Category: The Economy

We’re Not Just Coping with “The Great Recession.” This Is “The Great Change.”

Posted by – October 2, 2014

The Damage Wrought by the Great Big Horrendous Financialization Ka-blooie is Real.  But this was (and is) Part of a Great Change.

My friends, there’s no doubt we live in interesting times.

This isn’t just a recession when budget sheets show big gaps, then the economy dips into a deep lull and then comes back up, nor is this a systemic economy-is-grinding-to-a-halt like the Great Depression. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a massive revolution politically, socially, economically, and especially technologically, that’s been building ever since the advent of personal computing, the Internet, and all it’s wrought…

This is The Great Change.

In the latter part of the ’00s, the first decade of the 21st century, The Great Recession occurred as a byproduct or baby steps of The Great Change. The ongoing changes caused a crash, hit a wall once the technological ability of the powerful to gain enormous wealth outpaced the economy’s ability to compensate and cope, and the entire world suffered a breakdown.
By “technological ability of the powerful to gain enormous wealth” I’m referring to new financial techniques impossible with the approaches, technology and computing power of previous generations, such as complicated mortgage-backed securities and “robo-signing” forgery-factories that fed mortgages to the beast, these weird securitized mortgage investments—for example CDOs (collateralized debt obligations)—and algorithm-driven high-frequency trading that capitalizes on millisecond price differentials… stuff like that.  These exotic financial thingies are innovations, but innovations in the way Frankenstein’s monster was… demonstrating awesome new capabilities but creating potentially horrible consequences for the wielders of these new powers and the wider society affected.

This economic breakdown—see subprime mortgage crisis of 2006-’09 and big financial meltdown of ’07-’08—was and is bad.  The worst of the tailspin occurred prior to Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and there were many contributing factors. Jeremy Rifkin and other economic thinkers stress the spike in energy prices and peak oil as the financial meltdown’s main causes, and I don’t think the role of the energy economy and other triggers should be overlooked.  But the predominant view is that the crisis in finance was directly related to problems within Big Finance, and that the financial crisis happened due to the house of cards of exotic securities and over-financialization toppling.  Global financial markets began to realize that these mortgage-backed securities, rated AAA, were, in actuality, more like FFF, jumbo-stuft with FAIL.  Many of these exotic securities were failful—full o’ fail, made up of mortgage scams: financial instruments that were essentially a Ponzi scheme composed of Ponzi schemes.  Think of gold-plated Russian nesting dolls with one toxic waste after another making up the inner dolls.
As the big money guys inevitably figured out they were holding financial hot potatoes, the dash to sell these toxic assets (and the related rapid devaluation of same)was devastating.  Wall Street partied like it’s 1929, leading millions of businesses, individuals and 401ks to lose their shirts in the stock market.

The MTA, the transit authority that gets people to work on trains and buses and has such centrality in the socio-economic life of New York City, became a poster boy for bad bets of this type when, subsequent to the subprime dominos falling in 2008, hundreds of millions the MTA sunk into an elaborate scheme run by shady Irish and German banks involving ballooning variable-rate debt and CDOs evaporated in short order. The MTA also lost bazillions in auction-rate securities in 2007, getting played by Citigroup and Goldman Sachs in a classic rat guano sold as filet mignon-type game.  Suddenly, the transit lifeblood of NYC was experiencing painful sclerosis. Fares and fees were abruptly raised.  Other gov’t entities, from transportation agencies to state pension funds, even public school boards, from sea to shining sea, got similarly swindled by promises of AAA, low-risk investments.

The Great Big Horrendous Financialization Ka-blooie had a catastrophic impact.  It’s tough to overstate the damage.  Nine million Americans lost their jobs.  Lost output—goods and services that should’ve existed given expected economic activity but didn’t exist—”was at least 40 percent of 2007 gross domestic product and probably considerably more,” according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (source: BloombergView).

But the financial crisis is the byproduct of a bigger bad.  It’s a severe episode in a longer bout of disorder, it is part of death and rebirth in the goddess of destruction sense of rebirth. The Great Recession is one piece, wrecked by human failty and greed, economic catastrophe but nonetheless part of a greater nexus of processes that are ongoing: The Great Change.
I see this as like puberty but more perilous, not as a disease we could cure, though the official gov’t line is that we’ve overcome it and our inexhaustible awesomeness makes us only better than before.  Most misunderstand.

The economic fail is merely a symptom, one part of the massive changes in every facet of life (economically, socially, politically and technologically) rapidly spinning all around us. I’m arguing that this is “The Great Change,” an unprecedented reconfiguration of the socio-economic arrangements of humanity. The old economic and social order is to be shed like a cocoon.

This brings wonderful opportunities and great dangers. The potential for horrific consequences in the meanwhile is clear. The powerful and entrenched have near-infinite ways of abusing the transition and its uncertainties, as the Great Recession exemplifies.  According to a recent study surveying HR managers globally and examining relevant trends to gauge the future of work by 2022, an Orwellian nightmare but with corporate “ministates” running society, not unlike the corporate cyber dystopia envisioned in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, may be inevitable (source: Yahoo! Finance).

Futurist, economic theorist and writer Jeremy Rifkin highlights exciting opportunities coming with the new revolutionary Internets and their zero marginal cost paradigm spreading to multiple areas of the economy, the core of The Great Change I’m talking about.
Marginal cost means the costs necessary to produce an additional +1 of a thing or service. For example, to copy an additional Kindle eBook for you to read, it’s as near-zero marginal cost as it gets.

Rifkin acknowledges {though never emphasizes) how entrenched interests stomp on ordinary workers as they try to get labor costs, e.g. the wages of service workers in fast food and such, down as close to zero marginal cost as possible.

Cartoon by Jimmy Margulies

He envisions the new laterally-networked sharing economy, the Collaborative Commons expanding enough to provide an ample alternative.  But without 3D printing leaping so far ahead they become like replicators on Star Trek, thereafter pulling the cost of living down to near-zero marginal cost as well, I don’t understand how this sharing economy works. It would require a totally new economic engine as unlike capitalism as Star Trek‘s economy.

I totally dig Rifkin’s vision of capitalism being eclipsed, supplanted by a Collaborative Commons wherein all information, entertainment, handmade schematics for 3D-printed items of every type, and soon even energy is shared in lateral networks at near-zero marginal cost, and I really want humanity to get there in my lifetime. Rifkin sees the new sharing economy revolving around care, empathy, quality of life, people freed from menial and repetitive labor that the AI of the not-distant future can do. The problem is getting the human economy, as corrupt and enormous and unwieldy as it is, from point A to point B.  We need to get there. We have to get to a new, better economy if future generations are going to have any type of survival.

Really we’ve already departed from Point A and are well into this transition, since so much of the world economy has been transformed/devastated by the encroaching near-zero marginal cost reality, even energy, with the increasing availability of renewables soon will be near-zero marginal cost after up-front installation.  French investment bank Kepler Chevreux released a new analysis last month projecting solar and wind to yield more energy return on investment than oil by the 2030s at the latest, and you look at their numbers and they are low-balling how soon solar panels get dirt-cheap… if we get liquid-like organic photovoltaic cells that are “paintable” on any surface at low cost, that changes the calculations enormously.

Already, Germany is setting up an energy internet, like with social media the users produce the content, the users produce energy from the solar, wind, and geothermal on their property, massively store it for use when the sun isn’t shining, and share it on the energy internet.  China is going long investing in new renewables technology and a similar internet of energy.  Meanwhile, the U.S, is doubling down on hydraulic fracking, and no decentralized energy internet is in the works.

I led with the Wall Street shenanigans for a reason – if we keep having economic meltdowns because everyone’s been bamboozled into investing in turd-backed securities and lost their nest egg, if the bottom 90% can’t afford anything, that is bad.  Rifkin has a much more trusting and sunny view of industry than I do.  These pitfalls are problems now and could easily get worse.

a line graph displaying economist Thomas Piketty’s data on income in the United States. As of 2013, the top 10% of American earners amassed the same amount of national income % as the other 90% combined. Then, projections of the 90% losing more and more of the pie, but we’re in economic transition and prediction is difficult. (Source: Chart: Half of All Income Goes to the Top 10 Percent | motherjones.com)

It’s really important we get to Point B and not get stalled, derailed, ending up in an economic cul-de-sac of dystopian corporatism with a predominantly roboticized industrial and service sector that feeds an ever-more opulent, powerful and entrenched 1% most of the GDP while the increasingly powerless 99% starve.
To his credit, Jeremy Rifkin stresses the risks losing net neutrality, losing a safe climate, or losing potable water can pose: there’s no progress if we cut our legs off.  Food and water will continue to be big issues. And it is unclear how ordinary workers will earn enough to keep the consumption-based economy going…

Notice on the income line graph, the 2007-09 Great Recession happened alongside a dip in the 90 percent’s income. A similar drop in the vast majority’s share of the income pie shows up on the line graph for 2013-14, indicating we may be in another recessionary pattern RIGHT NOW.

In order to have hope, we have to first understand where we are.  Where we are is near-zero marginal cost affecting every nook and cranny of the global economy. Where we are is the old economy is long dead

Laverne and Shirley – they worked at Shotz Brewery, exemplifying now-automated old economy jobs that won’t be coming back.

and not coming back, easy to get factory jobs aren’t coming back. American-run social media sites (Facebook et al) are already WAY more profitable than the entire U.S. automotive sector.
We’re heading into a presidential primary cycle where the Hillarys and Romneys of the world will be constantly lying to you that, if you just make them president, old economy jobs will rain down like manna from heaven, that they will bring renewal, belief, optimism back to America and just from our exceptional spirit, from really believing in ourselves, our inexhaustible economic dynamism will subsequently reactivate. These are lies, some of the most intellectually dishonest claptrap you’ll ever hear.  These are political and spiritual snake oil salesmen. No miracle can bring back the old Laverne & Shirley beer plant.
We have to create a totally new economy, and I haven’t heard any creative ideas on that front from our sucktastic political class. Our awfullicious DINOs and RINOs don’t even address near-term economic crises like how the vast majority of workers will keep consumer spending up, so enthralled are they with the perverse logic of “winning” the news cycle and appearing relevant next to whatever dumb sensational headline.  How the new economy will work, how we get away from our dependence on consumption, replacing old economy consumer spending as the central pillar of our economy; these issues should be foremost.

One possible driver of the new economy could be the social media bonanza spreading the wealth to its users/content-producers, something like reddit’s CEO proposed on Tuesday, giving redditors 10% of reddit’s stock via online cryptocurrency (meaning cryptography-secured and generated digital medium of exchange).  Probably they’ll use the extant reddit currency, reddit gold/creddits, but make it exchangeable with other cryptocurrencies

a dogecoin! And here’s a list of sellers and service providers of every description on reddit who accept payment in dogecoin.

like Bitcoin and the hilarious dogecoin, in addition to old currencies: USD, the Euro, Renminbi and so forth. This reddit idea, assuming it doesn’t fail before getting to the launch pad, would mean the dispersal of millions of USD to kick off a new market economy – countless new micro-economies taking off….

But even with wild success of new markets, and all the new economy’s opportunities, there are perilous days ahead.  Especially for people living day-to-day with chronic illnesses and severe disabilities and all the related health care costs, competing in an economy of near-zero marginal cost poses terrible challenges.  Simultaneously, virtual economies open up new egalitarian market spaces, participation possible regardless of physical abilities or identity.

Meanwhile, what happens to the vast majority of ordinary workers?

Some ideas for consideration:

Jappe suggests hyper-local and international cooperative economies above/outside of the logic of corporate capitalism as a way to outlive the old economy. See: What will we do if the system can no longer create jobs? An interview with Anselm Jappe

One alternative currency idea, and many will be needed – Video: The Hero Reward System – A Complementary Economic System Based Upon Merit

If you want people to keep consuming, something like this may be needed for people to survive the transition – Video: Basic Income – An idea whose time has come | Basic Income Europe

We’re all living through “The Great Change.” It’s going to be both wondiferous and horrifying. Spread the word.

 

Nick

Recommended resource
:

Video: Jeremy Rifkin: “The Zero Marginal Cost Society” | Authors at Google

How Can the U.S. Constitutional System Cope When Big Fracking Bucks mean Big Toxin Dumping?

Posted by – August 27, 2014

With New Forms of Toxic Waste from the Fracking Bonanza Piling Up, What Must Be Done?

I really like the PBS documentary mini-series Constitution USA, because it brings forward the constitutional arguments that are so relevant to the problems we face in our country today.  It explores a worthy cross-section of important legal/constitutional debates with the depth that they deserve, and with refreshing honesty/even-handedness.  All the while it stays firmly rooted in our history, frequently referencing the rich backstories of our Constitution, the Bill of Rights, subsequent amendments and laws and the more controversial implementing actions.

The first episode gives an overview of jurisdictional conflicts that are ongoing between states, the federal gov’t and the individual citizens.  Some of the issues covered are the more obvious and well-known legal problems between states and the federales, like medical cannabis: can states trump the federal drug laws and re-legalize it? (cannabis tinctures and the like being legal from your local pharmacy in the past)
The Commerce Clause of Article I of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal Congress power to “regulate commerce between the several states,” and that is the basis for so much of our legal and regulatory system, from drug laws and gun control, to water use regulations for toilets (which I blogged about here).

Air and water pollution, with its effects on multiple states and countries, seems an obvious place for federal intervention to me, and the number of federal regs waived during the past decade—the carte blanche given to mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracturing—should concern all Americans.  In many areas, there ought to be more and better regulation: for example, given ProPublica’s recent reporting, it sounds like Ohio will be dotted with radioactive Superfund sites like a constellation is dotted with stars if the legislature in Columbus doesn’t get serious about regulating the toxic (and sometimes radioactive, including content containing RADIUM) waste that’s unintentionally unearthed as a byproduct of the fracking boom.

Inevitably, the various waste byproducts generated by fracking are dangerous if safety measures aren’t followed [see the facts on the difficulties disposing of fracking wastes].  Not only does the fracking process involve inserting hydraulic fracking fluids®, proprietary mixes of chemicals to facilitate fracturing, some heavily depending on known health hazards like benzene, into the earth, the extraction process also unearths things that should stay earthed, like naturally occurring radioactive materials, richly accumulated over eons, especially so deep in shale.  Radon, uranium, thorium, and especially radium have been confirmed living in the waste “brine” alongside the oil and gas (and the heady mixture of man-made chemicals, benzenes, et al, just injected) pulled from shale deposits, alerting all concerned to the risks associated with fracking wastewater.

gas production from the 400 million year-old, multi-state Marcellus shale formation, mostly from drilling in Pennsylvania and Ohio, is booming!

Reasonable monitoring and responsible handling is sorely needed, but the politicians that control how (and how much) these newer species of toxic wastes will be regulated see the state’s fracking bonanza as win-win-win-win, pumping in new jobs, new income/GDP, new tax revenue, and new troughs of campaign bribetributions to pig out on.

Politicians representing economically depressed post-industrial hell-holes tend to understand actually regulating fracking as putting speed limits on their state’s gravy train, or as outright flipping the railroad switch to turnout that gravy train onto a competing state’s track, so rival states profit more and more quickly. This may startle readers in not-America, but in the U.S., state governments are usually competing with other (especially neighboring) states to attract Big Business, including fracking operations, to start up in their state, often leading to a distressing “race to the bottom,” evidenced by things like the governor of Alabama meeting with German automakers to offer them more state-sponsored bribe money “incentives,” less costly labor, and fewer worker protections than other states where they could put down roots… this “jobs race” is deeply embedded in our political ecosystem. Even the more liberal representatives will likely prefer looking tough on polluters without actually regulating fracking in a meaningful way and risking accusations of “harming the district’s economy.”  Political cowardice and faux populist outrage at the polluters is the norm.

Of course, once you understand what Ohio has been through, “post-industrial” meaning that industry has left, offshored production to China or wherever had won the jobs race that year, joblessness everywhere, cities just “gone,” it’s easy to sympathize with the desire to be as fracking-friendly and job-attract-y as possible.  I think of Chrissie Hynde, singin’ “I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone…” and that was the ’80s. Gone Ohio cities are even gonier now.

Shale gas is the closest thing to a gold rush this country’s seen since the initial oil boom nearly 100 years ago, and desperation for gas drilling jobs makes it really hard, societally, to regulate and enforce with a long-view toward the public health consequences of benzenes, radionuclides, and so on.

In neighboring Pennsylvania, where the economics and politics of fracking are similar, radium was found in rivers where fracking wastes were released, and “internal” studies leaked to the New York Times in 2011 detail the alarming data:

…state records indicate that the radium levels found in Pennsylvania wastewater are much higher than those used in this study. Radium, for example, was found in Pennsylvania at levels over 18 times the number used in the this study. It should be noted, however, that this study did not detail actual cases of increased cancer. Rather, it modeled potential increases in cancer rates as a result of radium-laced drilling waste being discharged into large waterways.
… Asked to review the study, an expert on human health and ecological risk analysis said that it clearly shows that the drilling waste is not sufficiently diluted in some cases. As a result, the radioactivity levels left behind in receiving waters come close to reaching the threshold at which the E.P.A., under federal Superfund rules, requires a cleanup, the risk expert said.

For a look at the leaked documents and the relevant analysis, see Documents: Natural Gas’s Toxic Waste – NYTimes.com

The revelations from the leaked studies raise some troubling, difficult questions… one is, if you’re at the radioactivity threshold that triggers the creation of a federal Superfund site, how would you turn part or all of a river into a Superfund site?
What unintended consequences will radium in the water have on freshwater sealife and the humans that depend on these freshwater ecosystems? If it’s a blend of radionuclides, benzenes and other horrors, what effects do these have on lifeforms

a row of dark indigo-and-pink-fish-faced, orangey-throated Hath soldiers, mini-fishtank thingy mounted 'round their mouths to enable breathing in non-aquatic environments

Invasive uber carp become biped super soldiers after too much river radium? (Actually the Hath, a Piscine humanoid species from one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, “The Doctor’s Daughter“)

when combined/interacting with each other? Godzilla was created from a similar unintended exposure to radiation. Freshwater ecosystems (especially in Ohio and due west) are already devastated by the invasion of nonindigenous uber carp, mentioned in the fourth installment of Constitution USA as well… what happens when you add radioactivity? Carpzilla?

This ProPublica exposé uncovers just how lax Ohio’s been about toxic waste.  Regulation is “muted” to the point they’ve become a top destination for other states to dump radioactive fracking waste.

These tanker trucks have 8 wheels and are colored a bright

Fracking wastewater is collected in special trucks like these in Pennsylvania, and moved elsewhere (Ohio?). Source: NRDC Switchboard Blog

Yes, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has been used to get to oil and gas since the late 1940s. Yes, the radionuclides are originally “naturally occurring radioactive materials” (NORMs), not a problem if left in their natural configuration, spread out, trace amounts. But once you inadvertently pump large amounts of these out of shale, concentrate them, mix them with other terrible things, it becomes something different—TENORMs (technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials)—something you REALLY don’t want in your water supply.  Refer to the horrible fate of radium’s discoverer Marie Curie if you doubt that radium is hazardous.

To my core questions, things that I’ve brought up again and again in recent bloggings, what, why, are the systems and rules that enable, or fix (or exacerbate) our problems?
Similar to the inaction around the multi-state + Canada invasion of Asian Carp, something I’d previously blogged about here, the constitutional system we have provides ways to deal with the issue, but no one is stepping up and adequately addressing the problem. The multi-jurisdictional nature of our system enables struggle, appropriate checks and balances, collaboration, but also gridlock and EPIC FAIL if the human beings at the helm of the different gov’t branches and agencies are corrupt and/or ineffectual shampoo models.

What must be done about the toxic wastes left behind by the shale gas rush?

One can easily imagine the preserved head of James Madison judging medical cannabis, and indeed all medicines and drugs, the province of the individual citizen and/or “the several states,” as centralized decision-making for the entire country, especially where commerce and a man’s personal habits are concerned, would be perceived as positively British and anathema to the whole constitutional project.
But it is much more difficult to envision the framers’ possible positions on environmental law.  The founders, especially the Virginians, often distained the prospect of an industrialized United States, as debates over which ways of life were best, the most free, the most moral for the developing nation—profit was far from the only objective—were commonly considered as the Constitution took shape, and afterwards.  Cities in general, and wage labor for Big Business industries in particular, were largely seen as part of an unfree, corrupt, dirty system, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” at odds with the Jeffersonian vision of a society of self-sufficient yeomen farmers, hyper-moral because they’re dependent on no man (except for all the slaves, though this is typically omitted from the sweeping “Empire of Liberty” narratives). The Constitution’s framers couldn’t hammer out a solution for phasing out the slave system that supported (and simultaneously threatened) the kind of economy they wanted—agriculture, shiny independent freeholds—much less did they legislate for socio-economic arrangements they hoped to avoid, factories and mills.

The consequences of large-scale industrialization, air pollution blowing cross-country, water contamination in one state affecting other states downstream, were inconceivable in the late 1700s. Our founding people don’t really offer us any guidance on these issues.
Madison tended to view state governments as unavoidably, intractably corrupt, and that was one of his main arguments for the Constitution and new, more robust federal government: that the people must have watchdogs to guard their rights and liberties against the corrupt excesses and overreaching laws of drunken state legislatures, another crucial check on the tyranny of the majority. But today, few would argue that the federal gov’t is less corrupt, or are better regulators. On the other hand, who else but the feds can deal with water pollution in a river shared by six states?

How can effective regulation and enforcement in the service of long-term public health outcomes be achieved in this time of corruption, deceit and regulatory capture?  How can our constitutional system cope?

Nick

this blog post inspired by my fascination with mutants and mutation, by mito activist Andy Williams who I hope keeps giving ’em hell about the toxic waste in Watertown, NY
and brought to you by the Letter F!

Bitesized History: the Code Noir and Mercantilism in Jewish Mobile, Alabama

Posted by – July 16, 2014

Tidbits of Colonial Mobile’s Economic and Legal History Through a 19th century Jewish Lens

The rare book “A History of the Jews of Mobile,” a brief monograph published by Springhill Avenue Temple rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses in 1876 on the Jewish history of my hometown Mobile, AL, and now available online, records some fascinating facts.  I’ll get into the super weird history of Mobile Jews serving in the Twelfth Alabama for the CSA in the Civil War in a future post. In this post I’ll go over the most interesting bits of history I was able to glean of the legal and regulatory system early Mobile had in place (when it was considered part of French Louisiana, then British West Florida, then Spanish West Florida).

Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, Quebecois explorer and administrator who co-founded Mobile in 1701 and again and again served as French Louisiana’s governor.

Mobile was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville on his brother Pierre de Iberville’s advice.  Both young explorers had sailed from their birthplace, Quebec, in search of advantageous spots to put trading posts to cash in on trade with the Indians. The earliest decades of Mobile’s existence saw sparse settlement and several relocations of the colony due to flooding and swamp epidemics. Everything was in flux, and often, like the Dutch,¹ the French only supplied enough money and people to support the bare necessities for trading.  But slowly, the Louisiana colonies eventually added settlers.

New colonial societies can’t function or generate sustainable populations (and are totally depressing) without women. Bienville wrote of the sex ratio emergency to his royal backers in France, and in 1704, Mobile was the first port to see “casquette girls” arrive to be the colony’s first official wives.  Bienville went on to found New Orleans, Natchez and New Biloxi after Iberville founded Old Biloxi near what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “Consignments” of casquette girls reached Biloxi in 1719, and New Orleans in 1728, and to this day a mythos surrounds the casquette girls as the most virtuous religious women of France, like Virgin Marys founded the old Louisiana families.  To claim descent from one of them is to gain auto-nobility in the Louisiana context. Like most lore, the legend that the casquette girls were nuns and Joans of Arc is mostly false. But the dynamic honors founding mothers and mostly omits founding fathers, a notable reversal.

Jews, being strictly banned in the “Code Noir,” weren’t much of a presence in Mobile’s early years. Alfred Geiger Moses noted:

The first two articles of the code read as follows: “Article I: Decrees the expulsion of the Jews from the colony. Article II: Permits the exercise of the Roman Catholic worship only. Every other code of worship is prohibited.” Strange to say, the rest of the code deals with laws regulating the sale and conduct of negro slaves. Gayarre finds the reference to the Jews irrelevant to the general subject-matter of the code. My own explanation of the anti-Jewish laws, which is supported by a good authority, is that they were merely a repetition of the similar legislation current in France at the time of Louis XIV. Drastic as the law appears, it was probably never enforced, because there are no further references to it in Louisiana records. The expulsion of the Jews from America would have been in the sixteenth century an event worthy of the chronicler’s notice.

The Code Noir was developed in France and strictly regulated every corner of economic life that related to the (highly active) slave trade, all activities of the enslaved and freed black population, in enormous detail. And of course a perfunctory ban on all Jews, though Jewish settlement nonetheless accelerated, especially during the subsequent periods of British and Spanish quasi-control.

The main point of controlling Mobile was its lucrative port, so imports and exports were heavily regulated and taxed for the crown’s benefit, and if you didn’t interfere with that imperial extraction process you were relatively free, hence “quasi-control.”
Non-paying the right amount of tribute/taxes, though, could imperil your ability to operate within that colony, and if you were seen as thieving, speculating or profiteering to the detriment of the power people’s loot, you could be imprisoned or death-penaltied.

Rabbi Alfred G. Moses explains:

In the British epoch of Mobile’s colonial history, which extended from 1763 to 1780, an interesting reference to a Jew is citable: Major Robert Farmer, the British commandant of Mobile, was accused, among other charges, of selling flour belonging to the King to New Orleans, or selling or attempting to sell it there by means of “Pallachio, a Jew.” The Major was afterwards acquitted of the charges.

What became of poor Pallachio isn’t known, but it was quite possibly a noir fate.

The concept of “the King’s flour” is really hard to grasp in the 21st century but I think of it as explicitly royalist mercantilism.

Mercantilism meaning “2:  an economic system developing during the decay of feudalism to unify and increase the power and especially the monetary wealth of a nation by a strict governmental regulation of the entire national economy usually through policies designed to secure an accumulation of bullion, a favorable balance of trade, the development of agriculture and manufactures, and the establishment of foreign trading monopolies” (see Merriam-Webster dictionary definition)

The “foreign trading monopolies” were the point of colonization, and more purely about royalist monopolies for the French, being less encumbered by entrenched notions of self-sufficient land-ownership meaning individual freedom and citizenship.

North America has centuries of royalist mercantilism baked into its historical crust! It is deeply enmeshed in our laws, customs, folkways and collective subconscious. When the UK’s imperial-aristocratic profiteering off the tea monopoly became intolerable, you ended up with destruction of corporate tea property at Boston Harbor and shots fired at Lexington and Concord. But British mercantilism was replaced with mercantilism for the republic, pro-American trade policy.

Political rants invoking a bygone golden age of “the free market” and no regulation are misinforming the people.  “The American Way” is another term for the American System, the tariff-heavy economic plan that predominated in the 19th century, mercantilism in reality.  The next time a buffoon is waxing nostalgic about an economic past completely unlike anything we had in North America, remember Pallachio and remember royalist mercantilism.

Nick

 

Footnote:

1. the Dutch were so focused on trade, city design revolved around cramming as many lots as possible as close to trade corridors as possible, which meant tiny lots and mini-buildings.  For a fascinating look at New Netherlanders’ use of space, see
Merwick, Donna. “Dutch Townsmen and Land Use: A Spatial Perspective on Seventeenth-Century Albany, New York.” The William and Mary Quarterly 37 (1980), http://www.jstor.org/stable/1920969

Turning Around America’s “Food Deserts”

Posted by – November 8, 2013

Tackling the problem: two videos about creative solutions

The last time I wrote about food and food policy, it was in the context of the invisible fist… commenting on one of the most Orwellian stories to date, the brutal closure of raw food sellers by SWAT teams enforcing draconian regulations against non-corporate unpasteurized milk and cheese.

As I try to understand the rapidly changing political landscape and evolving socio-economic ecosystem, it’s becoming more and more obvious that food and food policy is a prominent part of the emerging policy struggle.

In the past few decades, we—or rather the emerging uber-aggressive corporatism we’ve been helpless to change—has created food deserts, after grocery store chains have consolidated into mega-corporations that have trans-regional, or even national, reach, and have increasingly abandoned poor communities, shuttered stores, and only opened up new stores in perceived “affluent areas” to maximize profitability.  These changes, plus the big box super chains pushing-out small, family grocers that had local stores, have created serious access problems.  Food deserts are areas where there is low or limited or NO access to real food, either because of long distances from an open grocery store or lack of transportation thereto.  It’s hard to believe it’s gotten to this point, but the economic changes have been so bad and long-lasting we’re now in a situation where broad swaths of the United States have access to nothing but junk: processed fast food that’s intended as a “sometimes food” relied-on on a near-daily basis.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that funds SNAP, food inspectors, and the complex network of farm subsidies, has begun tracking and mapping food deserts.

A map from USDA data:

Areas with no or low car-access and no groceries available within a mile

The food desert situation is serious, and needs our attention.  It should change our attitudes around obesity as well: this map ^ probably correlates strongly, perhaps exactly, with a map of severe obesity.  We should see obesity as symptomatic of the malnutrition that comes from food deserts.  Americans consume, consume, consume, but don’t get the needed nutrients in (a metaphor for the U.S. economy too).

People are trying different, creative solutions to this problem.  The raw dairy people in California who got shut down are examples of approaches to providing more access to healthier food.  Even though the raw food markets in question operate within American capitalism, trading cheese for set prices, something about them offended the corporatist system of big agribusiness, who obviously want to limit competition if regulations provide a pretense.  Yesterday the stock market hit a record high, the Dow is up 120% since the Obama administration came in, in January 2009, thanks to the bailouts the big fish are super-happy and reaping a great bonanza, and there’s every incentive to maintain the status quo at all costs.  This problem, the invisible fist of Orwellian unfreedom utilized to protect the corporatist system, will likely crop up again as more alternatives to big agribusiness become prominent.

But there’s hope: a lot of exciting projects to develop food solutions are emerging now.  I’ll list two: First there’s Archi’s Acres, a project by Colin and Karen Archiplay. Marine Sgt. Colin Archiplay was highly decorated in Iraq and Afghanistan but found himself directionless, disconnected from his fellow marines, until he and his wife Karen innovated an ultra-low water method of sustainable, soilless, zero-pesticide, high-yield, organic hydroponic agriculture in sealed greenhouses on their small farm near San Diego, and created the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program to train veterans to grow healthy food, desperately needed healthy food the U.S. market will always pay well to get.

They tell their story in the below TED Talk, explicitly mentioning spreading the greenhouses as solutions to U.S. food deserts, and a future project to deploy mobile greenhouses of this type to “conflict zones” in the Mideast, which are actual deserts, AND, increasingly, food deserts as well.

 

Second, not-for-profit grocery stores are cropping up to turn around the food deserts.

Chester, Pennsylvania had no grocery stores at all until the not-for-profit project described in this Moyers – PBS report opened. 

Corporate capitalism has its own internal logic, and the results in places like Chester, PA have been ugly, removing food access from whole communities, or, in the language of economists, “create negative externalities.”

Here’s a map of the food deserts around Philadelphia and, down-river, Chester is improving—I made this map with the USDA Food Access Atlas.

USDA Food Desert Map: the urban areas lining the Delaware River have serious food access issues.

USDA Food Desert Map: the urban areas lining the Delaware River have serious food access issues.

 

One of the gifts of a Jesuit education I was lucky to receive was the ability to question things, and to turn around America’s food deserts we will need to question and go beyond the internal logic of corporatism that so often binds us.  I don’t think capitalism is the problem.  I think our super-aggressive form of hyper-cut-throat corporate capitalism is the problem, the tyranny of earnings per share being the only goal.  As the manager of the non-profit grocer explained in the above video, being not-for-profit removed the constraints of quarterly profits and the like and made this possible, and they’ve been able to get farmers to give them lower prices and for companies to donate refrigerator equipment, etc.

We need to support these new food solutions, while overturning the cuts in food stamps (SNAP) and other austerity measures that are making food deserts worse.  The best interview I’ve read on the recent SNAP cuts is this Wonkblog interview with Joel Berg, the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.  He said: “…the average is about $1.50 per meal, and it’s going to $1.40 per meal after these cuts. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that it’s equivalent to something like losing 21, 22 meals a month. Many people report to us and food pantries that even before the cuts, it only lasts two-three weeks.”  What isn’t noted is how this will put organic, healthy foods even more out of reach, and how people will double-down on the processed high-calorie foods to extend their calories per dollar, meaning more processed food-only meals to stretch that food stamp another week.

What do you think of food deserts? 

Nick

Beijing’s Marshall Plan for the United States

Posted by – November 3, 2013

So, I’ve been considering the real causes of “red state” radicalism, and wrote an entire post on my attempts to grok the rapidly changing political landscape.

I learned a great deal from my investigation, which you can read here.  But I want to go deeper on the economic roots of the situation, so I’m writing this post.  Aside from the “gender damage”¹ that’s occurring when, for example, men grow up with cultural expectations to be provider and protector but find themselves never able to meet those gender expectations, which I think is the source of so many of our societal and political problems at present, there are even deeper dysfunctions.  The deeper issues are all tied to an economic system that’s fundamentally skewed to serve the big fish at the very top of the food chain while laying off a huge chunk of the pyramid of smaller fish the big guys used to depend on.  And if you’re among the rural and suburban whites typical of Tea Partier demographics, you’re seeing an economic system stacked against you so badly, rage and radicalism is almost inevitable.

The pacemaker sustaining the heart of our unfair economic system is Beijing’s “Marshall Plan” for the United States… meaning they loan us cash that is really meant to buy their exports.

The Marshall Plan of 1948-1951 (also known as the European Recovery Program) was a humanitarian project to ratchet down the desperation in post-war Europe, prime the pump of international trade, and bring back broad-based prosperity to rescue free-market economies in Western Europe (the subtext being that the whole continent would “go red” unless the economies of the war-torn Allied nations started to work for the average European again).  The Marshall Plan was a great success, as evidenced by the relative stability and unity of Europe since its implementation, instead of poverty, radicalism and war.  But in addition to its humanitarian aims, Marshall‘s plan had a major impact “priming” the American economy.

As the Library of Congress’ “Fiftieth Anniversary of the Marshall Plan” online exhibit explains, “…increasing prosperity in the U.S. was one goal of the Marshall Plan. As a way of boosting exports, the plan had wide appeal to American business people, bankers, workers, and farmers. … During the years of the Marshall Plan, when much of the money European participants received was spent on U.S.-produced food and manufactured goods, the American economy flourished.”  In many cases, Marshall Plan loan money quickly found its way to Maxwell House coffee or U.S. Steel to export out to Hamburg, Paris, Liverpool and the like.  In rarer cases, instead of fronting Europeans the money, goods were granted outright, so Bethlehem Steel or the Iowa grain elevator guys or whoever got paid, direct from the federal government, to create and send their stuff out.  There are a lot of interesting details about the Marshall Plan.  If you’re nerdy like me, the Library of Congress exhibit has an excellent contemporary source, from Kiplinger Magazine, their guide for American businessmen on the Marshall Plan, how it works and how to participate in it, to get “your product on the list” [to be exported]. This magazine is also an interesting example of the bubbly, happy sort of graphical style—Will Eisner epitomized this—that dominated ’40s design, even in trade journals like Kiplinger’s, evidently.

Beijing’s loaning policies, and by “Beijing” I mean the PRC regime headquartered in Beijing, are similar to the Marshall Plan mainly in that we’re being fronted cash that’ll boomerang back to buy their exports.  Beijing’s seemingly endless ability to buy U.S. debt, buy U.S. debt, buy U.S. debt, keeps the government and the American economy from collapsing, keeps the unhealthy trade deficit² going, which acts as a stimulus program for China’s economy as cheap clothes, toys, games and electronics dominate our markets (but undermine our economy).  Unlike the Marshall Plan though, there’s no humanitarian intent; it’s done out of self-interest full stop, and even, arguably, part and parcel of the aggressively capitalistic culture that has gripped China from the back alley tinkerers to the backroom dealers.  And while this capitalist transformation of China has lifted hundreds and hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, it certainly has a dark side, often enabling the worst types of crony capitalism, and the exploitation of Chinese laborers, infamously

Renminbi, “people’s currency.” Since 1999, all banknotes in all denominations have Chairman Mao on front

symbolized by so many workers trying to commit suicide off the Foxconn iPhone factory roof when denied pay, they put up “suicide nets.” [January 16, 2012 Daily Show segment on Foxconn and the “jumper nets”]

There are so many complexities to U.S.-China trade and weird economic relationship, including the undervaluation of the renminbi, and the issues have filled so many books, and will continue to…

In terms of the political implications, the bottom line is: this economic system of heavy reliance on Chinese consumer goods and large-scale Chinese-financed U.S. debt never was voted on, never was approved by the American people, and is now deeply despised throughout the U.S.

The lack of democracy in our financial decision-making, our complete powerlessness to change the most fundamental economics undergirding American life, is driving both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street to push for change.  Both hate what I refer to as “the invisible fist,” the government force that punishes smaller competitors and favors cronies; unlike the invisible hand, supposedly the mechanism of free markets, the invisible fist is the overtly violent mechanism behind Orwellian unfreedom.  You might even see the invisible fist at work in the ways trade rules are rigged to favor Chinese consumer goods flooding U.S. markets.  Both Occupy and the Tea Party are angry that the majority is left with fewer and fewer economic opportunities, and both want the trade imbalance with China to stop and our debt-selling to Beijing to dramatically change.  Occupy wants a return to the income tax brackets we had when major federal projects—like the Apollo Program, the interstate highway system, etc.—were possible, more financial independence, more paying-down the national debt, through more revenue.  Occupy understands that we need a real Marshall Plan for the American economy, to upgrade our infrastructure into something befitting a world leader and bring back the kind of broad-based prosperity stimulated by the 1948 Marshall Plan, along with more human rights and environmental conditions on foreign trade to ratchet down our trade deficit and weird co-dependent relationship with China.

Tea Partiers would have us stop borrowing from China entirely, even if it meant shutting down most federal departments, and would steer us into a default that would force a total from-scratch-rebuild of an American economy that would be self-sufficient instead of interdependent.  So many out there in right-wing talk radio land are saying “default is patriotic” or things along those lines, that it’s best to “get the pain over with sooner rather than later” and so on, so a ground-up rebuilding, without the federal government in its current form or size, or without the federal government at all, can begin.  It’s a much more radical vision than Occupy’s, and completely unmoored from anything that could be called “conservative.”  Since they believe that a central government will always be tyrannical and inherently parasitic, their call for renewal makes “slaying the government hydra” almost a prerequisite for rebirth; and I’m not sure how much the anti-federalist fervor will dissipate with the rise of a Republican president this time.  There’s this spirit of goddess of destruction and rebirth, alongside some straight up nihilism, shut it down, burn it down, shut it down. 

Redstate.com editor Erick Erickson put it this way:

…the real fight within the Republican Party now is between those who believe we actually are at the moment of crisis — existential or otherwise — and thereby must fight as we’ve never fought before and those who think the GOP can bide its time and make things right.

Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein says Republicans have lost their “raison d’etre” since the deficit has fallen with historic rapidity—the newest data shows a record 37 percent reduction in the deficit for FY 2013 ending September 30th— and that the deficit is on track to “[stabilize] in the (totally manageable) two-to-three percent range through the next decade.”  As is often the case, Ezra Klein missed the bus, because pretty much zero Tea Partiers care that the deficit is headed to 2-3% of GDP.  These are not the Wall Street Republicans that follow budget numbers, nor are they like the evangelical Christian right of the ’80s and ’90s talking about social issues; the Tea Party is first and foremost a rebellion on economic issues.  Tea Partiers want no more borrowing and no more spending beyond annual revenues.  They have a deep philosophical beef with the current size and scope of the federal government, which they see as a failed, unconstitutional project that has already brought us to the “moment of crisis” economically, existentially, etc.   The consensus is that the current economic system is so disastrous for them, the entire system needs radical restructuring if not outright demolition.

The government shutdown and playing drag race chicken with sovereign default was meant to force a rethink of borrowing from China, in fact I think that scaring-off Chinese creditors was meant as a feature not a bug of the “strategy.”

I vehemently oppose the repeal of a century of social programs being pushed for at present; these programs keep me and so many going despite the hate-filled political climate.  I also am in favor of paying our debts, of being a responsible country.  That default has even entered the discussion is indicative that many in the demos see their home-country of the United States as less like a superpower and more like post-war recovery zones in need of a Marshall Plan.  We’ve gotta WAKE UP!  Looking at urban disaster areas like Camden and Detroit, portions of Los Angeles, Stockton, etc., it seems there really was a war lost, somehow.

Whether you are a Tea Partier, support Occupy like me, or don’t want any of it, I think most Americans have a nascent, not-articulated, inchoate sense that the New World being in debt to the Old World is fundamentally not right.  The urge for perceived self-reliance is powerful.  Very few Americans would vote to continue this weird economic relationship unchanged if our financial system was democratic and major economic choices were on the ballot.  If for no other reason, China’s very Old World values about right to life, about women’s rights, human rights, rights for labor…that are very different from our own values in ways that create unease, to say the least, about the co-dependent relationship.

Our weird economic relationship with Beijing will continue to matter, continue to be up-front in the context of the ongoing debate over trade, budget deficits, government shutdowns, and so forth, though the news media is fairly terrible at bringing you that underpinning context.  So keep reading Nick’s Crusade blog.

 

I’ll end on an internet meme, a really old one, pre-2000, maybe one of the first such memes; it’s about goofin’ on Chairman Mao

 

 

Nick

 

Footnotes

1. this concept of “gender damage” was developed not by me but by Mary Louise Roberts, historian and French studies expert at UW-Madison, to describe what happened to French men following their devastating defeat in World War II, in her book What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France.  I’ll elaborate on this more in a future post.

2. “The U.S. trade deficit with China topped $30 billion for the first time [breaking the record in July 2013]” – China drives uptick in U.S. trade deficit – Eric Bradner – POLITICO.com

Living in Zomerica

Posted by – January 16, 2013

How I’ve Changed Since Moving to New York City

or…

Living in Zomerica

I started out and made my name as an activist in Alabama, where the left is deeply influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. I always spoke in the language of Biblical and moral imperatives, sometimes overtly, very much in the tradition of the Southern left, and I even had the chance to speak at Martin Luther King’s church in Montgomery (click for article and photo of that experience). I’m currently working on a memoir that details this part of my life, how I grew up in foggy South Alabama and became a successful activist.  It opens on my speech in Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.  So, from the beginning, I feel a gap between me and left politics nationally; I come from a vastly different place than most people involved in politics.

That gap is now a chasm. After I moved to New York City in August 2008, the economy went belly up, and I saw every aspect of the world change. New York City’s hospitals began to crumble in a serious way. Several important hospitals closed. The state rehab hospital I was stuck in until September 10th, 2009, will close in 2014 and the patients they don’t move to the new location in Harlem—probably around 2,000 people out in the cold (by my own math) because of less available space—will be screwed. Living in this facility, the fact that most of my fellow patients had no hope of ever getting out, that the system is never going to respond, that I got out due to LUCK, was very clear to me.

For a time in fall 2008, it seemed the bad actors that built an elaborate house of cards atop mortgage scams and derivatives fraud would face the consequences of their actions, and, after going through bankruptcy as their victims had to, would finally make way for a new generation of financial professionals who would re-build. Instead, the Democratic party-run Congress gave the bad actors trillions, so an awful system can continue to hurt the American people. Constituents went ballistic; naturally, calls and letters were 100-1 opposed to TARP. Initially it was voted down in the House, right-wingers from Texas had the most impassioned arguments against this shocking, bald-faced corporate welfare. Then Vice President Cheney swooped in, lobbyists and their millions came knocking, and TARP passed overwhelmingly. Former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson characterized this as a “quiet coup.” That corporate influence could override the will of the people, and so quickly, indicated to me that FDR’s nightmare, private entities becoming more powerful than the state, was here.

Unhappy events abroad have retaught us two simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group or by any other controlling private power.
The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way as to sustain an acceptable standard of living. Both lessons hit home. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.

— President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Simple Truths message to Congress (April 29, 1938)

I had always thought of government having enormous potential to be an instrument for all Americans, we the people, doing things together that we can’t do as individuals; after all, civil rights legislation triggered a tectonic shift in Alabama. But there I was, in a state hospital on the island in the East River named after FDR, realizing that everything had changed.  The U.S. experiment trying to have a democracy and unrestrained influence of plutocrats over elections simultaneously was over; the transformation into corporate state, by which I mean government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation, was complete. The corporate class has utterly monopolized the levers of power via campaign finance; government will not be an engine of good for the foreseeable future. This was a very difficult conclusion for me to come to, I want government to be a change agent, but the conclusion became unavoidable.

The state is such a marionette, it props up banks that were already exsanguinated by malfeasance and mismanagement; instead of shuttering dead banks, the marionette pumps in billions and billions, creating zombie banks. These zombie banks are a new and disturbing sight in America, insolvent and decayed, but remaining open thanks to government largesse.  They take deposits, but no longer function as banks in the traditional sense; they don’t do loans or extend lines of credit to small businesses, but they may eat other banks and turn them into zombie banks. TARP wasn’t temporary as promised. It’s still reanimating zombie banks, and since the continued aid isn’t reviving the banks, I wonder if the purpose isn’t simply funneling wealth upwards to the puppet masters, the banks’ primary role to be conduits.

We also have zombie financial firms, zombie real estate, zombie schools, zombie hospitals. Too many of us have become zomericans.

A few months after that, I applied for affordable housing. I got a rejection letter back about 60 days later. It said that the Section 8 list had been closed since 2006, and “your application has been destroyed.” Great feeling.
In the Fiscal Cliff Bill, Goldman Sachs got subsidized housing for their building in Manhattan (triple tax exempt, no local, state or federal taxes, plus they get Liberty Bonds, only supposed to be for WTC reconstruction). Not kidding. Even in a time of supposed austerity.  This alone has really changed my thinking. For details, see Naked Capitalism | Eight Corporate Subsidies in the Fiscal Cliff Bill

If it weren’t for a series of serendipitous and bizarre events that made it possible to move in with Alejandra (my partner), who has affordable housing through a different, local, program, I’d still be in the facility. I’ve lived here since September 10th 2009, in Lower Manhattan. I am bizarrely lucky, and know it. And I’m very grateful.

We live very close to Zuccotti, so we observed the Occupy Wall Street movement closely. Alejandra and I are part of the Occupy “disability caucus,” trying to bring disability issues to the attention of the wider movement. Just holding meetings where people with disabilities can talk openly about their predicament following the collapse of the economy has been very valuable; our concerns never see the light of day in media and political circles. And contrary to media portrayals, the old economic configuration is gone and never coming back.

Occupy Wall Street is a reaction to the economic system dying, its apparent murder via mismanagement, malfeasance and predation shoving it off the cliff. There’s no complex list of demands. It’s a protest of the crimes of the bad actors of Wall Street, the resulting collapse of the economy and the attendant suffering, and our political system’s inability to even see the problem. The Occupiers tend to be students or recent grads who bought into the American dream, got into debt pursuing advanced degrees, then realized the economy had capsized and there were no jobs with a living wage, much less jobs in their fields they expected would provide them desperately needed upward mobility and loan repayment. A lot of dreams shattered on the iceberg of the 2008 economic collapse. The concerns expressed by Occupy Wall Street are completely legitimate.

The response to Occupy by the NYPD, the FBI, the rest of our agencies was awful. It removed any doubt I had that we have a corporate state, because the security establishment (NYPD, FBI, etc.) responded to protests against the obviously harmful practices of corporations like Goldman Sachs as a direct attack on the state itself. Though it was called Occupy Wall Street, the NYPD never let the protesters get near Wall Street around the NYSE building; they cordoned off the area around it and sent a very clear and violent message whenever Occupiers tried——in non-violent marches—to get past the barricade. Several times, I saw Occupiers, by the thousands—amazingly strong numbers, cross in front of our building to get closer to Wall Street. The most violent responses from the NYPD came in these moments, that’s when the tear gas and rubber bullets came out, that’s when you have officers breaking heads and mounted police blocking streets with highly coordinated Roman-style formations. I learned a lot from this. It seemed very important to protect the people in and around the NYSE from even seeing the protests. They also—in the final weeks of the occupations in Lower Manhattan—had a new satellite-dish-looking technology that disabled cell phones, cameras, and other digital devices, so the more violent incidents couldn’t be photographed or documented in any way.

Both the NYPD and FBI have acknowledged the non-violence of Occupy Wall Street. The movement has hewed to Martin Luther King’s teachings of non-violent civil disobedience almost flawlessly. But simultaneously the FBI labeled it a terrorist group. Heavily censored FBI memos (released in response to a FOIA request, but not until the media lull between Christmas and New Year’s to reduce exposure) revealed a lot about the government response to Occupy. The JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) was deeply involved in monitoring the movement and writing memos about “the threat” to banks and other financial institutions; the memos’ tone treats the corporations like they’re the customers. Then there’s the infamous assassination memo, revealing the FBI knew an outside group in Texas planned to kill Occupy “leaders” with suppressed sniper rifles “if deemed necessary.” The memos provide a rare, disturbing look into the thinking of our security establishment, which, by the way, hasn’t lifted a finger to investigate ridiculously obvious malfeasance on Wall Street. For an excellent analysis of these memos, and links to the documents themselves, see: Naked Capitalism | Banks Deeply Involved in FBI-Coordinated Suppression of “Terrorist” Occupy Wall Street

A lot of things, especially the economy, have changed dramatically for the worse since autumn 2008. The system has decayed to a frightening degree. But it isn’t that I hate the rich. I don’t. And I don’t blame capitalism; capitalism at its best, when not corrupted beyond all recognition, encourages lower prices and better services through competition. Giant corporate welfare troughs like TARP and ObamaCare, requiring every American to buy health insurance from select companies, enshrining certain banks by name as “Too Big To Fail,” these things have nothing to do with capitalism. This is Mussolini-style corporatism. Corporatism is the problem. The segment of the corporate class that’s monopolized the Congress and executive branch with big money, the estimated .05% of Americans who max out at the legal limit for campaign contributions each year, these guys are the problem, not “the rich” writ large. As I document in a recent post, we’re now in the America of Congressman Bribo and the House of Bribasentatives. We’ve allowed a tiny, shadowy minority to monopolize the levers of power, which makes impossible the aim of our founding fathers, for, as Federalist No. 52 put it, a Congress “dependent upon the People alone.” (Source) Since we have allowed this, which isn’t a “conspiracy,” but rather total spinelessness and capitulation of our craven political class in the face of a corporate class that very openly pursues its self-interest with more and more sophisticated methods, we increasingly enter FDR’s nightmare, and the attendant “acceptable standard of living” problems that he mentioned.

My thinking has changed dramatically. Back in Alabama, surrounded by GOP wins in the 94% Soviet-range, I thought electing Democrats en masse would put us on a better path, or at least help a little via incremental reforms (I was always skeptical of the powerful). Now, I realize movements are everything. Now, the Left gets most of my resentment. They have capitulated and betrayed their own to such an extent, for so long, monstrosities like ObamaCare, which, at its core is $400 billion in subsidies to the dying private health insurance industry, are embraced as “liberal.” ObamaCare is not progressive; it takes us backward. It doesn’t address any of the Medicaid issues I have fought to bring to light over the years. Instead, it is almost solely about federal cash propping up zombie health insurance, as jobs increasingly no longer provide health insurance. We’ve entered an economy based on freelancing and short-term contracts, and I’m not saying that it is necessarily bad in-and-of-itself, but it’s the reality and instead of addressing the reality, ObamaCare addresses employer health insurance plans that are increasingly a relic of the 20th century economy. The economic configuration we grew up with is GONE. ObamaCare is like inventing a better 8-track player in 2012, there is a major disconnect from reality.

Ultimately there is no power to narcissistic, self-indulgent thinking. Authentic thinking originates with an encounter with the world.

— Abraham Joshua Heschel, in Ch. 5 of Who Is Man? (1965)

The disconnect between the liberal establishment and the realities for the rest of us has increasingly widened as the Left courts the same donors at the top of the corporate food chain, the .05%. That disconnect upsets me the most. It means they’re not encountering the world, not seeing the painful realities and unintended consequences of their policies. The hermetically-sealed bubble they live in is obvious when liberal pundits are baffled by protests. “Why are they protesting?” they ask, as debt, unemployment, and hunger reach unprecedented levels.

Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges presents overwhelming evidence of the Left’s “death.” Obama is particularly appalling. I felt some guarded optimism at first, but what faith I had that Obama would help quickly evaporated; I don’t see anything that this administration has done as great. The few times Obama admits there are serious problems under his administration of happy optimistic shiny wonderfulness, like when he did the Q&A on immigration on Univision, he acts powerless to lead, or even affect change in any of the federal agencies that answer to him. Has corporate influence neutered him that thoroughly?

Here are my own observations: I’ve never heard Obama say the words “poor” or “poor people.” There’s no connection to Martin Luther King’s legacy or his poor people’s campaign. The newspeak-esque language that’s used is always “middle class families,” or “working families,” which is not only bloodless and doesn’t acknowledge the suffering out there, but also sends the message “don’t worry corporate lobbyists, we only want to help families that work, not those pitiful lazy wretches who can’t find work.” Never is the disintegration of the family that’s happened in-tandem with economic disintegration mentioned. Though the homeless heavily dotted the streets of Washington DC in 2003 when I was there, and it must be exponentially worse post-collapse, Obama can’t find the strength to say the word “poor,” much less mention the homeless people he must pass in the presidential limousine.

The fact that the left media meekly pleads with Obama: The Nation | White House Meeting with Low-Income Americans? —Obama has not met meaningfully, not once, with poor people or anti-poverty activists (but the author still can’t say the P-word!) and Salon | Will Obama cave on Social Security? shows how far we’ve fallen.

The bubble seems so impenetrable, it’s looking like the Orwellian caste system: there’s the Inner Party: the 0.5%, the segment that controls the elections, the president, Congress, and the corporate class, then the Outer Party: the craven media, political parties, left and right organizations, universities, etc., who are recognizable by their eagerness to serve and provide cover to those within the Inner Party so they maintain the pillowy cocoon of economic safety during the present instability. Then, there’s everyone else. I’m reluctant to call us proles, since there’s still a lot of wealth in our ranks, even an upper-middle-class, but we don’t have much voice and the Outer and Inner Party aren’t very aware of our concerns.

The collapse of The Left is so complete that Mussolini-style corporatism is now the “center,” and pursued doggedly by the Obama and his administration of corporate courtiers. I now blame The Left more than the GOP, much more than the Tea Party, who are responding to the economic collapse and bailout culture same as Occupy. I wish Occupy and the Tea Party could band together and fight the bailouts that are continuing.

We need to look at HOW it got so bad. The corporate culture is suspect #1. It bombards us constantly like the TVs in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four you can never turn off. Turn that $#!T off. Too often, the messages coming through are “buy our newest product, and [subtext] buy this thing, it’s all you need to be happy! You don’t need community, church, a moral core, the Bible, etc etc etc.” The messages coming in via mass corporate culture are usually the exact opposite of the inherent value of human life, humans having inherent value and sanctity and dignity, instead, the only value lies in what you produce, your income, or how ruthless you are. Not to mention the pornification of everything; if I had a daughter, I would burn the TV. Several rabbis have pointed out, the dominant mass media culture is closer to the ancient Greek culture that glorified the body and beauty over everything else, than Jewish and Christian cultures that glorified spiritual and intellectual ability. The messages we’ve become acculturated with, have resulted in our loosening our grip on the moral imperatives we must hold fast to….

We’ve lost a lot. Movements which forced President Nixon to sign important legislation like the Clean Water Act, OSHA, etc., they’re gone now. The labor movement is mostly gone.
What do we need to do to fight back against corporate dominance, national decay, and the zombification of everything? First, we need a realistic assessment of where we are and how bad it’s gotten. Then, we have to, on the macro level, build new regional and national movements that articulate the concerns of the poor and disabled, in language that flows from the conscience and moral imperatives that can’t be denied. Only radical love can beat radical evil; I’m for radical love. Occupy Wall Street needs to come back into the streets, but much more is needed. We need the kind of movements that are so powerful, the corporate state has to respond, like Solidarity in 1980s Poland or Tahrir Square in Egypt. Movements are everything.

On the micro level, we must rebuild community. Americans have too often bought into the cult of the self, that if you just buy the new product, you don’t need others. We’ve been lulled into isolation, buying the idea that government will take care of those in need: the poor, the disabled, the elderly. Even when Medicare and Medicaid did provide for the material needs of people like me, which is less and less true today, there’s a need for social and spiritual connection. I myself really need community. We have to rebuild communities that provide those connections. Churches and synagogues need to be a part of this effort, and need to articulate the moral imperatives that give movements their power.

Here’s an example of the moral thinking movements need, from Catholic theologian Paul Tillich:

…When Augustine equates the Kingdom of God with the church and the Kingdom of Satan with the great world empires, he is partly right and partly wrong. He is right in asserting that in principle the church is the representative of the Kingdom of God; he is wrong in overlooking the fact…that the demonic powers can penetrate into the church itself, both in its doctrine and institutions. He is right to the extent in which he emphasizes the demonic element in every political structure of power

— Paul Tillich in Theology of Peace

…The technical development is irreversible and adjustment is necessary in every society, especially in a mass society. The person as a person can preserve himself only by a partial non-participation in the objectifying structures of technical society. But he can withdraw even partially only if he has a place to which to withdraw.

…It is the task of the Church, especially of its theology, to describe the place of withdrawal, mainly the “religious reservation.” It is the task of active groups within and on the boundary line of the Church to show the possibilities of attack, to participate in it wherever it is made and to be ready to lead it if necessary.

…Christian action must find a way to save the person in the industrial society.

— Paul Tillich, The Person in a Technical Society

We have to find the strength to build very new movements that articulate the reality the poor face. We can’t wait for a moribund Congress and Goldman Sachs-controlled presidency to do it. Without national renewal, we face national collapse.

Looking forward to your comments,

Nick

Recommended reading: The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler

The Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges

Feed your brain a long-form meal, not a sound-bite

World Trade Center, 2010

Posted by – September 14, 2010

WHAT DO WE WANT?

 (formerly "Freedom Tower")

Computer rendering of One World Trade Center


WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!

My 9/11 anniversary post is focusing on the new WTC towers in the works now. Click here for new photos of the construction.

We want that first tower up ASAP! (first dubbed the “Freedom Tower,” then changed back to the original “One World Trade Center” name, for what I think were specific marketing reasons).
It would be a wonderful thing aesthetically, economically, and amazing for morale here in Lower Manhattan and the U.S. in general. It’ll be a great day when we can finally say “enemies knocked it down and we rebuilt it right back even better!

The important WTC reconstruction is controlled by The Port Authority and lease-holder Silverstein Properties, Inc.. The numerous delays in the reconstruction have been caused by, fundamentally, the conflict between the market and government (Silverstein Properties, Inc., vs. the Port Authority). Silverstein doesn’t want to build any towers unless there’s market demand sufficient to make each one profitable (i.e. corporate anchor tenants who promise to occupy a good part of the building) whereas the Port Authority, a government agency immune from market pressures but under enormous political pressure to get towers built ASAP, just wants the WTC reconstruction completed for the public good, but sucks at getting things done because it’s an unwieldy bureaucracy run by committee. The process has been complicated by the acrimony between the parties; instead of just restating that he doesn’t have the necessary market demand, Mr. Silverstein has often sniped at the Port Authority (a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy trying to turn around an ocean liner and build skyscrapers makes a VERY easy target) and the Port Authority has often attacked Silverstein’s endless delays, even suing him for not beginning construction on every tower as he’d promised. The many snags in planning and financing the new towers (5/6 of them yet to be completed) have made the two sides look like petty, squabbling children, and the mayor and governor occasionally step in to make them play nice “or I’ll stop this car! I swear it! don’t you make me stop this car!”

This year, an “agreement” was reached that ceded complete control over One World Trade Center (“Freedom Tower”) construction and Tower Five construction to the Port Authority, in exchange for total control for Silverstein over the remaining 3 towers. The Port Authority now has One World Trade Center built to about a third of its expected height, with construction crews working 7 days a week. Silverstein Properties, Inc. began building 150 Greenwich Street (Tower Four) in earnest after the deal, and it’s rising quickly, similar to the new 7 World Trade Center that Silverstein completed in ’06, the first (and, so far, only) one rebuilt.

The construction on the other towers isn’t visible above ground level yet. According to Mr. Silverstein himself, Tower Two may not be in the cards in the foreseeable future; the new agreement calls for important underground parts to be finished, leveled off at street level and just left that way until Silverstein decides “market conditions” justify building Tower Two. Given the fact that owners of existing office buildings can’t sell their office space at current prices (almost 15% class-A commercial office space vacancy in Downtown Manhattan) and would rather suffer abnormally high vacancy rates than bring their rent prices down to sane, reasonable levels, the future looks bleak for the beautiful Tower Two design. Real estate moguls are already panicking that just the space added by One World Trade Center/Freedom Tower, expected completed in Q2 2013 and open for business in Q4 2013, will push the downtown vacancy rate for class-A office space to 20.6% (hat tip, New York Observer). That’s just Tower One, the impact of Tower Two is inconceivable for downtown money lords, who want prices to “recover” to the ridiculous heights seen during the last bubble. In short, the “invisible hand of the market” gives the finger to building Tower Two because of the manipulation of the INVISIBLE FIST; it doesn’t want any more vacant office space that could put downward pressure on rents and result in fairer prices. They want to keep supply low so rip-off prices can continue. I think that SUCKS. The Tower Two design is such a stunning, gorgeous centerpiece to the whole WTC block, an essential counter to the Statue of Liberty-inspired “Freedom Tower,” that I can’t imagine the WTC without it! See models and CGI renderings of it here. We need Tower Two!

From WTC.com:

WTC.com from WTC.com

The WTC site just doesn’t make sense without Tower Two. We need Tower Two! If people don’t want commercial office space, they could convert it to recreation space (a movie theater!) and/or a performing arts center and/or a hotel, or even apartments! it doesn’t have to be 100% office space! Lower Manhattan has great needs for more facilities and services; Tower Two should not be scrapped!

Speak out, comment below! Should the “invisible fist” decide? Or should government override “market conditions” and build the entire WTC site, all 5 planned new towers, as (awesomely) designed by Daniel Libeskind and David Childs?
Please comment!

Nick

PS
Here are some great links if you want to learn about the new WTC towers planned for construction.

WTC.com

LowerManhattan.info: World Trade Center Construction Updates

LowerManhattan.info: WTC Site East Side (Towers Two, Three and Four) Development Plan Finalized

Silverstein Properties’ project executive for Tower 4, Scott Thompson, explains the construction process

NY Times: World Trade Center Complex Rising Rapidly

NY1 Exclusive: Developer Says WTC Project To Be Complete In Five, Six Years (Includes Video)

WTC Silverstein Deal Finalized, Finally | The New York Observer

Financial Advice From Scrooge McDuck (1967)

Posted by – August 21, 2009

My friend Dan will love this.

In Scrooge McDuck’s first **named** appearance in a cartoon (his first actual appearance was in Spirit of ’43) he teaches Huey, Dewey and Louie about the economy, from the origins of the types of the currency to taxes to inflation, budgeting and investing.

It’s good stuff. Great primer on finance for all ages.

Available in HD.

(I notice in 1967, Scrooge’s budgeting pie didn’t include health care… hmmmm.)

Nick

More NYC Hospitals Lost To Economic Crisis

Posted by – April 26, 2009

from the NY Daily News: graffiti on the walls boarding up St. Johns Queens Hospital

from the NY Daily News: graffiti on the walls boarding up St. John's Hospital

New York City’s hospitals, already strained and overcrowded, are experiencing a spree of closings, felled by the economic crisis. St. John’s Queens Hospital and Mary Immaculate Hospital have gone bankrupt and boarded up the entrances.  This leaves Queens-dwellers with few options, and those few options in an awful overcrowding situation.

“It’s a real failure of government to set priorities and manage them properly,” Gioia said. “They throw up their hands when the money runs out and say, ‘What can we do?’ That’s not good enough.”

Mayor Bloomberg called the closures “sad” and said the city has to do more with less in these tough economic times.

“Having said that, there is no reason for us to … walk away from our basic functions of government,” he said, adding that the Fire Department will dispatch more ambulances in Queens and for other hospitals to fill the void.

Carlos Quiles, a nurse who lost his job at St. John’s, said the next best option for care in Queens is Elmhurst Hospital Center, which is already filled to capacity.

“I can’t understand the wisdom behind closing the hospitals,” he said. “The politicians clearly have no understanding of the ramifications.”

Source: NY Daily News: Councilman Eric Gioia rips hospital closings in Queens

That nurse is right, the politicians don’t get it. They’re not envisioning the overcrowding and wait times this will cause. I’ve never heard of a hospital here that isn’t packed, we’re already seeing ER wait times in excess of 8 hours in some of the city-run hospitals, and you suddenly remove nearly a thousand beds from the equation?? That’s really not gonna be pretty.

In Manhattan, Cabrini Medical Center had to close. There’s been lots of talk about that here in the hospital I live in, because we’ve taken in some of Cabrini’s refugee respiratory therapists. The gossip now is about which hospital is next in line at the guillotine (some say Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn won’t make it) and whether any of the doctors and nurses in my home hospital will be safe. “I don’t know if we’re safe,” my doctor said, sighing.

Nick

Public Rage At Banks And Bailout Expressed in New Laws

Posted by – April 22, 2009

Cartoon by John Darkow, The Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri

Cartoon by John Darkow, The Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri

Americans are fed up with banks double dipping off them, pulling down billions in bailouts from taxpayers, while also squeezing us with increased fees and interest.

The backlash is now being expressed in Congress:

BAILED OUT BANKS

U.S. banks that issue credit cards have received more than $120 billion in taxpayer funds since October, money the government has asked them to use to expand lending.

But with U.S. credit card defaults at record highs, lenders are trying to protect themselves by tightening credit limits and closing accounts, actions that have infuriated lawmakers and consumers, and even triggered an inquiry by the New York state attorney general.

U.S. lawmakers also angry that the same banks, such as Bank of America, Citi and Chase, with big credit card operations, charge excessive interest rates and fees while getting bailouts from taxpayers who use the cards.

Source: Reuters: U.S. lawmakers consider credit card reform proposals.

How far should Congress go?

Nick