Category Archives: money

The rich get richer, and the poor….

Obama announces debt deal

Well, when you’re a Tea Party-backed Republican and you’re crowing about your ‘victory‘ in the debt-ceiling deadlock, why should you care? After all, you stood in the landslide mid-terms on a ticket of no taxes and rolling back so-called ‘big government’, under a misguided sense of taking America back to Washington-era constitution, and after weeks of acrimonious argument and Capitol chicanery, you’ve succeeded in hijacking a process that’s hitherto been smooth and commonplace and turning it into a means to push America further to the right.

It’s astonishing that, for an administration that still holds a Senate majority, this government can be held hostage by a group of politicians that, for all the aghast cries from dissenting Democrats, didn’t even support such a painful bill because the cuts were not nearly tough enough, and the compromises too weak. The likes of Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, who would sooner give up their right to bear arms than bring in tax increases for the rich, have come off best in a game of brinkmanship that played with the global economy as if it was a roulette table. While many thought that a deal would eventually be done, simply because it had to, it’s incredible to think that a President whose election ideals reached out to the poor and disenfranchised so much has now been forced to support a deal that must’ve felt like sucking vinegar, against everything he and many of his party stood for.

So why did it come to this? The debt ceiling had to to be raised, as it had painlessly by countless Democrat and Republican Presidents before, but this time the Democrats, shorn of their House majority, had to face the fact that this time the vote would be made, by those on the far right, to symbolise the deep divisions on Capitol Hill. The GOP, so riven itself in conflict that on Friday its House leader, John Boehner, humiliatingly lost proposed vote simply to approve his own party’s plan, has managed to play a game of chicken, safe in the knowledge that however opposed to their plans President Obama was, he would most likely compromise in the national interest, something they would refuse at all costs. And what costs? While many doom mongers had forseen another 2008, the reality was that a US that couldn’t service its own payrolls could’ve sent the markets into turmoil, and yet Tea Party-backed Republicans and many more moderate in their party saw it as a viable alternative to many of their bete noires, especially that spectre of all spectres, tax rises for the rich.

It’s a distasteful, unpalatable truth that many of these super-rich politicos see it as their divine right to save the majority of the wealth for the majority of the rich. Bush’s tax cuts, an abomination when they were brought in 2001, are staggeringly still here, making those with the most proportionally better off year on year. It was this unthinkable that saw the Right push back against a series of proposed Democrat plans that would’ve seen them take a hit along with many schemes designed to help the poorest – social security, education, Medicare, Medicaid – in favour of swingeing cuts that simply left them untouched. To a British citizen like myself, even with a Conservative-lead government, this seems an almost unbelievable truth. That a country as apparently welcoming and diverse as the United States, self-appointed global leader and trumpeter of its ideals, can allow this abomination to persist, in fact to be furthered is shameful beyond description. But this, to many on the Right, is the American Dream. You are responsible only for yourself, you reap what you sow, your success is yours alone to enjoy, and no-one, NO ONE, is going to deprive you of it. Perfect, if you’re a millionaire, but if you’re below the poverty line? Well, you just need to work harder. It comes as no surprise that the majority of these Tea Party-backed are white, middle and upper-class (yes, there are token minorities, there always are), and their supporters even more so, while all the poor are often black, many minorities. Well, they’re just poor because they’re lazy, or they don’t work hard enough, or they’ve not made their own opportunities. It’s one of the staggering conditions of the United States: try to redistribute wealth, to help using taxes those less well off than you? You’re a socialist.

In a Europe where Obama would be, and is, welcomed with open arms for his lofty ideals and balanced views, many in his own country happily equate him with Stalin. And as the Right pushes further from the centre, these viewpoints, festering in the fetid cauldron of the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, gain more and more mainstream credence, and soon, they are talked of as the ‘centre’ ground in a country whose politics are becoming ever more polarised. So, we’re left with a bill, that’s passed with disgust by the majority of Democrats, and amazingly rejected even more so by the Tea Party for its weakness, that ‘saves’ the States, for now. And you almost have to take your hat off for the way the Right fought the battle. They’ve weakened the President, undermined the economy, and a Senate majority, won a bill that’s abhorrent to Democrats, and for them this is just the beginning. And why? Because they’d rather see people on the street over medical bills, bankrupted by mortgage repayments, homeless and jobless, because they see it as their divine right to retain all the wealth they have, at the expense of those who have none. That is, in their eyes, the American way, the American ‘dream’.

It’s a disgrace, and no amount of argument, however eloquently expressed, will convince me that the Tea Party is anything other than the politics of the mean. The selfishness of the wealthy over the powerlessness of the poor. Helping those less well off than you isn’t socialism, it’s humanity, and these last few weeks have shown, as if it wasn’t already flashing like a million watt bulb, that these people have none.

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Closure at last, and a significant event, but the end is still a long way away

Bin Laden's reign at the head of Al-Qaeda is at an end.
Osama bin Laden

Waking up to the news of Osama Bin Laden’s capture, and ultimate death gave a sense of relief, but also a sense that this significant landmark is only a mark in the long path to defeat terrorism. We can only wonder and hope that there is some closure now for those that have lost loved ones, friends, colleagues and family in the atrocities before, on, and after September 11th 2001, but it won’t be the end of this story. Bin Laden was a figurehead, the head of an organisation that had, for the last 15 years, been at the hub of multilateral actions against the West, and, as is often overlooked, many Muslims around the world. Seeing the events and reaction unfold today brought a rush of the blood, but not excitement. While the man behind so many deaths is now gone, it gives me no pleasure to rejoice the death of another human being.

Scenes in America have been more colourful than in the UK. It’s understandable when their operation resulted in the killing – with, tellingly, no direct assistance or involvement from the Pakistan government – and their country was so horrifically affected. I can’t imagine how those friends and relatives of those lost in the Trade Centres must have felt over the last nine years as bin Landen evaded the clutches of the allied forces, and countless American soldiers and intelligence, prolonging the agony and seeing the man responsible taunting the West with videos, messages and more attacks. Dancing and cheering in the streets – from a mostly young and sometimes well-oiled crowds – didn’t sit too comfortably with me, as I can’t bring myself to celebrate a death, however repugnant the person may be. But the US has invested so much emotionally, financially and ideologically into finding and killing Al-Qaeda’s leader that the reaction was always going to be different on the other side of the pond. Watching some of the reactions today of the bereaved to the news, and how they conducted themselves with such dignity was very moving. For them, the victory, however hollow, must bring an end in part to a harrowing period.

For Britain, it’s also a landmark. We’ve been – justifiably or not – invested into this battle ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the United States since its beginning, and we’ve been directly affected by the spectre of Al-Qaeda, its operations and figurehead looming over the last decade. For teenagers and younger adults, they’ll struggle to remember a time before this was so. Having attended a funeral after 7/7 – something I hope I never have to go through again, let alone seeing the pain it caused to the family – it’s a relief to be at this point. But the reality is that little will change. In fact, we may see things escalate if revenge attacks are orchestrated. London will be a more tense place for a while. But we can only hope that this is the beginning of a new chapter, and that, with all the change that’s now afoot in the middle east, that Al-Qaeda’s lustre is reduced, and that their dominance ebbs in the coming years.

And predictably, even as the news surfaced, there were naysayers already debunking the news. However low governments and the military may stoop – whatever we may say, we left thousands dead in Afghanistan and Iraq – it’s hard to believe that this would be an untruth. It would be one that would dwarf the spin that so ashamedly took us to war in Iraq. The US and its allies have invested way too much time, money, resources and emotion in this claim otherwise, and there have been none of the usual denials from the terror groups that form the cabal involved. I’m a skeptic, but this is one thing that I am taking on face value. And cheeringly, Obama will have a grandstand moment to validate his presidency, giving him a boost that even grudging Republicans can’t deny him. The States are united for a short time, and great that is too.

We will be talking about this day for many years, and the main hope is that it can be a positive landmark, that we will look back at this as a turning point. But to think that cutting the head from one of the snakes in Medusa’s hair renders the rest of the beast incapacitated would be short-sighted. But at least for many, this will hopefully be some sort of closure, and draw a line under the terrible events in New York and London. It’s the least that the bereaved deserve.

When something sounds too good to be true….

It usually is.

Bernie Madoff

Take Bernie Madoff. Financier to the stars, the rich, the cream of America’s (and the world’s) elite. A genius player of the money markets, a former chairman of the NASDAQ, a Wall Street legend. What better pedigree could you choose? And who better to invest with? The perfect high-rolling individual with whom to invest your millions. Or so it seemed. An investment return that defied the markets. And yet, in the end, no more than a Ponzi scheme.

Despite the intelligence of many of his clients, it was the oldest trick in the book. There was no capital, merely the payment of money to investors using other investors’ money. A paper profit but a puff of smoke. A house of cards. Arguably the biggest private fraud in history – $50bn – and perpetrated by an individual with an aura of invincibility that allowed him to convince those willing to make a seemingly staggering return to part with their life savings. There was the rarefied air of the Palm Beach Country Club, home to most of his investors, who he personally chose. There was no application to this exclusive group, you were invited by Madoff, adding to the air of elitism.

But the sad fact was many of these were older, couples, many charities that saw his philanthropy and followed it for the benefit of their charitable purposes. Big banks suffered as well – investors at BNP Paribas, Banco Santander, and HSBC were among the heaviest hit. Amazingly, the SEC investigated Madoff’s organisation eight times in the last sixteen years, and, incredibly, found no evidence. Similarly, a rival firm, determined to replicate his amazing results, concluded they were impossible, and in 2005, a report to the SEC still resulted in no findings. In the end, the credit crunch was what took the rug from under his manicured feet. Wishing to withdraw 7bn, Madoff couldn’t cover the cash. The end was nigh.

This week he pleaded guilty to 11 charges of fraud, and may face up to 150 years in jail. He’ll most likely die there. But while he admits his role, and remorse, only he will know why he did it. It is, in a time where greed is laid bare to us all, a staggering conceit, and one that probably says as much about personal greed (and, at the same time, the willingness for people to accept anything in order to make money) as any. Gordon Gecko would be proud.

The King of Pap…

Skeletor.... I mean Michael Jackson

It’s with a bit of a heavy heart that much of the music world greeted the news of Michael Jackson’s series of concerts at the o2 this July (and, after ‘massive demand’ more in August). While it’s undeniable that, in his 70s and 80s pomp, there may not have been a better performer on the planet, since Bad, his career, and his life, have been one slow, painful descent into the abyss. Albums retreating further and further into schmaltz and saccharine pop, a shadow of his former self, and that was the good news. Sexual abuse allegations, failing health, baby dangling. It was a car crash that you couldn’t even bear to look at.

So, you have to ask the question: are we flocking to see him instigate a career renaissance, or to laugh at the freakshow? It’s no secret that, while this is billed as a gift to his many UK fans, The King of Pop is broke, so this is as much to probably pay his tax bill as much as give his die-hard (and probably blinkered) fans one last chance to see him. Compare it to Prince and it’s not hard to see where the pathos is heading.

Mind you, it could be worse. You could have to sit through U2’s latest album.

When Gaza means dying children are too political for tv…

In a word, pathetic. That’s the decision of ITV, BBC and Sky not to show an appeal film by the British charity DEC on their screens. It’s particularly galling from the BBC (though not entirely unsurprising considering its slanted coverage of the crisis as a whole) that it sees its impartiality under question if it had gone ahead. Judging by its past form it’s depressing that a public service broadcaster with the breadth and reach of the organisation shouldn’t use its voice to help appeal for money in what is another in a long line of humanitarian crises.

They’re just covering their consciences, most likely in light of their recent scandals, but it’s a totally spineless act. It does seem that it’s ok for appeals from tsunamis, famines and earthquakes, but when children are dying from starvation from a conflict it’s not. What the fuck did they think was going on in Eritrea, Congo or Rwanda?

Gaza's dying children

Just how close we came….

For a bit of end-of-year ‘cheer’, you only have to read the latest entries of the BBC’s Robert Peston’s business blog to realise just how lose we came to disaster in October. HBOS (Nat West’s owner) and RBS were hours away from closing for business, only kept alive by their substantial deposits.

In an extraordinary interview, the always readable Peston shows the distinct underestimation of the crisis from the Bank Of England that was responsible for the slow reaction and lack of foresight in the road to our current financial status. Maybe that will be the turning point, or just another blip in the downward arc that will see us strike much lower before recovery starts. It’s another piece in the ever-complex account that, had it been a novel, would be essential reading, but is sadly reality.

How to get ahead in Russia

Marry an oligarch, then get him to publish an exclusive book to publicise his love and admiration for you. Or, more specifically, if you’re Olga Rodionova, pose in a series of ‘edgy’ photos with not much more than a smile to announce yourself to the world. An article in today’s Observer Woman monthly tries to shed more light on one of the new Russia’s fastest-rising females.

The Book of Olga

In this post-feminist world, perhaps this is the newest (or is it oldest?) form of empowerment, and you have to admire the sheer audacity of it (not to mention Rodionova’s attitude to, shall we say, self-promotion) but isn’t it a bit depressing that the one of the best ways to carve attention and impact still seems to involve disrobing? Or is it really that black and white? While Olga and Sergey epitomise in many ways the ostentatiousness of the new Russia – money, sex, glamour – they’re not as clear-cut or textbook as first appears. This isn’t the first time her husband has indulged her fantasies and put them into print. Far from it. It started a decade ago, the oft-asked question from photographer to aspiring subject: ‘why don’t you try it naked’? But she is hardly the usual subject either. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they shun the limelight, (though with that sort of hobby, it’s unlikely that in a country that’s still conservative, even as it changes, that high society would welcome them with open arms) and she sees this as a noble act of expression, of strength, even if it’s of the most unreconstructed kind.

Olga Rodionova

There’s no doubt that Bettina Rheims’ images are far more than simple tacky puff pieces, in fact we can only estimate the money that went to into their manufacture was at least sizeable. But what is their aim? They’re certainly explicit enough to at least match, if not eclipse the famous (and now rather dated) Sex that added another level of notoriety to Madonna’s already gargantuan profile, even if Rodionova doesn’t have the existing image to begin with, but as an act of self-promotion it can’t really be beaten. For the record, Olga is pragmatic about the collection. “We decided to do something that will go down in history” she states, though where this fits in with the Iraq War and Mumbai bombings I’m not sure. Her confidence and attitude aren’t in question though. As is her almost detachment from the images: “People don’t understand here, they can be primitive: they confuse the image with the person.” So, if they’re not her, then what do they really represent? Her husband, Sergey, sees them as art.

“This is about the freedom of a woman who dares to appear the way the artist sees her and who is aware of her beauty and strength…. It is also about the freedom of a man who is so sure in his feelings, in his family and in his relationship with his woman that he fully approves of her self-expression. I would be proud if this book occupies a place in the history of art.” I’m not so sure everyone that would purchase book would see it with such lofty ideals. It’s certainly yet another way to set the couple apart from the rest of their money-laden contemporaries.

The book won’t be onsale in Russia. “Our society is not ready for such things” Olga sagely notes. “Men prefer their wives to stay at home under lock and key. No one wants feminism here.” But is it feminism? Or is it ‘art’ wrapped up in exploitation, in high-class pornography. Maybe it says as much about the country they inhabit as the pair themselves. That is more easy to conclude than the motives and merit of the book, but you have to at least take your hat off to the Rodionovas. They know how to make an entrance, and they will at least shake up the system. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people waiting for the sequel as well….