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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Lucian Freud when young, with Francis Bacon or is it Brendan Behan?

In London this past week, Lucian Freud died at 88.   Some years ago I commented on a retrospective seen at the Tate in London.  My views haven’t changed.

Lucian Freud, Man with rat

Freud was, for much of his life, and unfashionably so, a realist.  His range was circumscribed as his palette.  Friends, foliage, in some graphics work, images of urban London.   His life was likewise constricted – he almost never left London, and his trips were to the race track where he bet on horses and it is said lost a lot.  In the last few decades his reputation and income rose.  He drove a Bentley.

Lucian Freud lithographPainting in 2008

Passing through London, arriving directly from Korea, I was again subjected to European sticker-shock syndrome as I digested the $5 cost to step onto the Tube, or similar prices which assaulted my economic  sensibilities.  Were it not for friends willing to house me I simply could not think of a visit unless I wished to drain in short order my now somewhat fixed-for-life savings.    Moving on to Europe merely confirmed that hard reality.

The news, as usual swirls in twister fashion:  since leaving London the Murdoch case has bloomed into a Joplin-scale tornado, leveling all in its path.   While Cameron holds on for now, one senses the distant thunder of further revelations of the criminal connections between Murdoch’s media empire and the corrupted politicians of the UK; a little closer look shows this swarm of storms skipping across the Atlantic to involve his American properties: The Wall Street Journal (already evidently compromised by an editorial opinion piece of absurdist qualities) and most importantly “Fox News”, an organization which has polluted America’s politics with his gutter-press hysterias.   Meanwhile on our side of “the pond” the rumbles are about the machinations of Republicans to force Obama into endless “compromises” in order to prevent a US government default.   To me this is so much Kabuki theater, a now well-formalized matter in which Obama playing conciliator gives away the house and more, and sighs this is what politics is all about, and he had to do it to keep the whole system from collapsing.   The welcome mat for this particular act is now so thread-worn one cannot but think it is a mask for arriving at the outcome Obama preferred at the end, but with enough fraudulent theatrics to attempt to con his so-called base into believing it.  Few anymore do, hence the Kabuki aspect: so theatrical a facade that everyone knows the plot before the curtain rises.   Obama, liberal hero of 2008 is in fact more right-wing than the Republicans of the same year.   He is only “left” in the shadow of the Tea Party, Grover Norquist, and Timothy McVeigh.

UK PM David Cameron and former NoW editor Brooks at London party

Noh Drama Obama, these days appearing gnomically now and then, asserts he’s working hard to square the circle, while circling around him the jackals of the right show not the slightest sign that compromise is in their mind-scape.  The irony is that this “socialist from Kenya; Islamic two-tone guy” is in fact further to the right than any sitting President we ever had: Guantanamo is open for biz; drones drift overhead in Afghanistan and Iraq; the US Navy builds a new base on Korea’s lovely Jeju island surrounded with protests; the banks romp to new profit levels and the American middle-class (we don’t even talk anymore of the discarded 30% of the American lower class)  is battered with ever new corporatists schemes, Americans are spied on by the government in shameless defiance of that “damned piece of paper” (George Bush) called the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and Obama presides over it all pretending he’s The One.

Prosthetic smile

Arriving in Italy the news announced the death of long-time Rome resident American ex-patriot painter,  Cy Twombly.  His work always seemed to me a kind of modern art sham, the kind of things that make people say “my kid could do better than that”, but Twombly stuck around long enough so that crawling out of the wreckage of the abstract expressionists, he ended up being a major figure in the arts world, even if he clearly didn’t give a damn.  His scrawls were often given penciled labels with classical European references which I presume meant to give them a cultural weight, and seemed in contradiction to the almost primitive sprawls of paint with which he loaded his usually very large canvases.   A handful of years ago I did see some of his work, in Rome, I think at the American Academy, which had some power – giant red flowers dripping with paint dribbles down the canvas.  And I thought, perhaps it was OK to have gone through all the rest to arrive at these works.  Perhaps.   On the other hand if your kid spent 61 years scribbling, he might come up with something akin.  Cy Twombly died at age 83.

Roman wall, shot taken July 18 for revised HD version of Muri Romani

In this same time, there were other deaths, closer and far more personal, which I need time to ponder and understand.  I will try in the coming weeks to put something of it on my blog,

Gold Bug

The news of the last days – no, not those Last Days – contain a veritable gold-mine of Cassandra notes, the currency of prognostications, almost always pessimistic, at least for those nostalgic for some imagined golden past.  Beyond the tawdry UK scandals surrounding The News of the World and Mr. Murdoch and friends – a truly sordid if not perfectly expectable affair of criminality, phone hacking, extortion and other such pleasantries swirling around politicians caught in their own tripe – there are other signals portending a future of serial calamities.

For example, in the US the Kabuki theatrics of our impending August 2nd raise-the-debt-ceiling crisis, prompted by the ridiculed Tea Party in league with the now mindless Republican Party, colludes to conveniently hide many things.  Such as that Mr Obama, the ostensible Democratic President, once again swirls the walnut shells, and comes out “the winner” in so far as thwarting (or not) the Right-wing budget tantrum, he is able for some to maintain the illusion that he is not a Republican.  Giving 3/4’s of their demands up-front, he pretends that not quite giving in 100%, he has won instead of lost.   And certainly in his own mind and world, he has won again: the good Harvard grad, University of Chicago Professor on Constitutional Law, golden boy of the 2004 Democratic Convention has once again done the shimmy-sham, and played Uncle Tom yet again, with his PC paralyzed base snookered once again.  Perhaps.  It seems a large swathe of his once-supporters have wised-up to the con, and would prefer the whole house of cards collapsed now rather than carry on with the pretense that we have anything but an oligarchic near-police state anymore.

Harvard Man Does Minstrel Show Reversal, Black Skin/White Show

Glancing to the fiscal figures of recent days, the stock market does its customary yo-yo around the number DJ 2,500 figure, swooning a bit at the report that, say, Italy might join the PIGS (new name I-PIGS?  PIGSI?) in the trembling at default, thus smashing the Euro-zone to bits.   Domestically the bobble-heads talk shrilly about an impending US Government default, Moody’s ratings firm issues ominous warnings of down-grading US bonds from the AAA status (the same status Lehman Bros had a few days before it collapsed…), and all manner of blather is slung left and right.  In the midst of it all one huge factor is scarcely ever mentioned (except from we “radical left-wingers”):

Education, housing, transportation, healthcare are all under the guillotine – the apt cutting device of this particular Bastille Day – of “fiscal prudence” in the eyes of the Right, near and far.  On the other hand we hear scarcely a murmur regarding Uncle Sam’s biggest by far expenditure, that great red pie slice up there signifying our glorious military and all its adjuncts.   Nor from our Republican friends do we hear a whisper of the actual gritty down-home effects of two misguided wars launched under their tutelage, along with a massive tax-cut at the same time, the first time our government has sought to balance the cost of warring on the backs of the unborn for whom Iraq and Afghanistan will be ancient history if there’s any American history left for them to ponder, rather than by taxation on those doing the warring.

Sandstorm over Phoenix, July 7Wallow Fire,  AZ, June 11Driving into the future

Accompanying the five year long drought across the southern tier of the USA are numerous other global warming signs – aside from the simple one that cumulatively the global temperature is indeed hotter – fitting rather precisely the predictions of computer models of what should happen if the “theory” is correct:  more volatile weather as harsher shifts between cold and hot, moist and dry, drive the usual weather-making machinery of nature onto steroids.   The past winter saw record snow in the Sierras, Cascades and Rockies, which fits correctly (if not intuitively to most minds) the theory: warmer air carries more water, hence the warmer ocean air picks up more moisture and dumps it at high altitudes as snow.  At lower altitudes this moisture takes on monsoon rain qualities  – hence the swollen Missouri and Mississippi and its many tributaries having record floods this spring.  The same snow-pack, usually desirable as a slow-motion reservoir of water becomes a danger when it is confronted with quick summer warming and melts beyond the capacity of run-off systems – streams, rivers, and natural lakes and man-made dammed reservoirs. Coupled with other warming phenomenon – pine-bark beetle infestations moving northward throughout the west, making for dead, tinder-dry forests – we can anticipate more forest fires, the erosion of mountain soils in consequence, less holding capacity for moisture, increased flooding, and a vast litany of cause-and-effect follow on effects, which, no surprise, makes the Phoenix sand-storm perfectly natural: there will be many more, and in due time as with the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 30’s, there will be another  mass migration.

The Phoenix metropolitan area composes about 4 and a half million people, and growing,  in a place which lacks a meaningful natural water supply aside from its ground water, the deposit of millions of years (in an area where many insist the world is 6,000 years old).  Urban residents average 150 gallons per day of water use; agriculture is a heavier user.  In plain and simple language, the aquifer is dropping rapidly as it is used far more quickly than it is replenished, despite a project to renew the supply via the Colorado River, which under an early regional water agreement allocating the amount of Colorado River water to each area, is brought by canals reaching far from the Colorado.    At present the Colorado is a virtual trickle as it enters the Gulf of Baja or simply doesn’t arrive there.  Other users of the Colorado include Tuscon, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles.   California is the major user of this Rocky Mountain resource – to supply the arid desert realm of Southern California.

And so as the effects of global warming move relentlessly on, our politicians dither about whose neck to slit in the name of propping up the vast illusion which is our economy.  In the name of globalization we have decimated our industrial base, with government incentives to corporations to off-shore operations to low-cost labor, low-regulation countries to be victimized in the name of profit, the center-piece of the “free market economy” altar.   It is already far too late to forestall far more profound impacts of our messing with the planet’s ecosystem and its self-adjusting balancing mechanisms.   We have thrown it off kilter, and our kamikazi politicians in league with their corporate owners, blinded by the immense profits they have thus accrued, are unable to see it regardless of what in-your-face evidence life provides them, or what scientific studies and researches point to.   Their religion, like that of fundamentalists of all kinds, cannot be challenged as it leaves the believer naked and defenseless.

Worthless Weimar Marks

Money, in theory is meant to be a social lubricant, to ease the process of making an exchange of something: this thing for that labor; this thing for that thing.    As such it is in effect a contract, requiring a shared trust/faith in its meaning and value.  In reality, like Mr Bush’s Constitution, it is just a “damned piece of paper.”   Money, like most everyday things, is so omnipresent, that we seldom question or challenge it or its supposed meaning.  Just as most residents of Phoenix likely give very little thought to water (or electricity or their food etc.) and how it gets to them, and how very valuable it is: you can’t live without it – even the most highly evolved desert creature capable of surviving a thousand times less than a human, needs just a little, somehow.   The same occurs with money – we work to earn it, we save it, we spend it.  We seldom think that what it represents is a broad social agreement that a given number of these pieces of paper is worth an hour of my time, or a cup of coffee, or a car or house.   We just blindly accept it, and the economists speak in a distant mumbo-jumbo, and Wall Street bankers in a still more distant one.  They are, after all, priests, and they do the dirty work behind a screen of ritual and religious genuflection.

Deutsche Markes being swept up on the street

Once upon a time, in a sophisticated European country, and not very long ago, following a nasty war, and other social upheavals, a government printed up money, and it was trusted.  Until it wasn’t.   Lacking social cohesion and trust, the money became Mr. Bush’s “damned piece of paper”, and no one would trade it for a loaf of bread.   We like to imagine that the wise men of our society – men like Ben Bernanke and Timothy Geithner and all the rest have figured out how to make this no longer happen.  Well, Ben and Timothy are not wise men, they are bag-men for Wall Street, which being the vortex of the money-worshiping cargo-cult belief of “the market” is the place most desperately worried about retaining the “value” of their pieces-of-paper commodity.   Hence the quasi-religious groupings and gatherings of the Bilderberg people, the conclaves in Davos,  Switzerland, the pontificatory annuncios of their spokespersons.  As in 2008, when they announced the sky would fall if Uncle Sam did not print up 800 billion dollars to be forked over instantly, no questions asked or to be asked, or otherwise the world as we know it would collapse.   The money was promptly forked over by then by President Bush on the advice of Secretary of the Treasury Paulson, (who formerly worked at Goldman Sachs) and the world was, it seemed, made whole again, if rather tattered.   This was, behind the glitzy personages in attendance, a pure massive world-record heist.   Millions were quickly unemployed and millions lost their mortgages, but the CEO’s of Wall Street shortly picked up very fat bonuses.  It goes on today, the names changed (if not the professional backgrounds listed in the resumes), and we are hearing the same things.

Giulio Tremonti and Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi

As tremors run through Europe in the face of the imminent default (can’t pay the bills, in this case the interest on the bills) of Greece, suddenly the rumor was next in line was Italy, which, like Greece and Ireland and Portugal and Spain, is deeply in debt and the bankers were about to pull the plug.  Berlusconi, seen above in his botoxed plastic-surgery stretched hair-implant cyborg pre-death-embalmed form, is Italy’s richest man, and if measured another way, its hands-down biggest crook.  He, and others like him, stand to lose the most if suddenly the currency du jour no longer has value.  Hence their desperate scramble to keep the edifice of the Euro standing, which, as it just so happens, is intimately linked to the good old greenback:  on getting their 800 billion bucks from the Fed in 2008, rather than investing in America, the Wall Street banks loaned “cheap” money to European banks to loan for high interest rates, “expensive money”, to Greece and the other little piggies.  And now it is all going sour yet again, and the tottering house of wobbly cards called international finance is once again threatening to collapse.

So our governments lie about the unemployment figures; they lie about what money really is, and what markets really are.  Lies are Us should be their motto.  Instead it is, in some mode or another, “In God We Trust.”   Perhaps because at bottom they are fully aware that we certainly should not trust in them.

And so, in Europe as in America, governments are hastening to listen to the bond markets, and other such disembodied forces, introducing austerity measures as demanded: cuts in pensions, cuts in government services and employees, privatization of public properties and services.  Basically whatever the Bilderberg boys club demands to keep the illusion of money going.  So, if you paid into your nation’s version of Social Security for 40 years, on the contractual deal that when it was time to retire you’d get X, you’re just getting stiffed.  Ditto for all the other slashes going on.  So, in effect, you got taken for a ride, and now you are supposed to sit back and take it like, well, a sap.

There are, historically, other modes of slashing which have happened here and there, even quite recently – say, in Romania not so long ago.  So here, on Bastille day, is a reminder.   It has something to with going to hell in a basket.

Happy Bastille Day!

Stepin Fetchit with his friends

As our world does its curious minuet of collapse, the Great Dark Hope of 2008 has – for those who hadn’t noticed it already – fully shown he’s a 100% somewhat right-wing Republican with a tan to beat Boehner’s. (Have fun with puns there!)   It seems to be his modus-operandi, a kind of rope-a-dope routine in which he lets the supposed opponents shove the goal-posts a mile or two, then surveys the situation and offers still another 10 yards or more, and announces he’s made the needed compromise that gave the supposed opposition a bit, but not everything, and wasn’t that a sage thing to do as the sky did not fall as it otherwise would have.   A smooth operator as they might say, a real good one put over on America’s liberals et al. Genuine Kabuki theater, though at this point the process has become as formally ritualized as said theater, the roles fixed in amber.

Big Timers indeed !

In the last few years there has been a cottage industry of books and articles analyzing the formative background of Mr. Obama, along with the shrill screeches from the Right – seemingly now a purposeful feint to distract from the con being pulled, as good old American liberals fell into line to protect their guy from these awful racist assaults – though in all the verbiage I saw, in PC America, I don’t recall any suggestions of Uncle Tom, or any of the other deep American places for what used to be called “the house nigger.”   It’s considered impolite to suggest that Colin Powell or now Obama have dutifully filled these historical shoes just as they are supposed to.   But Obama has certainly done so, and a simple glance at his background explains it readily:  he negotiated his black-white family circumstance, sorted out his adolescent identity crisis briefly with an Afro and supposed community organizing, and while opting visually for his black side, ideologically and politically he opted for the white.  Harvard, where he minded his manners and zipped into a nice job at the University of Chicago, did lawyering with a white firm, and got the nod to let his dark-skinned eloquence work its magic at the 2004 Democratic Convention.  It was all, well, kind of magical.

Listen up, Stepin !

And so this tabula rasa, with a perfect fill-in-the-blanks-yourself PR slogan, promised Change You Can Believe In, and was inserted into the White House, an antidote to the Bush trauma which sucked in the entire center-left-progressive spectrum of the country like a Hoover.  Confronted in 2008 with the banker’s self-made crisis, he backed Bush’s deal with The-Sky-Is-Falling Hank Paulson’s demand for 800 billion instant and unaccountable greenbacks, and once in office did whatever tap dance the Wall Street gang demanded.  After all, those he appointed to guide him were all from the offices of Goldman Sachs etc.    The alleged urgency of the moment masked this rightward lunge, and he carried on the Fred Astaire routine with his marks, the great unwashed American public, left side, which so wanted a resolution to the traumatic Bush years that they eagerly overlooked all the signs that their great hope was Bush squared.  They’ve continued this delusion up until very recently, though as Obama hints at succumbing to so-called Republican demands for shaving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, it seems even the most ardent of Obama fans are realizing they got taken to the cleaners in one of the slickest political scams of our history: there are no Democrats, the entire party has been bought, and, like Jews in Inquisition Europe, they’ve converted to being Republicans, and if they have any Democrat tendencies they keep them secret.

Fun in Athens

Meantime, on the other side of the pond, another Greek drama is playing out, and as any good Greek tragedy, the end is foretold and it is the playing out knowing the conclusion which makes it tragic.   There, following the clever set-up which Goldman Sachs (yes, them again… are the dots connecting yet?) engineered with the previous right-wing government to hide the country’s indebtedness (a sleight-of-hand bit of bookkeeping fraud which Goldman is apparently expert in doing) so they could join the Euro Community, things are now falling apart.  Pumped with Euro funds from the more or less healthy economies to the north, Greece went on a banker-encouraged spending boom, running up mountains of communal and personal debt, suckered into the wonderful consumer fantasy-land of the West, while the interest rates climbed. And now, if they did little else than work their butts to the bone, they will never pay off the interest, not to mention the principle, on the loans so sweetly given to them. Today, the banks want their pound of  Greek lamb and some nice embellishments to boot.  And they sent their poodle, Standard and Poors, allegedly a disinterested ratings agency, to inform the EU that the holy banks would not tolerate having to absorb any losses, period.  Or else, as in 2008, the sky would fall !   And promptly the politicians scrambled to please these monetary masters of the universe.   Of course, next in line for this treatment are Portugal (bonds last week reduced to “junk”), Ireland, Spain, and Italy.

All of this is occurring thanks in part to the introduction of the trans-European monetary unit, the Euro, which doesn’t allow individual countries devalue their currency, but sticks them all with the same “value.”   Interestingly, I met, about a decade ago, one of the originators of this idea – Robert Mundell, Nobel Prize winning economist, University of Columbia professor, who, along with some others cooked up the logic for having a single currency.

Robert Mundell, Nobel Laureate, chameleon

I met Mr Mundell in Rome, somewhere back in the late 1990’s or 2000 or so.  One thing led to another, and I was introduced to a friend of his who wanted to do a film based on the painter Masaccio – a Renaissance period piece.  The guy gave me his script, which was a turgid piece of utter tripe.  But I did get to visit Mundell’s new home, an old castle a short way out of  Siena.  He was thinking of making the former horse-stable/barn area into a kind of studio.  I think I saw him 3 or 4 times.  Each time he was what I would charitably call “drunk.”  I know in scientific statistical terms this is not a fair sampling, but on the more flexible standard of human observation, I’d have to guess this was kind of normal.   At all events, he was/is considered the founder of the Euro, and I would be curious to see what his view on this is now. Given his apparently lousy sense of dramaturgy, his evident gullibility to the kinds of people who show up when riches fall in your lap and his liquid habits, I certainly would not give his intellectual ideas too much credibility, Nobel or no.  (We note Mr Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner….)

My guess is that the Euro and the EU are a kind of intellectual/Ivory Tower construct, a nice theoretical idea which in some kind of perfect world seems a good idea.  In post-WWII Europe something that would entice these differing countries to fight less and get along more must have been a nice lure.  Certainly from the pedestrian tourist viewpoint it is nice not to have to change money at every border, and on a vast business scale it also makes big money shifts easier and less costly.  However the idea was more that by having a shared currency everyone would (have to) behave similarly.  Anyone who has lived in Spain or Italy or Portugal or Greece would know that shifting the coinage in your pocket is not going to change your cultural behavior and turn you into a German.  But, behind the idea of the Euro that was the idea.  And it has foundered on the rocks of reality.  Of course that reality is also rather distorted by the manipulations of the bankers, who for now have figured out how to squeeze blood money out of the rocky terrain of Greece.

And so anger flows on the streets of Athens and Thessalonika, and it builds in the solid burghers of Germany who figure they are the ones paying for this folly.   And, if the bankers get their way, as in the S&P notice, they will.  However, whether the twists and turns take some more weeks or some more months, it appears the most likely outcome is that Greece will default on its debts, leave the Euro, and we’ll have another major economic crisis as the banks absorb their losses.  If you don’t know, if we “follow the money” we find that German and French banks are deeply tied up in the Greek crisis, having loaned them multiple billions of Euro.  They did so by borrowing money from American banks, who were flush with their 800 billion bail-out of 2008, and also a Federal “preferred” window in which they were able to obtain money at a half a point interest rate and turn around and loan it to European banks for 4 or 6%.  Not a bad deal.  But that means that the Greek crisis, zipping through Germany and France (as well as other Euro banks), then moves across the Atlantic to American banks.  Hence the stamping of banker feet insisting they will not take a hair-cut.  What goes round, comes round, but bankers in this day insist on privatizing massive profits and socializing massive losses.   They got away with it in 2008, and they are trying again now.

At the rate things are going, it would seem Mr Mundell’s dream is turning into a nightmare, and soon the Euro will come crashing to the ground, as a sequence of debt-ridden countries, the dubiously coined PIGS, default and pull out of the Euro-zone or are kicked out.

Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel, Firenze

The story is more or less unchanged in history.  I figure I am the figure here, to the lower left, and off screen there are billions of others with me.   While for most of us it seems fantastical, our “currency” is merely a symbol, be it dollars or yen or renminbi or drachmas or Euros.  What it symbolizes is a mode of social trust, and when that trust evaporates – as it did, for example in Weimar Germany, not so long ago, or the Soviet Union much more recently, the money means nothing, and a wheel-barrel of cash can’t buy a loaf of bread.  Our societies are rapidly eroding that trust, as we see bankers who for their “work” make 4.9 billion dollars in a year, while those who “work” at less abstract levels all day long, make barely enough to survive – whether in rich western and Asian countries, or those mired in poverty in Africa, areas of Asia and South America.

Ancient Greek warriorModern day Greek warriors

[Little note:  Mr Obama is said to be a student of Lincoln, but perhaps it is Lincoln Perry, a.k.a. Stepin Fetchit who is his mentor rather than the other one we were led to believe it was.  I can say this: Barry ain’t no Abraham.]



As if to signal just who runs the world these days, Standard and Poor, the ratings makers for our friends the bankers, issued a warning that the European community’s bail out for Greece was not going to pass muster if the bankers had to take any losses.  So S&P said (on behalf of their banking buddies), the current deal would be considered a default default, as it were, and if so, it was implied, the whole banking system would tumble down again.  Translating this into the myriad languages of Europe, it comes down to pretty much the same thing as the ultimatum issued in 2008 by America’s bankers: give us the money or the sky falls.

In so far as bankers, such as, for example, Goldman Sachs, were intimately involved in instructing Greece how to jiggle the books to make themselves look better, and naturally made a mountain of money for their sterling advice, and have no doubt bet against their own advice with a Credit Default Swap, and in turn American banks flush with their 800 billion heist from Uncle Sam and their .5 % “drawing rights” promptly loaned money to Europe’s banks for a far higher interest rate, the underlying (and overlying) reality is that Europe’s banks, if not bailed out as were America’s, will not be able to pay the American banks who loaned them the funny money of the Fed.  So S&P enters to act as a mafia enforcer, informing the governments that once again, the public must pay the piper, or else.  Or else the whole ponzi scheme of international globalized banking/rape, will fall apart.  Perhaps this is all in celebration of the IMF former honcho suddenly being relieved of worries in New York, since being raped when caught lying about other things no longer constitutes  being raped, and of course an upstanding man like DKS would never impose himself on a lowly hotel maid.  It is like the IMF is – they rape little economically weak countries and tell them it is good for them – don’t worry, you’ll like it.

In America it is July 4th, the 235th celebration of independence from Britain, though we lost count how long America has been slavishly dependent upon our good friends in the banking community.

Happy 235th !