Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hope, Fear and Race in America


On the sunny, crisp and final Monday of October 2008, three friends met at around 1 p.m., in Downtown Manhattan's financial district for lunch.

The three then headed to a pub located on a narrow cobblestone street deep within the cavernous patch of land where buildings inspired by finance touch the sky.

Inside, dim light, drab wood tables and a line of customers at a steam table that included Turkey and cranberry sauce, Cajun Strip Steak, vegetables and crusted macaroni and Cheese.

Sitting at the tables were business attired patrons on lunch breaks.

Being that it was a few days before Halloween, fake spider webs coated the ceiling.

And, since it was only eight days before a national election, much of the soft but steady conversation filling the room was punctuated by Obama, Palin and McCain and Biden.

After the three settled into one of the the worn wooden booths, they too joined the conversation between bites of the hearty food and syrupy flat soda.

Despite polls predicting otherwise, one of the three raised doubts about a Democratic win, a hope they all said they subscribed to.

The doubter worried that while the potential election of the African American candidate created the appearance that race no longer plays an active role in American politics, the worry remained, racism could rear its ugly head on election day.

At that point, one of the three teased the doubter about his Southern upbringing, while the other, a New York native laughed but with caution, chimed in, saying what goes on behind the curtain of a voting booth, often stays behind the curtain.

The doubter kept saying that this is America, a place where hypocrisy and secrets often reveal themselves in subtle fashions. He charged that America was still a place where inequity could be measured along racial and class lines and that it was on full display in policy and even in the most mundane activities of day to day life.

This was after all, a nation that would legitimize campaign questions based on rumors about one man's religion while failing to live by a "golden rule" that clearly calls for all people to be treated, as they themselves would want to be treated, with decency, compassion and respect.

Evidence of his charges could be found in countless news stories, statistics and facts. This was a nation where prejudice and discrimination were still tolerated, offering as an example, California, where the threat of Proposition 8 offered reaffirmation that we as a nation allowed the majority to pick and choose who was worthy of equality.

After more polite discussion, lunch was finished, and the three rejoined the day outside where despite the crisp weather, the mood on the sidewalks appeared as flat as the earlier soda, a place where worry infected the collective mindset as fears of financial upheaval, two major wars and a sense of lost direction dimmed the lights at the end of the tunnel.

The downtown streets surrounding the epicenter of business were filled with camera ready tourists and cigarette puffing traders who quietly strolled, all mingling together amidst security barriers, television crews and checkpoints manned by men with guns.

The three friends then made there way back to the original gathering point, and dropped off the one who worked in the area. The other two, hopped on bikes and headed out of the cavernous old New Amsterdam, and over to the open air of the Harbor where the statue of Liberty beckoned. Then, after texting friends and some small talk about the past weekend, the two headed uptown along the river.

Along the way, the two noticed a group of around four casually dressed people who were staring down at the ground. One of them was taking a picture of what appeared to be either a large grey bug. After a good bit of pointing, giggling and conversing in what sounded like Italian, the group, obviously tourists, lumbered along leaving the small creature on the concrete surface.

The two, still on their bikes decided to have a look.

As they made there way over to the little spot, one of the two exclaimed "it's a tarantula!"

"No, it's a sea crab," said the other.

It was in fact a small crab, obviously from the harbor. The crab was moving sideways at the pace of caterpillar, apparently trying to make its way around the concrete barrier into the nearby weeds.

The two stood there and watched the little grey creature, which suddenly began to scurry into the safety of bushes and tall grass.

The crab was then gone, at least, the two on the bikes could no longer see it. They had no desire to dig and find it either, so, they continued to bike north.

As they rode along, they spotted yet another small group of people. Among them this time, a little girl petting what appeared to be a tiny spotted leopard.

"It's a virtual zoo out here!" remarked one of the two friends to the other.

"What is that?" he asked?

In this new group of three, a middle aged looking woman with perfectly white hair, had a large spotted cat on a leash. The cat was eying a squirrel that seemed to be teasing the cat. The squirrel bobbed its head and nibbled on food it took from the ground. The cat, sat with its neck stretched, at full attention, transfixed on the squirrel. The little girl, continued to pet the cat with caution, keeping her distance, while the cat did not seem to notice she was even there. A short distance away, another woman manned an empty stroller.

After a few minutes of staring at this scene, the two on bikes continued uptown.

Finally, they stopped at the World Financial Center, a modern complex of buildings on the shore of the river that adjoins the World Trade Center Site, also known as Ground Zero.

In the small marina at the base of the complex, are several yachts, sail boats and other marine vessels.

The two on bikes bought some peaches and cream gelato at an ice cream store in the complex, then sat outside on a concrete bench and enjoyed the sun.

Here too, despite the sunny day, the mood appeared quiet, subtle, as if New York City was calm before a storm.

The afternoon marched on, the two spent more time taking, pondering their hopes for the future, discussing their belief that government can and should do great things for its people. But still, one of them worried, that on election day polls mean nothing, that in America, even among liberals, racism is like cancer, it whispers as it destroys.

On this Monday in 2008, beneath the ghost of a shadow cast by twin towers that are now gone, the two pondered their hopes for the future, a future they hopped would begin next Tuesday.

After a while, one of the two continued uptown and left the other alone. The doubter sat and thought for a moment. Soon, his worries began to evolve back into bright light of hope.

When hope is real, it usually trumps the the fear of the past.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Shameful Message of Hate and Lies


Barring a vision from the Lord himself,there is probably no way to alter the thinking of those who subscribe to the philosophy of fringe right wing groups like the Columbus Ohio based Mission America and its leader Linda Harvey.

And, if it weren't for the particularly nasty tone or incessantly misleading words contained in an October 20 opine by Linda Harvey in the conservative "World Net Daily", any response to Mission America's typically insecure, filth laced and fright filled hyperbole wouldn't be worthy of time or effort.

But, in this case, a word or two, perhaps even a counter attack are warranted because, in her latest poisonous diatribe, Harvey not only spews lies about one of the LGBT community's most respected organizations, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, but also attempts to link her lies to the candidacy of Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama.

Understanding just how fringe Mission America is easy. This is a group that beckons visitors to its web page by advertising "learn the truth about homosexuality, witchcraft, changing Christian Church, Radical Feminism and the Youth Culture. Even more "mainstream" right wing groups may find this a bit outrageous.

Mission America calls itself a public policy analysis foundation. According to its 2007 tax returns, the private non operating foundation Mission America took in a meager $12,000 in contributions and donations. On its IRS Form 990 PF on a question where it asks did the foundation attempt to influence any national, state or local legislation or participate in any political campaigns, Harvey, or whoever filled out the returns, checked NO.

That said, there's no doubt Harvey and her writing is indeed attempting to influence this year's campaign. And, she's using a tired tactic, one long used by those on the far right that attempts to plant seeds of fear, be they racial, spook tactics on national security or in this case, the always reliable hot button homosexual agenda.

Currently featured in a prominent spot on the group's web page is a link to the article "Advocate of homosexual corruption of kids is leader in Obama's campaign.

That link then takes visitors to 'Gay" pedophilia and Obama', the "World Net Daily" piece where Linda Harvey asks if Obama agrees with his GLBT supporters.

Harvey's article charges that the LGBT organization GLSEN's mission "has been to plant 'gay' clubs and training programs in as many schools as possible" calling those groups a Trojan Horse into America's school children's minds.

She says that the "more closely one reads the GLSEN material, the worse it gets," implying that all manner of sexually suggestive material and pedophilia are acceptable behaviors. She says "just about every sexual practice imaginable is apparently acceptable and even worthy of celebration by any age student or teacher as far as GLSEN is concerned."

Then she asks "is this the kind of 'school reform' Obama has in mind?"

Harvey makes these charges because GLSEN's founder, Kevin Jennings, happens to be a prominent fundraiser in the LGBT community for the Obama campaign.

In the article, she says that Obama should remove Jennings from his 'position' and that voters need answers to a series of questions from Obama regarding his stance or beliefs about the origins, practice and acceptance of homosexuality especially when it comes to school aged children.

She then kicks her piece with "if we want a totalitarian, pansexual society, with its accompanying disease, dysfunction and abuse, and no room for nobility, goodness and tradition, then we need to make sure we vote for Obama with all his various revolutionary hangers-on, including Jennings." If, on the other hand, we envision another America, it's time to speak up now."

Well, Ms Harvey is correct, we do need to speak up.

It's nothing short of pathetic that Mission America would resort to such disgusting misleading smears that use vulnerable children in a Presidential campaign.

Perhaps her desperation arose out of the clear indication that If the "another America" Harvey envisions resembles the noble, good society where the 'tradition' of the past eight years are celebrated, according to a number of polls, most Americans plan to pass this go round.

Clearly, most voters are choosing to look beyond the political smokescreen of far right groups like Harvey's Mission America that have long sought to steer voters from the true issues affecting their lives, and their children's futures by raising false charges about candidates like Harvey does in her Obama/GLSEN piece. There are greater concerns occupying the minds of voters than an LGBT fundraiser at the Obama campaign.

But, besides that, if Americans look at the fine work of all the LGBT organizations in America, GLSEN has the distinction of perhaps being one of the more politically benign. It's mission is clear and it actually speaks to a fundament of who we are as a nation, the opportunity for all Americans to receive a quality education in a safe learning environment.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network narrows its mission 'to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.'

Exactly how does that mission mission cross over into pedophilia?

GLSEN's battles have been defined by its own research.

According to a recent GLSEN survey of almost seven thousand school children across the nation, 86.2% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 44.1% reported being physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation. Around 74 percent heard derogatory remarks like "faggot" or "dyke" used often at school. According to the survey, more than 60 percent of students felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation.

Linda Harvey and her friends at Mission America must not remember what goes on in the hallways or schoolyards of America's schools. The truth is, kids can be extremely cruel, often resorting to name calling and bullying, unfortunate behaviors usually directed at the most vulnerable, those perceived as different or weak, maybe the less than masculine male, or the masculine appearing female. Harvey fails to understand that those taunts, those abuses, that even the victims themselves are often ashamed of, have the ability to leave a child feeling isolated, alone and damaged. Those insults backed up by much of society's deep prejudices have the ability to cripple the self esteem and psychological health of children for years, if not lifetimes.

And, what good does it do the child issuing those taunts, or more importantly, the child on the receiving end of those taunts, when his or her parent, has read a piece like Linda Harvey's or any of the other vicious material on her website, where she has equated the mission of GLSEN and the candidacy of Barack Obama to pedophila or the "homosexual agenda?"

While GLSEN does indeed help in the establishment of what are called Gay Straight Alliances in schools across the nation, the fact is, they are more prominent in places that tend to be more tolerant, places with more socially open school districts, and rarely in the rural hamlets of Mississippi or Alabama, places where if a child who happens to be different, perhaps gay or lesbian, life can be hellish, perhaps destructive and very lonely.

If parents in those more conservative areas are subscribing to the hate filled vitriol of Linda Harvey and her crowd, a child may feel he or she has no place to turn.

Back in 1989, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its "Report on the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide," which found that "a majority of suicide attempts by homosexuals occur during their youth, and gay youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people.

In 2001, the American Psychological Association said that suicide is the number one cause of death for gay teens.

Calling someone heterosexual or straight is not a common insult or perceived as hurtful. In most school yards, shopping malls, social functions or other gathering places the straight jock or pretty cheerleader has less to worry about when it comes to the prejudices facing them. But the prejudices, even disregard for humanity that gets reinforced by the rhetoric of ghoulish figures like Linda Harvey, individuals who spew poisonous rhetoric, reinforcing hate for political gain into the minds of concerned parents and voters is nothing short of shameful.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rolling the Dice?

This past week, as it became increasingly clear that an infusion of $700 billion in taxpayer capital might be necessary to stave off national economic "calamity", a number of Americans expressed increased feelings of doubt, confusion and frustration.

In fact, according to a "Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times" Sept 19-22 poll, by a margin of 55 to 31 percent, "Americans say it's not the government's responsibility to bail out private companies with taxpayer dollars, even if their collapse could damage the economy."

Even in New York City, the home Wall Street of Wall Street Giants, talk on the streets, bars and boutiques beyond the cavernous streets downtown is mixed with worry and anger.

"I do not believe the American taxpayer should have to bail out another business like Bear Stearns" said Scott Woodward, CEO of Sewbranded, a marketing and branding firm in New York.

"My inclination is to let it play itself out naturally, and maybe the goings on of Wall Street as we knew it, will halt the greed and corruption of how CEO's run firms for short term personal gain will subside," said Woodward.

In his initial appearance before lawmakers in Washington, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson urged that the bailout plan, as it's commonly called, be passed "quickly and clearly" and that inaction could lead to a "recession."

President Bush used similar language during a number of television appearances.

Despite acknowledging the use of shrill language, a number of experts appear to believe that the doing nothing is simply not an option.

"The use of recession sounds to me like a scare tactic," said David Backus, Heinz Riehl Professor of International Economics and Finance at New York University's (NYU) Stern School of Business.

But Backus says that a "reasonably rapid response to problems in the financial sector are important."

"Japan is the obvious case of the opposite (inaction),"said Professor Backus.

From 1986 to 1990, Japan experienced what many call an asset price bubble where real estate and stock prices. When the bubble collapsed, gradually, the next 10 years became known in economic circles as the "lost decade."

"The government there ignored the onset of serious problems, and the economy stopped growing," Backus said.

"That's not a recession, it's much worse, that is ten to fifteen years of slow growth," he said.

According to Investorwords.com, a nation's economic growth rate is measured by economic growth during a given interval. Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product are the fundaments used to measure those growth rates.

Still, understanding the evolution of, and accepting the severity of what a slowdown could mean, has at best, proven to be challenging.

The bailout plan would allow the Treasury Department to buy bad mortgages from banks, and if and when the market improves, then sell them, in the best case scenario, at a profit.

But, ultimately, the Government would pump billions of dollars into the economy by buying up bad debt and restoring credibility to firms like AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie, providing clean balance sheets, so banks can start lending to one another again.

In a recent broadcast of the PBS program "Newshour'" Paul Solmon explained that in this most recent and current era of "credit," the collapse of firms like Lehman Brothers was not a net loss of faith in stocks, but in bonds, basically, the debts of firms like Lehman, Fannie , Freddie and AIG.

Bonds are like official IOUs isued by governments and corporations.

Newshour's Solmon points out that credit is the most important ingredient in an economy. Futher, he says in the report that 'firms, from railways to high tech, pay for their equipment , offices, and workers as they try to grow or expand, on credit.

The availability of fast and easy credit via credit cards, loans, and mortgages has enabled American consumers to buy cars, homes, television sets and vacations basically with a bet that future income from work will allow them to cover debt, or at least allow them to keep up with monthly payments .

Still, many wonder why taxpayers should bail out an industry they view as profiteers of misfortune or bad financial decisions of average citizens...especially during the era of the perjorative term, predatory lender.

Of course, it isn't just sub-prime mortgage lenders who have the appearance of predators who capitalize off the inability of countless individuals who fail to to pay in full or on time.

Just look at the commercial banking industry's biggest arm of profit.

Back in 2004, the PBS documentary series Frontline in collaboration with the "New York Times" produced its "Secret History of the Credit Card" that revealed over 145 million Americans carried charge cards. Of those individuals, 55 million paid their full payments monthly. 90 million of them carried balances while 35 million paid only the minimum required amounts.

FRONTLINE pointed out that the average credit card amount owed by consumers was $8,000.

The documentary meticulously reported how around 25 years ago, 'the banking industry successfully eliminated a critical restriction: the limit on the interest rate a lender can charge a borrower' setting in motion what has proven to be one of the most profitable profit streams for the banking industry.

As most consumers know, a credit card might be issued at a low interest rate of perhaps, 6 percent. But, if the consumer misses or is late on a payment, hidden within the fine print of most charge card agreements are stipulations that allow the bank to raise the rate to as much as 29 or more percent.

According to the FRONTLINE report by Lowell Bergman, the industry's most profitable customers, the ones being sought by creative marketing tactics, are the "revolvers:" the estimated 115 million Americans who carry monthly credit card debt.
To the extent the current the current 'crisis' would affect credit card lending is not yet known.

But as Jocelyn Slovak, a former New York City Public School Teacher, said last week, she's worried that if some sort of plan doesn't save the sector, it's pretty clear that a good bit of the financial freedom that credit provides might be be taken away.

"We've always had the luxury to take risks, through credit and other means, and it looks like that's going to change rather quickly," said Slovak.

So how did America arrive at a place where luxury and now it appears, big houses on credit became the norm?

In a June, 2006 "New York Times Magazine" article titled "The American Way of Debt" Jackson Lears, editor of Raritan: A Quarterly Review wrote During the 1980's, while real income continued to stagnate for most Americans, the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan gave government sanction to unprecedented consumer spending. Reagan's rhetorical refusal of limits combined with the deregulation of the lending industry to detach dreams of luxury from previous constraints.

The lack of constraint and de-regulation apparently created an industry that led to the current bubble linked to credit, a bubble that now appears to be popping most loudly on Wall Street.

Back on street level in New York, Scott Woodward said while he worries that the pain of not bailing out Wall Street will be immediate and extreme, his adverse opinions to this plan's particulars were only strengthened when he heard Secretary Henry Paulson first detail and defend the initial bailout terms with "no attached conditions", conditions that Woodward and plenty of others saw as a gift to CEO's and other players.

"I'd love to know the headhunter that was able to devise the notion of million dollar severances for executives that get fired for running their firms into the ground and not performing," he said.

Headhunters aside, it's understandable why Woodward would blast one of the more high profile companies that will be receiving Washington, ahem, taxpayer money, the nation's largest insurer or AIG. (American International Group Inc.)

For consideration, AIG, whose $85 billion dollar bailout is in addition to the $700 billion figure being crafted in Washington, has what some would might call a less than stellar record in some of its past corporate dealings.

For example, according to Austin based non profit organization Texans for Public Justice, after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, AIG's former chair and CEO, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg, led "a lobbying blitz to get taxpayers to bail out terrorism-related insurance losses.

TPJ also reported in a series called Bush donor profiles, that AIG had helped the now infamous Enron Corporation "cook its books" by investing in its LJM2 partnership along with Merril Lynch.

In 2003, AIG paid $10 million to settle Securities and Exchange Commission fraud charges that it helped a struggling mobile phone company pad its earnings by selling it a phony, back-dated insurance policy. Further still, AIG paid $126 million in 2004 to settle criminal and civil charges that it similarly helped PNC Financial Services hid $762 million in poorly performing loans in 2001.

According to TPJ, former AIG CEO Greenberg, while sitting on the New York Stock Exchange , helped approve what became a publicly condemned $187 million retirement package leading to the ouster of NYSE Chairman Dick Grasso.

TPJ goes on to say that "around that time, Greenberg got Grasso to pressure NYSE buyers to prop up AIG's stock price.

And while such alleged mischief leaves a bad taste in the mouths of countless taxpayers, experts caution that AIG's assets must go someplace and the bailout of AIG and others is probably necessary.

"It's entirely legitimate for people to ask questions about why we're doing this and who benefits as long as this isn't used as an excuse to delay action," said New York University's David Backus.

"To the extent we might want to blame somone, there's more than enough evidence of bad judgement by both parties with Fannie and Freddie being the most obvious examples," he said.

But, there are some holdouts.

As Ari J. Officer and Lawrence J. Officer opined on September 29 in TIME Magazine, 'the $700 billion (ultimately $1 trillion or more) bailout is not predominantly for mortgages and homeowners. Instead, the bailout is for mortgage-backed securities. In fact, some versions of these instruments are imaginary derivatives. These claims overlap on the same types of mortgages.

The Time article said that many financial institutions wrote claims over the same mortgages, and these are the majority of claims that have "gone bad."

One solution that might provide some level of palatability to taxpayers who others who view the bailout as extreme is an "institutional risk insurance premium."

The idea was touted in a September 17, "New York Times" Op-Ed by Jonathan G S Koppell, Director of the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and Performance at Yale.

Koppell asked "why not make investment banks and other companies pay premiums for this catastrophic insurance." He argues further that the "goal should be to limit the contagion of failure rather than prevent the failure itself."
Later, in an email message, Professor Koppell wrote that the idea of 'failure tax' "could be used to emphasize that the public should not be providing insurance to these companies gratis."

"The American people don't get the profits so why should they be stuck with the losses," he said.

Such input from experts and others has only fueled the ongoing informal conversations, questions and nighttime arguments over who, what and how this will all play out in the end for those beyond the busy trading floors in the financial district and the halls of Government in Washington.

"In a nutshell, we are an over-inflated economy that has placed to much trust in synthetic trades," according to one New York stock analyst who asked to remain anonymous while sipping drinks with a friend who works for a major New York City bank.

The annonymous analyst said that Wall Street is all about leverage. He went on to say that leverage is like odds, you bet one, but if you lose, you lose a thousand.

During that same conversation at a downtown bar, the analyst said that Wall Streets assets are based on synthetic value, mere blips on a screen.

Whatever that means, it seems clear, that Wall Street has been and will continue to capitalize off of every day American's debt, and that debt, has allowed Americans to operate, often beyond their means.

Still, as the anaylist in New York pointed out, ordinary Americans don't really have a say here.

"Whether you think it's good, bad or you're indifferent, you have no control," he said to his banker friend.

He went on to say that taxpayers will be rolling the dice with the $700 billion dollar bailout. First, there is no way of knowing whether or not the market will buy back the distressed debt at any point in the future and whether or not, this will put the country back on the path to greater growth.

According to an August 2008 report from the Office of Macroeconomic Analysis, the United States economy has "remained on a path of slower growth since late 2007.

To this, many Americans are asking whether or not this plan that allegedly provides a shot in the arm of the market abyss will impact their own income streams.

"There is absolutely no guaruntee this $700 billion will do anything to stave off a catastrophe in the longterm," the anonymous analyst said wearily over a Grey Goose martini with olives.

FRONTLINE'S "Secret History of the Credit Card"

Perhaps an appropriate time to further educate oneself about the ongoing financial crisis:

In "Secret History of the Credit Card," FRONTLINE® and The New York Times join forces to investigate an industry few Americans fully understand. In this one-hour report, correspondent Lowell Bergman uncovers the techniques used by the industry to earn record profits and get consumers to take on more debt.

LINK TO PBS Webpage to view entire program online