by Gilles d'Aymery
"It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war."
—Abraham Lincoln in a letter to William F. Elkins, November 21, 1864.
(Swans - March 10, 2008) THE IDES OF MARCH, a metaphor that evokes impending doom, won't be known until April when the financial sector discloses its quarterly results, but you can expect that a few more "bad apples" will fall from the banking industry's orchard. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, which surveys some 46 million home loans in the U.S., the fourth quarter of 2007 was even worse than the third quarter with all indicators in the red. Late mortgage payments rose to over 20% (compared to 18.8% in the third quarter), the delinquency rate has shot up to 5.83% (versus 5.59% in the previous quarter), subprime mortgages gone into foreclosure have risen from 4.72% in the third quarter up to 5.29% in the fourth. Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, testified last week that foreclosures, delinquencies, and late payments will continue to rise "for a while longer" -- at least for two additional quarters, estimates the Mortgage Bankers Association. On March 4, Merrill Lynch published a memo indicating that Citigroup may have to write off an additional $18 billion, of which $15 billion are directly linked to the housing meltdown. Last November, after writing off $11 billion, the bank had to call on the sovereign funds of Kuwait and Abu Dhabi to shore up its capital. Citigroup's stock has lost half of its value since last summer. On March 4, it went down another 4.29%. Note that this is only one bank... No bank is safe, whether in the U.S. or abroad. The French Crédit Agricole, to take but one example, has had to write off 3.22 billion Euros ($4.8 billion).
ONE CANNOT PROPHESY DOOM, but if you want to better understand the shenanigans that have led to the current situation, which is threatening the worldwide banking system, I highly recommend you read Michael Doliner's article, A Quick Look At The Credit Crisis, published in our current issue.
THANKFULLY, DOOM is far from impending for the happy few that belong to Forbes Magazine's annual list of billionaires worldwide. You'll be glad to learn that the list has grown to 1,125 gazillionaires, 179 more than last year, whose total net worth is $4.4 trillion -- 4,400,000,000,000 dollars. Of course there are differences in wealth: the average worth is a mere $3.9 billion -- just about $280 million more than last year -- but the average worth of the top 20 is about $20.8 billion, or about $3.3 billion more than last year. It is said that there is a lot of resentment on the part of the bottom listers toward the top of the food chain. Overall, they tend to be old, though the average age is 61 due to the arrival of a few youngsters. Take Yang Huiyan who owns Country Garden Holdings Co., a property company in equalitarian communist China. She's worth $7.4 billion (#125 on the list) and is only 26 years old. The average age of Chinese billionaires is 48, and in Russia 46, but the golden palm goes to Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. At the tender age of 23, Zuckerberg is worth $1.5 billion (#785 on the list).
THE BIG SHOCKING NEWS, however, comes in two strikes. Strike #1: This is an annum horribilis for American patriots. Only 4 Americans made the top 20. In 2006, they were 10. Still, our pride is not totally shattered for the richest man in the world remains an American, which brings me to Strike #2. Friends... (Begin digression, I'm not sure I should use this term of endearment any longer. Senator bomb-bomb-Iran McCain, the presumed Republican nominee, has hijacked the term -- we are all his "friends," except the defeatocrats, of course. End of digression.) Where was I? Ah yes, friends and non-friends alike (I have no enemy, right? Oh, come on Mr. d'Aymery, get to your point, if you please.)... It pleases me. Where was I? Ah yes, readers and non-readers, a 13-year reign (that's like Bush I and Bush II almost combined) has ended. Bill Gates, Micro$oft daddy, has been dethroned, relegated to #3 with a measly $58 billion net worth ($2 billion more than last year). Ahead of him comes #2, Carlos Slim, age 68, a Mexican telecommunications mogul and son of Lebanese immigrants (no, he is not Ralph Nader -- oh shut up Gilles... Gilles, a nice name, non? SHUT UP!). Okay, okay... So, who's #1?
NUMBER ONE IS AMERICAN -- thank the Lord, we are still Numero Uno! His name? Warren Buffett, the 77-year-old chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a company whose shares rose 28% in the past 12 months -- a better result than Citigroup to say the least. (Advice to investors: If you have cash on hand, grab a few shares of Berkshire Hathaway, at $139,000 each -- the most expensive on the New York Stock Exchange -- it's a steal!) Now, don't take me wrong. I actually like, or better said respect, Mr. Buffett. He's not only made his fortune the old fashioned way -- as the story goes, he claimed a $35 deduction with his first tax return for a bicycle he used to deliver newspapers. He was 13 years old -- but he's been an ardent advocate for keeping the estate tax (what reactionary conservatives à la bushy, including McCain, call the death tax) going, and has pledged or bequeathed his fortune to the not-for-profit (but status quo and elitist-keeping) Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So, as capitalists go, he is not that bad and evil, just a decent man whose smarts and hard work allowed him to play a system that he did not invent. He just took advantage of it (nothing wrong with that, as the saying goes).
THREE MORE PEOPLE OF INTEREST: George Soros, the affable humanitarian, is rated #97 with a net worth of $9.0 billion. Rupert Murdoch, the press magnate, is #109 with $8.3 billion. And the housing bubble fleecer that I have covered in my recent Blips, John Paulson, has more than doubled his take and reaches #368 with $3.0 billion.
PRIDE SHOULD BE SHARED with our French brethren -- and we ought to emulate the Gaullois. The wealthiest woman in the world is Liliane Bettencourt, the daughter of L'Oreal's founder (cosmetics and all). Never had to work in her life and yet is still worth $22 billion (#17 on the list). Allez la France, cher pays de mon enfance. That's, for sure, what Simone de Beauvoir was all about -- after all, the average net worth of the women that make the list is $3.7 billion, only $200 million off the average. Talk about equality of the sexes!
LIFE'S GOOD. Thank you Forbes for reminding us that if we work hard enough, meritocracy is there for the taking.
BACK TO THE LOWLANDS OF MOTHER EARTH: The nationwide mortgage crisis is creating victims far beyond the human species. Pets are being abandoned at an alarming rate. People, faced with dire financial predicaments, have to make choices. The Other gets on the losing side of the survival kit. "I either have to feed my kids or feed my dog," says a story in the Ohio Toledo Blade ("As foreclosures increase with area housing crisis, shelters see more animals," by Blade staff writer By JC Reindl, December 31, 2007). Feeding and caring for a dog or a cat can cost between $500 and $1,000 a year depending upon the health of these companions. With a home foreclosed people end up in rental properties (when they are not left homeless) whose landlords often do not allow cats and dogs, or ask for a higher deposit and monthly rent. Last November, the Toledo Humane Society saw the number of dogs in their animal shelters nearly double. "We have noticed an exponential increase of people having to return animals either because they're being foreclosed, or because they are having to take on a second job to avoid foreclosure," said Nikki Morey, dog-intake coordinator for Northwest Ohio-based Planned Pethood Inc. People suffer, animals die. (I know, I know, I am a bleeding-heart animal lover, a commie of sort, and all the epithets that can be thrown at me, but if I had to choose between the lives of my beloved Priam and Mestor and mine, I would not hesitate a second. I would take mine. I'm much more expensive to take care of than those two faithful companions. It would save enough money for Jan to keep the uptake of those two beings that deserve life as much as, or more than I do -- and certainly do less damage to the earth in their entire lifespan than I do in a single day, or week, or month.) What a sick and perverted world...
HERE AGAIN REJOICE, animal lovers abound in the right places. Remember the six-year-old purse dog that got a $12 million bequeath from the late real estate tycoon (and felon) Leona Helmsley? Well, if you are an animal lover and hold a bundle of Berkshire Hathaway shares, I have good news for you:
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WITH THE THEME SONG of Satcho's "What a Wonderful World" (George Weiss & Bob Thiele, 1967) in the background the Web site advertises...
BUT LET ME SHARE "What a Wonderful World" with you first:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin' hands, sayin' "How do you do?"
They're really saying "I love you"
I hear babies cryin', I watch them grow
They'll learn much more than I'll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world
HOW FITTING THAT in the American experiment beauty can mingle with vulgarity and obscene wealth... Anyway, at i Love Dogs, Inc. you can buy Amour Amour, a "one-of-a-kind, 52-carat diamond dog collar" ("Over 1600 hand-set diamonds adorn the graceful chandelier design that includes an amazing 7-carat, D-IF, brilliant-shape centerpiece diamond"), for $1,800,000.00. If it's slightly above your budget, you may want to consider Amour de la Mer for just $480,000.00, or Chéri that is cost-consciously priced at $380,000.00. Still too much? Try L'Étoile; it's only $312,000.00. For the truly miserly self, the lowest-priced dog collar in the collection is Jeune Chéri. At $280,000.00, it's a steal -- only 8 pieces at this price.
IF THIS DOES NOT MAKE YOU FEEL sick to the stomach, vomiting in disgust, I don't know what will ever make you do so. What's sorely missing in the U$ of A are the pitchforks! Instead, what we'll get is blood in the streets, blood in the streets...and once again they'll get away with it.
ELECTORAL DETACHMENT: I've stayed out of the fray on the coming presidential elections. There is only so much one can take day in and day out before turning off the switch altogether (a year or more of punditry leaves one's prick lame). Identity politics tend to bore me. The choice between a black sartorial semiotician and a gritty, no-holds-barred woman leaves me cold, whatever the obvious symbolism of the spectacle. Neither addresses the issues that concern me. To be fair, neither can since they are beholden to corporate interests. So why bother? We'll still remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future; we'll keep all the "options on the table" in regard to Iran and other created enemies; we'll increase military spending (is not Obama advocating an additional 90,000 troops?); the Palestinians will be short-changed as ever; we won't get single payer health insurance in spite of the fact that a majority of Americans and 59% of doctors in private practice are asking for it (no, a single payer system is not socialized medicine); we won't reduce the obscene inequalities that are even worse than in the 1920s; the curtailment of our civil rights will continue unabated (remember the police-state trend did not begin with Mr. Bush); a modicum of gun control won't happen (actually, 15 states or more are considering allowing students to carry guns in colleges and schools); the biofuel and nuclear energy boondoggle will keep carrying the day; our decrepit infrastructure will become more decrepit; our school system will fall further into disrepair...but god will be part of the curriculum; and on, and on, and on...
TO GRASP THE STATE OF this sorry display -- the rotten qualities of this most undemocratic country -- you need to understand the role of the managerial class but also the hypocrisy of the reporting press, all the way from the corporate media down to freelance journalism. To wit, here's an e-mail I recently received, reproduced unedited:
joe blow <derobed AT hotmail.com>
Mon, 25 Feb 2008
Greetings Gilles, I have just rec'd my 'vetting' for credentials for the DNC and RNC and was wondering if Swans was interested in any reporting / perspectives / articles from either or both conventions this late summer.
I realize it is early, but in my freelance capacity I am lining up interested parties as early as possible.
I am very flexible and and am happy to take assignments based on the angle the particular publication would like.
Look fwd to hearing back from you.
(905) 685 8317
MY ANSWER -- "Thanks for your inquiry. We do not financially compensate contributors. So, we may well be the wrong venue for your endeavors." -- took care of him, but I was struck by the content of his e-mail. First, his immediate goal was about making money (nothing wrong with that), not about covering the conventions professionally. This was confirmed by his "flexibility" and his "readiness" to skew, adapt, and adjust his reporting according to the editorial line of the publication willing to hire his services. It has little to do with reporting as he sees it, but reporting with the slant his hired masters want him to do. As I've often said, I've more respect for the women of the night... They, at least, are not hypocrites. They sell real goodies you can depend on. The two Democratic candidates, armed with their focus groups, will tell the voters what they think they want to hear. It's as simple as that. There is no, absolutely no principle associated with their respective campaigns, except one: They'll do everything necessary to get to the Oval Office, honesty, truthfulness, principles be damned. So, yes, I am disengaged...and rather depressed (an annual occurrence in the months of February, March, and April).
STILL, ONE MUST REMAIN LIGHTHEARTED: Think about the Pwogs and Pwogrevs, those orphans who lost both Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul. Where are they going to land next? I hear Justin Raimondo has gotten a sweet spot for Barack Obama. Alexander Cockburn is debating (internal nightmare) whether a Jewish conspiracy took his two heroes out of the race. Stan "Goofy Duck" Goff must be back into radical feminism, as he scratches his scrotum and strategizes the selling of his next book. Poor Norman Solomon, with Kucinich and Edwards gone, is working hard on his next piece that will explain the reasons (intellectual contortions notwithstanding) to vote for whichever the Dems nominate to head the ticket against bombing-mad McCain. Paulistas keep rubbing their heads to figure out how come the rEVOLution went so astray and their $20 million donations only bought them 14 delegates. It's all so predictable. At the end of the procession, the greenback remains the priority at the top of their list of concerns. If this is the extent of American dissent, Lord have mercy upon us.
IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE? Consider the Nader campaign. (Full disclosure: I wrote Mr. Nader twice to beg him to run one last time.) His choice of Matt Gonzalez (and Gonzalez's willingness to run) is a brilliant move -- bringing the next generation to the fore... They are the two most ethical men that America has encountered in the past 30-some years, willing and able to participate in the democratic process in spite of the usual pestilent ululations coming from the hypocrites ensconced at The Nation, Huffington Post, and all the lib-lab worms that pullulate the so-called "progressive" blogosphere. Ralph Nader referred to Matt Gonzalez as a man with "a clear eloquence and humane logic." While Gonzalez will focus his even-keeled attention on electoral reform, poverty, and the war in Iraq, Nader will keep hammering fierily on the realities and denounce the bigots on the so-called Left. The perfect ticket, if you want my take. Vote for Nader-Gonzalez next November. They are the only contestants on the campaign trail who truly care about America's future. (My name is Gilles d'Aymery, and I approve this message.)
. . . . .
C'est la vie...
And so it goes...
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.