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The Morning Grumpy – 2/19/13

19 Feb

All the news, views, and filtered excellence fit to consume during your morning grumpy.

 Tea party

1. Matt Taibbi breaks down the story of how HSBC Bank hooked up with terrorists and drug traffickers, laundered billions of criminal dollars, and got away with it.

For at least half a decade, the storied British colonial banking power helped to wash hundreds of millions of dollars for drug mobs, including Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, suspected in tens of thousands of murders just in the past 10 years – people so totally evil, jokes former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, that “they make the guys on Wall Street look good.” The bank also moved money for organizations linked to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and for Russian gangsters; helped countries like Iran, the Sudan and North Korea evade sanctions; and, in between helping murderers and terrorists and rogue states, aided countless common tax cheats in hiding their cash.

“They violated every goddamn law in the book,” says Jack Blum, an attorney and former Senate investigator who headed a major bribery investigation against Lockheed in the 1970s that led to the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “They took every imaginable form of illegal and illicit business.”

That nobody from the bank went to jail or paid a dollar in individual fines is nothing new in this era of financial crisis. What is different about this settlement is that the Justice Department, for the first time, admitted why it decided to go soft on this particular kind of criminal. It was worried that anything more than a wrist slap for HSBC might undermine the world economy. “Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges,” said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer at a press conference to announce the settlement, “HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.”

It was the dawn of a new era. In the years just after 9/11, even being breathed on by a suspected terrorist could land you in extralegal detention for the rest of your life. But now, when you’re Too Big to Jail, you can cop to laundering terrorist cash and violating the Trading With the Enemy Act, and not only will you not be prosecuted for it, but the government will go out of its way to make sure you won’t lose your license. Some on the Hill put it to me this way: OK, fine, no jail time, but they can’t even pull their charter? Are you kidding?

Decades from now, the refusal to prosecute, punish, or even sternly reprimand the banks and traders who nearly destroyed our economy and broke untold number of laws may well be the legacy of the Obama Administration. As Taibbi said in an “Ask Me Anything” session or “AMA” on Reddit.com,

“Again, to repeat, breaking up the banks is the big thing,” he typed to Reddit users. “That should be the Holy Grail of activist goals. Everything flows from the Too Big Too Fail problem. If that can be accomplished, we’re off and running.”

2. $7,000,000,000 was spent on the 2012 federal elections.

That’s how much candidates, parties, PACs, super-PACs, and politically active nonprofits spent last year to influence races up and down the ballot. As Politico reported, Ellen Weintraub, the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission, announced the $7 billion figure this week. Candidates spent the bulk of the 2012 total, at $3.2 billion, while parties spent $2 billion and outside groups $2.1 billion.

Bill Moyers breaks it down.

And then for good measure, Moyers gives an example of how the money spent on these elections buys access and favor.

3. Turning a city into a startup. Interesting ideas from former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Q: You open your book with the 2011 election in Los Angeles when only 12 percent of registered voters went to the polls. How can you expect digital tools change that level of citizen apathy?

A: It is not just e-government and online efficiency. It is a new distribution of decision making, collaboration, active participation, and citizen engagement. A whole generation of folks who have grown up as digital natives are also the generation of choice, the participation generation. Their expectations of service are different than digital immigrants like myself, who are used to a professor student model, the broadcast model. You have to be customized not standardized. Half a billion people are spending time on online games. The typical young person spends more time each year on online games than in the classroom. How can we harness that energy, not just for Angry Birds but for a Citizenville app for democracy?

A good start is putting all government datasets online so third party developers can build nimble and more responsive citizen engagement tools.

4. America, the land of opportunity? Not as much as it used to be.

It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According to research from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia.

This is what happens in a nation that refuses to modernize its education system or expand educational opportunities to those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

Unless current trends in education are reversed, the situation is likely to get even worse. In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades — and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job.

When liberals tell you why income inequality and wealth concentration matter, this is what we’re talking about.

5. A comprehensive, completely unnecessary, and utterly fascinating legitimate data breakdown and analysis of American porn stars. Also, note that everyone in porn is called a “star”.

For the first time, a massive data set of 10,000 porn stars has been extracted from the world’s largest database of adult films and performers. I’ve spent the last six months analyzing it to discover the truth about what the average performer looks like, what they do on film, and how their role has evolved over the last forty years.

I was able to scrutinize adult performers in a way no man, despite regular attempts to do so, had ever managed before, and find out once and for all which stereotypes about porn stars are true, which are bogus, and what these men and women have been doing for the last forty years.

I don’t like infographics, I LOVE them and this article puts forward one of the most majestic sets of infographics I’ve seen, even though the topic is utterly frivolous. In a nation that spends over $13BN each year on porn (Utah being the home of the most frequent consumers), this is cool data.

Fact Of The Day:  John D. Rockefeller’s net worth, translated into today’s dollars, would be up to $663 billion, or almost 10x the worth of today’s richest man

Quote Of The Day:  “For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.” – Franklin Roosevelt

Video Of The Day:  “Playing Golf” – Godfrey

Song Of The Day:  “Love Is The Drug” – Roxy Music

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