Category Archives: Governance

Bad new for whoever wins: Financial crisis ahead


While Democrats are nursing hopes of control of one or both houses of Congress, victory might contain a poison pill that could redound to the Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans benefit two years down the road.

Make no mistakes. The warning signs are already quite clear, as embodied in this series of 10-year graphs we’ve assembled from the marvelous resources of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis:

First up, housing prices are soaring again, already reaching well above the levels of the 2007-9 Great Recession [indicated by the shaded areas of the charts], a crash triggered by shady mortgage lending by the nation’s leading banks [click on the images to enlarge]:

And as housing prices rise, so does mortgage debt, which has also topped pre-Great Recession levels as the Trump Administration slashes protection passed under the Obama administration::

Credit card debt is also soaring:

Yet another form of debt is also rising as states and the federal government slash colleges and university  funding, sending tuition rates through the roof:

The next graphs is particularly ominous.

While Donald Trump claims that under his administration, unemployment levels have hit record lows.

But that’s only because soaring numbers of folks have simply given up and dropped out of the labor force:

For our final graph we look at the growing amount of U.S. debt held overseas, trillions of dollars that could explode in the face of Donald Trump’s self-declared trade wars:

And now, with this graphic introduction we turn to a very important documentary from VPRO Backlight, a creation of producer Marije Meerman for Dutch public television and a warning of dark times ahead:

Lessons from Lehman and the Coming Crash

Program notes:

Have we learned the Lessons from Lehman and could we have predicted the Coming Crash? Ten years ago, the crash on Wall Street took us by surprise when Lehman Brothers’ bank went bankrupt. The financial crisis that followed this crash on Wall Street was like a chain reaction; a pole dancer with her five mortgages turned out to be connected to the huge gap in the Greek national budget. Is it possible to predict the coming crash? What are the lessons learned from the collapse of Lehman Brothers? Can we predict the coming crash of Wall Street by looking back to the last 10 years and take a lesson from Lehman?

Sometimes, it is important to look back in order to predict what we might be heading for. Ten years ago, we were taken by surprise when Lehman Brothers’ investment bank went bankrupt. In the followinf months, banks needed saving. Millions of tax payers money was used. Worldwide, banks, villages, cities, and even countries went bankrupt or were hanging by a thread. Few, if any, bankers were convicted. Crypto currencies like bitcoins thrived on the growing suspicion towards banks and governments. Finally, central banks around the world set up buying asset purchasing programmes in order to create cash out of nothing. A strategy to pump money into the financial system, hoping to keep it afloat. What have we learned from this crash and its consequences? Over a period of ten years, VPRO Backlight reported on the snowballing financial crisis. It turned out that a journalist, a former banker and an economist had predicted the 2008 credit crash and are now warning against a new crash. We pay them another visit to find out what they had seen, where many others were blind.

If we look hard enough, can we see why we are now in the calm before the next crash?

With: Nomi Prins [author and former banker for Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers], Ann Petifor [economist] and Isabella Kaminska [journalist for the Financial Times] with cameos by Jim Rogers [super investor], Roger Ver [bitcoin-evangelist], Joris Luyendijk [journalist], and Yanis Varoufakis [former Greek Minister of Finance].

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Schadenfreude alert: Who meddles in elections?


Now that Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State is claiming – based on no evidence whatsoever – Democrats have hacked his state’s election, it’s time for a reminder of the identity of the world’s number one election-rigger.

Guess what?

It’s Uncle Sam.

We begin with a video report from The Intercept:

A Short History of U.S. Meddling in Foreign Elections

Program notes:

Meddling in foreign elections is bad. I think we can all agree on that. And almost everyone – bar Donald Trump – seems to believe that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election. So that should be condemned. Here’s the problem, though: U.S. politicians and pundits cannot credibly object to Russian interference in U.S. elections without also acknowledging that the United States doesn’t exactly have clean hands. Or are we expected to believe that Russian hackers were the first people in human history to try and undermine a foreign democracy? In this video, I examine the ways in which the the United States has, in fact, spent the past 70 odd years meddling in elections across the world.

From flagship public broadcaster WNYC in New York comes a glimpse of the depth of Uncle Sam’s ongoing meddling:

For decades, American intelligence agencies have historically used clandestine tactics to put leaders into office who are favorable to U.S. national interests. This practice of meddling dates back to the early days of the CIA and was seen as a necessary strategy to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It’s something Tim Weiner has explored in great detail. He’s won the Pulitzer Prize for his work on clandestine national security programs, and his books include “Enemies: A History of the FBI” and “Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.” He says election meddling is not a grey area for the CIA.

“Several months after the CIA was created in 1947, it set out to steal the Italian election in 1948 to support the Christian Democrats who were pro-American, against the socialist Democrats, who were pro-Moscow, and they won,” says Weiner. “It’s just the beginning of a long, long story.”

After seeing success in Italy, the CIA took this formula — which involved using millions of dollars to run influence campaigns — and brought it across the world to places like Guatemala, Indonesia, South Vietnam, Afghanistan, and beyond.

“The president [of Afghanistan] after the American invasion post-9/11 was a paid CIA agent, Hamid Karzai,” Weiner says. “The list is very long, and it’s part of what the CIA does in political warfare.”

A report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram adds up the numbers:

Dov Levin, a researcher with the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, created a historical database that tracks U.S. involvement in foreign elections. According to Levin, the U.S. meddled in other nation’s elections more than 80 times worldwide between 1946 and 2000. Examples include Italy in 1948; Haiti in 1986; Nicaragua and Czechoslovakia in 1990; and Serbia in 2000.

A more recent example of U.S. election interference occurred in Israel in 2015. A Washington Post report in 2016 revealed U.S. taxpayer dollars were used in an effort to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a bipartisan report from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), $350,000 in grants from the U.S. State Department were used “to build valuable political infrastructure—large voter contact lists, a professionally trained network of grassroots organizers/activists, and an impressive social media platform” not only to support peace negotiations, but to launch a large anti-Netanyahu grassroots organizing campaign.

Through the years, the U.S. has also gone so far as to fund the election campaigns of specific parties; make public announcements in favor of the candidates they support; and threaten to withhold foreign aid should voters favor opposition candidates.

More on Levin’s numerical findings on American interference comes from across the pond, via Britain’s Channel 4 News:

According to his research, there were 117 “partisan electoral interventions” between 1946 and 2000. That’s around one of every nine competitive elections held since Second World War.

The majority of these – almost 70 per cent – were cases of US interference.

And these are not all from the Cold War era; 21 such interventions took place between 1990 and 2000, of which 18 were by the US.

“60 different independent countries have been the targets of such interventions,” Levin’s writes. “The targets came from a large variety of sizes and populations, ranging from small states such as Iceland and Grenada to major powers such as West Germany, India, and Brazil.”

It’s important to note that these cases vary greatly – some simply involved steps to publicly support one candidate and undermine another.

But almost two thirds of interventions were done in secret, with voters having no idea that foreign powers were actively trying to influence the results.

Forbes reports on some of the methods employed:

The U.S. uses numerous tools to advance its interests. Explained Nina Agrawal of the Los Angeles Times: “These acts, carried out in secret two-thirds of the time, include funding the election campaigns of specific parties, disseminating misinformation or propaganda, training locals of only one side in various campaigning or get-out-the-vote techniques, helping one side design their campaign materials, making public pronouncements or threats in favor of or against a candidate, and providing or withdrawing foreign aid.”

It’s not clear how much impact Washington’s efforts had: Levin figured the vote increase for U.S.-backed candidates averaged three percent. The consequences often didn’t seem to satisfy Washington; in almost half of the cases America intervened at least a second time in the same country’s electoral affairs.

Ironically, given the outrage directed at Moscow today, in 1996 Washington did what it could to ensure the reelection of Boris Yeltsin over the communist opposition. The U.S. backed a $10.2 billion IMF loan, an ill-disguised bribe were used by the Yeltsin government for social spending before the election. Americans also went over to Russia to help. Time magazine placed Boris Yeltsin on the cover holding an American flag; the article was entitled “Yanks to the Rescue: The Secret Story of How American Advisers Helped Yeltsin Win.”

The Hill gives a voice to the interventionist hidden hand:

When asked whether the U.S. interferes in other countries’ elections, James Woolsey said, “Well, only for a very good cause in the interests of democracy.”

“Oh, probably, but it was for the good of the system in order to avoid communists taking over,” he told Laura Ingraham on her Fox News show on Friday night.

Woolsey served as CIA director under former President Clinton. His comments follow a federal indictment released on Friday that accused 13 Russian individuals and three Russian groups of attempting to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The Russian embassy to the United Kingdom quoted Woolsey on Saturday, adding the comment: “Says it all.”

Yep.

There’s lot’s more, after the jump. . Continue reading

Two insightful documentaries on gender politics


From Australia’s marvelous Special Broadcasting Service’s Dateline come two insightful documentaries on the politics of gender.

Back in April, 2016, in his early days on the campaign trail, Presidential candidate Donald Trump said transgenders folks “should ‘use the bathroom they feel is appropriate’ and agreed that the transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner could use any bathroom she chose at Trump Tower in New York.”

But then Ted Cruz, the guy whose dad he accused of a role in the John F. Kennedy assassination, fired a bigoted broadside, and Penthouse Predator did a quick one-eighty.

Such are the post-Post-Modern politics of gender in the Land-of-the-Free-and-The-Home-of-the-Brave™.

The first documentary looks at a multi-national violent male supremacy outfit spawned right here in California by started in 2016 by Vice Media co-founder and former commentator Gavin McInnes as bigoted Republic rhetoric rose to a self-righteous roar, enabled by the violent rhetoric endorsed and uttered Trump.

Defending Gender part 1 – Proud Boys

From the program notes:

Dateline reporter Dean Cornish travels to the USA to see why the Proud Boy’s controversial views are speaking to thousands of young men. The group believe masculinity is in danger – and they’re not alone. Proud Boy membership has exploded and they now have chapters in Australia.

Reclaiming manhood is one of the central pillars of the Proud Boys. The group’s founder Gavin McInnes says there’s a war on masculinity.

“The plight of the Western male is, right now, there’s a war on masculinity going on in the West and it starts in kindergarten, when children are punished for being rambunctious; boys are punished,” he tells Dateline.

“I think being a man requires four things. You have to have broken a heart. You have to break someone’s heart. You have to beat the shit out of someone, and you have to have the shit beaten out of you”.

Iceland leads the way to a different world

On 24 October 1975, the women of Iceland held one of the most remarkable general strikes of the last half of the 20th Century.

From Iceland Magazine:

On October 24 1974, Icelandic women observed what was called Kvennafrídagurinn, [The Women’s Day Off], known outside Iceland as the Icelandic Women’s Strike. It was estimated that at least 90% of Icelandic women participated by not going to work and by doing no housework. An estimated 25,000 women gathered for mass a demonstration in downtown Reykjavík. The total population of Iceland was only 216,695 at the time. Mass meetings and demonstrations were also organized in smaller towns around Iceland.

The year 1975 had been declared the International Women’s Year by the United Nations. Icelandic women’s rights organizations, including representatives of the Redstockings, a group of radical feminists and women’s rights activists, agreed that a women’s general strike would be a powerful event. By walking off their jobs and refusing to do unpaid housework women could draw attention to their contribution to the economy and society.

>snip<

The action succeeded in paralyzing the Icelandic economy, forcing businesses and government offices to shut down. The next days local newspapers ran stories about men who had to do the dishes for the first time, bring their children with them to work and prepare dinner. Stores ran out of simple foods which only need boiling, like sausages [bjúgu] and hot dogs.

The impact of the strike was significant, as it helped change public opinion. A law was passed in 1976 banning wage discrimination on the basis of gender. The gender pay gap stood at more than 40% at the time: Women were paid less than 60% of what men were paid. According to the most recent data from Statistics Iceland the average wages of women are currently 74% of the average wages of men. The unexplained gender pay gap is smaller, or 4.5%.

In their second documentary, the folks look at SBS Dateline look at the status of women in Iceland today, the country now ranked at top of the U.N.’s gender equality list.

Defending Gender part 2 – The Best Place to be a Woman

From the program notes:

In this week’s Dateline, SBS World News presenter Janice Petersen travels to the island country to explore how it became world capital of gender equality, and looks at what impact this is having on the idea of masculinity in society.

We meet women who sparked Iceland’s feminist revolution in 1975, working mums, stay at home dads, the CEO of a gender-neutral kindergarten trying to reverse gender stereotypes and promote gender equality, and attend a sex education class with teens learning about sexual violence and consent.

Iceland is on its way to eliminating the gender pay gap completely by 2022.

So, what is the country doing differently to make the most equal society in the world? And what can Australia learn?

Charts of the day II: The dying American Dream


From “The American Economy Is Rigged,” a new analysis by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph E. Stiglitz in Scientific American:

Charts of the day: Global democracy’s sad decline


The Varieties of Democracy [V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg. Sweden, tracks the status of liberal democracies around the world, charting their progress with the aid of a large poll of international experts, using a system that evaluaties each country on the basis of whether or not their governments are electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.
https://pol.gu.se/english/varieties-of-democracy–v-dem-

As their website notes, “V-Dem disaggregates these five principles into dozens of lower-level Components of Democracy such as regular elections, judicial independence, direct democracy, and gender equality.

V-Dem’s latest annual assessment, Democracy for All? V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2018, contains two charts dramatically illustrate the rapid decline of democracy.

First, a global look at changes across the world:

Number of countries with significant changes on Liberal Democracy Index [right index population-weighted]

And a look closer to home at the rapid decline of American democracy in the Age of Trump:

The United States’ ranking on the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index fell from seven in 2015 to 31 in 2017. There is clear evidence of autocratization on several indicators. The lower quality of liberal democracy stems primarily from weakening constraints on the executive.

Now get out and vote, dammit!

Map of the day: Our planet’s vanishing forests


Here’s a sobering look at the state of the planet’s vanishing forests from the latest and just-released edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook from the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity [click on the image to enlarge]:

The extent of deforestation and forest degradation worldwide: Intact forests refers to unbroken expanses of natural ecosystems greater than 50,000 hectares. Managed forests refer to forest that is fragmented by roads and/or managed for wood production. Degraded or partially deforested refers to landscapes where there has been a significant decrease in tree canopy density. Deforested refers to previously forested landscapes which have been converted into non-forest.

And there’s even worse to come

The largest area of pristine forest revealed on the U.N. map is in Amazonia, and recent conservation efforts by Latin America’s largest nation had slowed the tide of degradation, at lead until recently.

But now the election of out outspoken neofascist in Brazil guarantees tht things are going to get much, much worse.

From Rachael Garrett, Assistant Professor of the Human Dimensions of Global Change at Boston University, writing in The Conversation, an admirably open source online academic journal written in conversational English:

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, will make many decisions during his four-year term, from combating violence to stimulating a stagnant economy.

Those decisions will have large impacts on Brazilians, who remain deeply divided over the controversial election of this far-right populist.

But some of Bolsonaro’s decisions will affect the entire world, namely his promises to cut environmental protections in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Amazon’s uncertain fate

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and a major global food exporter.

The Amazon Basin also provides the rains that nourish Brazil’s productive croplands to the south, a breadbasket for the world. The rainforest’s destruction could cause large-scale droughts in Brazil, leading to nationwide crop losses.

An estimated 9 percent of Amazonian forests disappeared between 1985 and 2017, reducing the rainforest’s ability to absorb the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

Deforestation is largely due to land clearing for agricultural purposes, particularly cattle ranching.

Cattle production has an extremely low profit margin in the Brazilian Amazon. It also requires a massive amount of land for grazing. Both factors drive Amazonian farmers to continuously clear forest – illegally – to expand pastureland.

Today, 12 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, or 93 million acres – an area roughly the size of Montana – is used for agriculture, primarily cattle ranching but also soybean production.

Deforestation decreased substantially from 2004 to 2014 thanks to strict environmental protections passed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2004. His Workers Party cracked down on illegal land clearing in the Amazon, making Brazil a world leader in rainforest protection.

But deforestation in the Amazon has begun to climb again recently.

Brazilian President Michel Temer, a conservative who entered office in 2016 during a deep recession, has loosened enforcement of federal anti-deforestation laws, slashed the environmental ministry’s budget and opened the Amazon to mining.

Satellite data reveal that between August 2017 to 2018, 1.1 million acres of Brazilian Amazonian forest were cleared – the highest deforestation rate since 2007.

President-elect Bolsonaro has promised to further slash environmental protections in Brazil, saying that federal conservation zones and hefty fines for cutting down trees hinder economic growth.

Continue reading

New ‘fake news’ tracker reveals mainstreaming


Fake news has gone mainstream, at least where the GOP’s concerned, reveals a new study based on a new real-time social tracking tool [link below].

From Oxford University:

Twenty-five per cent of content shared around US midterms is junk news, despite efforts by social media platforms to curb the problem.

Social media is now a vital platform for news consumption in the United States, particularly during important moments in political life such as elections, according to new Oxford University research.

A significant portion of US adults turn to social media platforms for news content. Given the importance of social media as a news channel, these platforms have become regular targets for coordinated efforts to spread misinformation and junk news with the aim of influencing voters.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, have discovered that the problem of junk news on Twitter and Facebook has become significantly worse in the lead-up to the US midterm elections, taking place on 6 November 2018. “The proportion of junk news in circulation has grown by 5 percentage points since the 2016 presidential elections,” says Professor Phil Howard, lead researcher on Oxford’s Computational Propaganda project. “We’re a little surprised by this finding. Facebook and Twitter have put some effort into trying to improve the quality of political news and information shared on the platforms, but it is not clear that their efforts are working.”

Approximately 25% of shared content related to the midterm elections can be classified as junk news, compared to the 19% of shared content created by professional news outlets. Less than 5% of shared content came from government agencies, experts, or the candidates themselves. This is the first time junk news has overtaken mainstream professional news content in recent studies of junk news surrounding elections globally.

Despite new initiatives by social media companies to “clean up” the junk news on their platforms, the problem is spreading into new communities. “In 2016, junk news was concentrated among President Trump’s support base and the far-right,” says researcher Nahema Marchal. “Today, junk news content is also being shared by more mainstream conservatives, reaching wider audiences than ever before. The type of rhetoric and content that used to be characteristic of a niche media ecosystem serving primarily hard-right audiences has trickled down to the mainstream.” [Emphasis added.]

Who is behind the rise of junk news? The role of external actors, such as foreign governments, are likely not significant when it comes to the US midterms. “It is domestic alternative media outlets that are dominating the political debate on social media,” says researcher Lisa-Maria Neudert. “What we are seeing is home-grown conspiracy theories and falsehoods. The problem now reaches far beyond foreign influence campaigns and extremist fringe voices. Junk news has been domesticated, and social media users have an appetite.” [Emphasis added.]

For the discerning voters interested in examining the problem of junk news in real time, the Computational Propaganda project has created the Junk News Aggregator. “This is a novel tool for studying junk news on Facebook as it happens,” says Mimie Liotsiou, researcher and creator of the Junk News Aggregator. The user-friendly Aggregator makes visible the quantity and content of junk news, as well as the level of engagement. Users can search keywords, such as candidate names and districts, to reveal what is being shared, in real time as well as up to a month in the past. “We want to shed light on the problem of junk news, and help improve the public’s media literacy. We hope to make this issue more transparent to voters, policy-makers, and tech companies.”

The research examined 2.5 million tweets and nearly 7,000 Facebook pages over a 30-day period, ending 31 October 2018. Junk news was classified as sources publishing deliberately misleading, deceptive or incorrect information, typically in an ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or conspiratorial fashion, and meeting a variety of criteria related to professionalism, style, credibility, bias, and counterfeiting.

Here’s a screencap of the the top part of the image aggregator page, one of several ways of parsing the feed: