Freedom to depress

So there I was, scratching around the web looking for a little perspective on how the hell our expectations of journalists fell so far that Glenn Beck gets to use the same job description that Walter Cronkite used on his tax returns, without getting sued for defaming the entire profession.  My guess is, half the population don’t notice and other half don’t give a shit.

I used to think it was pretty cool that Comedy Central were doing their bit in the name of journalism. And, to be fair, Jon Stewart’s beatdown of Tucker Carlson on CNN’s now deservedly-extinct Crossfire was pretty badass. But really, once you think about it, it’s just another reason to hop on a barstool and stop thinking about it.

Fair and balanced?

How did we get here? In lieu of mine own hazy ponderings, enter Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Giving the 2009 Stuart Bullion Memorial Lecture in Journalism, Chris tells it like it is…

We live in an age of moral nihilism. We have trashed our universities, turning them into vocational factories that produce corporate drones and chase after defense-related grants and funding. The humanities, the discipline that forces us to stand back and ask the broad moral questions of meaning and purpose, that challenges the validity of structures, that trains us to be self-reflective and critical of all cultural assumptions, have withered. And this assault has been a body blow to a free press, which is, like the humanities, designed to promote intellectual and moral questioning.

But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of cake!

We are cleverly entertained during our descent. We have our own version of ancient Rome’s bread and circuses with our ubiquitous and elaborate spectacles, sporting events, celebrity gossip and television reality shows. Societies in decline, as the Roman philosopher Cicero wrote, see their emotional and political passions subsumed by the excitement and emotional life of the arena.

*sigh*

Advertisements

Electile dysfunction

I was surprised to find this gem buried in the opinion section of the The Onion instead of the front page where it belongs. I’d find it a lot funnier if I wasn’t reminded just how much truth lies behind it every time I turn on the TV.

My Constituents Care Way More About Political Gamesmanship Than Jobs, Health Care, And The Economy by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).

Among the gems:

My constituents deserve better… They deserve someone on their side who will ask the tough questions, such as how will painting Democrats as radical ideologues play in, say, Arkansas? Can we vote “no” on the health care bill and still make it look like we give two craps about the welfare of ordinary Americans?

But wait, there’s more!

My constituents had to be proud. They must have loved the way I blatantly ignored the truth and put quotation marks around “stimulus” so as to delegitimize the whole project. And I bet they noticed that, with just one sentence, I slyly preyed on America’s inherent distrust of big government. Pretty good, huh? It’s all bullshit of course, but it’s a great political play.

And finally…

More than anything, average, workaday Ohioans want me to play politics at the shrewdest, most despicable level, not to waste their time making surgery affordable or offering tax breaks to small businesses. And my constituents are so thankful that I took a nation that was actually hopeful at the beginning of 2009 and turned it into a paranoid, demoralized country unsure of whether it made the right choice in 2008.

Mossad: murder, mistakes and myth

One of the comments I have seen a number of times across a number of different news sites is that it the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai last month couldn’t have been carried out by Mossad because the assassins made too many mistakes.

This belief in Mossad’s infallibility, however, is largely myth, built up by spy novels, films and TV shows. Instead, like most intelligence agencies, Mossad are thuggish and persistent rather than particularly brilliant. Sure, there’s been a number of well-publicised successes in hunting down “legitimate” targets over a long period of time—firstly Nazi war criminals and later terrorists (and the odd national security threat like supergun inventor Gerald Bull)—but there were just as many mistakes along the way including wrong targets, botched jobs, and being caught using foreign passports.

In the Dubai assassination, there is also an underlying racist assumption at work in the argument that Mossad couldn’t have been involved, namely that there is no way a bunch of Israeli uber-spys could be rumbled by a rabble of uncivilised, tent-dwelling camel jockeys.

Let’s for a moment, however, assume that Mossad was responsible and ask ourselves what mistakes were actually made by these assassins.

Well, arguably there was only one and that was underestimating the local police, both in terms of ability and resources. When the Dubai police refused to believe that al-Mabhoub’s death was from natural causes and investigated further, then the secrecy of the entire operation started to unravel very quickly. This point is also taken up by Time:

It would appear that whoever was responsible underestimated Dubai’s security capability. The city-state used sophisticated computer programs to quickly sift through its massive pool of security-camera footage and pinpoint the movements and travel documents of the alleged killers. More embarrassingly, the Dubai authorities are claiming that the hit team stole the identities of Israeli dual-national citizens, and traveled into Dubai using false British, Irish and French passports.

If the Dubai police had accepted the death, then all of the operatives would have disappeared back into the woodwork and the people whose identities where used on the forged passports would have been none the wiser.

Copies of fake passports used in assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh

So, to finish up, a couple of thoughts on what this Dubai incident revealed to us about Mossad spycraft.

Firstly, stealing the identities of unsuspecting Israelis with dual passports is a tactic I suspect Mossad has used successfully for years. Now it’s been busted, can they use it again?

Secondly, only forgeries of old-style passports were used in the operation, indicating that new generation passports containing biometric data might be posing a few problems for spy agencies.

Finally, if we can believe that the assassination team was comprised of 26 members, then Mossad have a bigger travel budget than the national soccer team.

Swine flu still not an apocalypse

Last August here at Notes, Dr Throttling, in a post entitled Apocalypse Not, referred to the N1H1 flu pandemic as “The Great Swine Flu Swindle”. Recent statistics show that he was pretty much on the money with that assessment:

More than 57 million Americans have become ill from the H1N1 influenza virus and nearly 11,700 have died, according to estimates released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a normal influenza season about 36,000 deaths are attributed to influenza and pneumonia with 90% of them being in people age 65 and older.

So, in fact, Swine Flu, tipped to be the next great plague, ended up being so mild that it is responsible for only one third of the fatalities that we might typically expect to see in a normal flu season.

And the biggest winners from all this?

1) Swiss Pharmaceutical company Roche that manufactures Tamiflu, just reported an 8% rise in annual sales , double the industry standard. That followed a 34% rise in profits in 2007 when governments around the world began stocking up on Tamiflu.

2) Your average worker who probably squeezed out a few more sick days by telling the boss they had Swine Flu even if they didn’t.

3) Pigs, with pork sales down in most places since the onset of the flu.

Fox interviews Tony Blair

Poor misunderstood Tony Blair, how terrible it must be when others cannot see things in the same twisted way that you do. To get a soft ride in an interview, especially after the grilling at the Iraq War Enquiry, Blair appeared on Fox News. Hardly surprising that he would be treated with kid gloves at Fox, given the neocon bias of the station and the fact that Tony is well and truly part of that camp. Blair ticks all their boxes: religious zealot, misguided, warmonger, intellectual lightweight.

In Part I, Blair is poor, poor pitiful me. In Part II, he has a go at Iran. And this man is an envoy to the Middle East!

Unfortunately, despite continually professing to do the right thing when he was Prime Minister, justice and the rule of law do not seem to rank highly in Blair’s hierachy of personal values. Remember how in 2006, Blair quashed a criminal investigation in the arms manufacturer BAE Systems before it could be brought to a conclusion:

In December 2006 the SFO – amid much consternation – dropped its corruption investigations into BAE’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia after direct intervention from Tony Blair, who was prime minister. He defended the decision on the grounds that the Saudis would stop co-operating on security issues.

Yes, good old national security used as an excuse yet again. But looked what happened a couple of weeks ago after the Americans and Europeans became involved in investigating BAE:

The British arms firm BAE Systems has accepted guilt and agreed to pay penalties in the US and the UK totalling several hundred million pounds to settle all the long-running corruption allegations against it.

In the US, the company will plead guilty to offences of false accounting to settle bribery allegations made over the enormous al-Yamamah arms deals with Saudi Arabia stretching back more than 20 years, as well as corruption allegations over arms deals in central Europe.

Interesting, isn’t it.  If there truly was a significant national security component to all this, I’m sure the Americans would have pulled their horns in rather than chase this prosecution. In retrospect, it seems  it was not so much about national security as it was about protecting vast amounts of income for the UK armaments industry.

So fuck justice, it was all about the money. Tony Blair, you were and are a disgrace.

Tony Blair and the culture of fear: a video essay

Last week, we looked at the Iraq War Inquiry and the way in which Tony Blair was motivated more by fear than by rational thought.  This video essay takes up that same argument.

This is a worthwhile watch as it demonstrates the way in which individuals can use the tools of new media to create and distribute their own political rhetorics. Commendably professional construction with only a couple of minor lapses. Grade: 9/10.

The dangers of sovereign debt default

Greece is featuring regularly in the news at present, chiefly because of the possibility that it will not be able to fulfil its sovereign financial obligations and, therefore, may have to default on its debt repayments.  Greek workers are currently striking in protest at the austerity measures that their government is proposing/implementing. These workers are understandably angry that they are paying the price for many years of political mismanagement and corruption.

Greeks need to realise is that the consequences of default may make life even harsher for them than what their government is now proposing. Default is a situation a country should avoid at all costs (no pun intended).  Just because a country defaults does not mean that its debts are forgiven.  In fact, default can place onerous burdens on a country and its peoples for years.  For a start, borrowing money on global markets becomes that much more difficult, and the higher (penalty) interest rates charged effectively suck more precious money out of the system.  There are several South American countries — serial defaulters — that have periodically lost all access to sovereign debt markets.

Greek farmers protesting

Czar Bonds and repudiation of Russian debt by the Communists

Less common than default is debt repudiation, or refusal to either acknowledge or repay an existing sovereign debt. This situation typically occurs when there is a revolutionary change of government, with all key examples involving Communist takeovers of countries. Russia in 1917, China in 1949, and Cuba in 1960 all repudiated debt incurred by previous political regimes. Note, however, that this is a unilateral act and has little weight in the international community and the debt does not disappear from the records.

Take the case of Russia, for instance, and the repudiation of Czar-era debt in 1917 by the new Soviet government. Much of this debt was contained in Imperial Russian Bonds, also known as Czar Bonds, which were bought up in huge amounts right across Europe. These bonds were issued in the 1900s, when Russia was in dire financial straits under the reign of Czar Nicholas II. To raise necessary capital, these sovereign bonds were sold to the public right across Europe.  They were especially popular in France, where encouraged by the French government of the day, almost 50 per cent of French households invested in them. Consequently, large numbers of French families still hold Czar-era bonds.  Things turn sour in 1917, when following the revolution, the newly formed Communist government refused to honour any borrowings made by the former Czarist regime. As such, the bonds were deemed largely worthless for many decades – many were thrown away or just left to rot at attics.

For the French who retained the bonds, however, hope for a settlement was reignited in 1986 when the Soviet government changed tack and settled with British holders of Czar Bonds. This settlement was not for any altruistic reasons but because the Soviets wanted to get hold of large amounts of Czarist money frozen in 1917 that was still sitting in British banks. Logically, it follows that you cannot, on the one hand, refuse to repay Czar-era debt while, on the other hand, claiming Czar-era money, so a final compromise was reached with the British government and over £46 million was paid out to bondholders.

The French did get a settlement of sorts in 1996 when the Yeltsin government paid $400 million in an agreement with the French government. But large groups of bondholders refused to accept the payment, saying it was far too small, arguing instead that the amount should have been in the billions. In fact, Bloomberg last week reported that these outstanding bonds could be worth $100 billion!

This issue has arisen again recently because the Paris-based International Federative Association for Russian Bond Holders, or AFIPER, announced that it will be trying to recoup part of the century-old debt through the courts. It will be going after Russian property in both Paris and Nice. The property in Nice is the largest Orthodox cathedral outside of Russia and it was returned to Russia a few weeks ago by a French court:

The court upheld the Russian government’s position that since the czarists had bought the land and built the church using state money, the cathedral remains the property of the Russian government, meaning that Moscow could legally reclaim it now that ACOR’s lease has expired. Decades of Soviet uninterest in the property, the court decided, did not undermine Russia’s entitlement to it today.

And in Paris, the bondholders are targeting a recent purchase by the Russian government of the Meteo France building near the Eiffel Tower for an undisclosed sum.

The Russians have vowed to fight any court action, arguing that “when Russia made a $400 million payment that France said “definitively” settled debt incurred to it before 1945.”

Not so, said Eric Sanitas, director of AFIPER, which estimates that as many as 10 million czarist bonds may be in French hands: “The Russian state owes the French people a lot of money and there is no date limit for that, even if some of this debt is more than 100 years old,” .

Russian Czar Bonds can still be found on eBay

Mississippi: the oldest unpaid debt on record

In the oldest and one of the more reprehensible cases of default, then repudiation, of debt was by the state of Mississippi in 1840. As the story goes, Mississippi issued $7 million worth of bonds in the 1830s and used the money to establish two banks—the Planters’ Bank and the Union Bank. Both banks failed spectacularly, brought down by poor investments. Displaying no sense of Southern honour, thenceforth, the State refused to honour the bonds, even holding a referendum in which the people voted not to repay any of the lost money (wouldn’t the people always vote for this if given the choice?).

But this did not let Mississippi off the hook. The London based Corporation of Foreign Bond Holders (CFBH), set up in 1868 to protect the interest of British bondholders who invested anywhere in the world, pursued repayment of these bonds for more than 100 years. A request by the CFBH for a settlement of this debt in 1878 was responded to by the Mississippi legislature with a resolution passed in 1875:

“By the provisions of the present Constitution, the State is prohibited from ever legalising these bonds, the clause, which was adopted in 1875, reading: “Nor shall the State assume, redeem, secure, or pay any indebtedness claim to be due by the State of Mississippi, to any person, association or corporation whatsoever, claiming the same as owners, holders, or assignees, of any bond or bonds known as the Union Bank bonds, or Planters’ Bank bonds.”

The CFBH’s pursuit of this debt across time can be seen in letters such as the following, which was sent to the New York Times in 1913. In it, the CFBH seeks to correct an earlier assertion in the newspaper about the good standing of Mississippi’s then-current credit position.

 “Mississippi, between 1831 in 1838, borrowed $7 million, for which she obtained full value, and the proceeds of which she invested in a Planters’ and Union Banks.  As long as the banks were financially successful the State paid her debt to the holders of the bonds.  But when bad times came and the banks failed, largely, it is believed, owing to unfortunate speculation, Mississippi suspended payments, and has since consistently refuse to recognize defaulted obligations.”

When the Soviets settled their Czar-era debt with the British in 1986, Michael Gough, director of the Corporation of Foreign Bond Holders stated that “The lesson is that defaulted debts don’t go away, and it would be a mistake for any debtor to think that we will forget. We are still after Mississippi 145 years later.”

Unfortunately, two years later, in 1988, the Corporation of Foreign Bond Holders was placed in receivership. Mississippi never paid up but, for what it is worth, Mississippi was never again able to raise money on the London financial markets.