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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: November 2010

Kwiki Leaks: the Springfield Edition

Being a huge fan of the Simpsons TV show, I naturally wondered what would happen if the Wikileaks exploded in Springfield. I guess it would go something like this:

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The whole town of Springfield is afoot after the appearance of several confidential Post-It notes on a community bulletin board titled "Kwiki Leaks", located in a convenience store operated by one Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The original source appears to be an undisclosed youngster identified only as "Bart S.", who allegedly attempted to use Internet for dissemination of the stolen documents, but after realizing that the scanned files were "too big to mail" decided to use the community bulletin board instead. Mr Nahasapeemapetilon admitted that he had recently been pressured to close the bulletin board and may need to relocate his convenience store to Switzerland.

Some of the most outrageous revelations from the cache of documents - many classified as "sticky secret" - are listed below:

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Principal Seymour Skinner offered to suspend his leadership position at the Springfield Elementary and single handedly attack North Korea, armed only with a slide rule and a paring knife from the school's cafeteria. In a followup story, the Crazy Cat Lady vowed to invade South Korea with a fleet of her private catboats. Unlike Mr. Skinner, whose past as a weathered Vietnam vet is well documented, the Crazy Cat Lady has virtually no combat experience, and her only geopolitical credential is a dubious claim that she can see South Korea from her home.

Mr. Burns confirmed that he indeed intended to sell large amount of radiation soaked doughnuts to Iran, in exchange for 15 miles of Persian rugs that were to be used for softening of the road on his way to work.

Jimbo Jones, Kearney and Dolph devised a plan to push a Trojan Horse filled with condoms to Saint Peter's square in Vatican. The plan had been thwarted by Ned Flanders who happened to be diddly squatting behind the fence during the assembly stage and ordered the whole consignment of condoms filled with helium and released into wilderness.

After significant pressure from the US authorities, Patty and Selma Bouvier have agreed to jointly adopt and rehabilitate one Guantanamo Bay inmate, as long as he would dress up as MacGyver and give each of them one foot massage per week. Pajamas not included.

Several documents illuminate Mayor Quimby's misappropriation of public funds and their use for personal gratification in Motel 6. The funds were earmarked for reconstruction of the City Hall, gravely damaged after the last year's Christmas Party, and for retraining of the Springfield's notoriously ineffective police force.

On a related note, Chief Clancy Wiggum pledges to fight the gangs of increasingly bold drug traffickers by carefully monitoring the town's "traffick lights", especially the green ones, which according to the Police Chief were "the ones that the perps were always using".

Ralph Wiggum proposed an unconventional solution to Springfield's looming budget problems. In a class paper titled "Quantitatitative Pleasing", the talented young financier suggested that Springfielders print 5 million of Monopoly Money and use them to buy plastic toys from Shelbyville.

The tax cuts for Mr. Montgomery Burns have been extended indefinitely together with unemployment benefits for Cletus and Brandine Spuckler. Mr. Burns was pleased with the compromise and remarked that he planned to buy a crate of extraordinarily expensive French wines and store them in his upper wine cellar from which - in case of a lucky accident - they might trickle down into his lower wine cellar.

In a series of behind-the-closed-door meetings, Fat Tony managed to secure the license to open a Goldman Sachs branch in Springfield, specializing in trading of exotic derivatives. The branch would be located in an abandoned coal mine just north of the town, easily accessible by an 1800 ft elevator.

Lisa Simpson submitted an application to become the US President in 2037, as soon as she reached 35 years of age, provided that the Congress would come out of its gridlock and pass a constitutional amendment modifying the rules of cartoon character aging. Vice-presidential shortlist: Milhouse Van Heuten, Martin Prince, and in a rare bi-partisan effort, Bobby Hill.

Thanks to a note signed by "concerned citizens Carl and Lenny", it was revealed that the whole text of the Springfield Universal Health Care bill had in fact been written by Dr. Nick Riviera.

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Coming back from the restroom in Moe's Tavern, and having just learned from the TV that there won't be any more leaks in the future, one of the bar's regulars, Mr. Homer Simpson, opined eloquently: "Doh!"

Leaves Impressions

When the Czech language was resurrected from the deep comma inflicted upon it by the oppressive milieu of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its rescuers decided to increase its allure among populace by making it as colorful as possible. As part of the linguistic face lift they ditched the traditional Latin based month names and created new ones - a set that was more evocative and based on the native roots. For the month of November they aptly chose the moniker leaves-fall. And that indeed is a prevailing natural theme for this time of year.

The visible end of the growing cycle is a reminder that the Earth is entering its winter orbit. The living organisms are readying themselves for a long slumber and as the trees are shedding their foliage, another leaf-based entity reclaims its prominent place in our lives: a book. Sure, there are no laws of physics that would prevent you from reading in Summer as well, but somehow those long cold dark nights make more fitting backdrop for your favorite tome than the star studded skies of August. Nothing is more conducive to eager page turning than a warm blanket and a smell of hot chocolate sprawling in the air.

There is another growth cycle that is coming to a halt these days. It pertains to global economy. Many are realizing that the dynamic expansion that we have come to worship in the past few decades was a false idol. As the leaves of once self evident platitudes are falling down from the tree of economic theory, they lay bare the stark truths behind the myth of perpetual growth. When you look at its most vocal apostles, you find financiers, you find media moguls, you find mighty tycoons and corporate aristocracy, the ones who reap disproportionate benefits from outsourcing the labor overseas, the ones who have vital interest in shaking the dressed up carrots in front of myrmidons of consumerism. But when you turn around and look at your average working family, you find them making the same meager wage as they were thirty years ago despite all this phenomenal success. Competing globally with armies of nameless teenagers slaving away in Asian sweatshops can wreak havoc on the middle classes in developed countries.

Look out of the frosted window - the King and the Queen standing barefoot by the railway tracks, bowing to a passing train.

I saw a documentary about Amazon Indians last week. These folks lived happily in harmony with Nature for eons, their cable subscription rates held steadily at zero, and yet the sincerity of their smiles had not been diminished by the conspicuous absence of status symbols. Many civilizations thrived without a license to exploit our common and very finite resources.

This is not a call to abandon technology and progress. Rather it is a case for reevaluation, recycling and return to simplicity. We don't need to expand our GDP by 20% every five years to be happy. We don't need to plunder the world's environment just to squeeze the last droplets of an increasingly inaccessible oil from the ground. We don't need to stampede electronics stores in a hogging frenzy every Black Friday. We can lead perfectly fulfilling lives just by maintaining our homes, our gardens, our towns and our relationships. Take care of what we have rather than pursuing a different fad every year. Depth rather than breadth should be our goal.

I came across several books recently that look at our present world from a similar perspective. They are not about the risks of unbridled growth per se, but each in its own way illuminates the global craziness our society has succumbed to. If you have some reading time during the coming Holidays, I recommend them to your attention.

Matt Taibbi: Griftopia
Ellen Brown: Web of Debt
Roger Hodge: Mendacity of Hope
Jonathan Chait: The Big Con
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine

Despite the seemingly dry subject, these books read like a thriller, and present enough food for thought to eclipse even the most opulent Thanksgiving fiesta. You may end up disagreeing with some of their conclusions, sometimes strongly so, but hey - that's what thinking is all about. Reading stuff you agree with is a waste of time.

If you care about the course our society has embarked upon, each of those page turners will leave a lasting impression on your mind. Much like the leaves on the concrete pathway to my apartment, whose dark silhouettes were still there - clearly imprinted - long time after the leaves themselves were blown away.

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Bring back the pillory

One day I will open the door to my bathroom and find a pink wolf there, taking a lavender bubble bath in my tub. And I'll be fine. After reading newspapers for the past 3 years, nothing can surprise me any more.

Just last week, Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of the fallen mortgage giant Countrywide, managed to avoid civil fraud and insider trading charges by magnanimously agreeing to a $67M settlement with SEC - of which large chunk will apparently be paid by the Bank of America (which acquired Countrywide in 2008).

So let's see how it works: in his last 5 years, Mozilo made about $450M while engaging in rather dubious if not outright predatory business practices. For comparison - when say Toyota messes up their carburetors, they have to recall all of them, but when Countrywide messes up their mortgages, the CEO gets rewarded and investors (or taxpayers) are the ones who carry the losses from faulty products. During the S&L crisis two decades ago, Bill Black meted out thousands of indictments for white collar crimes and the clanking of handcuffs was heard all over the lower Manhattan. Now we give the perps a slap on the wrist in the form of a laughable fine and that's it. How about clawing back all ill gotten gains and then imposing the fine on top of that? Seriously. How is an ordinary citizen expected to obey the law in the face of such mockery?

It feels pretty sobering, when you run across older newspapers and find articles singing accolades to the bold captains of a new, sizzling hot industry - the subprime mortgage lending. You would think they are up there with Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. And yet - few years down the road - those same idols are suddenly defrocked and unmasked as mere schmucks with expensive bow ties. What kind of message it is sending to our kids is not hard to imagine. Will the future business leaders follow the new entrepreneurial equation?

FF - FF = FF

(financial fraud - funny fee = fat fortune)

I have an idea: why don't we bring back the pillory!

Imagine the jolt we'd give to a tourism industry in New York, if all the upper management of investment banks caught in crooked and shady deals had to serve a couple of days locked up between two wooden logs strategically situated on the Times Square. What innocent bystander would not want to throw a rotten agricultural product their way or at least proffer a heart felt verbal admonition spiked with blinding profanity.

This should be better than reality TV. And on a weekend, we could throw in a stylish tar and feather show, just for a good measure. Poetic justice at its best. Wanted TARP? Sorry buddy, but here is a tarpaulin tuxedo for ya.

Hey - that sounds like an actionable idea.

Paging Eric Holder... Helloooo?

The Audacity of Betrayal

When I saw the six story parking garage at the West Falls Church subway station packed to capacity with a motley crowd of private vehicles on late Saturday morning, I understood that Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity down in DC won't suffer from an audience dearth. And the signs of attendance cornucopia just kept coming. A massive line for train tickets wound its way from the vestibule through the covered highway overpass and out into the parking lot. The outbound platform was more crammed than the groupie section at a U2 concert and people density in subway cars approached values previously detected only at rush hour Tokyo. I was one of the lucky few who managed to get on board. Fortunately, a natural born leader with obvious recent exposure to high energy pancakes emerged in the middle of the crowd. His imperative commands kept our spirits up and united us against the hordes awaiting on subsequent platforms: "More defense to the second door!" - "Hold the line, people!" - "When the door opens everybody look mean!". Starting with East Falls Church station, not a single mouse managed to squeeze into the car.

The rally itself was way overdue. The level of political lunacy in this land reached levels that would have sent Emperor Nero running for cover. Or for binoculars. Either way, the system has become so profoundly unresponsive and mired in money that most reasonable people are turning away in disgust. No real campaign finance reform in the offing, no civil discourse to be heard anywhere inside the beltway, both parties caught in bed with big corporations, and worst of all - in a world where truth is too complex to belong to just one ideology - no willingness to compromise. In an effort to stem the onslaught of extremism and entrenched partisanship, Jon Stewart called upon the shrinking pool of rational citizenry to come together, to show support for moderation and sanity and to vote wisely. But it wasn't enough.

Despite some partial victories, the governing Democratic party took the most severe beating since FDR lost 72 seats in 1938. President Obama even used the word "shellacking" during the press conference the next day. The hope crowd had become restless. The tsunami of change changed its colors. And there was a reason for it.

There was a clearly defined moment last year when Obama had to choose unequivocally between Wall Street and Main Street. He had a rare and unique opportunity to right our economic ship. But at that pivotal moment, he sided with the powerful.

In March 2009, the financial world was teetering on the brim of collapse. Citibank stock traded under a dollar. Receivership was the word of the day. At that moment, Obama could have nationalized the banks - fire their upper (mis)management, restore their balance sheets and return them to business without onerous debt. In one fell swoop, he would have scrapped the greedy and corrupt culture, let the compulsive gamblers pay for their sins, and start anew with a clean slate. But that opportunity had been squandered. Not only have we bailed out the very people who created the mess, we have also relaxed the accounting standards so they could go right back to their risky shell games. No wonder that fat bonuses are flowing again while the little guy is left with spare change he can barely believe in.

Sanity 101: you don't turn your back on people who voted you into office.

On the surface, it might seem that Joe Sixpack does not have to be concerned with the world of high finance. But in reality he does. Money does not grow on trees, and all that hard cash we squandered on our beloved financiers is now missing somewhere else. It cannot be used to create new jobs, to educate population, to support the safety net, to invest in future technologies and to improve our aging infrastructure.

Obama has originally billed himself as a champion for the little guy, but his actions sing a different tune.

1. You have to look no further than his economic team to see where his allegiances are: Tim Geithner, the Wall Street darling and staunch proponent of the "something for nothing" philosophy, and Larry Summers, neo-Keynesian wizzard and the father of derivatives deregulation, were two pillars of Obama's bridge to the better economic future. Both firmly believed that no taxpayers' sacrifice is big enough to save the profligate financial industry. Obama's main sin, however, was reappointment of the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. His inflationary policies have been steadily eroding budgets of lower and middle class families. They are the ones who will be the first victims of the soaring prices of commodities, directly resulting from the central bank's money tampering. Obama had many other options among the Fed officials, but at the end he chose the man who - among other things - relieved banks of toxic assets that they created and foisted them upon taxpayers who became the reluctant bagholders. Finally, Obama did not find courage to throw his support firmly behind Elizabeth Warren - the true champion of the little guy and a thorn in the side of the Wall Street crowd.

2. Financial and Health reforms were caricatures of sprawling corporatism and written mostly by insurance/pharmaceuticals/banking lobbyists. Big banks are still too big. Risky trading is still allowed. Various banking functions have not been effectively separated. The firms that operate the stock market still freely invest in it for their own gains. Can we imagine a Superbowl game where one of the teams delegates the referee? Yes, we can.

3. On Obama's watch, the inequality between rich and poor kept growing wider and wider. This is the most telling sign. Political posing, sermonizing and grandstanding can divert only so much attention. At the end, you learn the truth if you simply follow the money. If he stood for the little guy, the wealth gap would be getting narrower, not wider. And besides the dire consequences for Obama's core constituency, the income inequality is also a drag on the overall economy as rich people usually park their money in non productive assets. Gold bubble anyone?

There is a simple message hidden behind these technical issues. When an enemy stabs you in the back it hurts. When someone who claims to be your friend does the stabbing, it hurts tenfold. But contrary to the conventional political wisdom, people remembered. And they voted accordingly. The sooner Obama understands that he has to rein in the arrogant banksters, the better chances of re-election he will have.

Liberal movement has plenty of smart and vocal spokespeople: Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, Michael Moore, Arianna Huffington - to name just a few. Now if only we had a president that would lend them his ear. At 5% interest if need be.

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