Monday, March 30, 2009

After the Revolution: FAQ

Here are answers to a few frequently asked questions concerning the views I've been presenting regarding the need for a revolution.

1. Your agenda sounds like you're proposing Soviet Communism.

No. I propose neither a violent overthrow of the government, which I don't see as the problem, nor an end to any of our civil liberties. I don't think a command economy such as that of the USSR could work here. Although Sweden or Israel offer intriguing examples.

2. Didn't Communism fail?

That depends on what you expected Communism to accomplish. Politically, the Leninist theory of the state and the ruling political party, eliminated any possibility of an open society. This has been roundly criticized from the Left, a criticism in which I happily join. However, Communist revolutions achieved quite a lot in social and economic terms, when one takes into account that they took place in very backward, pre-industrial and politically neo-feudal countries.

 3. So if you are not a Communist, what are you?

I'm unhappy with the political parties available to us in the United States. The only viable political parties, Democratic and Republican, accept the same economic dogmas, myths and taboos. There is no political party of the left that is particularly worthy: the socialists are tiny, the trotskyists are a tad too doctrinaire and the Communists carry the monkey of Stalin on their backs. I see myself as someone who advocates for a social and economic democracy that is at least as sturdy and open to popular influence as our political democracy is, particularly since January 2009.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Lemon Named Excess

Much as the play and film "A Streetcar Named Desire" was a eulogy of a bygone U.S. class and ethnic social structure, the decline of Detroit automakers and the culture they spawned perhaps deserves a new work of art, one titled "The Lemon Named Excess."

In his 1948 play, Tennessee Williams pit Blanche DuBois, a faded lady of the Old South that was really a stand-in for the entire WASP Brahmin class, against the vigorous rough-and-tumble Stanley Kowalski, emblematic of the rising industrial, urban and white "ethnic" immigrant class. Today, we might pit Walt Kowalski (a coincidence?) from Clint Eastwood's recent film Gran Torino and its evocation of the pollutemobile, the umpteen-lane highway and the sprawling smogopolises with their white-flight suburbs, against what ... a figure and lifestyle yet to come.

Behind every fortune lies a crime, remarked Balzac, and behind the apogee of the combustion-engine vehicle lies a seldom recounted scandal.

Between 1936 and 1950, for example, Federal Engineering Corporation, Firestone Tire, General Motors, Phillips Petroleum, Mack and Standard Oil of California, and acting through a cutout holding company called National City Lines, conspired to destroy 100 electric streetcar transit systems in 45 cities. The cities include Detroit, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Baltimore, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. (All this was once brought out in court.)

Add to that the gargantuan federal and state subsidies to highways and oil production over the past decades.

Now, at long last, the rapacious auto companies are on their knees and big oil is at last seen as a threat to our security and even our future existence. This is not the time to help them. This is the time to nationalize the car industry and transform it into the engine of new, pollution-free vehicles produced by a public enterprise devoted to serving the general public.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don't Salvage, Nationalize!

The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of this crisis is that it exposes for all to see the moral faultlines of the capitalist way of life. This is not the time to rescue the wage-slave system, along with its banks and stock and commodities exchanges, as the latest Geithner/Paulsen plan to aid banks proposes, but to strip out the ill-gotten, wastefully spent gains.

Don't rescue the banks, nationalize them. Don't shore up Wall Street, close it once and for all. These are no more than the casinos of and for the rich, who essentially play with our hard-earned money.

You think banks are merely safe places to put money at a tidy return? You wish! Banks are constantly gambling that enough people will keep their money in so they can lend out most of what they've got -- if everybody withdraws at once, banks fail. Moreover, compare the interest rate you can get paid with the rate you're likely to be charged to borrow.

You think stock exchanges are merely places where the "invisible hand" of the quasi-divine "market" arrives at fair values for a whole range of assets? That textbook description has never taken into account the speculation, almost entirely divorced from the actual workings of businesses, that actually fuels upward runs by "bulls" and downward falls by "bears."

When their gambles prove wrong, who loses the jobs and the homes? Not the top 20 percent of assetholders, who own 80 percent of all assets in the United States. So let's seize the moment to make this land our land, as Woody Guthrie sang, from California to New York Island. "This land was made for you and me ..."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Abolish the Corporation*

Let's not first "kill all the lawyers," as Shakespeare's Henry VI suggested. First thing we do, instead, let's slaughter the legal "persons" that choke off any attempt to put blame where blame is due for the undemocratic concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few: the corporation.

Through the magic of corporate law, there exists an entity that is separate from the people that form it, own it, direct it and are responsible for what it does -- such as spilling tons of crude oil into the ocean, hiding information showing that cigarettes are addictive and cancer-producing, buying up public urban transit systems to destroy them and eliminate competition for the car.

If these actions ever come under scrutiny of the authorities, veritable armies of lawyers can be counted upon to spar for years. In the end, the corporations in question pay for the damage -- if they lose, which is not often. None of the actual people involved -- not the CEO, not the managers, not the stockholders, not the directors -- pay for their misdeeds. The corporation -- a thing that is not alive and does not actually exist in any real sense -- did it.

Moreover, the decisions that led to these actions are never made within earshot of the customers and citizens and workers who are most affected. We, the people, have no say as to whether the corporations will bilk us, poison us or get our children killed -- before it happens. It's only long after the damage is done that, maybe, with fingers crossed and lots of luck, a few hapless victims get something back.

It's time to end the charade. Let's stop pretending the corporations exist -- they don't; instead, let's take names and kick butt. Let's assume the power to control the crucial economic activity that defines whether we survive and how.

*(In response to private comments concerning the revolutionary agenda I proposed, which is not wholly original, I would like to clarify at least what I mean by the planks I put forth. In the next few posts I shall be attempting to review the points in greater detail.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dictatorship and Other Hazards of Capitalism

The great thing about this depression recession is that a lot of people are finally paying attention to this thing called capitalism as it really is, not as fabled. Indeed, we're all discovering that, for a small-d democratic country, we sure have and encourage a lot of capitalist dictatorship in our society.

We go through these slick marketing political campaigns every four years in which we wonder whether we like the preacher of a man who, come down to it, can't really feed our family, any more than he can stop teenagers from getting pregnant or help us reach our healthiest BMI level. Yet we surrender every personal right to an unelected individual who can tell us in precise detail what we must and must not do for most of our waking hours: our boss.

Who is our boss answerable to? Ultimately, some "chief executive officer." And the CEO? To a board of directors. And the board? To the stockholders. And all of them together? To a misty legal fog designed, essentially, to make sure that them who've got keep getting more.

You have free speech in the public park, but not at the business meeting or in the lunch room (try organizing a union there). Your boss doesn't legally have to give you a vacation or paid sick leave. Or a raise. Or pay you more than $6.15 an hour. If you don't like it, you can starve.

We don't elect these people. We have no say in how they run things. They have power just because.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


My teenage years took place in a time and place in which the word "revolution" was as alluring to the young as it was forbidden by the elders. Decades later, I wonder what all that mouthing the r-word accomplished. Yet, as I watch a pauperizing worldwide crisis unroll before my eyes, I wonder ... isn't it time for revolution, a worldwide revolution?

Don't get me wrong. Millions of tortured, imprisoned, dead and "disappeared" people have convinced me that merely overthrowing a government accomplishes nothing. Indeed, most governments are not really the problem.

At the source of the economic crisis is a system of money power that serves the greediest few and corrupts the many. That's what needs overthrowing. Let's democratize economic decision-making and take it out of the hands of the tailor-suited financial elite. Profits generated by efficiencies and collective labor should be shared throughout the complex society that makes such profits even possible.

Could ordinary folks do any worse than these MBA geniuses have done? Let's try a few revolutionary steps:
  • Turn for-profit corporations into sectorally organized publicly owned and controlled enterprises, run by specialists serving councils of elected workers and citizens;
  • nationalize Chrysler and GM and turn them into producers of public, low-energy-consuming light and heavy rail and other systems of transportation, eventually making the car unnecessary, to be replaced by bicycles and light motorcycles.
  • Re-establish progressivity of taxation and higher tax brackets;
  • tax all inheritance 100% and put the proceeds into a fund for the education and support of all children and the support of those unable to work;
  • expropriate all capital fleeing the country to avoid revolutionary rules;
  • nationalize the banking system;
  • close all stock exchanges and other markets of speculation, compensating account holders up to $5,000,000 per household;
  • replace insurance companies with public trust funds;
  • merge private and public education into a national free system incentivized through vouchers;
  • abolish private medicine and private health institutions, creating a single health care system open to all.
What do you think?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Loser Goes to the Press

Details now leaking out suggest that, at the heart of the Tim Geithner-AIG bonus story, lies a political stratagem explained to me years ago by a master news manipulator when I was a very green journalist: never go to the press, unless you lose behind closed doors.

AIG paid the bonuses on Friday. News leaked out during the weekend, with The Washington Post apparently breaking the story. Now we know that Geithner was on the horn to New York all week trying to stop the bonuses.

Why not announce an outrage that was about to happen rather than a fait accompli? Because if you're a wheeler dealer you're most powerful behind closed doors, when you and those in the room are the only ones with the knowledge to act. Information is, after all, power.

If Geithner had gone public and pointed his finger, and à la Èmile Zola cried out "j'accuse," his power of persuasion over AIG would have vanished instantly. Naturally, once that power had been lost behind closed doors, Geithner -- and President Obama -- were free rend their garments in public.

This is how the power game is played. Reporters know to look for the disgruntled for their leaks. Never ask why the news was leaked, merely ask who the leaker was in order to understand what happened in a power struggle waged behind closed doors.

Monday, March 16, 2009

It's our AIG, isn't it?

The real AIG bonus scandal is that a majority stockholder cannot prevent nonsense set in motion before the stocks were eagerly tossed like confetti at the federal government by management begging on its knees for cash.

We, the people, now own 80 percent (!!!) of AIG at a cost of about $170 billion of our money; about $165 million in bonuses was scheduled to be paid by March 15; some of the individual bonuses range between $1.5 to $3 million, but most are merely in the thousands; the government-appointed overseer was told by lawyers that the bonuses must be paid under pre-existing employee-retention contracts.

The single fact that stands out to me is that March 15 is the deadline for filing corporate taxes. Typically, corporate expenses booked as 2008 prior-year accruals (in English: owed, but not paid, in 2008) must be actually paid out before that date. So the overriding urgency to make the payments is a tax filing.

Well, hell, Tim Geithner, let's have our AIG accountant file for an extension of the deadline while we figure out why these bonuses are being paid at all. There's still time: extension applications can still be filed today.

But what about the alleged top talent AIG stands to lose? Let's challenge them to go get another job with "AIG" on their résumés.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why Does Wrongdoing Persist?

Bernard Madoff is probably the most egregious example, but let's not kid ourselves, wrongdoing large and small is pervasive. This fact rubs against the grain of my notion that the basis of all ethics is survival: are we all that self-destructive?

Now, granted, I never said that human beings were ethical. I merely suggested that if, out of curiosity, we wished to consider what we ought to do, human survival was as universal a principle available for discerning right from wrong.

On that basis I developed a decalogue, as if it made any difference, only to find myself waking up in this new era of deception and plunder to the reality that no one -- or very few -- takes ethics seriously. Unless they run the risk of getting caught and punished.

Frankly, I can't say that, when rubber hits the road, I'm any better. Boiling down l'éthique cecilieuse to its boy-scout-manual essentials, am I confident, sincere, joyful, respectful, nurturing, trustworthy, truthful, giving, loving, content? Not by a long shot.

Bless me, father, for I have been wracked with self-doubt, layered in pretenses, miserable, callous, lustful after what belongs to others, deceitful, grasping, selfishly licentious and chained to my artificial needs. This is why I will not survive.

Indeed, this is what dooms all humanity to a life that is, as Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is it a D-word yet?

Signs abound that the economy is slumping deeper and faster than anyone expected. At about 6,500 last week, the Dow will reach what I -- a nonexpert, noneconomist journalist -- think is the infamous "bottom" before the summer. That's too soon, as the economic stimulus effects won't begin to be felt at least until the fall.

Could it go lower than "Dr. Doom" predicted? Don't panic, but the D-word may soon aptly describe prevailing economic conditions.

In fact, I understand that Japan's much-feared "lost decade" was less severe, at an average 5.5 unemployment, than our current much higher jobless rate. The Japanese tanked and stayed tanked for a decade, but at much higher levels of well-being than the United States is at right now.

And they kept up their cradle-to-grave universal national health system, which we don't have.

It's no reason to cheer, but even in the depths of the Great Depression -- and we're not even remotely going there -- 77 percent of the workforce was employed. At worst we'll hit maybe 90 percent. That's bad if you're one of the unemployed, but ... you'll still have 9 in 10 chances of keeping your job -- and even better chances right now.

You're going to live through the fourth economic depression the United States has ever experienced. It's OK, we can all make it if we stick together.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Next Power

One of my favorite speculations since the end of what Walter Lippmann famously called the American Century concerns the country that will "own" the 21st century. In my last post I proposed the European Union.

Naturally, a European was the first to doubt it. China worried her, as she gave voice to the terror of yore concerning what my parents' generation called the "yellow peril." At the beginning of this decade I thought this would be the Chinese century, too. After all, even now the Chinese are upset their GDP growth slowed to a positive 9 percent last year, poor darlings.

Yet, in the end, modern China is really a bustling coastal shell with a huge very underdeveloped, very poor, very backward inland core. Good luck with that.

And let's not worry about Inja, shall we? India will undo itself. How long can a modernizing country sustain a socioeconomic canyon bolstered by ancient prejudices before it all explodes or the country enters what Marx eurocentrically called "the Asiatic mode of production"?

That leaves the EU, with a landmass about half the size of the United States and a population about one and a half as large, composed almost entirely of skilled workers. Their natural resources include arable land, bauxite, coal, copper, fish, hydropower, iron ore, lead, natural gas, petroleum, potash, salt, timber, uranium and zinc.

Who can beat Italian shoes, French wines, German engineering, Spanish olives, skilled and cheap Eastern European labor and British bullshit?

Moreover, because of their 20th century experience of self-annihilation (and their similar history in the 19th and 18th and ...), the Europeans have finally learned the wisdom of nonpower and the prowess of nonmilitary leadership. Who but the Europeans to usher in the eventual EU to end all EUs, the Earth Union?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the 21st century, the European Century.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

On Unemployment Rate's Eve

Today I bet 25 cents that the national unemployment rate -- announced tomorrow at 8:30 am -- will hit 8 percent and another 25 cents that the month's job loss will near 700,000. I wrote an imaginary lede for such a story and then played with headlines starting with P until someone called out "Peak Reached." We all laughed: we won't know the peak until long after this recession depression.

Are we at the end of the United States' ascendancy, as many people abroad think? Will the next power be the European Union, which as a nonpower will transcend power?

Every moment feels like a crisis to those who live it, as we do not know the outcome of what we are undergoing. What we know seems static and necessarily the state of things. Did an American slave in 1840 guess at a Mr. Lincoln drawing up the Emancipation Declaration? Who during the Cold War expected the Soviet Union to dissolve without a shot fired?

How odd that we only know the meaning of what we are experiencing long after it has happened, long after our power to change events has faded. Who knows? Maybe the rate will go down and it is a recession, after all.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Lost Art of Conversation

Monday evening I had the rare pleasure of engaging in a wide-ranging discussion with a friend who shares with me the craft of journalism and experiences of Europe, Latin America and North America that make us both culturally displaced people. We also share a love of discussing the economic and political fundamentals of our time from a variety of perspectives.

Not since university, back when the dinosaurs roamed, had I done this. He is retired in Central America, where he sacrifices his time to wine, women and song, but we have a remarkably similar professional trajectory and shared memories of the same news wars.

Also, as we both explained to a non-journalist with us, we have in common the reality that journalists can rarely hold an open, wide-ranging conversation about topics in which they become well versed. People who know enough are always peering over our shoulders at cocktail parties, in search of the network connection that will advance them to the next career rung. Reporters are rarely reliable stepping stones.

Thus we found ourselves reconstructing the political and economic history of the last 30 years through the prism of thousands of interviews and fact-chases, throwing in Keynes, Marx, Freud and Dostoevsky as our unnamed sources well into the wee hours of Tuesday ...

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Moral Hazards of a Coarser Time

Roughly three years ago, I stumbled upon an economist who, in the measured tones of a Harvard academic, proposed before an audience what some described as the "Voltairean" idea that economic growth brings "moral positives." Today, with only my own observation to guide me, I would argue that the reverse is equally true.

In the 12 months ended last December the gross domestic product declined a staggering 6.2 percent and now everywhere you go there is the language of the hustle. The phone company, the banks, the major corporations, they're all chiseling, double-dealing and outright lying at every turn, as if they were bookies, drug dealers and pimps.

What does it all remind me of? That used-car dealership portrayed toward the beginning of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. In other words, what's come down to us from the 1930s: the unrelenting flim-flammery oozing from every pore of a society in decay.

What happened then, besides poverty? Lynching. The rise of the Mafia. Father Coughlan, the antisemitic radio priest from Detroit. In Europe there were black shirts and brown shirts and blue shirts marching all about; and millions of bullets expended on the back of someone's head.

That is why we must risk everything to pull ourselves out of this economic disaster. We humans are a selfish, materialist species that becomes meaner when times are leaner.