The Money Storm
A day earlier it would have been April Fool’s day and everyone would have understood the McCutcheon decision that recently came down from the Supreme Court was a joke. Now, it’s still a joke, only no one is laughing.
How bad is it? Striking down the aggregate limits will flood our political system with new cash, but the seven-figure checks will go directly to candidates instead of super PACs. Without aggregate limits, one candidate, through the use of joint fundraising committees, can solicit contributions of more than $3.6 million from a single donor. For the record, $3.6 million is more than 70 times the median family income in America. Effectively one person will have the ‘voice’ of 70. This isn’t free speech, of course, it’s very expensive speech, and those with large bankrolls will continue to wield unwarranted influence throughout our political structure—only now it will be legal.
In the romantic version of our culture, we like to think that the United States will eventually get it right, but our nation has spent a long time maintaining income inequality and allowing our politics to reflect a kind of infantile belief in the ultimate goodness of aggregate cash. Steinbeck once famously said that there are no poor people in this country, only temporarily embarrassed millionaires, which at least explains the voting patterns of red states whose dire poverty levels should make them keen on redistribution, but who, inevitably, side with the wealthiest members of our society that so delicately place the boot upon their throat.
The justices—at least the five who voted out this decision—have no such conflict. They appear to earnestly approve of our growing plutocracy. “What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”
McCutcheon, of course, has partnered with the Republican National Committee to bring this case before the Supreme Court, and fittingly, the Republican worldview is the ultimate winner. The message from the bench is pretty clear: if you want to have a voice in our society, become a millionaire. For those not lucky enough or ruthless enough to acquire wads of extra cash, your voice will be drowned to a whisper, and your wishes and needs will be addressed if and when they align with the needs of your friendly neighborhood Robber Baron.
Ari Berman writing in The Nation notes that the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are also the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.
From the Nation magazine, consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:
“• The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.
• Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.
• It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.
That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.
Now consider what’s happened since the Shelby County decision that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to the New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”
So we live in a country that expands the rights of the wealthy and powerful to dominate the political process, but does not protect fundamental rights for all citizens to vote. We live in a country that applies a legal veneer to this duality under the ridiculous assertion of “free” speech, or conversely voter ‘fraud’ (where none exists). Dos Passos said this years ago in his epic USA trilogy and I’ll pass it along as a reminder to those temporarily embarrassed millionaires: “America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out, who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul.”
The legal wrangling at the Supreme Court obfuscates what’s happening on the streets of this country, so it’s past time to speak plainly again. We can start where Dos Passos ends: “all right we are two nations.”
There’s a certain perverse pleasure in waiting to see what disastrous policy initiatives Republicans can develop, like watching a Jerry Lewis movie. You enjoy the unwinding disasters, almost in disbelief, just waiting to see how bad it can get. Attempting to repeal Obamacare for the 50th time, for example, when we come in dead last for healthcare outcomes among all developed nations…. That’s something, really. It requires a kind of supreme lack of imagination. We endure the worst rates of heart disease, lung disease, obesity, and diabetes among all the developed nations on Earth. We are last in positive outcomes, but we spend the most–outstripping all rivals in flushing money down the insurance toilet without any actual return on investment (or ROI, as the smart MBA kids like to say). So the natural conclusion for the conservative movement is to repeal anything that would correct that situation, right? All this might suggest that the right doesn’t actually care about outcomes, or maybe it’s some unfathomably clever political ploy. Like how, every six months or so, they actively seek to plunge our economy back into an ice bath by holding the debt ceiling hostage. Or again, maybe it’s just the right gone wild in their usual productive cycle of ginning fake outrage over fake scandals (Benghazi! IRS!) and destroying any attempt at a sane economic policy which, I have to admit, is par for the course. After all, our band of antediluvian brothers’ idea of economic progress is to repeal the minimum wage.
Yet, there are moments when even a cynic must pause. Ten years ago, for example, would anyone have wagered that our Supreme Court would gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act, invalidating section four and opening the way for conservatives to pass some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country? Within 2 hours of that court decision, Texas arranged a voter ID law and redistricting map both of which were blocked in previous years for their discriminatory tendencies against blacks and Latinos. It’s not like this should have come as a surprise, either. The Texas Republican Party’s 2012 platform specifically called for the repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The only people who didn’t see it coming, apparently, were the five Justices who concurred in the decision to gut the act. One must conclude they were willfully blind to reality, or criminally stupid, or, more likely, they were perfectly aware of the outcome, and that’s precisely why they formed their decision.
This brings us to an interesting question. Suppose the recent antics of the right aren’t just gross stupidity, poor analysis, or general loss of contact with reality? But, rather– it’s opposite. Suppose it is simply this: the right is actively seeking to disenfranchise millions of citizens to retain political power, keep sick people from adequate health care to ensure continued profits for a dysfunctional healthcare system, and weaken the middle class and labor movements so that big business–their primary constituent–can avail themselves of cheap labor in perpetuity.
If the latter is true, then maybe the activists in North Carolina have it right. The Reverend Barber and the NAACP have developed a sustained protest dubbed “Moral Monday” in reaction to anti-abortion legislation, voter suppression laws and cuts in public school teacher pay the conservatives of their state have enacted. Thousands have showed up at the North Carolina state house throughout the summer. Five thousand activists alone showed up in Asheville, North Carolina on Monday, August 5th. Close to a thousand have been arrested over the course of the summer in acts of civil disobedience.
“This is no momentary hyperventilation and liberal screaming match,” Reverend Barber told AP. “This is a movement.”
Indeed, it is. And with the racists-gone-wild antics of the right in Arizona, singing “Bye Bye Black Sheep,” outside one of President Obama’s speeches and carrying signs reading, “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!”, maybe it’s time to consider a nation wide “Moral Monday.”
After all, if the right isn’t entirely divorced from reality, their motives aren’t hard to decipher. Why gut the middle class economy, destroy any attempt at healthcare policy, restrict women’s rights, mock a black President and– a local note– plant a Confederate Flag just south of Richmond, Virginia (home of the ex-Confederacy, where millions of slaves were brought to be auctioned off to the highest bidder a little over 150 years ago) unless that is exactly what you’re seeking? To turn the clock back to that sunny time when blacks slaved like raisins in the sun, and poor whites were tenant farmers eking out a hard life’s wage, half of which went to pay their landlord? Sans any government protection, much less ‘healthcare’….This, after all, is the essence of the Confederacy, and, at bottom, the essence of the right-wing laissez faire economic model. It would not be the first time in human history that we’ve taken a step or two back.
Some folks might say I am exaggerating, because outside of a government predicated on a wealthy elite’s supremacy, the destruction of the middle class, the elimination of social services and the return of institutions that look and act like slavery or tenant farming, would the right-wing agenda really be all that bad?
I’m glad you asked, because even if we were to accept the feudal living arrangements the far right’s economic agenda promises, there is one other area where they would actually prove worse. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 30 Texas towns are about to run out of water due to global warming induced droughts, and– wait for it — fracking. Why? Because fracking uses water humans need to survive. The oil and gas industries are draining Texas of water in order to break up the earth so that oil may be extracted to produce gas that runs cars that lead to global warming which further exacerbates the lack of water … that humans need to survive.
The oil and gas industries consider the cost of this degradation–that is, the draining of Texas’ aquifers so that humans have nothing to drink–an ‘externality’ (another word those smart MBA kids love); and to the extent that they think about them at all, most of the humans in Texas are probably also considered externalities, as are their children and their children’s children, etc… Except the fetuses, naturally. That’s just the way the far right rolls.
We could put this another way, of course. We could talk about the human cost of such a far right economic model that reduces humans to a plus or minus on a ledger sheet. We could suggest that, as humans, strictly speaking, we cannot drink oil, and we cannot eat money.
Barnhart, Texas has already run dry. Moral Monday, anyone?
Swelling the Leeches
Believe it or not, there are at least a handful of individuals that actually consider austerity measures at this point in time ‘good medicine’. Almost none of these people are reputable economists, or business leaders. Most, in fact, are politicians with less than savory motives. Or Paul Ryan, but I repeat myself.
For the handful of individuals who honestly want to help the economy with austerity cuts, their basic thinking goes something like this:
‘In the short-term, austerity cuts will be painful, but it’s necessary to prevent the collapse of Western society as we know it.’
In fact, words to this effect can be found in a recent article by Joshua Green in Bloomberg Business Week, bemoaning the fact that no one takes the suggestions of the Simpson Bowles commission (i.e., Cat Food Commission) seriously. There’s just a little desperation to the evident failure of their grand plan:
“The outside strategy to persuade the public has also fallen short. It depended on scaring people into believing that a crisis is imminent. For all their resources and the attention they garnered…” they have managed to fail.
“They” of course, are Simpson and Bowles, and, more relevantly, the folks at “Fix The Debt”, under the steely guidance of Pete Peterson, the billionaire who is aghast that poor people can still manage to get money from the government, somehow.
Alas, “Millions of Americans are more anxious about jobs, stagnant wages, slow growth, and a host of other domestic problems…” than they are about ‘fixing the debt…’
Priorities, people! Priorities!
What comes to mind, on hearing these words, is the pale patient from some 19th century novel, broken by unrequited love or some other trauma, staring blankly at the ceiling while the meddling surgeon stops by to help. With leeches, naturally. Why? Well, because in the medieval theory of medicine, any sickness that caused the subject’s skin to become red (e.g. fever and inflammation), must have arisen from too much blood in the body. Similarly, any person whose behavior was strident and “sanguine” was thought to be suffering from an excess of blood. Thus leeches were used to draw off the excess blood and cure the illness. Viola! Similarly, we have our current crop of doctors holding onto a zombie economic cure that just won’t go away. ‘Cutting’ the national budget in a time of deep recession will somehow be good for our economic body; when there is zero empirical evidence to support this view.
Am I saying the current House Budget plan put forward by Paul Ryan that stoically embraces slashing programs that will eviscerate the middle and lower class is the equivalent of medieval blood-letting?
Why, yes, I am. And it is just as deadly in its unintended consequences, (killing the patient) and just as useful in producing a cure.
You would think, in retrospect, that doctors of early 19th century would have looked at the available empirical evidence (dead and dying patients) and concluded that their remedy wasn’t working–but they didn’t. They assumed it was an insufficient dose of blood-letting and just went on all the more savagely until said patient kicked or somehow managed to survive the cure. Even after William Harvey (who famously described the circulatory system for the first time) disproved the practice as far back as 1628 and went on to decry the use of blood-letting, the practice never lost favor. Bloodletting was used to treat almost every disease. One British medical text recommended bloodletting for acne, asthma, cancer, cholera, coma, convulsions, diabetes, epilepsy, gangrene, gout, herpes, indigestion, insanity, jaundice, leprosy, ophthalmia, plague, pneumonia, scurvy, smallpox, stroke, tetanus, tuberculosis, and for some one hundred other diseases. Bloodletting was even used to treat most forms of hemorrhaging such as nosebleed, excessive menstruation, or hemorrhoidal bleeding. Before surgery or at the onset of childbirth, blood was removed to prevent inflammation. Before amputation, it was customary to remove a quantity of blood equal to the amount believed to circulate in the limb that was to be removed.
This progressed well into the 19th century. In the 1830s, the French imported about forty million leeches a year for medical purposes, and in the next decade, England imported six million leeches a year from France alone. Through the early decades of the century, hundreds of millions of leeches were used by physicians throughout Europe.
Applying austerity measures to a depressed economy is the same kind of perverse bloodletting. You take what minor liquidity remains in the economy and suck it off to no good purpose. You are killing the patient, which, in this extended metaphor, just happens to be a large portion of the American public–and ultimately, much of the national economy. The bloodletting has left a landscape riddled with political violence, instability and massive unemployment –in short dying patients. Greece. Portugal. Spain. Ireland.
There’s one exception in this bleak economic landscape of blood spattered doctors. Iceland.
Iceland kicked out the leech mongers. They sensibly held bankers to the same rules of law that applied to the average citizen…Instead of bailing out the banks and cutting social programs, Iceland paid off loans for consumers and threw bankers in jail for corruption. They let homeowners wipe out debt up to 110 percent of the property value. They declared loans indexed in foreign currency illegal and said debtors could pay them back in krona, their local currency. According to Bloomberg:
“These policies helped consumers erase debt equal to 13 percent of Iceland’s $14 billion economy. Now, consumers have money to spend on other things. It is no accident that the IMF, which granted Iceland loans without imposing its usual austerity strictures, says the recovery is driven by domestic demand.
In addition to easing consumer debt, Iceland reduced government spending and increased revenue by raising taxes and cutting deductions that mainly benefited the well-off, a path the U.S. might profitably emulate. In fact, relief for overburdened U.S. consumers is a cause promoted by former U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair. Bair would have done more to aid sinking homeowners and done less for banks, but she said her efforts were blocked by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others.
It worked in Iceland. A deficit that reached 13.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2009 fell to 2.3 percent last year. The IMF predicts Iceland will have a primary surplus (excluding interest on debt) of 1.5 percent this year.”
Iceland isn’t a miracle. They just acted rationally on available evidence. They rejected the austerity measures, threw out the blood-letters, and jailed their bankers. Conversely, much of Europe where austerity is being applied vis-a-vis the ‘Washington Consensus’ is rioting. Unemployment is spiking, the young are unschooled and the old are starving as social programs are slashed.
One thing I should add. Modern science has found that there are a few instances when bleeding someone with leeches has some benefit, especially in instances of hemochromatosis, or an overload of iron in the blood supply. Sadly, the same thing can’t be said for severe austerity measures—the economic equivalent– on the brink of a great recession. The only result is a patient growing weaker with each progressive treatment, while leeches on the body politic swell.
Once again, APV thanks our friend, writer and activist Jack Johnson for contributing to our blog!
‘Death’ and the Austerity plan
(Death Of A Salesman, Opening Set Rendering by Jo Mielziner, 1949)
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
Sustainable Cooperative Banking ~ George Bailey Smiles, by Jack Johnson
Microcredit – Changing Village India
Perhaps one of the more ‘economically’ revealing movies in recent years was Slum Dog Millionaire, not only for its intriguing plot line but also for the scenes of contemporary India, scenes of disastrous poverty juxtaposed against obscene wealth. To a Western sensibility the primitive desperation of the Indian orphans is reminiscent of something out of a Charles Dickens novel, yet, for many around the world, it is merely a tragic common place. Lately, even for those of us in the ‘wealthy’ West.
In 1974, the Indian, Muhamad Yunus, founder of the Nobel Prize winning Grameen Bank decided to do something about it.
“I would walk by people dying from famine to teach my economics class at the university…and I said ‘What is this?’ I felt completely empty…the theories I was teaching were useless for these dying people. I realized I could help people as a human being, not as an economists…So I decided to become a basic human being…I no longer carried any preconceived notions.”
As a ‘basic human’ Yunus led his economics students on a field trip to a poor village in Bangladesh. They interviewed a woman who made bamboo stools, and learned that she had to borrow the equivalent of 15 pounds to buy raw bamboo for each stool made. After repaying the middleman, sometimes at rates as high as 10% a week, she was left with a single penny profit margin. Had she been able to borrow at more advantageous rates, she would have been able to amass an economic cushion and raise herself above subsistence level.
What Yunus discovered as a ‘basic human’ was that all humans have basic needs. And one of the most basic was simply credit at a reasonable rate.
Against the advice of banks and government, Yunus started giving out ‘micro-loans’ at low rates, and in 1983, he formed the Grameen Bank, meaning ‘village bank’ founded on principles of trust and solidarity.
One more unusual feature of the Grameen Bank is that it is owned by the poor borrowers of the bank, themselves, most of whom are women. Of the total equity of the bank, the borrowers own 94%, and the remaining 6% is owned by the Government of Bangladesh.
The Grameen bank was just the beginning, of course. Move Your Money and Occupy Wall Street have followed up on these efforts. According to the web site of the Move Your Money campaign, an estimated 10 million accounts have left the largest banks since 2010. There’s good reason for this. In the West, the largest banks have become usurious in their late fees and over draft charges and penury in the interest they pay on savings. More importantly, as Occupy Wall Street and Move Your Money have pointed out, the larger the institution, the less likely they are to assist the community. They are more like vultures, picking over the corpses of the economically dead, than the heroic George Bailey who loaned out money not for the profit of a few, but for the good of the many.
In the following article, Ellen Brown for AlterNet details how cooperative banking is reinventing today’s financial industry in a way that would make George Bailey smile….Really.
Cooperative banking has arrived
The War on the Poor
We’re awash these days in various wars both real and figurative; wars against women, terrorism, gays, various brown people throughout the world and of course Christmas. Below, author Barbara Ehrenreich counts some of the many ways that the rich and the powerful wage their ongoing war on the poor.
“Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees themselves subject to interest, the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.”