Archive for October, 2011


Posted: 31 October 2011 in Uncategorized
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The attacks on the Occupy Wall Street movement know no bounds.

Actually, on a positive note, the crescendo of attacks signifies the success of the movement. Still, when the criticisms are unfounded, they need to be contested.

The latest example comes from Bill Keller, who argues that the Indian protest movement led by Hazare has moved beyond OWS. Keller applauds the fact that the Indian movement has a leader (as against OWS which he sees as “consensus-oriented and resolutely leaderless”), is explicit about its demands (better than OWS, which comprises a variety of “vague,” “idealistic” causes), uses Indian democracy “shrewdly” (in contrast to OWS, which is “scornful of both parties and generally disdainful of electoral politics”), and perhaps most importantly is not anticapitalist (while OWS has a “strong undercurrent of anticapitalism”).

Now, each of Keller’s contentions can be—and should be—disputed. But let me focus on one of them for the time being:

An attempt to spark an Indian offshoot of Occupy Wall Street — a Facebook campaign branded with pictures of Che Guevara — went pretty much nowhere. Capitalism is one thing most Indians believe in.

The fact is, there is no basis for Keller’s sweeping generalization concerning Indians’ belief in capitalism. Had he actually consulted some real facts—such as the most recent poll by Globescan (which I cited back in April)—he wouldn’t be able to make that statement, about Indians or Americans.

Only 59 percent of both Americans and Indians agree (either strongly or somewhat) with the statement that capitalism—a “free market economy”—is the best system.

That may be news for Keller but it’s not for a large number of people in India and, as we’ve seen with the OWS movement, now in the United States. He may want Indian protestors and Occupiers to restrict themselves to the “unglamorous business of government,” thereby leaving capitalism in place. But protest movements and the facts about what people believe are more stubborn than the wishful thinking of facile political pundits.

Keller’s problem is not to go beyond Occupy. It’s to catch up with it.

Special mention

Thomas Friedman finally got something right: “Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery.”

The fact that Friedman has recognized the problem just tells us how glaringly obvious it’s become.*

According to Americans for Campaign Reform, individuals and political action committees in finance, insurance, and real estate have contributed over $2 billion to federal campaigns since 1990, the largest sector by a factor of two. And candidates from both major political parties have taken the money almost in equal measure—always, of course, favoring the party in power and members of the relevant regulatory committees (Financial Services and Ways and Means in the House, Commerce, Banking, Finance, and Budget committees in the Senate).

The result is, the United States now has the best Congress the 1 percent in finance, real estate, and insurance can buy.

* It won’t surprise anyone that the only good solution Friedman can come up with is something he borrowed from someone else: “U.S. congressmen should have to dress like Nascar drivers and wear the logos of all the banks, investment banks, insurance companies and real estate firms that they’re taking money from.” That would be a good start.

[ht: rw]

Special mention

I happen to have been in New York City the weekend Lehman Brothers went bust. I remember as if it were yesterday the panic in the air, as the unelected representatives of the 1 percent tried to figure out what do to—not only about the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers but about the impending collapse of the financial system of the United States and the entire world.

I also remember wondering what was going on within the inner sanctum of Lehman Brothers, where the 99 percent never tread. What were they thinking? What were they doing? Was it really just about wringing the last red cent out of their financial swindle? Were they just acting according to the roles assigned to them in the financial machine?

Now we know the answer to those questions. Or, at least, we now have a fascinating fictionalized account of that one 24-hour period when Lehman Brothers breathed what was to be its last greedy gasp.

That’s the subject of J. C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” which, with superb acting and tight directorial control, represents on screen what A. O. Scott has called “the dark romance of capital: the elegance of numbers; the kinkiness of money; the deep, rotten, erotic allure of power.”

And, of course, its costs. The film begins with one round of downsizing, as entire floors of risk calculators and salespeople (including, importantly, Eric Dale, played by Stanley Tucci, who has come close to figuring out the pyramid scheme on which the unnamed firm’s entire trading strategy rests) are eviscerated, and ends with a final round of firings as the firm goes bust (but not before Zachary Quinto’s Peter Sullivan, who finishes Dale’s calculations, is rewarded for his efforts by being promoted).

Chandor does not attempt to present the other costs, outside the firm, in the wider economy and society, because, presumably, we all know what they have been. Nor does anyone in the film even attempt to justify the role of the firm, before or during the crisis—again, presumably, because we all know any such justification would ring hollow. The closest it gets is the speech by boss of bosses John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who explains that the world has always been made up of “fat cats and stray dogs” and all he and his hired guns have been doing is playing their assigned role in that endless game.

And that’s the power of the movie. There’s no conspiracy. No breaking of the law. Not even the sense of moral degeneracy or collapse. What it shows is how capitalism works and how the decisions of the various players are scripted—“We have no choice.” “There is no choice.” “It’s not like we have a choice.”—according to the positions they occupy.

Tuld and his employees are just as enslaved by the relations in which they find themselves as the 99 percent who have been forced to pay the economic and social costs of Wall Street’s decisions—albeit in a quite different manner.

Cartoon of the day

Posted: 29 October 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Special mention

U.S. stock markets may have soared yesterday, based on news of a deal to solve the problem of the European debt crisis.

But today, in the real world, the news was quite different: unemployment in Spain rose to 21.5 percent in the third quarter. That means nearly nearly 5 million Spaniards (4,978,300, to be exact) are without a job, and 1.43 million Spanish households now have no one working.

The situation is even worse for young people: unemployment among those under age 25 dipped slightly, but remained at a staggering 45.8 percent. Those who have not worked in a year or more now exceed 2.1 million.

European banks may have agreed to a haircut. They can afford it. But, as a result of the austerity measures to pay back the European bankers, unemployed Spanish workers are just going to have to let their hair grow long.

I have long admired Nate Silver’s willingness to embrace uncertainty.

Fortunately, Silver has not been cowed by attacks on his critique of the hubris of supposedly expert judgement. So, he restates his case:

Experts have a poor understanding of uncertainty. Usually, this manifests itself in the form of overconfidence: experts underestimate the likelihood that their predictions might be wrong.

Examples of this can be found in numerous fields. Economics is an obvious one. In November 2007 — just a month before the economy officially went into recession — economists polled in the Survey of Professional Forecasters thought there was only about a 1 in 500 chance that economic growth would decline by 2 percent or more in 2008. (In fact, it declined by 3.3 percent).

I have only one disagreement. Silver thinks the “experts” are playing Russian roulette with their reputations when they use terms like “never” and “certain.” It seems, however, so-called experts—such as economists who did not predict the current crisis and continue to predict that a recovery is just around the corner—are rarely if ever forced to pay the price of their failed forecasts.

They may be playing Russian roulette with their reputations—but without a bullet in the chambers.