January 2012

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Property and OWS

Property is sacred in America, except when you don't have a house of your own surrounding it.

At about 4 a.m. on the night of the eviction, when people arrested in Zuccotti Park itself began to arrive at the holding cell at Police Plaza, we started to hear stories of tents being torn down, contents scattered or thrown into dumpsters. Some press photographs I saw the next day confirmed the extensive destruction of personal property, while the majority of outlets reported the official story, that the cops had inventoried all property and taken it to a warehouse at Sanitation, where it could be reclaimed, with proof of ownership. (I have no proof of ownership of almost anything in my apartment, including my cookware, small appliances, electronic devices or books.) In the time since, I have spoken to occupiers who lost everything that night, including their computers. The librarians later held a press conference, in which they displayed hundreds of destroyed books they retrieved from the dumpsters. This morning, Occupy San Francisco is reporting that their tents and property were thrown by the cops into compactor trucks. I remember the Tompkins Square occupation many years ago, in which the police bulldozed the tents of the homeless, with all their stuff inside. Apparently anyone living in a tent has no rights the police are bound to respect.

The Wikileaks truck

Most of the fascinating stories to come out of OWS have gone completely unreported. I had previously mentioned seeing a white truck with the Wikileaks logo on the side. It appears to belong to a zealous, self appointed volunteer, who used it to transport donated materials to OWS. It was seized the night of the eviction, and remarkably for a day or two after, the cops lost it--they were unable or unwilling to tell the owner where it was. When it finally turned up, it had parking tickets on it from several places the cops had parked it in the intervening days. But, according to the owner, a sympathetic judge who said "You are doing good work" dismissed those tickets.

Congressional insider trading

It has always been evident, if a bit mysterious, that people leave politics much richer than when they entered. One explanation now forthcoming: Congresscritters routinely trade on inside information about companies they obtain in hearings and investigations. And they have never passed any laws barring this behavior. With their 9% approval rating, they are moving, still not too hastily, towards doing so now.

There is of course no moral difference between a stock broker trading on inside info and a Congressperson doing so. In fact, you can argue its far more egregious when a politician does it, because they have subpoena power to compel disclosure of the information they illegitimately use, while ordinary Wall Street criminals tend to leverage tips they picked up from friends or at the water cooler.

Laws for billionaires

I have pondered in several columns the fact that almost nobody has been indicted for crashing the economy in 2008. Specifically, there is no mystery about the names and activities of the people who bundled bad mortgages into crappy securities, sold them to clients, and then bet against them using collateralized debt obligations. Now, it emerges that these cases are difficult of prosecution, as fraudulent as they seem on their face, because the banks were careful enough to include some disclaimer language about risk in their prospectuses. The purchasers were of course sophisticated investors, not 90 year old widows from small towns.

All of this fudges the profoundly important issue that the people who have suffered the most pain as a result of these speculations, the homeowners who were evicted and more broadly the rest of us who are facing rising prices and unemployment, were not parties to these transactions and never consented to them.

This raises five-mile-high issues of consummate importance. Without stronger government and appropriate laws, we give private individuals the ability to crash the world economy. The worldwide ripple effects are visible everywhere--Greek retirees who are being asked to pay a real estate tax as part of their light bill which exceeds one month's rent on their apartments; starving horses released on Irish moorland; American municipalities filing for bankruptcy; and of course millions of empty homes decaying everywhere. Much of the daily rhetoric uttered by the right makes this our fault, or an act of God, and asks that we make acts of sacrifice, tighten our belts, retire later, forego our pensions, work harder for lower salaries, to help our governments repair the damage. All of which goes far to conceal the fact that we are in this mess as a result of a bizarre and immoral (regardless of whether illegal) gamble by the billionaires and wannabes. While some of them immolated themselves, others made a substantial amount of money; and none of them (except for a very few who stepped over a greater line, such as outright mortgage fraud or Ponzi schemes) have been punished.

It also is necessary to think about the moral values of a financial world in which mortgages (and the homeowners) could be bought and sold like so many pieces of inert paper, the result of all the greed and frenetic lightning fast activity being that the banks often don't know what they own, or how they obtained it; but, when the smoke clears, while the banks play with their paper, real humans are being evicted from houses in epidemic numbers nationwide.


Nine percent approval rating, and the Republicans still can't stop filibustering: the president's highly qualified Medicare boss is leaving, a temporary recess appointee never confirmed; intelligent and highly respected judicial nominees can't get confirmation; there is no prospect of Congress approving anyone to run the new financial consumer protection agency. The Republican message: give us the Presidency and filibuster-proof majorities in both houses, and we will allow government to happen. The ultimate irony is knowing that they have hopped the track so far, have such terrible values and so much vanity and self delusion, that we have no reason to believe that even if the Republicans did govern by an unshakeable majority, they would get any real business done. This is a procedural doubt; I am not even getting into the issue of the moral or practical effect of any legislation they did pass. The Republican approach today is reminiscent of a famous National Lampoon cover: "If you do not buy this magazine, we will shoot this dog."

In fairness, when the Democrats had majorities everywhere a couple years back, they didn't govern either, though the reasons were somewhat different: they were craven and terrified of the Republican minority. The Republicans in power won't be scared of Democrats, but will probably be busy fighting each other: the pragmatists against the Tea Party element.

The most important choice we are facing as a democracy, and the primal issue of OWS, is whether to re-impose some laws on the billionaires in our society, that will protect the rest of us from their gambles and depradations.

Republican blithering

Republican candidates who cannot formulate a comprehensible English sentence, like Rick Perry, or who have no clue as to important domestic and policy issues, like Perry, Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain, are so epidemic that it leads me to wonder what the explanaton could possibly be. Can there really be so few people in American life who can talk somewhat intelligently about U.S. intervention in Libya, etc.?

Maybe these candidates have come far enough in politics to be somewhat credible as presidential candidates because they sound intelligent speaking a special vocabulary--that of interests instead of issues, of money instead of ideas.

By analogy, the boss of a crime family might sound like a confused novice discussing Medicare, but shrewd and effective talking about whom to wack, vigorish, and the like.

Here's another theory, not inconsistent with the first: Perhaps the Republicans are being done in by their American exceptionalism. the same way that, in their world view, we can be fat, lazy, reactive, clueless, uneducated and still be the greatest people on earth, Perry probably assumed he was presidency-worthy because he was Rick Perry. Even though he can't speak, remember a fact or hold an idea in his head.


I was on the verge of buying a Kindle Fire, the new $199 tablet from Amazon. I still might; as I have described here, I am miserably unhappy with my HP Mini netbook, and I believe tablets will replace laptops within a few years as our writing, surfing and email devices of choice. I am already used to the touchscreen on my phone, so why not try a bigger, more convenient one on a tablet?

I almost forgot two rules of mine. One is practical: never buy the first instantiation of a new technology. The Fire, which has been available only a few weeks, is receiving some withering technology and design criticism, so perhaps I should wait for the second or third iteration.

More importantly, I almost failed to make a moral inquiry about the machine and the company behind it--something we don't always think to do in purchasing what is essentially an appliance. However, I learned, in conversation with someone who had just received a Fire as a Hanukah gift, that, despite running Google's Android operating system, you cannot read Google books on a Kindle.

In the short time I have owned my Droid X phone, I have used the Google E-reader to download and enjoy several public domain books ("The Good Soldier", "Anne of Green Gables", "The Confidence Man"). Google E-books will become unavailable to me on the Fire (or any of the lesser Kindle e-readers) and if I want a particular book, I will be forced to buy the commercially available version from Amazon (unless Amazon also, in its tender mercy, offers a free version). That gets me thinking that Amazon, a company which professes to love reading and readers, has a lot of nerve releasing devices that exclude the great majority of available works because they are not in Amazon's proprietary format. Nobody, in fact, at this late date, can ethically design devices that deliberately fail to interoperate when it comes to media as fundamentally important, and as simple, as books.

That made me realize that Amazon's behavior, in fact, sounds like a massive antitrust violation: the dumping of one product, the Fire itself, into the market at below cost, to eliminate competitors; the tying of two unlike products to each other (the Fire is "tied" to books appearing only in Amazon format, which cannot be read on any other device).

Is the Department of Justice too baffled or cowed, or have its funds been cut too much, to go after Amazon's attempted monopolies of e-readers, of books, and of tablet devices?

Cruelty and certainty

The perfect Republican presidential candidate would be very cruel and very sure of himself. The same characteristics which have fueled Rush Limbaugh's popularity have been claimed by a variety of candidates, particularly Newt Gingrich; Mitt Romney is being shot at, by his own party, for not being cruel or certain enough. When you strip away these two characteristics, in which he abounds, Newt, a small, corrupt man whose hypocrisy shines darkly out of his face, has no presidential qualities whatever.

James Murdoch

Speaking of tiny people, Murdoch's latest weak explanation, that he didn't read the whole email thread when his employees wrote to him about hacking at "News of the World", conclusively establishes that the man is morally microscopic. Yet he stands to inherit his father's billions, establishing that profoundly mediocre people, whom we would otherwise laugh at and forget a day later, can wield tremendous, dangerous and secretive power because of their money.

Americans on immigration detainer

It has apparently become quite a common phenomenon for authorities (in president Obama's nationwide campaign to enlist local law enforcement assistance for deportations) to "accidentally" hold the American born and the naturalized In prison for days at a time--if they look foreign. This is one of those blunders that is not marginal or correctible, but which goes to the fundamentals of the kind of country we desire to be: a democracy or a police state.

Jury Nullification

Julian Heicklen, an old man who stood outside the New York federal courthouse every day handing out leaflets to potential jurors, is being prosecuted for jury tampering. This is one of those egregious and extreme manifestations of government over-reaching that should be inspiring shock and astonishment nationwide, if people were really paying attention. Tampering is the act of trying to affect a particular jury, by threats or bribes. Heicklen, by contrast, was standing on a public sidewalk giving leaflets to people who might or might not be prospective jurors, a classic use of First Amendment rights. While the First Amendment protects lies and paranoid ravings, Heicklen also happened to be telling people the truth, which is one of the best kept secrets in the courthouse: that the the jurors are the kings and queens of a criminal trial, and can vote their consciences regardless of the desires of the prosecutor or the instructions of the judge. Heicklen should be acquitted; all he did was stand on a streetcorner and tell that truth.


Newt Gingrich, who was an obsession of mine when he was speaker--I wrote many lead essays about him at the time--is back, more corrupt than ever. His latest kick is to undercut American democracy by removing and threatening judges who vote for results with which he does not personally agree. There are a lot of good reasons he should not be president, but his desire to be an all powerful executive unchecked by a strong judiciary is a major one.

Its basically a design for a dictatorship. And he's the man to bring it. His gross amorality, his manipulation, his willingness to demonize others, his grandiosity, his crusade against Muslims on the absurd grounds that Shariah law threatens this country, his greed and avidity for power and money; all of these are gross indicators of a dangerous man who should never be allowed anywhere near the Presidency.


We've been out a few days,and the putative democracy is already beginning to dissolve in sectarian violence. We should never have gone there, but once we were there, there wasn't any honest way to leave. So we did what we always do: declared victory and got out, and damn the consequences.

China and Russia

In Russia, unprecedented demonstrations are being held by middle class young people protesting electoral fraud and Putin's machinations. In China, a village just occupied itself, driving out the administration and police, to protest the seizure of farm land for luxury home construction. There is something in the wind worldwide, that started in Tahrir, in fact in Tienamen all those years ago, and spread to Zuccotti and now Red Square. I am hopeful and enjoying the worldwide spectacle (and doing whatever I can in my small way to help).


The front page of the Times for December 27 had an unusual number of stories worth mentioning here. A study of concealed carry permits in North Carolina, one of the few states where permit holders' names are a matter of public record, reveals numerous cases of permit holders shooting people, shooting at people, threatening others with weapons, and discharging their guns inappropriately. The piece also discusses numerous cases in which convicted criminals did not have their permits revoked; nobody seems to be seriously on the job anywhere, taking guns away from felons. Wat we have is a purely rotten situation, in which the gunsellers, a very specialized subset of the 1%, have used their wealth to buy or intimidate the legislative and executive branches, while flaunting as cover a Constitutional provision that by no stretch of the imagination demands concealed carry for felons, or the sale of extended magazines like the one Jared Loughner used, or the prohibition of taggants, or the absence of background checks at gun shows, or any of the other grievous public policy choices the NRA has supported. The final irony: that the small government crowd approves of very big government imposing its mindset everywhere, as Congress did in over-ruling the District of Columbia gun laws.

The paper also analyzed the increasing wealth of Congresscritters, growing vastly even in the lean years since 2008, faster than the rest of the 1%. Sweetheart financial deals, vagueness about the use of campaign contributions, a lack of laws prohibiting insider trading by politicians, and, I am sure, great waves of undiscovered bribery, all ensure that people elected to office with modest wealth, leave with millions. Our elected representatives are increasingly not accountable to we who elect them, but they also now form part of an American class that has little personal knowledge of, or interest in, the travails of the 99%. Something radical must happen now, to restore American democracy as the founders understood it, which was based on a large and vibrant middle class and an American dream of opportunity.

Finally, there is the highly disturbing story of the bird flu virus which scientists effectively weaponized by making it airborne. Here's a stat which left me dumbstruck: the 1919 flu pandemic killed about 2% of its victims. The bird flu kills about half. Creating an airborne mutation is the purest example in a long time of science with ethics suspended, of science gone mad: why would you create something so virulent you must now guard it for the rest of time--the rest of human history--and never make a single mistake? Not one drop of it can ever be accidentally spilled. Ever. Any possible benefit, supposedly of being able to predict dangerous mutations, is far outweighed by the risk.