Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wikileaks and American 'Rare Earths' Policy: The Case for Spy vs. Spy

News that China is further restricting exports of so-called "rare earths" metals - not so rare, in fact, as their name comes from where they are located on the Periodic Table of elements - illustrates the hypocricy of the knee-jerk reaction to the infamous Wikileaks data dump by politicians across the political spectrum.

The New York Times reports today that China is poised to further tighten the limits on the amount of  'rare earth' metals its mines may export in 2011. 'Rare earth' metals are essential in a wide array of high tech manufacturing processes, from producing advanced car batteries and smart phones, to making solar panels and computer chips.

China's move to further restrict its export quotas, "threatens to cause further difficulties for manufacturers already struggling with short supplies and soaring prices,"the Times reports. "The reduction in quotas for the early months of 2011 — a 35 percent drop in tonnage from the first half of this year — is the latest in a series of measures by Beijing that has gradually curtailed much of the world’s supply of rare earths."

The hypocrisy of lawmakers reactions to the Wikileaks disclosures is that the very document that was most-widely criticized as a threat to U.S. security - a cable to Hilary Clinton setting out a list of the "most critical" overseas infrastructure sites and resources - clearly identifies China's 'rare earths' mines as being vital to U.S. interests. Small wonder, as 'rare metals' are also key used in manufacturing key components of many advanced military hardware systems.

A beggar for punishment, I read the entire critical infrastructures cable that was summarized on the New York Times front page when the Wikileaks scandal first broke. The cable itself is a very boring laundry list of foreign infrastructure sites - mostly ports and the very numerous "landing sites" of the network of undersea cables that interconnects a very connected planet. It also lists Saudi Arabian oil fields and oil export terminals as critical overseas resources and structures. (Crap! That "top secret" information would certainly imperil U.S. interests if Al Qaeda - founded and largely funded by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian . . . for Pete's sake! - were ever to figure out how important Saudi oil exports are to the American economy.)

The three interesting takeaways I got from reading the secret cable's laundry list of the blatantly obvious were (a) how paranoid diplomats are about their ability to send secret diplomatic cables via underwater cables, (b) how many vital pharmaceuticals (including even rabies shots???) are manufactured in Western Europe, the home of (gasp!) socialized medicine, and (c) that China's 'rare earths' metals are, in fact, viewed by U.S. diplomats as a resource critical to U.S. interests.

And yet, the importance of 'rare metals' to U.S. interests (which I was aware of just from casually following CNN) would not have stood out had it not been for an article that I'd read in The Economist, published when China temporarily cut off 'rare earths' exports to Japan, in retaliation for Japan busting a Chinese fishing boat captain caught poaching in 'disputed' Japanese waters.

The article, published September 30th of 2010 - more than a year-and-a-half after the February 18th, 2009 diplomatic cable was sent - was one of the first of many such articles highlighting the dependency of the United States and its allies on Chinese 'rare earth' exports; exports that we now learn are being even further restricted by Chinese officials.

The kicker is, as The Economist points out, that the sole operating U.S. 'rare earth' mine (remember, 'rare earths' are not, in fact, rare) was shuttered in 2002, which was . . . oh, . . . about the time that off shoring American jobs to India and China really took off.

One has to ask: In whose interest was it to keep America's reliance on Chinese 'rare earths' exports a secret? Wouldn't have some lawmakers or consumer groups benefited from the information that for purely private economic reasons the U.S. had become almost wholly reliant on China on resources critical to its defense industries, its cell phone industries, its computer and high tech manufacturing industries?

Oh, right! Just about all of those industries (except perhaps, for the few companies manufacturing really critical defense hardware) have already been exported from the U.S. to China. Which just goes to show . . . "all politics are local, but some politics are just plain loco!"

As Wired Magazine's Evan Hansen ("Why Wikileaks Is Good for America") so eloquently wrote in highlighting the overblown and hypocritical political reaction to the Wikileaks disclosure:

"The greatest threat we face right now from WikiLeaks is not the information it has spilled and may spill in the future, but the reactionary response to it that’s building in the United States that promises to repudiate the rule of law and our free speech traditions, if left unchecked.

Secrecy is routinely posited as a critical component for effective governance, a premise that’s so widely accepted that even some journalists, whose job is to reveal the secret workings of governments, have declared WikiLeaks’ efforts to be out of bounds."
The reactionary, 'wrap yourself around the flag' responses of U.S. politicos to the publication of the leaked documents - some of whom have gone so far as to call for the execution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange - are not only inimical to democratic traditions guarded by a free press, they give cover to government officials who hide or misrepresent issues of vital importance to the country on the pretext of guarding its security.

I am firmly in agreement with Daniel Ellsberg - he of "Pentagon Papers" fame, who blew the whistle on what the military-industrial complex (that Ike warned us of) was up to in Vietnam. Mr. Ellsberg has called for more leaks and disclosure from an overly secretive government, rather than reactionary calls for more secretiveness, censorship and prosecutions.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

"What happens on Wall Street . . .er, in Vegas . . . stays in Vegas!"

Wall Street Bond Traders Set Up a Bookmaking Shop in Las Vegas
What a Christmas! Optically-challenged Wall Street bankers are truly the "gift that keeps on giving" to political humorists. The December 25th issue of the New York Times reports that blue-chip bonds trader, Cantor Fitzgerald, is opening a Nevada branch arm to trade in (i.e., make book on). . . drumroll, please . . . Sports Betting!!!

You just cannot make this stuff up, folks.

 Cantor Fitzgerald opens a new sports gambling operation, even though the reputed 'market-makers' obviously lack an effective marketing department? How profoundly 'tone-deaf' can these suspender-clad financial 'quants' be? Out of touch in their lofty Manhattan offices, or locked away in their homes within exclusive gated communities (purchased, no doubt, with their massive bonuses for well or ill-placed bets) have these obtuse bond bookies not heard politicians and commentators of all stripes railing about "closing the casinos on Wall Street" for the past two-and-a-half years?

It was on Wall Street, after all, that traders, such as those at Cantor Fitzgerald, crippled the world economy with huge bets on a market replete with "rigged" mortgage securitizations, exotic derivatives products and still ill-understood financial instruments like collateral debt obligations. Trying to play the "house" on a Wall Street caught up in a housing bubble, firms like Cantor Fitzgerald nearly "lost the house."

And nowWall Street trader want to "diversify" their operations by becoming legal bookies for the action on college and pro sports? (As NFL analyst, Chris Berman, would no doubt roar, "C'mon, Man!")

"Cantor’s push into Vegas," according to the Times, is being led by 61-year-old Lee Amaitis, "whose past includes a conviction in his 20s for dealing cocaine."

“There’s big money in this, especially now that we are moving onto the Strip,” Amaitis, dressed in character, wearing a gray pinstripe suit with the top two buttons of his white shirt undone, told the Times.  "Cantor Gaming," he points out, "mitigates its risk through volume." Sounds like its a classic "numbers racket" to me. Buggsy Siegel, another financial rogue who sought refuge on the wide open Vegas strip would - no doubt - be proud.

"Wall Street executives usually protest when their business is compared to a casino," the Times observes.  However, they note that gaming industry analysts (unsurprisingly) see the logic in Cantor's new gaming subsidiary. “Guys who trade Treasuries are doing it for basis points, and sports betting is not much different,” Jeffrey B. Logsdon, an entertainment and gaming analyst for BMO Capital Markets, told the Times. “Trading a million dollars in Treasuries is different than trading a billion. Sports betting is the same. You want the spread, volume and you see yourself as a match maker.”

Unlike the autumn 2008 break up of Wall Street's epic game of 3-Card 'Housing' Monte that led to the Great Recession and the ensuing financial crises that continue to rock world markets, a subject that will be picked apart and studied by economists and regulators for decades to come, "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

As noted, you just can't make up such folly. No one would believe you. But no matter how cynical and ironic this move is by one of Wall Street's highest rollers, at least they are being more upfront and intellectually honest about how they made (and will make) their billions: they hedge their bets and make book on the greed and gullibility of the gaming public.

My only question is how the ever-amenable bonds rating agencies, Moody's and Standards & Poor, might be leveraged to continue to shill for Cantor in its newest gambling venture?

But, enough already. . . . My Christmas humor stocking overfloweth!

Monday, November 22, 2010

"There Will Be Blood" Writes Nobel Laureate

Wow! This current level of political dysfunctionalism (if that's even a word?) isn't even funny. . . . It's
(a) unbelievable,
(b) frightening,
(c) sickening,
(d) inevitable, given the outright (outed-right; out-wrong?) cynicism and hypocrisy of Republican elected officials and politicos, or
(e) all of the above.

George W, Bush drives the economy off a cliff and elected Republicans throw it an anchor because there's (gasp!) a Democrat in the White House. If this were kindergarten, the Republican report card would read "doesn't play well with others."

Nobel-laureate and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, writes a sobering op-ed that clearly sets out how unbelievably frightening and sickening the inevitable Republican "do-nothing" obstructionism has become - and how perilous this is for the country.

"Helicopter Ben" Bernanke - say what you want about the Federal Reserve chairman who shot almost the whole wad of tools available to the Fed in order to turn the 'Great Depression II' into the 'Great Recession'- recommends that the powers-that-be do everything they can to promote consumer spending and kickstart a wallowing economy (including extending $300-a-week unemployment benefits to those of the 8 million Americans that lost their jobs during George W. Shrub's administration who haven't found one of the few jobs created under Obama).

And what's the Republican response?

Former GOP Senator Alan Simpson, Republican co-chair of the President's bi-partisan Federal Debt Commission, chortles, "I can't wait for the blood bath in April" when the Federal government's deficit spending inevitably hits the legislated limit on federal debt?

He "can't wait"? Even on his gold-plated Senatorial pension? What about the poor slob trying to find a replacement gig on $300 week for the manufacturing or back-end clerical job that got outsourced to China, Mexico or India by Shrub's cronies?

The GOPpers won't even move to help small businesses if the mega-rich don't get to continue paying less income tax than they did when the federal budget was last balanced - balanced under the nearly-impeached-by-the-GOP-fanatics, Bill Clinton.

President Clinton balanced the budget, even as the GOP went nuclear under Newt 'Gin-Grinch' and shut down the federal government - a move the Republican congressional majority-to-be-inaugurated has promised not to repeat. Yet, Mr. Simpson "can't wait for the bloodbath" that appears to be all but inevitable when the government hits the debt wall head-on. Never mind what is going on in Mr. Simpson's seemingly Seussian-heart (which is likely "two sizes too small"). What's going on in his head?

Notes the NYT's Paul Krugman:
"Now, you might think that the prospect of this kind of standoff, which might deny many Americans essential services, wreak havoc in financial markets and undermine America’s role in the world, would worry all men of good will. But no, Mr. Simpson “can’t wait.” And he’s what passes, these days, for a reasonable Republican."
What's that I hear echoing over the political landscape? "Smithers . . . Loose the hounds!"

Chortle, Chortle, Chortle . . . Gasp, Gasp . . . Choke . . . Gasp, Gasp . . . Choke . . . Gasp, Gasp . . . Croak. . . .

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dysfunctional Banks - The Optics Look Bad

You can't open the paper without reams of articles on the further meltdown of our banking system.  Now, 'Foreclosure-Gate' soaks up ink, like Goldman-Sach's investment bankers soaked up bonuses predicated on selling lousy securities made up of lousy mortgages to unsuspecting institutional investors who were duped by compliant ratings services.  Moody's really set the mood!

Of course, the optics of the whole deal look bad . . . but not as bad as this analyst's webcast talking to an outside expert who looks like he's simulcasting from county lockup! Check it out. . . .

Does this guy not look like he's wearing a prison jump suit? With the orange suit and the do-it-yourself haircut he looks like he's on a video remand hearing, rather than offering financial insight. I gotta shake my head.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dysfunctional Corporate Politics - Starbucks Bans Multi-Tasking

It's ugly out there, folks . . . and bound to get uglier, as Starbucks introduces new employee rules that are bound to lengthen your morning wait for a low-fat-mocha-caramel-vanilla-cappacino-americano, with a double-shot of expresso grande (or whatever floats your morning boat). News flash! It's a frickin' cup of coffee, for Pete's sake! Get over yourself. Particularly, you funky t-shirt, chino-wearing coffee "suits" in Seattle!

As was best said by Tom Hank's character in my favorite 1998 comedy-romancy/chick-flick, You've Got Mail:

"The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don't know what the hell they're doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self . . ."
 According to one source, Starbucks' "list of bizarre new edicts" are strangely  (and, quite frankly, Orwellian-ly) specific, including rules requiring employees to stand in one place, instead of scurrying around and (gasp!) multi-tasking.

The Wall Street Journal is reported to have got hold of the new Starbucks rules (which make McDonald's 'Clean, Don't Lean' policy, look liberally wimpy) that instruct their baristas to:

  • Steam milk for each individual drink (instead of steaming an entire pitcher for multiple coffees)
  • Rinse a pitcher every time it gets used
  • Stand still at the espresso bar rather than moving around the counter
  • Only use one espresso machine - not two.
  • Heaven forbid that a twenty-something counterperson working his or her way through college by slinging joe (yes, its just coffee) should attempt the never-tried-before art of "multi-tasking".

    I can just see a scrum of impatient and surly, caffeine-deprived java junkies jonesing for their morning Starbucks hit. Lord help the poor schmuck who can't speak Starbuckian, or comprehend with an unstimulated brain why on earth a small coffee is, in fact, now a 'tall' coffee in this brave new world of corporate chic.

    This whole item seems like Starbucks is taking a page from Coca-Cola's 'New Coke' strategy. (Hint: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!")

    I can only shake my head . . . and head for the exits.

    Monday, October 11, 2010

    Paladino Smugly Anti-Gay, Yet a Misogynist Who Distributed Bestiality Porn

    Can you get more dysfunctional than Carl Paladino, the Tea Party candidate that captured the Republican nomination for governor of New York?

    First, Paladino was outed for the racist and misogynist e-mails he shared around with his "friends" - purportedly, according to TPM, one e-mail which "shows a video of an African tribal dance, entitled "Obama Inauguration Rehearsal," while another depicts hardcore bestiality."

    Hard-core bestiality? How whacked is it that Paladino (who excused himself by saying he was in the construction business), can seriously be considered for high office when he distributes born purportedly showing a woman engaged in sex with a horse? Could any woman forgive and forget such disgusting behavior by the gubernatorial candidate?

    And, now, he is all over the airwaves and internet with his anti-gay views . . .

    What other description, other than purely dysfunctional, is there for a political candidate who has demonstrated by his words and actions that he is anti-gay, yet apparently pro-bestialty? He's probably pro-life and for the death penalty as well.


    I can only shake my head when I think that anyone would vote for this kook.

    Friday, October 8, 2010

    Functional/Apolitical: John Lennnon's 70th Birthday

    John Lennon
    October 9, 1940 - December 8, 190

    In a tribute to John Lennon, born seventy years ago today, here are two of his classics. The first, Imagine, Lennon's classic anthem of peace and idealism, was written after the Beatles breakup, and while the Vietnam War tragically dragged along during the Nixon administration.  The second, Come Together, was ostensibly written as a theme song for Jerry Brown's campaign for California Governor. (How ironic life can be! Thirty-five odd years later, Brown is again running for California Governor, and the idealism of the Boomer generation lies in tatters.)

    Thanks to Google for recognizing Lennon's birthday in their ever changing logo that recognizes the signifigance of  the days as they pass.

    Rest in Peace.