Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mall of America or American Republic?

The authors of the Constitution, deliberating in Philadelphia in the 1780s disagreed on many issues. But they were unanimous in their opinion that the new Republic they were establishing, would survive only if its citizens were virtuous.
We do not use the word “virtue” much anymore. But it is clear what the generation of the Founders meant: virtuous citizens distinguished clearly between self interest and the common good. They tried to discover what was the common good and to support it. Virtuous citizens were incorruptible. They displayed their dedication to the well-being of the Republic by volunteering to assure its survival.
This spirit of working for the common good, even to the detriment of one's private interests is, of course still with us. Think of the lawyers and law students who spent countless hours researching the cases of convicts on death row and succeeded in proving in a significant number of cases that persons were due to be executed for crimes they had not committed. The unjustly condemned were set free often after long years of incarceration.
The most recent example of this dedication to the common good are the Occupy Wall Street protesters, in New York and 70 other cities, who subject themselves to considerable discomfort and, often, unpleasant confrontations with the police. All this in order to express clearly that they see America turning its back on its traditional ideals in order to enrich those who care only for money, and not for virtue, or for democracy and freedom.
Much has changed since the 1780s. America has gone capitalist. In business you do not consider the well-being of all. You need to protect yourself and your own interest against the threats posed by your competitors. The businessman who thinks too much about the common good may well end up bankrupt.
Most recently we have become a nation of shoppers. We work all week to earn the money to spend it at the mall over the weekend. At the mall you act on a whim. You buy whatever seems attractive at that moment. When you bring it home, your whim may have passed. The next day you return your purchase, following a different whim. In the mall everyone has his or her own opinion. Each opinion weighs as much as the next. You do not need to defend your tastes in clothing, or home furnishings, or food. Do you like caviar or cheeseburgers? It does not matter. Your preferences are clearly yours and yours alone.
Capitalism has not only made us into shoppers. It has made us into different kinds of people. It has made us selfish and indifferent to the common good. Being shoppers at the mall has made us irrational. We do not act reasonably. We cannot and do not want to give reasons for what we do or say. Political convictions and policies have become consumer items. We take them up if it pleases us and surrender them when they are no longer new and exciting.
The selfishness of capitalist competition and the self-indulgence of the mall have invaded our political life. Competition for public office is as cutthroat as any commercial competition. The question is no longer: “what does our country need?” but “what is to my advantage?” Commercial competition often skates perilously close to illegality; frequently it employs clearly illegal means. Witness the recent sub prime mortgage scandal. The same is true in politics: no one thinks anything of spreading false rumors about competing candidates – remember Sen. Kerry and the “swift boat” campaign – of avoiding serious deliberation about our problems by encapsulating complex issues in a few snappy words. No one hesitates to mislead voters. During electoral campaigns most candidates tell huge lies. Virtue is not on their mind.
The spirit of the Mall has also invaded our politics. Everyone has his or her own opinion in politics just as they do when they shop for bathroom deodorizers. Giving reasons for one's opinion, researching the facts, thinking carefully and discussing issues dispassionately are no longer part of the citizens repertory. There is no room for being public spirited in the mall because it is all about what I feel like. People make their political choices in the same spirit of self-involvement, refusal to consider facts, or trying to discover what might be good for all.
The Founders believed that if citizens were motivated, not by virtue, but by self interest and their whims, our republic would soon fail and we would lose our freedoms.
They may well have been right about that.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The 1% are trying very hard 
to change the topic

For a few weeks after the Occupy Wall Street Movement first began, the media ignored it completely. 'Wall Street enriches itself at the expense of the rest of us' That's obviously silly. 'The government is in the pockets of the global corporations' What could be more idiotic!
But then 700 people were arrested crossing over to Brooklyn and the media sat up. Since then the movement has spread all around the globe. There have been protests in Egypt, South Africa, and Tunisia. Close to twenty Canadian cities have Occupy protest groups. Protests and occupations in Argentina and Brazil and thirteen other South American countries, as well as in 33 countries in Europe. And on and on. The world is erupting in protests against global capitalism, against the corrupting of democracy, against the overweening power of global corporations and their international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Mayor Bloomberg in New York, a card carrying member of the 1%, of course, does not want to talk about the issues, about unemployment and poverty, about injustice and the suffering of many of the 99%. He does not want to talk about how the median income of working people in the US is about $26,000.00 a year, $4,000.00 above the poverty line.
Mayor Bloomberg wants to talk about keeping Zucotti Square CLEAN, he wants to talk about garbage, about security because he is so concerned about the safety of the protesters. That's why he sends in his cops in riot gear to smash their tents. That does a perfect job of muddying up the conversation. The police actions make the news. It fills the papers but the media still ignore what is really happening here.
Had he lived then, Mayor Bloomberg would certainly have had his police arrest Paul Revere for disturbing the peace. You can't have people clattering over the cobble stones in the middle of the night yelling :”The British are coming!” For heavens sake, people are trying to sleep.
Other mayors have followed that example. The Occupy movements are getting involved in legalistic discussions about where it is permitted to pitch tents. The city fathers and mothers insist that they must enforce the law about loitering, camping on the city green and other such weighty measures.
But all the while the issues raised by the protesters are ignored. They, however, patiently keep reminding us of the Preamble of the US Constitution:We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, . . .” They want to talk about JUSTICE in America, while Mayor Bloomberg and his many colleagues around the world talk about garbage.
Its a clever attempt to avoid the issues. But it only fools the few who do not want to listen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

No Comment Needed

The following story, reprinted from Think Progress ( unfortunately speaks for itself in no uncertain terms.

Bank Of America Makes Millions Charging Fees To Withdraw Unemployment Benefits

By Marie Diamond on Nov 14, 2011 at 11:40 am

Late last month, a national backlash forced Bank of America to abandon its plan to charge customers $5 a month to use their debit cards. But Huffington Post reports that the corporation has quietly been mining other sources of fees, preying on its most vulnerable customers to rake in millions in revenue:
Shawana Busby does not seem like the sort of customer who would be at the center of a major bank’s business plan. Out of work for much of the last three years, she depends upon a $264-a-week unemployment check from the state of South Carolina. But the state has contracted with Bank of America to administer its unemployment benefits, and Busby has frequently found herself incurring bank fees to get her money.
To withdraw her benefits, Busby, 33, uses a Bank of America prepaid debit card on which the state deposits her funds…Busby visits the ATMs in her area and begrudgingly accepts the fees, which reach as high as five dollars per transaction. She estimates that she has paid at least $350 in fees to tap her unemployment benefits. [...]
In short, the same banks whose speculation delivered a financial crisis that has destroyed millions of jobs have figured out how to turn widespread unemployment into a profit center: The larger the number of people who are out of work and dependent upon the state for sustenance, the greater the potential gains through administering their benefits.
Millions of jobless Americans like Busby have little choice but to rely on the bank’s prepaid debit cards to collect their monthly benefits. Forty-one states have contracted with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and other banks to provide access to public benefits, allowing them to collect unlimited fees, both from the unemployed and state governments. South Carolina, for instance, pays Bank of America a fee for each transfer it facilitates on a debit card, and for handling direct deposit of unemployment benefits.
Families who are living hand-to-mouth are outraged to discover that banks worth trillions of dollars are taking such a big cut of their benefits, when they depend on every penny. The New York Times reports today that banks have been quietly raising fees on everything from replacing lost cards to monthly maintenance. BofA customers can be charged $1.50 for speaking to a customer service operator more than once a month, $1.50 for using an “out-of-network” ATM, and $0.50 for entering the wrong PIN number too many times.
Bryce Covert at New Deal 2.0 reported earlier this month that, “big banks are making a tidy profit by acting as middlemen for what should be publicly provided services.” U.S. Bancorp made $357 million in revenue from its unemployment benefit card division — more than one-fourth of its total revenue. Meanwhile JP Morgan “made $5.47 billion in net revenue for most of last year in the division that handles food stamp cards.”
Fed up with big banks’ exorbitant and never-ending fees, customers have been flocking to credit unions. One survey found that credit unions gained at least 650,000 new customers since September 29, the day Bank of America announced its debit card fee.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and 70 other cities

The slogan of all the 70 occupations in the US, “We are the 99%,” has received high praise because it captures the pervasive sense of how unjust our present economic system is. We have known about inequality for a long time. Now we have a vocal and passionate protest.
But the slogan also misrepresents this movement because its complaints are much more complex.
Wherever there is an encampment, there are General Assemblies where those present discuss what needs discussing at the moment. The assemblies I witnessed were exemplary in the respect with which everyone treated everyone else, for the painstaking effort to ensure that everyone was heard. Groups make a major effort to establish far-going equality. They want to function without leaders.
This is not some sort of youthful anarchism from people who have dipped into Bakunin or Kropotkin or have read some pages from Emma Goldman. The deliberative practices are based on a sophisticated explanation of the raging inequality which the occupiers deplore.
This inequality, they imply, is the result of our existing political system. Ordinary citizens do not participate in policy discussions. They pick representatives who then disappear in Washington, DC where they make laws that favor the rich. Our representatives are corrupted by large campaign donations from those with money. The present economic disparities are the result of a failed version of democracy.
It is simply not true that the occupy movements do not have any proposals. They have a very concrete proposal, to reconstruct democracy so that everyone is heard, everyone can participate, everyone gets a respectful hearing.
Now many people will say that such a project is not practical and the Occupy folks should instead work to reelect Obama. The only way to make change is though the electoral system.
But the Occupiers remind us, that electoral democracy has landed us in the mess we are in. It is our electoral democracy itself that needs changing.
Now, no one knows how to do that. But the Occupiers are trying. No one else is trying, certainly not all the liberal pundits like Bill Clinton or ex-radicals like Mark Rudd, who keep saying, in effect, our form of democracy is the only possible form of democracy. Everything else is worse. How do they know that?
It is to their great credit that the Occupiers do not believe that. They do not believe that a nominally democratic system that effectively disenfranchises most citizens and yields political power to global corporations, who do not pay taxes but massively foul the environment, is the best, let alone the only kind of democracy available.
They are working to discover better versions of democracy. They challenge us to do the same. Our leaders will not do that since they are in the pay of the corporations that like our democracymore accuratelytheir democracy--as it is.
So we will have to do that work of building a new democracy ourselves.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Is the sky falling?

Leftists, readers of Marx, socialists, communists, anarchists and others have held for a long time that capitalism was bound to collapse. It would be brought down by its internal stresses and strains that produced a steady series of commercial bubbles, recessions, depressions and large-scale calamities. It would be followed by socialisma society more equal, more free, more humane than ours.

But instead of capitalism, it was the (supposedly) socialist Soviet Union that collapsed and reinstalled a version of capitalism. It was communist China that emerged from mass poverty and underdevelopment by adopting capitalist methods for organizing its economy.

Today we are, once again, in a deep recession. Unemployment does not recede; poverty advances. Banks and financial giants are nevertheless making a lot of money. They are thriving and in firm control of the government. Contrary to left expectations, capitalism is in the saddle even though the people are suffering.

It looks as if we should surrender the hope that capitalism will come to an end to be replaced by a more humane and livable society. Must we give up the socialist dream and prepare ourselves with capitalism forever?

Many people think so; capitalism is here to stay. But there is another and more ominous way of reading current events.

Since the early 1970s, real wages for most people have stagnated. In recent years they have begun to decline. According to the government, families earning barely more than $22,000 are poor. (Could you and your family live on roughly $2000 a month?) Half the workers in the United States earned a little bit more at $26,000 a year, $4000 over the poverty line. More and more people are moving below the poverty line. Except for the now famous 1%, US capitalism is not doing well by the majority of Americans.

But there's more. In the capitalism of Adam Smith, daily touted by conservatives, so many enterprises in any given line of business competed with each other that no one could affect prices by their economic decisions. Whether you raised your prices or lowered them, market prices remained unaffected. In the real capitalism of Adam Smith there were no monopolies, no oligopolies. There was no GM, no Boeing, no Walmart, no Bank of America, or Microsoft. What we call capitalism today is a very different kind of system. In the last 40 or 50 years American business has become notably more concentrated and that process continues. There are free markets only in the interstices of this monopoly economy.
Traditionally, capitalism was associated with democracy. In the 1970s Milton Friedman claimed in his Capitalism and Freedom that capitalism is a precondition for democracy.

But as economic power has become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, political power has been taken from the people and placed in the grasp of the business elite. According to some reports, the number of lobbyist in Congress have doubled in the last two years. Since the end of World War II corporate taxes have been cut by more or less 1/3. Individual income taxes have risen by 25%. Add to that, that some of the largest corporations, such as General Electric or Exxon, managed not to pay any taxes at all. The GAO reported in 2008 that “two out of every three United States corporations paid no federal income taxes from 1998 through 2005.” While our government becomes less responsive to our needs, large corporations can pretty much have everything their way.

At the same time there are ominous signs that our traditional liberties are being slowly undermined. In the Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court allowed wealthy corporations to spend as much money as they please to support candidates in elections. That obviously gives corporations disproportionate political influence.
The USA Patriot Act, passed after 9/11 allows our government new powers of surveillance over ordinary citizens and limits the government's obligations to let us know when they are snooping. The CIA, originally founded to operate outside the United States, is now doing intelligence work in the United States. We have added another major surveillance agency to all the other ones already keeping an eye on each of us.

The Constitution guarantees that persons arrested that will be arraigned promptly and told what they are being accused of. In the so-called war on terror at least two American citizens found themselves in jail without arraignment, and, for long periods, without access to legal advice. Our government also has a significant number of citizens of other countries under indefinite detention without recourse to legal processes.
More recently the government killed two American citizensAnwar al-Awlaki and his assistant-- who were accused of encouraging and even organizing terrorist activities in the United States. That is a serious departure from constitutional tradition. If someone is accused of murdering someone else, the police do not simply shoot him dead. Even though he is accused of a very serious crime, he is entitled to a trial. But if the accused is a Muslim imam in Yemen, our government is willing to simply murder him.

These are small beginnings. Maybe they are temporary aberrations. But perhaps they are the beginning of the successor system to capitalism: an economy dominated by global corporations, whose wealth allows them to control national governments. They use their political power to pillage the national treasury in order to increase their profits. They keep wages low while the social safety net is slowly being shredded. The government, being in the hands of the corporations, is likely to take their side when the people finally rebel. Police actions in Oakland are one fine example of that. Equipped with more and more surveillance agencies, ready to ignore constitutional protections, the government is getting ready to execute American citizens without benefit of a trial.

Maybe capitalism is not collapsing as predicted. Maybe it is morphing into a new fascism that rules with an iron hand to benefit corporate bottom lines.

The next 50 years will tell which it will be.