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Pierce writes: "The Cynic believes - or, rather, knows in the deepest and most cynical part of his cynical heart - that the modern American corporate business model is fraud, that the primary purpose of the American financial system is to make money on money."

Barack Obama. (photo: Getty Images)
Barack Obama. (photo: Getty Images)

Barack Obama Needs to Get His Hands Dirty

By Charles Pierce, Esquire

03 July 18

The former president will have to engage in serious political combat to defend his vision of America from Donald Trump.

here was a story in The Washington Post that caught The Cynic’s eye this week. It was about the latest scam with which the rich manage further to immiserate the poor. It was the headline that grabbed The Cynic’s attention. It contained the phrase “monetizing poor people,” which was a little too Soylent Green for The Cynic’s comfort.

A week later, though, his 2005 Chevy pickup was in the shop, and he didn’t have enough to pay for the repairs. He needed the truck to get to work, to get the kids to school. So Huggins, a 56-year-old heavy equipment operator in Nashville, fished the check out that day in April 2017 and cashed it. Within a year, the company, Mariner Finance, sued Huggins for $3,221.27. That included the original $1,200, plus an additional $800 a company representative later persuaded him to take, plus hundreds of dollars in processing fees, insurance and other items, plus interest. It didn’t matter that he’d made a few payments already. “It would have been cheaper for me to go out and borrow money from the mob,” Huggins said before his first court hearing in April.

 This is, in fact, true. The Mob is more straight-ahead honest with its collection procedures.

Mass-mailing checks to strangers might seem like risky business, but Mariner Finance occupies a fertile niche in the U.S. economy. The company enables some of the nation’s wealthiest investors and investment funds to make money offering high-interest loans to cash-strapped Americans. Dozens of… investment firms bought Mariner bonds last year, allowing the company to raise an additional $550 million. That allowed the lender to make more loans to people like Huggins. “It’s basically a way of monetizing poor people,” said John Lafferty, who was a manager trainee at a Mariner Finance branch for four months in 2015 in Nashville. His misgivings about the business echoed those of other former employees contacted by The Washington Post. “Maybe at the beginning, people thought these loans could help people pay their electric bill. But it has become a cash cow.”

 Moo, thought The Cynic. Moo, moo, moo. These guys are payday lenders in a $5,000 suit.

Among its rivals, Mariner stands out for the frequent use of mass-mailed checks, which allows customers to accept a high-interest loan on an impulse — just sign the check. It has become a key marketing method. The company’s other tactics include borrowing money for as little as 4 or 5 percent — thanks to the bond market — and lending at rates as high as 36 percent, a rate that some states consider usurious; making millions of dollars by charging borrowers for insurance policies of questionable value; operating an insurance company in the Turks and Caicos, where regulations are notably lax, to profit further from the insurance policies; and aggressive collection practices that include calling delinquent customers once a day and embarrassing them by calling their friends and relatives, customers said.

 The Cynic believes—or, rather, knows in the deepest and most cynical part of his cynical heart—that the modern American corporate business model is fraud, that the primary purpose of the American financial system is to make money on money. He believed this before the crash of 2008 and he believes it today. He has believed it under at least the last five previous presidents of the United States. He believes that they believe it as well, and that all five of them, in one way or another, accepted the new business model as being as implacable a force as the wind and tides. This acceptance, the Cynic concludes, was what led directly to the election as president* of a pure product of modern American business fraud.

 This latest bit of shameless brigandage, thought The Cynic, was the perfect illustration of how the current president* got rich and famous enough to become president*. The guy with the truck is all those subcontractors, the painters and landscapers and glaziers, who trusted his word that they’d get paid and ended up wearing a barrel because the president* had turned reneging on debts into a fine art. The vultures of Mariner Finance were the administration* he put together—chockfull of crooks and sharpers who get fat on broken promises and human misery.

Then The Cynic read further along, and he came to this passage, and he thought about the administration before this one.

Mariner Finance is owned and managed by a $11.2 billion private equity fund controlled by Warburg Pincus, a storied New York firm. The president of Warburg Pincus is Timothy F. Geithner, who, as treasury secretary in the Obama administration, condemned predatory lenders. The firm’s co-chief executives, Charles R. Kaye and Joseph P. Landy, are established figures in New York’s financial world. The minimum investment in the fund is $20 million.

 Why? The Cynic never has stopped asking this of President Barack Obama. Why Geithner, of all people, when the country was hungry for answers about who had wrecked the world economy and then cashed in the rubble? Why look forward and not back—on torture, and on massive, catastrophic fraud? At the end of the eight years, The Cynic was willing to give Obama a reluctant 'B.' He managed to get a national health-insurance bill passed, and damned if it hasn’t been surprisingly durable. He also signed the most sweeping financial reform bill of the previous half-century—although, as The Cynic sadly realized, that wasn’t saying much. He put two very tough liberal women on the Supreme Court. And people did look to him for honest leadership the way they hadn’t looked at politicians in a long time.

 But the grade never got above 'B,' because, essentially, The Cynic believed that Obama never really understood the American people the way they are. He understood them the way he wanted them to be. The constant appeals to the country’s better angels rang hollow through history; even Lincoln couldn’t really summon them, because he got shot in the head, and then Andrew Johnson found political advantage in stirring up the race hatred that still burned throughout the country. The Cynic still believes, as he wrote the first time that he considered the phenomenon of Barack Obama:

Why would anyone have faith in America, which is not tough but fearful, not smart but stupid, and not shrewd but willing to fall for almost anything as long it comes wrapped in a flag? Why would anyone have faith in Americans? Barack Obama says that he has that faith because of his own life, because he was able to rise to the point where he can be thought of as president of the United States. He is the country's walking absolution. That's his reason, the cynic thinks, but it's not mine. There has to be confession. There has to be penance. Being Barack Obama is not enough. Not damn close to enough.

 And it wasn’t. Virulent racism and crazy conspiracy theories attended his every move for eight years. One of the craziest was pushed by the guy who became his successor. This was not an accident.

 Unless things change drastically in the next two years, Barack Obama and Donald Trump are going to be history’s fraternal twins, their administrations seen as part of the same whole in the period when the survival of the American republic was in greater peril than any time since Lincoln got shot in the head. If he is not careful, The Cynic thought, Barack Obama may well be remembered through history as the president whose glorious vision of the country and considerable personal magnetism made the idea of a President* Donald Trump plausible, if only as an alternative, and as a vehicle for all those parts of the American character that Obama believed the American people could overcome.

 All of the forces that produced the current president* were on vivid display during Obama’s eight years in office—the racism, the xenophobia, the lust for “taking our country back.” Guys with guns used to stalk the parking lots of arenas in which Obama was speaking. For eight years, Obama was presented with prima facie evidence that everything he said in that famous speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was sadly wrong, that his optimism was misplaced, and that the better angels of our nature were, as they are from time to time, off-duty or rolling sevens in Vegas.

 That he managed to stay sane through that, let alone get as much done as he did, while still maintaining his essential humanity, is eternal testimony to the iron in his spine and to the granite in his character. However, it will not be hard for historians to conclude that his confidence in the American people and his caution in certain policy areas left a huge opening for the dark forces that Obama’s Boston speech had dismissed as phantoms conjured up by pollsters and political consultants. Certainly, Trump’s election has to be seen as a thorough rejection of that speech, just as the administration*’s campaign to roll back Obama’s achievements is a rejection of his policies.

 This is what The Cynic thinks when he sees that Tim Geithner is still operating on the modern American business model after a stint as Secretary of the Treasury. Was he completely untouched by the damage done by his lunch pals? Was he deaf to the message that his president brought to the country? Barack Obama left just enough of an opening in just enough places to make the idea of a Donald Trump’s presidency* something more than a punchline. Something like it might have happened anyway, given the raw energy of the naked racial animus that attended every move Obama made.

 Certainly, though, the Obama administration’s early decision to absolve the country and its leaders of all complicity in the malfeasance and nonfeasance of the Bush years gave those who were looking for it a rationale for pushing that kind of malfeasance and nonfeasance even further, which is pretty much where we are right now. At the moment, Obama and Trump are twin planets orbiting the same dying star.

 But, The Cynic believes, a different history can be written. If Obama really believes what he said in Boston, if he really is invested in that vision of the country, if he really believes in what he assured us was our basic virtue as citizens, then he’s got to get up and fight for it. Because right now, this minute, the government of the United States is dedicating itself to eradicating that vision from democratic memory so thoroughly as to raise doubts that it ever existed at all. There has been some stirring in this direction recently. From The Hill:

“Do not wait for the perfect message, don’t wait to feel a tingle in your spine because you’re expecting politicians to be so inspiring and poetic and moving that somehow, ‘OK, I’ll get off my couch after all and go spend the 15–20 minutes it takes for me to vote,’” Obama said. “Because that’s part of what happened in the last election. I heard that too much," he added. The outlet noted that Obama never said Trump’s name in public but talked about his presidency. “Fear is powerful,” Obama said. “Telling people that somebody’s out to get you, or somebody took your job, or somebody has it out for you, or is going to change you, or your community, or your way of life — that’s an old story and it has shown itself to be powerful in societies all around the world.” “It is a deliberate, systematic effort to tap into that part of our brain that carries fear in it,” he added.

 Not bad. Obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, granted. But not bad.

Obama said the majority of Americans want to see stories of hope and strength, rather than the country being divided. “The majority of the country doesn’t want to see a dog-eat-dog world where everybody is angry all the time,” he said. He added that Democrats and Republicans tell “different stories.” “There’s a fundamental contrast of how we view the world,” Obama said. “We are seeing the consequences of when one vision is realized, or in charge.”

 This assumes a great many facts not in evidence. The “majority of Americans” can’t be said to believe anything of the sort in 2018. The “majority of Americans” needs to be reminded, constantly, that, left to its own devices, it will become an angry beast, and that one of the primary functions of government is to keep it from ripping out its own entrails. If it is to prevail, Barack Obama’s vision of America has to be worthy of serious political combat. It has to prove itself worthy of being fought for, especially by the man who defined himself in the public eye by his stated belief in it.

The Cynic hopes that Barack Obama believes that vision is worthy of getting his hands dirty in its defense. More Lincoln, from 1862, two years after he realized that the better angels had abandoned the country—as they will, from time to time:

The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

 Disenthrall yourself, The Cynic thinks. Convince me. your social media marketing partner


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+19 # Woratnac 2018-07-03 13:48
Obama was, in the words of one critic, "a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repr essive neoliberal politics a banking president." - his campaign was financed by the big banks - and a war president. He launched a ruinous criminal war against Libya; helped install a right-wing coup regime in Honduras; cuddled up to Saudi Arabia as it was launching its genocidal war against Yemen; oversaw drone warfare that Noam Chomsky called "the most extreme terrorist campaign in modern times." (This list comes from Paul Street at Charles Pierce, while a terrific writer, shows his centrist liberalism in the above article. Obama certainly DID get his hands dirty. Filthy, with war crimes and bosom-buddying with the banking industry. There is much, much more: see the Street article. Meanwhile, this Pierce article is sadly lacking.
+5 # librarian1984 2018-07-04 09:25
Don't forget teaming up with neonazis for regime change in Ukraine to illegally expand NATO territory

military provocation in the South China Sea

the quiet nullification of habeus corpus

saving corrupt Wall Street criminals while millions lost their homes

quadrupling the number of countries we bomb

preserving the private insurance industry at the expense of citizens

deciding not to investigate torture or lying us into war

using the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers

offering up Medicare and Social Security with his 'grand bargain'

draining state party coffers

committing $2 trillion of our kids' future to a nuclear makeover

campaigning nonstop for TPP but letting McConnell steal our SCOTUS nominee

pissing all over hope and change

largely failing African Americans

sabotaging progressives and recruiting New Democrat candidates

At some point you have to split it up into categories of betrayal.

Obama's public persona doesn't get his hands dirty. He goes windsurfing with grateful billionaires whose staff wipe down the furniture after he leaves.

Pierce acts like a rebel but he pushes the neoliberal line. One reason we're in SUCH dire straits is the corporate media.
-25 # skylinefirepest 2018-07-03 14:04
Get his hands dirty?? He already has the blood of American citizens on his hands from sending guns to Mexico!
-21 # PABLO DIABLO 2018-07-03 14:05
"How'd that HOPEY CHANGEY thing work out for you" ---Sarah Palin.
+22 # Dfnclblty 2018-07-03 14:54
good, hopeful message from a clear and fearless writer.
keep Pierce writing,
and keep reading as citizens.
+31 # jwb110 2018-07-03 15:19
From the start we lost the last Presidential Election because the DNC ran the wrong candidate!!! I am fine with a woman President but it has to a right woman and one who resonates with the people who vote.
As far as Obama is concerned he never got that he was just a n*##er in the eyes of the Republicans and their supporters. He bent over backwards to give a GOP Congress what it wanted, i.e. the ACA which was directly from the Heritage Foundation, and then they still vilified him for it. It he had gotten uppity enough to call them on their BS we might not be where we are today. This Centrist BS flies in the face of reason. Centrism, a Clinton Invention, moved the Left to the center. Did he actually think that the RIght would move to the center!? It all went to the far right because the far left had no place to start from. The first time Hillary said she not a Socialist but a Centrist I
knew that voting for her, which I did, was going to be painful in the extreme
Historically if one Party holds the White House for two terms that the other Party will take next term or two terms. From a strategical POV if the DNC had backed Sanders, who could have been elected. I mean, we got a guy who was said to be unelectable, the damage done to that potential Presidency would have been substantial. This present President would have been crippled up going into office.
What the Dems need is the likes of Sam Rayburn. He knew politics was a contact sport.
+17 # chapdrum 2018-07-03 15:25
Thank you RSN. This is perhaps the best piece yet by Pierce. Entirely spot-on.
With "Democrats" like Geithner, the Clintons, ad nauseum, we can rest assured that the miasma will remain unabated.
+22 # dlet60 2018-07-03 15:38
You gotta be shittin' me. Every president since 1961 (when I was old enough to be in the USArmy but not old enough to vote) has been worse than the one that preceded him. There certainly was no real choice between the Donald and Hillary and Obama was a fool for supporting her. The only saving grace for Trump is the fact that Pence will come after. I think he knew that when he chose him. We are a fading empire, the republic is long past and the US of A is in deep shit!
+3 # harleysch 2018-07-03 16:09
You gave Obama a B???? Whatever Obama's "vision of America" is, his policies as President repeatedly favored the wealthiest 1%. The Geithner appointment typifies the problem, along with Larry Summers -- these are Wall Street insiders, who ran the economy under Obama, while Eric Holder, his AG, actually advocated doing nothing to punish Wall Street swindlers because the economy was "so weak that it could do further damage"!

As for foreign policy, Obama oversaw the destruction of Libya, putting neo-Nazis in power in Ukraine, the continued war in Afghanistan, and providing arms that went to terrorists in Syria.

Even with a liberal grading curve, Obama did no better than F+.
-9 # 2018-07-03 16:46
+36 # librarian1984 2018-07-03 17:22
These tactics are used by the prison industrial complex too. A traffic violation can end up with the person sp ding years in jail and owing money to the state.

As CFPB and other watchdog groups are defanged, predatory capitalists line up to rip away our last pennies.

They want all of us broke, dumb, docile and sucked dry. They don't care if the whole country looks like LA and has the financnes of KS. They will just move to Africa, where our secret drone wars are softening the neighborhoods where their plush estates will go.
-11 # Robbee 2018-07-03 17:34
how obaba campaigns for dems in the fall, the preview
+16 # dotlady 2018-07-03 19:59
Like this piece by Pierce! The American business system is indeed a fraud, based on a figment called "eternal growth." Obama had to take a central line as he was not a real insider, and hired Geithner because of the pressure of other insiders who dictate the game. He had to hire Hillary so she would not undermine him and because she was a woman - a black person can sympathize with being marginalized- and the money... And he needed big backers like the nuclear industry, and others including Monsanto that held Hillary in the palm of its hand. The way campaigns are run in the US guarantee big money and corporate control. Obama was a smart and "decent enough" man but any optimism he might have felt must have been drowned in the ocean of racism he encountered. The poisons that are being allowed in our environment guarantee that we won't get any smarter as a nation - lead, arsenic, coal dust, methane fumes, fracking waste, buried plastics that are endocrine disruptors, etc. Now we are subject to our angry god of greed and red-fingered desiccation.
+4 # bardphile 2018-07-04 03:50
Well said, Dot. The man was under intense pressures, the economy was in free fall, the ME was already broken, and a lot of powerful people, including the entire opposition party, were committed to his failure. Plus the racism. He could be maddeningly conciliatory, but there are worse sins. Given the circumstances, I think a B is justified.
+6 # librarian1984 2018-07-04 09:51
Occam's politics:

Obama meant well.

Pelosi is out of touch.

Schumer's a nerd.

Hoyer is pragmatic.

Biden is cluelessly misogynistic -- just like grandpa!

We can't move left.

Congress is weak.

The DNC is devoted to winning.

W was actually a great president.

Torture is information gathering by nonpsychopaths.

The wealthy didn't steal everything they've got.

The media is liberal.

Conservatives are conservative.

Democrats are democratic.

Capitalism works.

War is peace.

Ignorance is strength.

Of course there is an alternate explanation. A simpler explanation:

A wealthy few, enabled and abetted by a thin layer of politicians, media and law enforcement, has taken over the country, is bleeding us dry and gaslighting us.
-1 # chapdrum 2018-07-04 11:40
lib1984: We're not allowed to move left.
+1 # librarian1984 2018-07-04 12:21
After forty years of moving right!
+2 # chapdrum 2018-07-05 15:56
lib1984: An abiding mystery (to me): We read that most Americans support the things that (for current example) Sanders does. And yet, the Republicans, more often than not, hold sway.
+10 # reo100 2018-07-03 21:39
Honestly, I lost respect for him when he signed the National Defense Aunthorization Act and stripped Habeas Corpus rights from every American.
+4 # NAVYVET 2018-07-04 22:12
Me, too, reo100, and when Obama wasted all that effort on a Repub "reform" of the Big Health/Big Insurance industry and refused to bring single payer to the table, that was it. (Wistfully, I remembered the super Socialized Medicine I enjoyed during my 11 1/2 years in the Navy.)

In 2008 I'd knocked myself out campaigning for Obama. By 2010 I was thoroughly disillusioned, as were most of my peace veteran friends. I resigned from the Dumbocrat Party and became a Socialist--at the age of 74--when I knew next to nothing about Bernie Sanders, not even that both of us were members of DSA or that we'd both been arrested at age 20 for civil rights activities. Not only did I campaign wholeheartedly for Bernie in 2015-16, I'd do it all over again! I've ironed 2020 on top of 2016 on all my Bernie t-shirts, and at age 82 I can still yell, make political buttons, design and create rain-resistant signs with wicked slogans, wave them at rallies and on short marches, register voters and phone politicians & potential voters.

I'm VERY PROUD of the brave young people who care enough to learn the real problems of the world, roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They are the ones to listen to! Wish I were 20 again.
+1 # reo100 2018-07-05 11:36
NAVYVET, GOSH! I LOVE YOU!♡ You are an inspiration for so many that feel the same way. Unfortunately, the Dems have nothing but a losing history. Although I'm still in my fifties, I was a blue dog dem since the early 80's.
But now that we have Twitler in the WH, we must vote Dem all the way or we will have a Twitler SCOTUS. I reside in a closed State, so I register Independent and switch back for primaries.
Senator Sanders is now expecting us to vote
progressive if you can, or Dem to save Democracy from Authoritarism.
Keep up the fight!
+4 # relegn 2018-07-05 06:16
When Tim Geithner was appointed Secretary of the Treasury some of my doubts of Obama's goals were confirmed. The goal of soft soaping the actions of Wall Street and the Banks was going to be the Government's response to financial fraud on so large a scale. This soft soap approach leaves the US with the same criminal financial players in place such as Warburg Pincus headed by Tim Geithner.

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