Thursday, April 2, 2009

Local Orientation

Back from the dead to talk about our future, local orientation. It's not a very catchy title, I'll give you that, but it speaks to the heart of our current problems and what we can do to fix them. Currently, we have a corporatized community. It is international, motivated solely by profit and horribly unequal. But that's a big big big issue so today let's just talk about the banks. After all, they are the ones walking away with billions in bailout cash. 

There has been a lot of talk about nationalization of the banks or at least a type of trustbusting, breaking these behemoths up into smaller entities to ensure competitiveness. This post at Tiny Revolution proposes a grassroots initiative to serve as a catalyst for this effort. In short, take your money out of Bank of America and Citigroup and put it into your local non-conglomerate bank. Sounds simple enough, but as I mentioned in my comment on the post, small efforts at change that attempt to alter the power balance of a system without actually changing its design are ultimately fruitless endeavors. In order to effect a change that would provide a more equitable system, you need to focus energy at the fundamentals of that system. 

This is where local orientation comes in. Communities that are locally oriented are those that have achieved a high level of responsiveness to the needs of its members and the environment in which it is situated. That is to say, communities that produce their own food (not necessarily all of it, but a good deal), manage their own natural resources (e.g. water usage) and provide for their own economy (banking), are more apt and capable to provide equitable living standards and more capable of making environmentally responsible decisions. Most importantly this doesn't involve isolation from one community to another, but rather, with technology being what it is, communities can be interlinked and interrelated. The current corporate driven economic model is incapable of doing this as it is founded on principles of production that are completely at odds with our environmental reality (i.e. we don't have an unlimited amount of natural resources, See: Ecosocialism, many thanks to Bassem for sharing it). 

The great thing is (in the United States at least) that many local communities have the necessary power to take back their communities and make them more self-sufficient. Regardless, this is a very big idea and small steps must be taken to advance us toward a more responsive government (which I shouldn't need to tell you is a MAJOR problem in present day America) and more equitable society. One such effort is called A New Way Forward, a rally movement that is calling for a break up of the big banks that are "too big to fail". Ralph Nader wrote recently of his encounter with a small-scale Indiana banker who said, "If these big companies are too big to fail, then they're too big!" 

Here's to hoping we can transform that sentiment into a widely accepted belief.  

Old Major

Friday, March 20, 2009

Doing Nothing is a Costly Business

It has been awhile since my last post. I've been ruminating on this topic for almost a week. Unfortunately, though I tried to prevent it, this piece is a bit rambling. Enjoy!

I have spent most of my time, recently, reading critiques of the current attempts by the United States to stem the hemorrhaging in its financial system. While the critiques take aim at the American actions specifically, it is easy to extrapolate the various authors' condemnation to all Western countries. Succinctly stated, the argument is as follows: The bailouts represent a reorganization of wealth - the greatest concentration of capital power in our lifetime. This got me thinking about our (the average folks) response to this amassing of the world's wealth into the hands of so few. So what are we doing while a few people reorganize the world's wealth? Nothing. And why is that? Because we don't know what's going on.

As one of my professors put it recently, "Capitalism is about choice, the choice to sell your labor for the highest price possible." We have bought in, hook, line and sinker, to this fallacy that Capitalism and Freedom go hand in hand. The choice that is supposedly at the heart of Capitalist system is illusory, Capitalism is inherently biased in favor of capital over labor (hence the name I suppose). You don't really "choose" to sell your labor, because you have to sell it. Anyone reading this knows that they cannot simply choose to withdraw their labor from the market as a negotiation tactic to illicit a better wage. The company will simply hire someone else willing to work for the salary being offered. On the other hand, the company can withdraw from the labor market whenever it is in their best interest to do so. You don't have to hold a PhD in Economics to know that when the economy is in trouble the first thing a company does is fire the workforce. Assembly line workers (those few remaining in the U.S.) and middle management alike get shunted aside to protect share price and the lifestyle of the corporation's executives. And this is no coincidence, it correlates perfectly to the decline in the percentage of American workers who are unionized. In the 1950's, that same decade when the top marginal tax rate in the U.S. was 91%, 35% of the American workforce was unionized. Today that number is down to 8%.

Meanwhile, since the 1970's the US (and in many ways the world) economy has become a marketplace of credit and speculation - the production of money for money's sake. Less and less has been manufactured in the United States and has thus become, increasingly, reliant on people consuming on credit. The top twenty percent of U.S. households control 84% of America's wealth and that wealth has to go somewhere; Capitalism relies on that surplus value to be reinvested. So the banking industry has created ever riskier investment opportunities like the CDOs and credit default swaps that ended up destroying the world economy.

The U.S. government has committed to spending $9.9 trillion dollars having expended $2.2 already. So where has most of this money gone? To people facing foreclosure on their homes? Nope. It's gone to the banks and lending institutions that were, "to big to fail". That's right, the American government, in a complete violation of Capitalism's own "free" market principles, just bailed out institutions that were an instrumental part of the economic meltdown while simultaneously ignoring the plight of the individual tax payer with whose money and in whose name the bailout was executed. This is a swindle of monumental proportions. You, your friends and family have lost their job, health insurance, retirement nest-egg, and possibly their house, and the bankers have walked away with bonuses and even greater strength.

The conservative drone bots which suck up the air on cable news and talk radio have incessantly bleated their message of Obama = Socialism (read: Totalitarianism). No need to worry Mr. Limbaugh, all is well on Wall Street, as Mr. Obama is either unable or (more likely) unwilling to apply the brakes to the unhinged locomotive of unrestricted Capitalism. However, as with almost all things, there is a bright side. We have an opportunity to challenge the exisitng power structure that has attempted to comoditize life itself with awesome and terrifying effiiciency. The first step is to accept that with an ever globalizing society, this is a world wide challenge like that of climate change or population control. Whether we like it or not, the American financial system was the engine of the world economy and has managed to shape the principles of the global economic system in its own image. That image is one of a pyschopath who shows a complete disregaurd for anything but profit. We have no choice but to, collectively, rehumanize our societies. This begins with more powerful communities and a stronger more unified labor force. A grassroots movement to reclaim the rights we have fought for and then neglected is all that separates us from becoming further trapped by the present system.

Stay tuned for the next, more organized, installment.
For the time being here are some resources:

The Corporation (a must see movie):
A brilliant economist makes his argument for the future:


Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Changing of the Guard at the Gates of the Fourth Estate

A tiny storm has swept the world of basic cable. Buffoonish stock picker Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money was called out by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show as being symbolic of the business news community’s failure to report on the machinations of Wall Street in the recent economic unravelling. Stewart, who has criticized hack punditry before (See Jon Stewart’s appearance on the now-defunct CNN show Crossfire) first chastised CNBC after one of their commentators, Rick Santelli, referred to defaulting homeowners as “losers” live, on the air, from the floor of the Chicago mercantile exchange (Santelli was slated to appear that night on the Daily Show, but allegedly backed out under pressure from CNBC executives) Stewart went to town on the business “news” network, a humbling worthy of your time and probably one of those odd cable television awards.

Jim Cramer, who is the subject of a great deal of the Daily Show evisceration, took the bit particularly hard. In response CNBC sent Cramer on a NBC tour, in which he showed up on at least two of the conglomerate’s other networks (NBC and MSNBC). Judging by his defeated demeanor during this media tour it is likely that the plan was devised without his input. Jim may not have known what he was in for, but NBC should have. Other networks picked up the story, and in response to Cramer’s griping across the basic cable band, Stewart did a second segment targeting him specifically. How did Cramer respond? By agreeing to be a guest on Stewart’s show.

I give Cramer credit for taking his lumps straight up, but he didn’t challenge Stewart in any significant way on any point. Perhaps he couldn’t, because there really wasn’t any good excuse for his actions or that of his network. Cramer’s evisceration at the hands of Stewart was so fierce (watch the unedited version here) Jim may lose his audience and his show. I suppose Cramer was hoping to come on, get a few raps on the wrist and be let off with a warning. But brother this ain’t a US federal court with its propensity toward leniency in “white collared” crime cases. And, as Jim was soon to discover, this wasn’t the pathetic hollowed-out shell known as mainstream media who masquerade as professional news organizations. No sir. This was one of the few surviving members of that endangered species once respectfully referred to as the fourth estate.

The Fourth Estate was the name given to newspapers by the statesman Edmund Burke. In years since the title has come to represent the media’s role and sacred duty to protect the public interest, to report the facts and expose the truth. However, through the ever widening scope of capitalism, media has entered the marketplace to be bought and sold, merged and acquired. This was always a slippery slope, entrusting a vital resource of democracy to a group principally concerned with profit and nothing else. Now we have begun to harvest the consequences.

On many occasions Jon Stewart has highlighted the complete absurdity of his show’s position in the world of news. The Daily Show is, after all, a spoof, or at least it was supposed to be. Instead, it has come to fill the void in a world awash in news programs that report nothing beyond what their corporate sponsors will permit. There are a few others who also carry the banner of decency in journalism, though they are few and far between. These include Seymour Hersh and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! Nevertheless, this general absence of journalistic standards has left the American public ignorant and susceptible to the most flagrant abuses of power (See the Presidency of George W. Bush and the theft committed by Wall Street). Oh how the news has abandoned us! Where were they in the lead up to the Iraq war? Cheerleading the invasion. Where were they while frauds were repeatedly perpetrated by Wall Street? Gagged by the corporate barons that own them. Corporate stewardship of mass media has run the ship aground destroying its credibility with respect to content and bias. Now its relentless profit seeking threatens the last vestige of traditional mass media’s journalistic integrity – the newspaper.

Sure, American’s read less now than perhaps ever before and those who do read newspapers do so online rather than in print. However, the death of the paper on newsstands will soon lead to its demise online where it continues to struggle to find a role amid the mass of dis/information. And when the papers are no longer the home of respectable journalism, where will most people turn for information? They will turn to TV. In that barren wasteland of commercialized, bite-sized and eroticized data they will have to search, nay, excavate for something they can plausibly refer to as legitimate. Good luck. As the late David Foster Wallace discusses at length in his essay E Unibus Pluram (which I won’t elaborate on in great detail, though I suggest you read it), TV programs recognize their inherent trickery and dishonesty and so does the audience watching them. Can this be the best forum for reporting truth and fact? In between car commercials and ads hawking cures for the very insecurities this medium has helped to create? No, of course not, but here we are.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the nation without a meaningful public broadcasting outlet is also one in which the political system is home to legal, institutionalized bribery. I’m sorry you must be confused; I’m referring to what are known as campaign contributions. The buying of votes has led the United States to become a form of semi-democracy in which citizens elect impotent politicians who are unable to fulfill on their promise of promoting the people’s interest. America has effectively deregulated and privatized itself into a corporatized brand state where a citizen is likely to get more for their money by supporting their favorite company than by voting for their preferred candidate. After all, why deal with the bagman when you could talk to the Don?

But hope is not dead and in that vast universe we call the Internet there are opportunities to continue the tradition begun by newspapers and even to expand its reach. The Internet has transformed our ability to track and compile information making it increasingly difficult for CEOs and politicians to change the story and rewrite history. Furthermore, the web has provided an outlet for whistle blowers and citizen activists to contribute directly to the shared body of knowledge and to report on the actions of governments and corporations alike. These individuals are motivated not by compensation, but by a belief in justice and accountability (See Though access is not yet universal, the Internet is a truly democratic tool and an opportunity to preserve and protect the fourth estate. We can no longer rely on so-called professional journalists to protect our interests, the responsibility is ours and the time is now.

~Old Major

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Second Comings, Second Chances

This week US lawmakers are busy creating their own version of President Obama's budget. The news emerging from the various committee meetings is disheartening to say the least. What is most distressing is that the rewrites suggest that Washington is still home, even in the face of a crisis so severe it is compared with the Great Depression, to status quo thinking. In yesterday's New York Times an article dissecting the budget negotiation process in Congress included the following comment:
The apparent first casualty is a big one: a proposal to limit tax deductions for the wealthiest 1.2 percent of taxpayers. Mr. Obama says the plan would produce $318 billion over the next decade as a down payment for overhauling health care. But the chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees, Senator Max Baucus of Montana and Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, have objected to the proposal, citing a potential drop in tax-deductible gifts to charities.
Tax write offs are a huge loophole through which the most wealthy individuals avoid paying their fair share. The suggestion that the whole proposal be scrapped because of a possible decrease in charitable giving is ludicrous. A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests that the total decrease in charitable contributions will be 1.3% and that the offset in healthcare savings would surely be a significant upside for many charities and Americans in general.

Also from yesterday's Times was this article on the decline in conspicuous spending by well-to-do Americans. The article is rather disturbing when one considers that these folks continue to have absolutely no idea just how well off they are. That the thrift trend may be short-lived and that old habits will reemerge once the economy rebounds was the most insightful observation made by an interviewee. The interviewee offered that this was perhaps a cynical perspective. I'd like to reassure her that her heads in the right place - it's better to be skeptical about these sorts of things. What occurred to me when reading this article and in light of this interviewee's insightful skepticism was the fact that there should be less concern for which period of the economic cycle we currently find ourselves in and more for the system itself. From the Times:
As many economists have noted, cutting spending is the worst thing people with means can do for the economy right now. But that argument seems to have little traction, especially because even those with steady paychecks and no fear of losing their job have seen their net worth decline and their retirement savings evaporate.
Can we stop for a moment and consider that this system, the one that needs you to spend even when it is against your interest to do so, is broken? An economic system that thrives on spending for spending's sake is as dangerous as it is morally and ethically bankrupt.

The one upside to the sentiments captured in this article is that such a focus on savings and responsibility, especially among the affluent, may once again lead us back down the prudent path, propelled by reform, toward greater equality. As the Times article mentions, the Great Depression led Americans to adopt a more savings oriented mindset. Granted it didn't last forever, but during that period of sustained crisis the United States enacted substantial reforms that protected future generations of Americans from economic upheavals. These acts, FDR's New Deal, constituted a step forward and a society's commitment to provide all its members with a more even playing field and a set of basic economic rights and opportunities. The current crisis may be a new opportunity to enact monumental legislation, a second chance to create a more equitable society.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Future Looks...Childish

This past weekend the American Conservative Union held the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), its annual jamboree. After watching the young man in the above video, Jonathan Krohn, deliver a two minute speech on the "principles of conservatism" I found myself asking a very simple question, "is this the future of the Conservative movement in America?" I couldn't believe what I was seeing, a room full of middle-aged conservatives cheering a 13 year-old as he expounded on the merits of the conservative ideology. Granted, he wrote a book on the subject and would be very articulate were he a 30 year old, let alone a boy of 13.

Jon took special care to create the distinction that conservatism is not about politics or the Republican Party, but rather, about principles. In fact, he sees conservatism as set on 4 major pillars of principle:

1) Respect for the constitution
2) Respect for Life
3) Less government
4) Personal responsibility

First off, perhaps Jonathan can clue us in to what "respect for the constitution" means. I mean he does know that he is sharing the dais with former Bush administration officials, right?!? These are the guys who didn't even bother to introduce amendments (though Bush did threaten one to outlaw gay marriage) to change the constitution, electing instead to use it as toilet paper or possibly to roll J's with. They must have been smoking something, because they seemed to forget all about being the party of less government when they jammed through the Patriot act and endorsed spying on American citizens at within the US. What about Bush's never ending "war on terror" fought without congressional oversight, including the imprisonment of just about anyone without being charged, without the right to view the evidence against him/her, and without the right to receive counsel or contact family members? Perhaps the "war on terror" makes all of that irrelevant. OK, what about the recently released Bush administration memos demonstrating Bush's attempt to completely toss aside the first amendment?

Secondly, what exactly is "respect for life"? Oh, that's right, you're talking about abortion, of course. Funny how people who view a cluster of cells (that may or may not have a nervous system depending on the stage of its growth) as life worth respecting, are simultaneously the most fervent supporters of the death penalty and other forms of killing. The conservative leader for the past 8 years has been George W. Bush, the man who has executed more people than any other governor in the history of Texas (he averaged 1 death every 9 days). Not to mention the fervor with which the modern conservative movement has campaigned for US military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and prayed (probably in the literal sense) for a war with Iran and North Korea. Almost got 'em too! I suppose I lack the intelligence or religious spirit to comprehend the distinction that the deaths those conflicts created are exceptions to the "thou shalt not kill" principle on which so many conservatives pride themselves. It must be that the deaths of untold thousands of Iraqis and Afghans (overwhelmingly innocent civilians) were acceptable under the "respect for life" principle. They were probably just the wrong kind of life.

Third, less government. Right, George W. Bush champion of the conservative movement and its leader up until a few months ago is the largest spender of government money since Lyndon Johnson and outspent LBJ based on the percentage increase in spending per annum. And no, it wasn't all on the "war on terror". W spent big time on No Child Left Behind, which promptly left all children behind, a Medicare prescription drug plan that was roundly rejected as a failure even before it was implemented, and finally by not vetoing a single Republican-controlled congressional budget despite the countless "earmarks" which bloated and busted its seams. Let's not also forget to reiterate the Patriot act, the creation of Homeland Security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which Bush ingeniously engineered to be financial solo acts. Schmuck.

Finally, we have personal responsibility, which, as far as I can tell, is a euphemism for, "you’re poor...tough shit." And this is where Johnny boy’s use of the word "principle" really pisses me off. Tell me Jon, ye who hath never held a job or paid bills, how principled are those individuals on Wall Street? In the banks and investment houses? Those, like your host ACU, who lobbied Congress to deregulate markets so banks and brokerages could offer crap home loans and repackage them into crappy derivatives, who have made it harder for ordinary Americans to declare bankruptcy while simultaneously making it easier for corporations to do so? How about your major conservative supporters at Enron and WorldCom? Oh, I forgot, you were only 4 when they helped get Bush get elected with money they ripped off from average Americans who wanted to use their toaster or call their grandma.

You were probably still wetting the bed Jon and that's fine, you were 4 - and that's what 4 year-olds do (I think). Which is precisely my point, Jon is indicative of the state of conservative politics in America. When a group of adults can identify within the rantings of a 13 year-old the essence of their political ideology, a time out is in order. Having parroted back at you the same trite, smug and archaic nonsense that has been so thoroughly rejected by the rest of America is perfectly fine if, as Jon suggests, Conservatism isn't about politics or party, but about principles. It’s fine so long as Conservatives don't mind resting on their political laurels for a while. I wonder if principles make for a comfortable seat.

~ Old Major

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Viva La Wikileaks!

of you have probably never heard of a little site known as According to its website,
Wikileaks is developing an uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we are of assistance to people of nations who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations.
Wikileaks posts tons of documents from within the halls of US government as well, including Congressional Research Service reports (which because the CRS is under the protection of Congress are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act), NATO documents and any other piece of information that reveal government cover up, deception or attempts to keep the public in the dark. Most of the information they get is provided by whistle blower types who see corruption and feel compelled to act. The staff at Wikileaks carefully examines each document for authenticity and, as with any wiki, allows all users to make comments/edit (though not the original document, but a duplicate). This is an invaluable resource for journalists, historians and concerned citizens. It is the latter group that I am primarily interested in, as it best represents me and my interests.

There is a whole area of scholarship that is committed to analyzing the impact of Information Communication Technology on political participation. The past decade has seen a significant increase in the amount of information made available by western governments on the web. The United States provides documents and solicits feedback through various government agency websites, ostensibly in order to improve government performance.

Some scholars have even mentioned that with greater technology comes greater participation, potentially resulting in more responsive government. Theoretically, this sounds promising. But increase participation in what way, you might ask? You should ask! Some suggest that feedback from constituents would be increased and that could provide benefits. I am inclined to agree, but what worries me is that the average person does not possess the education to participate in policy making decisions of an advanced nature. It would be great if people could make their needs heard at the local (municipal or even state) level about community needs (road construction, library hours, etc.), but national policy may be a bit out of their league. Besides, the ballot box isn't dead. Barack Obama, though far from perfect, has enacted legislation that has both turned America around on many policy issues and nudged it down a progressive path. For Federal issues the vote is still the best way for citizens to participate in their democracy and Wikileaks provides citizens with a means of keeping informed on what their government is actually doing and in none less than the government's own words.

In a time when the news media is owned by corporate conglomerates and has less and less of an interest (financially and politically) in living up to its role as the fourth estate, citizens must take upon themselves to fill in the gap in coverage. The technological revolution sparked by the Internet has given birth to blogs, wikis, and social networking sites that provide the citizen with new tools of democratic participation and with new teachers - each other. Working together and with the assistance or courageous whistle blowers and citizen activists, we can force government to be more accountable and thereby more responsive. Long Live Wikileak!

~ Old Major

p.s. Check out the site and if you find it useful consider contributing whatever you can. Wikileaks needs $ to stay online and its one of the few things out there worth paying for.

More Than a Crisis of Credit, a Crisis of Conscience

This little video helps explain the credit crisis in terms easy to understand and cool to watch. In fact, this project was completed as part of the author's PhD thesis in visual art, but that doesn't in any way detract from the message or distract the viewer. If anything, the awesome graphics make learning about the credit crisis, well, kinda fun! How whacked out is that?!?
Here's to simple ways of raising consciousness.

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.