it being staged.

Obama tries to fit in with the “common man” too, by going bowling and playing basketball. And maybe it is his background and where he comes from, but he manages to pull it off, which is why he was able to generate so much populist appeal.

McCain tries to fit in, which explains his eternal “Straight Talk Express” concept. But unfortunately he has been a Washington politician for far too long. He has as much “common man” appeal as Hillary.

And thus we have McCain’s attack on Obama as an “elitist”, picking up from Hillary’s original complaint on the young man from Chicago as being too much of a snooty intellectual to understand what the “common man” wants. A charge that is easily demonstrated on both McCain and Hillary; but, like I said, hypocrisy is pretty much a required element now in presidential politics.

I would dare suspect that this is also partly behind McCain’s pick of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Not just because she’s a woman, or even as a neo-con politician, but because she’s seen a “common man’s” woman. A verifiable redneck woman; right out of Gretchen Wilson’s stereotypical song. Make babies and field-dress a moose and look just as comfortable in city hall as in a double-wide while belting out a hearty “Hell Yeah!”

So what’s with the celebrity slam?

Well that’s just part of the “snooty intellectual” attack. Celebrities are seen as being out of touch with the rest of society. They live in their own little world, with their own little ideas of how the world should be. They surround themselves with myrmidons who tell them anything that they want to hear, and they’re loved and adored blindly by mindless fans that would do anything to just get a taste of the experience.

McCain likes to paint Obama to be like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, not because they’re rich white women, but because they both have had highly publicized meltdown moments. Paris had her sex tape and personal photos leaked out to the Internet, and Britney had her nervous breakdowns, complete with a shaved-head and botched public appearances. If she were still alive, I’m certain Obama would be painted to be like Anna Nicole Smith as well. Anything to demonize Obama’s meteoric popularity and dismiss it as being just another pop fad that will fade away when the next “cool thing” comes along.

Plus celebrities really have been getting plenty of bad press of late.

But there is an inherent flaw in decrying the celebrity status… and that is that if you’re running for the highest office in the country, then YOU NEED to be a celebrity to pull it off!

Let’s get brutally honest here… if you are a popular candidate for president, then you are BY DEFINITION a celebrity! There is no such thing as a “sure bet nobody” in this campaign system. You may not be hanging out with Lindsey Lohan, but you certainly can’t get elected if you’re not in the same league as her or the rest of the “untouchables”.

Think for a minute about all of the other people who have been running in the primaries and caucuses against Obama and McCain. You may have known about SOME of them, but what about the ones that you knew NOTHING about?

Project Vote-Smart has a complete list of ALL of the candidates, including plenty of Democrats and Republicans that you NEVER heard about at all! How about a black woman named Michael Powell? She’s running for President as a Democrat! Or a white devoutly Christian woman named Virginia Algar? She has more military experience than Palin, and she’s also running for President as a Republican!

You never heard about them, because the party bosses decided that they weren’t worth supporting.

Long before you can become the “official” nominee, you have to have enough popularity to pass the primaries and caucuses. You HAVE to become popular. You have to become… a celebrity!

That’s the real secret to the “Kennedy mystique” that plagued Republicans. John Kennedy got elected, not just because of hard-ball Democrat politics, but also because he used the celebrity status to his advantage. He even got Frank Sinatra and his friends in the Rat Pack to push for him. Bobby Kennedy rode that same celebrity wave until his unfortunate demise. Teddy, on the other hand, couldn’t do it. He wasn’t as much a celebrity as his older brothers, but he still had enough political stroke to pass it on to Obama.

Even if the Republicans don’t win this November, Sarah Palin, by the simple act of being put on the ticket, is now a celebrity in her own right. Every time the media gushes praise about her and talks about how she is a “rising star”, they are reaffirming her status as the new celebrity. And don’t forget, McCain has been a celebrity for a while now. His campaign would have NEVER gotten past its financial dry spell early in the primary and caucus season if not for the fact that he was a political celebrity that stood out above the others.

Being a celebrity is not, in and of itself, a curse. It is merely a sign of interest, for good reasons or bad. In the world of politics, if you’re not a celebrity, then you don’t get the perks that go with it. John McCain and Sarah Palin are as much political celebrities as Barack Obama and Joe Biden… not to mention “Tom”, “Ted”, “Rich”, “Ron”, and “Will”… and, for that matter, are pretty much in the same league as Britney, Paris, and Lindsey.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Week of 09/08/2008

War Mentality: The Ultimate Corruption
– by David Matthews 2

In the movie “The Dark Knight”, Gotham City is besieged by a new criminal leader calling himself The Joker. And what makes this scar-marked makeup-wearing jester so dangers is that he is nothing like any of the criminals Gotham City ever encountered. He rewards loyalty with disloyalty, he robs for seemingly no reason, he kills for seemingly no purpose, and he holds nothing sacred. NOTHING!

He is the perfect foil for the Batman. Here is a character that seemingly has no morals, no standards, and no rules whatsoever! He trashes everything that people cherish. He is everything that Batman is not. Where the Batman has a double life, the Joker seemingly doesn’t have one. While the Batman has expensive high-tech tools at his disposal, the Joker tries to keep things simple… things like gasoline and guns and knives. And where the Batman has friends and loved ones and allies, the Joker has only people who obey him for fear that they may be killed, even though they may be killed anyway.

Where Batman fights for order, the Joker champions pure chaos. And where the Batman has rules (even “just one”), the Joker’s only rule is that there are no rules.

The Joker is, without a shadow of a doubt, an actual true-blue absolute ANARCHIST!

And here you thought that those were just a myth!

And the central point of the Joker’s message of chaos and anarchy is his continued assertion that nobody is good, noble, or decent. That EVERYONE can be bought, EVERYONE can be a hypocritize, and EVERYONE can be corrupted.

Everything that the Joker does in the movie is a reflection of his central point. He plays mind games on people, saint and sinner alike, to prove that there really is no difference between them.

At the climax of the movie, the Joker holds two ferries full of people hostage. He’s rigged both of them with explosives and left each ship’s captain a device that he claimed would detonate the other ferry. One ferry is full of ordinary citizens. The other is full of convicted prisoners with armed guards. Both ships would be destroyed at midnight if one of them doesn’t destroy the other first.

Mind-boggling, isn’t it? Who would be more willing to kill the other? That’s all part of the Joker’s master plan. Everything is done to generate chaos and fear, which makes people more willing to do what he ultimately wants them to do.

It’s all about one thing: corruption. That’s the central theme of the whole movie. Who is willing to sacrifice everything they believe in?

To some extent, it’s something that we all have to deal with in our lives. We all have to decide what kind of sacrifice we need to make. What kind of things can we live with to get through the day?

That’s all that corruption is. We call it compromise, but in most instances, we’re the only ones that are giving up anything of value.

A police officer chooses to not obey the law in order to get some fast cash. The other party is willing to give up the money, so the only sacrifice here is the police officer’s morals. That’s not a compromise, because there’s nothing mutual about that kind of sacrifice. That’s a personal surrender. That’s a cop that believes that the law isn’t as important as money.

That’s the real difference between corruption and compromise. There HAS to be a mutual sacrifice for a common good for it to be called compromise. If there isn’t a mutual sacrifice, then you’re just prostituting yourself and what you believe in.

A cop on the take essentially says “my badge and everything it represents is for sale. Let’s find out how much it’s worth.”

Of course when we talk about corruption, we can’t forget about politicians. These are the REAL masters of corruption. They know who is for sale, what is for sale, and for how much! In fact the only difference between a politician and a prostitute is that a prostitute will screw WITH people for money, while a politician will screw people OVER for money.

To be certain, there are uncorrupted politicians. There are politicians that stand for and actually practice certain principles. Those are the politicians that usually don’t go very far in the halls of governments large and small… and more often then naught it’s small. They don’t advance. They don’t excel. Their efforts are stymied at every corner by those who sell their principles and their platforms and their votes like they work in a Nevada brothel.

But they’re not the only ones so badly stained by corruption that it has become part of the institution itself. Religious leaders are that way as well.

See if any of this sounds familiar… you’re part of a major religious organization with influence around the world. Your organization is so large that you actually have your own country. It is an organization that has traditionally sold spiritual forgiveness for money. It advocates peace and turning-the-other-cheek but has a verifiable history of torture and outright murder. It has, in the past, allowed evil to thrive simply because the evil was committed against those that were not a part of the organization. And now you discover that there are those within that same organization that are repeatedly doing unspeakable things with children.

How do you react to that kind of discovery? Are you shocked by it? Are you disgusted? Angry? And what is your first concern? Is it for the victims? Is it for justice? Or is it for “the image” of the institution?

If you think about it, this organization – and you really don’t have to go very far to guess which one I’m talking about – has already been corrupted by its own previous actions. It is so corrupted by what it has done that it treats this new scandal as simply just another sacrifice. It doesn’t even faze them when they discover how pervasive this discovery is. Shuffle the guilty people around, buy off the victims and their families, and just carry on like it never happened.

THAT is corruption, boys and girls! It is corruption that is so pervasive that it literally is part of the institution itself.

But the real prize in corruption is not going after those that have already compromised everything they believe in. Rather it is in corrupting those that claim that they ARE NOT for sale, or that they support things that are not for sale.

We like to say that our values and our votes are not for sale, but how many of you HAVE actually surrendered what you believe in? The vast majority of you do so every Election Day when you surrender your principles and vote for someone you may not like, but you feel you HAVE to vote for so the other person doesn’t win.

How many of you have been completely disgusted by the quality of our elected officials? How many of you yearn for someone different? How many of you WANT a third party choice or an independent candidate? And yet, when one is provided… how many of you will categorically REFUSE to vote for that candidate? Or, worse yet, how many of you will actively condemn that candidate and anyone who supports that candidate?

Why? Because, you say, that the independent candidate doesn’t “stand a chance of winning.” And yet if you have ENOUGH people who WANT that kind of third option, wouldn’t it prove that the candidate DOES have a chance of winning? Your whole argument is defeated right there.

Or perhaps you tell yourself that, while you would LIKE to see the independent candidate win, it’s more important to make sure that one of the OTHER candidates DOESN’T. You convince yourself that you’re not voting FOR a person, but that you’re voting AGAINST someone else.

If you fall under either of those two categories, then let’s face it… YOU ARE CORRUPT! You have already prostituted your beliefs and your Election Day support. You have proven that what you believe is for sale. Maybe it’s not done for money, and most often it’s not, but certainly what you CLAIM to value is ultimately meaningless if you can surrender it for someone else’s ulterior motive.

But there are still people who believe that there are certain principles that ARE NOT for sale or negotiation. They believe so firmly on these principles that they will gladly give up their lives for them.

For those people, we have the ultimate in temptation… WAR!

You say that you’re willing to give up your life for those principles? Well, we’ll take you up on that offer. We’ll give you an enemy to fight, and a battlefield to fight in, and we’ll give you the tools you’ll need to fight that enemy.

Oh, and by the way, the enemy won’t be hampered by those principles that you cherish. They’ll be free to fight any way they can, and they’ll use anything and everything at their disposal, and the only way that you can win is if you fight just as low and as dirty as they are. Good luck!

Let’s get brutally honest here… when it comes to corruption, be it of the individual, an institution, or even a country, you cannot find a greater tool for corruption than WAR. WAR is the ultimate corruptor!

And what makes WAR so insidious is the mentality that goes with it. Sure you can CLAIM to fight for certain causes, and for a while you may actually do just that. But after a while, you start to feel those causes be a burden or even a hindrance to the ultimate goal to fighting that war… which is TO WIN!

This is why tyrants love to wage war. They love war because they know that as long as they can keep that war mentality going, they can convince people to give up EVERYTHING they have and EVERYTHING they believe in to fight it.

Don’t believe in killing? Well a war mentality eliminates that right off the bat. You don’t want to kill, well then you’re a gutless coward that has no business even breathing air in OUR country! GET OUT!

You’re willing to fight and die for our war? Then the war mentality will see just how FAR you’re willing to take things. Are you ready to kill innocent people to win? Not just accidentally shoot people who turn out to be innocent, but actually outright MURDER innocent people just to send a message to the enemy? No? Why not? The enemy does that! The enemy will KILL anything and everything to get what it wants, and if you’re not willing to do the same, then you’re a LOSER and a COWARD!

Are you willing to go after your own people? The war mentality will certainly demand that you do, because the enemy certainly will. We’re in a war and we CANNOT afford to have people who are not as loyal and devoted and committed to the cause as we are! If you can’t match our loyalty and our devotion, then YOU’RE A TRAITOR!

And all the while you’re beating your chest about how we need to win this war at all costs, take a look at what is happening in the meantime. The very things that you’re fighting this war for… the very principles and standards and values that you pledged to give your life up to defend… are being surrendered in the name of fighting this war! The very principles and standards and values that you once claimed were eternal and everlasting and should NEVER be sacrificed EVER! They’re gone!

And that is precisely the ultimate goal of a tyrant. That’s how they’re able to subvert the masses.

Look at the Middle East. The continued call for a holy war… the jihad… is painted as not just a “spiritual struggle”, but a physical one waged against real people. And to wage it, the devout Muslim supposedly has to do anything and everything possible.

Look at the former Soviet Union. It wasn’t enough to create what they deemed to be a “social and political utopia” (which was what “The Communist Manifest” was supposedly about), but they had to wage war AGAINST the forces of capitalism to preserve it. And to that end, the Soviet citizens were told that they had to commit everything they had to their military. Nuclear missiles were more important than food. Military resorts were more important than toilet paper.

Look at the United States. When we weren’t fighting the Cold War, we were fighting the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Crime, and the War on Sex. And now, of course, we have the War on Terror and the War on Corporations. And we use anything to justify them, and we use them to justify giving up EVERYTHING we believe in.

Listen to some of the rhetoric! “We don’t torture…” unless we suspect that there MIGHT be something bad happening, and then it’s okay to torture. We have Supreme Court Justices that have ACTUALLY USED the fictional TV show “24” to justify torture!

We believe in free speech… unless it involves opposing any of our aforementioned “wars”, both actual and political. Then we’ll silence those voices, because we don’t want to “demoralize our forces”.

We believe in freedom of the press… unless it shows caskets of dead soldiers or of people protesting any of our aforementioned “wars”. We recently had credential-carrying reporters ARRESTED by the police simply for being AT anti-war protests!

We believe in privacy… unless we SUSPECT there might be something bad going on, and then, just like we “don’t torture”, we “don’t eavesdrop” without warrants. We don’t even use the special courts that we had set up that would allow us to “not eavesdrop” for up to six months without checking with them after-the-fact. The most permissive court in the world for a power-mad government, and we STILL want to bypass it!

We believe in the freedom of religion… but we give preferential treatment to some religious beliefs and subjugate others. We will outright LIE about what the First Amendment really says about religion, and believe that it only applies to OUR personal religious beliefs, and that no other beliefs matter. And we will incorporate the same WAR mentality in our “peace-loving” religion that the clerics in the Middle East have been using.

And when I say “we”, I don’t just mean President George W. Bush or Vice-President Dick Cheney or any number of their acolytes and surrogates and sympathizers. I don’t just mean the conservative talk radio hosts or the eager tools in Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. I don’t just mean the families of servicemen and women. I mean “we” as in ALL OF US - supporters, opponents, and those in-between one-and-all - because they’re supposedly doing this all ON BEHALF of all of us.

And all of it is justifiable. All of it is rationalized as being essential to fighting any number of “wars” that we are engaged in, especially the ones that involve tanks and bombs and guns.

All the while, though, we beat ourselves in the chest and crow on and on about how “our principles” are strong and eternal. We convince ourselves that our cause is just and that we’re waging these wars IN THE NAME OF the very principles and values that we have just surrendered.

We are, in effect, liars and hypocrites and whores when we do that.

But we’ll never see it like that. We will never admit to being those things, because then we would have to own up to our own sins. We would have to explain to our children and to our grandchildren how we could prostitute ourselves and our beliefs in the name of something that we demonstrated to be far greater… namely, war.

By the end of the movie “The Dark Knight”, Batman discovered what he had to do in order to defeat the Joker. He had to give up everything that he worked so hard to build. He had to give up those he loved. He had to give up friends and allies, people who would do anything to support him. And he had to convince people that he was, in effect, no different than the Joker. No matter what Batman and his allies did, the Joker ended up winning. That’s how far the corruption reached.

And before any of us can claim to be better than that, we need to open our eyes and take a GOOD HARD REAL LOOK at what is being done in our name and ask ourselves what REALLY makes us better than our enemies. If you cannot realistically answer that question, then you have no claim to being better. You’re just another corrupt hypocrite.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Week of 09/01/2008

McCain’s Gamble
– by David Matthews 2

At the start of the 2008 Presidential Election season, as states were having their orgy of primaries and caucuses, pundits and pontificators were talking about the distinct possibility that we could end up with either a black man or a woman becoming President of the United States. Oh they couldn’t stop talking about how WONDERFUL it would be that either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton could very well be the next President!

And when it became clear that Barack Obama was going to become the official nominee, many women voters felt pissed-off and betrayed, especially when Obama didn’t pick Hillary to be his running mate.

Well, if all turns out the way John McCain wants it to, it will once again be a race between the first black man and the first woman… although not for the same job.

Senator McCain has tapped Alaska’s governor, Sarah Palin, for the #2 slot on the GOP ticket, bypassing diehard GOP potentials like Mitt Romney, who spent his week serving as the official GOP heckler at the Democrats’ political mega-infomercial. She will be the first female running mate on the GOP ticket since their party was formed from the ruins of the Whig Party in 1854.

Big news, right? McCain thinks that he has pulled off a real coup here.

It certainly seemed to take the wind out of any kind of post-convention bump that Obama may have generated with his memorable acceptance speech. Instead of people gushing about the kind of message Obama made, they are asking just who the hell Governor Palin is and why she would be the “perfect choice” to be just a heart attack away from being the next President.

And if you think about it… at McCain’s age and with his medical history, that sort of worry is not just a remote possibility.

There are two trains of thought going on with McCain’s pick of an otherwise political unknown for his #2 slot.

The first is that Palin is, obviously, a woman. And a very photogenic one at that! McCain has been trying to covet the die-hard feminist extremist voters that were behind Hillary’s failed campaign, since the liberals have been screaming from day one that no Democrat can win in November without them. Add a woman to his ticket and the others will just come RUNNING over to his side.

The second train of thought is that Sarah Palin was picked to appease the extremists in the GOP. The conservatives and neo-conservatives have been very uncomfortable with the fact that McCain was tapped by the voters in the primaries and caucuses. They really wanted someone like Romney, or Mike Huckabee, or even Thug Rudy Giuliani. They’d even support a rotting log if they could put in on the ballot. Anybody BUT McCain!

And Sarah Palin is as ultra-conservative as you can get! Die-hard gun supporter. Die-hard Big Oil supporter. Die-hard anti-abortion supporter. Die-hard theocracy supporter. You can’t get any more red-meat red-state Republican without digging up that drunken fascist Joe McCarthy. She is every neo-conservative’s dream date!

Perfect choice, right?

Not really.

Okay, first of all, this woman has even LESS experience in government than Obama. Her tenure as that state’s governor is only two years old, and she won it because she ousted a scandal-ridden incumbent in the primary. McCain’s choice of Palin effectively eliminates any and ALL complaints the Republicans could ever make about Obama’s inexperience.

Obama at least can turn to Joe Biden for advice, and should anything happen to him, which would be unlikely, then Biden would have enough experience with Washington to fumble and bumble his way through. Plus, Biden has the desire to lead the nation since he has been an also-ran on more than one occasion. But it is even MORE likely that something tragic could happen to McCain while in office, and then that would leave us with someone who has more experience being a mother than being a leader. McCain may be willing to risk that, but would the GOP? And, for that matter, would the VOTERS?

As for placating the conservatives and neo-conservatives, bringing in Sarah Palin is a risky gamble, because while it WILL satisfy the 30% of Americans that still support and adore George W. Bush and his Imperium, he also needs to make sure that mainstream America will support it too, and they really aren’t too keen on a neo-conservative in the White House.

Let’s not forget that the Republicans were removed from power in the Congress in 2006 because of a long train of excesses, abuses, indictments, convictions, and out-and-out overall ineptitude. Even those conservatives that were not involved with the ongoing scandals and outright embarrassments were purged in the 2006 Mid-Term Elections. Remember Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania? He wasn’t indicted or convicted or even inferred to be connected to anything scandalous or embarrassing, but the simple fact that he was a conservative Republican in 2006 was enough for him to be voted out of office.

And then there’s this little recent nugget of truth: if the American people really believed that an extreme conservative or neo-conservative mentality is right for the White House, why did they vote for John McCain in the primaries and caucuses? Why didn’t they vote for someone like Mike Huckabee, who has even more experience as governor than Palin, and whose extreme conservative beliefs are a matter of public record?

Remember, the trend in Presidential elections is to pander to the extremes during the primaries and caucuses, and then pander to the mainstream in the general election. McCain is essentially doing this in reverse, pandering to the mainstream first and then going extreme in the general election.

Finally we get to the main argument… the big selling point for putting Sarah Palin in the running-mate spot. The belief that bringing in a woman will pander to the bitter supporters of Hillary Clinton and take them away from Barack Obama in the general election. And of that, I have a really simple question to ask…

Is John McCain REALLY that clueless when it comes to gauging women voters?

Seriously. Is he THAT dense?

Let’s get brutally honest here… the fanatical supporters of Hillary Clinton are not that way because she has a uterus. They are fanatical supporters of Clinton because she has a uterus AND because she supports liberal issues!

Clinton is pro-choice. Palin is anti-abortion. That difference, above everything else, will be the #1 killer of that argument. You can convince an anti-abortion supporter to side with a pro-choice candidate, but you really have a much harder time trying to convince a pro-choice supporter to side with an anti-abortion candidate.

Listen, when you’re dealing with a cult mentality born of a narcissistic personality such as those of the Clintons, substitutions simply will not suffice. And that is precisely what John McCain is trying to offer up with Sarah Palin. He is trying to sell her to the feminists as a substitute for Hillary, and that simply will not do.

Unfortunately for McCain, it appears that the buzz over his choice is already wearing thin. Plenty of people are already wondering if McCain made the right decision. To some extent this is good because it means that now they’re looking at what she has done and what she would bring to the campaign other than a pretty face. But for her sake, she had better have something more than just that.

Being Vice President of the United States can play many roles. In the case of an inexperienced leader, the VP serves as a seasoned advisor and mentor. For some, the VP role is sort of an understudy, preparing them for their eventual run as the successor. But in some rare instances, the VP selection is seen as a form of insurance… a way to make sure that they are not removed from office for fear that their successor would be an even worse option.

I would dare suspect that Sarah Palin was selected for the later reason. I just hope that the voters would not be willing to take McCain up on his gamble.