Friday, December 30, 2011

Monsanto's Killing Fields

I have recently watched an interview with Dr. Don Huber, Emeritus Professor of Plant Pathology at Purdue specializing in microbiology, that will curl your hair (see the whole 57 minute interview at, and/or another shorter interview with Huber at It deals with Monsanto’s herbicide, Roundup (main ingredient glyphosate), and its growing panoply of Roundup Ready seeds which have been genetically engineered to resist the killing effects of glyphosate, thus allowing farmers to spray Roundup liberally, killing all other plants and allowing the Roundup Ready ones to ‘thrive.’ Roundup Ready seeds now in use include Soy (87% of the worldwide crop), Corn, Canola, Cotton and the recently-authorized-by-USDA Alfalfa and Sugar Beets (despite Huber’s urging to Ag Secretary Vilsack to delay the approval of Roundup Ready Alfalfa). Corporate Agriculture considers this a miracle of American science and a boon to farmers and profits and even our health (with Roundup Ready crops, we are told, fewer pesticides have to be applied; Roundup alone does the job).

Dr. Huber, however, informs us in his dry, unemotional style, that this is not merely a mirage, it is a con, a disaster, a crime against nature itself (my words, not his.) The reasons are legion. To begin with, glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, is, like many other pesticides, a “chelator.” That means it binds or creates a barrier around essential mineral micronutrients which are critical to the very heart of life and growth, especially enzyme function. Most critically, it is not just plants that require enzyme function, all organisms and microorganisms need them. So, to cripple the efficiency of a plant’s mineral uptake is essentially to kill them, and to counteract this killing, Monsanto has genetically engineered seeds whose plants have an alternative pathway for the uptake of some of these essential nutrients. They can ‘survive’ the poison of Roundup thereby. But the key point is this: the plant that gets sprayed with Roundup, even the GMO plant, still gets dosed with large quantities of the Roundup sprayed upon it. So does the soil, with all its microorganisms. Thus you get crops that have glyphosate on and in them (the glyphosate goes to key parts, like the seeds), and soil whose microorganisms are damaged the same way—microorganisms, one of whose main functions is to fight diseases. According to Huber, there are already 40 newly-thriving pathogens on many of our crops—diseases that used to be managed. No more. What’s worse, since these GMO crops—especially corn, soy and alfalfa—are the main feed we give to our stock animals, they too are being affected. A botulism has been seen recently in the intestinal tract of cows because glyphosate in the feed is killing or disabling the normal organisms in the cow’s gut that used to fight it.

Now here is where it gets scary. As noted above, all life employs the same basic mechanisms. So if glyphosate impairs the gut ecology in animals, we can expect that the effect in human stomachs will be similar if not exactly the same. Studies have already been done showing that in virtually 100% of cases, stock animals are showing a deficiency in manganese (needed for its antioxidant properties, its role in protecting plants from disease and its enzyme-activating role in digestion) due to the chelating effect of Roundup Ready feed. There are also studies showing high levels of glyphosate in animal manure (so how use this animal manure on crops???) due to the feed they’re eating (all those Roundup Ready crops, now to include alfalfa), plus some new organism from hell (the electron microscope image of this thing is terrifying) that is suspected of causing reproductive failure in farm animals. First noted by vets in 1998, the fertility failure rate in dairy cattle has reached such proportions—45 to 70%--that dairies now worry about maintaining their stocks (note that Roundup Ready soy and corn were first used as feed in 1998.) And of course, the real killer in all this: though hordes of researchers are trying to identify it, no one yet knows what it is. It seems to be about the same size as a virus, it can be cultured, it is self-replicating, there’s lots of it in GMO corn and soy, but scientists don’t know what it is.

Thus publication about its causes is lagging, but not just for reasons of uncertainty, and here the lugubrious Dr. Huber got as animated as he allows himself to get. Monsanto controls the science in this area. Anyone who does research that is not favorable to its products is either silenced, fired, or prohibited access to all products under patent. Why? because Monsanto makes such research illegal. And the EPA and the FDA and the USDA all go along with it, because the lobby for big agribusiness controls the Congress and all government agencies dealing with such products.

So here’s what we’ve got, folks. We’ve got the most widely-used herbicide in the world killing not only plants (including impairing their ability to fix nitrogen from the air) but essential soil microorganisms and beneficial intestinal organisms in animals. We’ve got GMO crops that allow that product to be used in higher concentrations than ever because we’re told the magic of GMO somehow keeps the stuff off the GMO crop in question, when it doesn’t. And we’ve got symptoms now of some new monster organism that seems to be spreading abortions, infertility and premature aging among the farm animals (not only cattle but chickens, pigs and horses too) on whom we depend. And we haven’t even talked about glyphosate’s proven record as an endocrine disruptor—Huber mentions, in this regard, the notably lowered sperm count of human males, less than half of what it was only 20 years ago. And above all, we have a totally compromised government and its agencies supposedly protecting us, but instead keeping themselves busiest blackballing and outlawing the science and the scientists who have been trying to sound the alarm about all this.

I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready to call for all-out war on Monsanto, on the USDA and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, and everyone else involved in the monstrous system we have allowed to thrive. I’m about ready to sign on with Lierre Keith, who recently called for serious radical action—whatever force it takes—to bring the entire sick system down. I mean, what else is there to do? Appeal to their better nature? It is to laugh, because these people—the CEOs, the so-called scientists Monsanto employs, the toadies in Congress who protect them to keep their state revenues jangling—are willing to poison every living thing on earth in order to maintain their stranglehold on the markets they have cornered. They care not a whit for life—plant life, microbial life, animal life, human life. They care only about killing. Why should we care about them or their sick, profit-driven lives? Why should we not begin a movement that a recent Newsweek column (Newsweek! imagine) predicted would include the following:

There will be prosecutions and show trials. There will be violence, mark my words. Houses burnt, property defaced. (Michael Thomas, Newsweek, Dec. 28)
And I believe there will. And if it targets any of the evil bastards who work, in any way shape or form, for the devil-spawned corporate monstrosity called Monsanto, I for one will cheer and salute and encourage it until the beast is choked on its own deadly brew.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fantasy in Realpolitik

Truth is stranger than fiction
In the political charade
Especially in the diction
Of the candidate parade
Where a word may have meaning
Or perhaps not
Depending on your leaning
And if you smoke pot
As hopefuls scratch and fight
While moving to the right

The current overexposure of politicians calling themselves Republicans in a series of reality dramas being called debates is both humorous and scary. It is like Freddy from Friday the 13th fame meeting up with the Three Stooges for an unscripted joint project. As I studied the eight most common participants, their similarity to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became increasingly clear except that nobody in the old fairy tale group of eight was running for president.
Allow me to introduce the group:

Sleazy is Herman Cain who seems to excel in domestic affairs (six and counting), but has trouble with foreign affairs. Is Libya a real country? Iran has high mountains that keep us out, but we need an electric fence to keep immigrants out. He was chosen by God to run.

Sleepy is Jon Huntsman who has trouble keeping up with the comedians in the group but does not want to stir them enough to notice that he is on stage with another Mormon. He wants to be on the far right of the stage, but is too polite to argue.

Dopey is Rick Perry who cannot list more than 2 items without a brain freeze; wants Congress to work part time and he wants to lead the nation if he does not secede from it. He would prosecute the Social Security Administration for its Ponzi scheme. He was chosen by God to run.

Doc is Ron Paul who sees pot as a personal choice as is the creation of an Army. He is the gold standard for eliminating the Fed. He thinks we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in DC are semi-criminal or entirely criminal. MLK Day is annual Hate Whitey Day.

Happy is Mitt Romney who seems delighted that his career of crushing companies and firing employees or cutting their pay qualifies him as a job creator. Healthcare should be supported by a mandate unless it should not be supported by a mandate. Claims he once saw a poor person, but may flip-flop on that.

Bashful is Rick Santorum who wants sex in the closet where it belongs. Life begins at the thought of sex or slightly before. And flag pins make the man unless they don’t. He was chosen by God to run.

Grumpy is Newt Gingrich who wants to return to child labor to lower wages and wants to fire federal judges he disagrees with while nuking Iran and returning to Iraq. Palestinians are an invented people. Campaigns by others should be more civil. Hypocrisy does not include Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac lobbying or his $300,000 House fine for a Jim Wright style ethics lapse.

Snow White is Michele Bachman who claims an Amazing Immaculate Conception for getting both federal and state money for her farm and husband’s “gay cure” clinic while never getting a subsidy. She claims that our founding fathers worked tirelessly to free the slaves despite Mt. Vernon and Monticello. Hmm. Snow White as history dwarf, but chosen by God to run.

It has become obvious that these presidential hopefuls are indeed all dwarfs, not in the sense of physically or genetically affected people, but intellectual and emotional dwarfs who generate bumper stickers that are placed further on the starboard side than any Republicans in history. Barry Goldwater was a Conservative. These candidates are Fascist Looney Tunes that would make Goldwater blush. Let us look at a few ideas that are being promoted and even exaggerated by their rhetoric:

Many candidates have announced that they have been chosen by God to run for president. I don’t know your belief system, but my wager (not $10,000) is that God is much smarter than that. This may be an attempt to secure the Religious Right vote, but it will probably only confuse people who hear voices and not anybody else. In Iowa, as of now, pastors are splitting their support because they are not sure that God spoke or sent a text as he did with Moses. Candidates do not appear to be readers of the New Testament, given their quest for blood and vengeance on the international scene. Despite this drastic policy, for Gingrich and Cain, self-forgiveness trumps all. It may be a sign that King David has replaced Ronald Reagan as Most Dear Leader, especially with Newt the Martyr, who has reinterpreted the Constitution as a quaint preamble to his reign as King of America, Infinity and Beyond. His plan to colonize the moon calls for sending his enemies first to establish the first lunar penal colony. Because of the number of enemies, life support issues are paramount and this may delay the project due to budget constraints.

Snow White has also been chosen by God to run as a serious candidate and to foil Newt the Martyr who has converted to Catholicism and sided with the Pope who is the Anti-Christ. This has confounded non-evangelical pastors and annoyed Catholics and moderate evangelicals who were seeking the True Conservative and they have announced in Iowa that she should step down and endorse Rick Santorum who is male and biologically and morally superior. One might think that after GW Bush announced that God chose him, that candidates might fear not being taken seriously if they followed suit. Snow White claims that her Salem Lutherans never burned witches. It is no surprise that Christine O'Donnell endorsed Romney.

Rick Santorum, being slightly more Catholic than the Pope has simultaneously embraced the theology and scolded the Pope for his slack acceptance of homosexuals as worthy beings. He has denounced Darwin as only a theory and endorsed Intelligent Design. His support of educational vouchers thrills some fellow Catholics, but Intelligent Design has been co-opted by political enemies such as Snow White. Some Republican conciliators have asked Bashful to kiss and make up with Snow White by putting her on his ticket as a Vice Presidential candidate, but kissing leads to sin and he has agreed to briefly shake hands instead.

Doc, or Ron Paul has threatened to run as a Third Party candidate to emphasize his Libertarian credentials. This has split the social conservative factions who support his White is Right statements but have trouble with his policy on marijuana. The Third Party may provide another conflict with Donald Trump who did not make the travel team for the debate tournament. The Donald (not to be confused with the Duck of the same name) has also threatened to run on a Third Party ticket thus creating the real struggle as to which will be Third and which will be Fourth.

Happy has endured campaigning for president twice within memory as well as serious personal privation in his personal and business life. While a missionary in Paris, he was forced to live in an austere hotel that was formerly the embassy for the United Arab Emirates. A chef prepared food, often without input from Mitt and there was hardly room for his bicycle in his hotel closet. The hotel was in the chic “16th” of Paris making it difficult to find the lower middle class he sought to convert. There were so many baths that Happy learned decision-making by choosing the site for his bath to be drawn. It’s not easy being green (with money) and it is emotionally crushing to make millions from layoffs.

Sleepy is in difficult straits. He is sometimes the only adult on stage and he confuses candidates with his bipartisan anecdotes and shows he lacks understanding by suggesting dialogue instead of war on nations not accepting American Exceptionalism defined by Perry, Gingrich and Romney. He lacks the energy to keep the other candidates awake because of his polite demeanor. He leans starboard but talks to Democrats proving that he is unreliable in a fight. His days on the team are limited.

Sleazy has now borrowed a world atlas and is preparing to lower his sights to become the Secretary of Defense. Defense is his preferred positioning and, in fact, he is under Secret Service protection due to credible threats, probably from his wife. He has suspended his presidential campaign until the next debate or sexual allegation, whichever comes first. This may be a clever ploy like the Mohammed Ali “rope-a-dope” trick where he laid low and then punched out his rivals.

George Giacoppe
20 December 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


As I’ve come to expect in this “Season of Joy,” my mood has been growing more gloomy as the season progresses. Too many “Christmas Specials” with too many expected songs; too many commercials urging us to ‘hurry: only a limited and steadily decreasing number of shopping days left’; too much of the sense that increasingly each year the remembered spirit of this once-holy season becomes more and more degraded by the over-hyped orgy of conspicuous consumption it has become.
Then this morning, a possible turn. Though I have long since abandoned the theology the season supposedly represents—the virgin birth of a God called Jesus in a manger marked by a star—the underlying mystery is both profound and worthy of contemplation. I mean the idea of incarnation. Christian (in my case, Catholic) teaching makes a good deal of this: God comes to earth to save us (that’s the big takeaway) by incarnating: he deigns to become flesh, he takes human shape, as one of us. That’s what the joy is supposed to be about: God himself, or rather, his only begotten son, has come to be us all, to save us all. The problem is that this is hyped as something fantastic, something special, something that has happened only once in history, with the corollary that we, the chosen ones, are the only ones who know this and can thereby benefit from it. That’s where the bullshit creeps in. Because incarnation really is a big deal, only not in the manner of something special, something unique to us fortunate humans of the Christians persuasion, who alone will ride to heaven on its back. No. It’s a big deal because it is the great mystery at the center of all our lives, of all life, of all being. Incarnation. Something becomes flesh. Something that is presumably without substance, i.e. nothing, becomes something. And that is a big deal.

Now humans have long noticed this, have long made it a central mystery. A plant appears out of the ground in the spring. Miracle. Mystery. Repeated millions of times. Millions of fishes sprout from the sea: mystery; gazillions of bugs appear in flight from nowhere, as do thousands upon thousands of birds and gophers and all the beasts of the field. Miraculous, and beneficial to us, mostly, the humans who must depend upon crops and flocks and fishes. And so arise the mystery cults, the stories of Demeter and her child Persephone miming the miracle of birth of all nature in the Spring. And of course, in the Christ story, a child bursts forth from a virgin womb, signifying not only the miracle of human birth, but the mysterious birth of God himself. The mystery of incarnation. The problem is that we now know too much to be awed by this anymore, to genuflect or sacrifice to it anymore. We know how plants arise from seed. We ‘know’ that they convert energy from the sun via photosynthesis, and from the soil via mineral transport, and grow cell by cell. We know how humans and all other animals are conceived, via sperm and egg and growth by cell division, all governed by those helical strands of DNA. So the old mysteries, the pretty stories, become myths—tales told by the ignorant to explain processes too deeply embedded in tiny events for the ancients to perceive. And we abandon them, we replace mystery with the “holidays” whose chief purpose is to get us to spend lavishly and keep feeding an economy which depends for its continuance on the utter stupidity of our buying what neither we nor anyone else needs. (I should say that when I was young many years ago, Christmas still had, at least for us, the quality of need: we got coats or boots or gloves we sorely needed to replace outgrown or worn-out ones; and for something impractical, an orange or tangerine that in winter, in the northeast, still had the aura and taste of a rarity.)

But I digress. I was saying how we’ve abandoned the mysteries that are no longer believable—except I suppose in art, like Handel’s Messiah, which still, despite our knowledge, retains some power. But I digress again. What I meant to say, to remind myself, is that incarnation, even stripped of all its mythological trappings by our science, still radiates power. Indeed, it remains the central mystery. And we can, at least partly, thank science for that too. That’s because while rational science has swept away all the “myths” with its penetrating revelations of biology at the cellular level, when it goes deeper, and it has gone deeper, it brings us right back to the mystery again. Though it has shown us, objectively, what happens at the molecular level and even at the atomic level, at the quantum level things get spooky again, mysterious again. That is to say, at the quantum level, we are now told (and virtually none of us can verify this ourselves) that much of elementary matter—those teeny tiny components of atoms and even electrons, with names like quarks and leptons and gluons and bosons—simply appears out of the void. Matter at its most elementary level, the things of which we are made, simply pop into existence and then pop out again. And we don’t know why. Physicists have, of course, named this. They call it “quantum fluctuation” (see , “It’s confirmed: Matter is merely vacuum fluctuations” by Stephen Battersby). They even attribute the birth of the universe, our universe, that is, to quantum fluctuations (no deity needed) which initiated the process leading to the big bang, which burst in this unimaginably fierce explosion to send all those compressed bits careening out into what has become our universe, inflating and expanding faster and faster until gravity gathered things together to produce galaxies and stars and planets and us.

And it all came from incarnation. Matter just popping into existence. Something from nothing. Here is how Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow put it in their recent book, The Grand Design (2010):

Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing. A few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars, and, in at least one case, beings like us. p. 137.
Now I don’t know about most physicists, but to me, that’s pretty mysterious stuff. And it’s not just that I don’t understand quantum mechanics, which I don’t. The truth seems to be that nobody really understands it. There are formulas to explain things, and experiments that seem to prove it works, but when I read that multiple universes (the concept rather makes the word ‘universe’ an oddity) probably sprang from quantum fluctuations and the big bang, and that all those parallel universes probably exist somewhere; or that when particles split through a screen, there is the possibility that though some land where we can identify them, some have probably tripped out to the most distant corners of the universe; or that we and our whole universe may be a holographic projection of some outer surface of a black hole, well then I have to say that the great mystery of incarnation still exists. The great mystery, that is, is and has always been: why there is something rather than nothing? How is there something? Is there a where from which we and all else derive?

This, I think, is really what we should be pondering during this season. Incarnation. Whether we should be joyful about it or not I suppose depends, at least in part, on one’s situation. But it also depends on the very fact of being. It depends on the improbable fact that something rather than nothing exists. It depends on the fact that the void, the vacuum, the nothing has produced and continues to generate, every day, every hour, every second, every millisecond more stuff, more of this improbable glory, more impossible incarnation. And though keeping the stupid economy going does not deserve celebration, this, this continuous mysterious incarnation, this ongoing mystery of the word (or whatever it is) made flesh, surely does.

Larry DiStasi

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Occupying Everywhere

Police nationwide having moved in, at this point (Police on Dec. 7 finally attacked and destroyed the Occupation in downtown San Francisco), the Occupiers in public spaces of dozens and dozens of American cities have been forced to leave. But is this the end, as many have feared?

Not quite. In what some have called the next logical and brilliant move, the Occupiers have shifted their locus (not their focus) to the core of the crisis: bank foreclosures of homes. As Stephen Lerner, an organizer with SEIU, says: “…we’ve occupied public space — now we need to occupy private space that’s been stolen by banks.” Sean Barry of VOCAL-NY adds: “One of our messages is that there’s more empty homes that banks are sitting on than there are homeless families.”

Still, some might think, ‘oh, foreclosures; that’s old hat, a story that’s over.’ But it isn’t. According to many insiders, the banks have yet to foreclose on the majority of homes in the U.S., perhaps as many as 4 million more. More than that, the AP reports in its story on foreclosure occupations that “Nearly a quarter of all U.S. homeowners with mortgages are now underwater, representing nearly 11 million homes” (CT Post, December 6). That’s 11 million homes, folks, 1 out of 4. Talk about the Great Depression. Which is what, by the way, Rachel Maddow did on a recent MSNBC show (well worth watching). As an introduction to her sympathetic segment on the Occupy Foreclosures movement, she showed news reports and movie clips of exactly the same kind of resistance during the early 1930s when millions of Americans were losing their homes and farms. Huge crowds would show up and resist not just passively or peacefully, but by first putting the furniture that had been removed by authorities back into the homes, and then by throwing rocks and utensils and farm implements at police arriving to enforce the evictions. These people were pissed off and they were serious.

So, it seems, are today’s occupiers. The AP report cited above claims that homes in more than 25 cities were involved in Tuesday’s protests. And more are on the way. Said one of the Seattle organizers: “It's pretty clear that the fight is against the banks, and the Occupy movement is about occupying spaces. So occupying a space that should belong to homeowners but belongs to the banks seems like the logical next step for the Occupy movement.” In response, Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb insisted that occupying private property represented the same violation—trespassing—that occupying public space did. The police response, and the penalties, would be the same. But the occupiers are unfazed. In Atlanta, protesters disrupted a home auction of foreclosed properties with whistles and sirens. Several individual home foreclosures have already been stopped, and the evictees given more time to try to work out a deal with the banks. One woman in Cleveland expressed gratitude to the occupiers, who came and camped out in tents in her backyard, frightening off officials who were supposed to come and evict her. She was still in her home on December 6 (see Maddow video). Moreover, the Occupiers have joined forces with groups that have been active for several years (Take Back the Land, Viva Urbana) in defending homes against evictions—supplying fresh and enthusiastic troops for the earlier efforts. The movement also derives encouragement and tactics from movements in other countries like Spain, where the 15M movement has stopped hundreds of evictions and occupied vacant buildings.

That this movement has moral authority can be seen by what NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in a recent interview with a Chase banker named Theckston:

He (Theckston) says that some account executives earned a commission seven times higher from subprime loans, rather than prime mortgages. So they looked for less savvy borrowers — those with less education, without previous mortgage experience, or without fluent English — and nudged them toward subprime loans.
These less-savvy borrowers were disproportionately blacks and Latinos, he said, and they ended up paying a higher rate so that they were more likely to lose their homes. Senior executives seemed aware of this racial mismatch, he recalled, and frantically tried to cover it up. (Kristof cited by Sarah Seltzer, Alternet, Dec. 5)
We’ve all heard accusations about this type of cruel and intentional fraud, but to hear an admission of it of from one of the bankers involved is stunning.

This—the moral authority they have, both currently and historically—is why the Occupy movement has the powers-that-be scrambling for ways to de-legitimize it. I mentioned in my last blog the rumor about a public relations firm being hired by bankers. More recently, Republican talking-points guru, Frank Luntz, expressed his concern about it to the Republican Governors Association meeting in Orlando: “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” he said, and offered 10 tips on what specific language to use to counter it. First and foremost, “Don’t say ‘capitalism.’ Use ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market’ instead.” Now this is really interesting: even the Republicans are admitting that the American public now thinks ‘capitalism’ is immoral! And if Republicans are seen as “defenders of ‘Wall Street’,” says Luntz, “we’ve got a problem.”

Karl Marx must be smiling. Imagine, the Republican Party, that bastion of mindless boosterism, is running away from capitalism as a concept. Moreover, Luntz also advises Repubs not to say government ‘taxes the rich;’ instead say government ‘takes from the rich,’ because Americans respond favorably to ‘taxing the rich.’ By God, I sure hope the clueless, pusillanimous Democrats have read this. Because Luntz urges other verbal subterfuge as well, and all reflect two things: the Republicans are vulnerable and scared (as well they should be, their policies having brought this nation to the brink of disaster), and at the other end, have thoroughly absorbed the lessons of the TV age about framing a message properly, while Democrats have not. Now, finally, there’s a golden opportunity to hang the Republicans with the real message and practice they and their financial masters have been promoting for years: advancing the cause of the 1% at the expense of the 99%.

So far, the only element in the nation that has understood this, and been willing to act on it, are the Occupiers. We can only hope that the American people in ever greater numbers will begin to get it as well, and that the hapless talking heads they elect to public office will follow. The only question is, how much of everywhere has to be occupied and how many of the rest of us have to jailed before the worm turns?

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupy, Occupy, Here Comes Occupy

I’ve been wanting to comment on the #Occupy movement for quite some time, but events keep outrunning my prose. That’s still true today. So this is just going to be some disjointed musings to emphasize how delighted I am with these young people—the ones who’ll have to live in the mess we’ve created—and how crucial I think their movement is. Just consider: a few weeks ago, the wacky right seemed firmly in command of the entire political spectrum. Obama was reeling from hits to every one of his proposals, no matter how lame. All we heard was the Tea Party and the rantings and ravings of the Republican pretenders to the White House: Tweedledum and Tweedledumber-by-the-minute (I mean really, has there ever been such a gathering of cruel, incompetent morons in a presidential primary?)

Now, though, the #Occupy movement in city after city has changed all that. Just this morning, for example, I read a piece about the latest initiative in Congress: Ted Deutch, (D-FL) has offered a constitutional amendment (he calls it OCCUPIED: Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Elections and Democracy) to affirm that “rights protected by the Constitution belong to human beings, not to for-profit corporations or other business entities.” It would “prohibit business corporations and their associations from using money or other resources to influence voting on candidates or ballot measures anywhere in America.” Amazing. The Democrats in Congress are clearly feeling the heat from the occupiers, and some, at least, are starting to find some damn backbone.

Of course, it won’t be enough. But this is what such movements are supposed to do: change the debate, and force legislators to act rather than hide behind mealy-mouthed rhetoric. And just before this, I watched a video of a few dozen occupiers marching—on foot, along the highway where people can stop and congratulate them—from New York to Washington. They plan, according to some of their interviews, to barge in on the deadlocked “Super Committee” that’s supposed to be coming up with compromise measures to reduce the deficit. Of course, this “stupor committee” will do nothing of the kind, but the occupiers are pushing ahead, getting some press, and dramatizing the determined inaction of the U.S. Congress.

Even before that, I read the beautiful op-ed written (NY Times)by former poet laureate Robert Hass about his encounter with the police at UC Berkeley’s occupy gathering last week. In brief, Hass and his wife, poet Brenda Hillman, decided to monitor police behavior the night they were to remove the occupiers from UC’s Sproul Plaza. Instead, the Hass’s found themselves stuck in a crowd being forced together, and when Hillman sought to engage a policeman in dialogue, he struck her to the ground, also striking Hass when he tried to come to her aid. Hass, nursing bruised ribs, decries the militaristic tactics of the Darth Vader forces that have attacked, without provocation, the occupiers from New York to Denver to Oakland to San Francisco in what many see as a coordinated attempt to intimidate the occupiers, break their movement, and discourage any others who might be thinking of joining them. It hasn’t worked so far. Each broken-up demonstration has simply come back stronger—a fact we learned in the 60s, i.e. that inducing the authorities to overreact is part of revolutionary strategy. And these days, i.e., post-9/11, one hardly has to induce at all. The militarized police forces—the equipping of whom has become a booming industry for America’s military-industrial complex—seem to all be either on hair-trigger alert, or specifically instructed to beat the hell out of a few hundred demonstrators, regardless of provocation or law-breaking, to send a message. Fortunately, the message is having the opposite effect. Police brutality is encouraging, rather than discouraging more people to join the movement. And if polls are correct, millions of Americans, like myself, are cheering them on from the sidelines.

The police will, and already have scaled back their brutalities—especially after the horrific video of a helmeted officer walking calmly back and forth spraying pepper gas directly on a sitting group of UC Davis students blocking a sidewalk; which spraying called forth condemnation and an investigation by the UC Davis Chancellor. But things have gone very far already, and the police, like all authorities, are fixed in their attitudes. Crowds threaten them. Protest types disgust and alarm them. Used to intimidating, used to immediate compliance with their orders no matter how unreasonable, their responses are virtually automatic (their force has been rationalized by one spokesperson who said “linking arms is a form of violence”). Indeed, the conflict between police/soldiers and unarmed demonstrators has become the emblem of our time—in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Burma, in Libya, in Syria. The only question in any such situation is how far these “upholders of law and order” will go to snuff out the legitimate cries of the suffering.

And this is why, in the end, the #Occupy movement is so important. Ordinary people, mostly young people, are demonstrating that the situation—of inequality, of organized theft, of corporate malfeasance, of ecological disaster—has become so dire that they are willing to put their bodies on the line to change not just rhetoric, but everything. Even former lawmen—I know of two who have recently joined the occupiers, Ray Lewis, former police chief of Philadelphia (arrested), and Norm Stamper, former police chief of Seattle—are adding their voices to the rising chorus. Where all this will end is anybody’s guess: it could fizzle in the cold and wet. But one thing is sure. Those in power are taking note, and planning furiously to deflect the movement, infiltrate the movement, discourage and discredit the movement (this just in: Reader Supported News is reporting that a well-known DC Lobbying Firm has proposed an $850,000 plan to conduct ‘opposition research’ on the Occupy Movement and construct ‘negative narratives’ about it. See it at There is fear in their hearts, because they know that the movement has focused on the one truth that cannot be denied: We really are the 99%, and without our cooperation, they cannot maintain their exploitation of the masses. For that alone, I salute the occupiers. And hope, when the time is ripe, to join them.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Wake-up time?

I have to confess that I didn’t go to the polls yesterday, having glanced at the sample ballot to find mostly school bond issues of little interest to me now. But across the country, what an election it was. Though it may be too much to hope, it seems that our great unwashed may finally be waking up to the fact that capitalist democracy, in its present form, is not going to save them. Rather, the oligarchs and banksters and Wall Street billionaires now in control of both the economy and the political process will never be satisfied until they have ground the faces of the working classes into the dirt, stripped them of all dignity, and forced them to shut up, watch the circus, and become slaves. But wait: enter the Wall Street occupiers who, contrary to all expectations, seem to have changed the conversation, and now, voters across the country have shown that they, too, are fed up.

In Ohio, where Governor John Kasich had emulated his Republican counterpart in Wisconsin by pushing a law, SB 5, that stripped public sector unions of their right to collectively bargain, the voters repealed the law in a huge victory for union rights. Over 60% of voters stood with nurses, teachers, policemen and firefighters in a victory that had the Ohio governor sheepishly acknowledging that he had “heard the voters.” I just bet he did. I bet the smart-ass governor of Wisconsin heard too. Perhaps even the billionaire Koch brothers, who financed much of this concerted Republican attack on workers, heard it as well. Because this wasn’t the only reversal for the conservatives who just months ago appeared poised to take over the whole nation.

No. Progressive victories took place in several more states, including Maine, Mississippi, Iowa, Arizona and North Carolina. Something is happening here, Mr. Jones. In Maine, the people voted to maintain their same-day voter registration policy after the right-wing legislature had passed a law to repeal it—employing their usual argument about “voter fraud.” The people didn’t believe it, saw it as disenfranchisement, and yesterday took their right back. In Mississippi, voters struck back on a different front, rejecting another attempt by fundamentalists to pass a constitutional amendment granting “personhood” to a “fertilized egg.” That’s right. On the one hand, these right-wing bozos grant personhood to corporations; on the other, to “fertilized eggs”, thus putting at risk not just abortions, but even birth control. Even benighted voters in Mississippi said “no thanks” thank god.

But my two favorites, at least in the U.S., were Arizona and Missoula, Montana. In Arizona, the Republican state Senator who had pushed the state’s nasty immigration bill, SB 1070, one Russell Pearce by name, was recalled. Tossed out of office. The gopher for the notorious American Legislative Council (ALEC)—funded by corporate special interests including the aforementioned Koch Brothers—Pearce this morning was talking about having to re-examine his options after his big defeat. Which probably means figuring out how to maintain his racism by putting a more palatable face on it. No matter. He’s gone and SB 1070 should be toast. The Koch brothers suffered another defeat in Wake County, North Carolina where voters defeated four conservative school board candidates backed by the Koch’s “Americans for Prosperity” who wanted to get rid of the district’s diversity policies. In other words, to re-segregate the schools. The voters said no, and replaced them with Democrats. Why, it might even be called morning in America!

Finally, in Missoula MT, (site, incidentally, of the camp where Italian Americans were interned during WWII), citizens passed a resolution proposing to amend the U.S. Constitution to END CORPORATE PERSONHOOD. To me, this is potentially the most important victory of all. This is because the absurd notion that corporations are actually persons, with all the First Amendment rights granted to human beings by the U.S. Constitution—including and specifically free speech (the basis for the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United granting corporations complete freedom to throw money at any and all candidates for public office without restrictions)—makes a mockery of democracy itself. Corporations are fictitious entities. Persons organize themselves into corporations specifically to limit their liability as individual humans in business dealings. That limited liability is granted because it allows corporations to do what individuals cannot—so to then turn around and grant a fiction with immunity the same protections as vulnerable humans is an absurdity. Further, the Supreme Court itself never actually decided on this issue; it was a clerk working for the court, J.C. Bancroft Davis, who added a headnote to the 1886 Santa Clara case that assumed the personhood of corporations—a headnote that slipped by and became precedent ever after. In other words, corporate personhood should never have had the force of law. Since it does, however, the remedy is to pass a constitutional amendment to bring the situation back to where the Founders—Jefferson, Madison, and others who insisted that it was the people who needed protection from corporations—initially put it. Humans have human rights. Corporations do not, except in the fictitious world established in the United States in recent years. As one sign in the Occupy movement put it, “I’ll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.” It is time to abolish this so-called right, and the voters of Missoula, Montana took a first step. My hope is that before too long, the entire nation will wake up as well, and take the necessary actions to put corporations and their power back in the bottle where they belong. If, that is, it isn’t already too late—which it will be if now all of Italy comes undone (Berlusconi’s downfall another victory), joining Greece, and the whole Eurozone follows suit. Then, it might be too late not only to save Europe, but to save capitalism as well.

First things first, though, and today we can raise a glass to some small, but significant victories. May they continue.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Why America Needs a Single Payer Healthcare System

Although the 2010 Healthcare Act provided many improvements it failed to pass a public option for a single payer healthcare plan that would cover everyone. Most Democrats wanted the universal health care every other developed country in the world has. We believe the goal of health care should be to keep people healthy not just to make profit for corporations.

This year about 100,000 people will die in America because they are uninsured, or underinsured. Every 30 seconds someone in this country goes bankrupt because of medical expenses even though 60% of those with medical debt had insurance. In the rest of the developed world people don’t go bankrupt because they get sick.

Only America has for profit HMOs. Some of the problems with for profit HMOs is big executive bonuses, denying claims simply to increase profits and running television ads that needlessly increase costs. They limit what doctors you can see and they tell doctors what treatment they will pay for. They make the cost of health care so high compared to other countries that it both reduces worker’s income and makes American products less competitive in the global market.

Under single payer, like Medicare for all, everyone would be covered and we could demand fair prices from the drug companies. There would be an enormous savings in administrative costs and paperwork. While Medicare’s administrative costs are 1.5 to 2% HMOs are between 20 and 30%. According to Physicians for a National Health Program ( “Single payer would save $400 billion a year, enough to provide comprehensive, high quality health care for all Americans.” The U. S. spends twice as much, $8,160 per capita, as other industrialized nations. Spending so much hasn’t made us healthier. The World Health Organization ranks France and Italy one and two and America 37th, Europeans and Japanese live longer and are less obese.
Our health care system is unaffordable. It is like a hidden tax on Americans that keeps going up faster than inflation and draining our resources. The rest of the world knows what works; its single payer. No other country is looking to adopt our failed system.

Dave Silva

3 November 2011

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

9-9-9: New Sign of the Beast

Revelation tells of the sign of the Beast
Where the unknowing lose all their money
And worship numbers to get to the feast
Implanting microchips in foreheads: how funny
But what if this scripture was read on its head
Would the number be upside-down?
Undoing all that you’ve read
Displaying a new circus and clown
Instead of updating the ancient fixes
For fighting the onslaught of sixes
We should be using these times
To tell the world about nines

In this political world of bumper sticker mentality and easy solutions to complex problems, we have found a new leader in the conservatives who are raising Cain. Herman Cain. Herman has stated that 9-9-9 is the way to prosperity. For whom, Herman? 9-9-9 means that we would have a 9% corporate income tax, a 9% individual income tax and a 9% national sales tax. There would be no exemptions…well maybe a few. And there would be no sales tax on used goods. You probably see where this is going. You want to buy a new car but do not want to pay tax on it. I am a Chevrolet dealer who wants to sell you a Chevrolet. I “use” the Chevrolet by driving it around the block and declare it used. What a deal! You pay no tax but pay full price and “big government” is none the wiser although somewhat poorer. The tax collection for my Chevy franchise is reduced to zero since I have been selling only used cars and 9% of nothing is nothing. I have nothing to report. Hmm. The loopholes begin. How do we define used? If I rebuild an auto, would that be “used?” What happens to the economy that does not build new homes and cars? That is clearly one of the myriad problems to begin, but 9-9-9 will reduce tax income for our republic. Reduced income for the republic means fewer services including fire, police, medical, parks, roads, waterways, safety and health inspections, etc. This reduction will have the effect of increasing air and water pollution because we will have fewer inspectors and more people will suffer from cancer, emphysema and environmental diseases. Aircraft will have reduced oversight and inspection resulting in more “accidents.” Roads will become deadlier. Death and disease from food contamination will rise. Fewer services equates to real everyday hazards for most of us. This same process is true for the income and corporate taxes. There is no free lunch although there may be beneficiaries for this policy. The Koch brothers have earned the reputation of the Patrons of Pollution and have amassed a record of coal sludge pollution of 2.6 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge that were released into the Emory River in Tennessee; air and groundwater pollution through Georgia-Pacific Industries in Crossett, Arkansas recently cited for extremely and abnormally high cancer rates among its neighbors. The Koch brothers have initiated a full court press to kill the EPA, and they have paid direct support dollars to House Republicans willing to defang or eliminate the EPA. These are the same Koch brothers that have received $2.3 Billion in tax breaks in Washington. In other words, they have severely damaged our environment and the people living in it and have been given tax breaks by the people who benefit by political contributions from the same Koch brothers. Now what could this possibly have to do with 9-9-9 and raising Cain?

Actually, Herman Cain has been on David Koch’s payroll since at least 2005 through Americans for Prosperity, a front organization wholly owned and run by the Kochs. Incidentally, so has Rich Lowrey who is the author of the 9-9-9 scheme (and not an economist; has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and works in a branch for WellsFargo). So given this, is Cain the stealth candidate for the Kochs? My answer is a resounding “YES.” A vote for Cain is a vote for the Koch brothers and their hirelings (Rich Lowrey, Mark Block, et. al.). Mark Block, the cigarette smoker in the new Cain advertisement is Cain’s nominal campaign manager. Block was fined $15,000 for illegal campaign activity in Wisconsin and has been linked with voter suppression there. He is also on the Koch payroll. Cain was also paid by the Kochs for his speaking engagements for the “Prosperity Expansion Project” from 2005-2006. A vote for Cain is a vote for deadly pollution, not only in Wisconsin, but in Arkansas where Georgia-Pacific in 2010 released over 913,000 pounds of toxic chemicals in the air and 136,000 pounds of toxins in waterways and deposited 444,000 pounds in the soil. Formaldehyde is a major carcinogenic emission there. Additionally, in Louisiana, across the border from the Crossett plant, there is an investigation due to contamination of the Quachita River that flows from Arkansas. The Koch brothers and Herman Cain appear to be joined philosophically at the hip and at the bank as are Senator Vitter (the hooker chaser from Louisiana) and many “conservative” Republicans. Vitter has delayed the Quachita investigation.

Let us look a bit more closely at 9-9-9. It is a wet dream for the wealthy and a nightmare for middle and lower class citizens. The billionaire Koch brothers would see their total personal taxes reduced from about 28% to about 11% on average and their corporate taxes perhaps less than 9% when the loopholes are applied. The wage collecting American worker would see his take home pay reduced sharply when he must pay 9% on income (regardless how little he earns) and again must pony up an additional 9% on Federal sales taxes over and above the state and local sales taxes now in force. Actually, it is worse than that because states would receive less support from the federal government because the total federal tax income will be drastically reduced with this 9% limit. As a result, the states and local governments would be forced to increase their state income and sales taxes. So if you were making $ 1 Million per year, your federal contribution would be $90,000 and you would be left with only $910,000. However, if you made $10,000 per year, then you would be left with $9100 before you bought groceries, paid the rent, paid for transportation and wondered how you would ever escape poverty. Your sales tax alone would be a minimum of 18.5 % in California before it increased for the reasons cited above, even if the state did not increase your payroll taxes. The poor do not have that slack. The middle would become poor. The policy is massively regressive.

It is indeed strange that the far right has taken on the prophesies of Revelation that talk about weird mixes of technology with old fashioned fear mongering. Many religious right-wingers actually believe that our money will be no good and that we may already have implants in our foreheads or right hands (symbolic, maybe?) to conduct our money transactions. It is fundamentalist snake oil. It is dangerous and hardly worthy of being considered as an item of faith although, if followed, it could approximate the conditions of last days as the Bible suggests. We could bring it on ourselves.

As a friend recently reminded me, our response to 9-9-9 should be Nein-Nein-Nein. “No-No-No” in German. Bumper stickers are short and pithy, but they do not convey the disaster about to strike our United States should 9-9-9 become policy. You are not calling out for pizza delivery, you are voting to establish a fair tax and incentive policy that will help the nation and all the people grow while remaining healthy, safe and competitive in an international marketplace. The Koch brothers are in the top 4 wealthiest billionaires in America. What appears to be good for them may literally choke the rest of us or kill us through cancer or poverty. Friends don’t let friends vote for annihilation.

George Giacoppe
26 October 2011

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Class Warfare Indeed

Over the last two decades or more, Republicans have been denouncing as “class warfare” any attempt at criticizing and restraining their mean one-sided system of capitalist financial expropriation.

The moneyed class in this country has been doing class warfare on our heads and on those who came before us for more than two centuries. But when we point that out, when we use terms like class warfare, class conflict, and class struggle to describe the system of exploitation we live under—our indictments are dismissed out of hand and denounced as Marxist ideological ranting, foul and divisive.

Amanda Gilson put it perfectly in a posting on my Facebook page: “[T]he concept of ‘class warfare’ has been hi-jacked by the wrong class (the ruling class). The wealthy have been waging war silently and inconspicuously against the middle and the poor classes for decades! Now that the middle and poor classes have begun to fight back, it is like the rich want to try to call foul---the game was fine when they were the only ones playing it.”

The reactionary rich always denied that they themselves were involved in class warfare. Indeed, they insisted no such thing existed in our harmonious prosperous society. Those of us who kept talking about the realities of class inequality and class exploitation were readily denounced. Such concepts were not tolerated and were readily dismissed as ideologically inspired.

In fact, class itself is something of a verboten word. In the mainstream media, in political life, and in academia, the use of the term “class” has long been frowned upon. You make your listeners uneasy (“Is the speaker a Marxist?”). If you talk about class exploitation and class inequity, you will likely not get far in your journalism career or in political life or in academia (especially in fields like political science and economics).

So instead of working class, we hear of “working families” or “blue collar” and “white collar employees”. Instead of lower class we hear of “inner city poor” and “low-income elderly.” Instead of the capitalist owning class, we hear of the “more affluent” or the “upper quintile.” Don’t take my word for it, just listen to any Obama speech. (Often Obama settles for an even more cozy and muted term: “folks,” as in “Folks are strugglin’ along.”)

“Class” is used with impunity and approval only when it has that magic neutralizing adjective “middle” attached to it. The middle class is an acceptable mainstream concept because it usually does not sharpen our sense of class struggle; it dilutes and muffles critical consciousness. If everyone in America is middle class (except for a few superrich and a minor stratum of very poor), there is little room for any awareness of class conflict.

That may be changing with the Great Recession and the sharp decline of the middle class (and decline of the more solvent elements of the working class). The concept of middle class no longer serves as a neutralizer when it itself becomes an undeniable victim.

“Class” is also allowed to be used with limited application when it is part of the holy trinity of race, gender, and class. Used in that way, it is reduced to a demographic trait related to life style, education level, and income level. In forty years of what was called “identity politics” and “culture wars,” class as a concept was reduced to something of secondary importance. All sorts of "leftists" told us how we needed to think anew, how we had to realize that class was not as important as race or gender or culture.

I was one of those who thought these various concepts should not be treated as being mutually exclusive of each other. In fact, they are interactive. Thus racism and sexism have always proved functional for class oppression. Furthermore, I pointed out (and continue to point out), that in the social sciences and among those who see class as just another component of “identity politics,” the concept of class is treated as nothing more than a set of demographic traits. But there is another definition of class that has been overlooked.

Class should also be seen as a social relationship relating to wealth and social power, involving a conflict of material interests between those who own and those who work for those who own. Without benefit of reason or research, this latter usage of class is often dismissed out of hand as “Marxist.” The narrow reductionist mainstream view of class keeps us from seeing the extent of economic inequality and the severity of class exploitation in society, allowing many researchers and political commentators to mistakenly assume that U.S. society has no deep class divisions or class conflicts of interest.

We should think of class not primarily as a demographic trait but as a relationship to the means of production, as a relationship to power and wealth. Class as in slaveholder and slave, lord and serf, capitalist and worker. Class as in class conflict and class warfare.

And who knows, once we learn to talk about the realities of class power, we are on our way to talking critically about capitalism, another verboten word in the public realm. And once we start a critical discourse about capitalism, we will be vastly better prepared to act against it and defend our own democratic and communal interests.

Michael Parenti

Michael Parenti is an internationally known, award winning author and scholar. Included among his recent books are The Face of Imperialism (2011), Democracy for the Few 9th ed. (2011), and God and His Demons (2009).

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Inhuman Side of Enterprise

Ah, the human side of enterprise
Has long been taught in schools
Where love for work is a prize
And slackers are but fools
Except in the mind of the “employers”
Who do not accept humanity
And become the destroyers
Of life and limb and sanity
To prove that men are but cogs
Without worth or soul
Except to cut wood from the logs
And to spend time on parole
In jobs that are becoming the dregs
Yet without which a grown man begs

Back in the dark ages of 1960, a fresh voice supported by research and understanding proposed a new concept for the workplace. His theory of work and motivation was that people did not have to be coerced to work and that work itself is inherently satisfying; that work was as natural as play and that systems for production should recognize this essential humanity. McGregor postulated that managers and employers held basic assumptions of their employees. Those who held “Theory X” assumptions felt that work was not natural and that people had to be coerced to work or given extrinsic rewards that paid them directly for their efforts; that they had to be watched and monitored by systems and supervisors to stay on task and get work done. Those managers and employers holding “Theory Y” assumptions held beliefs that work itself had intrinsic rewards and that it was as natural as play; that if people were trusted with work tasks, they would monitor and manage themselves to get work done and that they resented coercion. McGregor was a product of Detroit and understood the stress of assembly line production. He also worked at several levels from senior management to gas station attendant when we had such work. Although he began studies in Detroit, he initially left college for the world of work and then resumed studies at Harvard where he got an MA and a PhD. On graduating, he moved to MIT, a matter of a few hundred yards, and began serious work on motivational studies with some of the best minds in the nation. He later was President of Antioch College at age 41 and he then returned to the Sloan School of Management at MIT. He died relatively young at age 58.

Essentially, McGregor was the first serious and qualified manager and educator who postulated that the assumptions a manager makes actually affect the outcome of production and the support of workers in the cause of production. How you, as a manager, feel about workers affects the way that workers respond to your style based upon those assumptions. Apparently some in Congress have not read McGregor or still feel that business ownership includes total control of employees as in the days of Charles Dickens. Allow me to relate the story of a close friend who experienced the real results of management under the conditions of mistrust and arbitrary leadership.

The curtain opens in an office of a property casualty insurance company in the Northeast that was, at the time, a subsidiary of CIGNA (Connecticut General). In its early days, this company wrote insurance on slaves just as Aetna Life and Casualty did during the mid 1800s. The major difference between these two companies, besides size, was that Aetna Life and Casualty wrote life insurance on slaves. “Little Aetna,” unrelated to AL&C, wrote property insurance on slaves. To call Little Aetna conservative is hyperbolic understatement. Little Aetna was a reactionary throw back to the 19th century. As a single point of reference, when the women of Little Aetna petitioned to change the name of the “Aetna Girls Club” to “the Aetna Women’s Club,” the women were rebuffed, and this is in the late 1970s. One day early in my friend’s tenure at Little Aetna, his boss called him in to his office for a confidential talk. “I believe that trainer “Susan” spends too much time in the ladies room. I want you to log in all her time in the restroom and to put a stop to her lazy habits.” Now, “Susan” is black and also the most productive of five management trainers. My friend is in a quandary because of the possibility that monitoring her toilet time might backfire as a productivity issue as well as a racial sensitivity issue. He chose to talk with “Susan” who claimed that she brought her work into the restroom because one of the other trainers was a total distraction and that she could not sit by her and avoid constant conversation. Her professional work bore that out. Things then got worse. My friend’s secretary reported to him that management was rummaging through his desk drawers after hours looking for something (union affiliation evidence/my friend was not a union member). Finally, they brought in the company attorney and fired him alleging lack of output. My friend then filed an Open Line complaint to CIGNA. The CIGNA investigation showed that his unit had higher productivity than the technical training unit and recommended rehiring only to be told that Little Aetna would rather risk lawsuit than concede.

My friend left the company and went where he was wanted. No surprise there. A few years later at Christmas, the Little Aetna President resigned without warning. On the first business day of the following year, all 4,000 employees were fired. For two years prior to that calamity, CIGNA had touted the property casualty job opportunities that awaited Aetna employees at INA in Philadelphia, but failed to hire or transfer any employees. When queried by the press, CIGNA simply stated that they did not want the employees to let down their efforts or conduct sabotage. Instead, they created a fiction that opportunities would be greater rather than eliminated. It was like the movie line from “A Few Good Men.” “You can’t handle the truth!” Employees were not told the truth that might have allowed them to get jobs. There were record heart attacks, suicides and strokes among the 4,000 because a company applying clear Theory X assumptions assumed that the employees were like destructive children who had to be protected from the truth, lest they sabotage Aetna. Many employees were older and deprived of their pensions meaning that they might not find work for months if at all. The trump card was unemployment insurance. Aetna was still liable for that compensation along with the employees (for 180 days). Is this beginning to sound familiar? Now what about those who were unable to find work after 180 days? Were they lazy as the company assumed? Does the government owe them anything to protect their homes, health and families? Just what happens to a breadwinner (man or woman) who cannot find work and has the responsibility to feed, clothe and house a family? Is it simply another day when their self-image, health and identity as well as that of their families are destroyed?

Today, this nation is experiencing record unemployment, record corporate profits along with the monetary and human pain and suffering that comes with extended periods without living-wage work. The House political extremists want to cut off unemployment compensation saying it is a counter-motivation for people to find work. I have personally known hundreds who have lost work and have yet to find one that so preferred it that way so as to stop searching for work. That is a serious Theory X assumption about people that will cause further pain, displacement and grief for them and all their friends and family. Work is what keeps body and soul together. To do what the extreme right threatens will damage our nation as well as the psyche of the workers directly affected and those who depend upon them. Enterprise cannot be permitted to be inhuman without catastrophic and long lasting results.

By the way, that friend of mine was actually me. How does it feel to have been treated as a mushroom (kept in the dark and fed bullshit)? Lies are never for the good of the employee or the reader. Lies hide the people from knowledge and actions they might take to improve their lives. Don’t let the House lie about employee motivation or extending unemployment benefits. Write them for your own good and the good of the hard working people of this great nation. Do not let them diminish us all by being inhuman and ask them to demand that jobs pay living wages and do not get exported for an extra buck to go to executive bonuses. These are the executives that have disowned McGregor. They now maximize short-term profit by exporting jobs to venues with cheaper labor, destroying protective laws and unions and millions of families in the process. All the Right’s horses and all the Right’s men can’t put these people together again.

George Giacoppe
1 October 2011

Greed be Good

In 1965, Alan Greenspan wrote:

“It is precisely the greed of the businessman, or more precisely, his profit-seeking, which is the unexcelled protector of the consumer” (Madrick, 228).
This should really be the epitaph inscribed on the tombstone of the American economy. Far from ‘protecting’ consumers, the greed that has defined American business and especially Wall Street these last 40 years has decimated the economy, loaded businesses with debt, put millions of Americans out of work, and transferred huge chunks of American industry to foreign countries such as China. Therein lies the theme of Jeff Madrick’s crucial book, The Age of Greed, (Knopf: 2011). To read it, with its portraits of banksters and junk bond traders and acquisition specialists and CEOs of America’s largest corporations, is to learn of chicanery, conniving and contempt for average Americans on such a scale as to sometimes deceive the reader into thinking he is reading Dante’s Inferno. Such characters—some of the mightiest names in corporate and political America in the latter years of the 20th Century, names like Rubin and Weill and Reagan and Greenspan and Friedman and Milken and Boesky and Welch—do deserve a poet like Dante to fix them in an appropriate level of pain and torment. While Madrick is not that poet, he does a creditable enough job of this to sicken even the most cynical reader, for his is the tale of the outright looting and crippling of the American industrial might (along with its workers) that was once the envy of the world.

The book begins with the general proposition that while industry and transportation and communications and retailing were once the foundations of American wealth and prosperity, “by the 1990s and 2000s, financial companies provided the fastest path to fabulous wealth for individuals” (24). And where government was once seen as a needed supporter and regulator of such enterprises, Milton Friedman’s economic doctrines, put into saleable form by Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan, turned government into the enemy. As Friedman wrote, “The fact is that the Great Depression, like most other periods of severe unemployment, was produced by government (mis)management rather than by the inherent instability of the private economy.” The answer to all problems, in this tortured view, lay not in government actions to help those who need it, but in reducing government and lowering taxes so as to (allegedly) make the poor better off, eliminate inequality and discrimination, and lead us all to the promised free-market land. As noted above, Alan Greenspan believed wholeheartedly in these and other theories (especially those espoused by his friend Ayn Rand), and Ronald Reagan became the shill for selling such pie-in-the-sky nonsense to the American public. As with his sales work for General Electric, Reagan marketed the kool-aid more successfully than anyone could have anticipated. In office in California as governor, he blamed welfare recipients for the state government’s financial problems: “Welfare is the greatest domestic problem facing the nation today and the reason for the high cost of government.” When he got to the national stage with inflation rampant, he hit government profligacy even harder. “We don’t have inflation because the people are living too well,” he said. “We have inflation because government is living too well” (169). All this was coupled with his mantra that getting back to the kind of “rugged individualism” that had made America (and himself) great required reducing taxes. And reduce he did. From a tax rate that was at 70% on the highest earners when he took office, he first signed the 1981 Kemp-Roth bill to reduce it to 50%, and then, in 1986, with the Tax Reform Act, reduced it even further to 28%. Meantime, the rate for the poorest Americans was raised from 11% to 15%, while earlier, Reagan had also raised the payroll tax (for Social Security) from 12.3% to 15.3%. This latter raise, it should be noted, coupled with the provision that only wages up to $107,000 would be taxed for SS, meant that “earners in the middle one-fifth of Americans would now pay nearly 10% of their income in payroll taxes, while those in the top 1% now paid about 1-1/2%” (170). And what Reagan never mentioned about his “rugged individualism” is that he was made wealthy by those rich men who cajoled him to run for office: his agent arranged for 20th Century Fox to buy Reagan’s ranch for $2 million (he had paid only $65,000 for it), giving him a tidy profit with which to buy another ranch that also doubled in price when he sold it.

But such tales treat only the enablers. It is when we get to the actual hucksters of this story that things get interesting (or nauseating, depending on your point of view.) The basic scheme went like this: find a company that is undervalued—often because it had managed its assets so well it had cash on hand—and acquire it, using debt to finance the takeover. Then make money—and I mean millions and billions—on all the steps involved in the takeover, including the debt service, the legal fees, and the rise (or fall) in the stock price. For in the age of greed that Madrick documents, the stock price was all. Anything that pushed the stock price of a company up was good. Anything that pushed it down was bad (unless you were one of those smart guys like hedge-fund ace George Soros who worked the “shorts”). And of course, the best way to get a company’s stock price to go up was to increase profits. And the best way to do that was not to innovate or develop better products, but to slash costs, i.e. fire workers. Here is how Madrick puts it:

American business was adopting a business strategy based on maximizing profits, large size, bargaining power, high levels of debt, and corporate acquisitions…Cutting costs boldly, especially labor costs, was a central part of the strategy. (187)
What began to happen in the 1980s and into the 1990s was that all companies, no matter how successful, became targets of the ruthless merger mania that replaced normal business improvements. Lawyers like Joe Flom and takeover artists like Carl Icahn and T. Boone Pickens could spot an undervalued, or low-stock-price company (the process reminds one of wolves spotting a young, or lame deer in a herd) to take over, using borrowed money to finance it (90% of the purchase price). The borrowing then demanded that the new merged company cut costs in order to service the huge debt required for the merger—which in turn required firing workers. If a company did not want to be taken over, the only way to do so was to get its stock price to rise, and this, too, required the firing of workers. In either case, the workers took the hit. But the CEOs running the merged ventures, often sweethearted into selling by generous gifts of stock, “usually made a fortune.” As Madrick notes, in 1986, Macy CEO Ed Finkelstein arranged for a private buyout of his firm, for $4.5 billion, and became the “envy of fellow CEOs” (174). Like many other mergers, however, this one drained what was one of America’s most successful retail operations, and Macy’s went bankrupt in 1992. Madrick concludes:

The allegiance of business management thus shifted from the long-term health of the corporations, their workers, and the communities they served, to Wall St. bankers who could make them personally rich... (173)
In the process, of course, the Wall Street bankers and leveraged buyout firms (LBOs) like Kohlberg Kravis Roberts who arranged the buys and the financing took in obscene amounts of money. So did risk abitrageurs (who invest in prospective mergers and acquisitions, angling to buy before the stock price rises on the rumor of a merger) like Ivan Boesky. Earning $100 million in one year alone (1986 when he was Wall Street’s highest earner), Boesky required information to buy early, and got into the little habit of paying investment bankers for that information, i.e. on upcoming deals. Unfortunately for him, he got caught in his banner year because one of his informants (Dennis Levine of Drexel Burnham) was arrested and made a deal to name those he had tipped off. Boesky was one (the deal was to pay Levine 5% of his profits for early information on a takeover), and he too was subpoenaed in the fall of 1986. Boesky immediately agreed to finger others (agreeing to wear a wire at meetings), and nailed Martin Siegel, also with Drexel, who, in turn, kept the daisy chain of ratting out associates going by naming Robert Freeman, an arbitrageur at Goldman Sachs. Nice fellows. Boesky ended up serving three years in prison, but he fingered an even bigger fish, Michael Milken. Then the wealthiest and most ruthless Wall Streeter of all, Milken, who made his money in junk bonds (risky high-interest bonds to ‘rescue’ companies in trouble) was sentenced to 10 years in jail (reduced to 2 years for good behavior) for securities violations, plus $1.3 billion in fines and restitution. He’d made so much money, though, that he and his family still had billions, including enough to start a nice foundation for economic research, to commemorate his good name in perpetuity.

There are, of course, lots of other admirable characters in this tale, but one in particular deserves mention--Jack Welch, the revered CEO of General Electric. This is because Welch’s reign at GE typifies what greed did to a once-great American institution, the very one that Ronald Reagan shilled for in a more innocent age, the one that brought the Gipper to the attention of the big money boys. Welch made enormous profits for GE (in 2001, the year he left, GE earnings had grown by 80 times to more than $5 billion), and for himself, but he didn’t do it the “old fashioned way,” i.e. by developing new and better products. He did it by shifting the emphasis at GE from production to finance. Welch saw the value of this early:

“My gut told me that compared to the industrial operations I did know, the business (i.e. GE Capital) seemed an easy way to make money. You didn’t have to invest heavily in R&D, build factories, or bend metal…” (191)
To give an idea of how this works, Madrick points out that “in 1977, GE Capital…generated $67 million in revenue with only 7,000 employees, while appliances that year generated $100 million and required 47,000 workers” (191). Welch did the math. It didn’t take him long to sell GE’s traditional appliance business to Black & Decker, outraging most employees, though not many of them were left to protest: in his first two years, Welch laid off more than 70,000 workers, nearly 20% of his work force, and within five years, about 130,000 of GE’s 400,000 workers were gone. Fortune Magazine admiringly labeled him the “toughest boss in America.” And by the time he left the company in 2001, GE Capital Services had spread from North America to forty-eight countries, with assets of $370 billion, making GE the most highly valued company in America. The only problem was, with the lure of money and profits so great, GE Capital acquired a mortgage brokerage (Welch was no mean takeover artist himself) and got into subprime lending. In 2008, GE’s profits, mostly based on its financial dealings, sank like a stone, with its stock price dropping by 60%. Welch, the great prophet of American competition, now had to witness his company being bailed out by the Federal Deposit Insurance Company: since it owned a small federal bank, the FDIC guaranteed nearly $149 billion of GE’s debt. So after turning a U.S. industrial giant into a giant bank, the man Fortune Magazine named “manager of the century” also succeeded in turning it into a giant welfare case. Perhaps there’s a lesson here somewhere.

There’s more in this disturbing book—such as the fact that Wall Streeters not only attacked corporations in takeovers, they also attacked governments (George Soros’ hedge fund attacked the British pound, as well as Asian currency in 1999, causing crises in both places, and ultimately, cutbacks in government programs for the poor)—but the story is the same. During several decades of Wall Street financial predation, insider trading, and more financial chicanery than most of us can even dream of, the high-rolling banksters made off with trillions of dollars, and most others (including union pension funds) lost their shirts. Madrick quotes John Bogle, founder of Vanguard Funds, concerning the bust of the high-tech IPO bubble: “If the winners raked in some $2.275 Trillion, who lost all the money?...The losers, of course, were those who bought the stocks and who paid the intermediation fees…the great American public” (332). The same scenario was played out again and again, in derivatives trading, in the housing boom, in the mortgage-backed securities boom, in the false evaluations of stock analysts like Jack Grubman, in the predatory mergers and subprime shenanigans of Citibank CEO Sandy Weill, and on and on, all with an ethic perfectly expressed in an email, made public by the SEC, commenting on how ‘the biz’ was now run:

“Lure the people into the calm and then totally fuck ‘em” (334).

That’s essentially the story here. And the sad ending, which most of us haven’t really digested yet, is that the very vipers who cleverly and maliciously calculated each new heist and made off with all the money while destroying the economy, then got federal guarantees and loans that came to more than $12 trillion, that’s trillion, to “save the country.” And now lobby for “austerity” and “leaner government” and fewer “wasteful social programs” like social security and Medicare, and fewer regulations so that their delicate business minds can feel safe enough to invest again. And save us all again with their unfettered greed.

In which case, I’ll sure feel protected. Won’t you?

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Avatars and Immortality

Anyone who has read or heard even a little history knows that the dream of immortality has existed among humans for a very long time. Most of these dreams (though not all, as the Christian fundamentalist notions of the “rapture,” and Islamic fundamentalist notions of a heaven full of virgins awaiting the martyrs who blow themselves and others up, prove) have been debunked in recent years, when even the Roman Catholic Church has pretty much abandoned its notion of an afterlife in fire for those who’ve been ‘bad’ (whether Catholics still believe in a blissful Heaven for those who’ve been ‘good’ remains unclear to me).
What’s astonishing is that this dream of living forever now exists in the most unlikely of places—among computer geeks and nerds who mostly profess atheism. It exists, that is, in two places: virtual reality, and the transformation of humans into cyborgs (though cyborgs don’t specifically promise immortality, they do promise to transform humans into machines, which is a kind of immortality—see Pagan Kennedy, “The Cyborg in Us All,” NY Times, 9.14.11). If you can create an avatar—a virtual computerized model—of yourself (as has been done for Orville Redenbacher, so that, though dead, he still appears in his popcorn commercials), you can in some sense exist forever. The title of the avatar game on the internet, “Second Life,” reveals this implicitly. So does the reaction of volunteers whom Jeremy Bailenson studied for a Stanford experiment purporting to create avatars that could be preserved forever. When the subjects found out that the science to create immortal avatars of themselves didn’t yet exist, many screamed their outrage. They had invested infinite hope in being among the first avatar-based immortals.

Before dismissing this as foolish dreamery, consider how far this movement has already gone. Right now, the video games that most kids engage in (my grandson has a Wii version of Star Wars in which he ‘becomes’ Lego-warrior avatars who destroy everything in sight) “consume more hours per day than movies and print media combined” (Jeremy Bailenson and Jim Blascovich, Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution, Morrow: 2011, p. 2) The key point about this, moreover, is that countless neuroscience experiments have proved that “the brain doesn’t much care if an experience is real or virtual.” Read that again. The brain doesn’t care whether an experience is “only virtual.” It reacts in much the same way as it does to “reality.”

Frankly, until I read Infinite Reality, all of this had pretty much passed me by. I had read about virtual-reality helmets such as the kind used to train pilots, but I had no idea that things had gone so far. I had no idea that millions of people sign up for the online site called “Second Life” (I tried; it seemed impossibly complex and stupid to me), and invest incredible amounts of time and emotional energy setting up an alternate personality (avatar) that can enter the website’s virtual world and interact in any way imaginable with other people’s avatars. Needless to say, most people equip their avatars with qualities they would like to have, or have wondered about having. Then they go looking for people (avatars) with whom to experiment in a wished-for interaction. The most common interaction, not surprisingly, seems to be sex with another avatar, or several others; but there’s also a lot of wheeling and dealing to gain wealth and prestige. Talk about “be all that you can be!”

Still, the really interesting stuff happens when you get into a virtual laboratory. Whereas “Second Life” takes place on a flat computer screen, virtual reality really comes into its own when you don a headset that can simulate real scenes in 3D fidelity so real that when people approach a simulated pit in front them, they invariably recoil (even though they’re “really” walking on a level floor). While virtual reality of this kind is expensive today, there can be little question that it soon will have become commonplace. Rather than spending tons of money traveling to China, say, one will be able to go there “virtually,” without having to endure the travails of travel, including bothersome other people. What makes this eerie is that video games are already working with this kind of VR, and creating avatars. In games like Pong, Wii, Move, and Kinect the game computer can already “track” a user’s physical movements and then “render” a world incorporating those movements into a virtual tennis scene that is authentic in all necessary details. So,

In a repetitive cycle, the user moves, the tracker detects that movement, and the rendering engine produces a digital representation of the world to reflect that movement…when a Wii tennis player swings her hand, the track wand detects the movement and the rendering engine draws a tennis swing. (p. 44)
As Bailenson notes, “in a state of the art system, this process (of tracking and rendering the appropriate scene from the point of view of the subject) repeats itself approximately 100 times a second.” Everything in the virtual scene appears smooth and natural, including, in the game “Grand Theft Auto,” an episode where players can “employ a prostitute and then kill her to get their money back.” And remember, the brain reacts to all this in the same way it does when it is “really” happening.

The implications to a psychologist like Bailenson are profound. Short people, for example, who adopt a tall avatar for themselves, show definite improvements in their self-image, even after they’ve left the avatar behind. They also show improvements in competition: in real games held afterwards, the person whose avatar was taller became a more successful negotiator. Those who fashion a trim, beautiful avatar, show the same rise in self-esteem. Bailenson also notes the importance of people’s attributions of “mind” or reality to inanimate objects like computers, and this includes avatars. In one experiment, subjects were shown a real person named Sally, and then her avatar disfigured with a birthmark (neurophysiological studies show that interacting with a “stigmatized other,” even someone with a birthmark, causes a threat response). After four or five minutes interacting with Sally’s disfigured avatar, subjects displayed the heart-rate response indicating threat—even though they knew the real Sally had no birthmark. And the games sold to consumers keep getting more sophisticated in this regard. In the Sony PlayStation game, THUG 2 (over 1 million sold in U.S.) players can upload their photos onto the face of a character, and then have their “clones” perform amazing feats of skateboarding, etc. They can also watch them performing actions not under their control. This brings up the question of the effect of watching one’s “doppelganger” (a character with one’s appearance) do something in virtual reality. It appears to be profound: the more similar a virtual character is to the person observing, the more likely the observer is to mimic that character. This can be positive: watching a healthy person who seems similar can lead a person to adopt healthy behavior. But other possibilities are legion. Baileson mentions the commercial ones:

…if a participant sees his avatar wearing a certain brand of clothing, he is more likely to recall and prefer that brand. In other words, if one observes his avatar as a product endorser (the ultimate form of targeted advertising), he is more likely to embrace the product. (119)
In short, we prefer what appears like us. Experiments showed that even subjects who knew their faces had been placed in a commercial, still expressed preference for the brand after the study ended. Can anyone imagine most corporations aren’t already planning for what could be a bonanza in this type of narcissistic advertising?

More bizarre possibilities for avatars, according to Bailenson and Blascovich, seem endless. In the brave new world to come, “wearing an avatar will be like wearing contact lenses.” And these avatars will be capable of not only ‘seeing’ virtual objects and ‘feeling’ them (using ‘haptic’ devices), but of appearing to walk among us. More ominously, imposters can “perfectly re-create and control other people’s avatars” as has already happened with poor old Orville Redenbacher. Tracking devices—which can see and record every physical movement you make—make this not only possible, but inevitable. Everyone, with all physical essentials, will be archived.

All of this makes the idea of “the real world” rather problematic. Of course, neuroscience has already told us that the ‘world’ we see and believe in is really a model constructed by our brains, but still, this takes things several steps beyond that. For if, in virtual reality, “anybody can interact with anybody else in the world, positively or negatively,” then what does it mean to talk about “real” experience? If “everything everybody does will be archived,” what does privacy mean?

At the least, one can say this: a brave new world is already upon us (think of all those kids with video games; think of how much time you already spend staring at your computer screen), and you can bet that those with an eye to profiting from it are already busy, busy, busy. One can also say, take a walk in the real outdoors with real dirt, grass, trees, worms, bugs, and the sweet smell of horseshit; it may soon be only a distant memory.

Lawrence DiStasi


Just a little historical perspective on jobs. Like many things in recent history jobs, as we know them, didn’t always exist. Tribal societies didn’t have jobs where people went to work for a certain length of time and received an agreed upon compensation. Often they were tribal societies that didn’t have money or clocks. Still essential work was done and usually no one starved or everyone starved. The Inca empire before 1533 was an example of an advanced civilization without unemployment, poverty and almost no crime. Each person had their roll in a thoughtfully structured society. All that changed with the Spanish conquest.
Much of the work done in feudalistic, societies was performed by slaves, or virtual slaves such as serfs, indentured servants and children. It is only in the last hundred years or so that the present concept of workers rights has been viewed as something people are entitled to; although that concept is under attack by the far right.

As important as jobs are in a capitalist society, not everyone needs to work and not all work is meaningful or necessary. Children and students don’t need to work, stay at home parents don’t have to work if they have enough income. Those who are mentally or physically ill might not work. Those who are rich might not choose to work and the same is true of retired people. If we are really worried about jobs raising the retirement age would make the jobless rate much worse.

Most social problems have solutions and it is just a matter of determining the best course of action. The jobs problem is certainly solvable but the political debate rages on while little real headway is made on this issue that will likely determine who we elect as President and which party we think can bring down the unemployment rate.

The Republican positions on lowering the unemployment rate are certainly narrower in scope than the Democratic solutions. Lower taxes on the rich and corporations and less regulation on business is simply, easy to remember and doesn’t work. When I say it doesn’t work I’m speaking from a utilitarian perspective in that it doesn’t even come close to providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We have clear evidence that it doesn’t work because we have tried those solutions before and they failed. What they are advocating is nothing more than the Laissez Faire capitalism of the 1800’s, or the neo-feudalism of the Victorian Age that produced vast economic inequality. It may provide extra wealth for those who are already rich and it may allow corporations to do want they want to do instead of what they should do, but there is no consistent data I know of that by following that simple plan a lot of jobs would be created. No matter how many times they say Ronald Reagan and the magic of the free market that isn’t going to change. For the voter who doesn’t want to think too hard about complex solutions, such as good jobs for more people, it gives them a belief system that is absolutist in nature to the point where deviation and compromise are not an option. Full employment isn’t even a Republican objective; at least I’ve never heard them say it was.
On the other hand Democrats have some core values about jobs. They believe in the right to belong to a union, to have a retirement program, to have a minimum wage, to have sick leave and paid vacations, safe working conditions and to have affordable health care. Beyond that most Democrats believe that government can do things to create jobs and to prevent jobs from being outsourced. Other countries like China have had an active role in developing industries that manufacture goods and expand clean energy. The criticism of this is that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in the business world. What if we had sat back and allowed General Motors to fail? Sometimes American businesses need government help to succeed and need to partner with government on research and development. We need to give incentives to businesses that hire Americans and penalize those companies that outsource American jobs. President Obama has a lot of practical measures in the American Jobs Act that should work if he can get it passed.

Roughly one out of thirteen Americans has a government job but at this point in time about 16% of the work force would like a full time job. Hiring people to repair infrastructure as outlined in the jobs bill is a good start. One of the really big problems with jobs is too many people are salaried employees. They are working seventy hours a week and being paid for only forty hours. If a law were passed that required that all employers must pay employees for all hours worked pay time and a half would be for hours over forty that would reduce unemployment significantly. In fact, Republicans often advocate cutting employees to save money and that results in paying unemployment benefits to laid off workers while the remaining workers have to be paid overtime to get the work done. Another big part of the jobs problem is that corporations play one state off against another by trying to lure companies away from other states by lower taxes, subsidies and right to work laws. States would be far better off financially if they would simply adopt uniform rules that would not allow corporations to pick and choose. We should pass buy- American incentives so that American manufactured goods can be competitive with foreign made goods. That may not be free trade but other countries protect their economies and so should we.

Finally, the Republican argument that government cannot be the solution to the jobs problem appears to be false when you go on the internet and look at the unemployment rate of countries around the world on Wikipedia. it shows that the United States has a 9.3% unemployment rate. Turkmenistan 70%, Yemen 35% and Honduras 27.8% shows that countries with really bad government and no social safety net to speak of have few jobs for their people. On the other hand Monaco 0.0%, Belarus 0.7%, Singapore 1.9%, Malasia 3.2% and China 4.1% shows that governments that actively work to provide opportunity for all can come close to full employment. Even countries that don’t have a high standard of living such as Cuba 1.6% and Vietnam 2.9% can at least prevent severe poverty and homelessness.

Dave Silva

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reliving History

As I look at the papers and postings
It’s hard to see where I’m at
Because I read all the boastings
About solutions to fix this and that
And candidates who surely know better
Claim their elixirs will cure
Our ills right down to the letter
If we only agree to endure
The poisons about to be poured
And that will just thrill us
Unless it will kill us
As we wade through the welter of lies
Only history enlightens our lives

I have been reading extensively about the 20s and 30s to examine the cycle of history at home and abroad (Italy) to see what lessons might be learned. The sources were partly biographical, but are mostly records of the times wrapped around personalities such as FDR and folks like Hoover and even (Saint) Padre Pio. The American biographies provided a view of our economics, politics and sociology and the Padre Pio book gave insight to Italy during the period. The developments at home and abroad were remarkably similar, although the outcomes were less so and details varied from point to point.

In America, the sociology was framed by an almost Calvinistic belief that afflictions besetting individuals, families and communities were visited upon them through their sins and the sins of their forebears. Poverty was the natural outcome of this pre-condition and wealth was seen, not only as a blessing from God, but a sign of earthly holiness, or Grace on earth. Italian experience differed in that they had more recently lived through times where birth determined worth, but not in the Calvinist model. The lord of the manor had power over peons and as bad as education was in many rural American areas, it was better than the Italian model. Both sides of the Atlantic suffered from poor nutrition. In fact, it was a major cause of rejection for the military draft as things heated up for the US entry into WW II. A common element was the role of religion in everyday life, especially for the poor. In Italy there was an attachment to mysticism, especially through the lives of Roman Catholic saints. In the US, there was a virulent fundamentalism that rivaled any in history. The fundamentalist Ku Klux Klan was active in blaming minorities for the ills of our nation. Opportunistic preachers including Gerald L.K. Smith, Gerald Winrod and Fr. Coughlin whipped up sentiment against the left and supported the right and the “New America” of Colonel Lindbergh (hero and Nazi supporter). In Italy, socialists and even communists whipped up sentiments for fairness and even retribution against landowners. There, Benito Mussolini negotiated with the pope and collected religious support for his plans. Negotiations in 1929 resulted in the Lateran Treaty and the Concordat that returned 194 acres to the Church for the Vatican and split responsibilities for marriage and education between Church and State. Uneducated people tried to explain and interpret their lives in ways that made sense to them. It was a perfect storm that engulfed much of the planet. In Europe overall, WW I reparations sapped economic growth and colonialism was uttering its Last Hurrah so that survival by exploitation of colonies was diminishing and unable to keep economies viable. The dividing line between haves and have-nots sharpened. Symbolism held enormous power over largely illiterate populations; aided by religiosity and a history of compliance.

Wars then, just as now, had sapped the strength of nations and visited hunger and poverty on masses of people. Natural calamities such as the Dust Bowl in the US deepened misery and pain. Revolution in Europe brought fear and reaction from the far right in Italy. In the US, President Hoover, earlier an appointed hero of the great flood of 1927, expressed that government had no role in changing the dynamics of economics and he instituted a woefully inadequate program of helping starving Americans by encouraging his wealthy friends to give to the Community Chest in 1930-31. The program was a failure because his friends largely ignored his pleas and the reality of hunger brought shame to proud Americans. It succeeded in the sense that it placated the wealthy who felt vindicated that the poor deserved their lot in life and they deserved their wealth. Fundamentalist preachers, focused on alcohol, dancing and revivals, but supported harsh economic remedies. Today, they largely attack abortion and homosexuality, but the attachment by fundamentalists to the political right wing and drastic economics remains. In Italy, Padre Pio, despite being in the Capuchin monastery of San Giovanni Rotondo in an obscure corner of southern Italy, was known throughout the continent because of his miracles and his five stigmata that matched those of Jesus. Both socialists and fascists pursued the simple priest, but fascists won out and he was often seen with fascist operatives and members of parliament as he ministered to thousands of pilgrims. The nexus of the Church and fascism in Italy was coupled with a large dose of Anti-Semitism, especially in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Here in the US it was linked with both fundamentalists and Catholics like Fr. Coughlin who claimed that the abominable treatment of Jews by Germany was an internal matter for Germans; none of our concern and surely nothing to go to war for. In Italy, Il Duce still pursued “corporatism” as he defined fascism. This allowed him to denounce and limit unions and spur his expansionist plans. He denied Jews basic rights and invaded North Africa and sent military to Franco in Spain while the Church was focused on the atheistic Red Menace. Paradoxically, Il Duce asked the pope (Pius XI) to excommunicate Hitler who, though born Catholic, was pagan. Mussolini feared Hitler would annex the South Tyrol. Wars and infrastructure projects put Italians to work and gave reason to destroy labor unions as a matter of security just as unions organized to fight for workers. Conservatives equated unions to socialism and communism despite lacking evidence. This served corporatism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. Churches in Italy and the United States simply stood by or supported owners and corporations. Low wages prevailed, but Italians worked.

At home the theme was isolationism fostered by the far right who praised both Hitler and Mussolini as they demanded that we shun pleas from England, Spain and France for support. Unions were attacked, often using state or federal police and military resources to break up demonstrations, shoot demonstrators; reduce demand for wages and stall unrest that might take root here. The downward pressure on wages escalated as unions were attacked. One corporate CEO was quoted as saying “A man should be able to feed his family for 50 cents per day.” Those asking for higher wages were seen as immoral by owners and executives. Corporate profits were high and wages were low (sound familiar?) with the exception of Henry Ford who stated that his workers had to be paid well to afford to buy his cars. The Supreme Court declared child labor laws unconstitutional to further erode wages, saying, in effect, that children who could not otherwise execute contracts had a right to independently contract their labor. Despite brutal suppression of labor, Americans had little love for communism and they bore their burdens with grim resolve. Grocers like my Dad gave food to those without and put charges on records that were kept but never paid. Years later, when I found the records and confronted my father about them, he simply said: “They had to eat.”
Here in 2011, technology has changed, but little else. We see the far right in the US demanding shrinkage of government size and spending and expansion of government to control abortion and our southern border. Instead of blaming blacks and Jews for our troubles, as we did in the 20s and 30s we now focus on Mexican and Central Americans causing job shortages, although every study demonstrates that to be false. Corporations are enjoying record profits and lowering wages yet again as they shed jobs and demand more from the workers they retain. Preachers are preaching hate in more subtle tones, as they join the chorus to get on your knees instead of your feet. The numbers of abortions has dropped in recent years, but those cries still out-shout the cries of the poor. The tactics of conservatives have become more strident and they protect the upper class by demanding pledges of tax cuts in the face of declining government revenues and services.

There are some real outcomes of smaller government that some are unwilling to agree cause serious problems. As a single example, Texas leads the nation in minimum wage workers and has cut the training, equipping and staffing of Volunteer fire departments by 75%. At least 1600 homes have been destroyed by wildfires there. Hmm. In Wisconsin, conservatives unilaterally stripped unions of their rights to bargain for wages or working conditions while providing a grant to selected corporations that totaled more than the dollars taken from teachers and first responders. The Koch brothers recently gathered up conservative corporation executives and led a million dollar meeting where conservative donors had to pledge a minimum of $ 1 Million for their GOP friends in the coming election. Buddy, can you spare a $ million? Plutocrats and polluters won’t disappear overnight. We have seen presidential candidate Perry conduct a revival like prayer service to burnish his fundamentalist bona fides. We have seen candidate Bachmann deftly resign from her fundamentalist church that openly calls the pope “the Antichrist” just days before declaring her candidacy. Bachmann also signed a pledge by social conservatives in Iowa stating “A Black child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African American President.” The pledge shows not only blatant prejudice, but shows ignorance of American slavery that deliberately broke up and sold parts of families and where slave owners frequently bred slaves personally by having sex with them that could, in no way, be considered consensual. People in Italy drifted from organized religion and have developed a less trusting and more distant attitude toward the Church, unlike fundamentalists here. This joining of Church and State in the US may have nasty consequences for public education, public medicine and additional areas too numerous to list. More recently, she has stated that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. This lie will cause confusion among the uninformed and may cause pain, disease and suffering among those who refuse the vaccine based on her comments.

This is where we must begin to stop the revision of history that paints the pain, depravation and degradation of our people as a time of glory. The excesses of the rich in defining the world as theirs to control was dominant in the 20s and 30s. Limiting the benevolence of government and enhancing its power for sanction is moving us in exactly the wrong direction. A man or woman out of work or underpaid becomes a set of problems and a study in agony and bad behavior. It is not a trial where they are strengthened by fire, but one where they are burned and scarred. There is a role for government and the idea that we should limit the benevolent side of the government is a sick excuse to further tilt the nation to plutocracy instead of democracy. We may go back to solutions of violence in the streets and probably will, but that only encourages bastards with money to use the force they buy to restore PAX Dollarama. Mussolini used military entertainment and civil projects. Hitler used war. Hoover used the Community Chest. Conservatives use religion, so what will Boehner and Cantor use? Which way will we go? Jobs provide dignity but more than dignity. They provide a haven where families dwell and a nation thrives. Poverty provides misery and strife and the US poverty level has just risen to 15.1%.

The violence will be televised this time, unlike the 20s and 30s. Be careful out there.

George Giacoppe
11 September 2011