Thursday, July 30, 2009

Another Great Example of How Economics 'Reporting' Works

Yesterday the big economics news was that home prices were up in May. Today the big news is that first-time unemployment claims are up above what was expected.

Yesterday, the good news was universally hailed as a sign of more good news to come: a 'trough' has been reached, the drop in home prices has bottomed out, etc.

Today, the bad news on jobs is just an 'aberration': "Proper accounting of seasonal factors would explain away this unexpected increase in unemployment." (Note that everyone expected some kind of increase in jobless numbers, just not by this much.) NPR, for example, emphasizes that "the trend is down" in numbers of first-time unemployment claims (again, not down in overall numbers of unemployed).

Some have pointed out that there are seasonal variations in home prices. Easier to look in warm weather, properties look more appealing, problems like heating, are less apparent, more people are moving (students, families with kids out of school for the summer). Curiously, this was not immediately or prominently offered as a caveat with regard to the 'good news' about home prices.

Contrary to what some assert, the media does indeed get to pick and choose its facts. The excuse is "editorial necessity" or "experts tell us". The same editorial necessities and expert advice that guided reporting on Iraq, the entire Middle East, and of course, the economy.

Unemployment Up,
Durable Good Orders Down,
Profits Down, But ...
Home Prices Up So ... ?

Yes, one bit of good news — good news especially for huge property owners — and that is sufficient for economists, politicians, journalists and pundits to start hailing the "trough". The economy has bottomed out.

One month, one statistic, and the sunlit uplands are hailed:
By contrast, here is some of the news that evidently can be ignored when asking how the economy is doing:
  • 584,000 Americans filed first-time claims for unemployment benefits last week. This was instantly dismissed as a seasonal anomaly; nevermind that, even if anomalous, it proves that unemployment is still climbing rapidly. The total number of people collecting benefits decreased — probably because people are reaching the end of the alloted time for collecting.
  • There remains near-universal agreement that unemployment will exceed 10% nationally.
  • Durable goods orders are down. Unless you exclude automobiles and aircraft, in which case they're up. When data element x or y upsets the picture you are trying to paint, come up with an ad hoc reason to exclude that data.
  • Sony posts a loss of $390.5 million
  • Profits down 66% for quarter at Exxon Mobil
  • Volkswagen 6-month profit down 81%

Friday, July 24, 2009

More on Obama on Gates

This was written in response to an essay by Melissa Harris-Lacewell in The Nation.

I largely agree with Harris-Lacewell on the Gates affair. I find Obama's involvement more interesting. Some thoughts:

1. My impression of Gates is that he is a prima donna at an institution specializing in prima donnas. There are a great many African-American scholars doing better, more insightful work elsewhere. Gates is a great promoter and popularizer (needed in their own right, but not scholarship).

2. If Gates were the edgy radical that some want to condemn him as, he would not be at Harvard, which is notoriously hostile to independent thinking. It is an essentially conservative, money-driven institution.
This point is best illustrated by the case of Cornel West, driven out of Harvard by the intolerant bigotries of then-president Lawrence Summers who is now -- surprise! -- a member of the Obama administration. So much for Obama's concern about bigotry. (Summers has repeatedly express revolting positions regarding women, blacks, Arabs and all who criticize Israel.)

3. Let's be blunt. Racism is rampant in the US. Arab-Americans can best attest to this today. But Gates and Obama both enjoy singular privilege. By no stretch of the imagination do they instantiate anyone's common experience. To me, Gates has appeared eager to appear a victim (which he may indeed be, but his reaction is a distinct phenomenon in its own right).

5. More interesting, Obama's reaction --(A) Were this a white person victimized by standard police excesses (as were many in NYC by Mayor Bloomberg's totalitarianism during the '04 RNC), Obama wouldn't dream of criticizing the police. --(B) Were this a black man in Harlem shot by cops for Living While Black, Obama would be silent. And worst --(C) Obama has actively rejected justice in the case of Bush et al., greatest war criminals in 30 years.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Obama, Justice for a Friend, Justice for the Rest of Us

A letter I have written to Barack Obama:

Dear Mr. Obama:

Regarding your eagerness to jump in without knowing the facts, you show yet again your indifference to fact, substance and justice. As you have with your bailout, your exclusion of labor from discussions on stimulus packages, your exclusion of single-payer as an option on healthcare, you show yet again that you are a president of the privileged -- indifferent to the circumstances of the people whom you serve.

You work for us. You are our servant, lest you forget.

Henry Louis Gates may be right. The officer may be. They may both be wrong. Who knows -- probably not even them. We do know that Gates, like you, is among the most privileged people of color in the entire world. He has little if any first-hand experience of the conditions of those people he now claims to represent. You, admittedly, have somewhat greater claim in that regard. But let's not pretend that you have any idea what it is like to be black in Bedford-Stuyvesant and confronting a cop determined that you are guilty. You are utterly ignorant on the conditions of any such person or the conditions of roughly 300 million other Americans. If you did, you could not now be displaying such revolting hypocrisy on economic justice or civil liberties.

Whatever the facts and ultimate outcome in Cambridge, you jumped in -- for a personal friend -- without any more facts at hand than any of us. YET you won't say WORD ONE in criticism of ANYTHING the Bush administration did -- torture, war in Iraq, attacks on civil liberties. You say NOTHING in substantive pursuit of justice. You rule out any investigation of likely Bush war crimes.

YET you leap to pre-judge a tempest in a teapot in Cambridge, MA.


With regards,

Hugh Sansom

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

American Gods

Michael Jackson has ascended to the throne of the Gods. He has become what Americans needed him to be, something he grasped he had to be . . . infinitely maleable, all things to all people. The formless matter suitable for any person to fashion into whatever idol was needed.

No surprise that Jackson worked so hard to refashion himself. He was American culture's Frankenstein monster, simultaneously a masterpiece and a horror.

Now he has done what Elvis did before him, and so too the lesser god John Lennon . . . . He's made a good career move. Now he can be fully commodified. Utterly vilified by that petty moronic bigot, Congressman Peter King. Canonized by that self-serving greasy opportunist, Reverend Al Sharpton.

Elvis departed to the realm of Graceland, Lennon to Strawberry Fields, Jackson to Neverland. The manufactured realm of the unreal.

So I have a response to the response to his death. I do not understand the popular reaction. I did not understand Michael Jackson. I rarely thought of him in any connection. Nevertheless, on hearing of his death, I called my ex with a sense that something that marked our youth had passed. So be it.

I am more interested in the contempt thinly veiled in the remarks of some in the media and elsewhere, a contempt expressed unambiguously by Peter King. King himself can be tossed aside. Anyone who's had the misfortune to hear two syllables uttered by him knows him to be one of the stupidest idiots in a Congress of Idiots.

What was so clear in the reactions of some, like Brooke Shields, was genuine compassion. And in truth, I feel great pity for Michael Jackson. Who knows what was really going on for him. But the sight of his daughter breaking down on the stage of that mass market fare-thee-well must move any person (but not Peter King).

He was indeed destined. Destiny is the application of force by a higher power. For him, the higher power was his father. His Son had to die for somebody's sins. Might as well be the father's.

So, deprived of any childhood, he spent his life trying to invent one, recover one, discover one — the search for lost time.

And let's be perfectly honest. Let us suppose that Michael Jackson really was the person that Peter King claimed. In the scheme of things, the also recently departed Robert McNamara was vastly worse. McNamara, a true war criminal, was treated with the greatest respect by many of the same media hacks marvelling at the send-off for Jackson. But Jackson, even under the worst possible light, did nothing remotely as reprehensible as McNamara.

In time, other gods of the powerful will kick off — Henry Kissinger, Ariel Sharon, Dick Cheney, George W . . . take your pick. Every one of them will be treated with near-reverence by the likes of The New York Times or CNN or NPR. Yet every single one of those icons of power is guilty of vastly greater crimes — crimes against humanity — than Michael Jackson.

No prominent figure in government or the media will dare speak ill of any of those war criminals when the time comes. Obama, President of the United States, won't dare speak ill of them now.

So a word to all those who sneer at the hullabaloo over Michael Jackson. If you are capable of lionizing some of the worst Americans ever to crawl across the Earth, what does that make you?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Biden Relays an Obamal Bull on Foreign Policy

In the flea circus of Sunday morning blab sessions among politicians, pundits and 'experts', Vice President Joseph Biden dropped a clanger. Asked by George Stephanopoulos about a possible Israeli attack on Iran, he said, "Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else." (For example, Lebanon and the Occupied Territories of Palestine.) Biden said further that the US cannot "dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do."

This directly contravenes the express American position with respect to North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and of course, Iran. It's a position we all know the US takes; thus, according to the BBC, "White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Mr Biden was not signalling any change of approach on Iran or Israel."

Some nations, we know, are more equal than others. Israel is the first among equals in timid, sheepish, money-grubbing Washington. So Israel has blanket immunity. Other friends do not. Britain's sovereignty does not give it the right to investigate American war crimes. The US threatened to withhold key intelligence info, purportedly vital to British security, if Britain did not quash any investigations into torture and other crimes at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Spain is certainly under similar or greater pressure.

While this does not mark a major shift in American policy, it does serve as declarative punctuation in the US position on Iran. It marks the official cessation of any US government concern or support for pro-democracy activists in Iran. Iran must be popularly demonized to lay the foundation for American acquiescence in a new round of Israeli war crimes.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Mountain Men, Modern and Old, and Those Who Follow Them

The New York Times runs a story on July 5th on the story and mystery of Everett Ruess, a young, 'modern' mountain man, who disappeared in Utah three quarters of a century ago — in 1934 — at just 20 years of age.

His remains were believed found and confirmed by DNA analysis until the Utah State Archaeologist raised questions about the dentition.

I put "modern" in scare quotes (thus, 'scare') because some might dispute 1934 being "modern" and Utah was far more wild then than it is now.

Ruess "followed his bliss", as Joseph Campbell would have said, lived very much by his own devices, traded his woodcut prints for food, trekked about with a horse or burro. Lived Henry David Thoreau's imagined ideal — simple.

Jon Krakauer writes of Ruess briefly in "Into the Wild" (briefly, because there is little to be said about him).

It's a mystery. A young wanderer probably murdered. Of kind, I think, with Kit Carson, John Colter, Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass, and others who seemed to prefer comparative isolation, the wilderness.

I am among their admirers, even idolaters. The idolaters of those who go alone, or near alone, into the wilderness (rarely, but nevertheless occasionally, against the wilderness). A simpler life. A life of pure beauty, pure art.

I sound like a fucking self-help book.

More to come.