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Jul. 28 2010 — 11:26 am | 354 views | 1 recommendations | 12 comments

The world we have won?

This is my last blog for True/Slant.  It looks like I’ll be blogging elsewhere come September- but since no contracts are signed, I can’t really tell you where (hint: it rhymes with Morbes).  In the meantime, the LAST column gives me a chance to do something that blogging rarely allows me to do: reflect.  And upon reflection, this is what I’ve learned from my time at True/Slant.

When I first started this column, I was pissed.  Bush was still in office, two illegal and imperialistic wars were in full swing, and although the Wall Street Ponzi scheme built on the democratization of debt had not yet collapsed, it was increasingly clear that most of us had been screwed by Neoliberal capitalism. Three decades of tax giveaways to the richest Americans and the destruction of the social safety net meant 80% of us were worse off than in 1980.  I was finishing up a book on just that topic (American Plastic) and the more I knew about how in debt Americans were, the more angry I became.  It was clearly a case of us vs. them, the working classes vs. the super rich who were robbing us blind.   I truly believed that it was time to stop this nonsense, band together as the majority, and take our country back.  It was in this spirit that I started “Class Warfare.”

Ah, has the world changed since then.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  The rich got even richer in 2009, the rest of us are worse off than ever, but the idea that there might be a possibility of uniting around our common class interests and taking our country back from the robber barons who have been running it seems so completely disconnected from reality that I want to travel back in time two years and throw a bucket of ice-water into my stupidly optimistic face.

If I had been shocked into reality with a faceful of water, perhaps I would have predicted the success with which white resentment would be mobilized in groups like the Tea Party.  The righteous anger of the white masses is not at the bankers and politicians who put us in this mess, but at Mexican immigrants.  And if I could have predicted that a huge portion of angry white Americans would have their rage misdirected, perhaps I could have also known that the Obama administration would not be able to resist the lure of military “solutions” to political and economic problems.  I might have even predicted that the Obama administration would be given far too much of a free pass by the “Left” to do whatever they saw fit, and what they saw fit was to govern as a Centrist Right party, especially without any pressure from their base.

Ah, but I was ever so young when True Slant editor Coates Bateman called me up two years ago and said “Listen, we’ve got this idea.”  Of course, I’m ever so much older now and can see that the world we have won is a bigger mess than I could have ever imagined.  A good map of the place we’re at can be found at today’s New York Times. It is a map of the latest vote on military spending in Afghanistan.  Just days after WikLeaks released documents to illustrate what a futile waste of life and resources the war in Afghanistan is, the House voted to spend another $59 BILLION dollars on it.  And where is the resistance to this total disaster?  The usual places- Democratic Vermont, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin.  Some unusual resistance in Florida, Arizona and Texas and then some Republican resistance in Utah and Texas.

The rest of the country?  Firmly on track to the end of Empire.  Red and Blue armies marching to their doom- too distracted by the promises of patriotism, guts and glory, to notice that the economy is collapsing, the environment is destroyed, and the Empire has already imploded.

But here’s the other lesson that I’ve learned .  We cannot give up.  There is too much at stake.  We can all do things- right now- to protect ourselves and our futures.  Here are ten of them.  You readers can think of hundreds, maybe thousands, more.  In other words, I may be less naive than I was at the beginning of “Class Warfare,” but I’m angrier than ever and more convinced that WE must do something about it.

1. First and foremost, we must demand that our government be of the people and for the people; not of and for big banks and big guns.  The only way to make this happen is to get campaign finance reform through.  Without that, no matter how brilliant and even ethical a candidate, they will be sucked into the inevitable desire to get re-elected and the constant prostitution of themselves for contributions to their campaigns.

2. Second, we must convert the economy to peaceful means.  Guns into plough shares and all that.  Economic conversion is NOT a pipe dream.  It is an absolute necessity because without it, we will always be wasting our resources on getting ready for wars and therefore there will always be a need to have wars.

3. Third, we must reinvigorate labor.  Until workers have some ability to represent themselves, Americans will continue to work more hours than anyone else on earth.  And working more hours means less time to exercise, to eat real food, to spend with our families, etc.  It’s not that Americans are falling apart because we live in a toxic food environment, but we live in a toxic food environment because our work environments are toxic.  Stop feeling lucky to have a job and realize that without workers, capitalism would not produce profit.  The owners of the means of production live off of our labor, and they live well.  Let them share the wealth or face strikes, walk outs, and general sabotage.

4. Fourth, we must figure out a way to get single payer healthcare.  We cannot even do it at a state level right now because the Obama administration not only shut down single payer as an option at the national level, but insisted that states not be allowed to implement their own single payer systems until well after the patchwork, half-assed system of national healthcare reform gets put into place.  States must fight for their rights to have single payer and opt out of the national Frankenstein monster of insurance coverage we’re being offered.  Healthcare should not be a product sold in the market for profit. It should be a basic human right.  Once all Americans have it, we will be able to band together for better working conditions.  In other words, a social safety net also allows labor to get organized against greed and exploitation.

5. Fifth, higher education MUST be reformed.  The system we have now of poor and working class students taking on ridiculous amounts of debt to get an education and then in half of the cases being forced to drop out of school before they’ve even finished their degree while upper class students get degrees from elite institutions at the cost of $50,000 a year, graduating with little or no debt and all the connections they’ll ever need, is the opposite of democracy.  It is an aristocracy- a way of passing wealth- economic, educational, and social- from one generation to the next while the vast majority of us are shut out.  Higher education should be affordable to anyone who qualifies and should not require a lifetime of debt.  Without this basic mechanism of fairness, the ruling elites will become increasingly dynastic.

6.  For higher education to become more fair, we have to make our elementary and high school education more fair.  No longer can we fund schools on property taxes- a way of ensuring rich neighborhoods with high property values have far more money for their schools than poor neighborhoods with low property values.  Higher education must be funded fairly across an entire state.  All students receive the same spending, regardless of the neighborhood they live in.  No more kindergartens without paper and crayons while in the next town over kindergartens have state of the art computers and swimming pools. Education that is fair and equal is a basic building block of democracy.  Without it, we are doomed.

7. Localize as much as possible.  We must opt out of the global economy.  Buy local foods, of course, but also move your money out of mega banks and put it in a local credit union, go see local live theater, consider a staycation and spend your leisure time and money where you live.  This is good for the environment, good for your money, but even more importantly, a necessary brake on the madness that is globalization.

8.  As long as we’re localizing, we might as well get involved.  Social psychologists are showing us what we already know:  Americans are a socially isolated and therefore unhappy bunch.  And coupling does not solve our isolation- in fact, coupling may increase our social isolation.  So we must go out and join a local knitting group or even a religious group, invite your neighbors for dinner or start a community garden.  We cannot solve our social isolation by technology- social networks, blogging communities, and online dating are fine, but we actually need to spend time in the same physical location with other human beings.

9. We may have screwed up the earth beyond repair, but we better start working now on creating real alternatives to the oil economy or we’re going to burn up in a blaze of global warming as we drown in seas of oil.  In the same way that we must force the government to convert the military economy to a peaceful one, we damn well better force them to convert the oil economy to a sustainable one.  We have to force the state to regulate oil, tax gas, and invest in public transit and clean energy technologies.  Period.  Or we all die.

10.  This is the most important one so pay attention.  I know this is a long blog and kinda preachy, but it’s aimed as much at me as at you.  Anger is a far better response to threat than depression or apathy.  We ought to be angry and we have to utilize that anger into action or we will perish as a country and possibly as a species.  We cannot afford to wait and see.  We cannot afford to allow half of the country to flirt with fascism.  We have to work now to convince our fellow Americans to stop worrying about imaginary threats and focus on what’s really going on.  We have to work right now to focus ourselves on what our real interests are and not get distracted by pretty little pieces of plastic- like our new i-phones or our new breast implants.  We have to band together as a class of people who are less economically secure, less environmentally secure, less emotionally secure than ever.  Even if we don’t figure a way out, at least we’ll perish knowing that we’re in this together.

And it is that human connection, the class as a group with solidarity and support for itself, that can move us from Class Warfare to class action.

Jul. 26 2010 — 9:41 am | 442 views | 1 recommendations | 13 comments

Elizabeth Warren, President Obama, and my broken heart

Elizabeth Warren, TARP (Troubled Asset Relief ...

Image by AFP/Getty Images via @daylife

I do a sport that results in a lot of broken toes.  What I’ve learned is this: once a toe is broken, it will break more easily in the future until having a broken toe becomes a regular part of life.  This is, I believe,  why God invented sports tape.

Broken hearts are different.  Once a heart gets broken a few times, it builds up a tough shell that stops it from ever breaking again, or at least from breaking into a million pieces again.  That’s the way it is for those of us who actually opened our hearts and our wallets and our lives to getting President Obama elected.  We got our hearts broken over and over and over again.  And now, for many of us, we expect nothing but betrayal.

Of course, like any dysfunctional relationship, there were clues immediately that we should start hardening ourselves to the fantasy that we would finally have an administration that was ours and ours alone, rather than a President that is always sneaking off to cavort with big military and big banks.  But then came Larry Summers and the TARP bailouts and the increase of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and so many betrayals that by now, my heart is like stone and there is nothing left for the Obama-ites to do that will hurt me.

Or so I say.  Like any broken-hearted lover, continuously rejected and then courted and then rejected again, I harbor a small piece of hope.  This time he’ll do the right thing.  This time will be different.  This time he’ll appoint Elizabeth Warren to head the consumer advocacy agency that she invented.  But even that little piece of hopefulness buried deep in the recesses of my stony heart knows, deep down, that the chances of this happening are about the same as the chances of a perfectly romantic ending to my life, where my beloved rides up on a white horse and takes me off into a sunset to live happily ever after.

According to an article in today’s New York Times, the Obama Administration has not ruled out appointing Warren, especially given how vocal the support for her is from leading Democrats and some of the press, as well as some labor unions and progressive.  The Obama administration knows what we want.

It is essential to the bill and very, very important that Elizabeth Warren be appointed,” Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts and an architect of the law, said Friday on MSNBC.

But not surprisingly, our arch rival, the banking industry, opposes Professor Warren as too invested in protecting the people rather than being “neutral.”  As if the head of a consumer protection agency should be neutral about how the banks have profited from the immense information asymmetry involved in debt.  In other words, Warren actually believes we ought to know what we’re getting when we take on a mortgage or a credit card instead of continuing to allow a system where you would need an MBA to understand what the hell it means to sign on the dotted line.

According to Roger M. Beverage, head of the Oklahoma Banker’s Association, Oklahoma native Warren is “competent” and “exceptionally bright” but

We just fear what she might come up with.  She’s a partisan and she’s bull-headed and she’s opinionated. And she’s terrific. She’s a great advocate. We just respectfully disagree with her view of the world.”

Already key Democrats, such as Senator Christopher Dodd (CT), the chairman of the banking committee, are warning that they won’t be able to muster the votes necessary for Warren’s nomination.  It is only a matter of time till the Obama administration shrugs and says “What can I do.”

And the heart-broken progressives of this country either continue to excuse our beloved, like any abused spouse, with “He had no choice” and “He couldn’t help it” or, more likely, turn our backs on the Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections and risk losing the only thing like a happy ending we have ever had.

Jul. 22 2010 — 8:56 am | 297 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

Will the Sherrod and ACORN affairs finally help the Dems get a pair?

FOX News Channel newsroom

Image via Wikipedia

Everyone now knows that Department of Agriculture employee Sheryl Sherrod was unjustly forced to resign and vilified as a “reverse racist” by the Obama Administration and even the NAACP.  Ms. Sherrod, who is Black,  was filmed giving a speech at an NAACP banquet in March where she recounted how her work with a poor white farmer taught her to care about the have-nots of this country, regardless of race.  This speech was then edited into a version that looked as if Sherrod was saying she discriminated against this farmer because he was white.

And who ran this highly edited and completely untrue version?  None other than Andrew Breitbart and our friends at Big Government.  The same lovely people who created the total lie that ACORN was not an anti-poverty group, but rather a human trafficking ring!  And the result was what?  Oh yeah, the defunding of ACORN by Congress, the vilification of the organization in the mainstream media, and the long lasting lesson on the part of the far-right that the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress are so easily scared into submission that all it takes is some bad video and some ridiculous lies to get them to comply.

Over at Big Government, they’re not even apologizing for the “mistake” they made with the video.  Instead, they’re saying there is all sorts of proof that the NAACP encourages racism and that the mainstream media is ignoring it.  And although the Department of Agriculture has apologized to Sherrod as has the head of the NAACP, I don’t hear the mainstream media that ran with this story- AGAIN- even after they realized the ACORN story was highly orchestrated propaganda- apologizing?

Although CNN and the Atlanta Constitution Journal correctly reported that the video was a misrepresentation of the full speech, Fox News and the right-wing GOP noise machine started the drum beat and the Dems did what they always do- they caved.  According to Yosi Sergant, it is time for Obama and the Dems to “grow a pair.” Sergant would know what it’s like to be thrown under the bus by the Dems and this administration, since he himself was also misrepresented by Breitbart of Big Government when Breitbart misrepresented his work as trying to use the National Endowment for the Arts to support the Obama Administration.

Let’s pretend that the Dems are actually capable of learning from their past mistakes (no evidence yet) and say they do learn to “grow a pair” or perhaps more accurately and less sexist- get a spine- and begin to stand up to the absolute hate and propaganda that is Big Government, Fox “News,” and the rest of the noise machine.  It could involve not just funding good organizations like ACORN and holding onto good employees like Sherrod, but perhaps even not caving on Afghanistan, Iraq, Gitmo, Iran, healthcare, financial reform and whatever other disasters the right seems intent on getting us into.

Now that would be worth the pain of living with this spinelessness.  To find that the Dems actually can find their spine and stand up to the ballsy nut jobs over at Big Government and Fox News.

Jul. 20 2010 — 5:13 am | 392 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Top Secret America: ‘Goodness in having a robust capacity’

The Pentagon

Image by mindfrieze via Flickr

Ah, spy speak. “Goodness in having a robust capacity.”  That’s Marine Colonel David Lapin, a Pentagon spokesperson, describing the ridiculously large super secret spy network that was spawned after 9/11.  What does it mean?  Let me get out my decoder ring and see if I can translate it.

The Washington Post writers, Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, are releasing a series of articles entitled “Top Secret America” that outline the incredible expansion of the US spy agencies and their contractors after 9/11 and it’s making those spy agencies nervous enough to try and defend themselves with completely incomprehensible spy speak.  See, no real attacks on US soil after 9/11 is “goodness” and is the result of insane amounts of money being poured into spy agencies and their contractors.

What Priest and Arkin have found may surprise you, but probably not.

To ensure that the country’s most sensitive duties are carried out only by people loyal above all to the nation’s interest, federal rules say contractors may not perform what are called “inherently government functions.” But they do, all the time and in every intelligence and counterterrorism agency… What started as a temporary fix in response to the terrorist attacks has turned into a dependency that calls into question whether… the government is still in control of its most sensitive activities… The Post investigation uncovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America created since 9/11 that is hidden from public view, lacking in thorough oversight and so unwieldy that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.

The Post investigation makes clear what we already know:  bureaucracy’s main function is to grow.  Spy agency bureaucracy is no different.  Given the injection of post-9/11 hysteria and helplessness, spy agency bureaucracy grew like e-coli bacteria in a pile of manure.

Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.

In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.

And the news media can’t stop talking about it.  On True/Slant alone there are already at least five stories about the series.

Yet what do we really know now that we didn’t know before? The series, an amazing piece of actual journalism at a time when our news is dominated by opinionated bloggers like myself, but it’s real use is in the facts and figures, not the story.  We already knew that defense spending (secret or not) is completely out of proportion to what the US can afford to spend and  it only grows bigger by the day.  There is little accountability in terms of private contractors or, let’s face it, the paid employees of the US defense industry, here or around the world.  And like a BP oil spill, curbing the military industrial complex seems unstoppable.

The real value of the Post series is that the facts and figures coming out might shame politicians in Washington to investigate and possibly limit some of these excesses.  But  a real shift in American priorities and spending would require a lot more than facts and figures.  It would require a revolution. Curbing defense spending excesses would require dismantling the ideology that justifies the military industrial complex.  Then the structure of politicians and corporations that feeds off military spending would also have to be taken apart.  Only then can we say that “Top Secret America’s” “goodness” is “in having a robust capacity.”

Jul. 15 2010 — 3:48 pm | 155 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Financial reform. Woohoo?

Wall St Sign

Image via Wikipedia

The financial reform bill has finally passed.  Should we celebrate or feel even more disgusted that Washington cannot extract itself from the grips of Wall St. lobbyists?  Disgusted, says Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), the only Democratic Senator to not support the bill and the reason?  Because it will do nothing to protect us from the sort of Wall St. practices- like bundled derivatives and excess interest rates on mortgages and credit cards- that brought about the Great Recession.  According to Feingold,

The reckless practices of Wall Street sent our economy reeling, triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression, and left millions of Americans to foot the bill. Despite these cataclysmic events, Washington once again caved to Wall Street on key issues and produced a bill that fails to protect the American people from the pain of another economic disaster. I will not support a bill that fails to adequately protect the people of Wisconsin from the recklessness of Wall Street.”

Sure, the reform does manage to create a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and some oversight of the Federal Reserve, but with Wall St. spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying since January 2009, it’ s not a huge surprise that the reform will stop short of actually protecting our economy from Wall St.’s recklessness.  Even Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who supported the bill and wrote some of its provisions, pointed out in an email to constituents that the reform does nothing to break up

banks deemed “too big to fail.” Incredibly, three of the four biggest banks in the country are larger today than they were before taxpayers bailed them out. Sanders also wanted the bill to impose a cap on runaway credit card interest rates. Senators rejected an even more modest proposal to let states enforce their own usury laws.

So whatever the reform is worth, it is hardly worth popping the cork on the champaign.  Unless of course you are a lobbyist for Wall St.  In which case, you can be drinking to a job well done.

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    About Me

    I'm an academic who does not believe in abstract knowledge. Like Marx, I think the point isn't just to describe the world, but to change it. Unlike Marx I don't have Engels sending me my monthly rent. So I have a day job teaching sociology at Middlebury College. In my real life, I'm a fighter (taekwondo) and a writer

    (Salon, Legal Affairs, NPR's "All Things Considered") and now this blog. My second book, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Spirit of Our Time, is a critique of neoliberal capitalism through cosmetic surgery. American Plastic will be published by Beacon in 2010.

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