Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Progressive Movie Theater: Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11"



After a hiatus, we're back in action. And today, we're unveiling a new regular series on this blog.

Welcome to the first edition of Progressive Movie Theater, a series in which we take a look at notable progressive/left-leaning cinema.

Our film today is Michael Moore's 2004 documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11. After more than a decade, the film still is an effective indictment of the disastrous Bush/Cheney years.

I recall watching Fahrenheit 9/11 in the theater here in Texas (not exactly a blue state). After the film was over, I heard the loudest and most enthusiastic applause I've ever heard in a movie theater. Similar reaction was noted in theaters across the U.S.

It was clear that many people across the U.S. were frustrated and fed up with the Bush administration. And Fahrenheit 9/11 did a good job of expressing our frustrations. It's important to note that, at the time, Bush was still being treated with kid gloves by the mainstream media.

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Bush's approval rating had soared to 90 percent. I'm still unclear as to exactly why this was. After all, the 9/11 attacks represented a spectacular failure on the part of the mega-trillion-dollar Military Industrial Complex's presumed first priority (to protect the homeland). As Commander-in-Chief, Bush hardly displayed competent leadership in the period leading up to the attacks.

And yet the nation rallied around Bush after 9/11. It's impossible to fathom something like that happening today if another 9/11-style attack occurred. The fact is, there would certainly be no honeymoon for President Obama. Let's face it: from Day One, there would be constant calls for Obama's resignation, as well as calls for impeachment. The attacks would in fact haunt the Democratic Party as a whole for decades to come.

In any case, back to Fahrenheit 9/11. I maintain that Moore's angry film was probably the first successful high-profile pinprick of the Bush White House. For Bush, it was all downhill from there. After the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush's popularity went into a nose dive and never recovered. Indeed, today, he is still widely regarded as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.

But back in 2004, Moore was there, on the big screen, telling us that Bush was a disastrous president---really back before any other major media figure dared express such a view. In the years to come, Moore was vindicated, time and again.

As Moore stated in his Oscar speech on March 23, 2003 (only four days after the start of the Iraq War):

"We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons."

It was a remarkably prescient remark, made at a time when all the serious "conventional wisdom" was in agreement with Bush's insistence that Saddam had WMDs. Of course, as it turned out, Moore was right and Bush/Cheney and the other warmongering NeoCons were revealed to be a bunch of liars.

I find that Fahrenheit 9/11 holds up very well over a decade later. There are still many important questions the film raises that have never been adequately explained.

But one thing I find fascinating is that, if you really listen to the film's message, it's clear that the villain of Fahrenheit 9/11 wasn't really the Bush/Cheney NeoCons. It was the mainstream media.

After all, one can't really blame Bush/Cheney for their warmongering and illegal and immoral behavior, any more than you can blame a lion who eats a small child who wanders into his cage. That's what lions do. And invading other nations on false pretences to steal their oil is what you'd expect from a bunch of corrupt thugs like the Bush/Cheney NeoCons.

No, let's take a look at the film's real villains: the mainstream media. It's clear that, at every step of the Bush/Cheney administration, the media completely and totally failed to properly investigate what was going on and to deliver the truth to the American people. If the media had done its job, I believe the Iraq War would probably have never taken place. But instead of doing its job, media outlets like The New York Times assured us that Bush's case for war was solid. Those were the real villains of the Bush/Cheney years.

Incidentally, Moore has a new film on the way, Where to Invade Next. It should be released in the next couple of months. Below, you can view the trailer for this film.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Progressive Music Classics. Fela Kuti: "Shuffering and Shmiling"



Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics, a salute to left-leaning music that champions the cause of working-class people around the world.

It's interesting how, for such a supposedly discredited philosopher, so much of Marx's teachings hold up well today. Case in point: Marx's famous statement, "Religion is the opium of the people."

The great Nigerian musician Fela Kuti also took aim at organized religion in his masterful 1978 track, "Shuffering and Shmiling," (sic).

Specifically, Kuti was targeting imported religions like Christianity and Islam, which he believed were causing many African working-class people to be passive in the face of corrupt Western-supported political regimes.

As Lenin once stated, "Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward."

Like Lenin, Kuti could clearly see that the African masses were being cynically manipulated by the Nigerian kleptocracy, as it systematically looted the nation.

The message of "Shuffering and Shmiling" initially takes the listener by surprise. As is the case with many Kuti tracks, the song takes a while to unfold, before delivering a jolt.

Kuti begins by gently asking for the listener's attention:

"You Africans, listen to me as Africans,
And you non-Africans, listen to me with open mind."

Then, out of nowhere, Kuti delivers his angry message to startling effect:

"I want you all to please take your minds
Out of this musical contraption,
And put your minds into any goddamn church,
Any goddamn mosque."

This is definitely no "Don't Worry, Be Happy," sing-along track. Like many Kuti works, it's a song that has both a strong groove, as well as a message. (It's the sort of brave statement that earned Kuti the violent wrath of Nigeria's power elite).

The Nigeria of 1978 is seemingly a long ways from the America of 2015. But in some ways, the differences aren't that great. One only has to see how today's GOP has cynically manipulated many working-class Americans to vote against their own interests, via "Christian" hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Today's Republican Party has wrapped itself in the flag and in a virulent form of fundamentalist "Christianity" that takes the teachings of Jesus and somehow converts them into a jingoistic, bigoted, twisted value system that has nothing but contempt for working-class people.

In that sense, the GOP is every bit as cynical as the corrupt 1970s Nigerian kleptocracy that looted and impoverished that nation. And Kuti's message is still ever bit as relevant today as it was in 1978.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

"American Sniper": Chris Kyle Was a Perfect Poster Boy for Bush's War of Lies


Clint Eastwood's blockbuster film, American Sniper purports to tell the story of real-life U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. But this is nonsense. The movie character actually has little in common with the real-life Kyle, who was a twisted, bigoted, dishonest person who (in his 2012 memoir) wrote that killing Iraqis was "fun."

What kind of person says that killing people is "fun"? (Well, outside of Jack the Ripper-type sociopaths?)

People like this aren't heroes. They certainly shouldn't have a place in our nation's military.

As the U.K. Guardian noted, Kyle had nothing but contempt for Iraqis. "I hate the damn savages," he wrote. "I couldn't give a flying fuck about the Iraqis."

But just who were the real "savages"?

After all, it was Bush's thugs who operated sinister CIA "black sites" where people were tortured. People who'd never been tried or convicted of anything faced horrific abuse.

When the Iraqis took up arms against the invading U.S. forces, it took the Bush team by surprise. After all the Bush people had claimed we'd be "greeted as liberators." The NeoCons also claimed the war would be over only in a matter of weeks.

Instead, as the war began to drag on and on and a vicious Iraqi insurgency arose, the NeoCons were stunned. But they really shouldn't have been.

As it turns out, the Iraqis were a proud people. Sure, many of them hated Saddam. But they hated occupying foreign armies even more.

And the Iraqis saw what was really going on (even if the typical Fox "News" viewing idiot didn't). That is, the real point of the war had nothing to do with the non-existent WMD. And it had even less to do with the Bush team's lofty talk about "freedom" and "democracy."

Instead, it was clear that the war was really all about stealing Iraq's oil for Dick Cheney's billionaire cronies.

Even if misinformed Americans didn't grasp this truth, the rest of the world did (not least the Iraqi people).

After all, the Iraqis knew that Bush's WMD claims were bullshit. The Iraqis saw first-hand how when the invading U.S. forces entered Baghdad, they raced to the Iraqi oil ministry building. The massive building was immediately put under round-the-clock surveillance by troops and was surrounded by 50 tanks, while sharpshooters were positioned on the roof and windows.

Meanwhile, in the growing chaos, Iraq's museums, banks, hotels and libraries were ransacked (or burned). Priceless ancient Iraqi manuscripts went up in flames. But the oil ministry remained secure.

Thus, it was clear to any Iraqi with eyes what the real point of the war was.

None of this seemed to bother Chris Kyle, though. To him, the Iraqis were savages and had no right to fight back against an invading army. To Kyle, shooting Iraqis with a sniper's rifle from a rooftop was like one big PlayStation video game. It was "fun."

In this respect, Kyle was actually quite a bit like George W. Bush. Both men were incurious types. Both men often went with their guts. Both men were absolutely 100 percent convinced of how right they were. (One recalls the memorable press conference where Bush was astonishingly unable to recall any mistakes that he'd made after 9/11).

Kyle and Bush also had one other big thing in common. They were both liars.

Kyle made all kinds of grand claims that never held up to scrutiny. For example, he made unlikely claims about killing looters during Hurricane Katrina that were never substantiated. He also made claims against Navy veteran Jesse Ventura that turned out to be bullshit. (Ventura later won a hefty defamation lawsuit against Kyle).

Ventura continues to slam Kyle's memoir as untrue. "The book is not a true story," Ventura said in a recent podcast. "The book had fabrication and fiction written into it."

Kyle remains a hero to millions of people (mostly Bush-loving wingnuts who continue to still insist the Iraq War was a righteous enterprise). Frankly, a lot of these people scare me. If you read the recent hate-filled, bigoted comments of people who've criticized Kyle (like Michael Moore) it's clear that a lot of these people are as twisted as their hero.

Kyle may be a hero to some. But to me, he's not. People who claim that killing people is "fun" have no fucking place in the U.S. military.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Exodus" Story Reveals Bible's Dishonesty


Although some might be loath to admit it, many educated adults (even non-fundamentalist Christians) are aware that the Bible is perhaps not the best source of history.

I mean, how many people still take the story of Adam and Eve seriously any more? But I suspect that most people are still unaware of just how totally wrong the Bible is as far as anything remotely approaching real history.

This wouldn't be that big a deal, except for the fact that so many people take the Bible very seriously as a profound book of wisdom. The massive and growing population of Fundamentalists continue to believe the Bible is nothing less than the divinely-inspired, inerrant Word of God.

But the Bible is profoundly wrong in its historical accuracy. The "Exodus" story (recently the subject of a big budget Hollywood Ridley Scott film) is a good example. Some people might question certain fantastic aspects of the story (like the parting of the Red Sea). But I think most people accept that there must be at least a kernel of truth to the story's main points (such as that there really was once a big enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt). Many people continue to believe that this has been confirmed in the archaeological record.

But there's a big problem to this belief: it's simply not true. Nothing in the Exodus story has ever been confirmed by any serious archaeologist, despite long quests to try to confirm anything remotely related to the Bible story.

The fact is, even many Bible apologists have quietly abandoned their quest to try to confirm the Exodus story. The problem is that there is simply not a shred of historical evidence that any of this really happened. Forget wild tales like the parting of the Red Sea---there isn't even the slightest bit of evidence that there was an Exodus captivity in the first place.

This whole story is a fairy tale. The fact is, the story of Exodus is one big lie. And if this well-known Bible story is a lie, then, really how truthful is any aspect of the Bible?

The Bible is a dishonest book, period.

A lot of agnostics spend their time attacking the absurdities, contradictions and sheer nonsense of the Bible's philosophical teachings. But if they're trying to convince believers, they're wasting their time. The Bible is so vague and archaic that the sort of people who take it seriously are never going to be dissuaded via that approach.

What agnostics should be doing is attacking the historicity of the Bible itself. People should be aware of just how many of these Bible tales lack the slightest shred of historical evidence to support them.

It's time for humanity to move beyond the fairy tales, nonsense and superstition of absurd books like the Bible.

In much of Europe, this is already taking place. Sadly, in America, large numbers of people continue to take the Bible seriously (and try to ram their twisted beliefs down the throats of other people).

Friday, December 05, 2014

Great Progressive Moments: Right-Wing Liar Dinesh D'Souza Gets Demolished By Thom Hartmann



Dinesh D'Souza is a professional right-wing liar. Like Bill O'Reilly and the rest of the right-wing noise machine, D'Souza loves to spew lies during debates. He also constantly sets up absurd straw-man arguments to try to undercut his opponents. Because of his relentless approach and because of the nature of live on-air debates, D'Souza often sounds a lot more authoritative and informed than he really is.

Lots of wingnut commentators do this sort of thing. But D'Souza has it down to an art form. It basically means that D'Souza gets away with an awful lot of crap on the airwaves. He is relentless in his tactics and is seemingly a tough foe to challenge, simply because he appears to know what the f*ck he's talking about.

Even the likes of the mighty Bill Maher has often had a tough time dealing with D'Souza's lies during debates. Maher himself is always very informed and quick on his feet. But keeping up with D'Souza's endless torrent of bullsh*t requires a great deal of stamina.

Note how in this debate, D'Souza arrogantly insists that there were GOP lawmakers who voted for Bill Clinton's 1993 tax increase and deficit reduction package. (Maher, correctly, points out that every single GOP lawmaker voted against it).

The only progressive commentator I've seen yet who is able to comprehensively demolish D'Souza on the airwaves is the great Thom Hartmann.

When you debate Hartmann, you've got to bring your A game. A erudite scholar with an amazing grasp of an huge array of subjects, Hartmann is just the sort of person to effectively counter D'Souza's bullsh*t (as seen in the video above). Every time D'Souza spews yet another false right-wing talking point, Hartmann is there to demolish it with solid facts and figures. It's a masterful performance by one of America's greatest progressive minds.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Is a Fox News gig in Darren Wilson's future?


There are three things in life that are inevitable. Death, taxes, and the fact that Fox News loves white males who are involved racially divisive situations. For evidence of that, look no further than the likes of the right-wing ex-cop Mark Fuhrman, who has made regular appearances on Sean Hannity's program.

Fuhrman, in fact, rode his notoriety from the O.J. trial to fame and fortune (and a lucrative book-writing and radio talk show career).

Fox News has long embraced characters like Fuhrman. It all feeds into the network's unstated dog-whistle view that white males are the real persecuted minority in America. That, in turn, serves a handy purpose for the America's Rich & Powerful. After all, there's nothing like playing the race card to get angry white working class males to vote against their own class interests. (You'll be hearing a lot of these views from your crazy right-wing uncle during Thanksgiving dinner).

For a long time, America's Ownership Class has cynically used racial divisions to advance its own interests. In the 19th century, for example, the Robber Barons often pitted ethnic groups (Polish and Irish people, for example) against each other to divide and distract workers and hamper their efforts to organize.

And, boy, could the Rich & Powerful use some distractions right about now. After all, the nation is falling apart and divisions between the classes are growing to unprecedented levels. Class mobility is falling. And the Ownership Class desperately needs some good distractions to keep the average Joe from grasping that the nation is being systematically looted by the rich. (See corporate welfare, the war profiteering "industry," and the 2008 looting of Wall Street for examples).

I mention all of this simply to point out that nobody should be feeling too sorry for Ferguson Police Department officer Darren Wilson. After all, if he so chooses, he likely has opportunities ahead of him as a Fox News commentator.

I have little doubt that a year from now, when tensions over this case have begun to settle, Wilson will get a call from Fox News. Appearances on right-wing talk radio and even a book career no doubt will beckon, as well.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Hidden, Long-Term Cost of Fracking


Fracking is big business in America these days. Business commentators have gushed that the fracking boom has caused an economic boom in the United States. They claim fracking gives a competitive boost to our industries, thanks to lower fuel prices.

On the other side, activists have attacked the environmental harm caused by fracking. This was memorably demonstrated in the 2010 documentary, Gasland, that showed the environmental damage done by fracking to communities across the U.S.

Fracking is no doubt bad for the environment. And the shale gas being released is bad for the climate change crisis.

But there's another, mostly hidden, cost to the fracking industry that rarely gets much attention.

That is: while the fracking boom may produce short term economic prosperity, it will be a disaster for U.S. industry over the long term.

Why is this?

It's because fracking merely postpones the day when America must transition over to renewable energy. That will be a complex, costly process. But it is an inevitability. And the longer we postpone this, the more costly it will become.

Other industrialized nations, mostly in Europe, are now working furiously to make the difficult transition to renewables.

For example, Germany is working hard to implement its ambitious Energiewende policy of transitioning over to renewable energy. The costs will be massive---perhaps more than $1 trillion. And it will take decades to implement.

Germany is now making the sort of difficult choices that all nations will eventually be forced to make. The fact is, even with fracking technologies, shale gas is a finite resource. It's an industry that a number of skeptics like Bill Powers and Richard Heinberg have convincingly argued is overhyped.

Many business commentators in the U.S. have boasted that fracking gives U.S. industry lower energy costs and a competitive advantage over their overseas rivals. But this is the short of narrow-minded thinking that has caused great damage to U.S. industry over the decades. It's the same sort of short-term thinking that led Detroit to focus on building huge gas-guzzling cars in the 1950s and 1960s (when the Japanese and Germans were busy perfecting small, fuel-efficient vehicles that later conquered world markets).

Yes, in the short term, U.S. industry may enjoy an advantage.

But over the long term, it's clear that the German Energiewende approach will prove to be the correct approach to energy policy. Yes, it will be costly. But eventually, it will pay for itself.

In fact, once German industry masters this technology, it will no doubt be exported to other nations that wish to move away from fossil fuels. The future demand should be huge.

Other nations, like Japan, China and Spain are working hard to progress down the long road of transitioning over to renewable energy.

The very fact that high-tech renewable energy technology is cutting-edge, costly, and complex makes it appealing to export-oriented nations like Germany and Japan. These nations have always preferred to embrace industries that have high entry barriers and good export prospects.

But by embracing fracking's false promise, the U.S. is only delaying the inevitable. U.S. industry could be a major future player in high-tech renewable energy industries. But instead, it's likely that we'll cede control over these crucial industries to other nations like Germany and Japan. It's yet another step in the long, sad story of America becoming more and more like a Third World nation.

For all the billions of dollars we spend on fracking, at the end of the day, all we'll be left with are dry holes in the ground (and lots of areas where the groundwater is contaminated with fracking chemicals).

Fracking is not just bad for the environment. It will likely actually hurt America's economic prospects over the long term.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

God's Own Army: A Progressive Poem


Inspired by Manifesto Joe, (a stellar poet who has done a lot of good work) I figured I'd give this poetry thing a shot.

God's Own Army

They are God's own army,
and they are knocking at the door.

They'll save you from the queers,
and they'll save you from the whores.

They'll tell you who God hates,
so you too can go to war.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Progressive Music Classics. The Mekons: "This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse"



Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics, a salute to left-leaning music that champions the cause of working-class people around the world.

The narrative of the Rich & Powerful and the corporate media was simple back in the day. When the Soviet Union died, we were told, socialism died. End of story.

In 1991, it was clearly time to bury Das Kapital in the landfill and embrace capitalism. The End of History, as Francis Fukuyama put it, was upon us.

However, a strange thing happened along the way to socialism's funeral.

First of all, decades of unregulated, brutal, dog-eat-dog "free" markets led to a spectacular growing divide between the classes. The Top One Percent saw its fortunes (and political influence) soar. The Middle Class pretty much died. And the poor grew vastly in number.

Once again, a lot of people started asking the question, "Is capitalism really the best system we can come up with?"

And the ideas of Karl Marx once again began to be debated. In fact, one of the surprise bestsellers of this year was Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty. It was an eye-opening book that basically served to update Marx's observations with current data.

Amazingly, for a relatively dry academic book, Capital soared to the top of the bestseller lists. Even the The Financial Times (hardly a lefty newspaper) had kind words to say about Piketty's book and admitted that he had raised important points.

It's clear that Piketty hit a nerve and raised important points about the failures of unregulated capitalism.

But wait a minute: haven't we already been through this whole debate before? Didn't socialism die back in 1991? Weren't we told that capitalism was the only way forward?

Well, actually no.

As British band The Mekons pointed out in their classic 1991 song, what was buried with the Soviet Union wasn't the real deal anyway. As The Mekons put it: "This Funeral is For the Wrong Corpse."

They're queuing up to dance on Socialism's grave,
This is my testimony,
a dinosaur's confession,
but how can something really be dead,
when it hasn't even happened?"


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams Slices & Dices George W. Bush, Sarah Palin



A lot of great comics (Steve Martin, Woody Allen) pretty much left stand-up comedy behind when they went to Hollywood. But the great Robin Williams (1951-2014) not only never abandoned stand-up, he excelled at it all his life.

In stand-up mode, Williams was a true giant that towered above today's other puerile, mediocre talentless hacks, like Larry the Cable Guy and Dennis Miller.

On-stage, Williams was America's greatest Progressive Truth Teller since Bill Hicks. And unlike the relentlessly politically uncompromising Hicks, Williams was so damn funny that he had fans across the political spectrum. Since Williams died, I've chatted with a number of people, including Conservatives. Nobody I've yet talked to has said a word about Williams' politics.

In the video above, Williams is in fine stand-up form in a U.K. appearance shortly after the election of Barack Obama.

Williams brings the house down as he skewers the likes of George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and John McCain. His trademark hysterical rapid-fire delivery is a marvel to behold and he keeps up an astonishing pace of smart political comic turns and dozens of spot-on impersonations of the Rich & Powerful.

No matter what your political persuasion, it's hard not to laugh.

Smart political comedy just lost one of its greatest talents. The world is a more empty place now.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

How Unions Are Unfairly Scapegoated For Detroit's Woes


There are many reasons for the catastrophic decline of the once-mighty U.S. auto industry over the decades. But it's unfair and inaccurate to point the main finger of blame at unions, the usual scapegoat.

The world's two dominant auto-exporting nations are Germany and Japan. The auto industries in those two nations are heavily unionized. And what's more, unions in Germany and Japan are backed up by strong pro-labor laws that U.S. workers could only dream of.

Although the auto industries of Germany and Japan are heavily unionized, those two nations have absolutely crushed the U.S. auto industry in markets around the world in recent decades. And they've consistently beaten Detroit on its own turf, as well.

In fact, the only reason the U.S. even still has a domestic auto industry at all these days is that Japan Inc. deliberately pulled its punches with "voluntary export restraints" in the 1980s. The latter was a shrewd move by Tokyo to head off moves by the U.S. to raise trade barriers.

Many Conservatives and "free-market" advocates love to scapegoat unions as the cause for Detroit's decline. But as usual, the GOP's simplistic analysis has little to do with the real world.

The fact is, if unions are so bad, then why do the auto industries of Germany and Japan continue to go from strength to strength in conquering world markets? I've done quite a bit of world travel myself and I've seen a number of nations where American cars are a very rare sight on the roads these days. But I have yet to see a country where the roads aren't filled with Volkswagens, BMWs and Toyotas. (It's true that Japan has struggled in China---but that is for political reasons, not competitive reasons).

Although no "free market" U.S. economist would ever admit this, it's clear that unions have actually helped increase the competitiveness of the Japanese and German auto industries.

How? For a start, unions and strong pro-worker labor laws, have essentially forced the auto industries of Germany and Japan to take a very long-term view. By contrast, Detroit (in common with U.S. corporations in general) has always taken a very short-term view.

The likes of General Motors and Ford have simply focused on the next quarter's profits. Meanwhile, the likes of BMW and Toyota have traditionally planned decades ahead.

Unions in Germany offer labor protections that U.S. workers would have a difficult time grasping. The average German worker enjoys an astonishing 6 to 8 weeks of paid vacation. In fact, figures from 2012 show that Germans enjoy among the shortest work hours of any industrialized nation. On average, Germans work around 1,397 hours per year (versus the 1,790 hours that U.S. workers put in). Despite this, Germany vies with China for the title of the world's biggest exporting nation.

Even the supposedly "workaholic" Japanese put in fewer average hours yearly (1,745 hours) than U.S. workers do these days. The fact most Americans feel otherwise is due to stereotypes about the Japanese that are as outdated as the idea that "Made in Japan" is a sign of subpar quality. (In reality, Japanese manufacturers lead the world in the sophistication of their high-tech manufacturing, virtually all of which is done by union labor).

In addition to short working hours, all German auto workers enjoy the protections of two unions: the industry union (the powerful IG Metall), as well as a "works council" union. And unlike U.S. workers, German labor law requires that German workers get representation on companies' board of directors.

And if Germany's labor laws look pretty good for workers, it could be argued that Japanese workers get an even better deal in many ways. After all, in accordance with Japanese law, employees are the top priority for corporations, followed by customers and (in last place) shareholders.

Strong Japanese labor laws make it virtually impossible for large corporations to do mass layoffs. Although the U.S. mainstream media has been declaring the death of so-called "lifetime employment" in Japan, the fact is, the system remains largely intact.

The U.S. mainstream media (particularly the business press) has long criticized the "high wages" of U.S. auto workers as contributing to Detroit's woes.

But this ignores the fact that German and Japanese auto workers get even better pay than U.S. auto workers. However, this reality is often obscured by the U.S. mainstream media, which tends to report the wages of overseas auto workers using the misleading so-called "purchasing power parity" yardstick. According to the latter, Japanese auto workers' wages are often reported as being lower than U.S. auto workers wages, when in fact Japanese workers make among the highest wages in the world when measured by market rates.

Speaking of high wages, the Germans are hardly slouches in that regard, either. In 2011, Forbes magazine reported that the average auto worker in Germany made $67.14 per hour. By contrast, the average U.S. auto worker made $33.77 per hour. Despite this, excluding "transplant" assembly plants, Germany produces more automobiles than the U.S. (5.5 million in 2010, vs. 2.7 million in the U.S.)

How can this be? I believe a good case could be made that unions, as well as smart labor laws, have actually been a big plus for the auto industries of Japan and Germany. As previously mentioned, unions encourage the auto industries of those nations to take a very long-term view.

Take the Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle. Since its introduction in 1997, the Prius, a very high-tech advanced car, has been an enormous home run for Toyota. But it took a very long-range vision and many years of hard work before the first Prius rolled off the assembly line.

In the meantime, Detroit's auto executives scoffed at the idea of hybrids. At first, they claimed that the technology wasn't feasible. Then, they claimed that hybrid cars would never sell. They insisted that consumers were only interested in buying big, gas-guzzling SUVs.

In doing so, Detroit's CEOs were continuing in a long tradition of making the sort of catastrophic decisions that have doomed the U.S. auto industry over the decades.

Detroit's executives have been wrong on just about every major important trend in the global auto industry for decades. They were wrong when they initially rejected air bags, claiming they were impractical and would never sell. They were wrong in the 1960s when they refused to place much emphasis on building the sort of practical, fuel efficient cars that would explode in popularity worldwide during the 1973 oil crisis. (When that crisis hit, Germany and Japan were already well-placed to cash in, thanks to their prowess in building small, fuel-efficient cars).

It's important to note that these disastrous decisions were made by Detroit's CEOs, not by the unions. And what's even more outrageous is that Detroit's CEOs have pulled down pay packages that are vastly larger than German and Japanese auto CEOs.

The latter fact was memorably illustrated during trade talks between Japanese and U.S. automakers back in 1992. The Tokyo negotiators pointed out that U.S. auto executives made vastly larger pay packages than their Japanese counterparts. The U.S. negotiators angrily dismissed this point as a "red herring."

Perhaps it was, but the Japanese had a point that was apparently missed by the U.S. media. That is: why on earth are Detroit's CEOs paid so well in the first place when they've presided over the disastrous decline of the U.S. auto industry over the decades?

Readers with a long memory might recall that the 1992 talks included the infamous incident in which George H. W. Bush collapsed and vomited on the Japanese prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa. In a way, it was symbolic of the way U.S. workers have been treated since unions were crushed, starting with the Reagan administration.

Today, unions continue to get loads of blame, particularly by the Republicans, for all that is wrong with the U.S. economy.

This "blame the unions" approach dates back to the Reagan years, when "free market" Chicago school economists assured U.S. leaders that if they crushed organized labor and embraced dog-eat-dog capitalism, the U.S. economy would soar. In reality, the only thing that soared was the pay packages of short-sighted CEOs.

Three decades later, unions are vastly weaker. Unions now only represent around 7 percent of the private sector workforce (versus 35 percent back in the 1950s). And yet, America's manufacturing base is at an all-time low. Detroit is in ruins. It's impossible to imagine that the U.S. auto industry will ever again pose a challenge to the mighty auto industries of Germany and Japan.

Side note: much has been written about the successes of the non-unionized auto plants that have sprung up in southern states in recent decades. But the latter hardly represent any sort of real renaissance for the U.S. auto industry.

In fact, these auto plants are doing nothing more than final assembly (which is by far the least sophisticated part of the overall auto manufacturing process). The real heavy lifting, as far as technological know-how, continues to be done in Japan and Germany.

The existence of these assembly plants hardly demonstrates any real strength in U.S. auto industry competitiveness. Rather, they exist because the Germans and Japanese (and increasingly, the Koreans) are happy to farm out low-tech "grunt work" to low wage plants in the U.S. (as well as various other similar facilities in Third World nations across the globe).

Increasingly, it is becoming apparent that the U.S. itself is becoming a Third World nation. And indeed, it is hard to conclude otherwise.

The U.S. auto industry was once the awe and envy of the world. Thanks in large part to the auto industry, the U.S. became the greatest economic national success story in world history (at least, until the recent spectacular rise of China).

There are many reasons for the decline of the U.S. auto industry. Incompetent, short-sighted CEOs. Stupid trade policies. The Reagan administration's embrace of the service economy and the subsequent neglect of America's manufacturing base. A naive embrace by U.S. leaders of the pipe dream called "free trade." A disastrous neglect of America's infrastructure and public schools (even as our nation's bloated military budgets soared into the stratosphere).

But frankly, it's misguided, and wrong, to point the main finger of blame at unions. To be sure, unions aren't entirely blameless. But it's clear that there were many other factors in Detroit's decline. The continued existence of powerful unions and strong pro-worker labor laws in Germany and Japan only confirms this point.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cliven Bundy: The Real Welfare Leech


I don't know much about the cattle business. But I'd suspect that if one owns a cattle ranch, your biggest expense by far is buying food for your cattle.

Wingnut hero Cliven Bundy owns a prosperous cattle business. His cattle get to graze for free on publicly owned land. (That's right: all taxpayers, including you and me, are subsidizing Bundy's business). He refuses to pay the $1 million he owes the government for supplying his cattle with free food over the decades.

In short, Bundy is a government welfare leech. He can't be bothered to pay the same grazing fees that tens of thousands of other ranchers across the West pay every year.

And yet, incredibly, this right-wing asshole has the gall to criticize African-Americans for living off "government subsidies." That, in and of itself, is an outrageous lie. The vast majority of African-Americans in fact never collect any kind of government subsidies (although this is widely believed by the Rush Limbaugh crowd).

Speaking of which, Bundy's comments on African-Americans sent the previously supportive right-wing media scurrying away from Bundy on Thursday.

Which raises a question: why?

After all, the right-wing media and its wingnut followers pretty much all believe what Bundy said about African-Americans. Switch on a wingnut talk radio station on any week day and you'll hear similar views (although perhaps not as crudely or explicitly expressed). I myself have had countless discussions with right-wingers over the years and they all have expressed similar views to Bundy's.

Limbaugh, the de facto spokesman for the GOP has in fact been making racist and offensive remarks about African-Americans and other minorities for many years. So has Fox News.

And yet, Fox News, after strongly supporting Bundy earlier this month, meekly tiptoed from the whole story after Bundy's racist remarks.