Friday, October 26, 2018

House of Trump, House of Putin, the Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia, Craig Unger

I thought of just making a list of dire bullet points for this review, there's certainly the material for it, but let's start with one rather strong statement by the author. When business was interrupted in the Duma, Russia's parliament, by the announcement of Trump's presidential victory in 2016, there was enthusiastic applause. We won was in the air. “Vladimir Putin's implementation of one of the most audacious intelligence operations in history had been successful beyond his wildest dreams.”

The book ends with a sort of coup de grace, where a quote by Trump that he had zero relationships with Russia is followed by 26 pages of sketches of the criminal/oligarchs with whom the President indeed has had questionable and profitable relations. We should keep in mind that oligarch/gangster, in Russia, are, for most purposes, synonymous. Those who opposed looting of the former Soviet Union's resources, as it transitioned from oppressive communism to gangster capitalism, were marginalized, threatened with loss of position or early death, government officials, citizens or journalists. The most ruthless rose to the top and that is who you deal with in Russia today.

In that light it is disturbing to note that, of the list the author made of Trump/Russian contacts, many lived, owned condos in or did business from Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in New York City. One of the three chieftons of the Russian Mafia, Vadim Trincher, Brighton Beach branch, operated out of there. Russians it were who typically made the early condo purchases in many Trump complexes, probably as money laudering operations. Only a few floors below Trump's penthouse, operated a sports book that laundered $100 million dollars out of the former Soviet Union, busted in 2013 by police. The operation was under the control of ringleader Alimzhan Tokhatkhounov, a high-living, world-roaming gangster, according to Unger, with a 9 million euro apartment in Paris, and four Villas in Italy, big cars, yahts etc; Mogilevich, another high ranking mafyoso, wanted by the FBI, was highly visible at Trump's Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. One might be forgiven for suspecting that those questioning Obama's birth certificate etc; aimed to discredit him rather than express actual concern about citizenship seeing as how they demonstrate indifference in the face of extremely suspicious circumstances surrounding Trump, Putin and the Oligarchs. The president's (and how hard it is to call him that) campaign manager, it is well known, was up to his neck in Russian and Ukrainian politics. His lawyer, Michael Cohen, co-owned the night club used as a sort of headquarters for Brighton Beach mobsters of both Russian and Italian descent. This book, you read it and weep.

The author claims that Putin and company have organized a very effective effort to undermine democracy in the west, sow confusion and despair, polarization and chaos. They are supporting right wing fringe groups in Western European elections, likely interfered with the Brexit vote, probably responsible for the negative outcome. Russian policies in Syria have, at least in part, the purpose of flooding Western Europe with refugees, strengthening crude nationalism and xenophobia and further undermining democracy there. Their work in/on the U.S. may have made the difference for Trump's victory. A joint study by the University at Berkley and Wales concluded that they affected as much as 3.6% of the vote in Wisconsin, enough to win it for Trump. A progressive senator also lost his come-back bid there, former Senator Russ Feingold. Another study showed that though 51% voted democrat, 60 of 99 seats went to republicans, due to gerrymandering. It's not a stretch to say that republicans are working, if not hand in hand, in parallel to, Russian gangsters, to undermine democracy in the United States and promote greed and selfishness. These are the very scoundrels who are the first to crow about love of country and patriotism when they seek your vote or want to con you into another war.

A few more outrageous bullet points: the Russian mafyia were amazed when they first encountered what they saw, clearly, was legal bribery in the U.S. They simply had to set up a lobbying shop on K street in D.C. And voila, pretty much get what they wanted from the congress. Paragons of virtue like former FBI directors could not resist the oligarchic cash flow, generously lending (trading) their legal skills and contacts in service to the new kids in town.

None dare call it treason... but it does demonstrate that previous self-righteous, anti-Russian, anti-communism among U.S. ideologues was not aimed at the brutality and oppression, the gulags etc; as claimed, since today the same pretty much exists minus the sharing, the socialist aspects of the previous regime. The elite here sees no problem with, maybe even envies, the ability of Putin to silence critics, cut “wasteful” government spending (read, spending on the people rather than elites), utilize naked violence to achieve desired outcomes, being, always, more money, the way they keep score - along with the length of their yachts, their mansions, their tailored clothing, trophy wives and over the top, ostentatious lifestyles.

This book and Luke Harding's, Collusion, provide enough evidence to warrent an unhampered investigation in both houses of congress, or at least full support for the Mueller probe. This is obviously not going to happen unless the mid-terms overcome republican voter suppression and ideological blindness, not to mention Russian interference.

drawing by the author

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Tailspin, Steven Brill: The People and Forces Behind America's Fifty-Year Fall - and Those Fighting to Reverse it

As Brill's sub-title indicates, this book charts the fall from prosperity for the many in the U.S., the escalating concentration of wealth, and the understaffed movement working to reverse this development.

After World War II. until about 1970, an uneasy partnership existed in the U.S., where industrial owners and managers shared the prosperity of that unique time with workers, thanks largely to the organizing efforts of unions. This of course was limited, obviously and disgracefully when it came to race. Various events coalesced to shift this fragile contract against workers – free trade policies, not necessarily intended to produce inequality, in fact supported by unions at the time, in the early 60s; the southern intentional bid to entice industry by maintainging a low-wage, docile, non-union workforce; even lower-wage foreign sweat shops; and automation and efficiency. The latter two features could create leisure for all but in fact predictably diminish working people and fatten the 1%.

Another development contributed in a major way to the upward trajectory of wealth, what Brill calls short-termism. Feeding into this was a move from what he calls aristocracy to meritocracy. The successful sent their children to Yale, Harvard etc; passing on an elite leadership, while the working classes struggled in disadvantage. A movement to “democratize” this situation, also in the 60s, brought in bright working class students who, lacking a sense of entitlement, tended to be driven and to outwork the entitled. Their success led to inventive changes to the good ol' boy rules which evolved into the short-term-ism Brill derides. It also predictably evolved into this newly privileged group closing ranks to protect their privilege via political influence.

A few renegades are cited, isolated from the mainstream by ethnic prejudice - one, a Jewish attorney named Lewie Ranieri,, sparked the corporate take-over gambit that wrecked so many lives and businesses but enriched, beyond their imagining, those willing to pursue ruthless, short-term avenues. Buy-outs basically raped a company, borrowing heavily to pump up stock prices, downsizing employees, selling off marginal branches, facilities and equipment, grabbing the profits and abandoning ship. Other actors aggressively marketed mortgages to high risk customers, packaging and selling them to investors (suckers) looking for a high return, in a frenzy of profit-taking until the whole thing came crashing down in 2008. Wall Street, always a gamble, became a high-flying casino with little actually productive investment. Rather, short-term buying and selling voraciously sought profits. Synthetic credit default swaps were like side-bets, where investors bet a stock will rise or fall. Some made millions betting, say, mortgage-backed securities would fail. When they failed en masse they raked in the “winnings”. Sort of like buying life insurance on your unhealthy neighbor with you as beneficiary. After the deluge of course the fixed game proceeded to bail out the gamblers with taxpayer money and leave stranded their victims, homeowners in default and eviction, wiped out pension funds. Given that the key financial people in the administration of W. Bush and later Obama, were Wall Street players, the rescue package was certain to be tilted toward that infamous street. One of the culprits, in Congressional testimony, commented that “People are driven to improve their lives and in a capitalist society you do that with money.” A little hint here then as to where the problem lies. The author makes an odd statement, asking us to not see the actors in these schemes as, ”villians but as simply responding – many with trail-blazing ingenuity, to the incentives put in front of them and the culture of the times.” I wonder if he'd apply this same generous dictum to the inner city gang banger? But he does advocate, “changing the incentives and culture so that the genius of their successors can be redirected.” We can hope I suppose.

Another example is the firm Country Wide Financial, whose CEO, Angelo Mozilo made $500 million in dubious deals, plus a $140 million cash-out as he saw bankruptcy coming, and was eventually fined $67 million, no criminal charges. Not a bad result for him, but collateral damage for the losers (suckers). A Canadian consultant named Michael Pearson advised drug companies to cut research and development, instead buying up small drug companies, hiking their patented, critical meds to outlandish, predatory prices, running up the stock prices and selling, with the winning strategy, “We'll be gone before the crash.” Going off on his own he bought up with borrowed money, a small drug company, merged with a larger, and over 8 years went on a buying binge which shot up stock prices, cooked the books, created billions on paper, and, when it fell apart, accepted an $11 million dollar severance package with his firing and presumably laughed all the way to his next venture. Many of the financial shenanigans leading to the 2008 disaster, were made possible by the undoing, in the 90s, of the Glass-Steagull act, and other regulations, designed to avoid risky investments like those that brought us the 1929 crash and depression. It was argued that this would jack up the creativity of our Wall Street geniuses. Indeed. Later the Dodd-Frank bill attempted to address “too big to fail” and other factors leading to the crash but the lobbyists moved in. Thirtysix hundred lobbyists made $483 million working for the financial industry that year and you can be sure this tax-deductible expenditure paid for itself. The 1935 Social Security legislation was 21 pages. Dodd-Frank was 848, much of it loopholes inserted to please lobbyists who no doubt showed their appreciation. Thus was it watered down and, more importantly, kept vague so that once it was being implemented at the agency level, the lobbyists could once again descend to have their influence. The public was so incensed though that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau got in so it wasn't a complete bust.

Speaking of lobbying, in a very competitive field for pernicious political behavior the gun lobby has to be up there at the top. They were able to stop a move to ban armor-piercing ammunition which of course would pierce police vests. You'd think that the traditional conservatism among police would get a little wake-up call from this, showing as it does whose interests are really served by that brand of politics.

Another important factor in the wealth transfer scheme we've been enjoying these last 50 years, were the money-is-speech decisions which gave business and wealthy individuals even more influence, ludicrously burying that fact in high-sounding rhetoric about free speech and “the people” needing information for democracy to work so limiting information from the always benevolent corporate sector, it was argued, violated the first amendment. Senators and representatives spend fully 70% of their time raising money for their reelection campaigns and of course they then owe “access” to their donars. The line of thought claiming that if the public were to finance elections then the politicians would owe the people not the corporations, is derided as a “radical”, even “socialist” intrusion on democracy. Let me put that in quotes, “democracy”.

A significant moment in this evolution was a Chamber of Commerce memo written by Lewis Powell which sounded the alarm about the threat to the U.S. economic system by unions and other subversive groups in the 60s, Ralph Nader for example. The memo went viral, energizing the “besieged” business sector, launching immense growth in the lobby profession. Powell later was appointed to the supreme court and many members of congress and other government officials found lucrative early or post- retirement careers in the profession (would objectivity be violated if I called this slimy?).

It strikes me how current Brill's book is. A book of this depth and literal weight, it seems, would take a long time to write and be somewhat dated but he frequently refers to very recent events, in the Trump administration particularly. Despite a few instances where the author seems a bit na├»ve about the forces gathered here (he seems unaware of Jane Meyer's assertion, in Dark Money, that the powers that be in the 30s put together a successful campaign to promote capitalism and demonize socialism in the public mind), the book is chock full of useful information and suggestions for draining the, ah... quaqmire. It would be an understatement to say that is a worthy project. Brill suggests that things have gotten so bad that there just might be an appropriate response in the form of, not left against right but “...everyone becoming personally accountable for what they do and share in their responsibility for the common good.” He lays out instances of this kind of thing already happening, providing a kind of hope in that and in his calling for more.

Drawing by the author

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Curiouser and Curiouser


There are parallel experiences that I keep coming back to think on lately. One is the personal thoughts and emotions that make up a large part of consciousness. The other is its social equivalent, the news, what's going on in the world as delivered to us by the neighbor over the fence, the local newspaper, the mass media and the other information sources we encounter.

Personal Consciousness

Eckhart Tolle, in his book The Power of Now, describes an exercise in consiciousness cultivation. He suggests closing your eyes..., taking a breath..., letting it out... and watching for the first thought to cross your mind. What you are witnessing is mind-chatter and ego. He goes on to share a mind-bending thought; that mind-stream, those thoughts and the emotions they often trigger are NOT you. You are the observer of that happening. So instead of getting entangled in those thoughts, mistaking them for who you are, becoming the observer frees you from the constant demands of the ego, to criticize, to judge, to worry, to fantasize, to dwell on past accomplishments or failures, to puff up one's status and self-importance. And it connects you to the basic intelligence permeating reality, a far surer guide than ego with its narrow concern to feel superior at all costs. Consider just one instance of that intelligence – the miracle of eyesight. You don't do it, it happens.

Social Consciousness

So, parallel to this personal idea, of becoming the observer, is to extend it to the array of world happenings, as delivered, like the thoughts that cross your mind. And then to avoid identifying and becoming entangled in a self-destructive orgy of anger, desire and judgement. Just as on the personal level you resist the lure of volatile emotions and thoughts, letting them go on by, so on the social level you see it, it is what it is, but you are detached. In detachment you are connected to that above-mentioned intelligence and you know what to do. Freed of thought-obsession, Tolle claims, one enters the natural state which is a feeling of ever deepening joy at the wonder of being, joie de vivre; and sooner or later a creative impulse strikes. That is knowing what to do. And since the impulse is aligned with said intelligence, the doing is unpredictable, ethical and life-affirming. That makes this effort the ultimate activism. Instead of persuading others to adopt your political view you shift a part of the frequency array, yours, away from ego, the root of personal and social dysfunction. The fruit of this dysfunction - injustice, hatred, greed, war... dissolves in the light of consciousness. It dissolves in you and your activism then affects others, not via persuasion but by way of presence.

Image: based on an Emory University, Carlos Museum mosaic, figured out and drawn/colored on MAC

Friday, August 24, 2018

Letters From the Earth, Uncensored Writings, Mark Twain

There's the old joke where a recently deceased citizen arrives at the pearly gates; Gabriel asks, Name? Sam Clemons. Um... don't have you on the list. How would I know you? Well, I wrote Life on the Mississippi and other books. Oh, Mark, come on in. In Letters from the Earth, Mark unleashes his impatience with silly belief-without-evidence theology and convention by craftily taking on that persona himself, arguing, in the essay The Damned Human Race, that “the world was made for man and the universe was made for the world – to stiddy it, you know.” That being settled then, the astronomical argument, he moves on to the geologic evidence. This involves a pretty sophisticated use of Darwin's origin theories to argue that the millions of years of development of life, bacteria, cells, etc; was all necessary to lay the ground for man. It is as if just saying it makes it so and therein lies Twain's witty mockery of dogma and uncritical thought, all too familiar to us lately here over a hundred years later.

The critique of fundamentalist religion and convention may account for the 50 year delay in publication though Twain's executor, his daughter, claimed that the material was not up to his standards. True in some cases, especially the first part where an attempt to portray the creator, and his entourage, discussing the mortals, is quite funny in places but cumbersome and ultimately doesn't hold together. It is certainly unfinished. That god rested after creating the universe and concluded that it was good, comes in for some Twain-ism, reminding the maker that mosquitos, rattle snakes, rats, flu, the black plague etc; can hardly be called good. A sketch of Noah's famous Arc is hilarious with all the glossed over problems inherent in a literal reading. Deadly enemies, lethal serpents, lions and lambs all co-housed in a space too tiny by far for the numbers necessary. Feeding, cleanup and other weighty housekeeping went unmentioned in the original tale but not in Mark's. And the maker gets more scolding for his numerous sadistic and xenophobic commands to believers, like those that involve slaughtering all males above age 12 and enslaving the rest of a conquered opponent.

The book is a collection of short pieces. One is on ettiquette, how to behave at certain social functions ie, at a funeral, don't bring your dog. Most helpful is a section on how to decide the order in which to rescue people from burning buildings and what a proper comment might be, depending also on class, both of the rescuer and rescuee. The Great Dark is an exasperating tale about a happy family purchasing a microscope and enjoying the astonishingly enlarged, previously invisible creatures there. Later, waking during the night the family finds themselves on a microscopically tiny ship in the drop of water on said instrument. Only the father realizes where they are. All others see an endless sea, sometimes turbulent, often placid with occasional appearances by grotesque monsters. Eventually the father begins to doubt his knowledge of where he is and eventually accepts the idea that they are on a voyage to the South Pole, and always have been. The transition to this belief is so convoluted that the author himself seems not quite sure what the true situation is. Another short piece, A Cat-Tale, describes the nightly routine at Mark's place, inventing bedtime stories for his children who are encouraged to interrupt with questions which are always wittily addressed.

Not all of this entertainment reaches quite the level of writing and subtlety of Huckleberry Finn but as a look at some of the left-overs of a great writer, it does the job. And from the man who opined, when the U.S. invaded the Philippines in 1898, that the stars and bars should be replaced by the skull and cross-bones, it is great fun to encounter challenges to convention that, radical in their day, stand still relevant to our time. One could possibly conclude that narrow minds not only live on but pretty much dominate across eras... so far.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Battle For Paradise, Naomi Klein


The Battle For Paradise applies the insights Namoi Klein shared in her important book, Shock Doctrine, to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. In what she calls Disaster Capitalism, state actors collude with ideologues and business interests to enact radical, unpopular policies and programs while the populace is preoccupied with some crisis. The Patriot Act is an example, passed during the 911 trauma, as is the dismantling of the New Orleans' public school system and public housing in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

Puerto Rico was already in crisis when Maria struck. The island is essentially a U.S. colony, the inhabitants having no right to vote nor representation in Washington DC, although they have U.S. citizenship. Puerto Rico provided low-wage workers for off-shore factories, attracted also by low taxes. These tax laws expired in 2006 creating a devastating flight of companies to even cheaper labor and tax locales. The government's response was to borrow money. Of course, eventually payback falls due. The next step, as Greece can tell you, is austerity. The U.S. congress passed PROMESA, a law that created a 7-member panel, 6 of whom did not live on the island, to oversee island finances, holding veto power over elected officials. This ploy is not restricted to colonies, it has been used in Michigan by that conservative governor to aid in the general project among the rulers to expand the third world to the whole world. Many islanders refer to this measure as a coup d'etat and the panel as La Junta. Their predictable solutions are privatization of public resources, cuts to pensions and services, schools... the course big capital would have us believe is inevitable and the only road back to stability. Stability always translates into a reassuring climate for the 1%.

Puerto Rico has a history also of resistence. The dictum that, “we are many they are few”, empowering to the many, fearsome to the few, plays out across the planet. The many have strength in numbers, the few have resources to obfuscate, confuse, divide since they mostly control the discussion via ownership of the media, disproportionate influence on government and other institutions. In Puerto Rico's case the many are in various states of economic trauma while the few meet in plush hotels and plan to turn the island into a gated tax haven for the well-heeled.

But not quite all are traumatized. Some of the population came through Maria more successfully than others. While much of the island still lacks electricity, some small areas had solar and this is up and running. Organic farms fared better than the mono crop agriculture that was completely wiped out. These community activists seek alternatives to the corporate way which has rendered the island heavily dependent on food imports and fossil fuel, centralized energy grids. The Battle of Klein's title is here, the capitalist money-chasing, elitist greed enthusiasts - the few – versus the people, an old old story, an ancient struggle, nearly always won by the few... but not always.

Klein has done a video on the subject also, of the same title.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg

Far into this book, Ellsberg quotes a commission report which unanimously recommended against pursuing the H-bomb (1,000 times more destructive than the A-bomb used on Hiroshima): “Any military advantage would be completely trumped(!) by the threat to humankind posed by the proliferation of these terrible weapons. They are necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.” The commission's recommendation was, of course, overruled by the usual fear mongerers and profiteers and “these terrible weapons” were indeed developed, the chief source of the curse of apocalypse that hangs over our every moment.

Daniel Ellsberg, Ivy League whiz kid, was hired by the RAND corporation in the 50s, a mostly Defense Department-funded thinktank. He was given a “go anywhere, talk to anybody about anything” mandate in a project to review U.S. nuclear policy. Ellsberg was shocked by much of what he encountered as he traveled from site to site, missile silos and far-flung bases across the world: the numbers of predicted casaulties, in the millions, blithely noted; the communication problems and trigger points that could start an accidental nuclear exchange; the fact that China would be targeted and destroyed, with again, millions dead, even if it had nothing whatever to do with whatever conflict; that every city over 25,000 in the Soviet Union (and China) would be annihilated and that Western Europe, including all of Scandinavia, would become “collateral damage” from fallout. The realization came later, that Nuclear Winter would expand the collateral damage to the entire planet, essentially ending civilization, perhaps life on earth. This information, predictably, has not slowed the Doomsday Machine in the slightest.

An astonishing fact stands out in the narrative, that Ellsberg found very few, almost zero, moral objections to policies that amount to unprecedented genocide. This across over 7,000 pages of official documents. Add to this the near zero politicans willing to point out the actual threat, to candidly discuss the insanity and criminality of possessing these weapons. Instead candidates for high office strut and fret their macho hour upon the stage... a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing... as if their personal ambition, ideology, power and position were more important than that life continue on this planet. It is the peace activists and “fringe” politicians like Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders who are willing to address these issues and who are marginalized by a mainstream media that seems to place the privilege of wealth above all other considerations. “Better dead than red” was an actual slogan in the 50s, part of an establishment effort to dampen a growing awareness among the population, of the nuclear danger. It is discouraging also to note that among the whole discussion in those official documents, of millions horribly vaporized, billions really since few if any would survive a full nuclear exchange, that among those documents there was virtually no discussion of disarmament, of summoning the energy and creativity to find a way around this terrible monster – of examining the obvious necessity, as MLK and other “radicals” attempted to point out, that we end war or it ends us.

Ellsberg risked his freedom to release The Pentagon Papers, a secret and unflattering history of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Only the bungling of the Nixon crew saved him from prison. He intended to release secret papers about the insane nuclear policy but events conspired against that plan. The integrity and courage he displayed in the Marine Corps and his early RAND days did not wane as his point of view shifted from a patriotic commitment to the status quo to a realization of the threat to life that view entailed. The book details the careerist bureacratic and ideological obstacles that stood (and stand) in the way of his effort to sound the alarm, how the frustration of those obstacles led him to risk all, in the case of the Pentagon Papers, and with this book, a renewed, urgent effort to reach the public in a time as, or perhaps more, dangerous than the cold war. I like to share a phrase I heard in my early activist education: Those who call for an end to war are dismissed as hopeless dreamers, but the only dreamers are those who think we can survive if we don't.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and how Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, Luke Harding

In his book Collusion, Guardian investigative reporter Luke Harding assures us that the Russian/Trump connection scandal is even more disturbing than we might have thought. Sordid details confirm the worst. We're accustomed to corporate disregard for life system and workers in their singular pursuit of profits... and we're accustomed to politicians manipulating and lying but the Trump administration has taken this to new lengths. I mean, Gary Hart was driven out of a presidential race for dating a woman while separated from his spouse. Ed Muskie for raising his voice to be heard in a crowd and getting a little emotional in a speech. We have an administration of pro-business fanatics, yes, not all that unusual – corporations do heavily fund the campaigns of most contenders and so influence their policies. But when have we had high government officials routinely dallying and scheming with official enemies? Top government employees take oaths to defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic so that would include also a lot of business interests, as well as the Nazi party and KKK... hell, even half the supreme court. But back to Russia.

Cutting to the chase, Russia is owned and run by and for oligarchs/gangsters. This seems a force more pernicious, and successful, than the former Soviet leaders, who supposedly were out to conqueor the world. These folks know how to do it. Maybe because they've harnassed the power of greed. Ironic for the nation that once proclaimed itself the champion of ordinary working people. Collusion makes it quite clear that not only is Russia interested in disrupting democracy everywhere but is also partnering, across national boundaries, with like-minded oligarchs. By hook or by crook, by bribery or blackmail, intimidation or partnership, they have captured the highest levels of U.S. government. The White House. and its power to appoint department heads and staff the judiciary, is taken. The congress is pretty much owned though there remains some feeble resistance. The Supreme Court is similar, corrupted but not fully in their hands, yet. State Houses across the country are also in the fold, states like Michigan and Wisconsin, former unioniszed strongholds of democracy. The fall elections may be the last opportunity for effective resistance to what is arguably a world-wide oligarchic coup.

That's the conclusion. Collusion provides plenty of disturbing evidence. Take the Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, purchasing a Trump Florida mansion for $95 million. Trump had paid $41 million four years early. This in a sagging Florida market. The Russian oligarch never even visited the building, before nor after purchase. He ended up having it demolished. Was this money laundering? A payoff, purchasing perhaps a U.S. president? At least 63 individuals with Russian passports purchased Trump-branded Tower properties in Florida totaling $98 million. Many of the other buyers were limited liability companies whose owners were not identifiable. More Russian mobsters than seems coincidental owned or own Trump Tower Manhattan condos or have offices there.

When Trump's casinos went bankrupt it was Deutsche Bank, a German bank with New York offices, that bailed him out. All previous lenders were refusing loan requests, having been once burned. Later Deutsche NY was suing him to recover $640 million he had personally guaranteed for more Trump Towers, an acrimonious situation of suits and counter-suits. Deutsch Bank in Germany did two very odd things. They loaned him, a guy who was refusing to repay loans, the money to pay off his loans and undertake new projects. The other odd thing, Deutsche was caught money-laundering, Russian money laundering, in the billions.

The Russian hacking is also broader than I was aware. They may have tilted the British Brexit vote and interfered in French and German elections as well, probably others. They like to fund both left and right factions, but seem to prefer zany rightwingers like Le Pen, in France. The object is to disrupt targeted democracies. The ideal of course would be to place “agents” or compromised candidates in powerful positions. This they seem to have done, to such a degree that we may not be allowed to find out, it being far from certain that the Mueller investigation will be allowed to continue. An informed, activist electorate is probably more critical today than at any other time in U.S. history.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Testimony, Robbie Robertson & Gangster, George Anastasia


The title of this memoir, Testimony, begs the question, where's the cross examination? My jokey reference has to do with the feud between Robertson and drummer Levon Helm. That tension is finessed in this intriquing view of one of Rock's great bands, the Americana rockers, The Band. Levon's main complaint in his book, This Wheel's on Fire, was that Robbie pretty much broke up the band by hoarding song-writing credits, and the money that brought his way. Robbie claims that he insisted on equal credits, shared royalties early on, but later in the book mentions, without explanation, that he made sure Richard and Rick got credit on one of his songs. Obviously he wouldn't have to do that if they were taking equal credit. It's an unsettled argument. I tend to come down with tradition. The songwirter gets songwriter royalties, the performers get performance royalties, so that's just standard. REM deviated perhaps by sharing equally but Stipe only did the lyrics so that makes sense. It is absolutely true that the other members of The Band gave the songs personality, contributing mightily to their success... yet, that is recognized in performance royalties. But I ain't arguing, I don't get any of that action. Besides, Levon seemed like an ornery cuss sometimes, even without the array of paranoia-inducing drugs he, and they, got into. Witness him leaving the band when they were touring with and getting boo-ed by Dylan's folk fans for going electric. Witness him pulling the scope out of his nose-throat exam in that documentary. And witness Levon, Rick and Richard all going stupid and doing heroine. So, petty stuff went on, yeah, but what music came out of that combination of personalities. They probably could have made interesting music getting lyrics out of the phone book but Robbie's lyrics hit a chord with the public.

The book covers Robertson's early life but ends after The Band's filmed finale in the venue they first played as The Band, San Francisco's Winterland. This was the acclaimed film, The Last Waltz. It is so hard to get and hold a band together, a truth echoed in Robbie's observsation when he spent time with John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo and of course in his own band. This is a fun part of the book, little teasing introductions to celebs Robbie routinely ran into – Jonie Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Miles Davis, Henry Miller, David Geffen, Charles Loyd, Neil Young, Jamie James (Jimmie Hendrix), Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, SLN crew, endless musicians, apparently totally comfortable and unawed. Just as Previte the gangster found himself the smartest guy in the room, so did Robbie, often enough to insure his acceptance in those rarified circles.

At 15, Robbie's then band opened for Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto. Ronnie was impressed and invited the precocious guitarist to audition. He dropped out of high school and trained to Arkansa, was given a chance to prove himself and worked to make that happen. They had to disguise his age since they were playing clubs he was too young to enter - fake moustache etc;. Levon Helm, the only other eventual Band member at the time, became Robbie's mentor and confidant. Personnell changes and Ronnie Hawkins' eventual shift in interest whittled the group out and down to the five guys who made music history, first as Dylan's backup band, then as The Band. It was their musical mastery and Robbie's songs (and Dylan's) at the heart of their taking the country by storm. Funny, in some of Dylan's interviews he complained about getting bands together in high school and having someone come along and steal the players. He finally got his revenge by swooping in on Ronnie Hawkins, taking The Band on tour.

I watched an interview with Robbie, promoting his book, on youtube. He wasn't asked if he's still making music or much about what he's been up to. Immediately after The Last Waltz, he was in a film with Gary Busey and Jody Foster, Carny it was called. But apparently he made enough money and got enough of the spotlight that he could just do whatever quiet thing he decided to do. Which, wikipedia tells me, is a lot: producing other artists, doing film scores, solo albums, co-writing, getting awards left and right. Having a rich, princely life.

The first song Robbie got published, at 15, was stolen by a mob-infiltrated publishing company. Which brings me to another book I've been reading, Gangster by George Anastasia. This is a genre I return to periodically, that I find fascinating for some reason. One of the many despicable things mobsters do is move in on an established business, like the publishing company, and take it over, or demand a percentage of the profits for “protection/”, maybe use if also for money laundering. Ron Previte was nudged out of the Air Force when his incorrigible thievery became obvious but not proveable. With an honorable discharge he was able to join the Philadelphia police department where he took his skills to new heights. Again his behavior, not so uncommon for awhile in that department, became a liability when a reformist Chief came aboard. Nudged out again he took up security work at the new Atlantic City casinos. Now the thievery got truely imaginative, profitable and decadent. Eventually he was busted and became an informer for the New Jersey State Police. This allowed him to pursue his criminality unimpeded. Disgusted with him after some years the Staties passed him onto the FBI. His casino and street work had brought him into contact with the Philadelphia mob and since he was such an “earner” he wormed his way into their hearts. He discovered that he was pretty consistently the smartest guy in the room so didn't mind ratting these sorry guys out, feeling that it was only a matter of time before they were all in prison anyway. Over a period of years he wore a wire and got the goods for the FBI. He continued his shake-downs, extortion, drugs, receiving stolen property business (never murder he claims), making substantial money all while drawing a salary from the Feds and allowing them to fund schemes designed to lure mobsters into drug deals and various other illegal operations in order to get them off the streets.

Previte seemed to admire the old time gangsters with their Omerta and so-called “honor” but the new version, typified by New York's John Gotti, was foolishly flamboyant, way too public, courting the media, public and ostentatious spending, seeking celebrity... obviously bringing attention to themselves in ways that would advantage the authorities who wanted to bring them down. Omerta of course was the code of silence practiced by the older generation but suddenly, facing life in prison, many criminals, even high-ranking Cosa Nostra made members, did deals with prosecutors that decimated the ranks. There certainly was no lack of replacements but it was becoming more and more stressful and risky to pursue criminality for profit. The deal-making with authorities became quite contagious and, at least for awhile, the Philadelphia mob was in disarray.

The government made a deal with the highest ranking mobster in Philadelphia to testify against his former cronies, which didn't work out so well for the government. Juries returned “not proven” verdicts on all charges dependent on boss Ralph Natale's testimony. The government had Natale but gave it up for nothing, as it turned out. The big boss is handed a get-out-of-jail-free card. Ron Previte however, with his tapes, was more successful, putting many of the crew in for relatively long terms. They were not convicted of the murders they were surely guilty of, disappointing the prosecutors and FBI, having traded the top boss for a chance at the others, especially the real boss, Joey Merlino. They did however put top cadre away for a good many years, 14 for Merlino, not enough given his crimes, but still... and the Feds were moving in on the replacement boss, Joe Ligambi, now presiding over only about a dozen members, down from 70. And the 300 pound “fat rat”, Ron Previte? Five years probation and a million dollars for risking his life to make those recordings. Of course the vacuum created by good police work was soon filled by Russian and East European gangsters, another story.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Readin & Writin: Atomic Accidents, One Summer, The Way of All Flesh, O. Henry, James Gallant


Given the facts about the effects of the livestock industry on the life system, our health and the animals, meat-eaters are nudged toward vegetarianism, vegetarians towards veganism. Denial of course kicks in quickly for many. Given the facts about nuclear power and weapons, the devastating accidents, already upon us and hanging over us always potentially, with its expense, its mind-bogglingly long-term waste, its devilishly complicated design and proliferation issues, the average person shudders and takes a stand against. The average nuclear physicist or technician, enthralled with the intricate technical challenges, may acknowledge the dangers and expense but in the end, overwhelmingly, like the meat-eater, comes down in favor.

Thus comes down James Mahaffey in his book, Atomic Accidents, A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters. Despite Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima (and many others), all discussed quite objectively in the book, with just the slightest pro-nuke coloration, he jumps to a conclusion little different than the propaganda we've heard over the years. True, he is grounded in knowledge that allows him to pounce upon mis-readings and misunderstandings among the non-scientist opposition but still, we're talking about boiling water here. Well, and destroying civilization - the slow way or the fast way. But to the scientist, all this is understandably fascinating. It's a bit like religion. The first one that gets ahold of you, you usually stick to. Why isn't the challenge of intermittency for solar and wind as fascinating a challenge? Seems reasonable to assume that it could be met given the billions spent on nuclear. Some claim that it is already met. See Arjun Makhijani's, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free, A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, a free download at (Institute for Energy & Environmental Research). Then there is the disturbing fact Harvey Wasserman points out, that every nuclear reactor is a pre-positioned nuclear device to a terrorist.

Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer. His, A Brief History of Nearly Everything starts out by explaining that the Universe as we know it is rather roomy. And he does try to cover everthing the development of science has revealed. To keep it interesting he often lingers on dramatic threats, like the fact that the whole of Yellowstone is a potential magma explosion, perhaps relieved or delayed by the effusions of Old Faithful and the like. Were the explosion to occur we would have basically the same effect as nuclear winter with a massive dust cloud blocking the sun for longer than civilization can probably stand, at least the U.S. version. And this explosion happens to be well overdue if you believe in geologic patterns. His One Summer is lighter fare. Everything in the book pivots from some event that happened in the summer of 1927. Lindberg's crossing the Atlantic, Al Capone's corrupting presence in Chicago, talking movies, broadway plays and the exodus to Hollywood of its finest actors, Henry Ford's Model T and A, the decisions that locked in the coming stock market crash, Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt. And, as they say, more! A very fun read for your beach trip.

Now I had heard somehow of the book by Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh. At one time I scoured yard sales picking up paperback classics by anyone I ever heard of in the great book department. This I recently found in my collection, so yellowed and brittle that, after a few pages I decided to get a hardback copy from the library. I even wrote a song, stealing the title without having read it in 1990, The Way of the Flesh (see Well I've always been impressed by people who can talk, or write and this guy, Sam Butler is one, not as witty perhaps as Sam Clemens, but still, eloquent and knowledgeable enough to impress me, and keep me reading. He is constantly meandering off his story with little asides exploring human psychology, usually ending with an indeterminate dismissal of the subject as hopelessly controversial. As I'm only a few chapters into it I have little to report other than it fits into the late 19th century oeuvre of master writers, some claiming it as standing very near the tippy top of the genre.

Speaking of eloguence and mastery of language, I seem to remember an early television series called O. Henry, based on his short stories (real name William Sidney Porter). The writer, similar approximate time-frame to Butler, interestingly spent some time in prison where he began to develop the craft of, as my friend Jim Marsh calls it, scribbling. Poor bloke had only ten years to write, dying with 23 cents in his pocket. I put one of his books on library hold and when I picked it up needed help to carry it to the car. I can only take it a short story at a time for it weighs heavily on my lap. I've developed a callous and a crink in my left hand holding it up, turning the pages with my right. So far it is situated in Central America where the author spent some time. He is noted for his kind of Rod Serling-esgue twists in the endings without the metaphysical aspect. I am going to have to renew this one more than once, coming in at 1400 pages.

I'll end this sojourn with a reference to the new James Gallant e-book I've acquired, Whatever Happened to Ohio?. It has a wonderful hot-air baloon cover image to kind of lure you into the whimsical fantasy aspect of the tale. Said tale is highly populated, shifting from character to character in a tentativly bewildering mix which I trust, knowing Gallant's skills, will evolve into some mightily interesting, clever and satisfying resolution. The proof is in his earlier book, The Big Bust at Tyrone's Rooming House, set in my Atlanta neighborhood. This is the first e-book I've read and I do declare, it has some appealing features. It certainly isn't heavy in my lap.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Deep State, the Fall of the Constitution and Rise of a Shadow Government by Mike Lofgren


Mike Lofgren's Deep State does not, as I expected, delve into the secretive intelligence agencies but rather studies the mostly corporate oligarchy, their lobbyists and the bureacracy whose prime motivation is job security and advancement. Such factions are served by policies that perpetuate the status quo and resist reform. Whether these policies promote the general welfare is a matter of indifference, if not hostility to the players. The CIA, NSA etc; have their role but as servants not masters. Lofgren's very nicely written prose is embedded with intriquing and devastating tidbits on the Deep State, like these:

  • After 28 years as congressional staff member I increasingly viewed all political ideologies as mental and emotional crutches, substitute religions: for leaders, a means of manpulating attitudes and behaviors; for the rank and file, a lazy surrogate for problem solving and a way of fulfilling the craving to belong to something bigger than oneself.
  • Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich employed chaos, polarization and scapegoating to carry out a divide-and-rule strategy, destroying what bi-partisanship had existed previously.
  • A clique of neoconservative ideologues, both inside and outside the Bush administration, abetted at every step by the mainstream media, acted as carnival barkers for the most destructive and self-defeating policies since Vietnam.
  • I told whoever would listen that the “slam dunk” evidence of Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was weak and that by invading Iraq the U.S. might be purchasing its very own West Bank on steroids. The total bill for Iraq summed up to a nice, round trillion dollars.
  • The U.S. economy was mutating into a casino with a tilted wheel, a Wall Street constructed heads-I-win-tails-you-lose Ponzi scheme resulting in the meltdown of 2008.
  • The twin shocks of 9/11 and the Great Recession seem mentally to have unhinged a portion of the people and much of the political class. Thus followed crazy arguments about the president's birth certificate, death panels and voters shouting that the government must get its hands off their government-provided Medicare.
  • A new crop of Tea Party freshman announced that their first priority was to drive the country into a sovereign debt default. The circus was being run from the monkey cage.
  • Our venerable institutions have outwardly remained the same but they have grown more and more resistant to the popular will as they have become hardwired into a corporate and private influence network with almost unlimited cash to enforce its will.
  • The rural counties of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, large areas of Detroit, Cleveland, Camden and many other U.S. cities, qualify as third-world. At the same time, wealth beyond computation piles up in the money center of New York and the technology hub of Palo Alto, enough to purchase a $95,000 truffle, a $38 million vintage Ferrari or $179 million Picasso before the balance is parked in an off-shore hiding place.
  • These are symptoms of a shadow government that pays little heed to the plain words of the Constitution.
  • The Deep State is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, militarization of foreign policy, financialization and deindustrialization of the U.S. economy and the rise of plutocracy.
    A tidbit also from the book is that the author is a former Reaganite whose 28 years on the Hill gave him a close-up of the sausage-making, which tranformed (radicalized) the way he saw the world. The above bullet points all come from the first 5 pages of the introduction. The book is full of them. Here are a few more or less randomly selected from deeper in:
  • A Kennedy quote, “D.C. Is a town of northern charm and southern efficiency.”, injects a little humor to the discouraging list.
  • Sam Ervin the much-loved, Shakespeare-quoting chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Watergate hearings was also the author of The Southern Manifesto, a document urging defiance of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.
  • Those who bray about “family values” fail to consider that the modern U.S. economy is increasingly unable to deliver the stable, well-paid jobs, medical insurance and family leave that make such a way of life possible.
  • Politicians are too busy raising money and looking over their shoulder to do much socializing.
  • At frequent points during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the tongue-tied George W. Bush sorely needed the mellifluous double-talk of British prime minister Tony Blair, on the theory that nothing sells hideously awful policy as well as an Oxford accent.
  • If the American people did not voluntarily give informed consent to the web of unaccountable influence that radiates from Washington and permeates the country, then their passive acquiescence, aided by false appeals to patriotism and occasional doses of fear, surely played a role.
  • A lot of money is changing hands, both in campaign fund-raising and honararia to government personnel whose “distinguished” careers set them up for a payday beyond imagining for most U.S. citizens.
  • When Obama, for once, sought a negotiated solution to a problem in the Middle East rather than unilaterally employing force, Republicans presented a nearly united wall of opposition.
  • Do the citizens of the U.S. consciously decide with their votes that the safety of their drinking water is a lesser priority than delivering suitcases of off-the-books cash to a corrupt satrap running Afghanistan?
These entertaining bullet points are merely a sampling of the multitude of mixed joys you'll encounter in the writing of this career bureaucrat, before he sets down some suggestions as to what it might take to overcome the latest guilded age. The first on that 9 item list is “Eliminate private money from public elections.” The others are: sensibly downsize and redeploy the military and intelligence complex; stay out of the Middle East; redirect the peace dividend to domestic infrastructure improvement; enforce antitrust laws; reform tax policy (to get corporations paying their share); reform immigration policy; adopt a single-payer health care system; abolish corporate personhood status. He details those proposals and closes his book on an optimistic note – We are situated to where we can turn this around, despite our many institutional flaws and the accretion of ideological myths that have impaired our ability to see the world as it is and live sensibly and peacably within it.

From a conservative Reagan appointee to this list of recommendations is quite a leap and exactly the transformation needed for a critical mass of the remaining Reaganites and fellow travelers, if we are to avoid social and environmental catastrophe.