Monday, October 10, 2011

the golden bullet proof golf shirt

In the 1990s, Thomas Friedman wrote a book that, in a sense, was the founding document of neo-smarm – a pundit style for the end of history crowd. It was called the Lexus and the Olive Tree, or something like that, and it was littered with phrases that are instantly bullet point-able - amply demonstrating the difference between the art of the epigram and the banality of the sound byte. Neo-smarm is neo-liberalism that has kicked off its shoes, and Friedman is its master.

I mention this not to attack the latest Friedman column – who cares about the latest Friedman column, or the one before that, or the one before that? Rather, it is to borrow a phrase from his book that struck me at the time. Friedman coined the phrase ‘golden strait-jacket’ to refer to the ‘de-politicizing’ of economic decisions. By de-politicizing, he really means the segregating of political decisions from the will of the people, as evidenced in elections and other such Christmas ornaments. . Not that Friedman was opposed to democracy, now – he loved the use of democratization. For him, day trading ‘democratizes’ the stock market. In fact, any popular consumerist fad immediately gets the “democratizing” label from Friedman, who’d like the producers of wealth to confine their politics to the consumption of brands. Meanwhile, the smart guys in the room, in Treasury, the Fed, and the board rooms of the great and good banks, make all the macro economic decisions for us. Cause they have the models, you see.

Since Friedman’s paen to the end of the business cycle, we’ve had – the business cycle. The first one whipped the butt of NASDAQ, and the second one whipped the butt of about every American corporation, including the business of shopping malls, from which Friedman’s wife, and Friedman, derived their considerable wealth.

And yet, the golden strait-jacket survives and flourishes. Its biggest fan is the President. And its effects are strewn across the Great Recession. What other democratic society would look at the destruction of the wealth of the middle class – the destruction of 12 trillion dollars in their assets – and decide to loan, at less than one percent, 16 trillion dollars to the investor class? The answer is no democracy would do that. For that, we need a golden straight jacket.

It has taken some time, but the rest of the populace, it now appears, understands that golden strait jackets are really made of another material – one excreted, I believe, by mammals.

And so, as the golden straitjacket evolved, so did the bullet proof golf shirt. Via a fascinating article on couture for the plutocrats in the New Yorker by David Owen, it appears that Colombians, after having to undergo the violent wars of the 80s and 90s that pitted a pathological guerilla left against a pathological paramilitary right and both against a pathological network of cocaine cartels, have emerged from that din and casualty count with some innovative ideas about safety. Just as Big Pharma learned from the dime drug dealer how to market its anti-depressants and other various pills, so, too, from the world of kidnapping and drive-bys has emerged a cottage industry for protecting the plutocratic gut from the hollow tipped bullet.

The man the article centers on is a designer named Manuel Cabellero, who demonstrates his product by shooting the visitor: “the founder and chief executive of a company that makes "specialized personal protection," and when he shot me I was wearing one of his products, a black suede jacket with lightweight bulletproof panels in the lining. The company, which is called Miguel Caballero, makes fashion-oriented body armor, and sells it mainly to executives, celebrities, political figures, and others who have security concerns but don't want to dress like members of a SWAT team.

Popular items include a three-button blazer, a V-necked wool sweater, a Nehru vest (for customers in the subcontinent and, conceivably, for anxious idolizers of Sammy Davis, Jr.), and a polo shirt, which, because of its extra bulk, may usefully promote a compact golf swing. Caballero also makes bulletproof camouflaged hunting clothes, to protect hunters from misdirected shots fired by their companions--an eventuality that he referred to as "a Dick Cheney accident."

Are we all seeing ‘growth industry” here? We should be. As from the American ashes there begins to grow an American third world culture, I do not think the plutocrats are going to be able to do without the third world billionaire’s accessories, among which are the four car squadron (which I have seen, negotiating the streets of Mexico City), the bodyguards and bodyguards of bodyguards (the latter selected to stop the first line of bodyguard if, as it sometimes turns out, the first line gets the idea to kidnap the body they are guarding) and the appropriate security procedures. The age of the golden bulletproof polo shirt is definitely here.

“When he started making bulletproof garments, nineteen years ago, his customers were almost exclusively Colombian--a reflection both of the small scale of his original enterprise and of the turmoil in the country at the time. Today, ninety-eight per cent of his production is for export. He has dealers in two dozen countries and customers in more than fifty, and he has a retail boutique in Harrods, where some of his golf shirts sell for the equivalent of about twelve thousand dollars.”

Twelve thousand dollars is a significant sum. How significant? According to a recent probe into the underbelly of the wondrous neo-liberal age prophecied by Tom Friedman: From Andy Kroll in Tom's Dispatch

“According to Census data, between 2009 and 2010 alone the black poverty rate jumped from 25% to 27%. For Hispanics, it climbed from 25% to 26%, and for whites, from 9.4% to 9.9%. At 16.4 million, more children now live in poverty than at any time since 1962. Put another way, 22% of kids currently live below the poverty line, a 17-year record.

America’s lost decade also did a remarkable job of destroying the wealth of nonwhite families, the Pew Research Center reported in July. Between 2005 and 2009, the household wealth of a typical black family dropped off a cliff, plunging by a whopping 53%; for a typical Hispanic family, it was even worse, at 66%. For white middle-class households, losses on average totaled “only” 16%.
Here's a more eye-opening way to look at it: in 2009, the median wealth for a white family was $113,149, for a black family $5,677, and for a Hispanic family $6,325. The second half of the lost decade, in other words, laid ruin to whatever wealth was possessed by blacks and Hispanics -- largely home ownership devastated by the popping of the housing bubble.”

So, we can evaluate the golf shirt as double the wealth of a median Hispanic family. Fun, eh?

“I had heard that President Obama, during his Inauguration, wore clothing made by Caballero. Neither Ballesteros nor Caballero would say anything about that, but they did tell me that the company's customers include King Abdullah II of Jordan, the Prince of Asturias, a Thai princess, and the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Panama, and Malaysia.”

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