Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Senate Dems stab Americans in the back, as expected

Big surprise: 3 small-state Democratic Senators on the Finance Committee sided with the insurance lobby and voted down a voluntary public option for health insurance. The amendment lost 10-13, instead of passing 13-10 along party lines.

So forget your stupid fear of "socialized" medicine, government won't even have a role to play outside of Medicare! The draft bill in committee has no way to significantly bring down health costs, since single-payer never had a prayer, and since the public option is officially dead.

This post-vote statement by Senator Thomas "Traitor" Carper (D-DE) goes down as one of the dumbest ever:

"Carper said he did not vote for the [public option] amendment because 'it would give the government an unfair advantage in the marketplace by allowing it to negotiate prices initially based on Medicare. That would stifle competition, not increase it, and the end result, I believe, would not be good for the consumer.'"

In other words, if the government can use its negotiating leverage to get us, the American people, better prices for medical care than the private sector can, then that is unfair to the private sector.

Now we know whose side the Senate Millionaires Club is on. (Hint: not ours).

By Kris Alingod
September 30, 2009 | All Headline News

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Taleb: Debt reduction, not stimulus

Can't believe I missed this one from back in July.

OK, so I admit I like Taleb a lot, and he's against bailouts and stimulus packages. I can agree on the former. But in the absence of aggressive, systematic conversion of debt to equity like he prescribes, then we are left with an economy that still depends on massive amounts of debt to make it go; and in this recession, few want or have the means to lend. I wonder what Taleb would prescribe then, understanding the real world in which we live?

If we follow his advice and eliminate debt, it seems to me we would have a much smaller economy than the world has today, at least at first. Maybe that's not a bad thing though.

Time to tackle the real evil: too much debt

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Spitznagel

July 13, 2009 | Financial Times

The core of the problem, the unavoidable truth, is that our economic system is laden with debt, about triple the amount relative to gross domestic product that we had in the 1980s. This does not sit well with globalisation. Our view is that government policies worldwide are causing more instability rather than curing the trouble in the system. The only solution is the immediate, forcible and systematic conversion of debt to equity. There is no other option.

Our analysis is as follows. First, debt and leverage cause fragility; they leave less room for errors as the economic system loses its ability to withstand extreme variations in the prices of securities and goods. Equity, by contrast, is robust: the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000 did not have significant consequences because internet companies, while able to raise large amounts of equity, had no access to credit markets.

Second, the complexity created by globalisation and the internet causes economic and business values (such as company revenues, commodity prices or unemployment) to experience more extreme variations than ever before. Add to that the proliferation of systems that run more smoothly than before, but experience rare, but violent blow-ups.

Our ability to forecast suffers due to this complexity and the occurrence of the occasional extreme event, or "black swan". Such degradation in predictability should have made companies more conservative in their capital structure, not more aggressive – yet private equity, homeowners and others have been recklessly amassing debt. Such non-linearity makes the mathematics used by economists rather useless. Our research shows that economic papers that rely on mathematics are not scientifically valid. Not only do they underestimate the possibility of "black swans" but they are unaware that we do not have any ability to deal with the mathematics of extreme events. The same flaw found in risk models that helped cause the financial meltdown is present in economic models invoked by "experts". Anyone relying on these models for conclusions is deluded.

Third, debt has a nasty property: it is highly treacherous. A loan hides volatility as it does not vary outside of default, while an equity investment has volatility but its risks are visible. Yet both have similar risks. Thus debt is the province of both the overconfident borrower who underestimates large deviations, and of the investor who wants to be deluded by hiding risks. Then there are products such as complex derivatives, which in the name of "modern finance" make the system even more fragile.

Against this background, we have two options. The first is to deflate debt, the other is to inflate assets (or counter their deflation with a collection of stimulus packages.)

We believe that stimulus packages, in all their forms, make the same mistakes that got us here. They will lead to extreme overshooting or extreme undershooting. They lead to more borrowing, by socialising private debt. But running a government deficit is dangerous, as it is vulnerable to errors in projections of economic growth. These errors will be larger in the future, so central bank money creation will lead not to inflation but to hyper-inflation, as the system is set for bigger deviations than ever before.

Relying on standard models to build policies makes us all fragile and overconfident. Asking the economics establishment for guidance (particularly after its failure to see the risk in the economy) is akin to asking to be led by the blind – instead we need to rebuild the world to make it resistant to the economist's mystifications.

Invoking the pre-internet Great Depression as guidance for current events is irresponsible: errors in fiscal policy will be magnified by this kind of thinking. Monetary policy has always been dangerous. Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman, tried playing with the business cycle to iron out bubbles, but it eventually got completely out of control. Bubbles and fads are part of cultural life. We need to do the opposite to what Mr Greenspan did: make the economy's structure more robust to bubbles.

The only solution is to transform debt into equity across all sectors, in an organised and systematic way. Instead of sending hate mail to near-insolvent homeowners, banks should reach out to borrowers and offer lower interest payments in exchange for equity. Instead of debt becoming "binary" – in default or not – it could take smoothly-varying prices and banks would not need to wait for foreclosures to take action. Banks would turn from "hopers", hiding risks from themselves, into agents more engaged in economic activity. Hidden risks become visible; hopers become doers.

It is sad to see that those who failed to spot the problem (or helped to cause it) are now in charge of the remedy. Just as the impending crisis was obvious to those of us who specialise in complexity and extreme deviations, the solution is plain to see. We need an aggressive, systematic debt-for-equity conversion. We cannot afford to wait a day.

The writers are with Universa Investments; Prof Taleb is author of 'The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable'

FOX's Pinkerton: What Obama doesn't get about health care

Pinkerton's thesis – which is nothing new among opponents of liberal health care reform – is that medical technology and drug research, which happen to be America's forte – are really the ways for us to improve the quality of care and reduce costs. In other words, the cure for our health system's woes is more of the same. This is a facile and deceptive analysis of the problem we face.

Pinkerton starts out by scaring us with the alternative to his proposal of spending even more on medical technology and drug research: "rationing." Americans, he says, want more care, not less; but the only way liberals know how to cut costs (aka "bend" the cost curve) is to reduce care. Not true. Germany spends less on medical technology and drugs than we do, but Germans see their doctor 7.5 times a year, on average, vs. 3.8 times in the U.S., and stay longer in the hospital for acute care than we do (7.8 days vs. 5.5 days). This is the very definition of receiving more care. Meanwhile, Germans spend only about 10 percent of GDP on health care – even though they have more senior citizens and smokers, per capita, than we do – while America spends over 16 percent of its GDP. All this goes to prove the conventional wisdom that preventive medicine is really the best medicine.

Pinkerton also overlooks the fact that most drug research goes into incremental improvements on existing drugs, not cures. Why? Pinkerton's beloved profit motive, of course. There is little incentive for drug companies to cure a disease and cut off the hand that feeds them, so to speak, when they can offer an incremental improvement and thus win over a market worth hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars a year. For example, some new cancer drugs often prolong a terminally ill patient's life by only a few weeks or months compared to existing drugs; nevertheless, many patients are willing to pay top dollar for such a new drug, if it means delaying death a little longer. Pinkerton is also silent on the fact that drug companies, which spend $ billions on research and development, spend more than double that amount to market and sell their new drugs to us.

This is not to say that breakthroughs in medical science aren't important. But we can't build a health care system based on breakthroughs. Old age, for instance, is not a disease that can be cured by scientists, it is a fact of life. And yet the last year of life is typically when a person spends the most on his or her health care. How are new technology and drug discoveries going to solve the problem of old age? Again, Pinkerton is silent. (Although, America will continue to be relatively "young" until 2025 compared to other OECD countries like Germany, which produce better health outcomes with more access and lower costs.)

What Obama Doesn't Get About Americans and Health Care, Part 2

By James Pinkerton

September 28, 2009 |

Are we doomed to face ever-increasing health care costs because people want more treatment? Not if we see health care and medicine as dynamic and if we recognize that the variables of health and medicine can be changed.

In the first part of this two-part piece, I noted that the hot issue-within-an-issue for Washington health care wonks is "bending the curve" on health care costs--that is, reducing future increases.

Even Barack Obama is talking the "bend" talk. In an interview with The Washington Post in July, the president used the "b-word" no less than 11 times. In this particular passage, he said that he wants to "bend" the cost curve, not only for government expenditures, but also for private-sector expenditures:

"The problem we have in this whole debate is that bending the cost curve, curbing health care inflation, is harder to measure in part because it doesn't just involve government outlays; it also involves what's happening in the private sector."

But of course, talk of "bending curves" is simply a fancy way of saying "cuts." As Howard Gleckman observed earlier this year in Business Week, "When it comes to Medicare, 'bending the curve' means rationing care." Got that? And since Obama mentioned private-sector expenditures as well as government expenditures, we can assume that he wants to extend rationing to everyone.

But as I also noted, head-on attempts at "bending the curve" are doomed to failure, at least in a small "d" democratic society. Why? Because poll after poll shows that the American people think they should be getting more treatment, not less. And they vote accordingly, which is why Obamacare is in so much trouble.

So what's the answer? Are we doomed to ever-escalating health care costs because people want more treatment? No. We are so "doomed" only if we see health care and medicine as static and unchanging. But if, instead, if we see health care and medicine as dynamic, if we see that the variables of health and medicine can be changed-- as when, for example, a new or improved treatment comes along, or even a cure-- then it's possible to see hope for outcomes that are not only cheaper, but better.

And that hope is well-grounded in medical history.

We might consider, to start, the humble headache--although, of course, for those suffering from a migraine, there's nothing humble about it. In the dark past, and yet not so long ago, some extraordinarily awful "cures" have been attempted; for example, there was trepanation--drilling a hole in one's head to let the bad stuff out. Needless to say, trepanation was among the many "cures" that didn't cure very well.

But then in the late 19th century came aspirin. Aspirin was the wonder drug of its day, and to many pain sufferers, it still is. And yet while aspirin was plenty expensive to research and develop in its the 1800s, today it is off-patent and mass-produced, so it's cheap and abundant.

So what's the lesson here? The lesson is not to "bend the curve" on ineffective methods for curing headaches-- finding cheaper ways to drill holes in heads-- but instead, to find effective methods for curing headaches. Effective is better than ineffective. Effective means bending the curve the right way. And over time, the curves of those cures will be "bent upward," even as new varieties are introduced to the market, so that every niche need is properly serviced.

The same model applies, as well, to historically more lethal diseases. Thanks to the dynamism of science, we didn't just bend the curve on smallpox, we flattened the curve on smallpox. A malady that was killing millions of people a year into the 1960s, smallpox was officially declared eradicated by the World Health Organization back in 1979. As in, no more. Instead of humans being kaput because of smallpox, the smallpox virus is kaput because of humans. Yet if we hadn't eradicated smallpox, today we'd still be talking about "bending the curve" on smallpox, which would mean, for example, figuring out ways to squeeze savings from smallpox hospitals. (And of course, we would also be struggling to calculate the economic harm done by the loss of those who were killed and disabled by the disease, although health care bean-counters rarely worry about questions of lost economic output; they focus only on direct healthcare outlays.)

Now let's take a more current example, a disease wrecking lives today: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." Every year, 5,000 new cases of ALS are diagnosed; when the diagnosis is made, treatment can easily cost $200,000 a year. Most patients live two to five years after diagnosis, which means that a single case of ALS could easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and on into the millions. So how to bend that curve? Only the hardhearted would say of ALS victims, "Well, they're going to die soon anyway, so let's cut back and let them go quickly." The rest of us would say, "We need to do what we can for these unfortunate people." And then we would add, "But of course, it would really be great if we could figure out a cure!" Indeed, the best and also cheapest way to deal with ALS is to eliminate ALS, so that it goes the way of smallpox.

That makes sense, doesn't it? As Robert Frost observed, "The best way out is always through."

Just this past Monday, ALS sufferers, and their families, received some good news. The Food and Drug Administration approved for clinical trial a new treatment produced by Neuralstem Inc., based in Rockville, Maryland. There's no way to know how these trials will turn out, but now there's hope--hope founded in the vast success that serious medicine has enjoyed over the centuries.

If we did it with headaches, and we did it with smallpox, then we can eventually do it with ALS--if we keep at it.

The same Robert Frostian "best-way-out-is-through" logic also applies to medical devices and techniques. Let's take another example of a medical device that's so embedded in our thinking that we have forgotten how hard it was to develop: eyeglasses. The idea of using corrective lenses goes back more than a thousand years, to the 9th century; the first wearable eyeglass is thought to date from the 13th century. Yet even rich people were poor back in those days, and so the work of inventors and craftsmen over all those centuries represented, in relative terms, an enormous investment. But thanks to their accumulated good work, eyeglasses today are cheap, and so are contact lenses.

And now we have other eyesight-improving procedures, such as LASIK. As the spelled-out name--laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis--suggests, LASIK is not easy. Or at least it wasn't easy to invent and to refine. But now that the procedure has been invented and refined, it has become easy--at least easy to pay for. Indeed, it's now possible to shop for LASIK on eBay.

Now that's bending the curve!

I could cite other examples, too, such as minimally invasive, or laparoscopic, surgery, which is in the process of cost-crashing more and more kinds of surgical procedures.

So this is how we "bend the curve" in a politically and ethically acceptable fashion: We research and develop new approaches, which are faster, cheaper, and best of all, better. The only kind of health care cost control that will work over the long run is health care improvement. That is to say, Serious Medicine.

Medical history tells us that this is so, and common sense underscores that point as well. So why are the health care policy elites talking about "rationing" when they could be talking about improving health and lower costs?

Are you curious about that? Good! Then why not ask your elected official exactly that question at the next town meeting?

James P. Pinkerton is a FOX News contributor. Read his commentary on health care at Serious Medicine Strategy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why right-wing power brokers really hate ACORN

I'm no expert on ACORN, but having read this article about its 40-year history, it seems silly to me to criticize a decentralized, grassroots organization with 400,000 members in 40 states and 100 cities run by honest-to-goodness poor people for the bizarre advice allegedly given by one ACORN employee in a hidden-camera sting operation.

In advocating investigations, blah-blah-blah, against ACORN nationwide for the actions, apparently, by one ACORN adivser, conservatives are employing the same logic that they have repeatedly rejected when right-wing extremists committed acts of violence like Oklahoma City, and liberals called for regulating militant militias or banning guns.  Or when conservative Republican preachers have called for U.S. holy war against Muslims, or blamed gays for Katrina, or take your pick.  

When it comes to their side, conservatives are quick to point out that a few bad apples don't spoil the bunch.  But when it comes to the other side, it's a different story.

By David Morris
September 23, 2009 | AlterNet

Ames: Why another 'nice, quiet, normal' American worker 'went postal'

fd.jpg image by Alexia17

By Mark Ames

September 28, 2009 | AlterNet

There was another workplace rampage killing last week, just outside of Fresno, California, leaving two company employees dead and the other employees grateful to be alive.

Fresno, like so much of unofficial America, is still in a state of shock these days, after suffering from a non-stop barrage of tragic events and trends, of subprime devastation and a three-year drought, and political corruption and machinations that seem to be accelerating with every month. So unlike workplace shootings in the past, this one was quickly pushed off the front pages and almost forgotten, just a couple of days after it happened.

But like so many workplace shootings, scratch the surface of Fresno today, to get a sense of context, and you'll be shocked by how corrupt, desperate and bizarre the situation has become: pull the camera back from the scene of the crime, and suddenly you get Sean Hannity making regular appearances on behalf of agribusiness oligarchs, and beleaguered Mexican farmworkers gang-pressed into marching 50 miles in the Central Valley heat calling for the repeal of the Endangered Species Act … but more on that a bit later.

Here's what happened last Tuesday:
Jim Badasci, who'd worked at Fresno Equipment for 10 years, showed up Tuesday morning with a shotgun at 8:57 a.m., and the first thing he did was kill a fellow co-worker, Ralph Wallis. About two dozen fellow co-workers scattered at that point, some taking refuge at a nearby car wash, others reportedly hiding inside of a locked vault, as Badasci, wearing a hunting vest filled with ammo, proceeded to "shoot the equipment" -- in this case, John Deere agricultural machinery.

Shooting utility tractors may seem strange or psychotic to anyone who hasn't studied these workplace shootings, but if you believe Badasci was trying to kill the Company which he believed was killing him, then shooting anything on company grounds makes perfect sense.

The really surprising part of the story is how four of the employees managed to stop Badasci from killing anyone else. Though few details have come out about how they managed to convince an unarmed killer to stop shooting, a close friend of Badasci's believes this proves that he was not a wild madman randomly killing, but rather a normal man who'd become desperate.

Rather than kill more fellow-workers, Badasci took his own life.

It was all over in a few minutes; as always, the police and SWAT teams arrived just beyond the nick of time.

So why did Badasci shoot? What drove him to it, and who was he after? Officially, we don't know. But one local report on KSEE24 TV, which no one else picked up on,
offered a rather clear explanation:

We spoke with Michael von Flue, a former coworker of Jim Badasci, who says that this was out of character for him. That Jim would go out of his way to help others and that he had a good home life. Von Flue did not want to go on camera, but tells KCEE 24 News,"This is what happens when a company mismanages their employees and fails to treat them with respect."

In an email exchange with Von Flue, he told me that Jim Badasci had been driven to desperation by a particular supervisor and the company's toleration of the supervisor's mistreatment. Von Flue apologized for all the grammatical errors in his email, noting how difficult the last week has been, and how little he has slept. He dismissed the idea that drugs played a part, but then went on to speculate that maybe he suffered from some kind of mental illness that was triggered by the harassment and mistreatment Jim suffered.

This is particularly interesting because I've written about this in the past:
the definition of mental illness today in today's workplace is when you're too sensitive to mistreatment, bullying, stress, wage cuts, firing, etc. and you want to fight back; a healthy mind should be able to take it all in stride, accept it with a harmless grumble, and "move on."

Continuing, Von Flue said that Jim "loved his job, talking with people," and was very sociable, but that the supervisor had made his life hell, and unfortunately the company owners decided not to do anything about it, even though others had also complained. "It is sad that they didn't follow through...things might have been different I'm sure."

Von Flue's letter echoes a reader comment I spotted in a Fresno Bee story about the shooting:

sweetthgvfwrote on September, 23 11:09 AM:To anyone and everyone out there who knows Jimmy and knows what it was like to work at Fresno Equipment Company, Jimmy may have been the one who did this horrible deed, but Fresno Equipment is ultimately responsible because of the way they treat their employees. If you don't want to believe it don't, but you can talk to anyone who's quit over the last 5 years because of management my husband included, and they will tell you the real story behind all of this. My husband warned the company owners 3 years ago when he quit that if they don't take care of the problem somebody will go postal. Too bad they didn't listen back then….if you ask me both Jimmy and Ralph are victims. Again, our sympathies to both families….but let's face reality here. This situation has been in the making for a long time. It's called hostile work environment. Maybe now management will listen to their employees when there's a problem instead of sweeping it under the rug.

Just a year ago, this kind of talk would have been dismissed out of hand, because the Reaganomics model in place for 30 years was the still best in the world, and if you weren't on board, it was your own problem. Now that it's all collapsed and we're starting to understand how badly we've been burned all these years, revelations about how miserably workers may have been treated at the company Badasci attacked elicit a different kind of shrug -- like, "Yeah, so what, everyone gets screwed over by their companies, what's new?" Getting screwed over the way we have been these past 30 years is something new -- as are the workplace massacres, pitting employee against Company, which only started after the Reagan Revolution handed all power to the shareholders, and convinced the losers in that deal -- the 90 percent of Americans whose lives got worse in every measurable way since then -- that in fact it was in our own best interests to turn corporations into little Profit Gulags, where the inmates could be downsized at will, and mass-layoffs in the tens and hundreds of thousands became so common in good times and in bad that it proved Stalin's dictum about "one victim is a tragedy, a million victims is a statistic."

What is surprising is the portrait painted of Badasci -- nothing at all like the cliched "loner who kept to himself." Here is how some people described Badasci in the aftermath -- and remember, it's not easy to publicly talk well of a murderer:

One friend said he was unable to explain why Badasci would commit such a crime. Mario Juarez of Kingsburg said he worked with Badasci at Fresno Equipment for two years and they remained friends after Juarez quit. "We've gone dove hunting and to concerts. We talked from time to time," Juarez said. But Juarez is at a loss to understand the shooting. "I talked to him last week and he gave no clues that anything was wrong," Juarez said. "I've never in my life seen him mad. I would have bet my life savings he would never do a thing like this." … Marie Taylor, who lives down the block, had heard news reports about the shooting, but did not know Badasci was the suspect. She said Badasci was a mechanic and seemed to like his job. "He waved at me twice yesterday when I went by," she said Taylor occasionally talked to Badasci and his mother, but never saw a hint of trouble in his life. "He kept up the yard," she said. "He was good to his mother."

That last part, about how he lived with his mother at age 46, might offer one clue as to what might have been bothering Badasci; that, and the fact that everyone I read or saw interviewed seemed so casual about that, as if living with his mother and treating her well didn't pain him, as if they were unaware that American culture marks such people as losers and laughingstocks, disqualified from the Darwinian Tournament. If you ask me, that sounds about as miserable as a life can be: living at home with your mother outside of Fresno, in the unbearable heat and dust, at age 46, working every day in a John Deere dealership in a barren strip off highway 99, where business is bad and tempers are hot because of a three-year drought and a recession, and to top it all off, management treats him like shit. Who wouldn't want to end that violently? Few would actually do it -- only the mentally sick, of course -- but many, even healthy types, would dream of it…

So even though every person interviewed who knew Badasci had such nice things to say about him, and even though Von Flue and apparently others seem eager to get the truth out about what went on at the company, officially no one knows why he shot anyone, and officially, no one seems to care.

It is as if we've come to accept these rampage murders as inevitable, as if there were always worker-on-worker killings in the American workplace, as if the workplace was always a dangerous place, and a stressful place, and a humiliating, degrading, insecure place where no one could be trusted, from the executives stuffing their pockets to the co-worker you wrongly suspect of being "the type who'd go postal."

All that is brand new by any historical measure:
The first of these modern workplace massacres, pitting abused employee against his own company, took place just twenty years ago this month, at the Standard Gravure plant in Louisville, Kentucky, when an aggrieved employee arrived at work with a gym bag full of weapons, and killed 8 coworkers and wounded 12, before blowing his brains out.

Compared to that body count, Tuesday's workplace shooting at the Fresno Equipment Company was a mere skirmish: two dead, no injuries. And we aren't learning much in part because Fresno Equipment's owners barred employees from talking to the media,
according to a local ABC affiliate -- and they'll be inclined to listen, given Fresno's 15% unemployment rate. Moreover, Fresno has a particularly nasty socio-economic culture: at the top, a vicious ruling class of agribusiness plutocrats and their corrupt political tools, who together lord over hordes of pissed-off crackers and endlessly-exploited Mexican laborers. In a lot of ways the region has more in common with a kleptocratic post-Soviet country, or an old Upton Sinclair novel, than what we think of as "modern America."

Below the agribusiness oligarchs in Fresno County is a huge class of people struggling to keep its head above water, and losing. An estimated 41% of the people in Fresno County are either uninsured or underinsured, among the worst in the country. Housing prices collapsed out here, and coupled with the three-year drought, unemployment in some Central Valley farming towns reaches as high as 40-50%.

The struggle with poverty can mean dozens of circles of Hell, levels that you wouldn't imagine possible, like this one described in a recent
Fresno Bee feature:

Ask Stanley about the cost of being poor and she whips out a plastic bag with dozens of dead cockroaches inside. They were gathered from one apartment along Lowe Avenue. "Every night when you turn on the light, roaches scatter," Stanley said.

The roaches, attracted to mold and moisture behind the walls, wiggle their way into the ears of young children, prompting costly midnight visits to the emergency room, she said. Families sleep with the lights on, not because they fear the bogeyman, but because they fear pests. The bag of roaches came from an apartment where FIRM was conducting an assessment as part of a program to identify substandard housing and organize help. The task is difficult, because families often won't ask for help, or shun it. Many are afraid of being evicted, having rents raised or being ratted out to immigration authorities, advocates say.

And this being Fresno County, you can't forget that familiar demographic which gravitates to hot dry places like this: the Fox/Hannity crowd, seething with petty white-male malice, always mobilized to fuck up anything good, and side with whomever's going to cause the most damage -- out of sheer spite.

* * *

Although the connection is tenuous between the site of the workplace shooting -- a dealer in agricultural machines -- and the larger issues in Fresno -- agribusiness and water -- nevertheless, as in so many other shootings, by digging into the Fresno Equipment murder, I started to get a taste of just how rotten and corrupt Fresno is these days, and the larger context in which the shooting took place. Fresno is a bad place to be, and it's getting worse: imagine,
just a week before the shooting, Sean Hannity flew into the area to -- get this -- demand federal government handouts. Since this sort of clashes with his proclaimed hatred of socialism and Big Government, Hannity, whom Glenn Beck has relegated to role of "Peter Brady of Fox News' celebrity-goons," switched enemies: now it's environmentalists who are the "terrorists" and "extremists," headed, of course, by the eco-terrorist Number One, our socialist/Marxist/Islamofascist President Barack Obama.

Hannity was joined in his soak-the-taxpayer crusade by a washed-up Latino comedian named Paul Rodriguez, whose failure in showbiz (the best gig Rodriguez landed this decade was a bit part in
Beverly Hills Chihuahua -- as the voice of a CG-generated iguana named "Chico") drove him to where it drove another failed comedian, Dennis Miller: into the fat arms of the angry Fox News white right-wing crowd: the last refuge of washed-up-comedian scoundrels.

But whereas Miller found himself a comfortable spot as Bill O'Reilly's monkey boy, Rodriguez is taking on a much more sinister role as the Latino face of agribusiness oligarch interests, fronting for rich landowners and farming conglomerates. They set Rodriguez up as the head of a shady new advocacy group, "The Latino Water Coalition," a front group set up by his rich agribusiness sponsors to make it seem that pobrefruit-pickers' interests are indistinguishable from those of their rich exploiters.

The agribusiness plutocrats who rule Fresno County are as horrible, greedy and shameless as the villains in an old Upton Sinclair novel, something even they seem to grasp. So they hired the notorious PR firm Burson-Marsteller to mask their role. Burson-Marsteller is the perfect firm for the job: they've spent decades whitewashing evil Third World dictators, genocidal maniacs, and kleptocrats, helping them get away with murder and mass-theft all across the globe. So for them, this was a piece of cake. What B-M and the agribusiness tycoons decided to do is re-define the debate over taxpayer-funded water: shift attention away from all the state welfare money that the tycoons have been feeding off of and want more of, and superimpose a new false debate over water: as a choice between an endangered guppy versus vulnerable, impoverished Mexicans, the apple of every liberal's bleeding heart.

Taking Astroturfing to a new and darker level, this past April, agribusiness interests gang-pressed a couple thousand migrant Latino farmworkers into "marching" 50 miles over four days in the scorching hot Central Valley sun, calling for the repeal of the Endangered Species Act and for taking out the taxpayer credit card to finance and subsidize more cheap water.
The New York Times reported that marchers were paid by their employers, something I haven't seen since Putin's PR goons would bus in thousands of workers and students for rallies that they either were bribed into attending, or told they better attend: "In reality, this is not a farm worker march," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, the 27,000-member union founded by Cesar Chavez, which did not participate in the march. "This is a farmer march orchestrated and financed by growers."

And again in July, a couple thousand Latino farm hands were pressed into marching on Fresno City Hall to demand the repeal of the Endangered Species Act, opening up more cheap water, and ultimately, building the loathed Peripheral Canal, which would cost taxpayers billions of dollars and deliver enormous amounts of cheap water from Northern California to the Central Valley, converting their farm land into much more valuable suburban-tract-home development land. At that July 1 rally, once again, some protesters admitted to reporters that they were either paid to protest, transported in by their bosses, or told that if they wanted to keep their jobs, they better show,
according to the AP:

On Wednesday, nearly 4,000 people carrying professionally printed signs proclaiming, "No water, no jobs, no hope, no future," marched through downtown. One man who declined to give us name said his Kettleman City (Kings County) employer had driven him and other workers there and were paying them for their time. Another woman said she came with 50 other employees of a Tulare agriculture contractor for free, to protect their jobs.

So basically the super-rich landowners and farming oligarchs are using the poorest and most vulnerable demographic -- Mexican migrant workers -- as human shields, in order to steal money from taxpayers while daring them to fire back : "What, liberal eco-terrorists, you have more compassion for a guppy than for this poor Mexican, who sleeps with his lights on out of fear of cockroaches? What sort of heartless eco-terrorist are you? Sign the $12 billion Peripheral Canal deal now, or you'll have the blood of millions of Mexicans on your hands!"

It really is that sinister. Paul Rodriguez even bragged about it to a convention of nearly-all-white rightwing Republicans this past May. Rodriguez assured them they had nothing to be worried about his group being "Latino," because he, Rodriguez, was using his less-fortunate fellow Mexicans as human shields to front for their wealthy agribusiness profits. According to a topnotch local investigative reporter, Lloyd Carter (who's written some amazing stories on the water/race/Astroturfing issues in the region), Rodriguez was invited to Bakersfield to speak to the rightwing Republican Assembly, where the former comedian went out of his way to assure his new white masters that there was nothing to be afraid of in the "Latino" name of his "Latino Water Coalition" group -- it's all a Trojan Horse to advance their rich white Republican interests!

"When I say Latino Water Coalition a lot of you automatically say, 'Why Latino? Doesn't everyone need water, Paul? Why just you Latinos, and as a Caucasian person I take offense to that, why does everything have to be segregated?' I don't know. I don't know but we're using this.
We're using this race card in a positive manner, a cloak. You know everybody's welcome to this. The reason why we call it the Latino Water Coalition [is] because it gives them a pause. 'Better not attack these Latinos, we don't know.' If we call it the Caucasian Coalition, you bet they would already be attacking us. Because Caucasians, sadly to say, who is defending you? I am. You know, just to put that to rest, there's no division."

Rodriguez really couldn't go any lower than this: from
Beverly Hills Chihuahua to Westlands Mexican Hairless; from "Chico" the talking CG-generated iguana, to Paul Rodriguez the Republican-generated talking monkey, a mean soulless prick willing to sell out his own to get a pat on the head and a chew-stick from his white masters. To get an idea of just how vicious the ex-comic has become, watch him attack this guy in this video.

And this is where Sean Hannity comes in.

A week before the shooting, Hannity flew in to the nearby town of Huron, and hosted a show-cum-rally called "The Valley That Hope Forgot."
One guest, former Republican mayor and TV actor Alan Autry, denounced Obama as fulfilling an Al Qaeda terrorist goal because a federal judge ordered the state to temporarily reduce the taxpayer-subsidized water flows to 86% of normal due in part to damage to fish stock in the north of the state.

Hannity:I never saw an issue where it was so simple: Just turn the water on.

Autry: Yeah, Sean. But that message has, there's a very powerful forces at work here. And there's an old saying, it's not paranoia if they're really after you.I made a statement not too long ago, and I stand by it, and I'm going to stand by it today, and you saw Evangelina and Joe, turning this water off is not just bad politics, it's an act of domestic terror.


Now, Sean, the last thing I want to do is come here and go over the top. Let me tell you why it is. As mayor for eight years, I worked with Homeland Security after 9/11. One of the things we were charged with by the federal government was to work together locally to protect the water supply to farming communities so they could continue to provide food for the nation. Now, if you would have told me that those -- that water would have stopped, I would have believed maybe al-Qaeda struck, not the federal government.


In an article on the right-wing site about Hannity's rally, commenters (perhaps B-M AstroTurfers) reached for even more hysterical analogies:

September 18, 2009 - 12:53 ET byGrannyGrump42 What's the proper term for what Stalin did to the Ukraine? Because that's what this smacks of. Loginorregisterto post comments
September 18, 2009 - 15:39 ET byConservativeRex Granny, the proper term is Holodomor….'hunger plague' or in other words 'death by starvation'. I think it is ironic that all Obama would have to do is stroll around DC and see the memorial made to the Holodomor. But since one of his heroes implemented it, he won't pay attention to it. It all puts me in mind of
September 18, 2009 - 12:52 ET byGrannyGrump42 It all puts me in mind of what Stalin did in the Ukraine. Beck mentioned this last week
September 18, 2009 - 16:32 ET bycandance It all ties in to the effort to devalue human life. Who cares if 70 million people starved to death under Mao? Humans are an inconvenience to mother earth anyway. Once you accept this premise, no argument against government can be framed around damage to citizens.

What I don't get about these rightwing bleeding-hearts is that if they're so familiar with the tragedies they cite, and if they feel the pain of those tragedies so deeply, then how is it that they can, with a clear conscience, degrade those tragedies by comparing a situation where 6 million starved to death or 70 million starved to death on the one hand, and a situation where no one starved to death on the other hand. I know what their response is: retreat into an imaginary future-tense, where nothing can be disproven, and therefore their warnings that 70 million Americans WILL die because the government won't fund the Peripheral Canal is as valid as if I say they won't die, which is as valid as if someone else says that the Four Horsemen will align with the Age of Aquarius. Whatever, it's like trying to reason with the street people in Berkeley…

And then there's Paul Rodriguez, the failed comedian who's being paid by agribusiness oligarchs to betray his own people and in particular the United Farm Workers union, the real target of the Latino Water Coalition front group he heads up.
Rodriguez, himself an immigrant from Mexico, now gets paid to put a suffering Latino face on the same rallies where migrant workers are pressed into marching for their masters -- the failed comedian is reduced to performing in front of an audience that's literally paid to see him, or threatened with their jobs if they don't.

And he's performing his role as the
Tio Tomás of Fresno County better than his masters could hope for. Rodriguez is so overzealous in his new collaborationist role that he's cooking up his own plans to out-anti-Obama his pals in the angry-white Tea Party movement. One plan he's working on is to use these same gang-pressed migrant workers, hundreds or even thousands, to form a giant "HELP" sign visible from the air, aimed at President Obama; another plan is a petition drive he wants to hold to rename Fresno County as "Nobama County."

Here's an excerpt from Rodriguez's appearance on Hannity's show a couple of weeks ago in
nearby Huron:

Rodriguez: You know, we're not going to be farmers any longer. We're going to be selling firewood because our trees won't last another six months without water. It's really a sad situation that those of us who choose to farm, my mother and my family in the central San Joaquin, perhaps the most fertile soil in the world, are now just sitting there ready to go on welfare or some other kind of support because we can't farm.

Hannity: Paul, this is so serious, and it's almost mind-numbing that this could happen. All right. So we showed the little Delta smelt, this little minnow fish that is now on the endangered species list. Now, they literally have shut down-you are getting and farmers are getting zero percent water. Their trees and their farms are dying. Is that right?

Rodriguez: Yes…

Incidentally, just over a week after Hannity's "The Valley Of No Hope" rally in Huron, the mayor of that town was arrested on charges of grand theft, real estate fraud, possession of stolen property, and "a wide array of criminal activity." Hannity really knows how to pick 'em.

A couple of days after the Fresno Equipment Co. workplace shooting, the big story making local headlines was about how scores of Fresno State Bulldogs fans were thrown out of the football stadium during their game against Boise State, accused of "politicizing" the game, which was broadcast live on ESPN. Certain students, supposedly forming a group called "The Cause,"
wore pro-water T-shirts and waved pro-water signs for the cameras -- a classic PR stunt that smells of something subcontracted out from Burson Marsteller. The reason the students were thrown out wasn't just because they'd brought politics into a college football game, but because some of the signs and shirts used profane language against President Obama.

Meanwhile, as Fresno continues to slash its police force and city employees, the county approved another $5 million tax subsidy for agribusiness landowners, even though the state budget can't pitch in anymore. For the super-rich in Fresno, there's no such thing as furloughs and shortfalls.

Which brings me back to Fresno Equipment Co. shooting. When you pull the camera back a bit like this, and put the shooting into a larger context, it starts to make more sense. But remember, even though it's easier to understand these shootings since last year's collapse, they're a product of the brutal Reaganomics we've been living under for thirty years. Workplace shootings, in which an employee stages an armed suicide attack on his company, or supervisors, or co-workers, only began a couple of decades ago, after Reagan's Revolution successfully stripped whatever power and leverage employees once had, and handed it all to the shareholders and executives. Since then, it's been Hell for an increasing number of Americans, and it's no coincidence that a brand new crime of desperation appeared with the Reagan Revolution: the worker who "goes postal."
The first massacres began in the mid-late 1980s, and the shootings have repeated with such regularity that it seems we've got to the point where we almost accept them as part of the landscape, as if they're inevitable and they've always been with us, and always will.

Maybe that's why no one seems to have noticed or cared much that the man who shot his fellow worker, his company equipment, and then himself, may very well have been mistreated and driven to the brink. Given just a small sample of what's going on in Fresno County, it's a wonder we're not all taking up arms and heading to the source of the pain. Because Fresno County is most of America today, the rule, and not the exception.

Read more of Mark Ames at He is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond.