Archive for April, 2009

What’s Going Down?

April 30, 2009

A bank is paying demolition crews to tear down brand new McMansions in Victorville, California, a far-flung San Bernardino suburb about 80 miles outside Los Angeles.  According to Vision Victory Channel, which has posted a series of YouTube clips with footage of the demolitions, the developer couldn’t sell the properties and defaulted on the loans. Once the bank foreclosed, it started getting slapped with fines for code violations, since it now owned these properties.

The bank must have done an analysis and determined that the houses were more of a liability than an asset, so it made sense for their bottom line to simply tear down the houses and avoid the fines. Instead of trying to unload the development on another builder who could at least bring the houses up to code, the bank realized they would take less of a hit if they tore everything down.

You can’t extrapolate the state of the nation’s housing market just by what’s happening in a desert suburb of Southern California, but it would seem to be a troublesome indicator of how confident banks are about property values bouncing back any time soon.

…And speaking of confidence, remember a few months back when Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner laid out a pretty vague roadmap for how they were going to handle the economic crisis? A big part of that plan involved performing “stress tests” on major banks to figure out which ones are solvent and likely to avoid bankruptcy if the economy doesn’t somehow recover in the next two years.

Well, according to a new article from Reuters, the stress-testers are now trying really hard to figure out how to break the bad news to the rest of us. Here’s a preview:

“U.S. officials have still not yet decided how to disclose the results of the bank “stress tests,” but a lack of detail in the release could disappoint markets, a top bank regulator said on Wednesday.

John Bowman, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, said officials are working around the clock to figure out how to provide transparency about the results without causing a large disruption in the markets.”

Unfortunately, there’s no good solution for how to release the stress test results. If they open up the books, we’ll all see how screwed the banks are and the market will drop faster than Elliot Spitzer’s pants at The Emperor’s Club. If they try to muddy the waters by releasing the results un-transparently, the market will see right through the charade and have a similar reaction.

Since Geithner first announced this plan, the number of economists skeptical that it would sufficiently address the systemic rot in the banking and finance industries has grown and grown. These economists’ consensus is that the U.S. government will have to make much more painful decisions to rescue the banks from the ocean of toxic assets that they seem to be drowning in. If the results come out next week, as the article indicates, Monday might be the first day of real reckoning on that front…

The videos below illustrate a shocking waste of resources. They represent a paradox that capitalism somehow makes logical. But they also might capture something else: a preview of the very near future.

Fear and Gardening in the USA

April 24, 2009

survivalseeds1

Could the emerging trend of conservative survivalism provide fertile ground for dialogue?

Scanning The Savage Nation Web site, the online home of far right talk show host Michael Savage, I noticed a picture that seemed strangely out of place nestled amongst the Drudge-on-steroids headlines.  This cheery photo featured a smiling farmer, squatting proudly next to a wooden bushel overflowing with plump, red tomatoes. Upon noticing the text accompanying the photo, my confusion vanished. “New survival seed bank lets you plant a full-acre crisis garden,” the ad promised. “Provides enough seed to feed friends and family for years to come in the event of a crisis or meltdown…”

The unifying theme that anchors the many incoherent ramblings of Michael Savage – and most other conservative pundits, for that matter – is fear. The message of the Survival Seed Bank ad with the happy farmer and his bounty of tomatoes struck right to the core of this fear.

Clicking the link, I was misdirected to the site “foodshortageusa.com.”  This simple Web page is formatted to look like an urgent news dispatch, even featuring a headshot of the author, “Consumer Reporter” Mike Walters and the mysterious time stamp “Thursday, 8:37 a.m.” beneath the headline “Why almost everyone is wrong about how to survive any food shortage or crisis!”

When I took a job as a marketing assistant a few years back, my new boss told me on the very first day that “greed and fear are the two qualities that motivate people to action more than any other emotions – always remember that.” The marketing team behind “foodshortageusa.com,” clearly subscribes to this school of thought. Nobody in their right mind would spend $40 on what this site is actually selling: an instructional DVD two-pack on how to can and jar food. Just go to the library, a different Web site, or ask most grandmas if you want to get this information for free. However, promoting a “new food storage system” with DVDs that hold invaluable, possibly even life-saving, “Food Storage Secrets” necessary to survive the nation’s impending collapse to paranoid, right-wingers exemplifies a marketing campaign that understands its target customer base.

Beneath the first few fear-mongering paragraphs, an ominous photo of riot cops with the word “Policia” across their backs is accompanied by the caption “Will Canadian Troops be guarding U.S. food supplies this winter?” This bizarre query is neither contextualized nor elaborated upon within the main “article.” Who has time to worry about Spanish-speaking Canadian riot cops when we’re facing “the very real possibility of empty shelves during the first year of the new administration”?

Just in case you’re not sold by the promise of learning how to preserve 39(!) different kinds of meats, the site also links to several more “articles” underscoring the need for Food Storage Secrets by explaining that if you don’t have the inside tips on must-have skills like hiding your food stash from your neighbors, you’re practically begging for your family to die of starvation. Not wanting to offend the generous Christian sensibilities of their primary target audience, many of whom would likely be discomforted by the thought of letting their neighbors perish in the upcoming famine, Food Shortage Secrets offers the following anecdote to justify this troubling lapse into moral relativism: “In the depression some spoke of having a small dog that would go through culverts and flush out rabbits while the large dog at the other end dispatched the rabbit as it ran out. Sporting? Perhaps not…but if it comes to eating or not, how ethical will you be after not eating for 4 days?”

Impressed by the emotional imagery of sales pitch, I decided to track down my originally intended destination, “suvivalseedbank.com,” to see if the agrarian solution to the food crisis was being sold as vehemently as the canning DVDs. It may be hard to believe that an advertisement for seeds could make apocalyptic visions of rodent hunting seem tame in comparison, but the pitch for survival seeds is framed in such starkly dystopian terms that it made sharing rabbit meat with a large dog sound like a Sunday picnic.

“You don’t have to be an Old Testament prophet to see what’s going on all around us,” the site warns, with a knowing wink. “A belligerent lower class demanding handouts. A rapidly diminishing middle class crippled by police state bureaucracy. An aloof, ruling elite that has introduced us to an emerging totalitarianism which seeks control over every aspect of our lives.”  Soon, things will really start to go downhill, leading to the inevitable question: “Could you and your family get off the grid and survive in a panic?”

The solution is survival seeds, of course, but just like Jack and Beanstalk, these are no regular seeds. They have been “grown in remote plots, far from the prying eyes of the big hybrid seed companies… by small, fiercely independent farmers” and some of these seeds are even “up to five times as nutritious as hybrid varieties.” Once you harness the power of these explicitly non-GMO seeds “you’ll have confidence knowing that you and your family will be able to eat if the Insiders trigger some huge meltdown.” And, just in case this looming food system collapse/totalitarian coup has you feeling a bit paranoid, the site offers the comforting advice that your “Indestructible Survival Seed Bank Can Be Buried To Avoid Confiscation.”

As someone with politics of the far left persuasion, I initially found this apparently emerging trend of conservative survivalism sort of frightening, but mostly amusing. I don’t think the economy is suddenly going to go “back to normal” (nor would I want it to), but I don’t think supermarkets are months away from collapse either and I sure don’t consider spending $129 on a tube of seeds that could be found at any gardening supply store for a fraction of the cost to be a wise investment (“no discounts, even to FEMA or military personnel”).

However, as I reviewed the urgent, emotional messages being employed by the purveyors of Food Storage Secrets and Survival Seed Bank, I was struck by how many of these arguments, removed from their ideological setting, would resonate equally well with, well, people like me. The motivation to purchase these items is very intentionally driven by the fear of a bleak future and a deep skepticism that the government, mainstream media or big corporations would be our allies if the shit goes down, but the real promise here – the end goal – is empowerment. That premium on self-sustainability – it’s long been a core value of both extremes on the political spectrum. Is it a good thing that it seems to be raising its profile among more moderate citizens, as well? I haven’t done the research, but it seems safe to assume that we’ll see more and more people planting gardens and doing things like sewing old clothes back together instead of shopping for new ones and generally finding more creative and sustainable ways to be self-reliant.

Over the past few years, we’ve all seen how Hurricane Katrina illustrated the ineptitude of a government response to even a relatively minor crisis (and that was before the bubble popped).  The media failed miserably to warn us of the financial meltdown. It could go without saying that anger and cynicism towards the captains of industry is drastically more intense now than any other time in recent history. These are the facts where many on the right and left can find common ground. Could gardening provide another mutually agreeable topic? Is this fertile territory for breaking out of our comfort zones, at least temporarily, to discuss these issues instead of remaining firmly entrenched in our ideological bomb shelters? Perhaps. Just don’t ask those conservatives to share their food, especially if they’re eating rabbit.

[Note: The SuvivalSeedBank Web site has been updated since I wrote this a few days ago.]

Go Back to your Hole,You Crazy Ol’ Dick!

April 23, 2009

What a Dick!

In the last week or so, Dick Cheney has slithered out from the rock he ususally hides under to slam Obama repeately in the media. Cheney has criticized Obama’s economic strategy, his national defense policies and he even “told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity that President Obama’s handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ‘was not helpful’ and could lead ‘foes’ of the U.S. to ‘think they’re dealing with a weak president.'” (via Politico).

Gotta wonder what Cheney would have wanted Obama to do upon meeting Chavez… punch him in the face? Challenge him to a duel?

Anyway, these comments are pretty bold words from a guy who spent the last 8 years demolishing our economy, the constitution and his own party’s reputation. At this point, Cheney’s views on anything seem about as legit at financial tips from Bernie Madoff or dieting advice from Rush Limbaugh.

ObL Spotted in the Mission

April 18, 2009
Where You At?

Where You At?

This stencil just went up a block from my spot at 15th and Mission the other day.  Most stencils in the Mission are inside jokes clearly aimed at other artists (“Beat the Buff”) or total clichés along the lines of “Die Yuppie Scum,” so it’s good to see something more original making an appearance. The SF Print Collective has been one of the few groups keeping a steady stream of subversive art on the walls and bus shelters of the Mission over the last decade, but I haven’t seen anything new from them since the Dignity mural (below) that they did for the Clarion Alley Project last year, so it’s good to see other artists stepping up with quality street propaganda.

dignity-dignidad-mural

I really like this “Missing Osama” stencil, because it’s such a stark reminder of how pathetically Bush’s “War on Terror” failed on so many levels. To be fair, there were no major terrorist attacks on the United States after 9/11 (although I’m not even going to scratch the surface on the unconstitutional rampage of wire-tapping and torture that Bush went on to “keep us safe”). But the primary goal of W’s foreign policy — to strengthen pro-Western governments and allies in the Middle East while delegitimatizing Islamic fundamentalist forces — actually resulted in the exact opposite of it’s intended effect. From Egypt to Pakistan and even in Saudi Arabia, governments friendly to the U.S. have been destabilized by U.S. incursions into the region and reacted by (trying to) crack down even harder on internal opposition groups, which have been using everything from Facebook to RPGs to strengthen their movements. Iran is closer to getting nukes every day, Hamas still holds power in Gaza and after nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan, the Taliban has re-emerged as a major military and political force.

These situations are really complex and confusing. For example, I’m totally opposed this ongoing drone bombing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, which has seemingly been killing just as many civilians as “terrorists” lately, but seeing the recent headlines about hardliners passing laws to legalize rape in Afghanistan is equally troubling. It feels like there’s no “good side” to choose in this conflict.

But getting back to the Osama stencil, this simple image captures the essence of the utter failure of the Bush’s War on Terror. Despite all the huffing and puffing and blowing all lot of other people’s houses down, Bush never took down the biggest “evildoer” of them all, the global face of extremist jihad, the man who was transformed from regular ol’ terrorist to Islamic super-villian during the fall of 2001. In a shattering rebuke to the myth of U.S. omnipotence, Bin Laden is still out there, telling everyone to study the vile history of recent U.S. military interventions and calling for violent resistance to Western powers. This is an important fact to remember and I’m glad that there are artists in my neighborhood doing their part to remind us of this discomforting reality.

Drunk on Power… and Booze

April 17, 2009

drunk_cop

We’ve all had to deal with cops who are way too amped up on their own swagger. Maybe you rolled through a stop sign at a desolate intersection or maybe you were minding your business, just puffing a spliff in a park on beautiful day, and then all of the sudden you find yourself accosted by a po-po eager to remind you how much power he has. Staring into the reflective sunglasses of a guy with a gun, smiling at you with a grin that makes it clear that he’s fantasizing about doing something really, really bad to you is one of the scariest situations you can find yourself in. But you know what can make coming face to face with a pissed off cop even worse? When he’s drunker than Charles Bukowski at the racetrack.

According to the LA Times, “There has been a dramatic upswing in the number of Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies arrested for alcohol-related offenses in recent years, suggesting a growing drinking problem within the department.”

The article proceeds to reveal details of drunk cops puking all over the place and extremely creepy stories like this one: “In one case, a deputy followed a bar hostess to her car, flashed his badge, told her he’d ‘like to molest her’ and kissed her on the neck. He displayed his handgun before kissing her again, according to the report. The deputy pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace and was suspended for 15 days.”

Despite this flagrantly dangerous and increasingly problematic situation, the police unions have opposed attempts to crack down on this behavior, saying that it would “endanger deputies.” So let’s get this straight: the unions are saying that it will be better not to regulate drunk, armed, off-duty cops than to protect everyone else from some wasted officer who wants to, say, snatch your fajitas. That’s fuct.

In related news, police are now officially allowed to wield machetes on coke and throw darts at people while huffing nitrous balloons .

Pirates, Teabagging, Al Franken

April 15, 2009

Who ever thought we would see those words in so many headlines in a single week?

I expected the Right to flip out after losing power, but the teabag fever that’s got the FoxNation so hot and bothered truly shatters the concept of self-satire. This “movement” has branded itself with a joke that makes Beavis lighting a fart on fire seem urbane in comparison.

But how much more can the Right possibly regress. From the Reagan era through the McCain campaign, this once intellectually formidable movement has been in a downward IQ spiral that appears to have crash landed right into a giant metaphorical nutsack. Even George W. Bush sounds like a Rhodes scholar compared to Sarah Palin, yet many tea-baggers still actually hold up this dim bulb up as the guiding light of the GOP.

How could they possibly sink any lower? Who are they going to run for president in 2012? Maybe this guy…

Remember being blown away back in 2003 by the shock that the citizens of California would elect a completely unqualified actor and homeboy of former Nazis to Governor? Somehow, the level of hyperbolic discourse that passes as our “marketplace of ideas” has gotten so whacked out in the ensuing 6 years that seeing The Terminator chiding the California legislature for the economic and political gridlock that our state is locked in barely registers on the surrealness scale.

tea-bagged

Anyway, Matt Taibbi presents a great analysis of this mind-bending lunacy in his new article on Truth/Slant, “The peasant mentality lives on in America”. Here’s a link the full article and a clip that captures the blazing contradictions of unhinged teabagger prophet , Glenn Beck:

“It requires serious mental gymnastics to describe the Obama administration — particularly the Obama administration of recent weeks, which has given away billions to Wall Street and bent over backwards to avoid nationalization and pursue a policy that preserves the private for-profit status of the bailed-out banks — as a militaristic dictatorship of anti-wealth, anti-private property forces. You have to somehow explain the Geithner/Paulson decisions to hand over trillions of taxpayer dollars to the rich bankers as the formal policy expression of progressive rage against the rich. Not easy. In order to pull off this argument, in fact, you have to grease the wheels with a lot of apocalyptic language and imagery, invoking as Beck did massive pictures of Stalin and Orwell and Mussolini (side by side with shots of Geithner, Obama and Bernanke), scenes of workers storming the Winter Palace interspersed with anti-AIG protests, etc. — and then maybe you have to add a crazy new twist, like switching from complaints of “socialism” to warnings of “fascism.” Rhetorically, this is the equivalent of trying to paint a picture by hurling huge handfuls of paint at the canvas. It’s desperate, last-ditch-ish behavior.”

FAIL Brand

April 14, 2009

circuitcityfail

The goal of a successful brand is to have consumers associate a certain desired quality with that brand. BMW is luxury; Obama is hope; you get the idea. Depending on what or whom you’re trying to market, there is an endless spectrum of qualities that might be appropriate to associate your brand with, but the most successful brands focus on one quality and everything else feeds into that brand image.

Corporations spend huge chunks of their budgets building, launching and zealously protecting their brands. Sometimes these efforts are effective. A brand like Coke is so strong and popular that it has withstand decades of legitimate attacks attempting to sway the public from associating Coke with smiling polar bears and happy childhood memories to focusing on the Coca-Cola Corporation’s relationship with anti-union death squads in South America or water exploitation in India. Some brands, like Spam, AIG, or Blackwater end up so deep in the crapper that they can virtually never crawl out (In fact, Blackwater officially changed it’s name to Xe (pronounced “Zee”) and the CEO of AIG admitted to Congress a few weeks ago that that AIG name was now shredded beyond repair).

You would think that having a brand associated with bankruptcy would be bad thing, right? If you were to ask people what they think about “bankruptcy” they would probably say, “It sucks,” “Fuck that,” or “If that ever happens at my job, I’m gonna tell the boss to eat my shit on the last day of work.” Not exactly what you want people thinking about the plasma screen TV, bed sheets, or remote control can opener that you’re trying to sell them.

But the New York Times reports today that liquidators – or “asset recovery specialists,” as they prefer to be known – have actually found a booming market for brands of recently bankrupted companies, like Sharper Image, Circuit City and Linen n’ Things. The brands of these failed companies are pulling in big bucks – Systemax paid $30 million for the rights to use the CompUSA brand last year. The logic is apparently that people are more willing to trust a brand that they know (sucks) that an unknown brand and it’s cheaper to buy a failed brand than it is to build up a brand from scratch.

I just hope that someday FoxNews will go bankrupt, so I can buy their brand and use it to start marketing organic fertilizer with the tag line “FoxNews: Slightly less full of shit than before.”

Before You Celebrate The Murder of Pirates…

April 13, 2009

somali-pirates-404_675902c

Check out this great overview on the origins of the Somali pirates, “You are being lied to about pirates,” by Johann Hari.

Here’s a clip:

“In 1991, the government of Somalia collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country’s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.

Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.”