Archive for May, 2010

“As I recall in my history…”

May 26, 2010

Teabagger and Super-DUPER, Very. Serious. Ultimo Patriot J.D. Hayworth made a huge fool out of himself a few days ago by blustering on and on regarding the unimportance of Congress’s stipulated duty to officially declare war before the start of major military engagements. And then going absolutely out of his way to add this (via TPM):

“But I would also point out, that if we want to be sticklers, the war that Dwight Eisenhower led in Europe against the Third Reich was never declared by the United States Congress,” said Hayworth. “Recall, the Congress passed a war resolution against Japan. Germany declared war on us two days later. We never formally declared war on Hitler’s Germany, and yet we fought the war.”

Of course FDR and the United States Congress did declare war on the Third Reich.  But that didn’t stop Hayworth from digging a deeper hole by subsequently stating “but as I recall in my history, Germany declared war on the United States, not vice-versa.”  A textbook example of the conservative assault on history.  The levels of arrogance and ignorance displayed by this telling peek behind the curtain into an uber-conservative psyche is instructive, informative and terrifying. The pushback must begin.  You are not entitled to subscribe to, and perpetuate, your own version of history, Mr. Hayworth.   Real facts corroborated by real historical documents prove unequivocally that the United States did officially declare war on Germany.

Conservatives, particularly Tea Partiers like Hayward, are always the ones who cloak themselves tightest in patriotism (a narrow, warped conception of patriotism to begin with), and conversely they are always the first to question and demean the level of patriotism exhibited by others.  Yet here this man is, a former U.S. Congressman running for the Senate, failing miserably to understand basic, easily accessible facts of recent American History; a recent chapter of American History that has been celebrated, written about, taught in schools, dramatized endlessly in films etc. When confronted with his abysmal grasp of the basic history of U.S. involvement in World War II, Hayworth did us a favor by outlining the contours of the conservative assault on history.   “In his history” the U.S. never did declare war.  This is the new paradigm they are brazenly trying to construct.  History, you see, is something that they own.  Something they are exclusively entitled to shape, expound upon and omit unpleasant facts and events from at will according to their whims and needs.   History is what they say it is.  Facts be damned.  People need to understand this.

Their follow-up was even more trite and sorry (if possible).  The Hayworth campaign issued a press release that said, in part, “the real question is not who misspoke about an event nearly seventy years ago.” Notice the smug condescension and arrogant dismissal of World War II, as the Hayworth campaign seems to be implying that some vague, ill-defined “event seventy years ago” isn’t important enough to remember.  Not when there are immigrants to bash and imaginary communists in the White House.  This has to be the first time in recorded history that a conservative (not named Pat Buchanan) publicly dismissed and downplayed the importance of World War II.  Bravo.

Another more tame example of this insistence on dismissing facts and the history they supports as irrelevant, when they don’t fit your personalized version of history, comes from this hapless, Palin-endorsed empty suit running for the seat in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District.   The candidate (who shall remain nameless) referred to Puerto Rico as a “country”, when, of course, it is actually a United States territory.  Confronted by this unfortunate fact the man threw a tantrum wherein he said “I really don’t care what it is. It doesn’t matter.”  His campaign, like Hayworth’s, also miraculously managed to find a way to make things more pathetic by issuing a ‘correction’ that said “He clearly knows Puerto Rico is an American territory. He served in Guantanamo for awhile.”  Clearly.

State v. Federal Regulation and the concept of “Preemption”

May 20, 2010

Preemption. How many more bad connotations can corrupt and undemocratic people attach to a single word/concept?

We all know (with the notable exception of Ms. Palin, of course) about the “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive war and how many lives were tragically lost to it’s sorry comic book bluster and simplistic binary logic. Now the concept of “preemption” is stealthily ruining the United States in courtrooms and regulatory offices. Preemption basically means in its new conceptual application: the preempting of authentic Democracy.

While conducting research on Massey Energy, the Chamber of Commerce and the American Tort Reform Association, I came across a 2007 Washington Post column written by Cindy Skrzycki regarding the “Bush administration’s increasing use of federal health and safety regulations” to preempt or overrule corporate liability claims in state courts. Regarding the case of Merck’s attempts to escape accountability for marketing and continuing to sell the deadly drug Vioxx Skrzycki wrote that:

The fine print of a 2006 Food and Drug Administration rule on prescription labeling that preempts, or overrides, state laws is proving to be a powerful weapon in the courtroom at a time when Merck is fighting thousands of lawsuits from consumers claiming they were harmed by its painkiller Vioxx.

She also went on to note that:

Since 2005, federal agencies, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, have issued more than a dozen rules that stress the primacy of federal law.

Attorneys argued at the time that removing the option of “suing a company at the state level will result in weaker Federal Regulations” (emphasis mine).  As we’ve seen in the last 2 months with the tragedies at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine and BP’s Deepwater Horizon, these companies need far more, not far less, regulation. Preemption in this context is just another tool that companies and their sympathetic Government shills use to erode regulations and distort legitimate Democratic processes like the legal redress of grievances. Think I’m exaggerating? Here is an American Tort Reform Association spokesperson quoted in the same piece condescendingly stressing that “Regulatory experts are better arbiters of what is a potential threat to a consumer than a judge or jury in Michigan” (italics mine). First, note: the callous, arrogant dismissal of the actual citizens of Michigan who would fill those pesky juries. They can’t possibly be expected to know the complexities inherent in the simple equation that they were purposely sold a dangerous or defective product. Second, look at the wink and nudge faith the flack expresses in the infallibilty of “Regulatory experts” like the fine men and women of the Minerals Management Service and the SEC. The MMS and their pathetic scandal-plagued abdication of regulatory duty is the perfect example of why people like the American Tort Reform Association, the Chamber of Commerce, members of the United States Senate and the corporations they represent want the Federal Government to control or “preempt” regulatory oversight at the expense of the states, and why it’s un-Democratic and shouldn’t be allowed or tolerated any longer.

Fast Foward-

Kevin at LittleSis has been doing great work highlighting the blatant influence a revolving door ex-staffer turned financial industry lobbyist named Jonathon Jones is exerting on Senator Tom Carper’s attempt to strip crucial consumer protections out of the Financial Reform legislation. In eerie replay of the WaPo column I outlined above, here is Zach Carter from The Campaign for America’s Future writing about Carper’s amendment which, of course, involves “preemption” and would allow Federal Regulators to block state efforts to enforce laws on banks operating within their boundaries. He characterizes the Carper amendment as a way “to ban states from enforcing their own laws against big national banks like Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Bank of America.” Carter also notes that “For years, federal bank regulators at the Office of Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) asserted broad powers to preempt state laws, and courts generally backed them.”

Carper also attempted to remove legislation from the bill which would permit shareholders a larger voice in naming corporate boards. But never fear Senator Carper is on the job to ensure this Democratic principle of electing leaders shall not stand! Why? Because according to Carper’s true constituents, the Business Roundtable, this increased power in the hands of shareholders “allows small shareholders with an agenda to disrupt the governance process” (emphasis mine). There it is again. Small. Just like the man from the American Tort Reform Association quoted earlier, this Business Roundtable man cannot hide his contempt for Democratic principles and “small” people like ordinary shareholders or the citizens who might constitute a jury. There’s what they truly think of you. Of us. They don’t even really hide it anymore if you pay attention because they have enough money to buy greedy, corrupt Senators by the dozen who then price and preempt us all right out of the Democratic process.

In case anybody thinks my language regarding the threat to Democratic principles and processes is overblown, the Senate Judiciary Committee had a hearing in September 2007 entitled: “Regulatory Preemption: Are Federal Agencies Usurping Congressional and State Authority?” Skrzycki cited that in her column as well as this letter written by Gerie Voss, Regulatory Counsel for the American Association for Justice who warned that the:

escalating use of stealth preemption will deprive consumers of their right to hold negligent corporations accountable for injuries caused by defective products while these same corporations continue to increase their bottom line

It appears that this warning was ignored.

You have to love how Carper can dare suggest with a straight-face that Federal Regulators can and should be trusted to act in good faith to curb the excesses and illegalities of huge monolithic banks after what we all just lived through a short time ago. Isn’t everybody who had any sort of financial regulatory authority regarding the economic crisis uniformly sticking to the story: we couldn’t have seen it coming.  Nobody anywhere in the world saw this coming.  Except the people at Goldman or Magnetar who were bragging about and subsequently betting on their knowledge of the imminent financial demise that “nobody saw coming.”  It’s disgraceful.  And it’s ongoing insult to the collective intelligence of citizens to act like these Federal Regulators have their interests at heart when facts show they are corrupted by money and/or incestuous revolving door relationships with the supposed targets of their regulatory authority.  State regulators are harder to corrupt and control; hence the need for preemption.

BP: Business Partner (Chesapeake Energy)

May 13, 2010

As part of my ongoing look at British Petroleum, I discovered sometime last week a deal BP America struck in 2008 with a company called Chesapeake Energy. This deal/connection is worth examining because the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, a man named Aubrey K. McClendon, is one of the most egregious and blatant, yet under-reported, benefactors of corporate cronyism and corruption within the whole messy fallout of the 2008 economic collapse.

BP America published this press release dated September 2, 2008 which announced a “joint venture whereby BP will acquire a 25% interest in Chesapeake’s Fayetteville Shale assets in Arkansas for $1.9 billion” (emphasis mine). McClendon remarked that Chesapeake were “honored to broaden our business relationship with BP and are excited about the mutually beneficial nature of our transactions with them.” McClendon’s statements in that press release followed quickly on the heels of another deal between Chesapeake Energy and BP, announced in July 2008, which saw the company pay Chesapeake $1.75 billion dollars for 90,000 net acres in the Arkoma Woodford Shale basin. The timing of these deals are interesting for numerous reasons, not least of which is that by the end of 2008 Chesapeake Energy’s stock price “collapsed from $74 a share to $9.84, wiping out $33 billion in shareholder value” according to reporter Mark Ames. McClendon himself lost 94% of his stock on a margin call to the tune of an estimated $2 billion. Now you would think that somebody who lost a company “$33 billion in shareholder” value, essentially overnight, might be disciplined, terminated and/or otherwise relieved of their responsibilities with all possible haste; you’d be wrong. What actually happened in the new “day is night, black is white” world of corporate America is that McClendon was awarded a bonus package worth up to $112 million, including $12 million dollars for his collection of “maps and watercolors, $600,000 for the private use of the corporate jets, nearly $600,000 for accounting services and $131,000 for personal ‘engineering support.'” according to Forbes. The Forbes piece, titled interestingly enough “Would BP Please Buy Chesapeake Energy“, characterized McClendon’s bonus as “madness” which was “unique among big publicly traded energy companies” and ultimately as being “unparalleled in the industry.”

This brazen, insulting multi-million dollar reward by Chesapeake’s board of directors to McClendon for what basically amounts to miserable, spectacular failure was challenged in the courts by groups, with huge amounts of suddenly worthless Chesapeake stock, such as the Louisiana Municipal Police Employee Retirement System. The New York Times quoted Marc I. Gross, a lawyer retained by the Louisiana Municipal workers, thusly:

“Given that Chesapeake’s earnings dropped by half, the $75 million bonus appears not attributable to Mr. McClendon’s exemplary performance but rather to the extraordinary losses he sustained when his Chesapeake shares declined by 60 percent. As such, the bonus appears to be a C.E.O. bailout, while ordinary shareholders got stuck with their losses.”

That’s one of the saddest things I’ve learned while looking into some of the ‘deals’ that were made right before and after the financial meltdown: that so many state police and municipal workers lost their pensions to these shell games and fraudulent derivative deals. It just shows that these poor people (Police Officers and Firemen) were shamelessly and continuously used as political pawns in the years after the terrorist attacks when politicians (mostly Republicans) were tripping over themselves to call them “heroes”, but when the banksters and crony capitalists swooped in to steal their hard-earned money…silence. Not a word in defense of the heroes when they actually needed some liar like Rudolph Guiliani to throw his weight around on their behalf. I guess they’re only heroes when the cameras are around during campaign season. Seriously though, imagine being a cop who toiled honestly in Louisiana, one of the poorest states in America, putting in years of thankless, grueling and dangerous work only to have your retirement savings wiped out in the blink of an eye and then see the man responsible for that loss simultaneously receive a $112 million bonus. The disrespectful weight behind a slap in the face of that magnitude would have knocked down Muhammed Ali.

Predictably (sadly) the shareholders’ lawsuit was dismissed by an Oklahoma County judge for “procedural reasons” in March of this year. One reason that McClendon and the board of directors might have prevailed in the Oklahoma courts is that the ‘K’ that constitutes McClendon’s middle initial stands for: Kerr. As in he’s the grandson of former Oklahoma Senator and Governor Robert Kerr, co-founder of Kerr-McGee Oil. Sound familiar? In addition to the connections bestowed on him thanks to this strategic, beneficial accident of birth, the Chesapeake Energy Board consists of “McClendon’s cousin Breene Kerr; Frank Keating, Republican ex-governor of Oklahoma whose son Chip (and Chip’s wife) works for Chesapeake; Don Nickles, Republican ex-Senator of Oklahoma who co-funded with Aubrey the Republican anti-gay marriage campaign in 2004” according to Mark Ames. As usual the fix was in.

One of the board’s stated reasons for awarding this ludicrous bonus package, according to the Times, was that they were afraid McClendon would “abandon the company” due to “other opportunities that exist in the industry.” Normally you might laugh at the thought of someone so inept actually being depicted as a hot commodity that must frantically be retained lest he prompt a ferocious bidding war, but Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, George W. Bush and others have demonstrated that epic, monumental failure at every turn can be rewarded with ever increasing levels of power and responsibility in the new realities of America. Chesapeake’s board also claimed that it’s hands were tied due to McClendon’s employment agreement which “required him to hold Chesapeake stock worth five times his annual salary and bonus.” Nice work if you can get it (you can’t).

Ironically McClendon’s 11th hour deals with BP were cited as a major reasons for his bonus, which brings me back to looking at the relationship between BP America and Chesapeake. The two deals consummated in 2008 saw BP paying Chesapeake $3.6 billion. These deals essentially gave Chesapeake’s board the only legitimate cover to save McClendon while all other stockholders were thrown to the wolves. As was mentioned earlier Aubrey McClendon was a huge financial contributor to a conservative christian group called Americans United to Preserve Marriage that sought to ban gay marriage. McClendon also donated $250,000 to the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack ads which damaged John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential campaign. These are the people that BP America do business with. It’s not bad enough they have non-existent safety standards and ruin the earth, they also do billion dollar business deals with incompetent conservative extremists. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the money they funneled to Chesapeake could indirectly end up, through Mr. McClendon’s conservative advocacy, funding the next round of treacherous, petty smears and lies that adversely effect an important Presidential campaign. It’s a vicious cycle. The good old boys and gals network on the Chesapeake Energy board bailed out McClendon, not just because he’s one of them, but also because if he went down like the Louisiana Municipal workers there would be one less conservative multi-millionaire willing and able to plunk down a quarter of a million dollars to fund a specious, despicable ad blitz the next time one is needed. Without the ad blitzes they won’t be as able to get Old Boy Network Presidents installed and willing to endorse and enable their various forms of corruption. The Kerry campaign made a lot of mistakes, foremost in my opinion was not responding to the Swift Boat lies quickly and aggressively enough. But what if Kerry had prevailed in 2004? That would’ve have been 4 crucial years the Bush administration wouldn’t have had to dilute, degrade and destroy regulatory agencies like the MMS, which basically let oil companies like BP and Halliburton turn the Gulf of Mexico into the dangerous, unregulated free-for-all it has become. Thanks to the Bush era MMS, the Gulf is “one of the few remaining places on the planet where oil producers are permitted a relatively free hand.” Sadly…you can see what they’ve done with it.

Behind the Curtain (the assault on reality comes in many guises)

May 11, 2010

I’ve been working on a post about BP for LittleSis and I wanted to do some follow-up work here.

This New Republic piece by Steve LeVine contains some frighteningly interesting glimpses behind the curtain into the collective boardroom psyche of oil executives and flacks working for BP and beyond. It isn’t pretty.

LeVine records the lamentations of “oil and p.r. industry veterans who say that BP lost control of public perceptions virtually from the outset.” My question is: what about a gigantic, hideous oil spill destroying animals and fragile ecosystems comes down to being construed as a matter of perception? This spill is a tragic, unfortunate fact, and when you look deeper and see all the cut corners, compromised regulators and paid-for politicians–the perception of this incident worsens dramatically. There is no room for interpretation. The heartbreaking pictures emanating from the Gulf speak loudly and in unison. But in our new-pseudo reality dominated by image consultants and PR firms, companies like British Petroleum have enough money and gall to try and manipulate the “perception” of their greedy disaster and in extreme cases actually challenge and assault its factual basis by the constant, relentless manipulation of “perception.”

The oil industry’s obsession with public “perception” of this incident (mentioned repeatedly in this piece) and their failure, in this case, to control “perception” stands as a perfect example of the callous absurdity of corporate priorities. Instead of British Petroleum being embarrassed that “a piece of machinery costing .004%” of their 2009 profits wasn’t installed on Deepwater Horizon to mitigate the magnitude and severity of the exact type of spill we’re seeing now, they, and their industry colleagues, are far more concerned with the “clumsy” PR response according to the sources quoted in LeVine’s article. Never once have you or will you hear a BP exec. discuss ways (like including acoustic switches) to make their wells safer and more efficient. They’d rather try to alter reality to make it seem that there are other ways to perceive their wanton disregard for safety and nature.

Somebody with the title “corporate crisis consultant” actually worries, in LeVine’s story, about how well the Gulf spill “plays to the ‘Don’t Drill, the sky is falling crowd.'” Because, you see, everything that happens in the world is now something that corporations view as an event that can and should be stage managed (hence the word ‘play’) to adhere to, and ultimately benefit, their version of reality. A reality often at odds with what a majority usually would perceive as objective reality, so perceptions must be shaped and shifted accordingly. In their reality BP’s mistake wasn’t greedy carelessness manifested in shoddy engineering, it was the company’s failure to properly coordinate who would “take charge of the public message.” Instead of worrying about a piece of fail-safe equipment that is mandatory for drilling throughout most of the world, BP’s real sin was not having a robust “pre-disaster” plan complete with “‘competitive video.'” Here’s the “crisis consultant” defining competitive video

“competitive video,” meaning pre-prepared company footage that can be offered up to networks as stock shots for broadcast. In BP’s case, this could have included training drills and the application of dispersants “You know there will be horrible pictures” in such a situation, Spaeth explains, so it’s important to get out company images prior to the appearance of pictures in “the dead, soiled bird stage” of a catastrophe.”

Canned safety videos released to pliant news outlets to compete for airtime with those pesky, mood-killing “dead, soiled bird” pics: this is what passes as a  technique recommended for inclusion in a “pre-disaster plan” designed for major oil companies by the hacks they pay handsomely to explain away their disasters  as just a matter of “perception?”  This is one of the saddest, yet purely unadulterated expressions of the corporate ethos yet recorded.  It’s an ethos and belief system that says: never look at improving your products and/or procedures, when you can focus on making your inevitable damage (if corporations are the models of competence and efficiency they are always touted as: why is there a need for a “corporate crisis consulting” industry?) appear somehow benign, if you hope for the best and try hard enough with hastily employed “competitive video.” The fact that this damage, caused by predictably sloppy, negligent corporate behavior, is destroying land and lives never, ever occurs to these people. All BP can do is curse their luck and whine about how, despite all their efforts, the majority of the public correctly perceives what they do as being “a dangerous, dirty business.”

Here’s What they Think About You: Part I. The Bewildered Herd

May 3, 2010

I remember reading a Noam Chomsky essay wherein he developed the history of Propaganda and Public Relations within the context of the “Bewildered Herd” theory, a theory/term actually credited to Walter Lippmann, which was that: benevolent businessmen, politicians and powers-that-be would control, and otherwise creatively manage, the dissemination of information to the “bewildered herd”, or public, because we were to stupid, dangerous and unreliable to figure things out on our own and still act according to the power structure’s wishes, whims and interests. Even more dangerous was our potential for clumsy, uneducated herd-like destruction should a few unsavory facts ever penetrate our feeble distracted minds.

Lippmann believed that “the common interests elude public opinion entirely” and that the great majority should be nothing but passive observers. The specialists who understood the understood the “common good”, much like Didion’s identification of the professional narrators and interpreters of public life, were to make the decisions about everything including the flow of information.

This theory has guided my thoughts and perception of history and politics ever since I first encountered it years ago, but never have I seen a more blatant, brazen and ridiculous example of it in practice until today.

While eating my lunch I caught this headline screaming from the screen “Greenspan Wanted Housing Bubble Dissent Kept Secret.” The report written by Ryan Grim says:

As top Federal Reserve officials debated whether there was a housing bubble and what to do about it, then-Chairman Alan Greenspan argued that the dissent should be kept secret so that the Fed wouldn’t lose control of the debate to people less well-informed than themselves.

“We run the risk, by laying out the pros and cons of a particular argument, of inducing people to join in on the debate, and in this regard it is possible to lose control of a process that only we fully understand,” Greenspan said, according to the transcripts of a March 2004 meeting.

There you have it folks. Can’t spell out how insignificant our little votes really are much more brutally than that. Greenspan was never even on a ballot so he doesn’t really have to pretend that the public are anything more than “parasites” devoid of “purpose or reason” to quote his hero Ayn Rand. In his typically clumsy, unapologetic, unaccountable way Greenspan overtly demonstrated that Lippmann’s “bewildered herd” construct is more entrenched than ever before.