Of Boondoggles and the Memory Hole

Remember way back in 2008, when the federal government had to rescue the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, both of which had ruined themselves by making too many mortgage loans during the inflation phase of the housing bubble?  Remember how, way back in 2008, there were campaign promises that the lax lending would be restricted, in order to prevent a recurrence of the implosion?

Guess what.  That’s right:

Seeking to stabilize the foundering housing market, President Obama is offering a plan to help as many as nine million families refinance their mortgages or avoid foreclosure, according to a summary released by the White House on Wednesday morning.

Included in the package is a move to ease some restrictions on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — which guarantee millions of home loans. Generally Fannie and Freddie cannot guarantee refinancing on mortgages valued at more than 80 percent of the home’s worth.

But the president’s plan would remove that restriction on mortgages the lending giants already own or guarantee.  [The New York Times, February 18, 2009]

Dmitry Orlov is right:  The USA’s ultra-decrepit overclass is completely out of real answers.  All it can do is throw new capitalist boondoggles on top of the craters left by the collapse of the old ones.

And, as they do this, they are displaying a truly Orwellian capacity for forgetting yesterday’s ancient history.

Meanwhile, the cravenness and market-totalitarian stupidity of the Obama Administration, which starts right where the buck supposedly stops, is yet more solid proof that, as the great Noam Chomsky says, we live in a one-party state.  There is the Business Party, which has two wings, called “Republicans” and “Democrats.”

Batten down the hatches, folks.  The worst is yet to come, and the flood will be very deep…

Why (Most) Movies Suck

The market totalitarians who call themselves “conservatives” are messing their drawers over the very idea of adding $50 million to the laughably puny $145-million annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Conservatives,” you see, say they think the NEA is a boondoggle.

Contrast this sense of where boondoggles come from with the excellent recent reportage of New Yorker critic Tad Friend on the workings of the corporate capitalist movie studios — where $50 million, by the way, is less than half of what gets spent there on a single movie, a.k.a. “property,” according to Friend.

As Friend reports:

“Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,” one studio’s president of production says. “So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross.

This, of course, means that:

Marketing considerations shape not only the kind of films studios make but who’s in them—gone are lavish adult dramas with no stars, like the 1982 “Gandhi.”

Even within this situation, which is well-known to industry insiders, if not the general public, there is no doubt what corporate capitalist movies are:

Marketers and filmmakers are often quietly at war. “The most common comment you hear from filmmakers after we’ve done our work is ‘This is not my movie,’ ” Terry Press, a consultant who used to run marketing at Dreamworks SKG, says. “I’d always say, ‘You’re right—this is the movie America wants to see.’ ”

Friend finds the resulting imperatives “unexpected,” but nonetheless does a great job listing them.

Read moreWhy (Most) Movies Suck

Can’t Cook?: Frankenfood Brain Code for Sale

Corporate capitalism is the most radically and successfully totalitarian social system in history. No aspect of life is safe from its relentless penetration and re-organization.

Want evidence? Consider the example of iFood Assistant, the Kraft Foods conglomerate’s new “app” for iPhones.

Here’s how Advertising Age describes this exciting advance in big business marketing:

CHICAGO (AdAge.com) — One of the coolest apps on the iPhone isn’t Pandora or Facebook: It’s recipes and shopping lists for Kraft singles, Jell-O gelatin and Minute Rice.

Yes, enough Kraft Food devotees are actually paying to be marketed to on their beloved iPhones that the company’s iFood Assistant is now one of the device’s 100 most popular paid apps, and No. 2 in the lifestyle category. With its endeavor, Kraft is pulling off a rare trick: getting consumers to pay a one-time 99-cent fee for the app and also sit through ads on it. And in the process, it’s collecting useful data for targeting them more closely.

IFood Assistant’s rich interface works well with the handset, and its navigation is similar to that of the iPod. The app offers a host of recipes, browse-able by ingredients, meal type or prep time. Consumers may register at KraftFoods.com to save recipes and build shopping lists.

Recipes come with instructions simple enough for the uninitiated, and daily featured recipes try to tempt the uninspired. Of course, the dishes incorporate Kraft products. A featured recipe last week, for “chicken cacciatore pronto,” calls for Kraft Light Zesty Italian dressing, chicken thighs, garlic, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, red peppers, whole-wheat spaghetti, Kraft Grated Parmesan Cheese and Kraft 2% Milk Shredded Mozzarella Cheese.

And that’s not all, boys and girls! Not only does Kraft get to sell you the cooking knowledge you lack due to corporate capitalism’s past and present assault on personal time and personal skills; not only do these Kraft-written “recipes” drive you to buy you Kraft’s processed (and hence more profitable) Frankenfoods; but, in the bargain, Kraft gets its mitts on a trove of better-than-free “marketing data” that will help its extend and refine its control over your most basic life activities! To wit:

For now, Ed Kaczmarek, director-innovation, new services at Kraft, said Kraft is using the data to understand when and how consumers are shopping, what they’re making, and which ingredients they prefer. Since users need to sign in to Kraft Foods before downloading recipes and shopping lists, that information is sent directly to the company, allowing Kraft to gather information on which recipes are the most popular and which ingredients are most used. Kraft is, of course, running ads throughout the app, some before the instructional videos and some with searches.

Footnote: To complete the picture, I tried to go onto iTunes to leave a warning about this Trojan Horse product. Guess what? “You must own this item to write a Customer Review.”

Exactly What Are We Bailing Out?

The Tweedledums gave away a trillion dollars to the vultures in charge of juggling the great growing wodges of surplus capital* the overclass can’t find a place to invest productively.

A day or two after his victory, the Tweedle-D’s new President-elect revealed that his idea of “helping the middle class” is another give-away — this time, to the U.S.-based automobile corporations!

Now, Tweedle-D Party Radio, a.k.a. “Air America Radio,” has its stable of parrots squawking about what a grand, populist, commoner-helping thing this is “bailout” would be.

And, even as I type, the CEOs who pay themselves king’s ransoms to destroy the planet, squander its finite supply of energy, and murder 40,000 of their countrymen every year are up on Capitol Hill, begging bowls out and solemn professions of socio-economic concern/threat on their caviared lips.

What a freaking crock! Let’s take a quick peek at what’s actually being proposed here, shall we?

A Hybrid Mega-Turd
A "Hybrid" Mega-Turd

The monstrosity depicted at left is the sort of “cutting edge” new technology that is the supposed point and promise of a post-bailout Detroit. It is, you see, a “hybrid” Cadillac Escalade! It has an electric motor to complement its conventional V8! Dare we dream of such a gloriously transformed future? I swoon.

No, wait, I’m outraged.

Even the “car enthusiast” motorheads who write automobile reviews for The New York Times can spot this portentous scam:

You can coax the Escalade Hybrid into electric-only mode, same as a Prius, but if you need to accelerate at all, or go up the slightest hill, or go faster than 30 miles an hour, you awaken the 332-horsepower V-8 under the hood.

Therein lies the dilemma of this truck: its mileage is great compared with a regular Escalade’s, but that’s like saying the American economy is great compared with Zimbabwe’s.

I managed to eke out 22.3 miles a gallon on one highway-biased trip, and about 20 m.p.g. over all. The hybrid system’s benefit is most pronounced in urban driving, where Cadillac claims a 50 percent improvement in fuel economy. (The gas-only Escalade is rated 12 m.p.g. in town, 18 on the highway, with all-wheel drive.)

Bizarrely, the Environmental Protection Agency does not provide mileage estimates for the four-wheel-drive Escalade Hybrid because its weight vaults it into the category of heavy-duty trucks, which need not be rated.

To create the Escalade Hybrid and its full-size Chevrolet and GMC siblings, G.M. cooperated with BMW and the former DaimlerChrysler to develop a mind-boggling hybrid transmission that can deploy two 60-kilowatt electric motors in tandem with a gas engine, operating either in continuously variable mode or through four fixed gears.

The system also captures regenerative braking energy and uses an auto-stop feature to minimize idling. Using this technology, G.M. can wring more than 20 m.p.g. out of its full-size S.U.V.’s.

But we’re still talking about a three-ton truck. Mercedes boasts that a 200-pound man can sit atop a C-Class door without damaging the hinges; with the Escalade, it feels as if the 200-pound-man is already inside the door.

What if, instead of all the hybrid trickery, you simply subtracted 1,000 pounds of weight, using unibody construction and a direct-injection V-6 engine paired with a conventional six-speed automatic? Couldn’t you have an equally posh and enormous three-row interior with all-wheel-drive and 20 m.p.g. economy? You certainly could, because I just described the Buick Enclave, a vehicle in G.M.’s own portfolio that underscores the Escalade Hybrid’s Rube Goldberg approach to efficiency.

Of course, what the Times‘ auto critic is never going to tell you is that automobiles — all automobiles — are Rube Goldberg machines. With a few exceptions like ambulances and fire trucks, using them to accomplish mundane trips around town is like using a chainsaw to slice and butter your morning toast. It is the ultimate capitalist boondoggle: Selling the schlemiels two (or more) tons of unnecessary shit instead of a bike or a tennis shoe or a subway ticket! What a great gig! Accumulate, accumulate — that is Moses and the Prophets!

And you also see here what a fucking joke things like “hybrid” engines are going to be in the hands of private industry. Slap that label on the thing, and the schlemiels stop asking questions! A great marketing tool!

What we need to do, of course, is to nationalize the automobile corporations, and use their assets to manufacture rail stock and other equipment needed for rebuilding our towns to favor walking, bicycling, and rail travel. As a stopgap, we should also manufacture and distribute very simple automobiles that get 40 MPG or better, and tax the hell out of both gasoline and gas-guzzlers.

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* In case you’re interested in these kinds of things, Keynes used the term “surplus capital” in The Economic Consequences of the Peace.  Of course, “surplus capital” is also “surplus surplus,” since capital is society’s savings, its fund for repairing and transforming itself.