Wednesday, February 18, 2009

US occupation of Iraq: An ongoing criminal enterprise

US occupation of Iraq: An ongoing criminal enterprise

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Recent media reports on the mounting evidence of wholesale corruption in US reconstruction efforts in Iraq are symptomatic of the criminal nature of Washington’s war and occupation from their inception nearly six years ago. These crimes are continuing under the Obama administration, with no end in sight.

Citing unnamed senior government officials and court documents, the New York Times reported Sunday that federal investigators have turned their sights on two senior US military officers who were in charge of contracting out reconstruction projects in Iraq in the aftermath of the March 2003 invasion.

Those named as subjects of the probe are Col. Anthony B. Bell, now retired from the Army, who was in charge of reconstruction contracting in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and Lt. Col. Ronald W. Hirtle of the Air Force, who functioned as a top contracting officer in Baghdad in 2004.

According to the Times, information about multimillion-dollar payoffs and bribes involving the office where the two men worked was supplied by Dale Stoffel, an American arms dealer who was shot to death in Iraq in late 2004, shortly after becoming a key witness for US investigators.

Citing two senior federal officials, the newspaper reports that Stoffel “drew a portrait worthy of a pulp crime novel: tens of thousands of dollars stuffed into pizza boxes and delivered surreptitiously to the American contracting offices in Baghdad, and payoffs made in paper sacks that were scattered in ‘dead drops’ around the Green Zone.”

The investigation covers “a period when millions of dollars in cash, often in stacks of shrink-wrapped bricks of $100 bills, were dispensed from a loosely guarded safe in the basement of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces,” the Times reports. It adds, “Former American officials describe payments to local contractors from huge sums of cash dumped onto tables and stuffed into sacks as if it were Halloween candy.”

Among the other cases cited by the newspaper are those of Army Maj. John Cockerham, who “pleaded guilty to accepting nearly $10 million in bribes as a contracting officer,” and that of a civilian contracting official who “committed suicide in 2006, a day after admitting to investigators that she had taken $225,000 in bribes to rig bids” in favor of a private firm.

Obviously, this official corruption was just the tip of the iceberg. If US companies were willing to pay hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in bribes, it was because they themselves could steal tens or even hundreds of millions once they secured government-paid reconstruction projects.

In some cases these contracts were awarded to major politically connected corporations, like Halliburton, formerly headed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bechtel. In others, it would appear, they went to those willing to pay the biggest bribes.

In an article published Monday, Patrick Cockburn, the veteran Middle East correspondent for the British daily Independent, points to the report issued at the beginning of this month by the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) entitled “Hard Lessons,” and suggests that out of the $125 billion in US funds supposedly directed to Iraqi reconstruction, as much as $50 billion may have gone missing.

This, he writes, would make it “the greatest fraud in US history… an even bigger theft than Bernard Madoff’s notorious Ponzi scheme.”

There is, however, a definite connection between these two forms of fraud and theft. Madoff’s financial operations were no mere aberration. Rather, they were part and parcel of the semi-criminal financial manipulation that served over the whole recent period as a means of effecting a vast redistribution of wealth from the masses of working people all over the globe to a narrow financial elite.

This same wealthy layer served as the key social constituency for the policy of aggressive--i.e., criminal--war implemented by the Bush administration with the aim of imposing US hegemony over the strategic oil producing regions of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia.

Billions of people all over the planet are now paying the price for these crimes, both financial and political. Nowhere is this truer than in Iraq.

While Washington and much of the media routinely crow about a supposed “return to normalcy” in Iraq, the conditions facing the country’s 28 million people remain appalling.

The human toll from nearly six years of US occupation is estimated, according to the most credible surveys, at over one million dead. According to the International Office on Migration, 2.8 million Iraqis are internally displaced persons, forced from their homes by the violence, and another 2.4 million are refugees who fled the country.

Having decimated Iraq’s infrastructure with the “shock and awe” bombardment of March 2003 and more than a decade of punishing economic sanctions that preceded it, Washington has done next to nothing to rebuild the country outside of efforts to reconstitute its security forces as a puppet army of repression. Instead, the so-called reconstruction effort has consisted of a massive looting operation by corporations awarded cost-plus contracts for work that in many cases was never done and in others done so badly as to be worthless.

Given that the SIGIR is headed by one Stuart Bowen, a former Bush aide from Texas who was part of the legal team that stole the 2000 election, it can be safely assumed that its findings cover up more than they reveal. Nonetheless, its reports provide a damning glimpse of the corruption, waste, brutality and incompetence that have characterized US operations in Iraq.

In one recent report, the SIGIR examines the work of a Defense Department task force assigned to focus on stimulating economic development by restarting former Iraqi state-owned enterprises which before the war employed over 200,000 workers. The SIGIR found that after spending $103 million, the task force “estimated a 24,500 jobs impact.” The report concluded however, that the Defense Department’s claim “does not provide a reliable basis” for estimating the actual number of people put back to work.

Another inspector general report concerns the reconstruction of a waste water treatment center demolished by the US military onslaught against the Iraqi city of Fallujah. It finds that after falling two years behind schedule and registering a tripling of total costs, the contractors had made no provisions to actually connect individual houses to the system. As a result, the report states, “Fallujah residents will not benefit from the wastewater treatment.”

The SIGIR report cites numerous similar cases in which projects were paid for several times over while remaining unfulfilled.

The result of this corruption and negligence is a continuing social catastrophe for the Iraqi people. According to a recent Oxfam report, the share of Iraqis without access to adequate water supplies rose from 50 percent to 70 percent from the start of the war to 2007.

According to the inspector general’s report, two-thirds of Baghdad’s sewage flows untreated into the city’s rivers and waterways, finding its way into the drinking water. The result is repeated deadly outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.

At least two-thirds of Iraqis are still plagued by inadequate power supplies as a result of the war’s destruction, with frequent and prolonged blackouts making normal economic and domestic life impossible.

The population remains mired in mass unemployment. According to official figures, 18 percent of Iraqis are jobless, with another 10 percent unable to find full-time employment.

Meanwhile, as part of the Status of Forces agreement reached last December between Washington and the regime in Baghdad, the US occupation forces are turning over as many as 17,000 detainees, the majority of them held without charges or trials, to Iraqi authorities, who are notorious for torturing prisoners. In so doing, the Obama administration is setting the stage for atrocities that will eclipse the horrors of Abu Ghraib.

The criminal US war in Iraq has not ended with the inauguration of President Barack Obama, and there are growing indications that it will continue even as his administration escalates the war in Afghanistan.

The architects and commanders of the military “surge” remain at their posts, from Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, to Centcom chief Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the head of US occupation forces in Iraq. Increasingly, these military figures are making known their opposition to even the limited withdrawal proposed by Obama.

The latest to publicly voice an opinion is Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, in charge of US training of Iraqi security forces, who told the Financial Times Monday that it would take until the end of 2011 to give these forces “a sustainable ground capability to fight the insurgency.” This follows open pressure by Petraeus and Odierno for Obama to drop his campaign pledge to withdraw US “combat troops” from Iraq within 16 months.

This plan always envisioned tens of thousands of US troops staying behind to conduct counter-insurgency operations and protect US interests in the country. The generals are reportedly urging Obama to merely reclassify large numbers of those now categorized as combat troops and keep them in Iraq as well.

Consumers Cut Food Spending Sharply

Consumers Cut Food Spending Sharply

Markets and Restaurants Feel the Pinch as People Purchase Generic Brands and Stay Home

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The bad economy is hitting America right in the stomach.

Consumers have cut back sharply on food spending, shunning restaurants, opting for generic products over brand names, trading in lattes for home-brewed coffee and shopping for bargains. That is hurting sales and profits at many food processors, grocery chains and restaurants.

[food consumption]

In 2008's fourth quarter, consumer spending on food fell at an inflation-adjusted 3.7% from the third quarter, according to data from the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis. That is the steepest decline in the 62 years the government has compiled the figure. The report is based on receipts from a sampling of food-oriented businesses across the country.

The big drop likely comes from two things, said Joseph Carson, an economist at AllianceBernstein who worked at the Commerce Department in the 1970s. First, consumers have been trading down to lower-priced items. Second, he thinks many households dug into their pantries for staples rather than going to the store, a trend that can't continue indefinitely. "You can't contract at this rate for long," he said. "It's just shocking."

Cindy Greco, a 45-year-old Chicago resident, said she's shopping more at Costco Wholesale Corp. stores and buying less expensive meat, such as chicken, shrimp and ground turkey, for her husband and 11-year-old daughter.

"I'm someone who used to never ever pay attention to the prices of groceries," Ms. Greco said while shopping Thursday at a Chicago supermarket. "But now it's a different story." She showed off a bottom round roast she had unearthed that was marked down to $7.21 from $18.26.

"In recent years, a lot of discretionary income has gone into buying fancier food, whether it's Starbucks coffee or prepared dinner or restaurant meals," said Barclays Capital economist Ethan Harris. Now, he said, that trend seems to be waning.

Last week, Kraft Foods Inc. lowered its earnings forecast for the year, saying customers are cutting back purchases of snack foods and trading down to private labels. Groupe Danone SA said this week that U.S. consumers sharply trimmed their purchases of yogurt and other dairy products at the end of last year.

Even makers of chocolates are worried about how well their products will sell for Valentine's Day on Saturday.

On Tuesday, Citi Investment Research warned of a "modern-day price war" based on Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s plan to freshen up its Great Value private-label foods and the analyst's expectation that it will trim national-brand prices. That could force grocery stores to cut prices to compete.

U.S. sales of private-label food rose 10% in 2008 from 2007, to $82.9 billion, according to a spokesman for the Private Label Manufacturers Association, citing Nielsen grocery-sales numbers. At the same time, branded food products saw sales rise 2.8% to $416.6 billion, he said.

When times get tough, restaurants are one of the first places where people economize. In its quarterly surveys, research firm WSL Strategic Retail of New York has found that more people are preparing food at home, eating at lower-priced restaurants when they do eat out and picking less pricey items from the menu.

"Food expenditures have dropped, but it's not because people have stopped eating," said WSL consultant Shilpa Rosenberry.

Declining sales at established locations have forced Starbucks Corp., Ruby Tuesday Inc. and other chains to shut hundreds of outlets and put many independent restaurants out of business.

On Wednesday, P.F. Chang's China Bistro Inc. said same-store sales fell 7.1% at its bistro locations in the fourth quarter, and the deterioration intensified as the quarter progressed. "The lights went out in December," Robert Vivian, the company's co-chief executive, told investors.

The shift has a silver lining for some companies. While supermarkets passed along last year's high ingredient costs to customers, McDonald's Corp. and other fast-food chains absorbed some of the expense and kept many items priced at $1. Now, some consumers consider a fast-food meal a bargain. On Monday, McDonald's said same-store sales rose 7.1% in January, including a 5.4% increase in the U.S.

Other consumers are opting for home cooking. In Bellevue, Neb., stock broker Kevin Vaughan and his wife cook chicken to make broth from scratch instead of buying it in cans, and use all of the resulting meat for multiple dishes.

[food spending]

"You'll have three or four meals off a $10 to $12 investment," he said. And there's another bonus from reduced food purchases, he added: less trash to take out.

Homeowners' rallying cry: Produce the note

Homeowners' rallying cry: Produce the note

By MITCH STACY

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Kathy Lovelace lost her job and was about to lose her house, too. But then she made a seemingly simple request of the bank: Show me the original mortgage paperwork.

And just like that, the foreclosure proceedings came to a standstill.

Lovelace and other homeowners around the country are managing to stave off foreclosure by employing a strategy that goes to the heart of the whole nationwide mess.

During the real estate frenzy of the past decade, mortgages were sold and resold, bundled into securities and peddled to investors. In many cases, the original note signed by the homeowner was lost, stored away in a distant warehouse or destroyed.

Persuading a judge to compel production of hard-to-find or nonexistent documents can, at the very least, delay foreclosure, buying the homeowner some time and turning up the pressure on the lender to renegotiate the mortgage.

"I'm going to hang on for dear life until they can prove to me it belongs to them," said Lovelace, a 50-year-old divorced mother who owns a $200,000 home in Zephyrhills, near Tampa. "I'll try everything I can because it's all I have left."

In interviews with The Associated Press, lawyers, homeowners and advocates outlined the produce-the-note strategy. Exactly how many homeowners have employed it is unknown. Nor is it clear how successful it has been; some judges are more sympathetic than others.

More than 2.3 million homeowners faced foreclosure proceedings last year and millions more are in danger of losing their homes. On Wednesday, President Obama will unveil a plan to spend at least $50 billion to help homeowners fend off foreclosure.

Chris Hoyer, a Tampa lawyer whose Consumer Warning Network Web site offers the free court documents Lovelace used to file her request, has played a major role in promoting the produce-the-note strategy.

"We knew early on that the only relief that would ever come to people would be to the people who were in their houses," Hoyer said. "Nobody was going to fashion any relief for people who have already lost their houses. So your only hope was to hang on any way you could."

Tom Deutsch, deputy executive director of the American Securitization Forum, a group that represents banks, law firms and investors, dismissed the strategy as merely a stalling tactic, saying homeowners are "making lawyers jump through procedural hoops to delay what's likely to be inevitable."

Deutsch said the original note is almost always electronically retained and can eventually be found.

Judges are often willing to accept electronic documentation. And lenders are sometimes allowed to produce other paperwork to establish they are the holder of a loan. Still, assembling such documents to a judge's satisfaction takes time, which to homeowners is the point.

Lovelace filed her produce-the-note demand last fall after the bank acknowledged that her original mortgage document had been lost or destroyed. Since then, there has been no activity on the foreclosure — no letters from the lender, no court filings.

The law firm handling the foreclosure for the lender refused to comment.

A University of Iowa study last year suggested that companies servicing mortgages are often negligent when it comes to producing the documentation to support foreclosure. In the study of more than 1,700 bankruptcy cases stemming from home foreclosures, the original note was missing more than 40 percent of the time, and other pieces of required documentation also were routinely left out.

The first big success of the produce-the-note movement came in 2007 when a federal judge in Cleveland threw out 14 foreclosures by Deutsche Bank National Trust Co. because the bank failed to produce the original notes.

Michael Silver, a lawyer for two of the families in that case, said at least one eventually lost their home. Still, he considers that a success.

"From the perspective of the person who's in the home, you may have kept them in the house another 10 or 12 months," he said. "If I can get a result with economic benefits to a client, then I think I won."

Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio endorsed the strategy in a fiery speech on the House floor during debate on the federal bank bailout last month.

"Don't leave your home," she said. "Because you know what? When those companies say they have your mortgage, unless you have a lawyer that can put his or her finger on that mortgage, you don't have that mortgage, and you are going to find they can't find the paper up there on Wall Street."

April Charney, head of foreclosure defense for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid in Florida, said the strategy has been so successful for her that she now travels around the country to train other lawyers in how to use it. She said she has gotten cases delayed for years by demanding that lenders produce paperwork they cannot find.

"This is an army of lawyers getting out there to stop foreclosures so we can get to the serious business of creating solutions," Charney said. "Nothing good is going to happen as long as we continue to bleed homeowners."

The Oligarchs' Escape Plan - at the Treasury's Expense

The Oligarchs’ Escape Plan – at the Treasury’s Expense

By Prof. Michael Hudson

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The financial “wealth creation” game is over. Economies emerged from World War II relatively free of debt, but the 60-year global run-up has run its course. Finance capitalism is in a state of collapse, and marginal palliatives cannot revive it. The U.S. economy cannot “inflate its way out of debt,” because this would collapse the dollar and end its dreams of global empire by forcing foreign countries to go their own way. There is too little manufacturing to make the economy more “competitive,” given its high housing costs, transportation, debt and tax overhead. A quarter to a third of U.S. real estate has fallen into Negative Equity, so no banks will lend to them. The economy has hit a debt wall and is falling into Negative Equity, where it may remain for as far as the eye can see until there is a debt write-down.

Mr. Obama’s “recovery” plan based on infrastructure spending will make real estate fortunes for well-situated properties along the new public transport routes, but there is no sign of cities levying a windfall property tax to save their finances. Their mayors would rather keep the cities broke than to tax real estate and finance. The aim is to re-inflate property markets to enable owners to pay the banks, not to help the public sector break even. So state and local pension plans will remain underfunded while more corporate pension plans go broke.

One would think that politicians would be willing to do the math and realize that debts that can’t be paid, won’t be. But the debts are being kept on the books, continuing to extract interest to pay the creditors that have made the bad loans. The resulting debt deflation threatens to keep the economy in depression until a radical shift in policy occurs – a shift to save the “real” economy, not just the financial sector and the wealthiest 10% of American families.

There is no sign that Mr. Obama’s economic advisors, Treasury officials and heads of the relevant Congressional committees recognize the need for a write-down. After all, they have been placed in their positions precisely because they do not understand that debt leveraging is a form of economic overhead, not real “wealth creation.” But their tunnel vision is what makes them “reliable” to Wall Street, which doesn’t like surprises. And the entire character of today’s financial crisis continues to be labeled “surprising” and “unexpected” by the press as each new surprisingly pessimistic statistic hits the news. It’s safe to be surprised; suspicious to have expected bad news and being a “premature doomsayer.” One must have faith in the system above all. And the system was the Greenspan Bubble. That is why “Ayn Rand Alan” was put in charge in the first place, after all.

So the government tries to recover the happy Bubble Economy years by getting debt growing again, hoping to re-inflate real estate and stock market prices. That was, after all, the Golden Age of finance capital’s world of using debt leverage to bid up the book-price of fictitious capital assets. Everyone loved it as long as it lasted. Voters thought they had a chance to become millionaires, and approved happily. And at least it made Wall Street richer than ever before – while almost doubling the share of wealth held by the wealthiest 1% of America’s families. For Washington policy makers, they are synonymous with “the economy” – at least the economy for which national economic policy is being formulated these days.

The Obama-Geithner plan to restart the Bubble Economy’s debt growth so as to inflate asset prices by enough to pay off the debt overhang out of new “capital gains” cannot possibly work. But that is the only trick these ponies know. We have entered an era of asset-price deflation, not inflation. Economic data charts throughout the world have hit a wall and every trend has been plunging vertically downward since last autumn. U.S. consumer prices experienced their fastest plunge since the Great Depression of the 1930s, along with consumer “confidence,” international shipping, real estate and stock market prices, oil and the exchange rate for British sterling. The global economy is falling into depression, and cannot recover until debts are written down.

Instead of doing this, the government is doing just the opposite. It is proposing to take bad debts onto the public-sector balance sheet, printing new Treasury bonds give the banks – bonds whose interest charges will have to be paid by taxing labor and industry.

The oligarchy’s plans for a bailout (at least of its own financial position)

In periods of looming collapse, wealthy elites protect their funds like rats fleeing a sinking ship. In times past they bought gold when currencies started to weaken. (Patriotism never has been a characteristic of cosmopolitan finance capital.) Since the 1950s the International Monetary Fund has made loans to support Third World exchange rates long enough to subsidize capital flight. In the United States over the past half-year, bankers and Wall Street investors have tapped the Treasury and Federal Reserve to support prices of their bad loans and financial gambles, buying out or guaranteeing $12 trillion of these junk debts. Protection for the U.S. financial elite thus takes the form of domestic public debt, not foreign currency.

It is all in vain as far as the real economy is concerned. When the Treasury gives banks newly printed government bonds in “cash for trash” swaps, it leaves today’s unpayably high private-sector debt in place. All that happens is that this debt is now owed to (or guaranteed by) the government, which will have to impose taxes to pay the interest charges.

The new twist is a variant on the IMF “stabilization” plans that lend money to central banks to support their currencies – for long enough to enable local oligarchs and foreign investors to move their savings and investments offshore at a good exchange rate. The currency then is permitted to collapse, enabling currency speculators to rake in enough gains to empty out the central bank’s reserves. Speculators view these central bank holdings as a target to be raided – the larger the better. The IMF will lend a central bank, say, $10 billion to “support the currency.” Domestic holders will flee the currency at a high exchange rate. Then, when the loan proceeds are depleted, the currency plunges. Wages are squeezed in the usual IMF austerity program, and the economy is forced to earn enough foreign exchange to pay back the IMF.

As a condition for getting this kind of IMF “support,” governments are told to run a budget surplus, cut back social spending, lower wages and raise taxes on labor so as to squeeze out enough exports to repay the IMF loans. But inasmuch as this kind “stabilization plan” cripples their domestic economy, they are obliged to sell off public infrastructure at distress prices – to foreign buyers who themselves borrow the money. The effect is to make such countries even more dependent on less “neoliberalized” economies.

Latvia is a poster child for this kind of disaster. Its recent agreement with Europe is a case in point. To help the Swedish banks withdraw their funds from the sinking ship, EU support is conditional on Latvia’s government agreeing to cut salaries in the private sector – and not to raise property taxes (currently almost zero).

The problem is that Latvia, like other post-Soviet economies, has scant domestic output to export. Industry throughout the former Soviet Union was torn up and scrapped in the 1990s. (Welcome to victorious finance capitalism, Western-style.) What they had was real estate and public infrastructure free of debt – and hence, available to be pledged as collateral for loans to finance their imports. Ever since its independence from Russia in 1991, Latvia has paid for its imported consumer goods and other purchases by borrowing mortgage credit in foreign currency from Scandinavian and other banks. The effect has been one of the world’s biggest property bubbles – in an economy with no means of breaking even except by loading down its real estate with more and more debt. In practice the loans took the form of mortgage borrowing from foreign banks to finance a real estate bubble – and their import dependency on foreign suppliers.

So instead of helping it and other post-Soviet nations develop self-reliant economies, the West has viewed them as economic oysters to be broken up to indebt them in order to extract interest charges and capital gains, leaving them empty shells. This policy crested on January 26, 2009, when Joaquin Almunia of the European Commission wrote a letter to Latvia’s Prime Minister spelling out the terms on which Europe will bail out the Swedish and other foreign banks operating in Latvia – at Latvia’s own expense:

Extended assistance is to be used to avoid a balance of payments crisis, which requires … restoring confidence in the banking sector [now entirely foreign owned], and bolstering the foreign reserves of the Bank of Latvia. This implies financing … outstanding government debt repayments (domestic and external). And if the banking sector were to experience adverse events, part of the assistance would be used for targeted capital infusions or appropriate short-term liquidity support. However, financial assistance is not meant to be used to originate new loans to businesses and households. …

… it is important not to raise ungrounded expectations among the general public and the social partners, and, equally, to counter misunderstandings that may arise in this respect. Worryingly, we have witnessed some recent evidence in Latvian public debate of calls for part of the financial assistance to be used inter alia for promoting export industries or to stimulate the economy through increased spending at large. It is important actively to stem these misperceptions.

Riots broke out last week, and protesters stormed the Latvian Treasury. Hardly surprising! There is no attempt to help Latvia develop the export capacity to cover its imports. After the domestic kleptocrats, foreign banks and investors have removed their funds from the economy, the Latvian lat will be permitted to depreciate. Foreign buyers then can come in and pick up local assets on the cheap once again.

The practice of European banks riding the crest of the post-Soviet real estate bubble is backfiring to wreck the European economies that have engaged in this predatory lending to neighboring economies as well. As one reporter has summarized:


In Poland 60 percent of mortgages are in Swiss francs. The zloty has just halved against the franc. Hungary, the Balkans, the Baltics, and Ukraine are all suffering variants of this story. As an act of collective folly – by lenders and borrowers – it matches America’s sub-prime debacle. There is a crucial difference, however. European banks are on the hook for both. US banks are not. Almost all East bloc debts are owed to West Europe, especially Austrian, Swedish, Greek, Italian, and Belgian banks.1

This was the West’s alternative to Stalinism. It did not help these countries emulate how Britain and America got rich by protectionist policies and publicly nurtured industrialization and infrastructure spending. Rather, the financial rape and industrial dismantling of the former Soviet economies was the most recent exercise in Western colonialism. At least U.S. investors were smart enough to stand clear and merely ride the stock market run-up before jumping ship.

But now, the government’s plan to “save” the economy is to “save the banks,” along similar lines to the West trying to save its banks from their adventure in the post-Soviet economies. This is the basic neoliberal economic plan, after all. The U.S. economy is about to be “post-Sovietized.”

The U.S. giveaway to banks, masquerading as “help for troubled homeowners”

The Obama bank bailout is arranged much like an IMF loan to support the exchange rate of foreign currency, but with the Treasury supporting financial asset prices for U.S. banks and other financial institutions. Instead of banks and oligarchs abandoning the dollar, the aim is to enable them to dump their bad mortgages and CDOs and get domestic Treasury bonds. Private-sector debt will be moved onto the U.S. Government balance sheet, where “taxpayers” will bear losses – mainly labor not Wall Street, inasmuch as the financial sector has been freed of income-tax liability by the “small print” in last autumn’s Paulson-Bush bailout package. But at least the U.S. Government is handling the situation entirely in domestic dollars.

As in Third World austerity programs, the effect of keeping the debts in place at the “real” economy’s expense will be to shrink the domestic U.S. market – while providing opportunities for hedge funds to pick up depreciated assets cheaply as the federal government, states and cities sell them off. This is called letting the banks “earn their way out of debt.” It’s strangling the “real” economy, because not a dollar of the government’s response has been devoted to reducing the overall debt volume.

Take the much-vaunted $50 billion program designed to renegotiate mortgages downward for “troubled homeowners.” Upon closer examination it turns out that the real beneficiaries are the giant leading banks such as Citibank and Bank of America that have made the bad loans. The Treasury will take on the bad debt that banks are stuck with, and will permit mortgagees to renegotiate their monthly payment down to 38% of their income. But rather than the banks taking the loss as they should do for over-lending, the Treasury itself will make up the difference – and pay it to the banks so that they will be able to get what they hoped to get. The hapless mortgage-burdened family stuck in their negative-equity home turns out to be merely a passive vehicle for the Treasury to pass debt relief on to the commercial banks.

Few news stories have made this clear, but the Financial Times spelled the details buried in small print.2 It added that the Treasury has not yet decided whether to write down the debt principal for the estimated 15 million families with negative equity (and perhaps 30 million by this time next year as property prices continue to plunge). No doubt a similar deal will be made: For every $100,000 of write-down in debt owed by over-mortgaged homeowners, the bank will receive $100,000 from the Treasury. Government debt will rise by $100,000, and the process will continue until the Treasury has transferred $50,000,000 to the banks that made the reckless loans.

There is enough for just 500 of these renegotiations of $100,000 each. Hardly enough to make much of a dent, but the principle has been put in place for many further bailouts. It will take almost an infinity of them, as long as the Treasury tries to support the fiction that “the miracle of compound interest” can be sustained for long. The danger is the economy may be dead by the time saner economic understanding penetrates the public consciousness. In the mean time, bad private-sector debt will be shifted onto the government’s balance sheet. Interest and amortization currently owed to the banks will be replaced by obligations to the U.S. Treasury. Taxes will be levied to make up the bad debts with which the government is stuck. The “real” economy will pay Wall Street – and will be paying for decades!

Calling the $12 trillion giveaway to bankers a “subprime crisis” makes it appear that bleeding-heart liberals got Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into trouble by insisting that these public-private institutions make irresponsible loans to the poor. The party line is, “Blame the victim.” But we know this is false. The bulk of bad loans are concentrated in the largest banks. It was Countrywide and other banksters that led the irresponsible lending and brought heavy-handed pressure on Fannie Mae. Most of the nation’s smaller, local banks didn’t make such reckless loans. The big mortgage shops didn’t care about loan quality, because they were run by salesmen. The Treasury is paying off the gamblers and billionaires by supporting the value of bank loans, investments and derivative gambles, leaving the Treasury in debt.

U.S./post-Soviet Convergence?

It may be time to look once again at what Larry Summers and his Rubinomics gang did in Russia in the mid-1990s and to Third World countries during his tenure as World Bank economist to see what kind of future is being planned for the U.S. economy over the next few years. Throughout the Soviet Union the neoliberal model established “equilibrium” in a way that involved demographic collapse: shortening life spans, lower birth rates, alcoholism and drug abuse, psychological depression, suicides, bad health, unemployment and homelessness for the elderly (the neoliberal mode of Social Security reform).

Back in the 1970s, people speculated whether the US and Soviet economies were converging. Throughout the 20th century, of course, everyone expected government regulation, infrastructure investment and planning to increase. It looked like the spread of democratically elected governments would go hand in hand with people voting in their own economic interest to raise living standards, thereby closing the inequality gap.

This is not the kind of convergence that has occurred since 1991. Government power is being dismantled, living standards have stagnated and wealth is concentrating at the top of the economic pyramid. Economic planning and resource allocation has passed into the hands of Wall Street, whose alternative to Hayek’s “road to serfdom” is debt peonage for the economy at large. There does need to be a strong state, to be sure, to keep the financial and real estate rentier power in place. But the West’s alternative to the old Soviet bureaucracy is a financial planning. In place of a political overhead, we have a financial and real estate overhead.

Stalinist Russia and Maoist China achieved high technology without land-rent, monopoly rent and interest overhead. This purging of rentier income was the historical task of classical political economy, and it became that of socialism. The aim was to create a Clean Slate financially, bringing prices in line with technologically necessary costs of production. The aim was to provide everyone with the fruits of their labor rather than letting banks and landlords siphon off the economic surplus.

Ideas of economic efficiency and “wealth creation” today are an utterly different kind of liberalism and “free markets.” Commercial banks lend money not to increase production but to inflate asset prices. Some 70% of bank loans are mortgage loans for real estate, and most of the rest is for corporate takeovers and raids, to finance stock buy-backs or simply to pay dividends. Asset-price inflation obliges people to go deeper into debt than ever before to obtain access to housing, education and medical care. The economy is being “financialized,” not industrialized. This has been the plan as much for the post-Soviet states as for North America, Western Europe and the Third World.

But we are far from having reached the end of the line. Celebrations that our present financialized economy represents the “end of history” are laughingly premature. Today’s policies look more like a dead end. But that does not mean that, like the Roman Empire, they won’t lead us down toward a new Dark Age. That’s what tends to happen when oligarchies do the planning.

Is America a Failed Economy?

It may be time to ask whether neoliberal pro-rentier economics has turned America and the West into a Failed Economy. Is there really no alternative? Have the neoliberals made the shift of planning from governments to the financial oligarchy irreversible?

Let’s first dispose of the “foundation myth” of the idea still guiding the United States and Europe. Free-market economists pretend that prices can be brought into line most efficiently with technologically necessary costs of production under capitalism, and indeed, under finance capitalism. The banks and stock market are supposed to allocate resources most efficiency. That at least is the dream of self-regulating markets. But today it looks like only a myth, public relations patter talk to get a generation of increasingly indebted voters not to act in their own self-interest.

Industrial capitalism always has been a hybrid, a symbiosis with its feudal legacy of absentee property ownership, oligarchic finance and public debts rather than the government acting as net creditor. The essence of feudalism was extractive, not productive. That is why it created industrial capitalism as State Policy in the first place – if only to increase its war-making powers. But the question must now be raised as to whether only socialism can complete the historical task that classical political economy set out for itself – the ideal that futurists in the 19th and 20th centuries believed that an unpurified capitalism might still be able bring about without shedding its legacy of commercial banking indebting property and carving infrastructure out of the public domain.

Today it is easier to see that the Western economies cannot go on the way they have been. They have reached the point where the debts exceed the ability to pay. Instead of recognizing this fact and scaling debts back into line with the ability to pay, the Obama-Geithner plan is to bail out the big banks and hedge funds, keeping the volume of debt in place and indeed, growing once again through the “magic of compound interest.” The result can only be an increasingly extractive economy, until households, real estate and industrial companies, states and cities, and the national government itself is driven into debt peonage.

The alternative is a century and a half old, and emerged out of the ideals of the classical economic doctrines of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and the last great classical economist, Marx. Their common denominator was to view rent and interest are extractive, not productive. Classical political economy and its successor Progressive Era socialism sought to nationalize the land (or at least to fully tax its rent as the fiscal base). Governments were to create their own credit, not leave this function to wealthy elites via a bank monopoly on credit creation. So today’s neoliberalism paints a false picture of what the classical economists envisioned as free markets. They were markets free of economic rent and interest (and taxes to support an aristocracy or oligarchy). Socialism was to free economies from these overhead charges. Today’s Obama-Geithner rescue plan is just the reverse.


NOTES

1 Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “If Eastern Europe falls, world is next,” The Telegraph, February 14, 2009.

2 Krishna Guha, “US closes in on subsidy plan to stop foreclosures,” Financial Times, February 13, 2009.

Geithner gets the keys to the henhouse

Geithner gets the keys to the henhouse

By Mike Whitney

Go To Original

The Obama Team has a big problem on their hands; Timothy Geithner. Geithner was picked as Treasury Secretary because he is a trusted ally of the big banks and has a good grasp of the intricacies of the financial system. The problem is that Geithner can't handle the public relations part of his job. His big debut in prime-time last Tuesday turned out to be a complete dud. He was thoroughly unconvincing and looked like a nervous teenager at a speech contest. He fizzled on stage for 25 minutes while the little red box in the corner of the TV screen--which shows the current Dow Jones Industrials--plummeted nearly 400 points. It was a total disaster and one that is sure to be repeated over and over as long as Geithner is at Treasury. Not everyone can be a charismatic orator like Obama and nothing short of a personality transplant will fix Geithner. He lacks gravitas and doesn't inspire confidence. That's a problem since, the administration's main objective is to restore public confidence and get people spending again. They're just shooting themselves in the foot by using him as their pitchman. Eventually, Geithner will either have to be tossed overboard or strapped to Obama like a papoose so he can share in the president's popularity. Otherwise he will continue to be a millstone.

In truth, Geithner did us all a big favor on Tuesday by exposing himself as a stooge of the banking industry. Now everyone can see that the banks are working the deal from the inside. Geithner has assembled a phalanx of Wall Street flim-flam men to fill out the roster at Treasury. "His chief-of-staff is lobbyist from Goldman Sachs. The new deputy secretary of state is a former CEO of Citigroup. Another CFO from Citigroup is now assistant to the president, and deputy national security adviser for International Economic Affairs. And one of his deputies also came from Citigroup. One new member of the president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board comes from UBS, which is currently being investigated for helping rich clients evade taxes." The Obama White House is a beehive of big money guys and Wall Street speculators whose only goal is to nuzzle up to the public trough while strengthening their grip on political power.

The banking lobby has already set the agenda. All the hooplah about "financial rescue" is just a smokescreen to hide the fact that the same scofflaws who ripped off investors for zillions of dollars are back for their next big sting; a quick vacuuming of the public till to save themselves from bankruptcy. It's a joke. Obama floated into office on a wave of Wall Street campaign contributions and now it's payback time. Prepare to get fleeced. Geithner is fine-tuning a "public-private" partnership for his scotch-swilling buddies so they can keep their fiefdom in tack while shifting trillions of dollars of toxic assets onto the people's balance sheet. They've affixed themselves to Treasury like scabs on a leper and are now zeroing in for the kill. Geithner is "their guy", a Trojan Horse for the banking oligarchs. He's already admitted that his main goal is to, "keep the banks in private hands". That says it all, doesn't it?

Of course, the administration is not alone in their support for the banks and Wall Street. Congress has its fair share of bank-loyalists, too. That was evident last week at the hearings of the House Financial Services Committee. 8 CEOs of the nations biggest banks were marched off Capital Hill (ostensibly) for public rebuke. For a minute, it looked like Congress might do its job and actually grill the bastards who blew up the financial system. But, no, that's not what happened. The 7 hours of testimony produced few fireworks and no mention of accountability. For the most part, the bankers were treated like honored guests instead of the chiselers they are. That's because nearly every member of the committee rakes in contributions from the same banks that are being investigated. As Bill Moyers points out on Friday's Bill Moyers Journal, "Last year, the securities and investment industry made $146 million in campaign contributions. Commercial banks, another $34 million." The banks own congress just like they own the White House and anything else of value in the USA. They left the hearings unscathed.

Apart from the infrequent fulminations of congressmen clowning for the cameras, the hearings were tedious and unproductive. Same old, same old. The bankers remained stonefaced throughout, while the committee turned in their typical sub par performance. Congress doesn't do oversight anymore, and even if they did, there's no one with the cohones to apply the rules. Besides, no one in the House has the foggiest idea of how the financial system really works. If they did, they'd know that the banks HAVE actually been lending despite congress's spurious accusations. Some of the banks even produced documented evidence to prove it. This has been a flashpoint for taxpayers who think that they were duped by financial institutions that took the $165 billion TARP money and used it for bonuses or to buy smaller banks. Not so. The truth is more complicated.

The banks have been hoarding; that much is certain. In fact, The St Louis Fed's charts show that:

"Until September, excess reserves hovered at or below about US $2 billion, but have ballooned to over $600 billion as of November 19, 2008....The Fed has thrown money at the banking system, but the banks are hoarding the cash, they do not lend." (Axel Merk, "Monetizing the Debt") Excess reserves are reserves that are beyond the required capital limits. The steady buildup--which now exceeds $700 billion--suggests that the banks are hunkering down for long and deep recession. They are in survival mode. Still, that does not mean they are not lending. In fact, "Bank Credit expanded $459bn year-over-year, or 4.9%. Bank Credit jumped $356bn over the past 21 weeks." (Doug Noland Credit Bubble Bulletin) It's true; bank lending has actually increased even though standards have gotten tougher and consumers are saving for the first time in decades.

How can the banks be lending and hoarding at the same time; aren't the two mutually exclusive? And why is credit draining from the system in trillions of dollars if the banks continue to lend?

This is big mystery of the financial crisis, but one that can be solved by reviewing the facts. J P MorganChase's Jamie Dimon explained it like this:

"There's a huge amount of non bank lending which has disappeared which is the same thing to the consumer (as the banks)...Finance companies, car finance companies, money funds, bond funds..that withdrew money from the system (when the credit crunch took hold) making it much harder on the system. That created the crisis we now have."

The Wall Street Journal summed it up even more succinctly:

"Chairman Barney Frank's hearing was intended to flay the CEOs for not lending enough. It fell flat as political theater because banks have actually increased their lending in recent months. The people who aren't lending more are investors in nonbank financing such as asset-backed securities.

In fact, the nonbank credit market is normally much bigger than bank lending. But new issues backed by auto loans, credit cards and the like have been rare this year, as markets wonder how the government's next move will change the value of such investments. Buyers and sellers of existing securities are "sitting on the sidelines," according to Asset-Backed Alert, waiting for still another Washington recalibration of risk and reward." ("Committee on Doubt and Uncertainty" Wall Street Journal)


This is how the financial system really works--something which seems to be completely beyond the grasp of congress. A shadow banking system has grown up around the process of securitization, which packages pools of debt (mortgages, commercial real estate, student loans, car loans and credit card debt) and sells them as securities to foreign banks, hedge funds, insurance companies etc. Wall Street has muscled into an area of finance that used to be the domain of the commercial banks. According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, "40 percent of consumer lending" depends on this shadow system for credit. That's why he is determined to resurrect securitization whatever the cost. The Fed has already expanded its balance sheet to $2.2 trillion while providing loan guarantees for over $9.3 trillion dollars. The entire financial system is now backstopped by loans from the Fed without which the global financial system would collapse. The present Fed funding of financial markets forces us to rethink our outdated ideas of the "free market" which now exists only in theory.

A 40 percent decline in consumer credit is more than sufficient to push the world into another Great Depression. The sharp decrease in foreign exports, shipping, auto sales, and other vital areas of commerce--all in the 30 to 40 percent range--suggest that the global economy depends on Wall Street's credit-generating mechanism more than anyone imagined. The breakdown in securitization has sent tremors across the planet triggering a decline in asset prices and an accelerating fall in personal consumption. Before the Fed and Treasury try to restore securitization to its former glory, politicians and pundits should decide whether it is a viable system for long-term growth. There's reason to believe that transforming of debt into securities creates incentives for fraudulent loans and mortgages since they can be dumped on Wall Street and sold to gullible investors. The reason the mortgage lenders and banks bundled off crappy loans to the the big brokerage houses, is because they thought there was no risk involved. (for themselves!) They were wrong and now the entire market for structured debt is in a deep freeze. Geithner and Bernanke should suspend all funding for securitized loans until they can show that the kinks have been worked out and we won't fall into the same trap again. One financial meltdown is more than enough.

The TARP funds should not be used to exhume the corpse of a dysfunctional financial system. The money should be used to create more jobs, extend unemployment benefits, provide food stamps, public works projects or cram downs for struggling homeowners trying to avoid foreclosure. People don't need more credit; they need debt relief. That means higher wages and better jobs. Obama should realize this, even if Geithner and Co. don't. The Geithner-Paulson policy of limitless credit expansion is the path to ruin. That's why Geithner is the wrong man for the job. His fundamental worldview leads to economic calamity.

Geithner's resume alone should have precluded him from consideration as Treasury Secretary. He started his career at Kissinger and Associates, which speaks for itself. From there, he went to International Affairs division of the Treasury Dept. where he served under Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers both of who were major proponents of deregulation. He's presently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and served as director of Policy Development and Review Department at the IMF. In 2003, he became president of the New York Fed and was Vice Chairman of the FOMC. He's also a member of the G-30, an international body of financiers and powerbrokers, and the former chairman of the Bank for International Settlements. If there's an internationalist organization Geithner doesn't belong to, we haven't found it yet. He's been thoroughly marinated in a globalist culture that wreaks of banking conspiracies and clandestine junkets to Jeckyll Island. Is it really that hard to find a good economist who just wants to serve his country?

There was a revealing incident in the Senate Finance Committee last week when Senator Bernie Sanders challenged Geithner. Here's the transcript:

SENATOR BERNARD SANDERS: "In 2006 and 2007, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, was the highest paid executive on Wall Street, making over $125 million in total compensation. Due to its risky investments, Goldman Sachs now has over $168 billion in total outstanding debt. It's laid off over 10 percent of its workforce. Late last year, the financial situation at Goldman was so dire that the taxpayers of this country provided Goldman Sachs with a $10 billion bailout.
Very simple question that I think the American people want to know. Yes or no, should Mr. Blankfein be fired from his job and new leadership be brought in?"

SECRETARY GEITHNER: "Senator, that's a judgment his board of directors have to make.
I want to say one thing which is very important. Everything we do going forward has to be judged against the impact we're going to have on the American people and the prospects for recovery. And every dollar we spend will have to be measured against the benefits we bring in terms of---"

SENATOR SANDERS: "Mr. Secretary, you're not answering my question. You have a person who made hundreds of millions for himself as he led his institution that helped cause a great financial crisis. We have put, as taxpayers, $10 billion to bail him out and we have no say about whether or not he should stay on the job?"

SECRETARY GEITHNER: "No, I didn't say that. I think there will be circumstances, as there have been already, where the government intervention will have to come with very tough conditions, including changes in management and leadership of institutions. And where we believe that makes sense, we will do that."

Predictably evasive, Geithner refused to say whether or not Blanfein should be fired. That's because Geithner believes that the function of government is to serve the interests of the big banks not the public. The lip-service to democracy is just rhetorical claptrap. It's meaningless. The government's role is to facilitate the exploitation of its people to fatten the bottom line of the top-hat capitalists. This is why Geithner never made any reference to regulations during Tuesday's speech. There was no mention of Glass Steagal, or reducing the amount of leverage financial institutions can use, or forcing all derivatives contracts onto a regulated exchange, or suspending off-balances sheets operations, or reclassifying all Level 3 assets so shareholders know how much garbage the banks have on their books, or even rethinking the whole securitization model which collapsed the financial system and thrust the world towards a 1930s-type slump. He stayed away from regulation entirely, just as he defiantly withheld details about the impending multi-billion dollar bank bailout.

But don't think that the slippery Mr. Geithner doesn't have a solution for our present economic malaise. He does! He would like to see Congress appoint an Uber-regulator that has the authority to monitor market activity and decide whether individual players pose a threat to the overall system.

Sounds great. And to whom should these sweeping new powers be entrusted?

You guessed it; the Federal Reserve, the wealth-shifting, price-fixing, social-engineering scamsters who preside over the bankers cartel which just blew up the financial system. Is there any doubt where Geithner's loyalties really lie?

The President of Special Interests

The President of Special Interests

By Paul Craig Roberts

Go To Original

The Bush/Obama bailout/stimulus plans are not going to work. Both are schemes hatched by a clique of financial insiders. The schemes will redistribute income and wealth from American taxpayers to the shyster banksters, who have destroyed American jobs, ruined the retirement plans of tens of millions of Americans, and worsened the situation of millions of people worldwide who naively trusted American financial institutions. The ongoing theft has simply been recast. Instead of using fraudulent financial instruments, the banksters are using government policy.

Michael Hudson captures the nature of the heist in CounterPunch (February 12):

“When it comes to cleaning up the Greenspan Bubble legacy by writing down homeowner mortgage debt, the Treasury proposal offers homeowners $50 billion – just [half of one percent] of the $10 trillion Wall Street bailout to date, and less than half the amount given to AIG to pay its hedge fund speculators on their derivative gambles. The Treasury has handed out $25 billion to each and every big bank, so just two of these banks alone got as much as the reported one-quarter of all homeowners in America suffering from Negative Equity on their homes and in need of mortgage renegotiation. Yet today’s economic shrinkage cannot be reversed without a recovery in consumer demand. The economy has lost the “virtual wealth” in higher-priced homes and the stock market, and must rely on after-tax earnings. But I see little concern for wage earners in the Treasury plan. Without debt relief, consumer spending and business investment will not recover.”

The big money men cannot conceive of anyone’s suffering except the mega-rich. If billions are not at stake, what is the problem? How can a family losing its house bring down the economy?

There was a time in America when the interests of elites were connected to those of ordinary Americans. Henry Ford said that he paid his workers good wages so they could buy his cars.

Today American corporations pay foreign workers low wages so CEOs can pay themselves multi-million dollar “performance” bonuses.

Congress has had a parade of CEOs, ranging from Bill Gates of MIcrosoft and IBM brass on down the line, to testify that they desperately need more H-1B work visas for foreign employees as they cannot find enough American software engineers and IT workers to grow their businesses. Yet, all the companies who sing this song have established records of replacing American employees with H-1B workers who are paid less.

Just the other day Microsoft, IBM, Texas Instruments, Sprint Nextel, Intel, Motorola, and scores of other corporations announced thousands of layoffs of the qualified American engineers who “are in short supply.”

IBM has offered to help to relocate its “redundant” but “scarce” American engineers to its operations in India, China, Brazil, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Russia, South Africa, Nigeria, and the United Arab Emirates at the salaries prevailing in those countries.. http://www.informationweek.com/story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=213000389

On January 28, USA Today reported: “In 2007, the last full year for which detailed employment numbers are available, 121,000 of IBM's 387,000 workers [31%] were in the U.S. Meanwhile, staffing in India has jumped from just 9,000 workers in 2003 to 74,000 workers in 2007.”

In order to penetrate and to serve foreign markets, US corporations need overseas operations. There is nothing unusual or unpatriotic about this. However, many US companies use foreign labor to manufacture abroad the products that they sell in American markets. If Henry Ford had used Indian, Chinese, or Mexican workers to manufacture his cars, Indians, Chinese and Mexicans could possibly have purchased Fords, but not Americans.

Senators Charles Grassley and Bernie Sanders offered an amendment to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bill that would prevent companies receiving bailout money from discharging American employees and replacing them with foreigners on H-1B visas.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, no longer an American institution, and immigration advocates, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association,
immediately went to work to defeat or to water down the amendments. Senator Grassley’s attempt to prevent American corporations from replacing American workers with foreigners on H-1B work visas in the midst of the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression was met with outrage from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization concerned solely with the multi-million dollar bonuses paid to American CEOs for reducing labor costs by offshoring American jobs or by replacing American employees with foreign guest workers.

On January 23 Senator Grassley wrote to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer:

“I am concerned that Microsoft will be retaining foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American employees when it implements its layoff plan. As you know, I want to make sure employers recruit qualified American workers first before hiring foreign guest workers. For example, I cosponsored legislation to overhaul the H-1B and L-1 visa programs to give priority to American workers and to crack down on unscrupulous employers who deprive qualified Americans of high-skilled jobs. Fraud and abuse is rampant in these programs, and we need more transparency to protect the integrity of our immigration system.


“Last year, Microsoft was here on Capitol Hill advocating for more H-1B visas. The purpose of the H-1B visa program is to assist companies in their employment needs where there is not a sufficient American workforce to meet their technology expertise requirements. However, H-1B and other work visa programs were never intended to replace qualified American workers. Certainly, these work visa programs were never intended to allow a company to retain foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American workers, when that company cuts jobs during an economic downturn.

“It is imperative that in implementing its layoff plan, Microsoft ensures that American workers have priority in keeping their jobs over foreign workers on visa programs.

“My point is that during a layoff, companies should not be retaining H-1B or other work visa program employees over qualified American workers. Our immigration policy is not intended to harm the American workforce. I encourage Microsoft to ensure that Americans are given priority in job retention. Microsoft has a moral obligation to protect these American workers by putting them first during these difficult economic times.”

Senator Grassley is rightly concerned that recession layoffs will shield increased jobs offshoring and use of H-1B workers. On February 13, Pravda reported that “America has begun the initial steps to final outsourcing of it’s last dominant industry”--oil/gas and oil/gas services. Pravda reports that “as with other formerly dominant industries, such as light manufacturing, IT, textiles,” recession is “used as the knife to finally do in the workers.”


According to Pravda, “IT is a prime example. The companies used the bust to lay off hundreds of thousands of tech workers around the US and Britain, citing low profits or debt. The public as a whole accepted this, as part of the economic landscape and protests were few, especially with a prospect of the situation turning around. However, shortly after the turn around in the economy, it became very clear that there would be no turn around in the IT employment industry. Not only were companies outsourcing everything they could, under the cover of the recession, they had shipped in tens of thousands of H-1B work visaed workers who were paid on the cheap.” http://english.pravda.ru/world/americas/107104-america_dominant_industry-0

It is rare to find US Representatives and Senators, such as Grassley, who will take a stand against powerful special interests. Some do so inadvertently, forgetting that patriotism is no longer a characteristic of the American business elite. Hoping to stimulate American rather than foreign businesses, the House version of the economic stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, required that funds provided by the bill cannot be used to purchase foreign-made iron, steel, and textiles.

The Senate provision was more sweeping, mandating that all manufactured goods purchased with stimulus money be American-made.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, Caterpillar, General Electric, other transnational corporations, and editorial writers whose newspapers are dependent on corporate advertising set out to defeat the buy American requirement. As far as these anti-American organizations are concerned, the stimulus bill has nothing to do with American jobs or the American economy. It only has to do with the special interest appetites that have the political power to rip off the American taxpayers. [see Manufacturing & Technology News, February 4, 2009]

Senator John McCain is their man. “Protectionism” exclaimed the man the Republicans wanted as president. McCain said the buy American provision would cause a second Great Depression. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said that buying abroad was “economic patriotism.”

The American economic elite are hiding their treason to the American people behind “free trade.”

I want to say this as clearly as it can be said. The offshoring of American jobs is the anthesis of free trade. Free trade is based on comparative advantage. Jobs offshoring is an activity in pursuit of lowest factor cost--an activity that David Ricardo, the originator of the free trade theory, described as the betrayal of one’s own country in pursuit of “absolute advantage.”

The “free market” shills on the payroll of the U.S. Chamber, NAM, and in economics departments and think tanks that are recipients of grants from transnational corporations are whores aligned with elites who are destroying the American work force.

Obama has appointed to his National Economic Council blatant apologists for the offshoring of American jobs.

Possibly Obama loves the country that elevated him to its highest office. But his administration is populated with people whose loyalty does not extend beyond elites to the American people.

Hollywood's New Censors

Hollywood's New Censors

By John Pilger

Go To Original

When I returned from the war in Vietnam, I wrote a film script as an antidote to the myth that the war had been an ill-fated noble cause. The producer David Puttnam took the draft to Hollywood and offered it to the major studios, whose responses were favourable – well, almost. Each issued a report card in which the final category, “politics”, included comments such as: “This is real, but are the American people ready for it? Maybe they’ll never be.”

By the late 1970s, Hollywood judged Americans ready for a different kind of Vietnam movie. The first was The Deer Hunter which, according to Time, “articulates the new patriotism”. The film celebrated immigrant America, with Robert de Niro as a working class hero (“liberal by instinct”) and the Vietnamese as sub-human Oriental barbarians and idiots, or “gooks”. The dramatic peak was reached during recurring orgiastic scenes in which GIs were forced to play Russian roulette by their Vietnamese captors. This was made up by the director Michael Cimino, who also made up a story that he had served in Vietnam. “I have this insane feeling that I was there,” he said. “Somehow … the line between reality and fiction has become blurred.”

The Deer Hunter was regarded virtually as documentary by ecstatic critics. “The film that could purge a nation’s guilt!” said the Daily Mail. President Jimmy Carter was reportedly moved by its “genuine American message”. Catharsis was at hand. The Vietnam movies became a revisionist popular history of the great crime in Indo-China. That more than four million people had died terribly and unnecessarily and their homeland poisoned to a wasteland was not the concern of these films. Rather, Vietnam was an “American tragedy”, in which the invader was to be pitied in a blend of false bravado-and-angst: sometimes crude (the Rambo films) and sometimes subtle (Oliver Stone’s Platoon). What mattered was the strength of the purgative.

None of this, of course, was new; it was how Hollywood created the myth of the Wild West, which was harmless enough unless you happened to be a native-American; and how the Second World War has been relentlessly glorified, which may be harmless enough unless you happen to be one of countless innocent human beings, from Serbia to Iraq, whose deaths or dispossession are justified by moralising references to 1939-45. Hollywood’s gooks, its Untermenschen, are essential to this crusade -- the dispatched Somalis in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and the sinister Arabs in movies like Rendition, in which the torturing CIA is absolved by Jake Gyllenhal’s good egg. As Robbie Graham and Mark Alford pointed out in their New Statesman enquiry into corporate control of the cinema (2 February), in 167 minutes of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, the Palestinian cause is restricted to just two and a half minutes. “Far from being an ‘even-handed cry for peace’, as one critic claimed,” they wrote, “Munich is more easily interpreted as a corporate-backed endorsement of Israeli policy.”

With honourable exceptions, film critics rarely question this and identify the true power behind the screen. Obsessed with celebrity actors and vacuous narratives, they are the cinema’s lobby correspondents, its dutiful press corps. Emitting safe snipes and sneers, they promote a deeply political system that dominates most of what we pay to see, knowing not what we are denied. Brian de Palma’s 2007 film Redacted shows an Iraq the media does not report. He depicts the homicides and gang-rapes that are never prosecuted and are the essence of any colonial conquest. In the New York Village Voice, the critic Anthony Kaufman, in abusing the “divisive” De Palma for his “perverse tales of voyeurism and violence”, did his best to taint the film as a kind of heresy and to bury it.

In this way, the “war on terror” – the conquest and subversion of resource rich regions of the world, whose ramifications and oppressions touch all our lives – is almost excluded from the popular cinema. Michael Moore’s outstanding Fahrenheit 911 was a freak; the notoriety of its distribution ban by the Walt Disney Company helped to force its way into cinemas. My own 2007 film The War on Democracy, which inverted the “war on terror” in Latin America, was distributed in Britain, Australia and other countries but not in the United States. “You will need to make structural and political changes,” said a major New York distributor. “Maybe get a star like Sean Penn to host it – he likes liberal causes -- and tame those anti-Bush sequences.”

During the cold war, Hollywood’s state propaganda was unabashed. The classic 1957 dance movie, Silk Stockings, was an anti-Soviet diatribe interrupted by the fabulous footwork of Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire. These days, there are two types of censorship. The first is censorship by introspective dross. Betraying its long tradition of producing gems, escapist Hollywood is consumed by the corporate formula: just make ‘em long and asinine and hope the hype will pay off. Ricky Gervais is his clever comic self in Ghost Town, while around him stale, formulaic characters sentimentalise the humour to death.

These are extraordinary times. Vicious colonial wars and political, economic and environmental corruption cry out for a place on the big screen. Yet, try to name one recent film that has dealt with these, honestly and powerfully, let alone satirically.. Censorship by omission is virulent. We need another Wall Street, another Last Hurrah, another Dr. Strangelove. The partisans who tunnel out of their prison in Gaza, bringing in food, clothes, medicines and weapons with which to defend themselves, are no less heroic than the celluloid-honoured POWs and partisans of the 1940s. They and the rest of us deserve the respect of the greatest popular medium.