Sunday, May 31, 2015

Delusionary Thinking in Washington The Desperate Plight of a Declining Superpower

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Take a look around the world and it’s hard not to conclude that the United States is a superpower in decline. Whether in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, aspiring powers are flexing their muscles, ignoring Washington’s dictates, or actively combating them. Russia refuses to curtail its support for armed separatists in Ukraine; China refuses to abandon its base-building endeavors in the South China Sea; Saudi Arabia refuses to endorse the U.S.-brokered nuclear deal with Iran; the Islamic State movement (ISIS) refuses to capitulate in the face of U.S. airpower. What is a declining superpower supposed to do in the face of such defiance?

This is no small matter. For decades, being a superpower has been the defining characteristic of American identity. The embrace of global supremacy began after World War II when the United States assumed responsibility for resisting Soviet expansionism around the world; it persisted through the Cold War era and only grew after the implosion of the Soviet Union, when the U.S. assumed sole responsibility for combating a whole new array of international threats. As General Colin Powell famously exclaimed in the final days of the Soviet era, “We have to put a shingle outside our door saying, ‘Superpower Lives Here,’ no matter what the Soviets do, even if they evacuate from Eastern Europe.”

Imperial Overstretch Hits Washington

Strategically, in the Cold War years, Washington’s power brokers assumed that there would always be two superpowers perpetually battling for world dominance.  In the wake of the utterly unexpected Soviet collapse, American strategists began to envision a world of just one, of a “sole superpower” (aka Rome on the Potomac). In line with this new outlook, the administration of George H.W. Bush soon adopted a long-range plan intended to preserve that status indefinitely. Known as the Defense Planning Guidance for Fiscal Years 1994-99, it declared: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union.”

H.W.’s son, then the governor of Texas, articulated a similar vision of a globally encompassing Pax Americana when campaigning for president in 1999. If elected, he told military cadets at the Citadel in Charleston, his top goal would be “to take advantage of a tremendous opportunity -- given few nations in history -- to extend the current peace into the far realm of the future. A chance to project America’s peaceful influence not just across the world, but across the years.”

For Bush, of course, “extending the peace” would turn out to mean invading Iraq and igniting a devastating regional conflagration that only continues to grow and spread to this day. Even after it began, he did not doubt -- nor (despite the reputed wisdom offered by hindsight) does he today -- that this was the price that had to be paid for the U.S. to retain its vaunted status as the world’s sole superpower.

The problem, as many mainstream observers now acknowledge, is that such a strategy aimed at perpetuating U.S. global supremacy at all costs was always destined to result in what Yale historian Paul Kennedy, in his classic bookThe Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, unforgettably termed “imperial overstretch.” As he presciently wrote in that 1987 study, it would arise from a situation in which “the sum total of the United States’ global interests and obligations is… far larger than the country’s power to defend all of them simultaneously.”

Indeed, Washington finds itself in exactly that dilemma today. What’s curious, however, is just how quickly such overstretch engulfed a country that, barely a decade ago, was being hailed as the planet’s first “hyperpower,” a status even more exalted than superpower. But that was before George W.’s miscalculation in Iraq and other missteps left the U.S. to face a war-ravaged Middle East with an exhausted military and a depleted treasury. At the same time, major and regional powers like China, India, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been building up their economic and military capabilities and, recognizing the weakness that accompanies imperial overstretch, are beginning to challengeU.S. dominance in many areas of the globe. The Obama administration has been trying, in one fashion or another, to respond in all of those areas -- among them Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the South China Sea -- but without, it turns out, the capacity to prevail in any of them.

Nonetheless, despite a range of setbacks, no one in Washington’s power elite -- Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders being the exceptions that prove the rule -- seems to have the slightest urge to abandon the role of sole superpower or even to back off it in any significant way. President Obama, who is clearly all too aware of the country’s strategic limitations, has been typical in his unwillingness to retreat from such a supremacist vision. “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation,” he told graduating cadets at West Point in May 2014. “That has been true for the century past and it will be true for the century to come.”

How, then, to reconcile the reality of superpower overreach and decline with an unbending commitment to global supremacy?

The first of two approaches to this conundrum in Washington might be thought of as a high-wire circus act.  It involves the constant juggling of America’s capabilities and commitments, with its limited resources (largely of a military nature) being rushed relatively fruitlessly from one place to another in response to unfolding crises, even as attempts are made to avoid yet more and deeper entanglements. This, in practice, has been the strategy pursued by the current administration.  Call it the Obama Doctrine.

After concluding, for instance, that China had taken advantage of U.S. entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan to advance its own strategic interests in Southeast Asia, Obama and his top advisers decided to downgrade the U.S. presence in the Middle East and free up resources for a more robust one in the western Pacific.  Announcing this shift in 2011 -- it would first be called a “pivot to Asia” and then a “rebalancing” there -- the president made no secret of the juggling act involved.

“After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region,” he told members of the Australian Parliament that November.  “As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority.  As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not -- I repeat, will not -- come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.”

Then, of course, the new Islamic State launched its offensive in Iraq in June 2014 and the American-trained army there collapsed with the loss of four northern cities. Videoed beheadings of American hostages followed, along with a looming threat to the U.S.-backed regime in Baghdad. Once again, President Obama found himself pivoting -- this timesending thousands of U.S. military advisers back to that country, putting American air power into its skies, and laying the groundwork for another major conflict there.

Meanwhile, Republican critics of the president, who claim he’s doing too little in a losing effort in Iraq (and Syria), have also taken him to task for not doing enough to implement the pivot to Asia. In reality, as his juggling act that satisfies no one continues in Iraq and the Pacific, he’s had a hard time finding the wherewithal to effectively confront Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the various militias fighting for power in fragmenting Libya, and so on.

The Party of Utter Denialism

Clearly, in the face of multiplying threats, juggling has not proven to be a viable strategy.  Sooner or later, the “balls” will simply go flying and the whole system will threaten to fall apart. But however risky juggling may prove, it is not nearly as dangerous as the other strategic response to superpower decline in Washington: utter denial.

For those who adhere to this outlook, it’s not America’s global stature that’s eroding, but its will -- that is, its willingness to talk and act tough. If Washington were simply to speak more loudly, so this argument goes, and brandish bigger sticks, all these challenges would simply melt away. Of course, such an approach can only work if you’re prepared to back up your threats with actual force, or “hard power,” as some like to call it.

Among the most vocal of those touting this line is Senator John McCain, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a persistent critic of President Obama. “For five years, Americans have been told that ‘the tide of war is receding,’ that we can pull back from the world at little cost to our interests and values,” he typically wrote in March 2014 in a New York Times op-ed. “This has fed a perception that the United States is weak, and to people like Mr. Putin, weakness is provocative.” The only way to prevent aggressive behavior by Russia and other adversaries, he stated, is “to restore the credibility of the United States as a world leader.” This means, among other things, arming the Ukrainians and anti-Assad Syrians, bolstering the NATO presence in Eastern Europe, combating “the larger strategic challenge that Iran poses,” and playing a “more robust” role (think: more “boots” on more ground) in the war against ISIS.

Above all, of course, it means a willingness to employ military force. “When aggressive rulers or violent fanatics threaten our ideals, our interests, our allies, and us,” he declared last November, “what ultimately makes the difference… is the capability, credibility, and global reach of American hard power.”

A similar approach -- in some cases even more bellicose -- is being articulated by the bevy of Republican candidates now in the race for president, Rand Paul again excepted. At a recent “Freedom Summit” in the early primary state of South Carolina, the various contenders sought to out-hard-power each other. Florida Senator Marco Rubio was loudly cheered for promising to make the U.S. “the strongest military power in the world.” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker received a standing ovation for pledging to further escalate the war on international terrorists: “I want a leader who is willing to take the fight to them before they take the fight to us.” 

In this overheated environment, the 2016 presidential campaign is certain to be dominated by calls for increased military spending, a tougher stance toward Moscow and Beijing, and an expanded military presence in the Middle East. Whatever her personal views, Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic candidate, will be forced to demonstrate her backbone by embracing similar positions. In other words, whoever enters the Oval Office in January 2017 will be expected to wield a far bigger stick on a significantly less stable planet. As a result, despite the last decade and a half ofinterventionary disasters, we’re likely to see an even more interventionist foreign policy with an even greater impulse to use military force.

However initially gratifying such a stance is likely to prove for John McCain and the growing body of war hawks in Congress, it will undoubtedly prove disastrous in practice. Anyone who believes that the clock can now be turned back to 2002, when U.S. strength was at its zenith and the Iraq invasion had not yet depleted American wealth and vigor, is undoubtedly suffering from delusional thinking. China is far more powerful than it was 13 years ago, Russia has largely recovered from its post-Cold War slump, Iran has replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign actor in Iraq, and other powers have acquired significantly greater freedom of action in an unsettled world. Under these circumstances, aggressive muscle-flexing in Washington is likely to result only in calamity or humiliation.

Time to Stop Pretending

Back, then, to our original question: What is a declining superpower supposed to do in the face of this predicament?

Anywhere but in Washington, the obvious answer would for it to stop pretending to be what it’s not. The first step in any 12-step imperial-overstretch recovery program would involve accepting the fact that American power is limited and global rule an impossible fantasy. Accepted as well would have to be this obvious reality: like it or not, the U.S. shares the planet with a coterie of other major powers -- none as strong as we are, but none so weak as to be intimidated by the threat of U.S. military intervention. Having absorbed a more realistic assessment of American power, Washington would then have to focus on how exactly to cohabit with such powers -- Russia, China, and Iran among them -- and manage its differences with them without igniting yet more disastrous regional firestorms. 

If strategic juggling and massive denial were not so embedded in the political life of this country’s “war capital,” this would not be an impossibly difficult strategy to pursue, as others have suggested. In 2010, for example, Christopher Layne of the George H.W. Bush School at Texas A&M argued in the American Conservative that the U.S. could no longer sustain its global superpower status and, “rather than having this adjustment forced upon it suddenly by a major crisis… should get ahead of the curve by shifting its position in a gradual, orderly fashion.” Layne and others havespelled out what this might entail: fewer military entanglements abroad, a diminishing urge to garrison the planet, reduced military spending, greater reliance on allies, more funds to use at home in rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure of a divided society, and a diminished military footprint in the Middle East.

But for any of this to happen, American policymakers would first have to abandon the pretense that the United States remains the sole global superpower -- and that may be too bitter a pill for the present American psyche (and for the political aspirations of certain Republican candidates) to swallow. From such denialism, it’s already clear, will only come further ill-conceived military adventures abroad and, sooner or later, under far grimmer circumstances, an American reckoning with reality.

U.S. Is Waking Up to a New World Order, Not of Its Making

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The real Masters of the Universe in the U.S. are no weathermen, but arguably they’re starting to feel which way the wind is blowing.

History may signal it all started with this week’s trip to Sochi, led by their paperboy, Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with Foreign Minister Lavrov and then with President Putin.

Arguably, a visual reminder clicked the bells for the real Masters of the Universe; the PLA marching in Red Square on Victory Day side by side with the Russian military. Even under the Stalin-Mao alliance Chinese troops did not march in Red Square.

As a screamer, that rivals the Russian S-500 missile systems. Adults in the Beltway may have done the math and concluded Moscow and Beijing may be on the verge of signing secret military protocols as in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The new game of musical chairs is surely bound to leave Eurasian-obsessed Dr. Zbig “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski apoplectic.

And suddenly, instead of relentless demonization and NATO spewing out “Russian aggression!” every ten seconds, we have Kerry saying that respecting Minsk-2 is the only way out in Ukraine, and that he would strongly caution vassal Poroshenko against his bragging on bombing Donetsk airport and environs back into Ukrainian “democracy”.

The ever level-headed Lavrov, for his part, described the meeting with Kerry as “wonderful,” and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the new U.S.-Russia entente as “extremely positive”.

So now the self-described “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” Obama administration, at least apparently, seems to finally understand that this “isolating Russia” business is over – and that Moscow simply won’t back down from two red lines; no Ukraine in NATO, and no chance of popular republics of Donetsk and Lugansk being smashed, by Kiev, NATO or anybody else.

Thus what was really discussed – but not leaked – out of Sochi is how the Obama administration can get some sort of face-saving exit out of the Russian western borderland geopolitical mess it invited on itself in the first place.

About Those Missiles…

Ukraine is a failed state now fully converted into an IMF colony. The EU will never accept it as a member, or pay its astronomic bills. The real action, for both Washington and Moscow, is Iran. Not accidentally, the extremely dodgy Wendy Sherman — who has been the chief U.S. negotiator in the P5+1 nuclear talks — was part of Kerry’s entourage. A comprehensive deal with Iran cannot be clinched without Moscow’s essential collaboration on everything from the disposal of spent nuclear fuel to the swift end of UN sanctions.

Iran is a key node in the Chinese-led New Silk Road(s) project. So the real Masters of the Universe must have also — finally — seen this is all about Eurasia, which, inevitably, was the real star in the May 9 Victory Day parade. After his pregnant with meaning Moscow stop — where he signed 32 separate deals — Chinese President Xi Jinping went to do deals in Kazakhstan and Belarus.

So welcome to the New (Silk) World Order; from Beijing to Moscow on high-speed rail; from Shanghai to Almaty, Minsk and beyond; from Central Asia to Western Europe.

By now we all know how this high-speed trade/geopolitical journey is unstoppable — spanning the Beijing-led, Moscow-supported Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICs Development Bank. Central Asia, Mongolia and Afghanistan — where NATO has just lost a war — are being inexorably pulled into this trade/geopolitical orbit covering all of central, northern, and eastern Eurasia.

What could be called Greater Asia is already shaping up — not only from Beijing to Moscow but also from business center Shanghai to gateway-to-Europe St. Petersburg. It’s the natural consequence of a complex process I have been examining for a while now — the marriage of the massive Beijing-led Silk Road Economic Belt with the Moscow-led Eurasia Economic Union (EEU). Putin described it as “a new level of partnership.”

The real Masters of the Universe may have also noted the very close discussions between Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the deputy chairman of the Central Military Council of China, Gen. Fan Changlong. Russia and China will conduct naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Japan and will give top priority to their common position regarding U.S. global missile defense.

There’s the not-so-negligible matter of the Pentagon “discovering” China has up to 60 silo-based ICBMs – the CSS-4 – capable of targeting almost the whole U.S., except Florida.

And last but not least, there’s the Russian rollout of the ultra-sophisticated S-500 defensive missile system — which will conclusively protect Russia from a U.S. Prompt Global Strike (PGS). Each S-500 missile can intercept ten ICBMs at speeds up to 15,480 miles an hour, altitudes of 115 miles and horizontal range of 2,174 miles. Moscow insists the system will only be operational in 2017. If Russia is able to rollout 10,000 S-500 missiles, they can intercept 100,000 American ICBMs by the time the U.S. has a new White House tenant.

Once again, the real Masters of the Universe seem to have done the math. Can’t reduce Russia to ashes. Can’t win in the New (Silk) World Order. Might as well sit down and talk. But hold your (geopolitical) horses; they might still change their mind.

Collapsing Global Economy, Imploding Financial System: China Has Only One Option

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The title is of course a little misleading because China has many options, none of which except one in my opinion will actually work.  Options to what exactly you ask?  Options to a collapsing global economy and an imploding financial system which will surely affect China as much as anywhere else, but with one caveat.  I take these events as a given, others do not but betting against an outright panic and global bankruptcy is betting against pure mathematics itself.
Let’s back up a little bit and look at where China is currently.  They are the second largest economy in the world (maybe the largest, we can’t really know because the numbers here, there, and everywhere are made up).  China is by far THE largest manufacturer in the world and also an enormous exporter.  China is also in a three horse race as to who owns the most U.S. Treasuries with Japan and unbelievably the Federal Reserve itself.  They have an oversized shadow banking system which has already been shown as fraudulent in several cases regarding copper, zinc and lead as “collateral” (or not).
The Chinese also have a stock market bubble boiling that makes the tulip craze look tame.  Because of sheer size of the country, they are opening something like four million brokerage accounts per month.  In recent days they have had several stocks hit new highs only to drop 50-60% or more in just one day.  In fact, they had one company stock hit a new high and then go to ZERO the following day because it was discovered their books were cooked to a crisp.
We also know China is a huge importer of gold AND the largest producer of gold in the world.  NONE of their production ever leaves their borders.  There have been estimates of gold tonnage held by many.  Alisdair Mcleod believes they may have 25,000 tons or more, I personally believe it is possible if you include legacy or “elders” gold.  Others believe the number is closer to the 5,000 ton range.  My belief is that 10,000 tons is a justifiable number and very easily proven, if this is true, much of it had come from the U.S. and other Western sources and thus depleting the reserves.
I assume the number is 10,000 tons or more, this is a safe number in my mind.  I think it is also a safe bet to say the U.S. has sold a minimum of one half of “our” gold which would leave about 4,000 tons.  If this is the case, there is already a  new world order where China has as much gold as numbers 2, 3 and 4.  Looking backwards in time, after the Bretton Woods agreement, the U.S. had every incentive to keep the “price” of gold down at $35.  This is so and evidenced by the old saying “it’s as good as gold”.  The saying originally came about as a description of the dollar.  As it turns out, the dollar was NOT as good as gold, in fact it was not as good as anything, even a cup of coffee.  The dollar was overprinted and abused (inflated) by politicians (the Fed) in order to hide anything and everything “bad”.  This worked until we hit the wall, let’s call this wall “debt saturation”.  Now, the process is reversing and will end in a massive deflation versus real money while fiat currencies follow their issuers into insolvency.
Getting back to China, whenever they do make an announcement of how much gold they have, the yuan will appreciate greatly versus all fiat currencies.  Many will pooh pooh this thought because “China will never do that, they will kill their own manufacturing base”.  Let me answer this before moving forward.  The Chinese are very smart people, they can see the West is hitting the debt wall.  They also know that as the wall is hit and markets begin to implode, their “customers” are going to have an even harder time buying Chinese produced goods.  In fact, they already know this.  They already know this is happening and can see it in their trade figures …which is why they recently formed the AIIB and are working feverishly to open the “old silk road” trade route!  They are simply lining up new customers from one end of the silk road to the other!
I have hypothesized many times in the past, China has built out their infrastructure and even “ghost cities” using credit.  Once the credit markets begin to default, they will be left with “stuff”, in place and will last for the next 50 to 100 years.  Roads, bridges, buildings, airports, ports, etc., you name it they have already built it.  And yes, their stock market will crash, their real estate market is already softening, in reverse and declining.  I am not saying it will be all rosy, to the contrary, there will be bankruptcies galore in China… with a caveat.  The “government” of China will go through this liquidation phase with the most gold in the world.
Moving forward, since China will be hurt badly as investments default, I believe they will re price their gold higher initially.  I believe marking their gold higher in terms of yuan will be their only option.  They will be forced to in order to “recapitalize” themselves (and their banking system) and begin to fill in the black holes created by defaulted U.S. Treasuries and other “assets” held.  You see, not only is the old saying “he who owns the gold makes the rules” true, it is also true that he who owns the gold has the ability to PRICE IT.
This has been true for so many years as the U.S. (the West) has wanted low gold prices as a show or display that their fiat currencies were “good”.  Now, as the curtain goes down on the West, China will want a very high gold price in yuan for when the curtain rises again.  A gold price maybe even higher than it should be will give the PBOC more power initially AND will allow them some room to inflate and grow.  Please notice I am only talking about China in this paragraph.  As for the dollar and other Western currencies, they will be revalued downward versus the yuan which gives gold priced in dollars a double whammy of re pricing.
Let’s tie this all together and look at the old silk road and the trade route China is focusing on.  It goes from Asia, through the Middles East and into Europe.  Could this be why various European nations are repatriating their gold?  Not only because they have lost trust in their custodian but they also know China will put an emphasis on gold holdings in the future?  What do many Asians hold as money?  Yes, Gold.  Indians?  Gold.  Arabs?  Again gold.  The point I am trying to make is the “old silk road” might as well be called the “yellow brick road” and one paved with gold from beginning to end!  It seems to me, the only ones who don’t understand this or even disagree are Westerners and in particular, Americans.  Our standard of living is about to pulled right out from under us while violently proclaiming “it can never happen”.  I would say, it should have already happened but has not because we still had a few kilos left to supply the paving crew of the “Wizard of OZ paving company”.
The above was finished midday on Saturday, since then two new pieces of news have come out.  First, China announced it is setting up “the world’s largest gold fund” .  They will earmark $16 billon to purchase physical gold.  If you do the math, this is around 500 tons or about 20% of global production.  By calling it “the world’s largest gold fund”, maybe China is saying they do not believe “GLD” is real?  Just an observation.
In the latest piece of news, http://rt.com/business/261289-brics-new-development-bank/  RT ran an editorial piece pointing out that China already lends more to Africa and Latin America than the World Bank and IMF combined.  Is this posturing “for” the Chinese before the IMF readjusts the SDR?  Seemingly disconnected pieces to the puzzle, don’t bet on it!

Free Financial Markets Are A Hoax

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There are no free financial markets in America, or for that matter anywhere in the Western word, and few, if any, free markets of any other kind. The financial markets are rigged by the big banks, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury in the interests of the profits of the few big banks and the dollar’s exchange value, which is the basis of US power.

There is a contradiction between a strong currency on one hand and on the other hand massive money creation in order to sustain zero and negative interest rates on the massive debt levels. This inconsistency is revealed by rising gold and silver prices.

When gold hit $1,900 an ounce in 2011 the Federal Reserve realized that the precious metal market was going to limit its ability to provide enough liquidity to keep the thoughtlessly deregulated financial system afloat. The rapid deterioration of the dollar in terms of gold and silver would sooner or later spill over into the exchange value of the dollar in currency markets. Something had to be done to drive down and to cap the gold price.

The Fed’s solution was to take advantage of the fact that the prices of gold and silver are determined in the futures market where paper contracts representing gold and silver are traded, and not in markets where the physical metal is actually purchased by people who take possession of it. The Fed realized that uncovered short sales provided enormous leverage over the prices of the metals and that it would be profitable for the bullion banks, such as JPMorgan, Scotia, and HSBC, to short the market heavily and then cover their shorts at lower prices produced by selling as a result of triggering stop-loss orders and margin calls.

Dave Kranzler and I have shown on numerous occasions that the bullion banks and the Federal Reserve make profits and protect the dollar by suppressing the prices of gold and silver. They do this by illegally selling huge numbers of uncovered shorts in the futures market. This illegal operation is supported by the so-called “regulatory authorities” who steadfastly refuse to intervene.
It has just happened again. Dave Kranzler describes it in detail here: http://investmentresearchdynamics.com/bullish-news-for-precious-metals-and-goldsilver-get-paper-smashed/

If memory serves, Matt Taibbi explained a few years ago how Goldman Sachs got position limits removed from speculators, so that now speculators can dominate market forces.

Neoliberal economists in service to the financial sector have created a rationale for why interest rates can be negative in the face of massive debt and money creation and a slew of troubled financial instruments from corporate junk bonds to sovereign debt. The rational is that there is too much saving: The excess of savings over investment forces down interest rates. The negative interest rates will discourage people from saving and encourage them to spend, because the price of consumption in terms of foregone future income from saving is zero. It even pays to consume, because saving costs more than it earns.

Economists argue this even though the Federal Reserve reported that a majority of Americans are so low on savings that they cannot raise $400 without selling personal possessions.
That economists would concoct such an absurd explanation for negative interest rates, an explanation obviously contradicted by empirical evidence, shows that economists are now prostitutes just like the media. The economists are lying in support of a Federal Reserve policy that benefits a handful of mega-banks at the expense of the rest of the world.

The absence of integrity in Western institutions and politicized professions is proof that Western civilization has declined into total decadence just as Jacques Barzun said.

It is amazing that there still are some Russians and some Chinese who want to be part of the sordid decadence that is the Western world.

It is just as amazing that Americans and Europeans are so trapped in The Matrix that they have no inkling that their future has been destroyed.

US establishment shields killer cops

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Within three days of a judge’s ruling acquitting a Cleveland cop who brutally murdered two unarmed people, the Obama administration announced a settlement with the city that holds no one accountable for a string of police murders and leaves the existing apparatus of violence and terror intact.
These developments taken together reveal a basic reality of social and political life in America: the categorical defense by the entire political establishment and all official institutions of a paramilitary police force that has been granted a license to kill.
The court ruling exonerated Officer Michael Brelo of manslaughter charges stemming from the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were killed November 29, 2012 after police fired more than 130 rounds into their car. Forty-nine of those shots were fired by Brelo, who jumped onto the hood of the car and shot the unarmed occupants directly through the windshield 15 times.
Brelo was one of over a hundred cops who participated in a high-speed chase through Cleveland that culminated in a fusillade of bullets comparable to the killings of unarmed civilians at military checkpoints that became a common feature of the US military occupation of Iraq.
Judge John O’Donnell acquitted Brelo on the pseudo-legal grounds that the prosecutors had not proven that Brelo’s bullets were the ones that actually killed the two victims. Providing a judicial imprimatur for police to act as judge, jury and executioner, he declared, “Brelo’s entire use of deadly force was a constitutionally reasonable response to an objectively reasonably perceived threat of great bodily harm from the occupants” of the car.
Meanwhile, no charges have been brought against a Cleveland cop who last November shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice for holding a toy gun, and then failed to provide first aid as the child lay dying on the ground.
The same glaring disparity between homicidal police violence and the official response is expressed in the Obama Justice Department’s toothless settlement with the Cleveland police. The settlement stems from a Justice Department investigation that cited multiple cases of wanton and unconstitutional police violence and concluded that the Cleveland police department engaged in a pattern of “unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons,” as well as “the unnecessary, excessive or retaliatory use of less lethal force including Tasers, chemical spray and fists.”
The agreement, signed by the city authorities, mandates a handful of trivial “reforms,” including the hiring of more minority officers and the creation of a Community Police Commission to give the appearance of oversight. It also calls for additional funding for the police.
Far from being an aberration, Cleveland is one of at least 19 cities where the Justice Department has since 2000 found a “pattern or practice of excessive force.” Just over the past three years, Justice Department inquiries have reported systematic brutality and violations of democratic rights by police in Ferguson, Missouri; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington.
This has not prevented President Obama from declaring that the murder last August of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson cop Darren Wilson is “not typical of what happens across the country.” Wilson was exonerated by a rigged grand jury, as was New York City Officer Daniel Panteleo for the choking death of Eric Garner.
In working-class communities throughout the United States, police function as de facto death squads, treating workers and youth as an occupied population to be held in check with brutality and even murder. The methods of military violence developed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the so-called “war on terror” have been brought home for use against the US population.
Brelo personifies the convergence between the police and the military. An Iraq war veteran, Brelo told police investigators that he used his Marine training in deciding to “elevate” himself onto the hood of his victims’ car and “push through the target.”
So far this year, police have killed 455 people in the United States, putting them on track to take significantly more lives in 2015 than the 1,100 they killed last year. Every year, cops kill more people in the United States than the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq in 2004, at the height of the conflict, and police killings account for one out of every 16 homicides in the US.
The wave of police violence in the United States is not some excrescence of American “democracy.” It is deeply embedded in the structure of American society and rooted in the capitalist system and its irreconcilable class antagonisms. These have been immensely heightened by the unprecedented growth of social inequality, itself bound up with the deindustrialization of cities such as Cleveland, the impoverishment of the working class, and the obscene enrichment of a new financial aristocracy.
The buildup of a militarized police force to occupy the cities is the ruling class’s response to the growth of popular opposition to its policies of war abroad and austerity at home. Far from doing anything to ameliorate mass poverty and inequality, America’s financial elite responds to any sign of opposition with overwhelming and murderous violence.

Senior NATO Official Claims We’ll Be at War by Summer

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Last week, former NSA intelligence analyst John Schindler posted a rather disturbing tweet. With a statement that one could only assume to be a reference towards Russia, Schindler wrote “Said a senior NATO (non-US) GOFO to me today: “We’ll probably be at war this summer. If we’re lucky it won’t be nuclear.” Let that sink in.”

So who is John Schindler? As a ten-year veteran of the NSA, he was in the news a bit more when Snowden was making frequent headlines. He used to be a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and is currently a frequent contributor to Business Insider. According to his biography on Business Insider, he used to teach classes on security, strategy, intelligence, and terrorism, and he has “collaborated closely with other government agencies who would probably prefer he didn’t mention them.” It’s safe to say that Schindler probably brushes shoulders with high-ranking officials from time to time, so his tweet should be taken seriously.

It’s frightening to think that members of NATO may actually be preparing for, and expecting a war with Russia this summer, but unfortunately it’s not all that surprising. Given some of the activity we’re seeing around the world, it’s safe to assume that superpowers like the US, Russia, and China, are preparing for something big.  Infowars also reported on Schindler’s tweet, and noted some of the provocative moves that have been going on around the world lately.
Earlier this month NATO launched its biggest ever wargame exercise on Russia’s doorstep. Moscow responded by conducting “provocative” wargames in the Mediterranean Sea in coordination with the Chinese PLA, the first ever naval drill involving both superpowers.
NATO powers are also taking part in one of Europe’s largest ever fighter jet drills from today, with the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Finland, Norway and Sweden all involved in the 12 day exercise.
Tensions are also building between the U.S. and China, with The Global Times, a state media outlet owned by the ruling Communist Party, today warning that “war is inevitable” if Washington doesn’t halt its demands that Beijing stop building artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“If the United States’ bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea,” the newspaper said. “The intensity of the conflict will be higher than what people usually think of as ‘friction’.”
Last week, CNN revealed how China’s Navy has repeatedly issued warnings to U.S. surveillance planes flying over the South China Sea.
While these sorts of warnings come and go all the time, that in and of itself is kind of scary. The fact that we now live in a world where high-ranking officials just assume nuclear war is right around the corner, means we should be very concerned. Wars rarely, if ever, happen out of the blue. There are always quiet rumors of wars before the real deal comes to pass.

Friday, May 22, 2015

No Respect for the Poor

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We all make mistakes. In 1996, I ventured a silly notion at the end of a grant-funded project study that criticized the over-optimistic labor market assumptions behind U.S. “welfare reform.”  Welfare “reform” was a euphemism for the elimination of poor families’ entitlement to basic family cash assistance in the name of “welfare-to-work” and “work first.” My fellow researchers and I (working under the rubric of the Midwest Job Gap project) showed that the U.S. economy was generating far too few decent-paying low-skilled jobs to absorb the millions of poor mothers being pushed into the job market by the bipartisan “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.”  There wasn’t enough employment “opportunity” out there for welfare “reform” to meaningfully reduce poverty in the U.S., we argued.
Nonetheless, I found it necessary for some reason to hint that there might be a “silver lining” to the vicious policy in question. Maybe, I suggested, poor people would be treated with more respect in the U.S. since it would now be clearer than ever that most of the nation’s worst-off citizens were employed. I was thinking of opinion surveys I’d seen showing that the working poor were held in much higher regard than “the welfare poor” by the public and by policy makers.
Surrendering Basic Rights
Who was I trying to kid? In the late 1990s, at the peak of the “Clinton boom,” the brilliant left author Barbara Ehrenreich began the participant-observatory research for what became her bestselling 2001 book Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America – a harrowing account of her attempts to pay her bills and maintain her dignity while working at the bottom of the American occupational structure. Ehrenreich wanted to know how anyone could make it on $6 an hour without benefits as a hotel maid, house cleaner, waitress, and Wal-Mart sales “associate,” working in the precarious region between fading public benefits eligibility and good jobs?  She found that the nation’s lowest-status jobs were both physically and mentally exhausting and that one such job was not enough to pay for decent food, clothing, and shelter.
But what most particularly struck Ehrenreich about life at the low-wage end of the “Fabulous Nineties” was the remarkable extent to which working people were “required to surrender…basic civil rights…and self-respect” thanks to employer practices that helped “mak[e] ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality.”  The humiliations she witnessed and experienced included routine mandatory drug testing, intrusive pre-employment tests full of demeaning questions, rules against “talking” and “gossip” (against organizing, often enough), restrictions on trips to the bathroom, abusive rants by over-bearing supervisors, petty disciplinary measures, stolen labor time, and the constant threat of being fired for “stepping out of line.”  She learned as a waitress that management had the right to search her purse at any time.
So much for the notion that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s welfare “reform” (elimination) might restore some dignity and honor to the poor by moving more of them off the dole and into the paid workplace.
Two Cruel Jokes: The Minimum Wage and Poverty Level
Things have gotten worse for low-wage U.S. workers since Nickeled and Dimed hit the bookshelves. Real hourly wages for those at the middle of the wage distribution have stagnated since 2000, consistent with deeper trends across the long neoliberal era. But no group of workers has suffered more than those at the very bottom. Americans with only a high school degree or less have actually seen their wages fall since the turn of the millennium.
One part of the problem is that the U.S. minimum wage is a bad joke. If it had kept pace with increases in U.S. labor productivity since the 1970s, it would be $18 an hour today.  Instead it sits at a pathetic $7.25, which translates (assuming full-time year round work) into $14,500 per year, well below the notoriously inadequate federal poverty level for a three-person family ($19,790).
The most that “liberal” Democrats in Washington seem ready to pretend to fight for is an increase of the minimum wage to $10 an hour, that is, to a mere $20,000 a year for low-wage workers fortunate enough to work 40 hours a week 50 weeks in a year.
Which brings us to another bad joke: the U.S. poverty level. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s heroically researched Family Budget Calculator, the real cost of a minimally adequate no-frills standard of living for one parent with one kid in Iowa City, Iowa, is $48,235.  That sounds high until you add up the monthly expenses: housing ($853), food ($369), child care ($684), transportation ($459), health care ($891), other necessities ($313), and taxes ($450), for a total monthly outlay of $4,020. Go to the San Francisco metropolitan area and the cost of a basic family budget for one parent with one kid is $70,929. In the Chicago area, it’s $53,168. Make it two parents and two kids in Iowa City and the cost is $66,667.
It is absurd not only that the US federal poverty level (based on a hopelessly antiquated 1950s formula that multiplies a minimum food budget three times) is so low but also that it is not adjusted for significant geographic variations in the cost of living across US metro areas.
The EPI’s figures are worth keeping in mind the next time you hear the Chamber of Commerce or the American Enterprise Institute express horror at the notion that the minimum wage should go as “astronomically” high as $15 an hour.  Even such a dramatically increased minimum wage translates into just $30,000 a year for a full time worker fortunate to stay employed full time.
With most Americans’ wages stagnating for more than a decade and with the lowest paid workers’ wages shrinking, it is no wonder that half of the more than 24 million Americans who rely on food banks for basic nutrition are employed.  The cost of living just keeps going up.
“Put a Bullet Through Your Head”
Psychological abuse from employers remains very much a problem for the working poor. As the working class activist and journalist Bob Simpson reported from Chicago last year, a McDonald’s worker named Carmen Navarrette was “told that she ‘should put a bullet through her head,’ because she had requested permission to go home after becoming very ill at work. She is a diabetic and had just been released from the hospital.”  The daughter of a different Chicago fast food worker spoke “about how her mom comes home crying because ‘the manager would scream at her and yell mean things. And right now she is pregnant and he makes her carry more than she is supposed to and that’s not good for her. But he says he doesn’t care.’….On top of …[the] economic burden” that goes with working poverty in the U.S.,  Simpson noted, “comes the stress of cruel verbal abuse and the threat of arbitrary discipline without fair hearing.”
Dickensian Facts
Back to “welfare reform.” How’s that forgotten experiment in neoliberal “tough love” doing these days? As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) reported to Congress three weeks ago, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, the program that replaced AFDC, Aid for Families with Dependent Children under the 1996 welfare “reform”) provides cash assistance to very few needy families and lifts far few children out of “deep poverty” (incomes below half the federal poverty line) than did its predecessor, AFDC – this while poverty has risen in the current century. CBPP Vice President Ladonna Pavetti’s testimony to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee reads like something out of Charles Dickens:
“The national TANF average monthly caseload has fallen by almost two-thirds — from 4.7 million families in 1996 to 1.7 million families in 2013 — even as poverty and deep poverty have worsened. The number of families with children in poverty hit a low of 5.2 million in 2000, but has since increased to more than 7 million. Similarly, the number of families with children in deep poverty hit a low of about 2 million in 2000, but is now above 3 million. These opposing trends — TANF caseloads going down while poverty is going up — mean that TANF reaches a much smaller share of poor families than AFDC did. When TANF was enacted, nationally, 68 families received assistance for every 100 families in poverty; that number has since fallen to just 26 families receiving assistance for every 100 families in poverty…In ten states, fewer than 10 families receive cash assistance for every 100 families in poverty.”
On the eve of its elimination in 1995, AFDC raised 62% of children who would have otherwise been in deep poverty.  It saved 2,210,000 children from life at less than half the poverty level.  Fifteen years later, TANF did the same for a mere 629,000 children, lifting just 24% of children who would have otherwise been deeply poor. U.S. welfare payments were in fact never high enough to permit poor mothers to escape the necessity of participation in the job market, but, as the Public Broadcasting System recently reported, “welfare checks have shrunk so much that the very poorest single-parent families [now] receive…35 percent less than they did before welfare-to-work began.”
That is disgraceful in and of itself.  It is doubly shameful in a time when poverty has expanded while wealth and income have concentrated in ever fewer hands (the top 1% garnered 95% of the nation’s income gains during Obama’s first administration), bringing the nation to an openly acknowledged New Gilded Age of savage inequality and transparent plutocracy.
Welfare to Work?
Welfare to work? As Pavetti told Congress, most of the early employment gains among single mothers that were seen after TANF’s creation in 1997 have vanished thanks to the disappearance (after 2000) of the briefly favorable labor market for lesser skilled workers that emerged in the late 1990s.  The success of “work first” programs, which emphasize getting participants into the labor market quickly during the late 1990s, is vastly overstated. Although employment increased, the vast majority of former welfare recipients pushed into the job market did not attain stable employment even at the height of the unsustainable, debt-leveraged Clinton expansion. And today, after two predictable (and predicted) capitalist recessions (one epic in nature) and with another recession looming, U.S. states “spend little of their TANF funds to help improve recipients’ employability.”  TANF recipients report that TANF “welfare to work” programs typically involve little more than direction to short-lived, commonly seasonal low-wage jobs and that serious training and placement programs are unavailable and without funds.
“Welfare to work” is a scam to cover the slashing of government’s responsibility for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens in a society whose “free market” system offers ever fewer real opportunities for stability and upward mobility through employment while conferring vast government subsidies and protections and on the wealthy corporate and financial Few.
Fight for 15 and for Dignity
The U.S. working class struggle for a Living Wage that has emerged in recent years in connection with the Fight for Fifteen – for a minimum wage of $15 an hour (still below basic family budgets in all U.S. metropolitan areas) – is more than an economic struggle. It is also a political and moral struggle for basic decency, for self-respect, and for dignity.
Connecting economic oppression to psychological mistreatment in her widely read book, Barbara Ehrenreich guessed in Nickeled and Dimed “that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers – the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being ‘reamed out’ by managers – are part of what keep wages low.  If you’re made to feel unworthy enough,” Ehrenreich wrote, “you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you’re worth.”  It was an important point. Debilitating shame and the related psychological battering of working people in the all-too unprotected, de-unionized, and hidden abode of the workplace is part of how the employer class rules over low-wage workers in “the land of freedom.”
Inspiringly enough, however, tens of thousands of those workers in the U.S. have in the last two years stood up to tell their bosses and the nation that they not only need but also deserve more than miserable wages and denigration on the job.  “The [workers] of the Fight for 15 campaign,” Simpson noted last year, “want a world where a decent standard of living and respect for all is the norm.”
The fight for 15 is also a fight for dignity. Respect for workers, the struggle’s participants know, will only be won from the bottom up, through collective and militant action.  It will never granted from the top-down by elites who have little more respect for a Walmart or McDonald’s worker than they do for a TANF recipient or for one of the nation’s more than 2 million prisoners.