I’m disappointed by the failure of the world to end itself. Oh, there was a lot of build up and a large number of people sold everything they owned in an anticipation of the final days which turned out not to be any more final then you’re average glum Friday morning with a wintry weather mix. No grand explosions, no meteorites laying waste to major cities, no epics of disease nor war. Just another weekday with humanity ticking along (okay, a small hang out in the Pyrenees reputed to be the last safe place on Earth became a wee bit overcrowded), but that was it. Our doomsday clock’s minute hand still rests stoically at about five minutes ’til.
But, given our propensity for fouling things up, there’s still time to get it right next year. Here are a few things to watch out for:
Economic collapse. One thing the Mayans did predict accurately (kind of) was a world cast into economic turmoil about a year or so prior to 12/2012. The TARP bailout may have avoided the worst of that doomsday scenario, but by refusing to provide meaningful economic stimulus; that is, by not advancing projects and funding jobs to offset unemployment so that the people who actually need and spend the money that drives the economy—(as opposed to unregulated banks and quasi bank entities –like AIG — that simply sit on the cash or dole it out to upper management in the form of million dollar bonuses) we’ve guaranteed a long and painfully slow recovery. Still, despite all the media hoopla, in a moderately sane game of political calculation, one could navigate the upcoming fiscal cliff crisis without too much angst. If we could imagine basic sanity in the Republican House, we might assume that they would want to be re-elected and that, consequently, they’d be inclined to passing a bill which raises taxes on those making over half a million while maintaining the current low tax rates for the middle class—which is hugely popular and for which, among other things, Obama won reelection. Or, conversely, they would be willing to pass a tax cut for those who make less than say quarter of a million dollars a year—after the fiscal cliff was crossed. This last scenario is the one I had expected up to a few days ago. But there was something deeply unsettling about House Speaker Boehner’s failure to gain enough votes for even his own ‘Plan B’. Keep in mind, this was the option that allowed tax cuts to remain intact at the remarkably high income level of one million dollars. Of course, with a reasonably rational House, this should have passed no problem. It certainly was more generous than Obama’s top compromising position (which was up to about 400,000 or just under half a million). But Boehner couldn’t even get that through. This is disconcerting. In the game of chicken it’s important to keep in mind that crazy people behind the wheels of moving vehicles may, in fact, be crazy. If Boehner can’t get his caucus to pass something this simple and this favorable, is it possible that when we go over the fiscal cliff (a likely prospect) he won’t be able to muster the votes to pass a middle class tax cut –because it will be perceived as caving in to Obama? That would surely be a drag on our economy—this, in turn, could drag Europe’s economy down and that would make the 2008 banking crisis look like a walk in the park. Just a thought.
But onto cheerier prospects.
Our increasing security state: Within the space of a year (this one) we have seen some of the worst excesses of the Bush administration not only repeated, but effectively embraced and encoded in a way they hadn’t been before. Our guy did this, Obama. He wasn’t forced to — there was no overriding demand for an aggressive enforcement of whistle-blower laws, or the development of a drone kill list, not to mention the ugly assistance of the FBI in breaking up Occupy Wall Street encampments. This was all done in addition to the very ho-hum suspension of Habeas Corpus that we seem to take currently as standard operating procedure. Now the Democratic party has validated the Bush administration’s take on our ‘security’ state and managed to make it worse. Only a handful of progressive voices are raising a cry about it. Journalist Chris Hedges has sued the Obama administration over provisions passed in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act)—particularly those that suspend a U.S. citizen’s right to due process and a trial by jury of their peers. Little or no press has been given to his efforts and Bradley Manning is still being held (over a year now) for the crime of dumping documents that revealed war crime activities in Iraq and elsewhere. I suppose now would be a good time to mention that Daniel Ellsberg was later lionized in the national press for the equivalent with his release of the Pentagon Papers four decades earlier. Times have changed, and not for better.
What else can we look forward to?
Environmental collapse: The sky isn’t falling, but our world is overheating – which may be worse. At the same time that the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ has garnered countless media cycles, the latest climate conference was being held in Doha, Qatar with ne’er a peep from our major media outlets. It was a dismal affair to be sure, with no commitment made toward carbon limits or carbon sequestration, and, in fact, original signers to the Kyoto protocol have pulled back with only a cursory promise made for future talks. The hard decisions were kicked down the road again, promising increasing carbon levels and—consequently– increasingly catastrophic weather incidents like Super Storm Sandy. The poor countries will likely bear the brunt of this neglect, while the rich countries hunker down in their SUVs.
So, given this, is there anything hopeful in 2013?
Two incidents from 2012 offer promise. The first, I’ve already mentioned—Super Storm Sandy. Paradoxically, Sandy’s wrath announced the arrival and reality of climate change in a way that climate deniers could no longer deny. Despite millions of dollars from the likes of Exxon seeded throughout conservative think tanks and front groups, something about having the Jersey shore wiped off the map makes pseudo-intellectual talking points much less convincing. Never mind that the majority of climate skeptics or deniers never saw the inside of a peer-reviewed journal, now they have to deal with folks whose million dollar homes have been wiped out by an inexplicable –once in a century—Atlantic ball buster. Only, it’s not once in a century—these storms are becoming more and more frequent, once a month, if not weekly phenomena and people are catching on. Climate change is real. And it’s deadly. And Michael Bloomberg said so. And yeah, we really ought to do something about it.
The other promising incident, perversely, was the national reaction to the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut which has reintroduced gun control into the national debate, despite millions being spent by the NRA to prevent such a discussion. Again, people are seeing the fruits of bad policy. Guns do kill people—and quite effectively. Especially assault weapons with huge magazine clips. Notwithstanding the millions of dollars gun manufacturers have paid the National Rifle Association to deny this fact. There was a bit of luck in this too—Wayne La Pierre’s paranoid response to the incident has made the NRA’s position ridiculous to almost anyone with half a brain who doesn’t own an AR15. The important point that ties these two incidents together? Despite all the money spent by Exxon or the gun manufacturers, or the NRA, despite all the effort by very powerful entities to disguise and distort the debate, people still recognize the underlying problem, the fundamental reality, and are willing to act on it. Money can’t obviate everything. The banks colluded with the FBI and homeland security to break up the Occupy Wall Street encampments, but they could not dismantle the disparate organization itself—nor the spirit it represented. The same holds true for our electoral process where, thanks to the Citizens United decision, we saw corporate sponsors and outside ‘Super PAC’ groups flood the campaign coffers of tea party candidates and conservatives. Despite billions of dollars poured into campaigns across the nation by Cross Roads GPS and the Koch brothers, Democrats retained the Senate handily, increased their numbers in the House (and would have likely won a majority had it not been for extensive Republican gerrymandering) and, of course, re-elected Barack Obama.
But maybe the most hopeful sign in 2012 –almost entirely unreported –and relatively small on the national scale — was the reemergence of Occupy Wall Street in their Rolling Jubilee. Despite, official harassment from the Department of Homeland Security to the local beat cop, Occupy emerged a few months ago with a plan to buy back bad debt from lenders (like Bank of America, etc…) who would normally sell it to collection agencies that in turn would ruthlessly pursue the unlucky debt holder to his or her grave for pennies on the dollar. The average ‘purchase’ of such debt is about a 20 to 1 ratio. As an example, ten dollars would buy you about two hundred dollars worth of debt. Typically, the debt was incurred through no fault of the debtor, came about through a medical problem or some other crisis that our broken system did not work to alleviate. Occupy set up a telethon structure to ‘buy up’ the bad debt, and simply forgive it. They called it the Rolling Jubilee—a sly reference to the biblical Jubilee of Leviticus, where, every seventh, seven-year cycle all debt was forgiven. Coined ‘a bailout of the people, by the people’, their efforts have netted over 522,000 dollars (as of this writing) ‘liberating’ over 10 million dollars of bad debt. Occupy was active on another front too—though again there has been very little press. They were among the first responders offering on the ground assistance in the wake of Super Storm Sandy. They galvanized volunteers from across the state (and nation) and worked hand in hand with local firemen and police to help those most in need. Responding, I might add, more quickly than the Red Cross or other more ‘official’ aid organizations.
Slowly, perhaps, we are learning to trust and count on ourselves; and maybe that’s the beginning of a true, local democracy movement, where we learn by doing for ourselves. In the process we exercise civic skills and experience what democracy means at the local day-to-day level of human interaction. If we do it right, we could begin in vulnerability and end in empowerment–a great promise for any year.
This is the story about a mass killing, but not the one you think. Not the most recent one in Connecticut in which twenty children and six adults were slaughtered, nor the one in Portland, Oregon where a masked gunman opened fire in a crowded mall, killing two and seriously injuring a third before turning the gun on himself. It’s not the one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, either, where a white supremacist shot six people and a cop at a Sikh temple before shooting himself in the head. Nor is it the more famous shooting in Aurora, Colorado where a lone gunman killed 12 and injured 58 at a July 2012 screening of “The Dark Knight.”
You can rule out the Oakland, California massacre, as well, where a former student at a Christian college fatally shot seven people and injured three – that was back in April of this year. I don’t want to talk about the slaughter in Copley Township, Ohio, either, how a man in a family dispute used his handgun to shoot and kill his girlfriend and six others. Maybe you think I want to discuss the massacre in Geneva, Alabama? That one had eleven victims, ages 18 months to 74 years old. They were killed by a lone gunman in a family feud in March 2009. I don’t want to discuss this anymore than I want to talk about the Omaha, Nebraska massacre where a 19-year-old man shot nine people at a department store in December 2007 before cops killed him. No doubt, you think the largest mass shooting in our history, the violence at Blacksburg, Virginia where a student at Virginia Tech managed to murder 32 classmates and wound 25 others before committing suicide in April 2007 would warrant some discussion. But no, I don’t want to mention any of these, anymore than I want to talk about the famous Columbine massacre that left thirteen dead and 21 wounded a year earlier.
No. What would be the point after all? The litany of death hasn’t changed our behavior. We, as a nation, don’t care. Oh, we tear up and we make memorials and our politicians go through the usual genuflection to public sentiment and, of course, there’s nothing like social media to demonstrate our earnest convictions about all of this. But to really do something that might lessen the odds of mass death on occasion? Ban assault weapons? Reduce the size of ammunition magazines? Enforce background checks and close the gun show loop-hole? We’ll have none of it. So rather than whine, I’d like to talk about a national moment that occurred, that changed the fabric of a society and a nation for the better. I’d like to tell you about a country that managed to preserve its ‘gun culture’ while still strictly regulating weapons that could be used for no other purpose than mass killings.
This country isn’t ours, of course. At least not yet. It’s Australia. A massacre occurred in Australia one year prior to the Columbine massacre in the United States, in 1996. It involved the usual script we’ve come to know by heart. A lone gunman, mentally unstable goes on a shooting rampage, murdering 35 innocent people. Like citizens in the US, the Australians acted with shock and horror. But then something different occurred. Galvanized by the nation’s grief and outrage, the conservative prime minister sought to ban rapid-fire rifles—our infamous assault weapons. The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those remaining in public hands. Importantly, the law did not end gun ownership in Australia. But it reduced the number of firearms in private hands by one-fifth, and they were the kinds most likely to be used in mass shootings. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “researchers at Harvard University, concluded that ‘The National Firearms Agreement seems to have been incredibly successful in terms of lives saved.’ To be specific, we’ve had no gun massacres since 1996, compared with 13 such tragedies during the previous 18 years. (A massacre is defined as the killing of four or more people.) Total gun deaths have been reduced: gun homicides and gun suicides had been falling gradually before Port Arthur, but the reforms in 1996 caused that decline to accelerate dramatically. In the early 1990s, about 600 Australians were dying each year by gunfire; that figure is now fewer than 250.”
Could the same thing happen here? Obama has issued a strong statement, but tellingly without details. Even with the full support of the executive branch, we need politicians willing to take risks. After all, it takes courage to change behavior and to make new laws that might go against the powerful gun manufacturing industry whose millions pays off the NRA who, in turn, threaten our politicians, and sow confusion in the media, perversely advocating for more weapons to stem the carnage of gun violence (Let’s just throw a little gasoline on that fire, why don’t we?) It takes political courage to stand up to such bullies, just as it takes physical courage to imagine yourself protecting your house without the aid of a Bushmaster at the ready with a 100 round ammo clip. Are we too fearful a country to change our ways? But it’s not just courage, this is about sacrifice, too. Are twenty dead children enough to pry these weapons from our cold dead fingers? And, if not, what number will suffice?
Last night I saw the Richmond’s Fire House Theatre production of Death of a Salesman—a riveting performance by a nearly flawless caste. This morning I woke to news that the ‘Washington consensus’ was forming around a compromise for the so-called fiscal cliff that will involve raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67.
That means while the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans will have to pay a bit more from their slush funds, millions of Americans will be required to work an extra two years in order to retire without fear of losing their savings or home because of an unanticipated illness. They could have retired at 65, using early retirement, but without affordable healthcare how is that feasible? Where does a person turn if they are 65 years of age and Medicare eligibility age is 67?
Perhaps for those with desk jobs or a relatively untaxing work life, those extra two years won’t mean that much, but for many Americans, this is an extra two years of hard labor, arbitrarily tacked onto a lifetime of sweat and struggle—and an extra two years can amount to a life sentence when you’re over sixty. Ask Willy Loman.
In the political calculus, let’s not forget him. Our Willy Lomans are still out there. Hammering in nails, petitioning on the street corners, working in the grocery stores and fast food restaurants, waking up sore with headaches from the night before, not sleeping well, worried about their children’s future, worried about their own. Many are not salesmen in the traditional sense any longer. The jobs and the demographics have changed since Arthur Miller’s play debuted nearly 70 years ago. Today our Willy Lomans are poor parents, single fathers or single mothers (in fact, females make up the majority of Medicare recipients), stretching to make ends meet when the car breaks down and they have to use their grocery money for repairs. Shall we make them work an extra two years so that a millionaire may preserve a bit more of his on hand cash?
Many others are immigrants who work all day landscaping our corporate scenery or toil in our fields to bring us cheap lettuce, tomatoes and grapes. They sweat under the sun, survive in crowded corners of our cities, or further out in dirty shacks provided for day laborers, stacked one on top of the other, far from our eyes and our thinking. Those are our Willy Lomans, too. With this deal, we’re telling them to work another two years in the sun, digging ditches, pounding nails, living like animals so that our millionaire congress can ‘save face’… That’s fair, right?
At the heart of Miller’s play is the cry of the dispossessed, of those who do not ‘make it’. Willy goes to his manager, exhausted beyond words, tells his young boss—who he helped name as an infant—that he just can’t continue traveling anymore. But there’s no place in the system for a Willy Loman who doesn’t travel 700 miles in a day, wearing holes in his shoes, lugging his valise. The young boss blows him off at first, and then finally fires him. The moment breaks Willy’s heart, and ultimately his mind. The question Miller asks is still with us: what do we do with our used up citizens, our jobless, our elderly, our permanently poor who will be shunted aside and ignored once again, our perennially homeless? They will find no new hope in this deal. Rather, what little help they might have received will be bartered away on the altar of an ill-timed austerity fix. Hundreds of thousands are still without work, millions who work must take jobs they find both demeaning and demoralizing because their chosen career path is no longer viable. Yet we will require two more years of their service; and no extra help for anyone who can not manage to be so lucky. That’s fair, right?
Death was the only escape Willy saw out of the cruel necessities of the system in which he was immersed. “What’s the secret Ben,” he asks his brother plaintively in one of his dream locutions before the end of the play. Ben, ever the adventurer, answers with a non-answer, “You go into the jungle and you come out rich. You go into the night, Willy and you come out with diamonds.”
It’s a nice thought, a romantic thought, probing the heart of the American dream, but in the end it’s the idea whose dissolution dooms Willy—and millions of Americans like Willy every day. The question is: do we as a society soften the lives of those who will never find diamonds in the jungle? Or do we tack two more years onto their already hard existence in the name of a meretricious austerity that benefits no one but the very wealthy? It’s an important question that defines us as a society. Attention must be paid.
~ Jack Johnson
A wonderful photograph floated around the time of the 2008 bank bailout crisis, with an image of one of the big banks on Wall Street in front of which is a hand-held cardboard sign reading simply, “Jump, you fuckers”….The ongoing ‘serious people’ discussion surrounding the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ deserves the same response. Our social safety net doesn’t need cutting; our debt can survive just fine as it is (at least in the short-term), and if taxes go up on the wealthiest 2% in this country, so much the better. I’m sure Republicans will find the political will to reduce taxes for everyone below that threshold, once the ‘cliff’ has been summarily ‘crossed’; and if they don’t, come election time, we’ll find ourselves with that many fewer Republicans. Again, a winning situation. So, let’s not talk in fearful tones of the fiscal cliff—let’s instead talk about the much more important carbon cliff we’re about to step off.
Last week, in Doha, Qatar, the survival of the human race was being decided by diplomats from around the globe. You would never guess that from the press coverage the climate talks have garnered in the US media, which approaches nil. Yet the stakes are incredibly high. Much higher than the hand wringing kabuki surrounding the fiscal cliff. There is ample evidence that if nothing is done on the way to the carbon cliff, our comeuppance is going to be immediate and devastating– for ourselves and future generations. In fact, it’s already here. The unhappy statistics are well documented, and I posted some links below for those interested.
An unseasonably warm winter means children can swim in Lake Michigan in December, but we’ll suffer super droughts and super storms, with poorer undeveloped nations suffering disproportionately. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 will almost certainly be the hottest year on record for the continental US. “After a warmer-than-average November, only an exceptionally-cold December could prevent 2012 from being warmer than 1998, the year that currently holds the record. In 2012 Arctic sea ice also hit a record low, covering only 24 percent of the Arctic Ocean. The previous low was 29 percent, set in 2007. Additionally, the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere increased by 3 percent last year, which makes it almost impossible to keep global warming to only a couple degrees, according to climate scientists.”
In its World Energy Outlook report, the International Energy Agency cautions that, unless world leaders take bold action by 2017, all of the carbon emissions allowable by 2035 will be “locked in” by existing energy infrastructure. Indeed, both the IEA and professional-services firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers warn that business-as-usual emissions will cause an increase of 4-6 degrees this century. Moreover, the UN Environment Program’s recent Emissions Gap Report highlights the inadequacy of global carbon-reduction efforts, noting that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased by 20% since 2000.
In the face of certain climate devastation, the talks at Doha were utterly supine. Rather than strengthen the Kyoto protocol, backers of Kyoto will dwindle from 2013 to a group including the European Union, Australia, Ukraine, Switzerland and Norway. Together they account for less than 15 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions.
Of the original Kyoto group — Russia, Japan and Canada — are pulling out, saying that it is time for big emerging economies led by China and India to join in setting targets for limiting their surging emissions. The United States, of course, signed but never ratified Kyoto.
The only silver lining? Under an extension agreement reached Saturday, there will be a possibility for tightening targets in 2013 and 2014. The conference agreed to hold a first session of talks from April 29 to May 2, 2013, in Bonn, Germany, perhaps another in September 2013, and at least two sessions in 2014 and two in 2015. In short, they kicked the carbon cliff can down the road.
The conference did not oblige developed nations to give a timetable about how they would achieve a promised tenfold increase in aid to $100 billion a year by 2020 (originally agreed to in 2009—by, among others, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). In fact, with regard to financing, the focus shifted from building alternative energy infrastructure, carbon sequestering or mitigation to ways of salvaging civilization from the devastating effects of climate change AFTER it occurs.
Curiously, like our market driven healthcare system, rather than treating a diabetic’s diet we are waiting until the effects are so dire that the patient’s foot or leg needs amputation—and only then will we be willing to pay for it. This is the worst sort of short-term thinking, driven almost entirely by a narrow view of the immediate bottom line. With just a little political will and foresight we could set up a carbon tax, eliminate our ridiculous subsidies for fossil fuels (a perverse incentive if there ever was one), and use the subsequent freed up funds to invest heavily in solar, wind and other carbon free or carbon neutral technologies creating a green jobs boom in the bargain. The EU is well on the way with such a program, but the largest economy on Earth right now, next to China, has refused to budge. The result is inertia at talks where bold action was the only rational course: what amounts to a death wish for the world.
Jared Diamond author of Collapse has a video out in which he makes a point that is painfully obvious:
DIAMOND: “There are so many societies in which the elite made decisions that were good for themselves in the short run and ruined themselves and societies in the long run.
Why didn’t the Mayan kings just look out the windows of the Palaces and see the forests getting chopped down, soil being eroded down at the valley bottom. Why didn’t the kings say `stop it’? Well the kings had managed to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions – in the short run. Even while the forests were being chopped down, they were still being fed well by the commoners, they were in their wonderful palaces. And the kings didn’t recognize that they were making a mess until it was too late, when the commoners rose in revolt.
Similarly, in the United States at present, the policies being pursued by too many wealthy people and decision makers are ones that — as in the case of the Mayan kings — preserve their interests in the short run but are disastrous in the long run.”
Meanwhile, our ridiculous media stoke fears of a politically generated fiscal cliff which is almost wholly fabricated in DC while ignoring the very real carbon cliff that increasingly threatens every citizen in the world.
For more information: