Friday, February 12, 2010
From the deck chair at the Miami Boat Show ... by gimleteye
I'm going to the Miami Boat Show this weekend. I like to window shop. Judging from the shrunken size of the boat show this year, I'm not alone. As I walk down the aisles, part of me that is not admiring the boats I will not be buying will be thinking of Goldman Sachs, AIG, and the remarkable story in last Sunday's New York Times that disclosed details, for the first time, how the investment bank chased billions of dollars in income and bonuses by pushing down the so-called insurance policies on the economy, owned by A.I.G.
"In just the year before the A.I.G. bailout, Goldman collected more than $7 billion from A.I.G. And Goldman received billions more after the rescue. Though other banks also benefited, Goldman received more taxpayer money, $12.9 billion, than any other firm. In addition, according to two people with knowledge of the positions, a portion of the $11 billion in taxpayer money that went to Société Générale, a French bank that traded with A.I.G., was subsequently transferred to Goldman under a deal the two banks had struck."
Although the New York Times report has nothing to do with the Boat Show, it has everything to do with the underlying unease that marks the jobless recovery and, in particular, the chop shop mentality that pervades the Florida economy. "Goldman stood to gain from the housing market’s implosion because in late 2006, the firm had begun to make huge trades that would pay off if the mortgage market soured. The further mortgage securities’ prices fell, the greater were Goldman’s profits. In its dispute with A.I.G., Goldman invariably argued that the securities in dispute were worth less than A.I.G. estimated — and in many cases, less than the prices at which other dealers valued the securities. The pricing dispute, and Goldman’s bets that the housing market would decline, has left some questioning whether Goldman had other reasons for lowballing the value of the securities that A.I.G. had insured, said Bill Brown, a law professor at Duke University who is a former employee of both Goldman and A.I.G. The dispute between the two companies, he said, “was the tip of the iceberg of this whole crisis.”
The sour mood of the American public is captured in a new New York Times/CBS poll: "Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans say members of Congress deserve re-election." That 1/10th probably represents friends of family and lobbyists. Although public dissatisfaction with Washington is at all-time highs, the palm-reading Palin factor, on national display at the Tea Party convention or whatever that was last week, is unlikely to gain any traction in November. Jim Kunstler captured the sentiment neatly in his Monday rant at Clusterfuck Nation:
"... this Sunbelt political culture has tentacles and outposts all over the USA, wherever a few generations of laboring folk enjoyed debt-fueled parabolic rises in living standards during the cheap oil decades, and now find themselves in foreclosure hell, indentured to the very WalMarts that they welcomed with open arms (and allowed to destroy their local businesses) -- and, of course, it's yet another paradox that these are the same folk who will still defend the big box masters to their deaths. The America they stand for is a weird contradictory mish-mash of Confederate nostalgia, hyper-individualism that really owes allegiance to nothing, racial enmity, religious paranoia, and potemkin patriotism -- especially involving anything in the constitution that allows them to wriggle out of obligations to the public interest at the same time that they get to push other groups of people around."
Well, yes. Food for thought, as I wander the Boat Show this weekend. See you there?
By James Howard Kunstler
on February 8, 2010 6:35 AM
Future historians who try to chart the unraveling of the USA's political tapestry might point to two events of the past week. The obvious first one was the Tea Party convention at Nashville. It was held not accidentally at the ridiculous Opryland Hotel and resort in the city's outer suburban asteroid belt, right next to the circumferential freeway, and next door to the defunct (1997) Opryland USA theme park, an attraction based on the cute idea that Tennessee rubes were too dumb to spell the word opera -- so the symbolism was perfect.
Behind the incoherent cargo of conflicting complaints that makes up Tea Party doctrine -- like "keeping the government's hands off our medicare!" -- stands the more basic dissolution of the Sunbelt's miracle economy, along with the pain and bewilderment of the southern peckerwood political nexus that rose out of the dust after World War Two to build the suburban nirvana of universal air-conditioning, happy motoring, Jesus tub-thumping, over-eating, and Friday night football that defined Sunbelt culture. They sense now that history is about to thrust them back into the okra patch, with the hookworms and the chiggers, as the economy whirls down the drain, and the car dealerships close up, and the idle production homebuilders succumb to methedrine addiction, and the price of Reba McEntire tickets exceeds their dwindling resources, and they are none too happy about any of that.
Of course this Sunbelt political culture has tentacles and outposts all over the USA, wherever a few generations of laboring folk enjoyed debt-fueled parabolic rises in living standards during the cheap oil decades, and now find themselves in foreclosure hell, indentured to the very WalMarts that they welcomed with open arms (and allowed to destroy their local businesses) -- and, of course, it's yet another paradox that these are the same folk who will still defend the big box masters to their deaths. The America they stand for is a weird contradictory mish-mash of Confederate nostalgia, hyper-individualism that really owes allegiance to nothing, racial enmity, religious paranoia, and potemkin patriotism -- especially involving anything in the constitution that allows them to wriggle out of obligations to the public interest at the same time that they get to push other groups of people around.
The Tea Party people are the corn-pone Nazis I have been warning you about. They are gathering strength in numbers as President Obama and congress fritter away their remaining legitimacy in a manner of governance that more and more resembles an endless Chinese Fire Drill. The delusional craziness of the Tea Partyists exists in direct proportion to the wimpy deceit of the government, especially in matters of money and statistics reporting. Our political leaders are resorting to wholesale deceit because the truth of our situation -- comprehensive bankruptcy -- is too painful to dwell on and for the most part they are too chicken too state it.
This brings me to the second telling event of last week when President Obama said, kind of off-hand, apropos of the US economic situation, "You don't blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you're trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (of Nevada) was all over Mr. Obama like a cheap suit for that. I'm sorry that the President didn't slam back the craven Mr. Reid and pull his upper lip over the top of his head. Fuck Las Vegas and fuck Nevada, and fuck all the casino operators in every pulsating gambling venue around this country. The last thing we need is to continue believing that it is possible to get something for nothing, or an industry based on that false principle. I'd go a lot further and shut down legalized gambling all over the USA, send it back to the margins, to the alleys, to the berm between the WalMart and the Target Store, to the basement boiler rooms, to the public bathrooms, to wherever it will be identified as indecent, shameful, and not healthy.
Notice, by the way, that the Tea Party people have never made an issue about the disgusting gambling "industry" -- not even the Jesus thumpers among them, for all their pretense about decency and propriety. I suppose this is precisely because a cardinal article of Tea Party faith is that it should be possible to get something for nothing. You should be entitled to collect social security even while you inveigh against the intrusion of big government into your life and the horrible prospect that it will get its mitts on your Medicare! And when Jeezus comes to take you home, that place will be just like Opryland USA was in its heyday, with Dolly Parton in every suite and all the pulled pork sandwiches under heaven's dome....
As the contest heats up this year between Tea Partydom and the Weimar-like remnant of the party in power expect to see a political vortex form that will suck the little remaining coherence out of American life. Personally, I'd like to see Mr. Obama have a little fun with his adversaries, even if it seals his fate as a one-term president. I'd like to see him start by using the just-proposed national forum on health care reform as a rope-a-dope moment to expose opponents to reform as the bought-and-sold errand boys they are.
In the meantime, it appears that nothing will stop the epochal forces underway in global finance from spinning out of control. Illusions are getting hammered hard now and nations are lining up for the long trip home out of modernity to something that will look more like the seventeenth century, if they're lucky.