Friday, April 29, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Richmond Fontaine's You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing To Go Back To (2016)


Sometime last month I noticed that someone had clicked on one of the nihilism posts I had written a couple of years back. Not recalling its content, I reread it. The post is devoted to a song, "Allison Johnson," off Portland alt country band Richmond Fontaine's 2004 album, Post to Wire. If placed under erasure, "Allison Johnson" perfectly encapsulates nihilism.

Richard Fontaine's principal songwriter is Willy Vlautin, an award-winning novelist, sort of a Great Basin Bukowski minus any good cheer. Vlautin's musical specialty, an example of which is "Allison Johnson," is the ability to capture the nirvana of intimate female companionship. (Doing without this companionship is the primary burden of a bachelor.)

Struck by the power of "Allison Johnson," I checked to see what Richmond Fontaine has been up to -- it has been a while since the logging opera The High Country (2011) -- and come to find out the band has just released a new album, You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing To Go Back To. I downloaded it and have been listening to it repetitiously ever since.

I also went back and audited all of Richmond Fontaine's recordings. I have been a big fan since my friend and coworker Tony turned me on to Lost Son (1999) probably in 2001. (Lost Son I think is the finest cowpunk album of all time.) This sent me off on a reverie of my failed loves of the aughts, the soundtrack to which was provided by Richmond Fontaine.

We'll have to return to this topic another day. For now, I would like to draw your attention to the YouTube at the top of the post. "A Night in the City" is the second-to-last track on You Can't Go Back If There's Nothing To Go Back To. It is Vlautin's masterpiece statement; his answer to his own "Allison Johnson" and "Making It Back."

A middle-aged guy goes to a strip club with a coworker, ends up leaving but decides to stay out all night drinking by himself. He ends up puking and sleeping in a bank parking lot. But he grabs breakfast in a doughnut shop and makes into work on time. Then Vlautin delivers the coup de grace:
I got sick behind a car, slept against a bank wall 
Ate at Annie’s Donuts and made it to work on time 
Is this all there is? Is this what life is? 
A job that means nothing 
A woman who sleeps right next you but she ain’t yours at all 
A one night rebellion that ends up just being a drag 
Like a weight around your feet that ain’t heavy enough to     send you down 
I remember in the back of a bar called the Blue Sea 
My wife sitting on my lap whispering, “You and me, only you and me”
A night in the city 
The city at night
What makes "A Night in the City" amazing is the combination of those last two lines before the refrain with the bleak narrative of a middle-aged man trying to break free of his cage -- "Is this all there is? Is this what life is?/A job that means nothing/A woman who sleeps right next you but she ain’t yours at all." But he can't do it. The "Allison Johnson" memory of intimacy, when his wife whispered to him "You and me, only you and me," still haunts him.

This is our human condition: Forever trying to restore a lost intimacy that won't reboot.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Point of No Return: President Hillary and the Demise of the European Union

I feel decent this morning for the first time in more than a week. Stress and strain on the job has led me to abandon this page. I feel like I am back at an SEIU local where I worked ten years ago, which was the closest I have ever come to being a member of a cult. Everyone was fucking each other, lying to each other, drinking and drugging, calling in sick, etc. My current situation is not anywhere near as bad. But I am ten years older, and working a 12-hour day doesn't get any easier.

So I am entertaining the idea of mothballing Burdens. My horizon looks bleak: overtime, staff retreats, six-day work week after six-day work week. We'll see. I think I can manage one post a week.

Enough about me. What about the world in which we live? Yesterday's primary results solidified last week's consensus coming out of New York. It is going to be a Trump vs. Hillary race to the bottom. Trump swept five Eastern states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Maryland -- in commanding fashion, and Hillary almost equaled his performance, losing only Roger Williams' colony.

The big takeaway from yesterday is a post this morning by Nate Silver, an avowed Trump denier: "It’s Trump’s Nomination To Lose. (Well, at least if he wins Indiana.)" With the Kasich-Cruz pact to derail Trump quickly disintegrating, even FiveThirtyEight thinks Trump's path to 1,237 is all but assured. For a moment I was swayed by a Van Jones interview I saw at the beginning of this month where he argued that the GOP was headed straight for a brokered convention because Trump had proven unable to win consistently more than 50% of the vote. Well, he has proven it repeatedly in April. And I think he will do very well in California. I was hoping for a battle royale at the Republican National Convention, maybe even an event where Trump would march his delegates out.

For the Democrats, I was hoping that Bernie could win New York and California and a few other states along the way and bring his children's crusade to the City of Brotherly love where another convention fight would be staged. Remember, it was the meltdown in Chicago in 1968 that brought about the McGovern reforms that led to McGovern's nomination in 1972 and Carter's nomination in 1976, and which superdelegates were created in 1984 to counteract. So convention meltdowns have a big historical impact.

Unfortunately it doesn't look like there will be any convention meltdowns. If anything happens, it will be the big unions backing Hillary (SEIU, for one) attempting to lure disaffected youth back into the corrupt Democratic Party by staging direct action type mobilizations against Trump, possibly even at the GOP convention in Cleveland. I hope youth are too shrewd to be appropriated by Hillary, but in this regard I am not too confident; after all, there was a push in March by MoveOn to mobilize against Trump.

What does a race to the bottom between Hillary and The Donald look like? It is hard to know how the deep the depths, but deep indeed I imagine they will be. A guy who works on the same floor of the building where I work came into the office last week and handed me a sheet he had printed out. It was from The New York Times, based on the "NYT 4/19/16" he scrawled on the bottom of the page. There is no byline. I will retype the key sentences:
Meanwhile, her [Hillary's] negative ratings have been rising and now outweigh her positives by 24 points. That makes her seen no more favorably than Cruz is. Her only salvation is Trump's net negative is minus 41.
Combine these high marks of disapproval for both front runners with the low voter turnout numbers from the 2014 midterm elections, which were so low you had to go all the way back to the total war mobilization of World War Two to find comparable figures, and we could see participation levels as poor as the 1920s. And while this is proof of a broad distrust of our political system, it does not represent the kind of revolution that is called for.

At this point it looks like Clinton will muddle through. Fear usually trumps hope. By the time November arrives, Trump will be so thoroughly demonized the Rubio-voting soccer mom crossover will more than make up for any hardhat crossover in the opposite direction, leaving the election to be decided by black and Latino turnout. All hail Hillary.

We will have to look for regime change elsewhere.

Though "four more years" yawns at us, I am convinced now more than ever (and not just because I am reading Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History) that we are headed for some sort of collapse.

This page since its inception has been preoccupied with the fracturing of the current Pax Americana neoliberal paradigm. From the fiscal cliff, Cyprus, the coup in Kiev, sarin in Ghouta, ISIS in Anbar, Syriza's Greece, Afghanistan, the refugee crisis in Europe to World War Four in Syria the paradigm is quaking.

Europe is critical. The unipolar world of Pax Americana is dependent on a supine, fraudulently monolithic Europe. That party has ended. Obama's meek and exhausted goodbye junket to the continent drove the message of defeat home.

The ceasefire in Syria is over. In the new phase of fighting the U.S. alliance with Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra is more manifest than ever. The only thing keeping it from popular consciousness is a polite, conspiratorial elision by the mainstream media.

Renewed fighting in Syria and Iraq means a surge in refugees to Europe. Yemen is cued up to be even worse. All in time for the June 23 Brexit referendum. (Interestingly, in 1975, Year 1 of neoliberalism, the Brits voted by a supermajority to remain part of the European Community. It will be much closer this time.)

Even if the UK votes to stay in the EU, the continent will continue to fray because war in the Middle East is going to accelerate. The sheikhs of the Gulf are engaged in an arms buying bonanza, while the Saudis are in full tilt PR smokescreen mode. The panic is palpable. The captive USG is doing its part by sabotaging Obama's remaining legacy achievement, the nuclear deal with Iran. This can't end well. Hillary, more beholden to the neocons and the Saudis, will only make things worse.

And we haven't even mentioned the militarized Asia pivot or NATO's New Cold War with Russia, both of which were initiated absent public support. This is a "no future" horizon.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

New York Post-Mortem: Four More Years of the Same

Any hope that Bernie might knock off Hillary ended yesterday in New York. Sanders got shellacked by more than a quarter-of-a-million votes in the state's Democratic primary, losing to Clinton by 15 points, 42.1% to 57.9%.

A good explanation, probably the briefest and best I have read, of Hillary's victory formula is Nate Cohn's "Realistically, Bernie Sanders Cannot Afford Losses." The best predictor, Cohn argues, of Clinton voting strength is an affluent state that also has a sizable black population.
To the extent that Mr. Sanders’s supporters envisioned a path to a majority of delegates, it hinged on the assumption that he would prove strongest in the most heavily Democratic states, like New York and California.
The assumption was not consistent with the results leading to today. Mr. Sanders lost the states most similar to New York or California, like Illinois and Florida, even Massachusetts. In truth, there has been no relationship between Mr. Sanders’s strength and the Democratic leanings of a county. The stronger predictors of Mrs. Clinton’s strength were diversity and affluence — which augured well for her in New York.
In the end, Mrs. Clinton won New York thanks to big support from nonwhite and affluent voters in New York City and its suburbs.
She swept the Upper West Side, Chelsea, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. These places voted strongly for past liberal challengers, like Zephyr Teachout in the 2014 primary for governor, but not for Mr. Sanders.
She also swept majority black and Hispanic precincts, as she has for most of the cycle.
And she fared well in the suburbs, winning by nearly a two-to-one margin in Westchester County, where she lives.
Mrs. Clinton’s affluent and diverse coalition sets her up for a string of wins next Tuesday along the Eastern Seaboard, and later in New Jersey. After next Tuesday, Mr. Sanders could need 63 or 64 percent of the remaining delegates.
He will be hard pressed to make up this deficit. He has thrived in caucus states, but there is only one of those left: North Dakota. Mr. Sanders could win 64 percent of the vote in a couple of mostly white Western primaries, like Oregon or Montana. But he’s unlikely to win by much more. He could win in Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, but is not likely to do so by 64 percent.
Mr. Sanders could be competitive in California, where there are fewer black voters. But the affluence of the Bay Area and Los Angeles will hurt him there, just as it did in New York City’s liberal bastions. It is hard to imagine a two-to-one victory.
It is more likely that Mr. Sanders has reached the stage of the campaign where even feel-good victories — like repeats of his genuinely impressive win in Michigan — will leave him too far behind.
The reaction to this coalition of Park Avenue and Harlem (both Spanish and Abyssinian), interestingly, is the rock on which Kevin Phillips built his "Emerging Republican Majority" nearly half-a-century ago. Because of an abiding negrophobia and resentment of the rich, Phillips predicted that the white working class would abandon the Democratic Party, something which has certainly come to pass.

With Sanders now set to shuffle out the remainder of the primary as an ever-diminishing factor, a remaining hope we can harbor is for a destructive fight at the Republican National Convention. But this hope will be forlorn if Trump is able to replicate his Empire State performance in Pennsylvania and California since he will then likely have the requisite number of delegates to secure the nomination on the first ballot. (Nate Cohn has been talking up the importance of Indiana for Trump, "The Most Important Primary Is ... Wait, Indiana?")

In any event, the general election is shaping up to answer decisively the question, "Can old, white America triumph one last time in the form of Donald Trump?"

No, it can't. Last month proved that Trump's negatives can be driven so high that he is unelectable. Hillary will win the West Coast and East Coast. It won't be easy for her because she is a horrible candidate, but even with low turnout, affluent, educated whites voting in concert with blacks and Latinos will be too much for Trump.

So it looks like four more years of the same -- never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East; catastrophic events caused by human-induced climate change; skyrocketing inequality; et cetera. It is not sustainable. Human institutions are already breaking down.

Maybe direct action nonviolent protest will pick up now that the Bernie opiate is wearing off.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Saudis Favor Hillary: The Erasure of Obama's Legacy and the Coming Expansion of War in the Greater Middle East

Obama has three "legacy" achievements: 1) the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a.k.a., Obamacare; 2) ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq; and 3) the deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear program.

With SecDef Ash Carter in Baghdad today promising Iraqi prime minister Abadi even more of a military commitment in the run up to the assault on ISIS-held Mosul, legacy #2 can be erased from Obama's list of accomplishments. At this point there is little doubt that the U.S. is positioning itself to take the lead on the recapture of Mosul so as to be better able to dictate terms on Iraq and Syria in a world after Sykes-Picot. In a Reuters story this morning, "U.S. Defence Chief Offers Iraq More Help, Possibly Troops-Officials," an unnamed Pentagon official pretty well sums up the Obama administration "all in" position with regards to Mosul:
"The fight of Iraq is the fight for Mosul. Mosul is the end game in Iraq," a senior U.S. defence official said, on condition of anonymity. "It’s a very large urban scenario ... We are going to need to be more aggressive, the Iraqis are asking us to be more aggressive.”
The caveat here is the fight for U.S. hegemony in the region is the fight for Mosul. A tidy U.S.-led victory, a la what Russia has achieved next door in Syria in Aleppo Province and Palmyra, will translate into a long-term military presence; a messy campaign where Iranian-backed militias do most of the fighting and the city is largely destroyed like Ramadi complicates things somewhat, not the least of which is an increase in refugees to an already post-Schengen Europe. Either way the United States will occupy Iraq for some time.

Another erasure from Obama's legacy list is the ACA. For an excellent primer on why Obamacare is headed for the dump, read "News About Obamacare Has Been Bad Lately. How Bad?," an interview with reporters Reed Abelson and Margot Sanger-Katz. UnitedHealth, an enormous insurer, decided to pull out of Obamacare markets in two states. Insurers are losing money. Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association is grumbling. Premiums are bound to increase, pricing many who don't qualify for subsidies out of the market:
Margot: . . .Every time I write a story about the health law, I get comments and emails from people just above the income cutoff for subsidies. These are the people who have been most hurt by the health law. Plans on the exchanges are just really expensive for them, and often come with big deductibles, too. And if premiums keep rising, they’ll keep getting squeezed. Analysts from the Urban Institute have done the math and found that some of them are paying more than 25 percent of their income on health care now. Still, it is awfully hard to imagine Congress approving massive new spending to make Obamacare more generous. Hillary Clinton has some proposals about affordability, but they don’t include expanding subsidies.
It turns out the free market model for health insurance doesn't really work:
Margot: Yes, I think this is one of the contradictions of the Affordable Care Act’s design. The whole idea was that competition between the insurance companies would help to hold down prices, the way it does for, say, electronics or groceries. In order for that system to work, you need people to actually switch plans if their plan starts charging more than the competition. The fact that people are actually switching seems like a sign that this market is functioning as it was designed. But as you point out, all that churn sure makes it hard for an insurer to make money by investing in its customers’ long-term health. But the individual market, pre-Obamacare, also had a lot of churn.
Reed: Yes, there’s always been churn, but the insurers got pretty good at figuring out which people they wanted to insure by turning away the people who were most likely to cost them the most money. They definitely figured out how to make money.
It’s easier to smooth all of this out if you insure more people. Do you think there’s opportunity to see the market increase in size? I know insurers in the early years suffered when some states allowed people to keep their existing plans. Those plans that were grandmothered, as it is called.
Margot: My sense from talking to folks in the industry is that the grandmothered plans really wrecked their early calculations. The Obama administration, responding to a political freakout about people whose plans were getting canceled in 2014, let states keep them for a few more years. The result was that healthy people tended to hold onto their old, cheaper plans, while sick people went to the exchanges. You can see how that might make the exchange market unprofitable for new entrants.
I do think the market size is a bit of a chicken-or-egg question. Your story last week on stability in the employer market did such a good job of laying this out. Everyone (including the Congressional Budget Office) expected that employers would start dropping coverage once the marketplaces were up and running. That didn’t happen. It means that Obamacare has been much less disruptive to the status quo than many people thought. But it also means that the exchange markets are smaller and probably more expensive than people thought, too. If prices keep going up, maybe they’ll never grow much. It certainly seems like everyone is cutting down their long-term estimates for exchange enrollment.
The last item of Obama's legacy list is the Iran deal. This is what Obama has bent over backwards -- aiding in the jihadist destruction of Syria and Iraq; actively collaborating with the Saudis in war crimes in Yemen -- to try to protect. But the Saudis are not cooperating. So over the last couple months an information war and diplomatic struggle between Obama and al-Saud has unfolded. Jeffrey Goldberg's long Atlantic Monthly piece was a major Obama salvo.

Another appeared Saturday, Mark Mazzetti's "Saudi Arabia Warns of Economic Fallout if Congress Passes 9/11 Bill." The decade-plus case brought against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by big insurers and family members impacted by 9/11 hit a snag last September when a federal district court judge dropped the kingdom as a defendant. The bill before Congress would address the concerns of the judge, allowing the case against the Saudis to proceed. But the Obama administration is fighting it tooth and nail.

This suit against the Saudis hardly ever gets any ink. The fact that it does now when Obama is on his way to Riyadh, where he will be on Wednesday, is not a coincidence. It is part of the info war.

Michael Shear writes in "An Old Alliance Faces New Pressures as Obama Heads to Saudi Arabia" that the Saudis have washed their hands of Obama. They're waiting for Hillary:
If the Saudis are ready to turn the page on the Obama presidency, they are also anxious about what comes next, especially if Donald J. Trump or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas becomes the next president. 
Mr. Trump has railed against Saudi Arabia, telling The New York Times last month that he might halt all purchases of oil unless the Saudis show more effort in the fight against the Islamic State. “If Saudi Arabia was without the cloak of American protection,” Mr. Trump has said, “I don’t think it would be around.” 
Mr. Cruz said during a presidential debate in February that the United States should “hold our friends to account, that friends do not fund jihadists that are seeking to murder us. And when it comes to Saudi Arabia, we need to have real scrutiny and real pressure.” 
From the Saudi perspective, Hillary Rodham Clinton might represent a return to the kind of foreign policy they remember when her husband was president. But nothing is certain in this political season, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the other candidate for the Democratic nomination, is an unknown to the Saudis. 
“Like everybody, they have no idea what to think about Trump,” Professor Gause said. “Who knows what to make of Senator Cruz on this? The Saudis don’t know him,” he added. “I think they would be perfectly comfortable with Hillary.”
During the Bush years there was a handy shortcut one could take when it came to any of his administration's initiatives. Everything he touched turned to shit. It might look like a winner for a while but eventually you could bank it would fall apart. That appears to be the case with Obama too, which would seem to argue for a larger regional war in the Greater Middle East and the almost certain demise of the European Union.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Television's Marquee Moon (1977)


The problem with this time of year, spring, is that it is actually colder in my 100-plus-year-old apartment building than during the winter. With the return of the sun and the increase in air temperature, the landlord ratchets down the furnace in preparation for a complete boiler shutdown in May.

The radiator now fires up briefly, if at all, for about a half hour around seven a.m. For someone used to waking up at four a.m., getting out of bed only to sit huddled in a fleece and stocking cap in front of a laptop becomes a lousy choice. Combined with a cascading workload at my job, I have basically abandoned this page the last week. I have chosen instead to stay in bed until the last possible moment. Then I bathe, dress and leave the apartment for work downtown.

It was on such morning, Wednesday it was, that dazed and confused I stumbled into my neighborhood Starbucks to get a "shot in the dark." In front of me in the line to the register was a loquacious Metro bus driver. She was talking to any- and everyone in the shop. I think her topic was homelessness because there were several people sleeping bundled in blankets on the sidewalk outside. Her language was somewhat oblique. She was talking at one remove about how it takes time for people to get to know you; that you need to live in a place for a while before trust develops; but things are always changing so it is a balance.

By this time the bus driver had moved to the other side of the espresso machine and was talking to a young guy who was eating breakfast at a window counter seat. I was at the cash register waiting for my "shot in the dark." Suddenly I noticed a song that had been playing on the sound system. I noticed it because I knew it but in my dazed and confused cold spring morning state couldn't place it.

As my brain searched for the artist, it struck me that whoever it was, it was certainly au courant, tasteful, incisive guitar music. I thought maybe a Wilco release with Nels Cline on lead guitar, or Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. Then it dawned on me. Of course, It was Television!

What had happened is I had wandered into the Starbucks during the long Tom Verlaine guitar solo that consumes the second half of the 11-minute "Marquee Moon."

Last October I wrote about Televison's second album, Adventure (1978); about how I heard "See No Evil" playing on the PA in my neighborhood supermarket and how it struck me as completely in tune with whatever Zeitgeist we are currently living through.

Here it is happening again. A message is obviously being relayed. But what is it?

Marquee Moon (1977), Television's first album, from which "Marquee Moon" is the first single, was recorded in September 1976, a critical time for UK Punk. Television had been around since 1974. The band was the anchor of the CBGBs scene. But like Quicksilver Messenger Service, the San Francisco Sound Hippie band who Verlaine admired, Television waited several years to sign a recording contract. The band had worked with Brian Eno, but Verlaine did not like the sound that resulted. He held out until he could produce, which Elektra allowed him to do.

Marquee Moon was a hit in the UK and elsewhere but not in the United States, where it failed to chart. Yet here it is ambient 40 years later, and not as a golden lite rock oldie like Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (1977) of the same period.

I think Television's Marquee Moon is a vindication of the Hippies vs. Punks hypothesis. Something happened in the United States and the rest of the West in the years from 1974-1975 to 1979. Social democracy was scrapped in favor of something new, a new paradigm, and that turned out to be what we now call neoliberalism. We are still in its thrall after many decades. If you want to hear what the essence of that is, where it gets its power, listen to Marquee Moon.

Christgau described Television as champions of a "single-minded Utopian individualism." When I was doing my week-long immersion in Adventure last fall, I wandered into a trendy cafe frequented by the young digerati and I realized that this is who Television is. That is why Marquee Moon sounds so fresh. "Single-minded Utopian individualism" has been translated into a cyber infinity where the digital and the spiritual are indistinguishable.

Monday, April 11, 2016

From Otpor! and Tamarod to Today

I went to bed last night thinking about Egypt. I arrived there in my mind after reading a piece that appeared on the TomDispatch web site at the beginning of last month. "Three Times When the World Broke Open -- and Two When It Might Again: In Praise of Impractical Movements," by Mark Engler and Paul Engler, is a refutation of gradualism in politics, where change is engineered in piecemeal fashion by consensus of ruling elites, in favor of sudden paradigm shift powered by the ruled masses.

Nothing to argue with there. The problem I had with the essay was one of the three examples of nonviolent change offered as proof of the potency of spontaneous revolt. The Englers applaud the Serbian student group Otpor! for sparking the movement that removed Slobodan Milosevic from power in October 2000 (what is commonly classed as a color revolution though it is named after a bulldozer), something that the military might of NATO was unable to achieve the prior year. But it is well established that Otpor! received substantial assistance from the U.S. government, including training in nonviolent resistance.

This brought to mind Tamarod, the youth-led Egyptian protest movement that purportedly collected 22 million signatures calling for early presidential elections and sparked the June 2013 mass demonstrations that prefigured the July 3rd coup. It turns out Tamarod was part of the military takeover all along.

Two stories this morning provide insight into the rough shape of "astroturf" popular uprisings a few years on. The first, "Egypt Gives Saudi Arabia 2 Islands in a Show of Gratitude," by Declan Walsh, describes how the el-Sisi government has signed over two islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba in exchange for agreements with the Saudis worth billions. The second, "Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine’s Premier, Quits Amid Splits in Post-Revolution Alliance," by Andrew Kramer, explains how the U.S. has finally eaten its Maidan prodigy, "Yats," forcing him out in favor of the "chocolate king" Poroshenko.

Re-branding coups as popular revolts does not a revolution make. These ersatz rebellions are a ruse to maintain the old, exploitative privileges which motivate the popular uprisings to begin with. It is not a sustainable model for social transformation, to say the least.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Bernie Surging

Bernie Sanders is forecast to win today in Wisconsin. Assuming this is the case, the April 19 primary in New York is shaping up to be a worst case scenario for Hillary and the Democratic Party. As recently as March 29, Clinton was polling 67% to Sanders' 24% in the Empire State; now that has narrowed to 54% to 38%. 

A Wisconsin win for Bernie will maintain momentum from his dominant 70%-30% March 26 weekend victories in Alaska, Washington and Hawaii. That weekend is more and more looking like a turning point. It turns out, based on the results of the Clark County Democratic Convention over the weekend, that Sanders actually won Nevada. If you take into consideration the taint of Coinghazi in Iowa, Sanders won the first three election contests against the Democratic establishment.

No doubt he lost in South Carolina and other Southern Super Tuesday states. Bernie has problems connecting with a majority of the black electorate. In an odd, lengthy, premature frontpage post-mortem in yesterday's paper ("Early Missteps Seen as a Drag on Bernie Sanders’s Campaign" by Patrick Healy and Yamiche Alcindor), none of the undeniable shortcomings of the Bernie 2016 campaign -- the consistent reticence to attack a corrupt Clinton; an initially light travel schedule -- amount to a hill of beans compared to Sanders' poor performance with African Americans.

Bob Kerrey, the ex-senator from Nebraska and Vietnam war criminal, does get in a few good quotes though:
Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and senator who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1992 and who has endorsed Mrs. Clinton in the current race, said Mr. Sanders might be winning now if he had relentlessly pressured Mrs. Clinton since last fall over her closed-door speeches to Wall Street banks, her role in the finances of Clinton Foundation programs, and other vulnerabilities. Mr. Sanders did not raise the paid-speech issue, after long resistance, until late January. 
“Making the transcripts of the Goldman speeches public would have been devastating” to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Kerrey said. “When the G.O.P. gets done telling the Clinton Global Initiative fund-raising and expense story, Bernie supporters will wonder why he didn’t do the same.”
***
Mr. Sanders also refused to attack Mrs. Clinton over her use of private email as secretary of state, which is now the focus of an F.B.I. investigation. Criticizing her email practices could have played into Democrats’ concerns about Mrs. Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness, and some Sanders allies thought it could be a potent issue. But Mr. Sanders basically took it off the table at their October debate when he said, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Sanders advisers cheered that line, seeing it as a sign of their candidate’s integrity, but other Democrats said he had misjudged the issue. 
“The email story is not about emails,” Mr. Kerrey said. “It is about wanting to avoid the reach of citizens using FOIA” — the Freedom of Information Act — “to find out what their government is doing, and then not telling the truth about why she did.”
Sanders stumbled in Ohio and Arizona. (Shenanigans in Maricopa County likely padded Clinton's victory in Arizona.) But the torpidity of Hillary, her being held in revulsion by a large plurality if not outright majority of voters, has repeatedly allowed Bernie to concoct new victory narratives, the latest being a come-from-behind upset victory in the state that Hillary represented in the U.S. Senate.

The way the Democratic primary has gone so far, its topsy-turvyness, even if Sanders wins New York Pennsylvania still could very well vote for Hillary.

I see a dead heat shaping up with aporia being the hallmark of the Democratic Party going into its summer nominating convention in the City of Brotherly Love.

Monday, April 4, 2016

End Times Approaching for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

There were two interesting stories -- Ben Hubbard's "ISIS Turns Saudis Against the Kingdom, and Families Against Their Own" and "Saudis Moving to Reduce Dependence on Oil Money" by Hubbard and Stanley Reed -- at the end of last week that read as salvos in an information war that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is losing.

With 2015 on record as the hottest year by far, and a bombshell prediction appearing last week that West Antarctic ice sheet melt will lead to a six-foot sea level rise by the end of the century, a politics of finding ways to keep vast carbon reserves in the ground is gradually emerging.

The undeniable reality of catastrophic climate change, Brent crude trading below $40 barrel, and Wahhabism and neoliberalism at full stop add up to a paradigm shift.

The two Hubbard stories are meant to convince readers that the the bloodthirsty kleptomaniacs who rule al-Saud are paying attention to the shift underway and making the necessary changes to transition their atavistic society to a new, less profligate dispensation.

Hubbard's Friday story, the one about Islamic State's terror attacks inside the Kingdom, is meant to create the false impression that the Saudi royal family is a victim of ISIS aggression like the Yazidis who were forced into sexual slavery or the Syrian state that has been cracked apart. What the reader ends up getting is a description of a sloppy murder or two perpetrated by ne'er-do-wells glued to their laptops, not the well-funded and organized blitzkrieg that captured big cities like Mosul and Raqqa.

Hubbard's reporting is not completely Orwellian though. He does -- much like Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard does when she toes the administration lie in Syria -- find the time to shine a light; in this case, the undeniable reality that the export of Sunni jihad is a Saudi product:
Saudi Arabia has a tangled history with Islamic militant groups. For a long time, it backed them as proxy forces to push its agenda in places like Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan (where it worked with the United States). But that largely ended in 2003, when Al Qaeda turned its focus on the kingdom and staged a series of deadly attacks.
Now the Islamic State poses a new challenge, by turning aspects of Saudi Arabia’s conservative creed against it. Wahhabism has been molded over the years to serve the interests of the monarchy, emphasizing obedience to the rulers and condemning terrorist attacks, even against those seen as apostates. 
Still, among the Islamic State’s many enemies, Saudi Arabia is the only one that considers the Quran and other religious texts its constitution, criminalizes apostasy and bans all forms of unsanctioned public religion. 
The country was founded on an alliance between the Saud family, whose members became the monarchs, and a cleric named Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab, whose teachings were used to justify military conquest by labeling it jihad against those deemed to be infidels, most of whom were other Muslims.
Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab’s descendants still dominate the religious institutions of the Saudi state, which now play down the violence in the country’s history and emphasize aspects convenient to an all-powerful royal family, like the importance of obeying the leadership.
Saudi officials reject comparisons between their ideology and that of the Islamic State, noting that millions of non-Muslims live in the kingdom and that the government is closely allied with the United States and participates in the American campaign against the militant group.
They also say that Saudi Islam does not promote the caliphate, as does the Islamic State, and that senior clerics condemn the terrorist attacks and have branded the group “deviant.”
But critics argue that many Saudi clerics have never renounced the aspects of the Wahhabi tradition that the Islamic State has adopted, especially with regard to Shiites, who make up an estimated 10 percent of the kingdom’s 20 million citizens. Many Saudi clerics consider Shiites heretics and accuse them of loyalty to Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, Iran.
The jihadists have exploited this by repeatedly launching suicide attacks on Shiite mosques and then accusing Saudi clerics of hypocrisy for condemning the violence.
“It is clearly hard for Saudi clerics to condemn outright attacks on Shiites,” said Mr. Bunzel, the Princeton scholar. “And you get the feeling that they don’t care as much if the Shiites get attacked, since they’re not really Muslims in their view.”
But the more interesting story of the two is Saturday's. Hubbard and Reed recapitulate an interview with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Bloomberg published on Friday announcing the creation of a Saudi sovereign wealth fund that will be bankrolled by selling shares in Saudi Aramco to the public:
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A top Saudi prince has announced new elements of a plan to reduce the kingdom’s heavy dependence on oil, amid a drop in world prices that has sent shock waves through the Saudi economy. 
The plans include publicly selling shares of the state oil giant, Saudi Aramco, and routing much of its worth into a public investment fund, said the prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview with Bloomberg published Friday.
The fund could become the world’s largest, he said, with more than $2 trillion in assets. 
“Undoubtedly, it will be the largest fund on earth,” said Prince Mohammed, who is second in line to the Saudi throne and has emerged as the country’s most powerful and dynamic official. “This will happen as soon as Aramco goes public.” 
Although less than 5 percent of Saudi Aramco would be sold, the prince said the national oil company would be transferred to a government fund, now relatively small, called the Public Investment Fund, giving it instant heft and potential financial firepower.
Saudi Aramco is the world’s leading oil producing company. It has about 10 million barrels per day of output, or about 10 percent of global production, and reserves of about 160 billion barrels. The company also has large refining and petrochemical interests inside Saudi Arabia and internationally, including in the United States.
At present, Norway’s fund, called the Government Pension Fund Global, is believed to be the world’s largest so-called sovereign wealth fund. It has about $850 billion in investments.
The announcements came as Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, struggles to reformat its economy.
A decade-long boom left the kingdom’s economy heavily dependent on oil, which provides most of the government’s income, and made the state far and away the country’s biggest employer. The drop in oil prices — to about $39 a barrel from more than $100 a barrel in June 2014 — undermined that model, leading to huge budget deficits and vast cuts in public spending.
Prince Mohammed, the apple of King Salman's eye, is the young man who is the architect of the failed, criminal war on Yemen.

The really shocking quote of the story appears in the next paragraph:
Rachel Ziemba, an analyst at Roubini Global Economics in New York, estimates that Saudi Arabia is burning up its financial reserves at the rate of $10 billion to $15 billion per month. She estimates that the kingdom has about $600 billion left. 
There are longer-term worries as well. A recent study by the consultants McKinsey warned that with more than half of Saudi Arabia’s population under 25, a surge of young people was likely to enter the work force in the coming years. This will require the creation of almost three times as many jobs for Saudis as the kingdom created during the 2003-13 oil boom.
Clearly this is a society headed fast for fracture. There have been thinkers like Christopher Davidson who have been sounding this alarm for years. But now with the Kingdom set to run out of cash in four to five years, the caliphate shrinking in Iraq and Syria, Iran gradually integrating into the global economy, and the supplicant Western neoliberal political parties completely discredited it seems a certainty.

Prince Mohammed's announcement smacks of a public relations ploy similar to a 60 Minutes report I saw years ago trumpeting the technological wizardry of Saudi Aramco, its engineering expertise and visionary investment in solar for a post-carbon world. All hokum as far as I can tell.

Why if Norway used its far-smaller oil reserves to build an $845 billion fund is the House of Saud's only worth $5 billion today?

The Kingdom is a kleptocracy. A big pile of money in a sovereign wealth fund will just be siphoned off by the royal family. Hubbard and Reed back this up in their story:
Western diplomats and analysts say it is hard to gauge the Saudi plans because much about the kingdom’s economy remains opaque and the deadlines for implementation remain unclear.
“The strategy makes sense,” Ms. Ziemba said, “but it is not a silver bullet.”
She said it would have been easier to try such reforms when oil prices were higher and Saudi Arabia’s assets were worth far more than they are now.
Some have questioned how many private investors will want to put their money in a company like Saudi Aramco that releases very little financial information and is seen by many as the piggy bank of the Saudi royal family.
Jean-Francois Seznec, a senior fellow in the Global Energy Institute at the Atlantic Council, said an initial public offering of less than 5 percent made sense because the amount of cash involved in a larger offering could flood the market.
The bigger challenge, he said, will be bringing transparency to a company that has long avoided it. “All of a sudden, everyone could see how much money is being taken off the top by the royal family, and everyone wants to avoid that,” he said.
When push comes to shove and the war really comes home to Riyadh, the royals will simply jet off to their European estates. Now at least such a moment appears to be visible on the horizon.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: The Monkees' Head (1968)


This is an aborted Hippies vs Punks post. My aspiration was that I would subject myself to a painful work-week immersion in one or all four of the Monkees albums that dominated the Billboard 200 charts during the psychedelic year of the Hippie, 1967.

The albums were the Monkees' first four -- the eponymous The Monkees (1966), which was #1 from November 1966 to February 1967; More of the Monkees (1967), which was #1 from February until June; Headquarters (1967), which was #1 for only the week of June 24; and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. (1967), which closed out the year #1 throughout the month of December.

Kids might have been growing their locks long, wearing flowers in their hair, migrating to The Haight to get a taste of free love, but for the great mass, musical tastes were in the thrall of jingly garage rock (not) played by four actors hired to star in a half-hour NBC sitcom, The Monkees, which first aired September 1966. The first Monkees album was a promotional tie-in that exceeded expectations and far surpassed the popularity of the television show.

I did a quick audit last night of the annual Billboard 200 lists. I could not find another year that one group or solo artist had four different #1 albums. It appears to be unprecedented

The story is that the first two, besides Micky Dolenz's vocals, were all done with studio musicians from The Wrecking Crew. Members of the Monkees, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork principally, began to complain to management. As a result, the albums beginning with Headquarters began to feature more actual songwriting and instrument-playing by Nesmith, Dolenz, Tork and Davy Jones (tambourine).

This is an aborted post because I couldn't bring myself to purchase any Monkees albums. I had to settle for a Best of the Monkees disk put out by Rhino which I checked out from the public library. But due to a failed CD drive on my laptop I wasn't able to listen to it.

I did watch the super-flop feature film debut of the band, Head (1968), co-produced and co-written by a pre-Easy Rider (1969) Jack Nicholson (who even has a cameo), which was released after the two seasons of The Monkees TV show.  It's not bad. There is some anti-war stuff in there, as well as some toss-off psychedelia; overall though, it is musically unmemorable (see the YouTube above). My favorite sequence is the Davy Jones-Toni Basil dance number. Davy Jones could dance:


The story behind the flop of Head is the story of the Monkees in toto. The Monkees were trying to establish hipster cred by producing a politically conscious psychedelic feature film. The problem was that it was beyond anything the band's pimply, unconscious fan base could comprehend, while the real hipsters, Hippies and heads just scoffed at it, even if Frank Zappa did make an appearance to extol the group's importance to the youth of nation:


The television series, reruns of which were forever on in my childhood, are almost unwatchable. I made it two episodes into season one before I gave up. If you ever question that this culture has evolved, watch a sitcom from the 1960s. The laugh tracks alone are like taking a physical beating.

In any event, by the end of 1968 the Monkees are essentially kaput. And herein lies an important clue to the Hippies and the 1960s. The culture was moving so fast, throwing off great splinters and chunks, that a number-one group -- and a number-one group marketed directly to young, white youth -- could be completely discredited in the span of a single year. Not even Milli Vanilli or Vanilla Ice flamed out so abruptly.

There is a 50-year-anniversary tour underway, as well as a new album, Good Times (2016).