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The Puppet Show of the Apocalypse

June 19, 2013 1 comment

puppetI am sitting at my kitchen table.. It is early June, an election year. I can hear the television droning softly from the living room, bringing me the evening news. They are reporting on one of the men vying to be the presidential candidate for the out of power party. He has apparently just implied something insulting about women and rape. Cut to an ad for viagra. Outside my back door I can hear the soft hum of bees and the little screeches of birds looking for a nesting spot. Outside, in the real world, everything looks just fine–on the surface. Just don’t look to deeply or you would see a flower that is the main food of an important butterfly, which now blooms a week too early for the caterpillars to eat it.There will be none of that type of butterfly this year, or likely ever again in these parts.

Now it is late October. The evening news is on. If I were to look around the corner at my television I would see two men speaking about who said what in the latest scandal, and how they are not to blame for it, and how they would bring prosperity back to the middle class, one by lowering taxes a bit more and the other by cutting a few programs.There are a least 12 political parties in the United States that have candidates for president. But only two of them are allowed to speak publicly where it counts, on television. In fact, one of the “lesser” candidates is outside in chains. Her crime? Trying to enter the hall where the debate is taking place. In other news a hurricane just wiped out two small towns in the delta, foreclosures are up again, and there is unrest in one or another impoverished country.

The puppet show continues. The puppets may be politicians, or celebrities, or, quite often, news “providers” We see their lips move, and words come out. Meanwhile, in the real world, outside our doors, a million more pollinators died. A large American company released another organism into wild nature that will eventually cause a food shortage for a key species, causing an entire ecosystem to crash. On the streets of America, huddling under a freeway over-pass, two children are hungry. Their parents lost their jobs, first him then her. The house went a couple of years later.

In other news, the stock market is up by 30 points, and a Republican congressman just floated a bill to close down what is left of the food stamp program after the last time it was gutted. No one connects the dots. If the tax code were merely put back to what it was in 1950 there would be no hungry children, no homeless families. It is OUR children that are going hungry. Or they used to be before a culture of pure self interest took root and we all became individuals, divorced from any notion of a “community”. Instead, the puppet show drones on–” These welfare families are ruining the country–stealing your prosperity” they say. Who can remember the concept developed in Nazi Germany of the “big lie”? Make the lie big enough and repeat it often enough and it becomes the “truth”. It is the social safety net that is ruining the country, not the top one tenth of a percent that are hoarding sixty percent of our wealth. Repeat after me…

Outside in the real world 14,000 more hectares of rain forest fall. It seems that clear cut rain forest makes great pastureland for the cattle that another large American company prefers for its burgers. That and a bunch of filler, sawdust maybe.  Cut for a commercial. Happy kids eating happy meals. The kids under that overpass eat them, but no one would call them happy. It is all they can afford, and they are lucky to get that.

The puppet show continues. In Oakland another shooting, in Mississippi a flood. A Kafkaesque international manhunt for a whistle-blower. His crime? Telling the truth about criminal activity in his government agency.  Outside in the real world, there are forests silent as graves. Empty forest syndrome. The puppets drone on as we preside over the biggest mass extinction since the dinosaurs. And we are likely the new dinosaurs. Honey bees account for about thirty percent of the human food supply. Even the “food-like substances” that we in the developed world are receiving from the processing plants rely on some form of organic base. Cut to commercial for pesticides. Kills everything, don’t worry. We don’t need insects. Or anything else in the food web that might be collateral damage. Just spray and enjoy the antiseptic landscape, and then pop open a beer and watch more of the puppet show.

A large ship full of plastic goods arrives from Asia. The news anchor jokes about hitting those sales. A large American company, a discount store, boasts that 60% of Americans shop at their stores. Meanwhile, across the world, large piles of old plastic burn, and the air stings. Meanwhile, in the real world, there is a 270,000 square mile garbage patch, filled with the detritus of the free market. Nothing lives there. Anymore.

The puppet show continues. I sit at the kitchen table. It is early summer.I can hear the drone of the evening news. There was an oil spill from the Tar Sands along the Canadian border. It hit an Indian reservation. Nothing can live there now either. The black earth is poisoned and will remain so long after we are just bones. In other news, a stringent anti-abortion bill passed the house, but is expected to die in the senate.

Outside, in the real world, I can hear the soft hum of honey bees in the Bottle Brush. I can hear the chirps of the hummingbirds and the tiny song of dozens of bird babies as the mama birds bring dinner home to the nest. I live in a very fortunate place. It is hard to see that anything is wrong on this gentle summer evening. It is impossible for us to detect the loss of diversity, the collapse of ecosystems, with the information gathering tools that we have. Even when we see it it is almost impossible to see that our way of life is at fault. Further-even if we see both the destruction and our part in it–there seems to be little we can do. And until we collectively decide to commit our full energy to tearing down the machine we have built and replacing it with something that supports the entire biotic community, it is true.  Nothing can be done.

I turn back to the puppet show of the apocalypse. In other news, the largest fire in Colorado history took another twenty homes. As for the weather-it’s gonna be a scorcher out there…

A Brutal Capitalist Regime–The Key Problem of Our Times

June 4, 2013 2 comments
The Money Problem

The Money Problem

If you are old enough you will remember that during the Cold War, we in the USA were told tales of the “brutal communist regime” in the Soviet Union and China. Actually, anywhere that professed to be Communist. I cannot pretend to know all of the facts regarding actual conditions in these countries, then or now.

But, one day a while ago, as I was riding the bus into the city it occurred to me-we live in a brutal CAPITALIST regime here in the America of the 21st century. And–we have exported this regime across the globe at the point of a rifle (or a drone). This means that however good- hearted you may be, or how much you may hate the system and the entities that enforce the system–you will participate or die.

But let me unpack this statement,word by word. First of all let us look at the term “capitalist”. By this I mean the peculiar strain of large C capitalism that has sprung up in the United States in the late twentieth century. This includes share-holder primacy, corporate personhood, and the colonization of the people’s government by big business.

Then, let us look at brutality. We live in a place where the extremely poor are allowed to die in the street, and the slightly better off die from lack of medical care. Where public works are being attacked as frivolous by politicians in the pockets of shadowy figures who pay no taxes but reap the rewards of citizenship. Where government is handing over our wealth (and its responsibilities) to private companies who take the money and destroy the services without accountability. Where food is allowed to rot with-in the sight of the starving if they can’t pay.Where a few sleep between thousand dollar sheets and control enough wealth to start their own counties  while the many huddle in project housing and work two jobs without earning enough to feed themselves. Where poverty is created by the elite, and then criminalized. Where  big money comes before the safety and welfare of our children. Two examples are the failure of the government to pass gun laws that protect school-children and the failure to control banks from preying on our college kids. Where big banks and their shareholders robbed us all, stole our pensions, and took our houses, and got away with it.

And it is brutal in other ways as well. The human condition demands that we struggle with our own worst qualities. People in any system can be greedy, power-hungry, and selfish. But only capitalism demands these qualities as a condition of survival. It forces us all to place the dollar ahead of all other things. If you don’t have money and you are too weak, old, young, or foolish to get it, you will live in misery and die painfully. Under these conditions “getting mine” trumps all else. This is as true for me as it is for all of you.

If this crushes the spirits of those in the middle and bottom, it does something just as bad to the rich. It gives those already prone to bad behavior the ugly justification and hubris of neo-Calvinism. Great wealth brings a propensity for social blindness, loss of introspection, and intense pressure to do wrong. Those born into wealth are conditioned from birth to believe a very distorted view of reality. Those who acquire great wealth may start out with a clear view, but in the absence of a powerful inborn moral compass the natural tendency to privilege one’s own self interest wins in the end, and the distortion takes hold.

In the brutal capitalist regime, no one is allowed to become fully human. And very few ever reach their full potential. Excellence is unnecessary when mediocrity sells, and under corporate rule both education and advertising are controlled by those doing the selling.

Now all we have left to un-pack is the word “regime”. The dictionary defines this as the government in power. In the United States we are told that this is either the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party. But this is a lie. We actually live under corporate fascism with a regular democratic charade. For example, a long list of our public servants have also worked at the Monsanto Corporation. Monsanto has ruthlessly fought against even labeling modified products intended to be eaten. I can’t bring myself to call these products food. Knowing what we are eating seems to be a reasonable request. But, instead of passing laws protecting citizens by making Monsanto label their products, congress, all full of once and future Monsanto employees, instead pass the Monsanto Protection Act, forbidding us citizens from complaining. And that is just one instance.

In the brutal communist regime, the people were afraid to speak and afraid to act. In the brutal capitalist regime, you can say anything you want if you still have the energy after breaking your back to earn your bread, and you can do almost anything you want, as long as you don’t interfere with the property rights of the rich. But just don’t expect anything to change, and don’t stop buying stuff.

I have not discussed the global reach of the regime and this post is getting long. So stay tuned, I’m back!

How Shame Keeps the Poor in Line

September 1, 2011 4 comments

Home Sweet Home

While I was in Detroit earlier this summer I had a conversation with a wonderful old woman who had been just at the bottom of the middle class all her life. She had gotten by working two, sometimes three hard and under-appreciated food service jobs, making just enough to get by. Now 62 and suffering from several ailments, including diabetes, she was waiting patiently for her unemployment to kick in, so she could stop standing on her feet sixteen hours a day. She had acquired a tiny bit of debt along the way, not enough to amount to lunch money for a rich person, but for her it was like an insurmountable mountain.

As the story goes, she had been almost starving in order to pay those bills, until a good friend convinced her to buy food first, and tell the companies that she was indebted to that they would just have to wait. Like many of the poor and almost poor, she was conscientious to a fault, and had to be convinced to take care of her own basic needs. Never mind that the interest rates she was paying were usurious. Never mind that there are whole industries in the business of exploiting people like her. It had never even occurred to her to miss a payment or negotiate a better deal.

This is just one of the ways that the poor are kept stuck. I have been traveling the country writing about the economic collapse of 2008 and the depression that has followed. It is amazing to me the number of people who have been harmed by these events, or even had their lives destroyed that will not speak out about it. The overwhelming emotion is shame. Shame in the face of a groaning table full of riches meant for others that they will never partake in.

And why are they ashamed, when the abominable condition they find themselves in in clearly not their fault? I believe it comes from an ugly strain of neo-Calvinism that the rich use to justify behavior that no true Christian would tolerate in themselves, and which the poor internalize. The result is massive shame instead of the appropriate emotion-galvanizing rage!

My Adventure in the “Rich World”

July 20, 2011 5 comments

It’s been awhile since I posted, and here is why: The first stop on my latest journey was New York City’s Upper East Side, where I visited certain people who are close to me and whom I will not mention by name. It was a difficult trip, but an enlightening one. The Upper East Side is like a little village where nothing much ever happens, the atmosphere is sterile, and most of the human interaction is between the very rich and their servants.

My hosts live on the thirty forth floor of a building that overlooks the east river. Because many diplomats live in the building all residents must be vetted before they move in. Dry-cleaning is picked up and delivered. The building has it’s own water system and security force. In case of “civil unrest” it will become a fortress.

We sat at one of the many small, luxuries, and entirely predictable little bistros that dot the neighborhood. Over a lovely salmon and a glass of Pinot my hosts confessed their dismay at the thought that I advocate wealth and income redistribution, an economic policy usually associated with the communist revolution. What I wanted to say, but didn’t, is that I too am against the redistribution of wealth as it has actually occurred. Since the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s the redistribution of wealth UPWARDS has been extreme and unrelenting, and we (the middle class) would like our money back.

The conversation turned to taxes, particularly the theory behind taxing or failing to tax the uber-rich at an appropriate rate. My host asked me what income level I thought of as being “rich”. As in, rich enough to pay more. I replied that most people in this country, all of the millions that make around twenty thousand a year, if they are “lucky” enough to still be working, would like say that $250,000 a year is the cut. But, I said, I understand that a person of this income feels themselves to be only comfortably middle class. I understand that people in this demographic have big expenses, that they feel inferior to the “truly rich” whose shadow they live under. So, could we agree that a person making ONE MILLION a year was rich enough to pay a larger share in a system of progressive taxation? I got no real answer as the conversation trailed off in the stifling summer air.

I then tackled share holder primacy and the fact that Wall Street doesn’t actually produce any wealth after the first offering of stock, but is rather a large liquid pool of wealth that allows the “owners” to skim the cream from the top in the form of profits, profits gained by stepping on the backs of all other people, other species, and the health of the earth itself. That dog didn’t hunt either, not in that company.

I put off writing about this for months. Publishing it will not increase my popularity in my family. Finally I decided that if I am going to go forth with this project, which I believe in more ever day as I watch the depression deepen around me, I just have to stand in my truth. I didn’t make this world, I just write about it with as much clarity as I can find. So, dear reader, expect the rest of the story soon, now that the log jam in my mind has been broken.

The Depression is Lumpy

May 16, 2011 4 comments

Depression? It Depends on Where you Live

Most of the time, when we speak of the economy, our language seems to represent it as a sort of national monolith. As if we all experienced the current situation the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact there are several economies in America, and which one you are a member of will determine whether you are living through a depression, a recovery, or the one of the biggest booms of all time.

The Recovery

For a certain group of people in the upper middle and upper class, there was a fairly steep recession, a terrible scare in the market, and then, for the last couple of years, a slow but steady recovery as stock market prices climbed back to their pre-crash condition. Though this group still suffers from the general malaise of the real estate market, in general they are out there buying things again.

Let the Good Times Roll

Another very small group of 1%ers made obscene profits from the housing and market crashes. These self-styled “masters of the universe” have grown fat on fraud and the misery of others, and have no intention of stopping now. Paying no taxes and avoiding the prison sentences they justly deserve, they are, at this very moment, engaging in further speculation of the type that fuels inflation that none of the rest of us can afford, and causes grave harm to society.

Main Street

For the rest of us, it depends on where you live. When we see articles in print and online touting the “recovery” it is this fact that they rely on. Statistics are easy enough to skew. What we focus on determines what we see. That is why the employment numbers posted by the government are so confusing and at times misleading. It is common knowledge that the official definition of the word “unemployed” serves to skew the figures right from the start. Add to that the excitement whipped up over the job creation figures when many of these new jobs are not at all comparable to the old (lost) jobs, and we have a very murky picture.  It is true that if you happen to live in a state with comparatively low unemployment you probably aren’t catching the worst of the depression. But what would happen if we all moved to these few states?

The Rest of Us

For all of us regular citizens that have the bad luck to be denizens of the more unlucky regions of the country, such as the south, the rust belt, or the whole state of California, the depression is an obvious daily fact of life. In fact, sinse I began using the term “depression” about three years ago, not one person from any of these places has challenged me. I think of this every time I see a headline once again proclaiming that we are in “recovery” from the “great recession”.

The Poor

This final group has been living in depressed conditions forever. The reasons that a certain number of Americans have always lived in poverty are complex, but with enough will on our part it would be possible to reduce these numbers to near zero. Instead, under the flawed logic of supply side economics, that great and cruel experiment in social engineering brought to you by Ronald Reagan and the billionaires club, the number living in misery is actually growing. Soon it won’t matter what state you live in.

The Inflation

April 26, 2011 1 comment

The Inflation Special

I’ve been taking a break from the road for the last three weeks and plan on another ten days or so. The rhythm of life is very different here, but the constant concern with controlling expenses remains the same. I have this in common with at least eighty percent of my fellow citizens. No one but the very rich feel secure in the current economic climate. And the inflation is making it much worse.

During the last depression there was no inflation. But now the price of crude oil is driving up the cost of everything, especially fuel and food. This is tantamount to a very regressive tax, levied not by government, which would presumably give us back the money in the form of programs, but rather by private companies. And, to add insult to injury, the runaway price of oil is being driven not by the invisible hand of the market responding to a shortage but instead by un-regulated Wall Street speculators.

I call it a regressive tax because strong inflation, especially in gasoline, heating fuel, and food, always hurts the poor much more than the rich. A year ago I could buy three bags of basic groceries for about thirty dollars in my local (somewhat upscale but competitive if I shop right) market. Now the same three bags is about forty five dollars. If I don’t have it I must buy less food. The beans and potatoes stay in cart, but the fresh strawberries are traded for a can of pears. A whole chicken will make three meals for two people. The white eggs are a dollar cheaper than the favored brown eggs. I really must get chickens again. I could go to a known discount outlet, but I would have to drive further. Gas is over four dollars a gallon. This cruel calculus is my constant companion. Usually there isn’t quite enough and sometimes there is a dangerous shortfall. And I am lucky because I live in a semi-rural county with a ten month growing season. In the wastelands of the inner city and the rust belt it is so much worse…

Is America in a Recession or a Depression?

March 26, 2011 3 comments

Signs are Everywhere

In the hostel in Madison late one night a few of us were talking about the affairs of the day. I brought my reason for travelling-that is, documenting the depression in America. I was then asked “why do you think this is a depression?” I realized somewhat sheepishly that I have never publicly defended this point of view. So I will now. The available literature is somewhat unclear on the definitions of either term. But all the literature seems to center on the health of the Gross Domestic Product (GNP). But, I would argue that in an economy that has seen tremendous gains in productivity without the need to hire more workers, and that is capable having a “jobless recovery” as we are now, has to come up with a better definition, one that more accurately reflects the human costs of an economic crisis such as this.

I would suggest that we look instead at the true unemployment rate, at the foreclosure rate, at the bankruptcy rate, and at the rate at which small businesses are being forced to close their doors, among other indicators. We could also look at increases in the use of the social safety net such as food stamps, and the increase in homelessness.

A February Gallup poll finds that the official unemployment rate is at 9.8%, which is already quite high, but as we know, the official rate consistently understates the problem. It does not count the 99ers who have exhausted their benefits without finding work, or other “discouraged workers” who have simply given up. It doesn’t count the under-employed worker who lost a job that paid a healthy living wage but now works part time for far less. And it does not count the small business person who has had to close up shop and can’t find any paid work. I don’t know what the exact figure would be if these people were included in the unemployment rate, but I think it would be fair to say it would triple, giving us a rate of 29.4%.

A recent Real Estate Investors Daily states that the foreclosure rates have actually climbed in 2011 from a already alarmingly high rates in the last several years, and warns that “while we are seeing some markets in the US showing signs of “hitting bottom” and some are evening saying some markets have begun a “recovery“, I think we should be very slow and cautious to say the worst is behind us. Perhaps for those markets that had extremely high concentrations of the foreclosure activity (Nevada, Arizona, California and Florida) most of the damage may be done, but for other markets foreclosures are going to continue to put downward pressure on home prices.”

As for personal bankruptcy rates, numerous sources state that they are at a five year high and expected to rise in the coming year. Multiple sources also state that the poverty rate has gone up substantially, and this is poverty defined by an antiquated metric that does not reflect the actual cost of living in the 21st century.

That is why I am calling the economic climate in March 2011 a depression, and not the “great recession” as it has been termed. I may not be an economist, but there are some that agree with me. Columnist Jeff Cox quotes economist David Rosenberg in a 2010 article “Positive gross domestic product readings and other mildly hopeful signs are masking an ugly truth: The US economy is in a 1930s-style Depression, Gluskin Sheff economist David Rosenberg said Tuesday.” And he is not the only one to say so. The fact that any economist is using the term depression, given the emotional charge of the word and the deeply conservative nature of that profession, should give credence to the feeling that is already shared by millions of Americans.

http://realestateinvestordaily.com/foreclosures/us-foreclosure-rate-and-mortgage-delinquency-rate-continues-to-rise/

http://www.gallup.com/poll/145922/gallup-finds-unemployment-slightly-january.aspx

http://www.mybanktracker.com/bank-news/2011/01/05/personal-bankruptcy-filings-reached-5year-high-2010/

http://www.cnbc.com/id/38831550/Economy_Caught_in_Depression_Not_Recession_Rosenberg