Saturday, January 30, 2010

A win for the pirates?

The Maran Centaurus

The Greek-owned oil tanker Maran Centaurus was ransomed for between $5.5 million and $7 million by East African pirates. It carried two million barrels of Saudi Arabian crude oil valued at more than $156 million. Theoretically they paid pennies on the dollar to get their cargo back. Reportedly $5.5 million in cash was dropped directly on to the deck of the hijacked ship.

The Centaurus was taken about 700 miles northeast of Seychelles, an island country north of Madagascar. The captors subsequently docked the tanker along the Somali coast in the pirate town of Xaradheere, located in central Somalia. The crew promised to share part of the ransom with the pirates of Xaradheere in exchange for docking the tanker, according to the Wall Street Journal. On board at all times were pirates with rocket propelled grenades and twenty-eight hostages.

Unfortunately for the pirates, it was not quite as easy money as it seemed. The pirates fell prey to the old saw, there is no honor among thieves. Despite their apparent generosity, the pirates allegedly gave the crew about $400,000 to divide among themselves because they had been cooperative, the buccaneers fought amongst themselves. The Journal reported that according to residents of the town, by nightfall at least three pirates lay dead in the street. None of the crew were harmed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Regular readers know that the Clarion Content has been complaining for some time that the Obama administration has represented far too much continuity with previous governmental policies and behaviors and too little change. Perhaps our expectations were raised by the soaring rhetoric of the Obama campaign, as the President's defenders have pointed out he cannot waive a wand and close Guantanamo, for example. And the President did signal in his campaign that he was going to forge onward in Afghanistan, (the decision that most irked the Clarion Content). However, it is when the administration patently reneges on a campaign promise that our hope is dented. One such moment was when Obama and the Senate refused to allow C-Span to tape the conspiring that wrought the now failed Health Care Reform bill. Another such instance occurred yesterday.

The President's most ardent defenders point to the reform of the Justice Department as one of Obama's significant breaks with the reign of King George the II. The Clarion Content does not buy that for a moment. Although, we are willing to grant the administration a temporary pass on Guantanamo, it has yet to stop warrantless wiretapping of phones or speed the declassification of documents. Yesterday in a move that underlines just how embedded corporatism is in American government, the Justice Department announced its approval of a merger between Ticketmaster and Live Nation. The DOJ claimed that this merger would not increase ticket prices. This is so patently bullshit that it would be easier to argue in favor of the Orwellian equation 2+2=5. Since Ticketmaster and Live Nation came to dominate over the last decade, concert prices have more than doubled and service fees for processing tickets have climbed to as high as 50% per order.

In the first major anti-trust case for the "new" Department of Justice what this opinion makes patently obvious is that Obama has not changed the government's support for big corporations over the little guy one iota. The more evident that becomes, the more likely he is swept aside by the same populists and progressives that brought him to power. Regardless of the claims of his defenders about the Department of Justice, given the choice and the chance, the Obama Administration has repeatedly stood with elite and entrenched interests over those of the outsider.

Like all of us, he will reap what he sows.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Frank Rich on point

It is a mighty rare day when the Clarion Content agrees wholeheartedly with liberal ideologue and New York Times columnist Frank Rich. However, we think he got the tone and tenor of what the Massachusetts Senatorial election signifies about the mindset of American electorate just right.
Obama’s plight has been unchanged for months. Neither in action nor in message is he in front of the anger roiling a country where high unemployment remains unchecked and spiraling foreclosures are demolishing the bedrock American dream of home ownership. The president is no longer seen as a savior but as a captive of the interests who ginned up the mess and still profit, hugely, from it.

That’s no place for any politician of any party or ideology to be. There’s a reason why the otherwise antithetical Leno and Conan camps are united in their derision of NBC’s titans. A TV network has become a handy proxy for every mismanaged, greedy, disloyal and unaccountable corporation in our dysfunctional economy. It’s a business culture where the rich and well-connected get richer while the employees, shareholders and customers get the shaft. And the conviction that the game is fixed is nonpartisan. If the tea party right and populist left agree on anything, it’s that big bailed-out banks have and will get away with murder while we pay the bill on credit cards — with ever-rising fees.
David Brooks and others who have written about the erosion of the American meritocracy, especially in things like college admissions, have sounded this alarm previously, and been ignored. Obama road this anti-elitist wave of anger to power, but has yet to provide any solutions. Until the ground shook this week he was kowtowing to the bankers' man, Timothy Geithner. In the Clarion Content's view the critiques of his health care bill as patently corporatist and written by lobbyists were accurate. Kennedy and Reagan both struggled in their first years, it is not too late for Obama to pivot. Now is the time. This is an inflection point. Can Obama adapt or is he a Clintonista proclaiming a "3rd Way" to appease while pushing the same old agenda?

Still paying the price

For all the Clarion Content's criticism of Barry Obama's first year in the presidency, which has recently downshifted from simply poor (ala C-) to outright crummy (more like a D,) it is important to occasionally recall how truly awful his predecessor was. America and Americans should still be weeping at the legacy of the tyrant King George the II (and not just for starting two wars of choice that have cost thousands of lives).

This week another one of King George the II's bequests reached out and bit the country in the ass. The Supreme Court struck down large portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. The vote was along strictly partisan lines. Alito, Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, several of whom would have been comfortable sitting on the bench in the CCCP, voted to eviscerate McCain-Feingold. The Clarion Content is reminded despite our disagreements with Al Gore and John Kerry neither of them would have nominated the likes of Alito and Roberts to the bench. (Goodness knows who Ralph Nader or Ron Paul might have put up there.)

The justices (it almost sounds farcical to call them that) King George the II wrought gave the Supreme Court a 5-4 majority to strike down the provisions of McCain-Feingold that banned political advertising paid for by corporations and unions in the thirty days before a presidential primary and sixty days before general elections. The court, cloaking its decision in the rubric of free speech, decided that American elections are indeed for sale. No doubt it was not far from their minds that unlimited corporate spending on elections will disproportionately benefit their benefactors, Republicans and entrenched political interests.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Kabul attacked

Has anybody told these folks what they are in for?

In a move that is less of a Tet offensive, and more simply designed to show both Afghanis and Americans that the government of Afghanistan has no more than the thinnest veneer of control, Tailban forces attacked the capital of Kabul today. It was a moved timed symbolically to coincide with the swearing in of Afghani President Hamad Karzai's new cabinet.

The assault was widespread aimed at creating as much panic and fear as possible. It was also designed to show the Taliban's reach (if also revealing their limits and inability to make frontal attacks on troops centers or hold territory). The BBC and other sources reported coordinated attacks at the Presidential Palace, the Defense Ministry, the Justice Department, Afghan Telecom, the Feroshgah-e-Afghan shopping center and the Serena Hotel, all located at the heart of an ostensibly very heavily protected capital.

The BBC quoted Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai, saying that it cast a shadow over a London conference later this month intended to demonstrate the Afghan government's ability and willingness to take charge. As the Clarion Content has said continuously since 1993, Afghanistan is not governable centrally as conceived by Western policymakers. The state of Afghanistan does not exist save as a mapmakers conceit and as an opportunity for local elites to accept bribes and siphon western aid into personal coffers.

The BBC notes, "A large number of cabinet posts remain vacant. Parliament has twice rejected many of Mr Karzai's nominations for a new cabinet, forcing the president to direct deputy ministers or other caretaker figures to run their ministries."

Among the conundrums facing American leadership, the Taliban does not need to win on the ground to achieve its desired outcome. For their purposes, a tie is sufficient, they must merely show that the American "way" and the American "stooge" are incapable of providing peace and economic stability.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Train follow-up

The Clarion Content was just railing the Obama administration recently about its lack of relative expenditure on building and repairing train infrastructure in America. We were reminded here in North Carolina, that this lack of spending has real costs in terms of safety, and consequently lives. At a local railroad crossing long renowned for malfunctioning signals and crossing arms, a mother and her five year-old son were killed by an Amtrak passenger train Christmas week. A three month-old daughter survived. Nearby office workers in the small town of Efland where the accident happened said the crossing's signals and arms malfunctioned so frequently that one kept the railroad company's number on her desk.

Another local citizen was quoted in the Durham Herald-Sun "They've [the crossing arms] been going just wacko, up and down up and down, and there's no train coming. We've made calls before [to the Orange County Sheriff's Office] to report the problem." The grieving father told the press in the days after the accident that his wife and kids were on the way to a dentist appointment for his son and running early for it. He believed there is no way his twenty-six year-old wife tried to beat the train or the crossing arms. In his view the signal or crossing arms must have malfunctioned again.

According to, "In the last 10 years, there have been more than 30,000 railroad crossing accidents and more than 3,600 train accident deaths." Which in all honesty, the Clarion Content has to concede is not that many considering the amount of trains on the rails and cars on the roads. However, the need to modernize the American rail system offers an opportunity to attack any of these deaths, like those in Efland, NC that come from old, dilapidated, inadequate equipment.

In another tragic accident from faulty crossing arms, this one in Minnesota, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp was fined an additional $4 million dollars by the state for attempting to cover-up the equipment's failure. Much like their initial reaction to the Efland accident, the railroad immediately attempted to blame the deceased victim. This is exactly the kind of situation where the government has a role to step in and protect the American taxpayer from a corporation with far deeper pockets for lawyers in the land of liability.

We urge our readers to please exercise caution at railroad crossings.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pandemic Scam

Wolfgang Wodarg

The Clarion Content has been saying it for some time, but it was nice have a public health official back us up. The World Health Organization calling Swine Flu a pandemic was a ridiculous scam contrived for the benefit of huge pharmaceutical companies. The head of health for the Council of Europe, Wolfgang Wodarg, said calling H1N1 a pandemic was "one of the greatest medical scandals of the century."

He went on to tell the UK tabloid the Sun that, "The great campaign of panic we have seen provided a golden opportunity for representatives from labs who knew they would hit the jackpot in the case of a pandemic being declared. A group of people in the WHO is associated very closely with the pharmaceutical industry."

How huge a money maker was it for big pharma? The CDC estimated 61 million people got vaccinated in America alone.

Banking follow-up

Bank of America's HQ

The Clarion Content highlighted last month how the bankers made a pile on the front end of the mortgage market collapse. We quoted a New York Times feature that discussed the SEC's on-going investigation into banks that designed synthetic collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s and then bet against them.

At the time our banner read, "Bankers made it coming and going..." which is no surprise to veteran observers of market capitalism. Here at the Clarion Content, we were weaned on the Latin American debt crisis of the "Lost Decade" and the S&L collapse.

Our last feature was an investigation of how banks made out on the front end of economic chaos, this week we ran across a Business Week story about banks profiting on the back end after being bailed out by the American taxpayer. The flip side profiteering is rooted in the Public-Private Investment Program, (PPIP) which was introduced in March by Obama's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, to buy as much as $1 trillion in toxic assets from U.S. banks.

Business Week reports that banks including Charlotte based Bank of America, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs added a combined $2.74 billion of the debt that was frozen, and considered toxic, as recently as March of last year. Essentially they are investing in the very assets the government was coming in to bail them out of and wipe off their books. Business Week notes, too, "Prices of these securities may slump again, leaving the banks exposed to potential losses that the Treasury Department's rescue plan was designed to mitigate."

They were unable to get a comment from officials for Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley or the U.S. Treasury Department about this chicanery. It is inherent and systemic. The mechanism is designed for this to happen whether we are capable of acknowledging it or not. As Business Week notes, "Any time the government says, 'We're going to buy something in the securities market,' they're putting out a sign that says, 'Free money, come and get it!'" They also note that the government is an co-owner via warrants and shareholdings of most the banks involved.

Their conclusion, this is market timing and gaming of the system. These securities are supposed to trade on whether or not the underlying mortgages have value. If they do, then the securities have value. If they don't, well then as Business Week concluded, "PPIP is not going to fill up buildings."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Wassup in Massachusetts?

The Democrats couldn't lose his seat, could they?

How abysmal has the Obama presidency been so far?

If one simply judges from the perspective of the American citizen, it has been a C, maybe a C-. Starting with health care was an atrociously bad idea. Going for too ambitious a health care bill compounded the problem. And settling for a bill that may not only be not good, but actively bad, surely proved that three wrongs don't make a right. Escalation in Afghanistan was an even worse decision for the health of American. Still it is year one, the presidency has a steep learning curve, and Obama has at least managed to produce rhetoric on the right side of some constitutional issues. Recall the last guy was an F- who thought of the Constitution as an impediment, so Obama has been better than that by far.

However, if one were to rate Obama strictly as a member of the Democratic Party, which no one on the Clarion Content's current editorial board is, we would have to think that they would be tempted to give him that F. Democrats are on the run nationwide. Obama and health care have set them up to be routed in the mid-term elections. Last week saw retirement announcements by Senators Chris Dodd and Bryon Dorgan, as well as Colorado Governor Bill Ritter. But even more dismaying to Democratic party members has to be that Obama is perceived as so bad that the most solidly blue of states may be abandoning him. Nowhere on the political map is a state as blue as Massachusetts. The Democrats have viewed the state as a birthright since the Kennedy era. But amazingly the special election to fill Edward Kennedy's Senate seat, to be held on January 19th, is in doubt. Or so say some of the polls.

The Wall Street Journal quotes one pollster, "The Massachusetts Senate race is shaping up as a potential disaster for Democrats." Our favorite poll analyst, since the untimely passing of Tim Russert, is Nate Silver. He takes on the various Massachusetts polls on his blog, FiveThirtyEight. His conclusion, "part of being a good forecaster is knowing when to make a bold forecast and knowing when to proceed with more caution; the Massachusetts race calls for a heavy dose of the latter."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A harbinger or two

What is over that next hill?

The Clarion Content stumbled across a two notes this week that we wondered if were harbingers. As regular readers know, although our hope is that the global economic turbulence has peaked and the world economy has bottomed out, we are not confident that is the case. In support of our concerned point of view we read an intriguing analysis in the Christian Science Monitor about the opening of the world's tallest building.

Come again you say?

Well according to the Monitor, when the newest "world's tallest building" opened this Monday in Dubai it was "an exuberant architectural triumph in the middle of a deep economic swamp." The Monitor notes that, "It's often that way. The tallest skyscrapers always seem to pop up just as the economy is headed down." They have interesting graph noting some of the previous correlations of new "world's tallest building" title holders and economic slumps. Their theory is "The skyscraper index works because developers tend to make ambitious gambles with huge new towers at the point of the business cycle when interest-rate and price signals can get distorted." They cite the Austrian School economist Mark Thorton. The Austrian School's austere teachings have been popping up more frequently in these hard economic times.

The second harbinger was from a political stability angle rather than an economic one. But perhaps, it is the way in which the world economy has wobbled that prompted the rarely hysterical Economist to run a chart of the day under the heading of "Global Tinderbox." The chart shows a world map that rates countries by their state of potential combustibility in 2010. Their conclusion? 2010 could be a year that sparks unrest.

Dark portends.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Its the infrastructure, stupid

The glide path for Reagan National is right down the Potomac

One would think that with all the signs of America deteriorating underneath us that Americans would react more strongly to so many of our precious dollars being spent on foreign wars of choice. Maybe the time is coming, in another context the Los Angeles Times was just talking about the movement of Ron Paul's ideas toward the political mainstream.

The infrastructure failure that caught the Clarion Content's attention today was the hour long power outage at Reagan National Airport from 12.30pm to 1.30pm. The Associated Press reported that, "the problem originated at an airport substation." You will recall, dear readers, just last week a power substation failure was blamed for massive holiday train delays.

Today outbound flights were grounded for an hour and the FAA stopped flights leaving for Reagan National from taking off during the power failure because electric jetways weren't working and there was no way to offload passengers at the terminal.

The signs are everywhere, just look around.

The Clarion Content encourages readers to send their stories and/or images of aging and failing infrastructure in their local areas. We will attempt to collate and post as much of it as possible.

Of course, Americans, ourselves included, must bear in mind that our infrastructure complaints are relative as this post from a Beijing blogger in the aftermath of the city's heaviest snowfall since 1951 reminds us.

"Don't tase me, bro," an official policy?

Who can forget the cries of the University of Florida student who demanded that he be allowed to ask a question of, out of all people, Senator John Kerry. While many may recall the YouTube clip of Andrew Meyer, fewer likely remember that Meyer was charged with resisting an officer and disturbing the peace, but the charges were later dropped. A twenty-one year-old, at the time of the incident, Meyer was indeed, tased by a University of Florida police officer as he was being forcibly removed from the room. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigated the incident and cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing. The underlying sense that the event was a prank or staged detracted from its otherwise darker nature.

In this case, the state's apparatus ruled it was okay to tase.

When to tase and when not to has been a thorny issue since the appearance of the taser as a police weapon. A standard police taser delivers up to 50,000 volts of electricity to the body, usually causing overwhelming response in the nervous system resulting in muscle contraction and temporary incapacitation. Occasionally, a tase results in sudden cardiac arrest and death. Whoops.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to weigh in on the thorny issue. The San Jose Mercury News reports that the, "ruling came in a California case involving a Coronado police officer who used his Taser on a motorist who got out of his car, agitated but not threatening the officer after being pulled over." The problem is that the 9th Circuit has no better idea where to draw the line then the cops do. Their ruling says that, "stun guns should only be used under limited conditions, since they represent a more serious use of force than other nonlethal police weapons." Brilliant. No kidding.

Watch the Meyer video again and note the State said a tase was considered okay in this situation, despite the position of obvious physical dominance the police were already in. Note too, that the 9th Circuit Case started with a cop who thought it was okay to tase a motorist who was agitated about being pulled over by the law.

The Court has a series of tests the cops are supposed to consider pre-tasering, "Is there danger to the officer or others? Was the suspect accused of a felony or misdemeanor? Was the subject actively resisting, or was the resistance passive? Was there some less serious alternative way to quell the disturbance?" These kind of things are always shades of gray. Frequently, the police have to make the decision at high speed in potentially life threatening situations.

According to the Mercury-News, in the City of San Jose where police officers have killed six people with tasers since 2004, the "City Attorney Rick Doyle said he saw no contradiction between the ruling and city police policy, which he said is based on an officer using a 'reasonable' level of force."

Sounds like "Don't tase me, bro," isn't exactly an official policy yet.