Monday, March 07, 2016

Scalia Disgraziato

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Saving American Capitalism

We’re number one; We’re number one!
Except when we are not anywhere near
In days as gone as the setting sun
This empire has passed from first to tears
Except for Bernie’s Billionaires
Who write and relish the rules
Of Citizens United and Wall St. shares
And we let them, we fools

The recent book Saving Capitalism by Robert Reich is mandatory reading for anybody who cares about the details of our current economic disease.  Intuitively, perhaps, we have all figured out that the American capitalistic system is skewed for the average person to be screwed.  As Reich explains, the total system is broader than we think.  It includes the tax subsystem, of course, but that could not explain our wide disparity in wealth by itself.  It includes a political subsystem, but that does not explain the legal basis for the axis of money and power.  It includes the judicial subsystem including Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, but that does not explain how Goldman Sachs is a “person” that can never go to jail.  It includes election of judges who then make judgments favoring major contributors to their elections, but that does not explain large inequities in state systems that enhance gerrymandering that, in turn, promotes long-term disenfranchisement of selected voters.  Truly, the devil is in the details and Robert Reich has researched the details with enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism and finesse bordering on precision.  As a spoiler, I agree completely on his analysis, but feel that his conclusion is wildly optimistic.  In reading the history of the 20s, I cannot envision any voluntary shrinkage by the haves to either assist or even to mollify the have-nots.  In the 20s, the very wealthy corporations and individuals hired private security and convinced many local and state governments to force their will on workers, their unions and even the families of the working class.  Yes, I know compromise would be logical and self-preserving in some ways, but I believe that those with great wealth and property will, once again, aggressively protect their property and privilege until they cannot withstand the forces around them and then they will flee our nation when that strategy fails.  We have built an aristocracy and it may take a 21st century (virtual) guillotine to convince the privileged that compromise works best and aristocracy is unaffordable in the long run.

Mr. Reich posits that outcomes depend more upon decisions than on the policies of our capitalistic variant.  He shows that critical politco-economic decisions are made in the areas of:  Property, Monopoly, Contract, Bankruptcy, and Enforcement.  If you go back to the bad old days of the 18th and 19th centuries, we had a largely agrarian economy and most property was real land or the structures built on that land.  We still use the term “real property” today, but the percentage of property considered to be “intellectual property” is far greater than ever before.  Worse, the rules governing intellectual property have progressively favored longer and longer granting of exclusive rights to that property.  Had the wheel been just recently invented and patented, nobody could use wheels without a license for the next 81 years.  Witness the 2015 legal kerfuffle over rights to the “Happy Birthday” song and lyrics.  Yes, you can now sing it without a paying a royalty, but somebody had to bring it to court for that to happen.  In some areas of commerce, intellectual property rights lend themselves to a monopoly such as in areas of social media, but even the lowly razor long used in shaving, grants the Gillette company a virtual monopoly for a fairly simple tool as the purveyors of a monthly razor subscription service just learned by lawsuit. Start-ups are at a distinct disadvantage and politicians that continuously add to the exclusive rights periods of property, seem to get a share of the largess through campaign contributions by firms wanting to protect their property.

In the area of contracts, time was when most contracts were between equals or comparables, and breaches were handled by lawsuits. Now that is so constrained as to be rare.  You typically sign an agreement to proceed to mandatory arbitration paid for by a large company that has deep pockets and pays for that arbitrator with the result that over 70% of decisions favor that purchaser of the arbitration service.  By contrast, in court only 40% favored the corporation.  Arbitration works well for your telephone or cable-company, but how well does it work for you as a consumer?  Likewise, an agreement not to compete between drug companies combined with the time extension of exclusive rights means that you, as a meds purchaser will pay a higher price because competition has been legally forbidden and the time to go generic has been pushed off into a distant future.  Both the original and generic makers are blessed with high profits while you are cursed with their legal but morally questionable contract.  You lose.

Bankruptcy was an early capitalistic concept that permitted individuals to get away from the threat of debtors’ prison, but there are serious questions as to how decisions are made to implement that concept.  Student debt cannot be eliminated through bankruptcy, yet Donald Trump has declared bankruptcy at least four times.  Those bankruptcies resulted in the impoverishment of people who were not paid for their labor or their “earned” pensions (as also with United Airlines) and many suppliers of goods and services were left with pennies on the dollar while Trump himself was made whole for most of his investments.  Fair?  Mr. Trump surely thinks so.  Similarly, Bain Capital of Mitt Romney fame appropriated pension funds and other assets of companies they took over and declared bankruptcy for several firms in its approach to legally use the bankruptcy rules for personal advantage and the severe disadvantage of workers who depended on their earned pensions and the jobs that were often shipped overseas as part of “restructuring.”  Labor unions and workers were once considered legitimate stakeholders in corporate economic actions.  Today unions represent only about 9% of non-government workers and there, the Supreme Court will soon rule on whether members of a teachers union must pay dues, thus ripping income from an already wounded “stakeholder.”  In the 30s, 40s and 50s when union strength peaked, the income gap and wealth gap of Americans was at its lowest.  It was not coincidence and the creation of “right to work states” stripped power from unions during that following period of weakening unions while the income and wealth gaps again increased.  Workers became so expendable that they lost thousands of jobs to Investment Capital and Venture Capital firms that were able to export jobs to nations with low wages and also were able to legally confiscate earned pensions from purchased corporations.  Workers lost rights and money.  Overwhelmingly, a handful of “Mitt Romneys” of our nation prospered.

The final category developed and explained by Reich is Enforcement.  As you may imagine, enforcement has some interesting issues related to the political side of our capitalism.  An example provided by the author is that the official policy for income taxes assures us that tax liabilities are measured and used to apply the rules.  However, the current GOP Congress decided that it did not want to support finding big tax dodgers and therefore enforcement was cut back.  This decision was made despite the statistic that for every dollar spent in tax enforcement (audits, etc.) twenty-five dollars in tax income is earned by the federal government.  Perhaps this was a quiet rebuke to President Obama, but it had the effect of reducing government income, regardless of motivation.  Even the concept of “small government” itself is misleading since many conservatives want to reduce enforcement of regulations in areas like environmental protection (witness the BP oil spill and the toxic lead in Flint, MI drinking water).  On the other hand, they want to beef up and privatize military spending or have government add staff to monitor birth control, abortions and Congressional investigations.  These are decisions based on cherished ideologies rather than cold logic.  Large corporations with legions of lawyers are time-consuming tax targets that require larger government staffs to effectively audit.  Cuts disproportionately benefitted wealthy individuals and corporations that might otherwise be audited.  Of course, those same corporations (people?) invest heavily in political campaigns to promote those very politicians that seem to favor the corporations, but that is only coincidental happenstance, right?

How can all this be?  Hedge fund traders (many making a $1 B or more per year) are taxed using “carried interest” (also called performance fee) rules that tax their gains as ordinary income (also true for companies like Bain and their managers).  You and I cannot.  

This entire issue of legality should cause us to review how things become “legal” in our nation.  How can we permit the very wealthy like the Koch brothers to spend $889M for the current presidential election without concluding that their purpose is to buy elections?  The short answer is that the capitalistic economic system does not work in a vacuum of a free market as the mythology suggests.  There is no “free” market except for what the political forces allow.  The longer answer must include that the Supremes decided that “one person = one vote” was undemocratic and that “$1 = one vote” was “freedom of speech.”  Maybe the Supremes only talk money. Traders also invest in politicians that write favorable tax rules.  Another coincidence!  You probably thought that we had a consumer economy.  In good times, we do.  In the current time, we have an investment economy and if you have enough dollars to invest in the right politicians, the tax rules are a payoff while the other is that if you are too big to fail or pay taxes, your losses will be covered by the taxpayers themselves (another payoff for investment in politicians).  We privatize winnings and socialize losses.  Conservative Socialism.  Be too big to fail.  Stiff the taxpayers and get bigger.  Hmm.  Lobbying has become a growth industry but we taxpayers simply do not have the monetary resources to hire lobbyists to compete with the big players.  “Legality” is the result of judicial interpretation of laws made by our legislators and influenced by lobbyists who are paid to represent specific interests and enforced by people with ideological agendas.

As another example of how the rules permit a legal fleecing of the taxpayer, you may be surprised that CEOs need to report their incomes for stock accounting purposes.  CEO salaries and bonuses and other compensation are indeed reportable and tax deductable.  In most nations that has not changed the basic CEO compensation ratio with the average worker (e.g., 50: 1 in Germany).  In America, that ratio has become about 400 to one.  That fact has actually changed what US companies do for a living.  Instead of a focus on manufacturing or providing services and sharing its largess with all stakeholders, what happens, increasingly, is that the value of a company is measured by its stock price.  CEOs are paid mostly on shareholder value.  They take most of their income in stock (often at special pricing) and then proceed to increase the value of their company’s stock at the expense of quality products made here at home.  As a personal example, when GM bought Hughes Aircraft in 1985, the company was a highly skilled high tech and engineering company in LA with about 78,000 employees and capable of competing for the highest technology contracts in government and civilian efforts.  A few years later, the company was down to about 27,000 employees and incapable of significant contracts in technology.  The target stock price of, say, $55/share was reached and the remaining pieces of the company were sold.  GM did not have to make anything.  It simply played the stock market and rewarded the management team for great (non) work.  The concept was absolutely legal, despite several lawsuits for questionable firing practices.  GM won the day.  Engineers lost.  America lost.  Allowing that to be legal meant that the rules had to be in place beforehand.  It is noteworthy that GM was bailed out by our government in 2007-2008.  Unfortunately, that was repeated all over America and workers won the race to the bottom while CEOs won the race to the top. Their compensation is deductable by the company, e.g., Hughes/GM or Wigits Inc. and therefore the company pays less in taxes and the cycle begins anew with influencing the political element to favor the wealthy corporations and individuals.  It never stops.  True, some companies like GM blamed their problems on unions, but, as an example, GM ran Saturn for more than 20 years in a union free environment and was unable to earn a dollar.  Top-heavy management without a quality product focus outweighs any union expense.

Robert Reich seems to feel that the “haves” will see the hazards of continuing this unstable US model of capitalism and will willingly, if grudgingly, provide legislative and corporate relief through new decisions and by more modest personal enrichment.  As I see the history of the 20s, the decisions will be made in the streets, not in the boardrooms, nor in a lobbyist crowded Congress.  Prove me wrong.  Please.

22 Jan 2016
George Giacoppe

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Whitey's Last Stand

The invasion of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, led by two sons of rogue Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, seems to be fulfilling some of the rhetoric advanced by conservatives in recent years about government being the enemy. While it is not clear if Ronald Reagan really believed in a nation without government (surely many of his corporate friends and allies got rich off the government welfare known as military contracts), he certainly made it sound as if he did. It is not clear, either, if he was really urging Americans to rebel against government intrusion into their lives, nor if the general Republican support for the NRA means to encourage flag-waving militia types to take up arms in that fight, but that is what the rhetoric has now led to. The handful of “patriots” waving flags and insisting that they are upholding the Constitution are, in fact, heavily armed. And the fact that they are indeed armed is no doubt the major factor prompting government agencies to use extraordinary caution in confronting them. Just imagine, for a second, that the group that took over the Wildlife Refuge had been peaceful, nonviolent protestors urging moreprotection for wildlife. The media would have been full of diatribes against left-wingers violating the law, endangering the public peace, and full of dire warnings that the government should deal with such ruffians severely or risk open rebellion. We saw what happened, in fact, to most of the Occupy Movement’s nonviolent participants: many were beaten, most were arrested and harassed and their possessions seized. The government was clear that such interference in the daily life of commerce (on Wall Street first, then elsewhere) could not be tolerated. But in Oregon, in a clear insurrection that has illegally taken over federal government buildings with the threat of force, the feds have declined to act, saying they prefer not to interfere in a local matter. And the local sheriff has urged—verbally only; there has not been even a hint of a police force coming to mount an attack to remove them, or even observe them—has pleaded with the protestors to remove themselves  and just go home peacefully. It is as if law enforcement is simply too frightened or wary or reluctant to engage with white guys with guns. Someone nice (white), after all, might get hurt.
            And that is what I think we have to take from this episode, however it turns out. The forces of the law seem perfectly willing and capable of understanding why white ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands might be frustrated. Why they might have some ‘beef’ with the federal government. Why they might keep insisting that the federal government has no right to the millions of acres of land they have set aside for national parks or national forests or any other national purpose—the main objective of which, since Teddy Roosevelt, has been to preserve the rich natural heritage of the United States for the use of ALL of its citizens. That is, rather than allow every available inch of mountain and valley and river to be occupied and exploited and ruined by commercial interests bent on extracting every bit of mineral or timber or grassland wealth from it as soon as possible, the federal government chose to set aside some of the most pristine and spectacular landscapes so that all its citizens—not just the rich or powerful or exploitative—could use and enjoy them. So that some species, threatened by the very industrial uses of the corporate powers at issue, might survive a bit longer. All of which infuriates those (mostly white) ranchers and miners and timber moguls who now have to be careful about how they use those lands, mainly through leases, and must be subject to the rules and regulations of the federal government intent on preserving them. Ah no, they say. The feds have no right to these lands in the first place. We who came to the West (most of these militants are from western states like Idaho and Montana and even Oregon, which were viewed by white settlers as the last places they could enjoy free from the encroachment of the darker races overrunning the cities) and were given huge land grants, mostly for a pittance, have an inalienable right to even those lands we weren’t given outright. An inalienable right to spread out and extract from those free lands all the wealth we have earned by the sweat of our white brows (i.e. by getting the lands free, and now by being able to use all of nature’s bounty that god has given free, white America without any cost whatsoever). The invaders in Oregon (they call themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom) have posted a sign summing up their position: “BLM [Bureau  of Land Management]: Another Intrusive Tyrannical Government Entity Doing What They Do Best—Abusing Power & Oppressing the Backbone of America.”
            And so we have frauds like Cliven Bundy, who signed up with the federal government to lease, for a yearly fee, the lands he can use to graze (i.e. fatten) his cattle on, and then decided that paying the back lease fees he owes to the Federal Government —amounting to more than a million dollars—was an intolerable intrusion on his rights. In other words, though paying lease fees is an accepted part of the cost of doing business, Bundy simply decided he didn’t want to pay those costs at all, and so reneged on his agreement, and then took up arms to protect his ‘free’ lands from government agents who came to collect. This is basically equivalent to a company deciding to not pay its rent to the property owner. Or a regular citizen refusing to pay taxes to a local government.  But these militia types frame it as one of the freedoms they have (and the government doesn’t have) under the Constitution. It is no such thing. It’s fraud, pure and simple, and they should all be arrested and locked up for fraudulent, criminal behavior.
            But as of this writing, the government has still refused to eject these white guys from their illegal occupation of government property—an occupation that is, according to a local judge, costing the government (i.e. you and me) some $75,000 a day. Nice work, if you can get it. If you’re white, that is. And armed. And taking a last stand on your whiteness before the dark hordes take over majority status—as all population projections say they will in a few years. This is really the issue here. White Americans, and especially white southern and western Americans, see the writing on the wall, see that they will soon become a minority in what they consider ‘their own country,’ and are foaming at the mouth contemplating that awful eventuality, that overturning of the “natural order of things.” And this is also why they are flocking to support racist demagogues like Donald Trump—that pasty-faced sandy-haired epitome of whiteness who best expresses the barely-suppressed violence they wish to inflict on the ‘politically-correct’ world that seems ready to deprive them of the white privilege they’ve come to expect as their due.
            And so we have Ammon Bundy, trying his best to act peaceful and reasonable even as he violates the law. And so we have Donald Trump, trying his best to frame himself as the rough-and-ready (but peaceful!) standard-bearer of embittered white men like Ammon Bundy. And so we have a timorous government trying its best to avoid a confrontation with an entire population that it no doubt sees as ready to explode, choosing instead to direct its wrath at its darker charges who might be harboring a similar wrath, but who are still less numerous, less armed, less organized, and because they have been beaten down for so long, feeling less entitled and thereby less dangerous.
            It is a nauseating spectacle that only confirms what progressives have been saying for years: the deck is stacked, the game is fixed, but the cracks are beginning to show and will soon prove too obvious and catastrophic for even the card sharps to disguise. And when that happens, this ‘standoff’ may well prove to have been the start of Whitey’s last stand.

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Fear as Weapon

We have been afraid before
But we came together with resolve
What is that lion at the door
Is it real or has it evolved
From imagined predators
Or salesmen we abhor
Before we run into the bog
Let us shun the demagogue

Fear is something that we all know and feel, but only rarely is it a driving force in our lives.  In recent months, however, the use of fear by either well meaning but unstable politicians, or those “pols” who are actually nefarious enough to use fear to gain a competitive advantage is stunning.  Nature gave us the innate fear of fire, heights, loud noises, etc., for our protection and preservation.  Normally, the degree of felt fear is commensurate with the level of the threat.  Higher heights and bigger fires produce greater responses than lesser threats.  However, when fear is used a weapon, the internal response is sometimes non-linear and irrational.  That is where we are as a nation today.  Many of our national politicians have joined to denounce Syrian refugees as too great a threat to be permitted into the US.  Tragically, demagogues like Chris Christie of NJ, have grossly exaggerated the threat of 3-year old Syrian orphans as immigrants.  It is also pathetic that the drowned Syrian boy so widely seen in the media was age three.  Forget, will you, that Canada is accepting more Syrians in less time.  Canada is not frozen in fear, despite the climactic disadvantage they have.  Why is that?

Prior to the tragedy of San Bernadino where 14 were killed and 22 wounded, national politicians decried the lack of perfect screening of refugees and demanded that the State Department certify any Syrian refugee.  Really?  We have to certify each refugee?  I was so upset that I placed a note on the Facebook page for my US Representative.  I reminded Representative Ken Calvert that our greatest threat except for 9/11 has been home grown terrorists like Tim McVey and that we lose over 30,000 Americans to gun violence each year which is 10 times the most we ever lost to terrorists in a single incident.  The posting was removed in less than an hour.  This leads me to believe that his motivation was more GOP politics than an actual concern for a real threat from Syrian refugees.  Shamefully, 47 Democrats including a friend, John Garamendi of California, joined Republicans to prohibit Syrian refugee entry.  Bipartisanship for xenophobia and prejudice!   What a concept. 

In 1939 and in the early 40s we had shiploads of Jews wandering the oceans instead of the deserts seeking refuge and a homeland.  The US refused them entry.  Many did not survive the holocaust.  There are over 4 million Syrian refugees.  How many will not survive?  Perhaps fear is stronger than shame.  Be proud, you fearless politicians!  Most GOP candidates for President want boots on the ground and a land war in the Meddle East to gain territory from a noisy Caliphate, but are afraid of 3 year old orphans?  We won and lost Fallujah at least twice with great casualties and these brilliant GOP strategists and tacticians want another land war to take land like Fallujah from ISIS?  This is when a little fear might be healthy so that they avoid a stupid repetition of our Iraqi errors.  They want to commit troops we do not have to another war half-way around the world to stay there and keep the land?  They must know that a “No Trespassing” sign will not work, even if we are lucky enough to succeed.  So we need to keep boots on the ground.  They know that we cannot leave the dirt to the Shiite Iraqi government.  The US trained Shiites ran at first opportunity and left all weapons and equipment to ISIS.  Senator Cruz wants to carpet bomb Syria without civilian casualties.  Will somebody please translate “carpet bomb” into (Canadian) Texan so that we don’t destroy Syria to save it?  There is no precision “carpet bombing” target whether it glows in the dark or not.  It is an oxymoron from what may be a moron.  That is scary.  It is as scary as the GOP candidate concept of a “No-Fly” zone that will work if and only if you are willing to create a battlefield of Air Supremacy (not the Air Superiority we currently have against Russia).  Even with Air Supremacy, expect losses.  Tell me again why you want a no-fly zone?  You don’t want refugees, but you are willing to make more refugees with carpet bombing and to risk WW III with a no-fly zone?  Of course, that makes perfect nonsense.  Especially if you are using fear to motivate the electorate to believe that you have the solution to the fear that you have created.  You can solve the problem you create if only people will vote for you to chase away the scapegoats that you name and accept the problems that you create.

I found it highly instructive that the GOP candidates at the Las Vegas “debate” were unanimous in their selective amnesia about Iraq and the region.  They blamed President Obama.  It was the Bush Administration and specifically the work of Bremer in the role of governor who destroyed the balance of power in the region that had Iran and Iraq so well matched before our invasion.  Before the war, the only trained administrators and military leaders were Sunni (Baath Party members).  Bremer fired the whole lot including 40,000 teachers and the entire experienced military down to the rank of private.  General Garner, who preceded Bremer had eliminated Colonels on up, but preserved junior leaders and non-commissioned officers for the government of Iraq. He fired no teachers.  This was nation-building by Bremer?  It played right into the nation of Iran if that is what Bush meant by nation-building, but it destroyed Iraq or the possibility that Iraq could rebuild itself in a vacuum of experience and talent.  The candidates seemed to suggest that we should have kept troops in Iraq despite an unfavorable SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and the burgeoning cost, now over $3 Trillion.  And whose Iraq would that be?  Would the remaining Iraqi people petition for US statehood?  The unspoken assumption was that we should still be in Iraq in numbers great enough to repel all enemies as though it were our country.  It is not.  And remember, take no prisoners…or refugees.

We have often had demagogues, even in war, but if we recall the history of WW II, fear was controlled,  even as we had two great war machines bearing down on us (and a few Fiats).  Before the war, there were isolationists and some of them had ulterior motives, but after December 7, 1941, they were drowned out by our collective strength. Media supported the effort, including Gabriel Heater who intoned nightly:  “There’s good news tonight.”  Politicians argued about economics and rationing, but not about the conduct of the war.  Now we have FOX News and many conservative fear mongers who want to be president in the worst way and are trying their best to be worst.  Don’t buy the fear…and change the channel.  Fear needs no facts, only images of the boogeyman that is under your bed.  Turn the lights on and turn the demagogues off.  Notice that facts have become increasingly scarce.  Look up PolitiFact online for the Las Vegas debate.  I was surprised at the extent of distortion and flat lying by candidates.  The mere look of Senator Rubio when attacked by Senator Cruz tells the story, but then Rubio had his own distortions.  Facts can help us put light on this dishonest and dangerous time when demagogues are trolling for your vote. Syrian refugees as dangerous enemies in your home-town…seriously?  We can do better than that.  Canadians are already taking more Syrian refugees and we boast of being number one?  Greeks have over one million refugees; Germans and Swedes and French have hundreds of thousands.  Fear?  Be afraid of the millions of guns we have with little control and our home-grown fundamentalists and extremists who use them with support of the same politicians who have made fear from thin air and terrified refugees.

Other leaders in decades past were ruthless in using fear to gain power.  Our own Senator McCarthy spoke of Communists in every city and village.  Foreign dictators used their scapegoats to gain power.  Jews and other minorities were singled out for blame.  Economic programs were halted to step up the shrill claxon for war.  We have seen this movie before.  Can we leave now?


22 Dec 2015
George Giacoppe

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Oyster Wars

When I first saw the title of Summer Brennan’s book (The Oyster War, Counterpoint: 2015) about the conflict in the Point Reyes area over the fate of the commercial oyster company in Drake’s Estero, I thought it was a bit of hyperbole. Yes, I knew there was controversy over whether to allow the relatively new Drake’s Bay Oyster Company (its owners, the Lunnys, bought the business from the older Johnson’s Oyster Company in 2004) to continue raising oysters in the Point Reyes National Seashore, or enforce the agreement Johnson had signed years earlier to stop operations in 2012 and allow the area to revert to the wilderness status demanded by the Wilderness Act. I had seen the hand-painted blue and white signs urging locals to “Save Our Drake’s Bay Oyster Company” displayed in front of dozens of homes and along highways near my home town of Bolinas. My neighbor Walter, an avowed conservationist, had talked to me often about how this exhortation should not be followed, and that the Lunnys should be forced to close the business to preserve the wilderness of one of the great stretches of wild seashore still left in America. But I had never been involved in any real discussions of the pros and cons, nor had I read all that much about it either. I just knew that in years past, no family gathering at my brother’s place was complete without a trip to Johnson’s to get a carton of oysters for barbecuing. And I really liked having barbecued oysters available locally—as many West Marinites clearly did. They were standard fare at local restaurants and at street celebrations. Almost an emblem of the place. So I was initially inclined to support the continued raising of the oysters, though I knew little about them or the cost they might present to the environment and nearby wildlife.
            Once I read Brennan’s in-depth account, though, detailing the history of oyster growing in the larger Bay Area, and outlining the reasons and rationales and strategies of the embattled sides, I was pretty convinced that right had prevailed. In 2014, as I finally learned in the last pages of Brennan’s book, the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was forced to shut down its operations, and clean up after itself. By the November 2012 order of the Interior Department, the term of lease for the Oyster company was allowed to expire, with no new lease forthcoming, and the whole place was bulldozed, the waters cleansed of all detritus—mostly plastic bits from the oyster racks upon which local oysters must be cultivated—and all signs of the operation disappeared. Drake’s Estero—the small estuary at the head of which Johnson’s and then Lunny’s operations had been located—was returned to its “natural” state as a federally-designated wilderness area, as provided for in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and all subsequent rulings.
            The problem, of course, was that the order by Interior Secretary Salazar, like all previous orders to suspend operations in 2012, was not obeyed without a fight. The war and the oyster operation would continue, because the Lunnys and their supporters decided to exhaust their last option and take their cause to court. Though in the end this proved futile when the courts yet again ruled against them, this last development typified the case: it was not just a struggle by a commercial oyster grower to continue operations in a National Park, but a much larger ‘war’ symbolic of both the business vs. government battle that has come to signify our era, and as a more local contest between usually allied neighbors in the entire area around Point Reyes. In other words, as I would come to discover, the title of Summer Brennan’s book was no hyperbole: this was a real war and its effects are still being felt in bruised and broken relationships throughout West Marin and beyond.
            What Summer Brennan does in her book is provide the background for the “war” that is still ongoing. She informs us that oysters have been ‘grown’ in Drake’s Estero mostly since 1957, when Charlie Johnson started his operation (a small oyster ‘farming’ operation had been there since 1925). More importantly, she points out clearly that, unlike the insistence of Lunny supporters that Drake’s Bay Oyster Co. was reviving the “natural” oyster habitat that had existed at Point Reyes since Indian times, oysters have never grown naturally in or around Point Reyes: not in Drake’s Estero, not in nearby Tomales Bay where two more oyster operations still exist, not even in San Francisco Bay where John Stillwell Morgan had a large oyster operation in the 19th century. All these operations had been forced, like the Johnsons, to import the “spat” or seed, and hang them on wire or plastic “strings” hanging from wooden platforms so they can feed on nutrients in the waters. The reason stems from the sandy conditions of the shorelines in and around San Francisco Bay and Point Reyes. To establish themselves naturally, oysters require a rocky substrate on which to fasten their shells—like the ones that exist in New York Harbor and the surrounding rivers that, before industrialization polluted them, spawned a cornucopia of oysters. Thus unable to get oysters to grow naturally, Johnson imported his oyster spat from Japan, and with tutelage from his Japanese wife, used the platform-and-string technique Japanese oyster growers had long used. Morgan, despite determined efforts to grow oysters in San Francisco Bay, had done something similar: he imported young oysters from Washington state and the East where they grow naturally, and raised them to maturity here. One more important fact: the Wilderness Act of 1964, and the Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, had mandated that the National Park Service implement “wilderness” within its borders—and Drake’s Estero had been designated as “potential wilderness.” In other words, it was to be restored to actual wilderness status whenever possible—by eliminating the oyster farm. Don Neubacher, superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, decided that the forty-year lease that in 1972 had granted the Johnsons their right to grow oysters should not be extended. He re-emphasized that the termination date was still 2012, and notified Johson’s heirs. Johnson’s son Tom, who’d been having trouble with pollution from an inadequate septic system, soon thereafter sold his oyster operation to Kevin Lunny, a longtime rancher on Point Reyes. Though Lunny knew of the plan to terminate the RUO (Reservation of Use and Occupancy) in 2012, he bought the oyster operation anyway, positive that by solving the environmental problems he could persuade the Park Service to renew the lease.
            Lunny was wrong. There had been continuing complaints about the environmental mess (the pollution from the septic system, running motor boats in the Estero, plastic detritus) created by the Johnsons’ oyster operation, including the problem of disturbing the harbor seals that traditionally use Drake’s Estero as a resting and spawning spot. The National Park Service wanted to make Point Reyes as “natural” as possible for visitors, though it concluded that the ranching/dairying operations that had long thrived there could continue within limits. The problem, of course, arose with the notion of restoring any environment to its “natural” state. The concept was commonly understood but plagued by problems of interpretation, and into that dubious area sprang Lunny supporters, especially a nearby resident and prominent neuroscientist named Corey Goodman. Goodman inundated newspapers and government officials with reports questioning the Park Service data about harm to harbor seals and government misuse of what he called “false science”. Beyond that, the Lunny camp recruited local Supervisor Steve Kinsey to its ranks, and managed to get U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein to lobby on behalf of extending the lease of the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company. Feinstein managed to push a Special Use Permit through the Congress, stipulating measures the oyster farm was to take to not disturb either seals or eelgrass, and the Lunnys signed it in April 2008. But the fight was far from over. Lunny and his supporters rallied everyone they could, as did the opposing side—so that by now the local community was split into such fiercely opposed factions that neighbors and even families split over their differences. On the one side were those officials and scientists from the Park Service, many local residents among them, who saw the dispute as putting all national parks at risk. As one resident wrote, the dispute was simply a “shell game” carried on by a local business enlisting major politicians to allow it to do what the lease termination and a respect for wilderness forbid it to do. If an exception was made for Drake’s Bay, he wrote, all national parks would henceforth be in greater danger from commercial operations seeking to take private advantage of land set aside for the public. On the other side were many local residents and some national organizations who viewed the dispute as an emblem of a larger conflict, pitting excessive government authority against private enterprise. On this side were not only local residents who saw the oyster farm as promoting a local business (good) over mass chains (bad), and as promoting good local jobs for oyster farm workers, but also national conservative organizations. A Washington, DC group named Cause of Action entered the fray, with its executive director, Dan Epstein, drawing the connection between the heavy-handed National Park Service lease denial and the plight of small businesses everywhere harassed by environmental regulations. But when it turned out that Epstein had once worked for one of the infamous Koch Brothers, and that Koch Brothers money was financing Cause of Action, many local supporters expressed dismay and disavowed their support.
            What I did not understand until recently, however, was how such a dispute could rip chasms in local communities that would linger even after the dispute was finally settled, and the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was closed. In recent weeks, after having read Brennan’s book and been impressed by it, I thought to mention the book to a friend I knew who lived in Inverness (the tiny community adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore), and who I was sure would favor the closure and want to read it. I mentioned the book, and walked into a mini-volcano of vituperation. ‘The book is totally biased,’ she began; and then proceeded to attack the author as having been ‘hired by the Sierra Club to do a hatchet job,’ and as a ‘blonde chippy with her New York hairdo.’ I was stunned. My friend then insisted that the oyster farm had been there for over 100 years (she was close, if we count from the first operation in 1925), and that there was tons of evidence that Native Americans had eaten oysters, thus proving they had grown in the area all along (Brennan actually does concede that a very few oyster shells have been found in middens, but reasons that they were probably traded from groups farther north where they do grow.) I dropped the subject, not wanting to initiate a new war over something I didn’t truly have a stake in, but the incident puzzled me. When I asked my local librarian, who lives in Point Reyes Station, what could prompt people to defend a business that violated the clear law about not extending the permit, she indicated several reasons: people favoring a local business growing local food (but the oysters are NOT local; they have to be imported from Japan or Washington or elsewhere), people upset at the loss of so many jobs by mostly Hispanic workers, many of whom lived on the site, and friends who had known the Lunnys for years.
            These are all sound reasons, I suppose. But still, it is fascinating to me—again with no dog in this fight; I haven’t eaten oysters in years—that such a dispute could cause so much passion and anger that my librarian actually said she can’t even mention the word “oyster” in public any more. After all, the end result is that Drake’s Estero is now as clean and pristine as the rest of the National Seashore and can be enjoyed by millions. Is that not what most people out here want? Apparently not when it conflicts with their version of what’s right. Indeed, the same is true of disputes that have arisen among locals over what to do with the fallow and axis deer that have, since their introduction years ago, begun to overrun the native herds on Point Reyes. When the Park Service decided that it had to cull the herds by shooting some of them, residents went crazy. Killing those sweet deer. But the deer, without any natural predators, have spread like the European grasses they feed on. They menace any local garden not fenced in. They overrun their natural habitat to the point that they can begin to starve (as they did recently on Angel Island) for lack of food. What is one to do? Brennan has a chapter on this problem in her book—the problem of invasives such as grasses and eucalyptus trees and flowering plants and many types of fish and rodents and other mammals. What is to be done? Without natural predators, and with invasives from all over the globe having been moved randomly with our ships and goods, we are drastically altering environments everywhere by upsetting the balance between predator and prey built up over millennia. What is to be done?
            But of course, this is a related but fairly separate matter. With respect to the oyster farm in Drake’s Estero, the Interior Department and the National Park Service have made their decision. Oyster farming on Point Reyes no longer exists, and I, for one, think the decision made was a good one—one that benefits far more people (and the local ecology) than it hurts. But clearly, many many others disagree and given the signs will likely nurse their grievance for years. And this makes me wonder: when it comes to the far more disruptive measures needed to mitigate runaway climate change, can we ever get agreement on what to do? Can we ever get over the battles that will ensue? Once I might have said that rational humans could agree, especially in a crisis as potentially catastrophic as global warming and sea-level rise. After the oyster wars, though, I’m not so sure.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Truth: Does Anyone Give a Damn?

The never-ending saga of the American political campaign for the presidential nomination has revealed (or newly emphasized) some amazing fractures where truth is concerned. Each week, it seems, one of the Republican aspirants for the crown issues a new “whopper” that the major media organizations still seem loathe to call a “lie.” Leading the pack, of course, is Donald Trump, the man who seems to have no moral sense whatever. His latest whopper involves his claim that he personally “saw” thousands of Arabs cheering in Jersey City as they watched the twin towers fall on 9/11. Even faced with evidence that his claim is impossible—by both reporters and rivals like New Jersey governor Chris Christie—Trump has stuck to his story, this past week only modifying it some by saying that what he saw was on television, and then that millions of people around the globe are convinced that they saw it too. And yet, no one calls him a “liar,” which is what he so clearly is. Rather, the shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh back him up, saying his essential facts are “what everyone in the world knows.” Ben Carson, also vying for the nomination (though no one can really say why; Carson himself seems to think God has chosen him for the role), has also been caught in several ‘whoppers,’ especially regarding his youth. He claimed that, when young, he was a ‘bad boy’ who had stabbed someone, until this proved slightly exaggerated; he also claimed that he had been offered a scholarship to West Point, though everyone else knows that those who are admitted attend the military academy for free. Like Trump, though, Carson has refused to recant, and simply offers slightly amended versions of his whoppers. And Carly Fiorina, the one-time CEO of Hewlett-Packard (which nearly expired under her tenure), has famously insisted that she “saw” videos of feminists harvesting fetal brains, though no such videos have ever been located. She also continues to claim that 92% of the jobs lost under President Obama were lost by women—though the same statistic was once used by the Romney campaign until it was seen to be so obviously false the campaign abandoned it. And others in the Republican camp keep doing the same thing: uttering false statistics and faux facts that they refuse to recant. The reasons seems clear: none of the candidates seems to suffer in the polls because of such lies. Their supporters only double down, like the candidates, in their support and, also like them, attribute the criticism of their darlings to “liberal-left media bias.”
            What has happened? Do Americans care anymore about holding the aspirants to public office to something as arcane as truth? Do most contemporary Americans even have the capability to distinguish truth from lies? Or do most people now prefer what Stephen Colbert hilariously called “truthiness”—the feel in our gut that we are right, without the need for all that tedious evidence, and logic, and fact.
            These and other questions are very much at issue in Charles Lewis’ recent book, 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity (Public Affairs: 2014). Lewis has been a journalist all his adult life, serving as an investigator/producer for Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, and then founding several nonprofit organizations devoted to bolstering the battered profession of investigative journalism, most notably in 1989 when he founded The Center for Public Integrity. What he does in 935 Lies is to show—using some of the familiar cases of the last half-century marked by both government and corporate malfeasance (the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, based on a presidential lie; the Watergate scandal, based on countless presidential lies; the rush to war in Iraq, based on no less than 935 lies by Bush Administration officials claiming Saddam’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction as their casus belli; and the notorious history of tobacco industry denial and obfuscation of the clear link between tobacco smoke and lung cancer)—how both government and corporate lying has become more blatant and ubiquitous over the years. Indeed, Lewis himself had produced the 60 Minutes show on tobacco industry lying called “Tobacco on Trial,” in the course of which he was heavily pressured to kill or at least modify the story by the CEO of CBS, Laurence Tisch. Lewis prevailed in that battle, though a friend of his from ABC, the Emmy-award-winning Marty Koughan, was forced in 1994 to stop his investigation of the tobacco industry on the show Turning Point. Philip Morris had filed a $10 billion libel suit against ABC, and the network executives decided not only to kill the story, but, as part of a settlement, to publicly apologize to Philip Morris for its reporters’ attempt to tell the truth. That truth, as cited by Surgeon-General C. Everett Koop, is that due to the lies of the tobacco industry over the years, “100 million people around the world died from smoking-related illnesses in the 20th Century, according to the World Health Organization,” and that an additional one billion would die in this century. To sum it up, Lewis cites what Marty Koughan told the Washington Post in August 1995: With its lawsuit, Philip Morris had shown that “for a paltry $10 million or $20 million in legal fees…you can effectively silence the criticism” (139).
            This is really the key for Charles Lewis. The problem had morphed from the hiding or censorship of important information by the government, as in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (N. Vietnamese boats had not attacked American warships), or corporations as in the tobacco wars, to self-censorship by the major news media. Lewis saw this firsthand in his attempt to produce a 60 Minutes segment called Foreign Agent, in which he was exposing how former US officials cashed in on their political connections by working as lobbyists on behalf of foreign governments. He had focused on Pete Peterson, a former Commerce Secretary who had become CEO of the investment firm Blackstone, whose consultants were shown in the story to exemplify precisely the government-to-industry pipeline the story was featuring. But Peterson was a close friend of 60 Minutes’creator, Don Hewitt, who told Lewis to ‘edit’ the story. Lewis finally agreed to the edit by substituting former Reagan budget director David Stockman (also with Blackstone) for Peterson. Though that didn’t solve all the problems or the blame laid on Lewis, even by Mike Wallace, the story aired as edited in the end. But Lewis knew he had had enough:
“I had had a jarring epiphany that the obstacles on the way to publishing the unvarnished truth had become more formidable internally than externally” (197). 
In short, even before government or corporate pressures, the media were censoring themselves to avoid trouble and maintain cozy relationships with power. And the real conundrum of television news, according to Lewis, had become (or perhaps always was) the basic conflict between money and truth: “TV is an immensely powerful medium, but its potential to make astonishing sums of money is typically realized only by appealing to the lowest-common-denominator instincts of viewers.” The most famous instance of this was when legendary CBS producer Fred Friendly tried to broadcast live coverage of Senator J. William Fulbright’s 1971 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about the problems in Vietnam. To do so, however, CBS would have to interrupt its profitable daytime reruns of I Love Lucy. Not surprisingly, CBS execs chose I Love Lucy. To have aired the Fulbright hearings over Lucy would have represented, as David Halberstam put it, “a higher price for democracy than most network executives would be willing to pay” (164).
            After quitting CBS in 1989, Charles Lewis founded The Center for Public Integrity, today the largest nonprofit investigative reporting organization in the world. It has not only received Pulitzer prizes, Polk awards, and countless other honors for its serious investigative reporting, but has also inspired other similar organizations to supplant the seriously curtailed reporting traditionally done by large newspapers—who can no longer afford it. Lewis is rather optimistic about these developments, including those on the Internet, and about the continuing ‘thirst’ for the general public to know the truth.
            I am not so sure. Consider what we began with: the serious decline in any price being paid by presidential aspirants who are caught in outrageous lies. The public simply does not seem to care if their public figures shade or distort or completely falsify the truth. This is partly because of the decline in investigative reporting that Lewis details in his book. It is also due to secrecy—the mania for classifying documents that Lewis also records: just recently, for example, the number of US Government documents classified has risen from 8.6 million in 2001 to 23.8 million in 2008, and then in two more years, to 76.7 million documents classified in 2010. All of these documents require security clearance of one degree or another, with 1.2 million Americans now having Top Secret clearance to read them. As Lewis puts it, “our citizenry is divided into two tiers—a small elite with access to inside knowledge about our government, and a vast lower echelon that is kept in the dark” (227-8). But what Lewis cited about the dumbing down of the media is also clearly a factor. Here, a recent article by Matt Taibbi has some very salient points to make.
            Taibbi’s article (in Rolling Stone, reprinted 27 November on Reader Supported News), responding to the same lies by Republican candidates cited above, is titled: “America is Too Dumb for TV News.” Like many of us, Taibbi is shocked by the apparent indifference of the public to the level of lying, and more, to the lack of any penalty paid by the liars when their lies are publicly exposed. As he puts it, it used to be that “if a candidate said something nuts…the candidate ultimately was either vindicated, apologized, or suffered terrible agonies.” As, for example, Al Gore did when confronted with his implication that he had invented the Internet. Now, however, politicians “are learning that they can say just about anything and get away with it.” They just blame the media and get to be heroes to their media-hating base, which is convinced that the liberal media is all “controlled by special interests” who want an established candidate as their nominee.
            But Taibbi goes deeper, into what major media in this nation have become—“a consumer business that’s basically indistinguishable from selling cheeseburgers or video games.” Where once TV news was dominated by Edward R. Murrow and real investigative reports on important issues of the day, now it’s nothing but “murders, bombs, and panda births, delivered to thickening couch potatoes in ever briefer blasts of forty, thirty, twenty seconds.”  The results are clear: When you make the news into this kind of consumer business, pretty soon “audiences lose the ability to distinguish between what they think they’re doing, informing themselves, and what they’re actually doing, shopping.” So it’s not just that at some point, TV executives decided that their audiences preferred I Love Lucy (and the money they coughed up for goods promoted there) to Fulbright Senate Committee Hearings on dull old Vietnam; it’s also that after many years of this, audiences simply no longer have the ability to distinguish between corporate-generated pseudo-news and real information necessary to a democracy. Between the truth as supported by facts, and the lies that stroke their preferences about the way things in the world are, or should be. Most people must know, by now, that what they’re seeing on TV commercials are lies—distortions of the truth, if not outright fabrications. The problem is, the commercial lies begin to bleed over into the news distortions. The news omissions. The news that becomes simply a slight makeover of whatever foreign or domestic position the opinion-makers hand out for us to believe.
            And perhaps it’s even more basic than that. It really becomes a question of how much truth we wish to know, or can bear to know. How much do we wish to know about the dire predictions regarding climate change? Regarding the complex mess in Syria deriving from our own foreign misadventures? Regarding the critical state of our oceans, or our garbage dumps, or what we’re doing to our own bodies, our own planet? About how we’re being manipulated daily by the most corrupt, murderous, money-hungry corporations on this planet, who have literally become governments unto themselves. About how the endless dramas on TV about cops and their glorious efforts to protect us are really meant to disguise how corrupt they truly are, how specifically designed to protect only certain segments of the population while controlling the ‘other’ segments, even unto their deaths? How much of this do we really want to know? Or would we rather tune in to I Love Lucy?
            In short, though we are surely the target of massive deception from above, we also collude in our own self-deception; the self-censorship we confront stems, at least in part, from our own willingness to leave the hard decisions to others. Trained by media to be spectators at the pro game rather than players in our own, to be watchers rather than actors or singers or protestors, we grow more and more content to let the world proceed along lines of least resistance and enjoy our mediated world, our pre-fabricated confinement, our gut-satisfying “truthiness” as Stephen Colbert would have it. That’s because knowing is hard, knowing takes effort, being aware of what is being done to us, and what we’re doing to ourselves forces us to have to think and consider changes. And change is hard. Sadly, the changes have been proceeding at an alarming pace beneath our level of awareness, and have gone very far indeed. Whether we, most of us, can ever get back to that thirst for real truth that Charles Lewis is still convinced has never left us, remains to be seen. But it surely appears, in this terrible season of idiot politics and faith-based slaughter, that the prospects are not very good.

Lawrence DiStasi