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17 April 2009

Obama Releases Bush-Era Memos Authorizing Torture Techniques, Rules Out Prosecuting CIA Interrogators Who Carried Them Out

Bailout Indignation, Ralph Nader

How about a test of your injustice barometer?

You might think that the reckless, avaricious, giant corporations, having shrunk the economy, cost millions of jobs and then demanded that taxpayers be dunned for years into the future for multi-trillion dollar bailouts, would show contrition, regret, or self-restraint of their power over Washington.

Forget it. They’re baaack! Their greed and power are revving up big time to bring Washington and you the taxpayer, you the parent, you the consumer, you the worker, to your knees.

Here is a sample of the appalling dynamics of corporate greed and continuing over-reach each day in your nation’s capital.

1. Just when people thought the taxpayer-subsidized corporate student loan racket was ended by the Democrats, Sallie Mae, its cohorts and lobbyists, like Jamie S. Gorelick of FannieMae notoriety, are descending on Congress. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that replacing these subsidized loans with direct Department of Education lending will save $94 billion over the next ten years.

It is long overdue to end this gouging, college payola giving, obscenely overcompensated industry, and give students an efficient and reasonable lending system. Still, Sallie Mae, Citigroup, Bank of America and others are swarming over Congress to retain a big piece of the action. “Why do we even need private lenders?” correctly asks Congressman Timothy H. Bishop, a former provost of Southampton College.

2. ABC News reports that banks are hiking already high credit card rates and other bank-related fees: “The Banks have been given billions of dollars of tax money and only lend it out if customers are willing to pay extortion rights,” said Tony Cesnik, a Concord, California, resident. Cesnik adds: “The banks need a legal spanking. They are acting like spoiled brats!” Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor and chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel agrees: “We’re asking taxpayers to pay twice.”

3. The big oil and gas companies are saturating the airwaves with ads warning about the Obama Administration’s alleged desire to tax them $400 billion. This will cost jobs and reduce the discovery of more oil and gas, they say. Where is this $400 billion figure from? Obama’s ambition is not much beyond repealing the tax breaks George W. Bush gave his oily friends for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico when oil was selling at less than $40 per barrel. Some of the oil industry’s own spokespersons admitted last year that their argument doesn’t hold water any more with such high oil prices and profits since then.

So what are the big oil corporations like Exxon doing with their excess profits that totaled a record $45 billion just for Exxon last year? They’re not even drilling on two-thirds of the acreage they have rights to explore. Instead Exxon is spending $35 billion to buy back its stock and hold in cash. When the next oil shock comes, Exxon will demand more tax breaks and other dispensations to fund its drilling. We’ve seen that game played out before at the gas pump.

4. Now comes Newsweek’s Michael Hirsh to report a private meeting recently between six senators and Obama in the White House where the president heard complaints that his proposed regulatory reforms were too weak and were being devised by his appointed officials who were part of the problem in Wall Street. Well, are you surprised that a new powerful lobby created by the likes of Citigroup, JPMorgan, and Goldman Sachs is gearing up to stop adequate regulation of “over the counter” derivatives, to keep these transactions secret, and to continue to permit what Hirsh called the “systemic risk that led to the crash.” This brazen move by the incorrigible banks is underway after they received huge bailout money from Washington. Beware they may yet demand and receive another big bundle.

5. With workers losing millions of jobs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and virtually the entire business juggernaut are amassing tens of millions of dollars to stop the union-facilitating “card-check” legislation and any effort to bring the federal minimum wage up to what is was back in 1968, no less, adjusted for inflation. It is now about three dollars short of that modest goal for hard-pressed laborers, many without health insurance.

6. And oh, how these company bosses are fighting to keep their big bonuses going as a reward for tanking many of their own companies. Call it hubris, arrogance, disdain for common decencies of the American people, it all reflects too much corporate power over our lives—a judgment over 75 percent of Americans share.

All this lobbying of Congress and the White House year after year pays off. A study by three Kansas University professors found that a single tax break in 2004 earned drug, manufacturing, and other companies $220 for every dollar they spent in their cash register politicking. Presently, Lockheed Martin is spending millions of our taxpayer dollars to oppose Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and many other defense experts who want to finally shut down the price-skyrocketing F-22 fighter extravaganza designed for combat in the Soviet Union-era.

So, are you more upset than when you started reading this column? Feel frustrated and powerless? With your friends, ask your Senators and Congressperson during their frequent recesses for a three-hour public accountability session. If you can assemble 300 or more residents, after you rev up your community, you’re likely to have your elected representatives come to an auditorium where you live and work. If they think 500 people will show up, it is even more likely. Especially if you are organized and tell them this is just the beginning. Just the beginning!

Without the rumble from the people back home, a majority of the 535 members of Congress will continue to kowtow to about 1500 corporations and you’ll pay the price again and again. So, rumble, rumble, rumble!

16 April 2009

Pepe Escobar on The Rise of Fascism

The most important piece he's ever done for The Real News Network.

15 April 2009

Macbeth, Orson Welles, 1948

Click the button at the top of the video below to watch the full film.


Watch Macbeth (1948, Orson Welles) in Drama | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com


And check out this Welles' radio version from 1940:

My Letter to Clark University President and Hillel Head on the Finkelstein Cancellation

Click above for more information.

Dear Sirs:

Once again, a university has bowed to pressure to limit free speech and academic freedom. Once again, in so doing, it has made itself a laughing-stock and has amplified the message of the person disinvited. The excuses are transparently false. From Freud to Fraud in just under a century; you must be so proud. Well done!

I understand that a college president’s main job is to ensure the flow of funding, but one would hope that some vague notion of the educational purpose of the university would still occasionally penetrate the miasma of corporate decision-making.

As for Hillel’s position, take it from this American Jew whose family lost members during the Nazi holocaust: by using that historical event to undermine, Nazi-like, the free speech and academic freedom of a nonviolent scholar, you have committed one of the worst moral atrocities I can imagine that doesn’t entail physical violence. Well done!

This is surely the triumph of ethnocentrism over ethics, and it pretty much solidifies in the public’s mind that Dr. Finkelstein’s work on Israeli crimes in the occupied territories, and the ideological use of the Holocaust to silence those crimes, is pretty much on the ball.

I’m of two minds on this — on the one hand, I’d like to see you stop your hysterical jihad against Finkelstein; on the other hand, said hysteria is the best imaginable publicity for his utterly crucial message. Given my experience with Hillel and other supposedly representative Jewish organizations, there is little chance that any of you will stop acting like little Dershowitzes, so my desires are probably beside the point.

So, keep up the good work: your hysterical reactions only serve to widen the cracks in American Zionism.

Yours,

Doug Tarnopol

14 April 2009

Czar Obama, Bruce Fein

First paragraph:

President Barack Obama's claim to czarlike powers in a perpetual global war against international terrorism has been blunted by a judicial appointee of former President George W. Bush. Last week, in the case Fadi al Maqaleh, United States District Judge John D. Bates denied that President Obama could make suspected "enemy combatants" disappear into the Bagram Theater Internment Facility at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan without an opportunity for exoneration. (While President Obama has abandoned the term enemy combatantfor Guantanamo Bay detainees, he has retained the label for detainees held elsewhere.)

Israel's Racist-in-Chief, Chris Hedges

Posted on Apr 13, 2009

Gore Vidal With Bill Maher | April 10, 2009

My first playlist was taken down -- well, the videos in that playlist, that is. Here's another one: skip ahead to Vidal, unless you want to hear what Ron Howard has to say.

Post-Bailout Interest-Rate Hikes? Say No!

Consumers Union Action Fund

Bank of America last week zapped millions of credit card customers with big interest rate hikes. Banks say if they can’t randomly change the deal you agreed to, it will ‘harm consumers and the economy.’

We say "No!"-- help us say it loud enough so Congress acts!

Dear Doug,

Just a one-vote margin got the credit card reform bill out of the Senate banking committee. And the powerful banking lobby is licking its chops at the thought of weakening the bill or outright killing it when it comes up soon before the bitterly divided Senate.

We’re too close to victory to let the banks have their way again. Getting you the credit card deal you signed up for isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue, it’s simply putting fairness back into laws that for too long have been skewed in favor of the banks.

Help us seize this opportunity. Give $5 to push reform across the finish line!

The bank and credit card lobbyists are swarming Washington to gut the bills, claming they will “harm consumers and the economy at the very time our country can least afford it.” Say what?

This is the same industry that wrote the contracts that allow them to jack up your card’s interest rate at any time, for any reason, even when you pay your bill on time -- just as Bank of America did last week. Or charge you a 27 percent ‘penalty’ interest rate for as long as they want for the most minor infraction, such as paying your bill three days late.

The legislation would make the banks treat you fairly: Charge interest rates that you agreed to pay, apply your payments more fairly to higher-interest balances, and impose reasonable fees. It’s not a free ride for consumers or the banks.

We have a tried-and-true strategy; your $5 support will help us finish the job.

Abusive credit card tactics affect each of us, and we think our economy will have trouble recovering unless we stop them. We have a very real opportunity right now -- let’s get the bill across the finish line!

Times are tough, which is why we’re asking for a little help from a lot of folks. Your support today will help us make your family's finances, health and safety a top priority in Washington in the coming months. 

And even if you can’t give, please forward this on to friends and family so they can join the effort to give everyone a fair deal.

Sincerely,
Kathy Mitchell
Consumers Union Action Fund, Inc.

Noam Chomsky - New Strategies For The Obama Era

Noam Chomsky answers audience questions about the CIA, Finkelstein, etc.

13 April 2009

CPAs MIA, Ralph Nader

Where were the giant accounting firms, the CPAs, and the rest of the accounting profession while the Wall Street towers of fraud, deception and cover-ups were fracturing our economy, looting and draining trillions of dollars of other peoples’ money?

This is the licensed profession that is paid to exercise independent judgment with independent standards to give investors, pension funds, mutual funds, and the rest of the financial world accurate descriptions of corporate financial realities.

It is now obvious that the accountants collapsed their own skill, integrity and self-respect faster and earlier than the collapse of Wall Street and the corporate barons. The accountants—both external and internal—could have blown the whistle on what Teddy Roosevelt called the “malefactors of great wealth.”

The Big Four auditors knew what was going on with these complex, abstractly structured finance instruments, these collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and other financial products too abstruse to label. They were on high alert after early warning scandals involving Long Term Capital Management, Enron, and others a decade or so ago.

These corporate casino capitalists used the latest tricks to cook the books with many of the on-balance sheet or off-balance sheet structured investment vehicles that metastasized big time in the first decade of this new century. These big firms can’t excuse themselves for relying on conflicted rating companies, like Moody’s or Standard & Poor, that gave triple-A ratings to CDO tranches in return for big fees. Imagine the conflict. After all, “prestigious” outside auditors were supposed to be on the inside incisively examining the books and their footnotes, on which the rating firms excessively relied.

Let’s be specific with names. Carl Olson, chairman of the Fund for Stockowners Rights wrote in the letters column of The New York Times Magazine (January 28, 2009 [sic, 18Jan09]) that “PricewaterhouseCoopers O.K.’d AIG and FreddieMac. Deloitte & Touche certified Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns. Ernst & Young vouched for Lehman Brothers and IndyMac Bank. KPMG assured over Countrywide and Wachovia. These ‘Big Four’ C.P.A. firms apparently felt they could act with impunity.”

“Undoubtedly they knew that the state boards of accountancy,” continued Mr. Olson, “which granted them their licenses to audit, would not consider these transgressions seriously. And they were right…Not one of them has taken up any serious investigation of the misbehaving auditors of the recent debacle companies.”

“Misbehaving” is too kind a word. The “Big Four” destroyed their very reason for being by their involvement in these and other boondoggles that have made headlines and dragooned our federal government into bailing them out with disbursements, loans and guarantees totaling trillions of dollars. “Criminally negligent” is a better phrase for what these big accounting firms got rich doing—which is to look the other way.

Holding accounting firms like these accountable is very difficult. It got more difficult in 1995 when Congress passed a bill shielding them from investor lawsuits charging that they “aided and abetted” fraudulent or deceptive schemes by their corporate clients. Clinton vetoed the legislation, but Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) led the fight to over-ride the veto.

Moreover, the under-funded and understaffed state boards of accountancy are dominated by accountants and are beyond inaction. What can you expect?

As for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), “asleep at the switch for years” would be a charitable description of that now embarrassed agency whose mission is to supposedly protect savers and shareholders. This agency even missed the massive Madoff Ponzi scheme.

The question of accounting probity will not go away. In the past couple of weeks, the non-profit Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB)—assigned to be the professional conscience of accountancy—buckled under overt pressure from Congress and the banks. It loosened the mark-to-market requirement to value assets at fair market value or what buyers are willing to pay.

This decision by the FASB is enforceable by the SEC and immediately “cheered Wall Street” and pushed big bank stocks upward. Robert Willens, an accounting analyst, estimated this change could boost earnings at some banks by up to twenty percent. Voilà, just like that. Magic!

Overpricing depressed assets may make bank bosses happy, but not investors or a former SEC Chairman, Arthur Levitt, who was “very disappointed” and called the FASB decision “a step toward the kind of opaqueness that created the economic problems that we’re enduring today.”

To show the deterioration in standards, banks tried to get the FASB and the SEC in the 1980s to water down fair-value accounting during the savings and loan failures. Then-SEC Chairman Richard Breeden refused outright. Not today.

Former SEC chief accountant, Lynn Turner, presently a reformer of his own profession, supports mark-to-market or fair value accounting as part of bringing all assets and liabilities, including credit derivatives, back on the balance sheets of the financial firms. He wants regulation of the credit rating agencies, mortgage originators and the perverse incentives that lead to making bad loans. He even wants the SEC to review these new financial products before they come to market, eliminating “hidden financing.”

Now comes the life insurance industry, buying up some small banks to qualify for their own large federal bailouts for making bad, risky speculations.

The brilliant Joseph M. Belth, writing in his astute newsletter, the Insurance Forum (May 2009), noted that life insurers are lobbying state insurance departments to weaken statutory accounting rules so as to “increase assets and/or decrease liabilities.” Some states have already caved. Again, voilà, suddenly there is an increase in capital. Magic. Here we go again.

Who among the brainy, head up accountants, in practice or in academia, will join with Lynn Turner and rescue this demeaned, chronically rubber-stamping “profession,” especially the “Big Four,” from its pathetic pretension for which tens of millions of people are paying dearly?

Noam Chomsky on the Global Economic Crisis, Health Care, U.S. Foreign Policy and Resistance to American Empire