Tag: wealth inequality

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

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.



Recommended resource

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

What Went Wrong In The Economy

I’ve had an email and a few message board posts asking me “what the…” is going on with the economy.  I’m not an economist (I was an English major) but I’m incredibly curious, and I read a lot.

Here’s my take:

A big part of this whole Wall Street collapse are something called “adjustable-rate mortgages” (ARMs).  Especially problematic are ARMs that “balloon” in cost two or three years down the line.  These mortgage companies sold this crap using the first few years’ “teaser rates” of 1% or 2% interest to lure in lots of new customers, many of whom didn’t read the fine print and didn’t see the 10% (or higher) price hike coming.  When so many borrowers couldn’t pay the ballooning interest, the house of cards fell down, taking the financial sector (and the world economy) down with it.

Yesterday I saw someone ask, “since interest rates have been low, why would anyone sell ARMs instead of fixed-rate mortgages?”  The answer has to do with projected revenues.  That is, these companies sold lots of “balloon” ARMs (mortgages that increase years later) so that they could bundle them into securities, go to Wall Street and brag about their securities’ “projected revenue,” which is a big part of what determines prices.
“Look!  In ’09, earnings on our securities will TRIPLE!!  BUY BUY BUY!!!”

A Dilbert cartoon from Dilbert.com
A Dilbert cartoon from Dilbert.com

Selling “balloon ARMs” was motivated by greed, and the market’s insatiable appetite for these mortgage-backed securities after Greenspan lowered interest during the post-9/11 slump, and thus the return on safe Treasury Bills, to 2%.  An unintended consequence of that was that it drove investors to desperately seek out another safe investment (with better return than 2%).  Pension funds, 401k managers, mutual funds, banking chains, investment banks and even New York City’s MTA, FLOCKED to mortgage-backed securities.  Moody’s rated them AAA!!  STRONG BUY!!  And hey, if something goes wrong, the losses were insured with credit default swaps from AIG!!   Why worry?  BUY BUY BUY!  Sell even more mortgages and create more and more and more securities to sell!  People made a fortune doing this.

Problem is, the “adjusted” rates led to THIS, too many mortgages defaulting.

Around 24% of subprime ARMs were delinquent in 2006… it’s likely much worse now.  The securities held up by these mortgages collapsed, becoming the “toxic assets” that are now all over the news and causing the economy to tank.   EPIC FAIL.

Yes, the Treasury Department is going to help finance the purchase of these worthless assets (congratulations, American taxpayer!)  The plan is to pull them off Corporate America’s balance sheets to try and keep the financial sector afloat.

But I think we’ve let the greedy elite build this particular Tower of Babel so high (a lot like Yertle the Turtle) that it crashing down is completely unavoidable, and we’re essentially screwed, no matter what the government does or doesn’t do.

What goes up, must come down.


Later this week in the “Nick’s Crusade” blog: federal regulators missed an awful lot of chicanery; what happened?

Observing The Economic Crisis First Hand

From everything I see in the media, it looks grim, like we’re deep into a Great Recession. There are bread lines of sorts forming at food banks, and charities send 18-wheelers to small towns whose sole employers have closed shop.  At the same time, states like Georgia have all but ended assistance to the poor (Georgia TANF recipients fell nearly 90 percent between January 2002 and November 2007, even as unemployment climbed 30 percent). The private health care system seems to be about over, as hospital closures force more Americans into the few public hospitals and federally-backed community health centers around, and the uninsured balloon to 86.7 million.  Meanwhile, the government is pushing a bank bailout plan that probably won’t work.

But what have you observed first hand? Is it bad where you are? How do you think the economic crisis will effect you? How do you think it will effect people with disabilities?  Will we be the first thrown under the bus, as was proposed in California?

Here’s what I’ve observed first-hand. In New York, one of the pillars of our economy is the financial sector, and it has collapsed.  The crisis has forced the state to cut services. A lot of people are upset about the state and city budget cuts; a protest at city hall 25,000-people-strong definitely made my girlfriend’s travel more interesting. At the hospital I currently live in, they are clamping down on expenses to ride out the cuts.  For fiscal year 08-09 there is a hiring freeze (which means when my favorite person on staff moved to Canada, they can’t replace her), they made it harder to get overtime, supply orders have been scaled back, the employee uniform stipend was cut to nearly nothing, and their customary free Thanksgiving turkeys were canceled (the latter two don’t bother me, as they never would’ve existed in Alabama anyway).  My doctor thinks that the South Campus ultimately won’t survive.  And the doctors and nurses are buzzing about the startling hospital closures in Queens and wondering who’s next.

Granted, I’ve not seen outside the hospital walls (and I’m eager to check out the city and report back) but so far, what I’ve seen first hand hasn’t been that bad.   Not compared to the effect of the devastating cuts that I saw first-hand in Alabama in the late ’90s and early ’00s, that actually caused deaths (when the economy was booming and services should have been increasing).   Is it bad where you are?

As odd as this sounds, I think there are possible upsides to global economic collapse.

The Upsides

With Wall Street cratering, many in the finance and related industries have left the city for higher ground, leading to an unprecedented situation: for once in Manhattan, apartment vacancies are up and rents are down.

Shopping habits have definitely shifted, the era of wanton excess being cool (that should’ve never happened) is finally behind us, and more businesses, desperate for customers, have stopped treating us like crap.  Nothing is devoid of upsides.

What have you witnessed first hand?


Providing A Soft, Pillowy Landing For Stupid CEOs?

AP: Economists see financial bailout as necessary


It’s hardly the soup kitchen for people at the very top.

The chairman of Lehman Brothers, Richard Fuld, still has his mansion in Greenwich, CT, his oceanfront estate on Jupiter Island in FL, and his Park Avenue co-op in Manhattan.

Many at Lehman blame Fuld for dallying while his investment bank went bust, taking risks with other people’s money while he cleared over $40 million in salary and stock in the last year alone.

Fuld could not be reached for comment by 20/20, but outside the Lehman offices this week, employees took glee in telling him off in pen on a portrait of Fuld.

“He made a lot of money and he lost a lot of money,” said Fox business news anchor Alexis Glick, “and he made dramatic mistakes, mistakes of the highest magnitude.”

Glick has been highly critical of Fuld, feeling the pain in a direct way. She has many friends at Lehman and her mother worked there for years.

“It’s just unbelievably shocking,” said Glick, speaking about the devastation felt by her family and friends. “So they’re crying, they’re sick, I mean guys have been telling me they’ve been throwing up because they just can’t stomach what has happened.”

Fuld isn’t the only top executive who remains well-off despite his firm’s collapse. Former Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz collected more than $38 million in salary and bonuses in the last three years for which figures are available, though he and Lehman executives also saw their net worths drastically plummet as stock values crashed. Bear Stearns was on the brink of financial ruin when JP Morgan Chase bought it in March.

Full article:
The Fall of the Gilded Age


Shouldn’t we wait until their CEO had to sell one of his three luxury homes before bailing out Lehman?

It really seems like we’re rewarding these guys instead of letting them naturally get picked clean and displaced by smarter competitors.

Obviously we do need to do something to restore confidence in our banking system. I recently overheard nurses talking about pulling their money out of banks and hiding it at home (1930s-style) for fear it’d disappear in a bank collapse. That’s how serious the problem is getting. I’m not saying do nothing. I don’t have an issue with helping out banks like IndyMac or Washington Mutual, but bailing out rich Wall Street investment firms seems a whole ‘nother animal.

The $700 Billion financial “bail out” bill seems to be all about providing a soft, pillowy landing for stupid decision-makers at taxpayer expense. They keep their three luxury homes, and we pay the price for their idiocy.

And articles like this only highlight the unfairness:

7. Do the Wall Street executives get to keep their bonuses?
The Bush Administration says it needs to encourage executives to get their cooperation, and that clamping down on their pay would only hurt their willingness to get on board. Critics in both parties say the threat of the executives’ firms going belly-up should ensure their cooperation regardless of what restrictions are placed on their once golden parachutes. Mounting pressure from constituents on Main Street is likely to mean there will be some cap on compensation associated with the bailout. But corporate America usually finds a way around such limitations, and there are even legal questions about what kind of restrictions can be placed on the firms’ compensation structures.

Full article: 7 Questions About the $700 Billion Bailout

If this disaster really requires $700 BILLION worth of government intervention, who is paying for it? My first instinct when corporations harm us, is TRUST-BUSTING! And this meltdown is a screw up of unprecedented magnitude, with harm to the public of historic proportions.

Where are the CONSEQUENCES for bad, stupid leadership?

Can anyone tell me why, as part of this bill, the Treasury Department isn’t seizing CEO yachts and mansions to pay for this debacle? Why is demanding real consequences worse than paying nearly one trillion ourselves? We’d rather foot the bill in their stead? WHY??

If these idiotic decisions by Wall Street have no real consequences, and the dumbasses responsible keep their three estates and golden parachutes, no real lessons have been learned, we’re basically incentivizing even more stupidity down the line.

And now Congress has weighed in. They are saying:

I’m not saying do nothing. But clearly we have to do something different. The original Paulson plan isn’t going to fly. We can’t afford a cushy deal for the uber-rich.


Inexorable Cycle of History?

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” —
Ecclesiastes 1:9-14

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Are the events shaping the U.S. just a part of an inexorable repeating cycle of history?

In the 1920s the wealth inequality grew to the point where only a select few were comfortable, and then with the drought and widespread agricultural failures (and a myriad of very debatable factors), the American economy collapsed, and there was a certain natural resetting of wealth, and then the boom years following WWII created the modern middle class.

Now since the 1990s we’re experiencing a mini-Gilded Age. The Golden 300,000 control our politics lock, stock and barrel. Robber barons seem to be back, and according to all the studies wealth inequality is worse than at any time since the 1920s, and resentment of the rich and demand for change is higher than at any time since then as well (check out this new Gallup poll).

Inequality is very bad; the prophets rail against it. Inequality caused a mob of hungry French women to storm Versailles and put two Royal bodyguards’ heads on pikes. Inequality caused the bloody railroad strikes of 1877, when state troops broke the strike with bayonets and Gatling guns.

My question is: is the consolidation of wealth until the poor can no longer afford to buy products from the tycoons (though I know it’s more complex), then economic collapse results, then we restart the cycle–is this just the unstoppable track history is on?

Given this cycle of a major economic depression every 100 yeahs or so, should we expect a collapse around the 2020s? Because of the staggering level of personal debt in this country, combined with our insane trade deficits, it doesn’t exactly take Nostradamus to predict that we’re one more straw on the camel’s back (drought, terrorism, global downturn) away from falling off the economic cliff into a major collapse.

Can we ever stop this cycle?

Other things are also so similar and seem stuck on the 100 year cycle as well. The polarization, the razor-thin (possibly stolen) elections, the money dominating politics, the imperialism defining the dawn of the 20th century is eerily similar to Bush’s that defined the beginning of the 21st.

Back then they waved the bloody shirt and shouted “Remember the Maine!” to justify the Spanish-American War (which was also expansionist and directly or indirectly to benefit corporate America).
Now politicians wave the bloody shirt and yell “Remember 9/11!” and “you haven’t learned the lessons of 9/11!” to justify our current wars.

It’s so similar. We racked up just under 3,300 KIA in the Spanish-American War too. And President McKinley may’ve been motivated by religious fervor as well. And Karl Rove cited McKinley as a model to follow.

Is this just an unstoppable cycle? Can we ever jump the tracks?


A Philadelphia Press political cartoon “Ten Thousand Miles From Tip to Tip” meaning the extension of U.S. domination (symbolized by a bald eagle) from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. The cartoon contrasts this with a map of the smaller United States of 100 years earlier in 1798.

Amos Shoves G-d’s Social Justice Message In Your Face

Amos Shoves G-d’s Social Justice Message In Your Face

Nick’s Commentary on the Book of Amos

All my life, I’ve had this yearning to repair the world and set right the injustices it is replete with. This drive has burned within me and spurred me to act and become an activist.

As I study scripture, I am increasingly aware that this inner voice demanding justice is inseparable from the outer voice of the prophets demanding justice, inseparable from the Jewish tradition.

I recently read the Book of Amos. As it is only nine brief chapters, it was a quick read. Everyone should read it, because its message is so central and so necessary for our current struggles; in his polemic against the status quo, Amos attacks economic inequality almost-exclusively, and regards greed as closely associated with idolatry.

I’ll quote from it heavily as I give you a run-down.

Amos Chapter 2

6. So said the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, yea for four, I will not return them; For selling an innocent man for money, and (selling) a poor man in exchange for shoes.

Here Amos is attacking decadence. The children of Israel in the latest fashions of Gucci and Manolo Blahnik I’m sure. But the key phrase here is “selling a poor man” in exchange for shoes. G-d is saying you are selling the needs of the poor down the river for the sake of luxuries. If you are consuming extravagantly, you are inherently stealing. Whenever you have too much, someone else doesn’t have enough.

As it was written in Proverbs: “Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss. (Proverbs 22:16)

And as it is taught in the Talmud: “If a person closes his eyes to avoid giving [any] charity, it is as if he committed idolatry.” (Ketubot 68a)

But back to Amos…

7. Who aspire on the dust of the earth concerning the head of the poor, and they pervert the way of the humble, and a man and his father go to the maid, in order to profane My Holy Name.

Injustice against the poor is mentioned beside sexual immorality.

8. And they recline on pledged garments beside every altar, and the wine of the fined ones they drink in the house of their gods.
G-d is attacking excessive consumption, and it is very linked to idolatry. People are reclining on expensive garments that have been pledged to idols and drinking wine dedicated to idols, in houses devoted to idols.

9. And I destroyed the Amorites from before them, whose height is as the height of the cedar trees, and they are as strong as oaks, and I destroyed his fruit from above and his roots from below.
Hashem destroyed the Amorites / Canaanites because of idolatry, and gave the land to Israel. He’s saying “the Amorites were mighty as cedars and I cut them down; what, you think I won’t do the same to your weak ass if you follow in their idolatrous footsteps?”

10. And I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and I led you in the desert for forty years, to inherit the land of the Amorites.

11. And I raised up some of your sons as prophets and some of your young men as Nazirites; is this not true, O children of Israel?” says the Lord.

Hashem is like “what, the Exodus wasn’t enough for you ungrateful bastards?”

Moving on…a longer block of text…

Book of Amos, chapter 5:

10. They hated him who reproves them in the gate, and they despise him who speaks uprightly.

11. Therefore, because you have trodden on the poor, and the burden of grain you take from him, houses of hewn stone you have built but you shall not dwell therein, precious vineyards you have planted, but you shall not drink their wine.

12. For I know that your transgressions are many, and your sins are mighty; you who oppress the just, taking ransom, and turning aside the needy in the gate.

13. Therefore, the prudent at that time shall keep silent, for it is a time of evil.

14. Seek good and not evil in order that you live, and so the Lord God of Hosts shall be with you, as you said.

15. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; perhaps the Lord God of Hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

16. Therefore, so said the Lord God of Hosts, the Lord: In all the city squares lamentation, and in all streets they shall say, “Alas! Alas!” and they shall meet the plowman with mourning and lamentation with those who know to wail.

17. And in all vineyards [there shall be] lamentation, for I will pass in your midst, said the Lord.

18. Woe to those who desire the day of the Lord. Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light.

19. As if a man flees from the lion and the bear meets him, and he comes to the house and leans his hand on the wall, and a serpent bites him.

20. Is not the day of the Lord darkness and not light, even very dark, with no brightness in it.

21. I hate, I reject your festivals, and I will not smell [the sacrifices of] your assemblies.

22. For if you offer up to Me burnt- offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept [them], and the peace offerings of your fattened cattle I will not regard.

23. Take away from Me the din of your songs, and the music of your lutes I will not hear.

24. And justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

25. Did you offer Me sacrifices and meal-offerings in the desert forty years, O house of Israel?

26. And you shall carry Siccuth your king and Chiun your images, Kochav your god, which you have made for yourselves.

27. And I will exile you beyond Damascus, said He Whose Name is the Lord God of Hosts.

That’s right!! Amos is all “you spend on sandals and wine, and shove the poor aside from your gate. Hashem will be sending various plagues momentarily. Pwnage will flow like water. A reckoning is coming, and it will not be pretty for those who oppress the poor and venerate the image.”

The greedy and unjust are told where to jam it.

Activists for justice throughout American history, particularly those in the abolitionist and civil rights movements, have drawn heavily on the themes of Amos and the social prophets. Martin Luther King frequently quoted “justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream,” in his speeches, which emphasized the “day of reckoning” promised by the prophets.

In his new book The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy in the American Voice, Greil Marcus argues this tradition of calling Americans to account, challenging them to live up to their ideals and warning them if they do not, has become a unique “American Voice,” spoken by Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and even Bob Dylan. He’s right. But of course, the source of this voice of justice is the Hebrew Bible. Amos and the social prophets, especially when contrasted with ancient stories of the time, called out a radical change in the human narrative that has changed the world.

“A day of reckoning,” means evil and unjust practices cannot continue;
they are inherently illegitimate and will collapse from their own decay. Justice cannot be avoided. Prophets like Amos were sent to remind Israel not only that they must live up to their covenant, but that a living G-d will never forget the lost and oppressed. This is piece of LIVING TORAH brought down from Sinai by Amos. Living Torah means it is functional and applicable TODAY. Amos came to say Hashem will enforce Deut. 15:7-8, Exodus 22:21, and more, don’t think He ain’t ALL over this.

He is telling us:

Book of Amos, chapter 6:

4. Those who lie on couches of ivory and stretch out on their beds, and eat lambs of the flock and calves out of the stall.

5. Who sing according to the tone of the lute. They thought that their musical instruments were like [those of] David.

6. Who drink from basins of wine, and with the first oils they anoint themselves, and they feel no pain concerning the destruction of Joseph.

7. Therefore, now they shall go into exile at the head of the exiles, and the banquet of the haughty shall pass away.

The greedy will be removed from power.

And THE LIVING TORAH means HE is talking to all the fat cats and classist assclowns TODAY. No just in freakin’ 750 BCE, but 2007, and Hashem is confronting us. This isn’t some mushy, lovey dovey stuff, Hashem is being as confrontational and in your face as possible.

At Spring Hill College, Dr. Wilson would often emphasize that scripture is radical, and doesn’t line up at all with dispassionate, “civic religion” (people going to services as a kind of civic duty to listen to stale, non-confrontational sermons and still live their lives like everyone else). I’m not a Christian obviously, but Wilson was dead-on with that point.

How could anyone read Amos, and they not see how hardcore G-d is about the needs of the poor? How can it not dramatically change them?

Book of Amos, chapter 8:

4. Hearken to this, you who swallow up the needy, and to cut off the poor of the land.

5. Saying, “When will the month be delayed, so that we will sell grain, and the Sabbatical Year, so that we will open [our stores of] grain, to make the ephah smaller and to make the shekel larger, and to pervert deceitful scales.

6. To purchase the poor with money, and the needy in order to inherit them, and the refuse of the grain we will sell.”

7. The Lord swore by the pride of Jacob: I will never forget any of their deeds.

Amos shoves Hashem’s social justice message in your eye!


WOE UNTO YOU WHO VOTE FOR POLICIES THAT TRAMPLE THE WEAK AND THE POOR and think “oh, someone else will stand up for the poor.”

NO, HASHEM SAYS YOU MUST. A reckoning will come! As MLK quoted, “justice shall flow like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream!”

IT’S NOW 2007!

We are commanded to live up to our promise. In the recent Torah portions, we see the Jews living in slavery after they’ve sold their brother Joseph into slavery, and we see their path to redemption begin when the midwives refuse to kill the Jewish newborns because their allegiance is to G-d, not Pharaoh. We see from this that bringing holiness into their behavior is a choice, and one that had incredible ramifications.

It’s no less-so today.

Choose righteousness. Give tzedekah (charity) for example, but perhaps more importantly, STAND UP FOR THE POOR AND DISABLED in the public square as our rights and funding we depend on are continually attacked by politicians. The Academy of Sciences Reported that about 18,000 people die each year as a result of not having insurance. 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty. In the richest country in the world, that is unacceptable.

This cannot stand.

We must do the right thing. Redemption is a choice.

Make sure your loyalty is to something Greater than yourself, and something more than the next Pharaoh on his way to the dustbin of history.

As Amos taught us, a day of reckoning will come, injustice must be removed….



1. Amos illustration by Gustave Doré

Growing Backlash Against Inequality

Growing Backlash Against Inequality

Jim Webb Tackles The Problem of Inequality

In my last post, I talked about how Alabama shows that the lowest taxes don’t translate into the most wealth; we are one of the poorest states and at the bottom of nearly every category, nearly third-world. The huge, largely untaxed wealth at the top doesn’t trickle down, and we’re heading toward something anathema to our founding founders: a nation of poor, ruled by a few elites.

As real wages stagnate and costs rise, more Americans are being squeezed down out of the middle class. Over the past 30 years poverty has grown and the American way of life is eroding. While Rush Limbaugh roars about how great the economy is doing, entire towns have been abandoned in the Midwest “Rust Belt,” as their manufacturing jobs were outsourced to Asia. College graduates have more debt than ever and fewer jobs than ever. Life is incredibly hard for a lot of people, and, morally, we cannot close our eyes to this. With much of the manufacturing sector liquidated and sent overseas and many communities left wondering how to eke out a living, Republican arguments about the stock market and giveaways to corporations rang hollow. Lou Dobbs has been one of the few media people talking about these issues, and has been a Howard Beale-esque voice of the growing protectionist backlash against towns without jobs and unchecked corporate misrule. In 2004, John Edwards ran on a message about American policy valuing work over unearned wealth, and the growing gap between “two Americas,” and now he is working to fight poverty through his center at the University of North Carolina. This year, many candidates won on similar message, and Jim Webb in Virginia was one of them.

He wrote a piece that lays out the arguments and statistics well and explains the problem of growing inequality better than I can.

Here is his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed:

Class Struggle
American workers have a chance to be heard.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

The most important–and unfortunately the least debated–issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America’s top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.

Incestuous corporate boards regularly approve compensation packages for chief executives and others that are out of logic’s range. As this newspaper has reported, the average CEO of a sizeable corporation makes more than $10 million a year, while the minimum wage for workers amounts to about $10,000 a year, and has not been raised in nearly a decade. When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much.

In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future. Trickle-down economics didn’t happen. Despite the vaunted all-time highs of the stock market, wages and salaries are at all-time lows as a percentage of the national wealth. At the same time, medical costs have risen 73% in the last six years alone. Half of that increase comes from wage-earners’ pockets rather than from insurance, and 47 million Americans have no medical insurance at all.

Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Many earned pension programs have collapsed in the wake of corporate “reorganization.” And workers’ ability to negotiate their futures has been eviscerated by the twin threats of modern corporate America: If they complain too loudly, their jobs might either be outsourced overseas or given to illegal immigrants.

This ever-widening divide is too often ignored or downplayed by its beneficiaries. A sense of entitlement has set in among elites, bordering on hubris. When I raised this issue with corporate leaders during the recent political campaign, I was met repeatedly with denials, and, from some, an overt lack of concern for those who are falling behind. A troubling arrogance is in the air among the nation’s most fortunate. Some shrug off large-scale economic and social dislocations as the inevitable byproducts of the “rough road of capitalism.” Others claim that it’s the fault of the worker or the public education system, that the average American is simply not up to the international challenge, that our education system fails us, or that our workers have become spoiled by old notions of corporate paternalism.

Still others have gone so far as to argue that these divisions are the natural results of a competitive society. Furthermore, an unspoken insinuation seems to be inundating our national debate: Certain immigrant groups have the “right genetics” and thus are natural entrants to the “overclass,” while others, as well as those who come from stock that has been here for 200 years and have not made it to the top, simply don’t possess the necessary attributes.

Most Americans reject such notions. But the true challenge is for everyone to understand that the current economic divisions in society are harmful to our future. It should be the first order of business for the new Congress to begin addressing these divisions, and to work to bring true fairness back to economic life. Workers already understand this, as they see stagnant wages and disappearing jobs.

America’s elites need to understand this reality in terms of their own self-interest. A recent survey in the Economist warned that globalization was affecting the U.S. differently than other “First World” nations, and that white-collar jobs were in as much danger as the blue-collar positions which have thus far been ravaged by outsourcing and illegal immigration. That survey then warned that “unless a solution is found to sluggish real wages and rising inequality, there is a serious risk of a protectionist backlash” in America that would take us away from what they view to be the “biggest economic stimulus in world history.”

More troubling is this: If it remains unchecked, this bifurcation of opportunities and advantages along class lines has the potential to bring a period of political unrest. Up to now, most American workers have simply been worried about their job prospects. Once they understand that there are (and were) clear alternatives to the policies that have dislocated careers and altered futures, they will demand more accountability from the leaders who have failed to protect their interests. The “Wal-Marting” of cheap consumer products brought in from places like China, and the easy money from low-interest home mortgage refinancing, have softened the blows in recent years. But the balance point is tipping in both cases, away from the consumer and away from our national interest.

The politics of the Karl Rove era were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life. Working Americans have been repeatedly seduced at the polls by emotional issues such as the predictable mantra of “God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag” while their way of life shifted ineluctably beneath their feet. But this election cycle showed an electorate that intends to hold government leaders accountable for allowing every American a fair opportunity to succeed.

With this new Congress, and heading into an important presidential election in 2008, American workers have a chance to be heard in ways that have eluded them for more than a decade. Nothing is more important for the health of our society than to grant them the validity of their concerns. And our government leaders have no greater duty than to confront the growing unfairness in this age of globalization.

Mr. Webb is the Democratic senator-elect from Virginia.