Monday, May 27, 2013

Shopping Bags Full of Money

Afghan president confirms he received tens of millions of dollars from the CIA in suitcases and sacks 'for access to Karzai's inner circle'       
      - Headline, The Daily Mail, 29 April 2013

Each year the Hur Chamber of Commerce confers its coveted “Golden Scissors Award” to that federal department or agency which has done the most to cut through government red tape.  The award is normally not conferred until December, but this year the Chamber judged that one agency has already distinguished itself so markedly that the outcome of the competition is no longer in doubt.

In announcing that the Central Intelligence Agency is the 2013 winner, Robert Spinner, the Chamber’s president, heaped praise upon the agency, calling it “a model for the entire federal government.”

“We in the business community have long decried government bureaucracy,” said Spinner, “but the CIA has shown that it is possible for government to transcend itself, working with the same ‘can do’ attitude that distinguishes private enterprise.  Our hats are off to them.”

The announcement comes less than a month after the New York Times revealed that for the last decade the CIA has handed out tens of millions of dollars to Afghan officials in monthly payments.  Wads of money were delivered in backpacks, suitcases, and plastic shopping bags.  

The cash--variously described as “payments,” “bribes,” and “assistance”--is apparently not subject to the oversight, restrictions, and accountability of official American aid.  

“That’s the beauty of it," said a CIA official.  “Nobody on our end asks what we do with the money they give us, and we don’t even count it when we’re packing the shopping bags.  The money all goes directly to President Karzai and whomever he wants to share it with, and he doesn’t have to account for it to anyone on that end either.”  It was this chain of creative shortcuts that drew special praise from the Chamber.  

Disgruntled Afghans who didn’t get their own shopping bags full of money complain that the payoffs have “fueled corruption and empowered warlords who may be linked to the Taliban as well as politicians with ties to the drug trade.”  

Equally bitter are American officials who didn’t get an opportunity to pass out money bags themselves.  They have gone so far as to charge that “the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan has been the United States.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however, described the bags of money as “multi-purpose assistance.”  

“It really hasn’t been that much money,” Karzai added.  “Most of it went to providing assistance to the wounded, the sick, and the disabled.”  He was unable to supply documentation for this assertion, of course, since he too has been cutting red tape.

A CIA spokesperson said that the agency stood ready, if asked, to provide training and technical support to the Department of Defense in developing streamlined financial disbursements of the sort for which his agency has just been recognized.  

“You have to remember,” he said, “that the cost of the war in Afghanistan--our CIA cash not included--runs about $60 billion a year.  The military’s expenditures make ours look like a drop in the ocean.”

Despite the popularity of the Chamber of Commerce choice, not everyone has been so positive about revelations of the CIA’s so-called “ghost money” payments.  One elderly county resident, claiming to remember “a time when the Constitution still meant something,” denounced the CIA ‘s actions as “yet another sign that in the Founders’ system of checks and balances, the checks have been replaced by cash.”

Full disclosure:  a former correspondent for the Hur Herald is said to be attempting to organize a march of the unemployed on CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  Marchers will carry their own empty shopping bags to the headquarters, hoping to have them filled, while singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Monday, May 20, 2013

Hundreds of Them Living in a Single File Cabinet

George Town: May 20

Authorities in the Cayman Islands reacted swiftly today in the wake of a scathing exposé of housing conditions in this small island territory.  The world’s conscience has been shocked by reports of more than 80,000 corporations crowded into office tenements under the most deplorable conditions.

Teams of housing inspectors scoured the financial district, motivated by a concern for the safety of the teeming hordes of immigrant corporations who have fled here, seeking shelter from taxes at home.   Confronted with this mass migration, the Caymans are struggling to house the refugee firms, which vastly outnumber the islands 55,000 human residents.

One of the inspectors, speaking anonymously because he has not been authorized to discuss his work publicly, described the office tenements as “worse than anything I’ve ever seen.”

“We found 18,857 corporations crowded into a single five-story building,” he recalled with a shudder, his eyes closed as if to shield himself from memories of the wretched scene.  “There were hundreds of them living in a single file cabinet.  Corporations were sleeping in their own feces.  The place was crawling with vermin.”

“We have helped them launder their money,” he said, “but in other ways sanitation is non-existent.” 

A member of the Caymanian Legislative Assembly, speaking yesterday on the floor of the chamber, said  “It’s a scandal, in a land as rich as the Caymans, to have immigrant corporations packed into offices that are nothing more than glorified warehouses.  We can no longer turn a blind eye to their welfare; this report is a wake-up call to our territory’s conscience.  We give these firms glowing titles like ‘corporate subsidiaries,’ but in reality they exist only as a few sheets of notarized paper, stuffed into a manila file folder, going year after year without seeing a single soul.”  

“Overcrowding of the kind that has been discovered is a disaster waiting to happen,” he declared.  He termed it “an affront to humanity” that these legal fictions were subjected to such minimal living conditions, and proposed strict new limits on how many corporations could be filed in a single drawer as well as how many could be housed under one roof.

An earlier proposal would have required each corporate headquarters be allotted at least one square foot for itself, but it drew little support and was withdrawn.  Opponents derided the measure as “regulatory overkill” and “a colossal waste of space,” pointing out that none of the headquarters had personnel, furnishings, equipment, or supplies on the Islands. 

Despite their squalid quarters, the corporations--which include banks, hedge funds, structured financing, investment firms, captive insurers, and offshore law practices--were described as looking “fat and well-fed.”

The CEOs of numerous U.S. firms, already struggling to fix their own nation’s debt by persuading Congress to slash Social Security, Medicare, environmental efforts, and other programs devoted to the common good, have nevertheless vowed to help fix the Caymans’ housing crisis as well.  

Their motive, a spokesperson admitted, is “not entirely altruistic,” as 83 of the top 100 publicly traded U.S. corporations have subsidiaries in the Caymans or other tax havens.  

The Caymans have no annual reporting, accounting, or auditing requirements for companies incorporated there, and the Caymans’ government provides a 30-year guarantee of no corporate taxes, no capital gains taxes, no payroll taxes, no property taxes, and no withholding taxes.

© Tony Russell, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Revisiting ‘Shutting That Whole Thing Down'

Patty and her friend Helen met at Bodo’s for lunch on Thursday, and as it does with many close friends, their conversation strayed to what was eating them.  “Did you see that the president of the California Republican Assembly lost her office last week?” asked Helen.

“No,” said Patty, “I missed that.  But I don’t follow California politics.  Why did they dump her?”

“Apparently they were reacting to the public backlash after she claimed a couple of months ago that few women become pregnant when they’re raped ‘because it’s an act of violence, because the body is traumatized’.”

“Sounds as if that remark was an act of ignorance, because the mind was neutralized,” Patty said.

“It does have that abstract, theoretical, detached-from-real-life quality.  It reminds me of when Paul Ryan referred to rape as a ‘method of conception’ that didn’t change the definition of life.”

“What is it with these politicians and rape?” Patty wondered.  “Are they slow learners?  I thought we’d heard the last of that after all those controversies leading up to the last elections.  It seems to have some weird fascination for them.  The topic’s like a tar-baby!  They just can’t resist grabbing the opportunity to talk about it.”

“Maybe they’ve bought into their own wishful thinking,” Helen said.  “You know, if you want to oppose abortion in all cases, and you also want to avoid dealing with the hard issue of post-rape pregnancy, then claiming that raped women don’t get pregnant is a way out of the trap you put yourself in.  It’s that old-time magic.  If you want a thing to be true, it’s true.  Abracadabra. Suddenly raped women can no longer get pregnant.  Just doesn’t happen.”

“That’s pretty much the same position that senatorial candidate took in the last election... what’s his name?” Patty asked.

“Uh huh.  Todd Aikin in Missouri.  Remember when he said, ‘If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”?

“I still cringe when I think about it.  That ‘legitimate rape’ line certainly didn’t help his cause.”

“No, it sure didn’t.  The first defense of a rapist is to claim that the sex was consensual and the woman ‘wanted it.‘   And when Aikin specified ‘legitimate rape,’ it implied that a lot of women are making bogus claims they’ve been assaulted.  By itself that was enough to really tick women off.  And then they could see the next logical step.  ‘She claims she was raped?  Oh, but she got pregnant?  Well, no way that’s a legitimate rape, then, because, you know, a real rape victim’s body would have just shut that whole thing down’.” 

“You have to wonder when somebody’s language starts to wander into a Never Never Land of vagueness and imprecision, don’t you?  The body has ways?  To shut that whole thing downOr something?  Seriously, does that sound like somebody who has the faintest clue what he’s talking about?”

“It doesn’t, but as unfounded and illogical as it is, it seems to have taken root.  You know, once a bat-crazy notion flies through enough belfries, it morphs into conventional wisdom in some quarters.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Monday, May 06, 2013

I'm as Heartless as the Next Guy

6 o’clock evening news.  Closing business wrap-up; voice of reporter/script reader

Turning now to the business news, an innovative movement is drawing serious interest from corporate governing boards and investors, as more than a dozen of the nation’s Fortune 500 firms have moved to dismiss their CEOs in the past six months.  

In each case, the CEO has been replaced by a vast number of workers hired at the average wage in the company--many of them experienced, highly motivated, and well educated people who have been out of work for as long as two years, vainly searching for employment.  The phenomenon has been dubbed "The Robin Hood Revolution" and "Dump the Chump."

One corporate board member, who asked not to be identified, summed up the results of the movement as "Amazing!”  

Insert: Interview clip from anonymous board member

“We were able to hire an additional 1,795 workers for what we were overpaying one person, our CEO--who wasn’t doing that great a job in the first place.  Almost two thousand additional employees, and it didn’t raise our personnel costs one thin dime!  Those 1,795 are outperforming him on several orders of magnitude.  It’s been a real shot in the arm for the company.  Our costs have stayed level, production is way up, and morale has skyrocketed.  I don’t know why we didn’t think of this before!”

Return to narration by reporter/script reader

The movement is unexpected bad news for CEOs, who have been riding high during the current Great Recession.  At least ten CEOs reportedly took in more than $50 million apiece during 2012, at the same time they were closing plants, slashing workforces, raiding employee pension funds, and dramatically lowering wages for new entry-level employees.  Ford CEO Alan Mulally, whose pay is 2,500 times that of a new Ford plant worker, cashed in on $61 million, and Apple’s Tim Cook $139.7 million.  Both have been described as "nervous" about the recent development.  

Salary is only the tip of the iceberg with modern CEOs, who also commonly receive corporate stock, incentive payments, executive life insurance, financial and tax counseling service, and generous supplemental retirement plans.  One unanticipated problem has arisen with the departure of deposed executives--what to do with their other perks.

Insert: Interview clip from second anonymous board member 

“When we canned our CEO, we were left with the corporate jet and pilot; the company limousine and chauffeur at his disposal; the bodyguards and electronic technicians who provided his personal security; and the luxury apartment maintained for times when he was forced to remain in the city overnight.  We debated whether to make these available on a rotating basis to the 1,795 people who replaced him, but eventually decided the logistics were too cumbersome.  So we sold them off and used the income to supplement the inadequate pensions of the new hires.”

Return to narration by reporter/script reader

In areas impacted by these corporate realignments, the strategy has had the unintended consequences of increasing consumer confidence, reducing unemployment,  boosting retail sales, raising tax revenues, cutting mortgage foreclosures, and slashing crime and homelessness.  

“Not that we cared about any of that," said one corporate insider.  "I’m as heartless as the next guy, but you can’t buy PR like this."  He paused.  "Well, you can," he amended, "but nobody would believe it.”

© Tony Russell, 2013