Monday, May 21, 2012

Wall Street and the Dems

Many still love Bill Clinton, but it also clear that part of his legacy was setting us on the path toward the financial crisis of 2008. How? Among other things, he allowed major overhaul of banking regulation in 1998, including the exorbitant fees and interest rates we now pay on credit cards. But more important were two larger reforms: essentially ending Glass-Steagal and failing to regulate the expanding markets for derivatives. Outside the legislative process, Clinton started a trend that has continued ever since -- large Wall Street contributions to democrats, including incumbent Obama. In fact, an article by Salon today highlights the cozy relationship between the two: Democrats & Bain. Obama has, in fact, received more Wall Street dollars than did Bush and Dems actually received more than Republicans in the last election from the potential bane of Romney, Bain Capital, by a margin of 2:1 ($1.2 million to $480k). Beyond the presidency, one of the biggest supporters of Wall Street is Democratic Senator Charles Shummer, who has raised millions of dollars and blocked any attempt to regulate Wall Street ever since. Corey Booker, the up-and-coming enigmatic mayor of Newark angered many Dems yesterday when he called the Obama attacks on Bain Capital "nauseating." He later relented, but he too appears to have a comfortable relationship with the Kings of the Financial Universe across the Hudson. 

So what does this mean for democracy and our are economic future? I would argue nothing good. After 2008, there was widespread call for significant financial reform. But not only Republicans but Democrats sought to water down the bill and Republicans have now promised to overturn even those minor changes if they gain the two party majority. Obama backed down from giving Elizabeth Warren support for the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she was the architect of and uncertainly still remains around its mandate and power. Little has been done to address the power banks now hold in the country and world and the moral hazard problem is bigger than ever (just look at Jamie Dimon's $2 billion trading loss at J. P. Morgan). It is all part of the new reality in politics today. Whether a Democrat or Republican sits in the White House, corporate donors and Wall Street big wigs are given easy access, their interests are defended against the other "99%" and the obvious tax reforms that should have gone through years ago (taxing most of their income at only 15%) remains a pipe dream of true economic progressives. In New York, for example, a 1% tax on income over $1 billion could solve most of their deficit problems. But their power is too great, and their greed too strong, to ever allow that to happen.

After the Great Depression, the banks realized that they needed to reform themselves and worked with FDR to do just that; or at least enough of them to allow the New Deal to go forward. Today corporations are willing to spill large sums of cash to continue to do whatever they want, allowing profits to be siphoned off to top executives as the average worker just gets by and the rolls of unemployed increases. Is this the new future? It appears people across the U.S. and Europe have finally had enough and hope did emerge at a meeting of the G8 over the weekend, with Obama and other European leaders pushing German Chancellor Merkel to move away from her austerity approach to actually focus on economic growth. We shall have to see if our leaders actually heed the call and start representing the interests of the many of those of the few.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Chelsea Wins; EPL Epilogue

Watching the game or looking at the statistics, it seems hard to believe Chelsea actually beat Bayern Munich yesterday. Forty-three shots to nine, Chelsea digging in on the defensive end most of the game, Bayern Munich creating opportunity after opportunity, one penalty kick to none and even a two goal to nil lead as David Luiz stepped to the spot after Juan Mata had been denied. But as has been the case through this odd campaign, the Blues just refused to follow the script. Instead four straight successful penalties shots, together with misses by Olic and Schweinsteiger, were enough to stun the crowd and Bayern players and send Chelsea to their first Champions League title -- realizing the dream of many of the senior players and the Russian Plutocrat owner, Roman Abromovitz. Chelsea was down 3-1 to Napoli and stormed back for victory. They were down to Benefica but pulled out a tight victory. They pulled the upset of all upsets by tying Barca 2-2 in their house and then did the same to Bayern in their home stadium. 

How? It seemed merely the will to win and experience, together with an inability of the Bayern stars to finish the job in front of net. It looked as if they had pulled it out anyway, when Muller headed the ball into the ground and past Cech to take the lead in the 83rd minute. But whenever you have Drogba, don't count yourselves our and Chelsea finally came alive, finding the equalizer in the 89th minute. It must have reminded Bayern fans of 1999, when they conceded twice in the last four minutes to lose to Manchester United (the second coming in stoppage time). This time they did hold on for the extra period and seemed poised to retake the lead when Drogba tripped Ribbery in the box. Arjen Robben stepped to the spot, but looked a little nervous (my sports psychology friend even mentioned the look on his face). He then failed to convert on a nice save from Cech and the game was back on. And so to penalties they ultimately went, and the rest, is as they say history. Robben sat on the field stunned, after being comforted by some of his old Chelsea teammates. Schweinsteiger seemed unconsolable. And Drogba was the hero in a cup final yet again, after a reprieve that just might have cost them the dream.

So what should we think of this miracle Chelsea turnaround? It was really a testament to will and fortitude, to old school football and to how a coaching change can make all the difference. AVB must be scratching his head wondering where the hell the team went that barely performed for him at all. But one must at least mention the hundreds of millions of dollars a Russian Plutocrat spent toward this goal, how many of the Chelsea players (including Ashley Cole and John Terry) are really hard to like and how this reaffirms the general sense that irresponsible spending in football really paid off this year. From Man City to Chelsea to PSG (who almost won the title) to Anzi, we have teams that are willing to simply buy themselves titles -- and it continues to work. Yes, this might be a bit of the bitter Gooner in me mentioning this, but how can one not? It led to some exciting football and a changing of the guard, but at what cost to the beautiful game (something no one will charge Di Matteo's team with playing the past two and a half months). But it is quite a turnaround for the Blues, two trophies more than Man United and Arsenal, and another year in the UCL. The victims are not only Bayern (who have lost three in the past 13 years), but Tottenham as well -- who really have only themselves to blame -- after blowing what was a 13 point lead on the Gunners halfway through the second derby. But this probably means the dismantling of a team on the ascendancy and might actually mean Vertonghen coming to the Gunners (I hope). 

As the season ends, it has certainly been a great one. Real Madrid supplanted Barca in the league, but missed out on UCL glory. Barca started off looking like the great team they have been the past four years (and quickly won three trophies), but then had a real drop in form that can only be rescued by one last trophy for Guardiola before he fades into the sunset (at least for a year). Man City supplanted their crosstown rivals for the first time in 44 years and might have set their sites on a dynasty that could last for years. Chelsea had a terrible campaign rescued in the last two months and Liverpool won the Carling but had an awful campaign; leading to the sacking of a legend. Arsenal started terribly, came back, then suffered the New Year blues, went on a run and then almost blew it in the last six games. Juve matched the invincible season of the Gunners in Italy without as much fanfare, and almost still lost the title to AC Milan, and Dortmund and Montpellier won in Germany and France by the smallest of margins. Great games were matched by an endless array of terrible decisions, big spending (that often fizzled on the pitch) seemed to meet a number of clever signings like Ba and Cisse for Newcastle (who just missed out on UCL by a few points here or there) and the drama was palpable from one week to the next. One hopes next season can match the drama of this one ...

A postscript on the Gunners must obviously start with the news that RVP is not ready to sign and looks likely to ask for a move. But the Arsenal management seems like they might force him to play out his contract, which might be a smart move. If we can land M'Villa and a few other quality signings, maybe he will decide to stay, but one hopes Wenger is finally willing to end his stubbornness and actually spend some cash. We actually have it and wouldn't even have to break the new Fair Play regulations to build up a squad with the chance to win silverware next year. As I celebrated along with the Chelsea players (I hate German soccer and was sort of happy to see Totti get screwed) I had to look back so far to the last time it was an Arsenal team up there accepting their medals. One hopes next year will finally bring at least one, but it is certainly contingent on keeping RVP and making more signings. Let's hope the board and Arsene finally realize the only route to get back to the top ...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Psychopaths in the Midst

The average Wall Street banker will never be mistaken for a librarian. They are uber-competitive, short tempered, aggressive and willing to take huge risks without a second thought of the consequences. That has served the economy well at times, while other times leading to our biggest economic crises. From the late-19th century collapses  and the Great Depression to 1987, the Dot Com Bubble and the 2007-08 mortgage fiasco, it was irresponsible bankers that led our economy (and sometimes the global economy) into disaster. Greed may be good for those who are greedy, and in moderation for the economy as a whole, but what if it is unchecked by regulation, rationality or any sense of right and wrong?

This is the question that emerges if a recent study by journalist Sherree DeCovny is to be believed (Huff Post). She argues that 1 in 10 Wall Street employees are clinical psychopaths, meaning they lie often, have trouble feeling empathy for others and are drawn to take dangerous risks (unaware or lacking care about the consequences). The overall rate for the population is approximately 1 percent, though I have long wondered if media and consumer culture aren't pushing more Americans toward sociopathic tendencies. I see it in many youth today, who seem less able to connect with or feel empathy towards others. But if Wall Street execs and workers are psychopathic, this has much more serious implications for all of us. They will be willing to take unwarranted risk, unscrupulous about fraud and corruption, make morally questionable decisions and care little for the consequences of their actions.

This, in fact, describes the situation rather perfectly in the lead-up to the mortgage meltdown. All the way from traders and top exes at the major banks down to those giving out loans and appraising houses, there was a general sense of moral elasticity that would have once landed one in jail or facing public executions. Decisions were made purely on the short term profit, on the personal gain available and with an underpinning of moral hazard (with bankers certain the country would bail them out if trouble did arise). The general sense of entitlement and moral turpitude was perhaps best captured in the HBO movie Marin Call, that recounted with relative accuracy what happened with Goldman Sachs, as they sold bad instruments to most of their customers. These Wall Street Execs were essentially following the lead of the business world, where Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson and a host of other corporations were engaged in risky and illegal behavior that resulted in the companies folding and stock holders suffering huge losses, while the top execs often walked away unscathed. 

And this provides yet further proof of the need for government regulation and oversight of Wall Street and corporate America. Psychopaths are dangerous, for among other reasons because they lie without compunction and are generally charming (lest us forget the Bank chiefs testifying to Congress after the collapse), thus making us believe that they have our best interests in mind. But if we allow the country to continue "flirting with" and "dating" these dangerous economic lotharios, they will take down the U.S. economy, smiling brightly as the world around them explodes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Escaping the Internet and Social Networking

Every quarter I teach a class that in week 5 asks students to keep track of their media/technology usage for 48 hours. The results are startling, further proof that Generation M really is a double-entendre (Millennial and Media). The amount of time that is spent communicating with (or at) others, listening to music, watching television and/or movies and playing video games is truly unbelievable -- taking up over half the waking life for many youth today. And, of course, adults are increasingly prey to technology as well. I just bought an iPhone four days ago and can't believe how much time I have spent playing with it. Anyway, two brilliant new apps try to get us back on track to actually focusing on what we're doing when we're on our computers. Both provide the opportunity to block the greatest distractions in our lives: the Internet ( and/or Social Networking ( The apps are not free, but can be had for the low price of $20. God this sounds like an advertisement. But they really are brilliant and could cut the time it takes to actually finish something by hours. While I often use the Internet while writing, I assume just keeping notes of what I have to look up and doing the actually writing will actually free my time up to get away from the computer altogether ... something most of us should do more of.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Anxiety of Influence?

Is there any other way to explain the GOP reaction to Obama's bold move last week to advocate for Gay Marriage? The Anxiety of Influence, of course, is Harold Bloom's theory of how post-Enlightenment poets (and even earlier ones like Shakespire in his subsequent works) were unduly influenced by the predecessors and thus often created derivative work. This appears to be the position of many Republicans, who are actually complaining that Obama is making cultural matters an issue in an election that should be about the economy and jobs. My favorite quote comes from Texas Senator John Conyers: “President Obama brought this issue up because he wants to — he can’t run on his record, let’s put it that way. And so he’s trying to raise divisive issues up to solidify his base and to divide the country. And that isn’t what we should be focusing on now. We should be focusing on jobs and the economy.” (TPM).

If there has ever been a more apt example of the pot calling the kettle black? Republicans have been using this strategy for over 20 years, as many including Thomas Franks have highlighted. And now they must be worried that the bold move might play well with independents. I'm less convinced and wonder why Obama would step in now, but who knows? He needs to build a convincing narrative for reelection and confront Romney's endless attacks. Maybe what he has done in an odd way is made the issue moot, except among those who would never vote for him to begin with. Nonetheless, for the Republicans to say that we should only talk about the economy and jobs is something Obama should embrace. If the Ryan plan and Romney's record as a businessman are all we need compete against, I can't see Obama losing. Just to clarify, here is my best understanding of what Republicans want:

1.  Lower taxes for the wealthy, who will magically start hiring people again, even as the last 93% of $218 billion they made last year did little toward that end. Maybe an extra trillion will do the job?
2.  Cut more social services, letting the poor go it alone and allowing our education system to get even worse.
3.  Cut regulation so that corporations can take even more liberties with our ecological and person futures. 
4.  Go back to the Bush doctrine on foreign affairs.
5.  Do nothing to stimulate business except presume that the invisible hand will work its magic after a four-year hiatus. 

Makes sense, really. At least in the hyperreal, spectacle, ahistorical world in which far too many conservatives appear to live today.

Man City Miracle; Arsenal Reprieve

The EPL season is now over, though not decided. That won't happen until Chelsea plays Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final on Saturday. If Chelsea wins, Tottenham go to the European League and, if I understand, Newcastle and Everton as well. If not, Chelsea finishes in a nightmare sixth, must go to the European league and has an FA Cup that will do little to salve the wounds of a year without UCL. It will be a big ask missing four players including Ramires (and his great form of late), Terry, Ivanovic and Miereles -- and potentially also being without Luiz and Cahill. But they have been impressive in big games since Di Matteo took over and might just pull off the miracle.

In any case, yesterday had to be one of the most exciting final days in the history of English football -- even better than when Arsenal beat Liverpool 2-0 to win in on total goals in 1989. Over the course of the simultaneous 10 matches, Arsenal was in 3rd, in 4th (with Tottenham salivating) then back in third after a third mistake by West Brom backup goalkeeper Fulop, Bolton was out then in then out then in then, ultimately, out (they drew 2-2) and QPR was celebrating as they blew an improbable 2-1 road win, realizing they had escaped the bounce. Of course the big story was in the two Manchesters. As the second half of both games began, Manchester United was mired in second and seemed to have no chance of making up the goal difference (after blowing 3 or 4 opportunities and clinging to a 1-0 lead). Then the news arrived at Sunderland that QPR had tied on an inexplicable mistake by Lescott and great finish from Cisse. United fans start murmuring about the possibility and the team seemed as interested in the news as their own game. Then QPR pulled off a miracle, after Joey Barton was sent off in the 55th minute for a stupid elbow of Tevez, and somehow score again. Now United fans are excited and the team realizes as the seconds tick off that they are going to snatch the title. 

Fergie had heard the news of the second goal and literally jumps out of his seat. United fans are celebrating, the players realize what's happening and the 90th minute arrives. They are just controlling the ball and playing for what they think is the last three minutes of an improbable title. And then news of the first Man City goal shows up on a fan's smartphone. The crowd begins to get worried. Back at the Ethiad, a crowd that was reeling at the potential loss after 44 years of waiting come to life as Eden Dzeko heads in for 2-2 in the 92nd minute. QPR takes their time on the ensuing kickoff and the tension is palpable. Then who but Balotteli dives to get a through ball to Aguero who cooly goes around the last defender and rifles the ball past Kelly on the near post. An explosion of celebration and the title that seemed theirs for certain before the New Years slip started. As the United game ends, Fergie walks toward the pitch assuming he is about to pick up United's 20th title only to turn as someone tells him the news. The players quickly realize what has happened and are so crestfallen, they're not sure what to do.

And so City wins the title in the most dramatic fashion possible -- two goals in stoppage time to rescue their season and win the league. Aguero is the star, but Dzeko, Tevez and Balotteli play pivotal roles (even as all of them could be gone next year). For the first time in EPL history, goal difference is the difference and United has to rue all the chances they have blown over the course of the season -- the balls that hit the post, the flubbed open nets, the late concedes, etc. Man City fulfilled their destiny and, unfortunately, showed that money can essentially buy titles (though not of the UCL variety yet). As I celebrated along with the players, I also recognized that fair play needs to get its due in the next few years to end what will become dominance of European football by the rich from the Middle East and Russia. But it was a day to remember and Arsenal, of course, squeaked out a victory.

So on to the Gunners. The season is over. Third place is secured. Another year of Champions League football. No silverware. A late season fade yet again and more goals conceded this year than in the previous four (the goals allowed has been creeping upward for five straight years). We might lose another star and Wenger still seems clueless about spending big to again compete at the top. There are signs things could change, but if they don't, Arsenal is to become the also-ran that many pundits think they already are. Who can argue with them? Wenger seems unwilling to do the things necessary to win -- for example, getting rid of the dead weight, accepting failure on players that don't perform rather than letting them go out week after week, not creating enough competition at key positions to motivate his players, playing a high line when it is pure insanity, rarely changing tactics, refusing to spend for players that are available and lowering standards year after year. Sure we might be better off than Chelsea and Liverpool at the moment (though both won silverware and the Blues could still snag the ultimate prize), but they will spend big again this summer and improve. And Wenger claims he won't, after promising the opposite a few short months ago.

So where do we go from here? The most troubling thing for me yesterday was this quote from Wenger: "I'm proud of the season. The mental solidity, the unity and solidarity inside the club has been tested. We didn't show any weakness and kept united." Hmm ... I would say they showed a lot of weakness, particularly at key moment and in the final run-in. Lest us forget the match yesterday shouldn't have mattered -- we lost to QPR, gave up two early goals to Wigan and lost, let two points slip away at home against Chelsea in the nil-nil draw, drew with Stoke after a poor early defensive error, blew a 3-2 lead against Norwich in the last ten minutes and didn't complete the "almost" comeback against AC Milan that could have really kept us rolling to the end. The team seemed flat for at least half of four or five of our last games and the defense looked terrible -- giving up goal after unnecessary goal. It is clear that a number of things need to happen with this club. Here are a few that I think are at the top of the list:

1. We need to change our defensive tactics and Vermaelen has to be reigned in. I partially blame him for the end of season fall, as he is venturing forward far too often. Yesterday I actually saw him looking to the bench and being pulled back. It's absurd. Kos had a great year, with some hiccups, but discipline in the back must be reestablished. Vertonghen would be a nice solution, but he now seems intent on going to Tottenham, though one wonders if he'll change his mind if Chelsea wins Saturday. We need to replace Jenkinson, who looked terrible yesterday not for the first time (he doesn't understand how to take the inside away or stay in front of the wingers), and get a reliable right back. Gibbs and Santos are fine on the right (to me) though I'm not completely convinced by Gibbs. And we need another center half, if not Vert then someone else. Get rid of Squillaci and hopefully Djourou as well.    
2. Get M'Villa or another defensive midfielder. Song has improved dramatically, but a few key assists seem to have convinced him to play further up the pitch than he should, leaving us exposed at the back. The two West Brom goals were almost as embarrassing as two of our three. 
3. We need competition or a replacement for Ramsey. He has gotten worse as the season has worn on and just isn't doing the job. Why Chamberlain got no time at the end of the season, is beyond me. He could slot into the hole position behind the striker quite nicely and I think thrive from that position. I wonder if Wenger was essentially telling the media and the fans to shut up by not playing him. That sort of attitude needs to be addressed by the board. 
4. We might have to bear Gervinho for one more year, but assuming RVP stays, we need to get someone better on the left. Assuming Walcott stays and continues to improve, one formation would see Podolski on the Left, RVP in the Middle and Walcott on the right. We could, of course, switch to Pod and RVP up front as well. But Gervinho, for all his trickery, is just not getting the job done with either goals or assists; after a bright start. There have been rumors of bringing in Sessignon or Hoillet, but who knows what will happen with those. I also like the idea of Clint Demsey, who could play up front or move back toward midfield. He would be a great signing and could give us three legitimate goal scorers going into next season.
5. We need a creative midfielder to come in. I'm not sure who that should be, but it's clear that we are often lacking the final ball that creates goals. If RVP does go, God forbid, we will be a worse team next year unless we make some big signings (Giroud maybe, though he doesn't seem to want to come).  

Ultimately, after the start we had, we can be happy with third. But I don't think we can be happy with the form (or effort) from the squad in the last two months. After a great run, they went back to careless defending, uninspired play and even some poor goalkeeping. Things need to change if the Gunners are to compete. At the top of the list, is bringing in two or three big names, cutting the fat (Squillaci, Almunia, Bendtner, Chamakh, Park, etc.). Yes Wilshire and Arteta will be back, yes Diaby might actually make it through three games without an injury, yes RVP could return (I'm starting to doubt it) and yes several players got another year of experience. But we need more depth, we need more talent and we need to shore up our defense. If both wingers are coming forward as often as say Sagna and Santos, Vermaelen, Kos and Song have to hold the line. Wenger seems trapped in the past, unwilling to truly change things. Maybe the addition from Bould (fond goodbye to Rice) will shake things up a little, particularly on the defensive end, but Wenger has to realize the rest of Europe has caught up and his advantage is long gone. 

Gunner fans should be happy but not content. Things need to change, but hope springs anew. If Wenger has another season like this, one wonders if we should knock on the door of an unemployed Barcelona fella, who just had a pretty good four years (with one terrible week thrown in to wreck the party). Until next season ...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Good Ole Boy

The hits just keep on coming with good ole Mitt Romney, who apparently is a first-rate prankster. This includes joking with a state trooper who "short sheeted" a hotel room when he was governor by writing him a letter that the staff had been fired. And in his private prep school, he apparently forcefully cut the hair of a kid whose he thought was too long and chided another closeted gay student with, "atta girl" in class: Yahoo News. While President Obama took the audacious step of being the first major national politician to openly support gay marriage, Romney apparently has a history of bullying them. I suppose it is not surprising for a guy who worked on Wall Street, long a bastion for the uber-masculine, uber-competitive A-type personalities who take joy in destroying companies, forcing through mergers that cut jobs and dehumanizing anyone in their way. But is an unempathetic President really what this country needs right now? It will certainly feed the hatred and intolerance that seems to grow with each passing day here and in Europe. But maybe there is actually another third way that could set the sails of the country on a new path.

Cry Beloved Center

Further evidence that we live in an increasingly polarized political climate is not really news at all. But yet another defeat for a centrist Republican further exemplifies the failure of too many Americans to understand or support the central tenet of democracy -- namely compromise. The latest victim of the new conservative common sense was 36-year veteran Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. Lugar was defeated in the primary by Tea Party-sponsored Richard Mourdock (one wonders if his homonymic namesake has had too large an influence on him) who argued that Lugar too often agreed with President Obama: CNN. Lugar was forced out of office for his inability to avoid compromise at any cost, but other moderates are leaving by choice including long-time Maine centrist Olympia Snowe.

Mourdock explained his position, "What I've said is, and what I continue to believe, certainly, is one side or the other must prevail, and I'm hoping this candidacy will help move the Republican Party forward to become a permanent majority." He continued, ""Some people say, well, we do understand it, and by golly, we're going to wait until we have majorities in both houses, the White House, where there's two years, four years, six years, but the country has to keep going in the meanwhile."

That sounds reasonable, unless you actually believe in democracy, where compromise is essential. The balance and separation of powers that the constitution outlined (and justified in more detail in the federalist papers) make it clear that no party or branch of government should yield too much power. And yet the Republican party seems intent on setting up a "permanent majority" that sounds a lot like a fascist state -- where decisions are not debated by signed by collective fiat. Many forget that when Bush was in power he often ignored the Democratic majority in Congress and did as he pleased, arguing that anyone who disagreed with him was simply "playing politics." The results of this general stance are hard to argue with -- unless you actually care about our debt, the income gap, adventurous militarism, secrecy, the constitution or the future of the country. 

For one party to argue that it seeks absolute power over decision-making means that there would be only one idea that dominated American democracy. And that idea is too often anti-democratic beyond the very idea of one idea (which itself is completely antithetical to democracy -- or the will of the people: particularly when less than 50 percent of the country supports it). What do conservative want? To legislate our bedrooms and women's sexuality. To close the borders of America to unwanted immigrants. To create a corporate plutocracy that is accountable to no one, except maybe the politicians they will continue to pay off. They want no oversight of the economy, few social programs to help the poor, elderly, disabled or anyone else who loses in the new, increasingly harsh global economy. Greed would be the key social attribute, Christianity the only morality (beside fealty to the mythical free market) and individualism would trump community except in embrace of all forms of hatred. Science would diminish in importance, as would rationality and really "reason" of any kind. Is this really the country anyone dreams of? Do many really want to reenter the stale, homogenized, sexist and racist 50s they hold up as the nostalgic utopia? Has America completely lost it's mind?

Monday, May 07, 2012

Hope in Europe?

Results over the weekend bring hope that the neoliberal stranglehold on European political and economic life might be loosening. First, was the expected victory of Socialist party leader Francois Hollande over the increasingly racist and xenophobic neoliberal Sarkozy: CNN. While hatred of Sarkozy among the French played a large role in the election, it is also clear that they have grown weary of the worsening economic climate for the average citizen; and maybe the hatred used toward political ends (though Le Pen did garner 20% in the initial election tally). Similar news emerged from Greece, where European Union austerity measures to save a country in a serious debt crisis (which arguably is not all of their own making, but heavily complemented by questionable Morgan Stanley practices) have led to massive unemployment (22% at last check), cuts in wages, pensions and benefits and essentially a shrinking economy. The main center-right party, which marginally won the election (with 18% of the votes in parliament), was unable to establish a coalition government and have now left that task to the leftist Syriza coalition, who have three days to accomplish the feat (CNN). 

While these are only two incidents in a continent that has moved considerably to the right in the past two decades, general discontent with their shift away from social democracy is palpable. This is clearly true in England, where Cameron is instituting his own severe austerity measures with little popular support, and was rebuffed in midterm elections, in Italy, where in local elections the left and protest groups did well and even in Germany, where Merkel was rebuffed in state elections. Spain also appears to be suffering from increasing discontent as the conservative party they elected has done little to stem the tide of economic collapse and crisis. 

In America, the attempt to unseat Scott Walker together with a continue push to keep the Occupy Wall Street fervor alive could be telling indicators of where we are headed as a country, though the push to solidify anti-gay-marriage, anti-immigrant and anti-woman legislation across the country certainly bodes poorly for any notion that we are really moving in a progressive direction. The election this year should tell us whether Americans finally believe that government could do them some good or continue to abide the lie that the market and the noblesse oblige of the wealthy is the only answer to our economic plight. Of course, other factors could play a huge role including the fear and hatred saturated campaign we can expect the Republican party to run, particularly as they have endless corporate cash at their disposals.

The reality of the world today is those economies that are doing best tend to have strong central governments that contribute to economic prosperity and equality of educational outcome. We see this in Sweden, Norway and Finland (three of the few remaining "social democracies" of Europe), in China and South Korea (where the government subsidizes key industries, funds education at high levels and erects barriers to imports) and in the other BRIC countries (Brazil, India and Russia -- where corrupt governments undermine any notion of "free" markets). In a different way, one can make similar arguments about Germany, where labor continues to have considerable decision-making power, there is relative parity in wages across the country and where manufacturing continues to persist (unlike the rest of the West where it has essentially been exported). In any case, the neoliberal argument continues to persuade millions that government is bad and markets good -- even as the reality that surrounds them contradicts this absurdity at every turn. Could the people be waking up from the less-than-noble lie?

Sunday, May 06, 2012

With a Little Help from Your Enemies ...

Coming into play today, it looked like Arsenal would fall out of the all-important third spot that meant Champions League football next year no matter what happens with Chelsea in this years final. But Tottenham could only muster a 1-1 draw against an Aston Villa team that teeters on the edge of the drop zone. And in form Newcastle found themselves facing a team that was vying for an unlikely title and lost to Man City 2-0. So Arsenal stays in third and a win over West Brom on the road next week guarantees we will stay there. It has been a rocky campaign of ups and downs but one hopes they show up for this essential last game and finish the job.

A few thoughts going into the season ending Sunday. 

1. Goalkeepers really matter, as was shown most clearly in the FA Cup final, with Reina having a very average game and Cech somehow pulling the ball from the edge of going in and saving the game. I believe the horrible Valdez has cost Barca dearly this year while Casillas has helped Madrid win their first title under Mourinho. The first Norwich goal Saturday should have never gone in while Joe Hart and De Gea have provided an endless number of key saves for the Manchesters, though Hart has been consistent all season while De Gea cost Man United points as he developed into the top keeper he appears to be at the moment. Szczesny has had a decent campaign, but he is prone to a mistake every few games and the one on Saturday could have proven crucial. He has the potential to be a great keeper but needs to work on his discipline and staying focused.

2. If RvP re-signs with the Gunners, we should thank Tottenham for continuing to choke whenever they were given the chance to regrasp a third position that seemed theirs until our comeback victory at the Emirates earlier this year. One of his comments during the Player of the Year awards should give us all pause though, as he referenced Pires in claiming he will "always be a Gunner no matter what happens." One hopes a few more signings, his families contentment in London and another year of UCL will be enough to keep him from going to Man City (who are supposedly offering up 250,000 pounds a week), Barca or Real.

3. Someone has to talk to Vermaelen about going forward too much. I have mentioned it the past two weeks, but when I watched the replay of the three goals, he was nowhere to be found on any of them. Just look at Kompany or Terry as comparison. Yes both occasionally venture forward, and obviously score important goals as did Kompany last week, but they are rarely caught back as often as Vermaelen is. Koscielny has covered for him a lot, as have Sagna and Gibbs when they are healthy, but he really needs to show more discipline and not let the defense get behind him so much. When we score 2 or 3 goals at home, we should not be losing (or even drawing), but have done so a few times this year.

4. Obviously Arteta will be back next year and so, hopefully, will Wilshire. But we clearly need a central midfielder that is creative off the bench and I am completely unconvinced by Ramsey. He has had first team action for most of the year, and has failed to impress over and over again. Maybe the summer break will give him the time to get back to the player he used to be, but he too frequently gives up the ball, has not shown the creative flair of the beginning of the season for far too long, and only occasionally shows the energy we need. And even as he has a nice shot, he is not scoring goals for us. 

5. After looking like a team with a lot more spine, the Gunners have again had a late year flail that makes one wonder if Wenger is not doing enough to motivate his players. We have been out of all the competitions for almost two months and yet have started lethargic on far too many occasions in the past month. Against Wigan, we gave up two early goals. Against Norwich, two early goals. Against Chelsea, we should have been up and running away with it by halftime, but had a really average performance. Something clearly needs to change, and one hopes that the new assistant (Pat Rice is retiring) is someone that can pump the lads up for the big games.

In any case, one week to go in the season, and against the odds the Gunners need a win on the road to sew up an average but somewhat satisfying campaign. If they lose or draw, I hope they fall all the way to fifth and lose RvP. The team needs to show they can win a game against a team they should beat when it matters most. Let's hope they do ... 

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Gunners Choke Again

Arsenal looked poised to sew up third place a few weeks ago. Then there was a shock defeat to QPR, a loss to Wigan, draws with a seriously depleted Chelsea side and Stoke. With two games left, however, our destiny was still in our hands. No longer. After pulling back from 2-1 down to take a 3-2 lead less than seven minutes from full time, the Gunners gave one back and now have to root for Man City and Aston Villa. It was an impressive game at times, but our defensive breakdowns could very well have just cost us Champions League football next year.

We started slow and lethargic, as we have in far too many games of late, even as Benayoun put us on the board early with a lovely goal. But defensive lapses soon found us behind. The first was terrible defending, but really has to fall on bizarre goalkeeping by Szczezny, who let it dribble past him on a rather weak shot right at him. The second was a bit of bad luck, as the ball careened off Gibbs foot and over Szczezny, but was set up by the defenders not getting back again. The rest of the first half, we looked average at best, with a particularly poor game for Ramsey yet again not helping things. The second half started brightly, though we missed a number of chances. Then RVP got hot and scored two within a few minutes to give us the lead and one would think the points. But rather than sit back and play on the counter, the team inexplicably let the ball past them and the equalizer followed. Tactically, it was a nightmare and continues what I consider a drop in form from Vermaelen, who seems more interested in playing as a forward then ensuring the defense is solid. Koscielny might have saved a couple and one has to wonder why a penalty wasn't given at the end of the game when the defender careened into RvP from behind, right as he was about to put the ball into an open net. 

But it was one of several clear opportunities that went wanting for RvP and the Gunners. Yes he had a brace and we scored three goals, but we could have easily had six. As he found himself one on one with the Norwich goalkeeper, he sent it right at him and then Chamakh missed a header by a hair that would have given us the points. RvP had another chance and Koscielny could have given us the points with a header, but as the whistle blew twice, the team must have realized they had blown another huge game that was ours for the taking. 

The reality tonight is that after all the good work we put in to get back into third we could easily find ourselves out in the cold, if Newcastle and Tottenham win their final two games, or even if Newcastle doesn't and Chelsea wins the Champions League final, to add to the FA Cup they won 2-1 today (as Liverpool's late charge fell a goal short). One would think if that happens then RVP will leave and it will be harder to sign players like Vertoenghen and M'villa. This loss could, in fact, be the beginning of the end for Wenger and the start of a rebuilding process that could mean a much longer silverware drought. For much of the year, Arsenal impressed me with their will to win and series of late comebacks. But something changed when they didn't quite pull out the comeback against AC Milan and we are again mired in an end of year drop in form. Yes we have had injury after injury, and have learned just how important Arteta is to the club this year, but a team that can't see out the last 10 minutes (with stoppage time) of a game at home that all but guarantees the UCL for next year maybe deserves to find themselves out in the hinterland. Let's hope Bayern Munich keep to the dream script and win the final at home (it should be noted Chelsea will be without four starters including John Terry) and that Newcastle loses at home to Man City tomorrow -- which I would have been rooting for anyway. But it has certainly been a disappointing runin for a team that a few short weeks ago looked like one of the best in the league.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Bush 3.0?

One would think the last thing a candidate running for President would do is remind the country of the failed Bush presidency. Au contraire, mon ami! Apparently, Mitt Romney doesn't just want to re-institute the Bush tax and spending cuts, deregulation and business-friendly policies but seems poised to continue the failed foreign policy of our ex-Monkey in Chief as well. To that end, he is assembling a team of Bush Neocon flunkies, who must be surprised to be getting a call from anyone except the defense industry: Salon. Yes, Richard Grenell is gone after it became clear that he was .... well .... gay. But Michael Chertoff (of Homeland Security and Katrina infamy) is back, Iraq War supporter Eliot Cohen is here, Cofer Black (fired chief of Blackwater, who bribed Iraqi officials) is hanging around and ex-Assistant Secretary of Defense Mary Beth Long, who oversaw Iraq and Afghanistan, is co-chairing one of the 13 working groups currently formulating Romney's foreign policy stances -- though one assumes he will need a whole army of copyeditors as he changes his stance as polls change.

Gingrich has finally quit, so it's Romney or Obama now. One should expect one of the ugliest elections in history, with Romney lying, rewriting history and his record and changing his mind from one microphone to the next. The political ads will be nasty, the rhetoric boiling with covert racism, xenophobia and homophobia and history rewritten to create a tale of a non-citizen, socialist Hitler wannabe President that is to blame for the economic crisis, meager increase in CEO salaries the past three years (only rose 15% in 2011) and, hell, the loss of the Vietnam war as well. Along the way, we will here that Romney is a moderate, I mean conservative, I mean Bush supporter, I mean nothing like Bush, oh, whatever you want me to be. Is that really what we want in a President? Actually, is that really what we want in a human being? We shall see ...

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Public Intellectuals for Hire

Corporations have long used intellectuals to help improve their technology, learn the psychology of consumers and consumption, improve their advertising and marketing techniques and, essentially, increase productivity and profits. A more recent trend has been the use of intellectuals in the public arena to legitimate their practices or challenge scientific and ethical claims that can undermine their bottom line. Exxon Mobile funds anti-global-warming research, the tobacco companies once set up an entire institute to tell the public what they knew wasn't true, chemical companies engaged in similar practices and the auto industry attempted to fight Ralph Nader's successful push for increased car safety. More recently, corporations have teamed up with media and publishers to sell the public seemingly "common sense" arguments that support their interests and alter the public debate.

Among the most prominent are Malcolm Gladwell, who uses pseudo-science to celebrate the achievements of corporations and their marketing successes, Thomas Friedman who makes millions providing a one-sided perspective on globalization that elides all the losers and the entire Fox News team, who provide a perspective that is decidedly pro-business and pro-capitalism. Universities have also long fallen prey to the allure of corporate money in their research. the latest example of this trend may be a book from two years ago that is still garnering considerable consternation among those critiquing the food and farming industries, Food Politics: What Everybody Needs to Know by Robert Paarlberg. The book is described by one critic thusly, ""The author is an academic, not a journalist, and his efforts to get the food facts right ring through every page. Paarlberg challenges many of the ideas that are frequently voiced - but rarely questioned - in popular food discourse...Although many of his claims call into question sacrosanct principles in activist and academic circles, there are good reasons to hear Paarlberg out; he backs up his arguments with data, and writes based on decades of experience as a political scientist and policy analyst working in the field." (Amazon).

So what's the problem? Aren't polemics an important part of the public sphere? Certainly. But there are two very valid critiques of the book. First, he has no citations, so you can't actually check his data or facts. This is a serious shortfall and one wonders why a respected academic would suddenly turn away from noting his references and source (de rigeur in academia). The second problem, and what people really "need to know," is that he is a paid consultant for Monsanto, the agricultural giant that will benefit greatly from those who are swayed by the book's central point. This is where the line between corporate interest and individual scholarship becomes most troubling. Again, one can write a book making an argument from one perspective without necessarily doing extensive research. People do it all the time. But when a respected academic writes a book that includes "facts" and "common sense" arguments he is bringing the imprimatur of his experience, the publisher (Oxford Press) and his university to bear. So arguments that in fact support the continuation of the status quo sound like objective critiques of extant research on the topic. 

Thus the public is bamboozled and the critiques of the food industry (who include all the people starving in the third world because of food subsidies in the U.S. and Europe) are left out in the cold. This practice has existed as long as corporations have been around (that is a big part of the job public relations does), but it is troubling to think top academics are essentially on the take, available to offer their respected opinions to the highest bidder. It's like a collective of less charismatic Larry "Lonesome" Rhoads, shucking the public for fun and profits, though with no camera to catch them in the act.