Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Cell"

The jury in the trial of Enron CEOs Jeff Skilling, 52 and Ken Lay, 64 came back with with a total of 25 guilty verdicts against the two men in Houston today after less than six days of deliberation. The charges included bank fraud, insider trading and securities fraud. Both men could be facing 25 years in prison and fines that are sure to be in the tens of millions of dollars. The Washington Post reports:

Enron's implosion in late 2001 put substantial pressure on the Bush administration, which had developed close ties to Lay, to distance itself from business malfeasance. Within months, President Bush mobilized federal agencies and launched a corporate fraud task force that has convicted more than 900 people, including 92 corporate presidents, 82 chief executive officers, 40 chief financial officers, 14 chief operating officers, and 17 corporate counsel or attorneys.

The behavior and eventual collapse of Enron has had many far reaching effects. The California energy crisis of 2001, which was proven to be a deliberate market manipulation by Enron to increase profits, cost the consumers and government of the state of California literally billions of dollars. Additionally, it was a contributing factor in the recall of governor Gray Davis and election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The eventual collapse of Enron destroyed the retirement account of thousands of its employees, who were encouraged to invest their 401k accounts in Enron stock right up until the bankruptcy. Finally, beyond this, Enron's collapse sent major shockwaves throughout the business economy, resulting in the downfall of their auditing firm, Arthur Anderson and involving many other large banks and investment banking firms.

There was nervousness from many ex-Enron employees that both men may have been exonerated, due the trial being in Houston and the precedence of the innocent verdict in the recent trial of HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy. Though these guilty verdicts are a great first step, Ken and Jeff won't be fitted for their orange jumpsuits yet. There is a probable years long appeal process soon the be underway:

Daniel M. Petrocelli, the charismatic defense lawyer for Skilling, and Michael W. Ramsey, the lead lawyer for Lay, vowed to mount years-long appeals that they claimed would exonerate their clients. Both defendants have yet to resolve civil lawsuits filed by former shareholders who seek billions of dollars. But they may have to stand in line behind the federal government, which has sought the forfeiture of Lay's $4 million penthouse apartment and Skilling's $5 million Mediterranean-style mansion, among other assets. (from The Washington Times)

For those of you who haven't seen the film "Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room", it provides very good background to the events that precipitated this trial. It also has interviews with many of the insiders from Enron including Sherron Watkins, the whistle blower who set the investigations into motion. She in my opinion, is nothing less than an American heroine. As someone who works in a corporate environment, I know that the courage it took to do what she did, at that level and in that kind of corporate environment, is nothing less than amazing. Now, if the government could only listen to the whistleblowers within in it's own ranks.

Monday, May 22, 2006

A new VA Benefit

Being an active duty serviceman or woman or a U.S. military veteran just got even a little tougher recently. The home of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee was broken into in Aspen Hills, Md on May 3 and thieves stole a laptop computer and external hard drive. Normally this wouldn't be big news, but this government employee's laptop computer contained the records of 26.5 million veterans and some veterans spouses which had been taken home, against departmental policy, to work on a project. The records taken include names, birth dates and Social Security numbers. As the Washington Post reported, "The theft represents the biggest unauthorized disclosure ever of Social Security data, and it could make affected veterans vulnerable to credit card fraud if the burglars realize the value of the data, one expert said."

So on top of scores of proposed and planned closures of VA hospitals and shrinking benefits, now being a veteran also means running the very real risk of identity theft. Most likely, the thieves didn't know exactly what they had stolen. However, if they did realize it, or whoever they may have sold the laptop to realized it, the credit histories of literally millions of veterans are at risk. Additionally, this information can provide a large amount of revenue to criminal organizations or, ironically, terrorist organizations.

Predictably, in another great example of closing the barn door after the horse gets out, Sen. Larry Craig, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs committee is planning to hold hearings. Additionally, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has promised "zero tolerance" for anyone using this information illegally.

If the first Gulf War, which was over in the blink of an eye, helped spawn the likes of Timothy McVeigh, how many more Timothy McVeighs is this war spawning?

Friday, May 19, 2006

2006 = 1984

"When war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded."
"The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy — everything." - G. Orwell, '1984'

If you are the type of person who pays attention to what is happening in the world and this nation over the last five to ten years, then '1984' and 'The Handmaid's Tale' have to be two of the most frightening books you could possibly read. These two novels depict future distopias that our society seems to be approaching with alarming speed.

George Orwell's '1984', written about 60 years ago, has some very startling parallels in the current 'war on terrorism'. A seemingly neverending conflict, that is occurring without any kind of real national sacrifice (the military and their families excepted) with very vague and misleading reasons and goals against a shadowy enemy, that is used as an excuse to invade privacy, jail citizens without due process, manufacture news, manipulate or hide facts and in general keep the populace in a state of fear for political purposes. In the book, the war is basically a forgotten fact of life against an evil, relentless and bloodthirsty enemy (al Qaeda?) with an enigmatic, diabolical and mad leader named Goldstein whose very existence is an unanswered question (bin Laden?).

One has to ask one's self: why wasn't bin Laden captured like we were all promised he would? Because he fits the role. He is the 'shadowy mastermind' that wants to end our way of life. It doesn't seem to matter that in all his recordings and writings he has never stated that his goal is to end our way of life, much less see us all dead. But as long as our leaders keep repeating these apocalyptic statements over and over again against the backdrop of the 9/11 murders, most people buy it.

What would Orwell think if, instead of a dire warning, for some people '1984' was seen as the perfect blueprint to amass power and eliminate Freedom?

"If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier - just so long as I'm the dictator." - George W. Bush, December 18, 2000

Monday, May 15, 2006

"Whatever Pharma wants, Pharma gets"

It's May 15, which means that if you're a senior citizen, this is your last day to sign up for the new Medicare part D drug "benefit" program without having to pay a 1% per month penalty. This new benefit, that Bush has been touting and promoting for about a year as a shining accomplishment of his administration has been widely criticized as too generous to the drug companies, far too complicated to understand for enrollees and that it doesn't provide enough coverage for certain lower income seniors. To picture what signing up for this part D coverage is like, imagine having to research and select a plan from 30 to 45 different choices from 8 to 12 different providers, each with slightly different rules and drugs that they will and won't cover. On top of this, depending on the income level of the enrollee and the cost and coverage of their current prescription plan, they have to make some rather complicated calculations simply to determine if their out of pocket costs would go up or down if they sign up for the new benefit. As a side note, ironically, many of the large pharmaceutical companies are reducing or eliminating their own independent low income drug assistance programs, citing their participation in the new part D program.

When the new plan was still being debated in Congress, many Democrats were up in arms over the fact that the proposal didn't use a 'single payer' system. In other words, the proposal refuses to use the huge buying power of the federal government to 'buy in bulk' and lower the cost of the program both to the participants and to tax payers as a whole. Michigan, Vermont and South Carolina participate in a buying cooperative and have been able to reduce their drug expense buy 25-50%. The fact that the new part D coverage doesn't do this is simply another example of this administration and the Republican Congress enacting legislation that is basically written by the industries that the legislation involves. This new plan is clearly a benefit for the large pharmaceutical companies. The "Healthy Forests" initiative, The Energy Policy act of 2005 and the "Clear Skies" act of 2003 are other examples. Famously, the indentities of the oil industry executives who helped Dick Cheney craft the legislation - the "Energy Task Force" - are still not known. This is despite a suit that was brought to reveal the names and meeting transcripts, which went all the way to the Supreme Court before being lost.

So after today, enrollees are penalized for late enrollment. The fact is, we were all penalized the moment this industry subsidy disguised as actual legislation was passed.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

America's Addictions

This coming Monday evening, George Bush is addressing the nation on the important subject of immigration reform. It has been said that he will announce a plan to station national guard units along the border with Mexico to "secure the border" from illegal immigrants. An economic 'Berlin Wall' if you will. However, the Berlin Wall was built to keep people in; basically turning half of that city into a prison. Many other walls have been built throughout history: Hadrian's wall, The Great Wall of China, even a palisade wall of tall timbers along what is now known as Wall St in New York City. These walls were all built for protection against marauding native peoples or warrior tribes. What are our walls protecting us from, the economic devastation of cheap labor?

All this recent wringing of hands over the issue of illegal immigration reminds me of worries over another unwanted import from south of the border. The 'war on drugs' was and is fought to suppress the supply, just as building a fence and stationing soldiers on the border is done to suppress the supply of cheap labor. Similarly, much of the blame for the two problems lies with the demand half of the equation. Just as Americans have a demand or an addiction for drugs, they also have a demand, even an addiction, for cheap labor. Without the cheap labor that immigrants - documented or not - provide, almost everything would cost more. Do you eat at restaurants? I can guarantee you that your dirty dishes are washed by an immigrant and there's a good chance that your food is prepared and cooked by one as well. Do you shop for food? Purchases in the produce and meat departments will be made easier because of the cheap labor that immigrants provide. Have you bought a house in the last 5 or 10 years? That house was made more affordable because of the cheap labor pool of immigrants, legal or not. Immigrants, build our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, even babysit our children. These people who hardly ever receive benefits or workplace protections, are hard working, decent people who simply want a better life for their children and they're being turned into enemies of the state. Sadly, a lot of this attitude comes from the fact that, though they enjoy the bounties of this cheap labor pool, many Americans want these people to disappear when they finish work. To disappear from our neighborhoods and towns and their children not be in the same schools with ours.

I work in a hundred year old downtown Manhattan skyscraper that has windows about four by eight feet in size that can be opened. About a month ago, a crew of workers, who I will assume were immigrants, came around to wash the windows. The man who washed the window in my office quickly washed the inside of the window. Next, my stomach dropped as I watched him, with no safety harness, climb out of the window and stand on a 1 foot wide ledge to wash the outside of the window, 150 feet above the street. Then I realized that he would be repeating this procedure perhaps more than a hundred times in a week, maybe a few thousand times in a year. All this for how much money? Probably just enough to be able to simply afford to feed and shelter himself and his family, or to send a couple of hundred dollars back to his family in their home country. These people are the bad guys? What about the maintenance company that's charging the building management thousands of dollars for this service and paying these people a fraction of that? This kind of thing is exploitation, pure and simple, and it happens everywhere in this country, everyday. Furthermore, the average American doesn't care.

People don't make the connection when they have their "fashion line" that collectively, they are the real reason that countries such as Colombia are practically owned and operated by violent drug cartels. Similarly, when someone hires the lawn care service to cut their grass for $30 a week, which then turns around and pays the immigrant who actually does the work $5, they collectively are one of the millions of Americans responsible for the current 'immigration crisis'. If this person has a teenage son at home who isn't told that it's his job to mow the lawn or simply won't, illegal immigration is the least of that person's problems.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

What's Your Share?

The data here is from this document on and this document on

In 2005, the total U.S. Federal budget was $2.472 trillion dollars. Total revenue was $2.154 trillion dollars, leaving a budget deficit for 2005 of $318 billion dollars. This brought the total amount of public treasury debt to $7.879 trillion dollars. The net interest paid to service this debt in 2005 was $184 billion dollars. In other words, over half of the current deficit can be attributed to interest the government has to pay on the debt already outstanding. To use the analogy of a credit card, the government took a $318 billion dollar cash advance in 2005, used $184 billion of it to pay the interest on the bill and spent the rest.

In 2005, there were 132 million individual federal tax returns filed. Roughly 132 million 'households' paid a total of $927 billion dollars in federal income tax. These households also paid a total of $794 billion dollars to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Corporations paid a total of $278 billion in income tax. Estate taxes, excise taxes, custom duties and miscellaneous receipts accounted for another $154 billion.

So the average household paid the federal government a total of $13,037 in 2005. The net interest paid by the government on Treasury securities per household was $1,394. This $1,394 represents the dollar amount that is transferred from the average household to holders of U.S. government Treasury securities. It should be noted that almost all of these securities holders are either banks, financial firms, wealthy individuals or foreign governments. This $1,394 per household doesn't provide any national benefit whatsoever. It doesn't clothe or feed poor children, it doesn't go toward education, it doesn't pay more policeman or airport security screeners and it doesn't go toward providing war veterans with better healthcare. This money represents a wealth distribution from the middle class to the rich. In other words, it's a back door that makes our progressive tax system, less so. Additionally as has been publicized lately, a large portion of this Treasury interest is going to Pacific Rim countries, primarily China. Right now China is our nation's MasterCard. So far they've allowed us to run up our balance, but that can't go on forever.

Finally, so far the Iraq war has cost us about $1 trillion dollars, or about $300 billion per year. So for the Iraq War and reconstruction in 2005 the average household paid about $2,272. Is it just me, or does anyone else feel like they haven't gotten their money's worth?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Fundamentalist Pen Pals

Over the weekend, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, sent a 19 page, single spaced letter, to George Bush, President of the (soon to be) Christian States of America. I would say United Christian States of America, but I don't think that's how it will play out. Now, I'm sure that Ahmadinejad, a former teacher, thought that Bush would read the entire letter and reflect on it. I say it's 50/50 that he even got past page 5 - his first quote about it below is a dead giveaway.

I read the whole letter and it uses very calm, reasoned, logical and non-'kill the infidels' language to present many arguments and valid points of view about history and the current state of the world. Some topics discussed are world poverty, the 1953 coup, healthcare, Israel, the importance of tolerant religious faith, Iran's nuclear program as a peaceful technological advancement, etc. Interestingly, he didn't address our "addiction to oil" - hmmm, let's see, Iran sells oil to make money... ah, yes. Overall, the letter reads like an amalgation of almost every article I've ever read on or in The New Yorker: thoughtful, reasoned, sincere and very aware of history.

Read the original scan here in PDF format - from the Wall Street Journal. Kind of interesting, it looks like a mimeograph from 1978....

html format here - from the Hindustan Times.

George Bush said of the letter, "It looks like it did not answer the main question that the world is asking and that is, 'When will you get rid of your nuclear program?'". Though it seems that that's not exactly what the 'world' is saying (nor that rudely), because he went on to say that, "Britain, France, Germany - coupled with the United States and Russia and China have all agreed that the Iranians should not have a weapon or the capacity to make a weapon... There is a universal agreement toward that goal and the letter didn't address that question". Well, not having the capacity to make a weapon doesn't really mean that they couldn't have a peaceful nuclear program. Indeed, Japan has a peaceful nuclear program, with a current total of 55 reactors that in 2003 produced 25% of their electricity.

With enough monitoring and controls, a peaceful Iranian program is perfectly feasible. A large majority of the Iranian people are in favor of a peaceful program - a military nuclear program, not nearly as many. Iran is a nationally proud country that grew out of the Persian empire. Her culture and cities pre-date Jesus Christ by about 2,000 years and the founding of Islam by about 3,000 years. To say that Iran shouldn't be allowed to produce nuclear energy, even with thorough monitoring, is a little insulting. We could even agree to publicly call it "safety monitoring", to allow them to save face. After all, we don't want another Chernobyl.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

"There's no accounting for taste"

In what seemed suspiciously like a nose-tweaking rebuke to the led lefty blogosphere trumpeting of Steve Colbert's performance at the White House correspondents' dinner on April 29th, both Chris Matthews and Tim Russert had special features about Steve Bridges on their Sunday morning shows on May 7th. Bridges is the Bush 'look alike' whose five minute skit preceded Colbert's performance.

On 'Meet the Press', Russert actually had Steve Bridges on the show and interviewed him for 15 full minutes. Utterly ridiculous. Chris Matthews grinningly proclaimed that Bridges was much funnier than Colbert. I agree that I'm sure many people would find the 'look alike' skit funnier than Colbert's performance, especially those in the main stream media who were prime targets of Colbert's venom.

What Colbert delivered to Bush and the MSM that night were hammer blows of the anger that most of us are feeling, cloaked in the buttery velvet of mocking satire. The receiver of this type of attack can either 1.) Believe the 'act' and appear the dupe, 2.) remove the 'cloak' and address the valid arguments head-on (not a good idea in this case), or as was done all week in the MSM, 3.) declare the whole thing not funny or, better yet, not entertaining.

What Bridges delivered was cotton candy.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Not an Option - A Duty

**Posted to this article in**

"Decide. Announce. Type it up. Run spell check. Go home."
I believe there's volumes to be said about the fact that a solid majority of the electorate want easy black and white answers to questions that we as the most economically powerful nation in the world face. One explanation for Bush's prior popularity was his quip that "I don't do nuance". Well, unfortunately, that's how most people prefer to operate - the MSM included. The MSM would prefer not to try to sell something that their viewers/readers don't want to buy in the first place. What too many of them don't understand is that this isn't an option for them, it's their duty.
Much has been also been said about this administration's use of fear as a tool. However, this administration also plays to a couple of other base traits: laziness and greed. Liberalism was at it's best when it challenged the American people to do better - together: Labor reform, the New Deal, the Marshall Plan, the Great Society, Civil Rights and the list goes on. The message was that some sacrifice today will make us a better nation tomorrow. Today, the long view doesn't exist and even when it seems like it does, there's no substance and never a price to be paid today. Hollow promises. No leadership.
Choosing to believe lies out of sheer convenience when we know the real truth, makes us no better than the ones telling the lies.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Kettle says to Pot: "What'd you call me?"

Maybe it was Amnesty International reports, the domestic criticism, the recent denunciation by the U.N. or just the general outcry from the international community at large, but the decision has finally been made to return many of the 490 "unlawful combatants" held at Camp Gitmo to their home countries. In another one of those funny yet sad twists of fate, the administration has fears that many of these people, will be treated poorly or tortured by their own governments.

Tim Golden of The New York Times reported on April 30th that "Washington's insistence on humane treatment for the detainees in their native countries comes after years in which Guantanamo has been assailed as a symbol of American abuse and hypocrisy -— a fact not lost on the governments with which the United States is now negotiating." Furthermore:

"It is kind of ironic that the U.S. government is placing conditions on other countries that it would not follow itself in Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib," said a Middle Eastern diplomat from one of the countries involved in the talks. He asked not to be named to avoid criticizing the United States in the name of his government. (NYT 4/30)
In addition, through a practice called 'rendition', a word which sounds like something that could happen in a meat packing plant, dozens if not hundreds of other detainees have already been returned to their home nations on secret flights. This is usually done with full knowledge that they would be tortured upon their return.

So some of these people have already been thrown from the Tiger's cage to the Lions' den unofficially for the last 2 years. Now that some of the detainees are being released officially, all of the sudden there are different standards. Standards, by the way, that our government itself doesn't even live up to.
According to a State Department human rights report released in March, the Saudi authorities have used "beatings, whippings and sleep deprivation" on Saudi and foreign prisoners. The report also noted "allegations of beatings with sticks and suspension from bars by handcuffs."

"We're operating in an environment where we don't want to send people to a country where we are going to find out two weeks later that they've been tortured," a State Department official said. Referring to Saudi Arabia, he said, "We hope to reach the point soon where we are comfortable with the humanitarian arrangements."
Sleep deprivation? Beatings? I guess the Saudis got Rumsfeld's memo too.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

NPR: Slipping into The Abyss?

The morning of May 2, NPR news reader Karl Kassel referred to participants in the Immigration protests of May 1 as "Illegal Immigrants". Interestingly, the local WNYC news coverage referred to the same people as "Undocumented Workers".

Not all public radio news is created equal.

Monday, May 01, 2006

More Disturbing Pentagon News

These are excerts from this article in the Washington Post by Ann Scott Tyson, on April 23:

New Plans Foresee Fighting Terrorism Beyond War Zones
Pentagon to Rely on Special Operations

"Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has approved the military's most ambitious plan yet to fight terrorism around the world and retaliate more rapidly and decisively in the case of another major terrorist attack on the United States, according to defense officials."

"Details of the plans are secret, but in general they envision a significantly expanded role for the military -- and, in particular, a growing force of elite Special Operations troops -- in continuous operations to combat terrorism outside of war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Developed over about three years by the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa, the plans reflect a beefing up of the Pentagon's involvement in domains traditionally handled by the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department.

For example, SOCOM has dispatched small teams of Army Green Berets and other Special Operations troops to U.S. embassies in about 20 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, where they do operational planning and intelligence gathering to enhance the ability to conduct military operations where the United States is not at war.

And in a subtle but important shift contained in a classified order last year, the Pentagon gained the leeway to inform -- rather than gain the approval of -- the U.S. ambassador before conducting military operations in a foreign country, according to several administration officials. "We do not need ambassador-level approval," said one defense official familiar with the order."

I find this last paragraph of the article to be the most telling. In a ‘War on Terror’ (a stupid name to begin with - like having a War on Existential Angst) the strategy HAS to be 95% political with a heavy sprinkling of P.R. and 5% military. Just ask any military historian who knows anything about military history. These pinheads who claim that this isn’t a ‘conventional war’ (duh!) are still knee-jerk, shoot first ask questions later, “Remember the Maine” gunboat diplomats. Hell, in Rupert Murdoch/Roger Ailes, they even have their own modern day version of W.R. Hearst. We’ve been here many times before folks and it usually boils down to economic hegemony at gunpoint.

Stephen Colbert - Man of the Year

Wow! Jonathan Swift, Moliere, Voltaire, Thomas Nast and now - Steve Colbert. Oh yeah, put Jon Stewart in there somewhere too...

I watched a profile of Stephen Colbert on "60 Minutes" Sunday evening, unaware that he was the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents' Association awards dinner the night before. To say that Colbert's satirical attack was incredibly hilarious would be an understatement - with a great assist by Helen Thomas, I might add. Let's see, I can already predict that new White House Spokesperson Tony Snow (who is shown laughing at one point, when Colbert comments on his recent hiring) will not call on Thomas for a question for at least six months. See the performance for yourself here and here is a great analysis by Michael Scherer on

When the camera shows GWB, who was literally sitting about 15 feet to Colbert's right, much of the time he clearly seems to be pissed. The cut shots to the crowd full of the D.C. press corp were even more telling. The way many of them were reacting, you'd think Colbert was holding a kitten over the whirring blades of a food processor. To be fair, there were many snickers and laughs detected, but Colbert received little or no applause in the entire half an hour of his performance. This coverage by CNN is typical, giving much more time to the stupid Bush look-a-like skit that lasted all of five minutes.

It'll be interesting to see what kind of fall-out, if any, will come of this... Hmmm, what does my GUT say.