Apparently you can’t be empathetic, or help the homeless, without a GoPro

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless

people to capture “extreme living”

Today in bad ideas: Strapping video cameras to homeless people to capture "extreme living"

GoPro cameras are branded as recording devices for extreme sports, but a San Francisco-based entrepreneur had a different idea of what to do with the camera: Strap it to a homeless man and capture “extreme living.”

The project is called Homeless GoPro, and it involves learning the first-person perspective of homeless people on the streets of San Francisco. The website explains:

“With a donated HERO3+ Silver Edition from GoPro and a small team of committed volunteers in San Francisco, Homeless GoPro explores how a camera normally associated with extreme sports and other ’hardcore’ activities can showcase courage, challenge, and humanity of a different sort - extreme living.”

The intentions of the founder, Kevin Adler, seem altruistic. His uncle was homeless for 30 years, and after visiting his gravesite he decided to start the organization and help others who are homeless.

The first volunteer to film his life is a man named Adam, who has been homeless for 30 years, six of those in San Francisco. There are several edited videos of him on the organization’s site.

In one of the videos, titled “Needs,” Adam says, “I notice every day that people are losing their compassion and empathy — not just for homeless people — but for society in general. I feel like technology has changed so much — where people are emailing and don’t talk face to face anymore.”

Without knowing it Adam has critiqued the the entire project, which is attempting to use technology (a GoPro) to garner empathy and compassion. It is a sad reminder that humanity can ignore the homeless population in person on a day-to-day basis, and needs a video to build empathy. Viewers may feel a twinge of guilt as they sit removed from the situation, watching a screen.

According to San Francisco’s Department of Human Services‘ biennial count there were 6,436 homeless people living in San Francisco (county and city). “Of the 6,436 homeless counted,” a press release stated, “more than half (3,401) were on the streets without shelter, the remaining 3,035 were residing in shelters, transitional housing, resource centers, residential treatment, jail or hospitals.” The homeless population is subject to hunger, illness, violence, extreme weather conditions, fear and other physical and emotional ailments.



Empathy — and the experience of “walking a mile in somebody’s shoes” — are important elements of social change, and these documentary-style videos do give Adam a medium and platform to be a voice for the homeless population. (One hopes that the organization also helped Adam in other ways — shelter, food, a place to stay on his birthday — and isn’t just using him as a human tool in its project.) But something about the project still seems off.

It is in part because of the product placement. GoPro donated a $300 camera for the cause, which sounds great until you remember that it is a billion-dollar company owned by billionaire Nick Woodman. If GoPro wants to do something to help the Bay Area homeless population there are better ways to go about it than donate a camera.

As ValleyWag‘s Sam Biddle put it, “Stop thinking we can innovate our way out of one of civilization’s oldest ailments. Poverty, homelessness, and inequality are bigger than any app …”

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/17/today_in_bad_ideas_strapping_video_cameras_to_homeless_people_to_capture_extreme_living/?source=newsletter

The 2,000-Year History of GPS Tracking

| Tue Apr. 15, 2014 3:00 AM PDT
Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy and Hiawatha Bray’s “You Are Here”

Boston Globe technology writer Hiawatha Bray recalls the moment that inspired him to write his new book, You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves. “I got a phone around 2003 or so,” he says. “And when you turned the phone on—it was a Verizon dumb phone, it wasn’t anything fancy—it said, ‘GPS’. And I said, ‘GPS? There’s GPS in my phone?’” He asked around and discovered that yes, there was GPS in his phone, due to a 1994 FCC ruling. At the time, cellphone usage was increasing rapidly, but 911 and other emergency responders could only accurately track the location of land line callers. So the FCC decided that cellphone providers like Verizon must be able to give emergency responders a more accurate location of cellphone users calling 911. After discovering this, “It hit me,” Bray says. “We were about to enter a world in which…everybody had a cellphone, and that would also mean that we would know where everybody was. Somebody ought to write about that!”

So he began researching transformative events that lead to our new ability to navigate (almost) anywhere. In addition, he discovered the military-led GPS and government-led mapping technologies that helped create new digital industries. The result of his curiosity is You Are Here, an entertaining, detailed history of how we evolved from primitive navigation tools to our current state of instant digital mapping—and, of course, governments’ subsequent ability to track us. The book was finished prior to the recent disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, but Bray says gaps in navigation and communication like that are now “few and far between.”

Here are 13 pivotal moments in the history of GPS tracking and digital mapping that Bray points out in You Are Here:

1st century: The Chinese begin writing about mysterious ladles made of lodestone. The ladle handles always point south when used during future-telling rituals. In the following centuries, lodestone’s magnetic abilities lead to the development of the first compasses.

Image: ladle

Model of a Han Dynasty south-indicating ladle Wikimedia Commons

2nd century: Ptolemy’s Geography is published and sets the standard for maps that use latitude and longitude.

Image: Ptolemy map

Ptolemy’s 2nd-century world map (redrawn in the 15th century) Wikimedia Commons

1473: Abraham Zacuto begins working on solar declination tables. They take him five years, but once finished, the tables allow sailors to determine their latitude on any ocean.

Image: declination tables

The Great Composition by Abraham Zacuto. (A 17th-century copy of the manuscript originally written by Zacuto in 1491.) Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary

1887: German physicist Heinrich Hertz creates electromagnetic waves, proof that electricity, magnetism, and light are related. His discovery inspires other inventors to experiment with radio and wireless transmissions.

Image: Hertz

The Hertz resonator John Jenkins. Sparkmuseum.com

1895: Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, one of those inventors inspired by Hertz’s experiment, attaches his radio transmitter antennae to the earth and sends telegraph messages miles away. Bray notes that there were many people before Marconi who had developed means of wireless communication. “Saying that Marconi invented the radio is like saying that Columbus discovered America,” he writes. But sending messages over long distances was Marconi’s great breakthrough.

Image: Marconi

Inventor Guglielmo Marconi in 1901, operating an apparatus similar to the one he used to transmit the first wireless signal across Atlantic Wikimedia Commons

1958: Approximately six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik, Frank McLure, the research director at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, calls physicists William Guier and George Weiffenbach into his office. Guier and Weiffenbach used radio receivers to listen to Sputnik’s consistent electronic beeping and calculate the Soviet satellite’s location; McLure wants to know if the process could work in reverse, allowing a satellite to location their position on earth. The foundation for GPS tracking is born.

​1969: A pair of Bell Labs scientists named William Boyle and George Smith create a silicon chip that records light and coverts it into digital data. It is called a charge-coupled device, or CCD, and serves as the basis for digital photography used in spy and mapping satellites.

1976: The top-secret, school-bus-size KH-11 satellite is launched. It uses Boyle and Smith’s CCD technology to take the first digital spy photographs. Prior to this digital technology, actual film was used for making spy photographs. It was a risky and dangerous venture for pilots like Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane and taking film photographs over the Soviet Union in 1960.

Image: KH-11 image

KH-11 satellite photo showing construction of a Kiev-class aircraft carrier Wikimedia Commons

1983: Korean Air Lines flight 007 is shot down after leaving Anchorage, Alaska, and veering into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers are killed, including Georgia Democratic Rep. Larry McDonald. Two weeks after the attack, President Ronald Reagan directs the military’s GPS technology to be made available for civilian use so that similar tragedies would not be repeated. Bray notes, however, that GPS technology had always been intended to be made public eventually. Here’s Reagan’s address to the nation following the attack:

1989: The US Census Bureau releases (PDF) TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing) into the public domain. The digital map data allows any individual or company to create virtual maps.

1994: The FCC declares that wireless carriers must find ways for emergency services to locate mobile 911 callers. Cellphone companies choose to use their cellphone towers to comply. However, entrepreneurs begin to see the potential for GPS-integrated phones, as well. Bray highlights SnapTrack, a company that figures out early on how to squeeze GPS systems into phones—and is purchased by Qualcomm in 2000 for $1 billion.

1996: GeoSystems launches an internet-based mapping service called MapQuest, which uses the Census Bureau’s public-domain mapping data. It attracts hundreds of thousands of users and is purchased by AOL four years later for $1.1 billion.

2004: Google buys Australian mapping startup Where 2 Technologies and American satellite photography company Keyhole for undisclosed amounts. The next year, they launch Google Maps, which is now the most-used mobile app in the world.

2012: The Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Jones (PDF) restricts police usage of GPS to track suspected criminals. Bray tells the story of Antoine Jones, who was convicted of dealing cocaine after police placed a GPS device on his wife’s Jeep to track his movements. The court’s decision in his case is unanimous: The GPS device had been placed without a valid search warrant. Despite the unanimous decision, just five justices signed off on the majority opinion. Others wanted further privacy protections in such cases—a mixed decision that leaves future battles for privacy open to interpretation.

 

http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2014/04/you-are-here-book-hiawatha-bray-gps-navigation

What We Lose When We Rip the Heart Out of Arts Education



It’s National Poetry Month, but if the Common Core has its way,
our children will hardly know what poetry is.

Photo Credit: Aaron Amat via Shutterstock.com

“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” —Paul Proteus to his wife Anita in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano

“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” is, essentially, a grammatical sentence in the English language. While the syntax is somewhat out of the norm, the diction is accessible to small children—the hardest word likely being “depends.” But “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is much more than a sentence; it is a poem:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

A relatively simple sentence shaped into purposeful lines and stanzas becomes poetry. And like Langston Hughes’ “Harlem” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” it sparks in me a profoundly important response each time I read these poems:I wish I had written that. It is the same awe and wonder I felt as a shy, self-conscious teenager when I bought, collected and read comic books, marveling at the artwork I wished I had drawn.

Will we wake one morning soon to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

That question, especially during National Poetry Month, haunts me more every day, notably because of the double-impending doom augured by the Common Core: the rise of nonfiction (and the concurrent erasing of poetry and fiction) from the ELA curriculum and the mantra-of-the-moment, “close reading” (the sheep’s clothing for that familiar old wolf New Criticism):

We have come to a moment in the history of the U.S. when we no longer even pretend to care about art. And poetry is the most human of the arts—the very human effort to make order out of chaos, meaning out of the meaningless: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”).

***

The course was speech, taught by Mr. Brannon. I was a freshman at a junior college just 15-20 miles from my home. Despite the college’s close proximity to my home, my father insisted I live on campus. But that class and those first two years of college were more than living on campus; they were the essential beginning of my life.

In one of the earliest classes, Mr. Brannon read aloud and gave us a copy of “[in Just-]“ by e. e. cummings. I imagine that moment was, for me, what many people describe as a religious experience. That was more than 30 years ago, but I own two precious books that followed from that day in class: cummings’ Complete Poems and Selected Poems. Several years later, Emily Dickinson‘s Complete Poemswould join my commitment to reading every poem by those poets who made me respond over and over, I wish I had written that.

But my introduction to cummings was more than just finding the poetry I wanted to read; it was when I realized I was a poet. Now, when the words “j was young&happy” come to me, I know there is work to do—I recognize the gift of poetry.

***

As a high school English teacher, I divided my academic year into quarters by genre/form: nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels/plays. The poetry quarter, when announced to students, initially received moans and even direct complaints: “I hate poetry.” That always broke my heart. Life and school had already taken something very precious from these young people:

children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew…
                              (“[anyone lived in a pretty how town],” e.e. cummings

I began to teach poetry in conjunction with popular songs. Although my students in rural South Carolina were overwhelmingly country music fans, I focused my nine weeks of poetry on the songs of alternative group R.E.M. At first, that too elicited moans from students in those early days of exploring poetry (see that unit on the blog “There’s time to teach”).

Concurrently, throughout my high school teaching career, students would gather in my room during our long mid-morning break and lunch (much to the chagrin of administration). And almost always, we played music, even closing the door so two of my students could dance and sing and laugh along with the Violent Femmes.

Many of those students are in their 30s and 40s, but it is common for them to contact me—often on Facebook—and recall fondly R.E.M. and our poetry unit. Those days meant something to them that lingers, that matters in ways that cannot be measured. It was an oasis of happiness in their lives at school.

***

e.e. cummings begins “since feeling is first,” and then adds:

my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter….

Each year when my students and I examined this poem, we would discuss that cummings—in Andrew Marvell fashion—offers an argument that is profoundly unlike what parents, teachers, preachers, and politicians claim.

I often paired this poem with Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” focusing on:

I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

Especially for teenagers, this question, this tension between heart and mind, mattered. Just as it recurs in the words of poets and musicians over decades, centuries. Poetry, as with all art, is the expressed heart—that quest to rise above our corporeal humanness:

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
                                           (Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

***

I have loved a few people intensely—so deeply that my love, I believe, resides permanently in my bones. One such love is my daughter, and she now carries the next human who will add to that ache of being fully human—loving another beyond words.

And that is poetry.

Poetry is not identifying iambic pentameter on a poetry test or discussing the nuances of enjambment in an analysis of a Dickinson poem.

Poems are not fodder for close reading.

Poetry is the ineluctable “Oh my heart” that comes from living fully in the moment, the moment that draws us to words as well as inspires us toward words.

We read a poem, we listen to a song, and our hearts rise out of our eyes as tears.

That is poetry.

Like the picture books of our childhood, poetry must be a part of our learning, essential to our school days—each poem an oasis of happiness that “machines will never be able to measure.”

***

Will we wake one morning to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

Maybe the doomsayers are wrong. Maybe poetry will not be erased from our classrooms. School with less poetry is school with less heart. School with no poetry is school with no heart.

Both are tragic mistakes, because if school needs anything, it is more heart. And poetry? Oh my heart.

This piece originally appeared on the Becoming Radical blog.

New study finds US to be ruled by oligarchic elite

by Jerome Roos on April 17, 2014

Post image for New study finds US to be ruled by oligarchic elite

Political scientists show that average American has “near-zero” influence on policy outcomes, but their groundbreaking study is not without problems.

 

It’s not every day that an academic article in the arcane world of American political science makes headlines around the world, but then again, these aren’t normal days either. On Wednesday, various mainstream media outlets — including even the conservative British daily The Telegraph — ran a series of articles with essentially the same title: “Study finds that US is an oligarchy.” Or, as the Washington Post summed up: “Rich people rule!” The paper, according to the review in the Post, “should reshape how we think about American democracy.”

The conclusion sounds like it could have come straight out of a general assembly or drum circle at Zuccotti Park, but the authors of the paper in question — two Professors of Politics at Princeton and Northwestern University — aren’t quite of the radical dreadlocked variety. No, like Piketty’s book, this article is real “science”. It’s even got numbers in it! Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University took a dataset of 1,779 policy issues, ran a bunch of regressions, and basically found that the United States is not a democracy after all:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

The findings, of course, are both very interesting and very obvious. What Gilens and Page claim to have empirically demonstrated is that policy outcomes by and large favor the interests of business and the wealthiest segment of the population, while the preferences of the vast majority of Americans are of little to no consequence for policy outcomes. As the authors show, this new data backs up the conclusions of a number of long-forgotten studies from the 1950s and 1960s — not least the landmark contributions by C.W. Mills and Ralph Miliband — that tried to debunk the assertion of mainstream pluralist scholars that no single interest group dominates US policymaking.

But while Gilens and Page’s study will undoubtedly be considered a milestone in the study of business power, there’s also a risk in focusing too narrowly on the elites and their interest groups themselves; namely the risk of losing sight of the broader set of social relations and institutional arrangements in which they are embedded. What I am referring to, of course, is the dreaded C-word: capitalism — a term that appears only once in the main body of Gilens and Page’s text, in a superficial reference to The Communist Manifesto, whose claims are quickly dismissed as empirically untestable. How can you talk about oligarchy and economic elites without talking about capitalism?

What’s missing from the analysis is therefore precisely what was missing from C.W. Mills’ and Miliband’s studies: an account of the nature of the capitalist state as such. By branding the US political system an “oligarchy”, the authors conveniently sidestep an even thornier question: what if oligarchy, as opposed to democracy, is actually the natural political form in capitalist society? What if the capitalist state is by its very definition an oligarchic form of domination? If that’s the case, the authors have merely proved the obvious: that the United States is a thoroughly capitalist society. Congratulations for figuring that one out! They should have just called a spade a spade.

That, of course, wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. But it’s worth noting that this was precisely the critique that Nicos Poulantzas leveled at Ralph Miliband in the New Left Review in the early 1970s — and it doesn’t take an Althusserian structuralist to see that he had a point. Miliband’s study of capitalist elites, Poulantzas showed, was very useful for debunking pluralist illusions about the democratic nature of US politics, but by focusing narrowly on elite preferences and the “instrumental” use of political and economic resources to influence policy, Miliband’s empiricism ceded way too much methodological ground to “bourgeois” political science. By trying to painstakingly prove the existence of a causal relationship between instrumental elite behavior and policy outcomes, Miliband ended up missing the bigger picture: the class-bias inherent in the capitalist state itself, irrespective of who occupies it.

These methodological and theoretical limitations have consequences that extend far beyond the academic debate: at the end of the day, these are political questions. The way we perceive business power and define the capitalist state will inevitably have serious implications for our political strategies. The danger with empirical studies that narrowly emphasize the role of elites at the expense of the deeper structural sources of capitalist power is that they will end up reinforcing the illusion that simply replacing the elites and “taking money out of politics” would be sufficient to restore democracy to its past glory. That, of course, would be profoundly misleading. If we are serious about unseating the oligarchs from power, let’s make sure not to get carried away by the numbers and not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Jerome Roos is a PhD candidate in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

Depriving homeless people of their last shelter in life is Silicon Valley at its worst.


The 1% Wants to Ban Sleeping in Cars

Because It Hurts Their ‘Quality of Life’

Photo Credit: meunierd/Shutterstock.com

Across the United States, many local governments are responding to skyrocketing levels of inequality and the now decades-long crisis of homelessness among the very poor … by passing laws making it a crime to sleep in a parked car.

This happened most recently in Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley, where new billionaires are seemingly minted every month – and where 92% of homeless people lack shelter of any kind. Dozens of cities have passed similar anti-homeless laws. The largest of them is Los Angeles, the longtime unofficial “homeless capital of America”, where lawyers are currently defending a similar vehicle-sleeping law before a skeptical federal appellate court. Laws against sleeping on sidewalks or in cars are called “quality of life” laws. But they certainly don’t protect the quality of life of the poor.

To be sure, people living in cars cannot be the best neighbors. Some people are able to acquire old and ugly – but still functioning – recreational vehicles with bathrooms; others do the best they can. These same cities have resisted efforts to provide more public toilet facilities, often on the grounds that this will make their city a “magnet” for homeless people from other cities. As a result, anti-homeless ordinances often spread to adjacent cities, leaving entire regions without public facilities of any kind.

Their hope, of course, is that homeless people will go elsewhere, despite the fact that the great majority of homeless people are trying to survive in the same communities in which they were last housed – and where they still maintain connections. Americans sleeping in their own cars literally have nowhere to go.

Indeed, nearly all homelessness in the US begins with a loss of income and an eviction for nonpayment of rent – a rent set entirely by market forces. The waiting lists are years long for the tiny fraction of housing with government subsidies. And rents have risen dramatically in the past two years, in part because long-time tenants must now compete with the millions of former homeowners who lost their homes in the Great Recession.

The paths from eviction to homelessness follow familiar patterns. For the completely destitute without family or friends able to help, that path leads more or less directly to the streets. For those slightly better off, unemployment and the exhaustion of meager savings – along with the good graces of family and friends – eventually leaves people with only two alternatives: a shelter cot or their old automobile.

However, in places like Los Angeles, the shelters are pretty much always full. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of unsheltered homeless people increased by 67%. In Palo Alto last year, there were 12 shelter beds for 157 homeless individuals. Homeless people in these cities do have choices: they can choose to sleep in a doorway, on a sidewalk, in a park, under a bridge or overpass, or – if they are relatively lucky – in a car. But these cities have ordinances that make all of those choices a criminal offense. The car is the best of bad options, now common enough that local bureaucrats have devised a new, if oxymoronic, term – the “vehicularly housed”.

People sleeping in cars try to find legal, nighttime parking places, where they will be less apparent and arouse the least hostility. But cities like Palo Alto and Los Angeles often forbid parking between 2am and 5am in commercial areas, where police write expensive tickets and arrest and impound the vehicles of repeat offenders. That leaves residential areas, where overnight street parking cannot, as a practical matter, be prohibited.

One finds the “vehicularly housed” in virtually every neighborhood, including my own. But the animus that drives anti-homeless laws seems to be greatest in the wealthiest cities, like Palo Alto, which has probably spawned more per-capita fortunes than any city on Earth, and in the more recently gentrified areas like Los Angeles’ Venice. These places are ruled by majorities of “liberals” who decry, with increasing fervor, the rapid rise in economic inequality. Nationally, 90% of Democrats (and 45% of Republicans) believe the government should act to reduce the rich-poor gap.

It is easy to be opposed to inequality in the abstract. So why are Los Angeles and Palo Alto spending virtually none of their budgets on efforts to provide housing for the very poor and homeless? When the most obvious evidence of inequality parks on their street, it appears, even liberals would rather just call the police. The word from the car: if you’re not going to do anything to help, please don’t make things worse.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/1-wants-ban-sleeping-cars-because-it-hurts-their-quality-life?akid=11722.265072.4yEWu6&rd=1&src=newsletter982385&t=3&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Obama, Monopoly Capitalism, and Global Hegemony

Time for an Accounting
http://img2.timeinc.net/people/i/2013/news/130429/president-obama-600.jpg

by NORMAN POLLACK

We’ve seen enough to know that the US is on track to push structural-ideological tyranny to a new level, not so much the reproduction of 20th century fascism (although that historical experience has created an indelible mark on the mindset of present-day geopolitical strategists in defining what might be possible in violating international law without thoroughly antagonizing the world community) as, instead, using a cloak of liberal humanitarianism to assert military power in pursuit of traditional imperialism. The same goals, different label.

America transcends the recent past, including its share in constructing a system of power politics, in favor of more ambitious unilateral dominance which takes advantage of the increasing cultural pluralism arising from the fragmentation of the commercial-financial order. Counterterrorism is the fig leaf for achieving greater wealth-concentration at home, aided by massive surveillance to induce social control of the population (informal boundaries on permissible dissent) for purposes of creating on the base of formal democracy a national-security state, and for achieving in the world, a predator state charged with the mission of resisting the societal democratization of emerging and industrial economies alike. Both are necessary, compliancy here and abroad, a tightly-woven structure of wealth and power, if US capitalism, penetrating every nook and cranny of the globe, followed—or sometimes preceded—by military intervention, bases, naval power, hard-nosed diplomacy, paramilitary efforts at regime change, is to sustain acceptable rates of profits at acceptable levels of risk. American capitalist preeminence in a not-deviating capitalist world, firmly grounded in the dynamics of counterrevolution (the US as guardian of the global system) is at the crux of what others perceive as the Exceptionalist Nightmare or the divine right of hegemony.

The fig leaf of counterterrorism, which has supplanted anticommunism to the same end of habituating the American people to still more invidious extremes of wealth differentiation and resulting class power, is still, however, not sufficient for the stabilization of capitalism at this level of intense concentration; for needed as well is the popularization of Reaction and Repression. Obama is the man for the job. His race —thanks to liberal guilt and political correctness—alone saves him from critical scrutiny (neatly played out, as though making Reagan’s Teflon presidency amateurish by comparison), as he, like none before him, integrates capitalist, military, intelligence, and media resources, i.e., the communities represented by the elites of each, into a finely-honed authoritarian backdrop for manifesting and executing national power. And yet, liberals slobber at his feet, their moral bankruptcy and lack of political wisdom and will nowhere more evident.

The putsch has become outmoded; the bowdlerization of race and gender is a sufficient cause of false consciousness, of feel-good celebration of diversity, as the upper 0.1% tightened their hold on the levers of power. A black president? a woman president? What would Paul Robeson think—or Rosa Luxemburg! If a white president abused power, from Espionage Act prosecutions to the hit list of drone assassinations, in the way Obama has, one might hope to see street demonstrations—a hope perhaps futile given the decline of societal awareness already rife in the way war crimes, corporate giveaways, and the celebration of wealth pass unnoticed.

Time for an accounting, then, before it’s too late. From whence, though? It is important to recognize how much America has changed, since, say, the early 1950s. At least, then, anticommunism was met by (often painful and unsuccessful) resistance, for as repression mounted so also did the clarity of struggle and need to fight back. Taft-Hartley, Peekskill, legislation, events, large and small, the purging of “reds” from labor unions (and like UE, whole unions themselves)—a time to be alive, the very lies being met in response by forthright declarations of freedom.

Those who took the Fifth, and found themselves fired; those like Claude Pepper of Florida, who in the 1950 Senate race had been smeared by the Miami Herald with a faked composite showing him embracing Joe Stalin, and Pepper’s opponent, campaigning around the state hissing that his opponent’s sister was a—thespian. Even as late as 1956, I followed Adlai Stevenson for three days during the California Democratic primary, and while hardly a flaming radical, he had, as I recall, dead-tired, standing on the railroad tracks somewhere around San Jose, expressed a vision of social awareness seldom found since. With Kennedy, the fascistization of America had begun in earnest.

The process continues, now accelerated.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/16/obama-monopoly-capitalism-and-global-hegemony/

 

 

Oligarchy, not democracy: Americans have ‘near-zero’ input on policy – report

Reuters / Amr Abdallah Dalsh

The first-ever scientific study that analyzes whether the US is a democracy, rather than an oligarchy, found the majority of the American public has a “minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy” compared to the wealthy.

The study, due out in the Fall 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, sets out to answer elusive questions about who really rules in the United States. The researchers measured key variables for 1,779 policy issues within a single statistical model in an unprecedented attempt “to test these contrasting theoretical predictions” – i.e. whether the US sets policy democratically or the process is dominated by economic elites, or some combination of both.

“Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts,” the researchers from Princeton University and Northwestern University wrote.

While “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association,” the authors say the data implicate “the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

The authors of “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” say that even as their model tilts heavily toward indications that the US is, in fact, run by the most wealthy and powerful, it actually doesn’t go far enough in describing the stranglehold connected elites have on the policymaking process.

“Our measure of the preferences of wealthy or elite Americans – though useful, and the best we could generate for a large set of policy cases – is probably less consistent with the relevant preferences than are our measures of the views of ordinary citizens or the alignments of engaged interest groups,” the researcher said.

“Yet we found substantial estimated effects even when using this imperfect measure. The real-world impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater.”

They add that the “failure of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy is all the more striking because it goes against the likely effects of the limitations of our data. The preferences of ordinary citizens were measured more directly than our other independent variables, yet they are estimated to have the least effect.”

Despite the inexact nature of the data, the authors say with confidence that “the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”

“We believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened,” they concluded.

http://www.trueskool.com/forum/topics/oligarchy-not-democracy-americans-have-near-zero-input-on-policy-

The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway.

The New Economic Events Giving Lie to the Fiction That

We Are All Selfish, Rational Materialists

Photo Credit: AllanGregg; Screenshot / YouTube.com

Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society,” brings welcome new attention to the commons just as it begins to explode in countless new directions. His book focuses on one of the most significant vectors of commons-based innovation — the Internet and digital technologies — and documents how the incremental costs of nearly everything is rapidly diminishing, often to zero. Rifkin explored the sweeping implications of this trend in an excerpt from his book and points to the “eclipse of capitalism” in the decades ahead.

But it’s worth noting that the commons is not just an Internet phenomenon or a matter of economics. The commons lies at the heart of a major cultural and social shift now underway. People’s attitudes about corporate property rights and neoliberal capitalism are changing as cooperative endeavors — on digital networks and elsewhere — become more feasible and attractive. This can be seen in the proliferation of hackerspaces and Fablabs, in the growth of alternative currencies, in many land trusts and cooperatives and in seed-sharing collectives and countless natural resource commons.

Beneath the radar screen of mainstream politics, which remains largely clueless about such cultural trends on the edge, a new breed of commoners is building the vision of a very different kind of society, project by project. This new universe of social activity is being built on the foundation of a very different ethics and social logic than that of homo economicus — the economist’s fiction that we are all selfish, utility-maximizing, rational materialists.

Durable projects based on social cooperation are producing enormous amounts of wealth; it’s just that this wealth is not generally not monetized or traded. It’s socially or ecologically embedded wealth that is managed by self-styled commoners themselves. Typically, such commoners act more as stewards of their common wealth than as owners who treat it as private capital. Commoners realize that a life defined by impersonal transactions is not as rich or satisfying as one defined by abiding relationships. The larger trends toward zero-marginal-cost production make it perfectly logical for people to seek out commons-based alternatives.

You can find these alternatives popping up all over: in the 10,000-plus open access scientific journals whose research is freely shareable to anyone and in community gardens that produce both fresh vegetables and neighborliness. In hundreds of “timebanks” that let people meet basic needs through time-barters, and in highly productive, ecologically minded commons-based agriculture.

Economists tend to ignore such wealth because it generally doesn’t involve market activity. No cash is exchanged, no legal contracts signed and no measureable Gross Domestic Product is generated. But the wealth of the commons is not accumulated like capital; its vitality comes from being circulated. As I describe in my new book, “Think Like a Commoner,” the story of our time is the rise of the commons as a new way to emancipate oneself from predatory markets and to collaborate with peers to protect and expand one’s shared wealth. This is a story that is being played out in countless digital arenas, as Rifkin documents, but also in such diverse contexts as cities, farming, museums, theaters and indigenous communities.

One reason that so many commons arise and flourish is because they help their participants meet important basic needs in fair, responsive and socially satisfying ways. That’s quite attractive to those who are otherwise held captive by conventional, predatory markets. Big agriculture is more concerned with efficiency and profit than ecological stewardship. Large transnationals are more interested in rip-and-run resource extraction (mining, fracking, timber) than in the protection of sacred lands and time-honored ways of life. “Copyright industries” like Hollywood and record labels want to treat all of culture as tightly controlled “product,” not as something that is freely shared and built upon.

Nowadays the commons has a special appeal for people of the global South who are often victimized by the “enclosures” inflicted by neoliberal investment and trade policies. Enclosures are the act of privatizing and commodifying previously shared resources. For example, millions of acres of land in Africa, Asia and Latin America are currently being seized by investors in a massive international land grab. Hedge funds and even the government of South Korea, Saudi Arabia and China are enacting an eerie replay of the English enclosure movement. Commoners who have worked the land for generations as a customary right are being forced to migrate to cities in search of work, where they often end up as paupers and sweatshop employees: a modern-day replay of Charles Dickens’ novels.

By the lights of modern economic theory, it’s all for the best because it promotes “development” (i.e., consumerism and other market dependencies). But many commoners are now fighting the dispossession and dependencies that enclosures entail by struggling to retain some measure of dignity and self-determination through their commons. The International Land Alliance estimates that 2 billion people around the world depend upon subsistence commons of forests, fisheries, arable land, water and wild game to meet their everyday needs.

Strangely, the leading introductory economics textbooks in the U.S. virtually ignore the commons except for the obligatory warning about the “tragedy of the commons.” They prefer not to recognize that the commons represents an entirely viable but different paradigm of “development” – one that can transcend the unsustainable consumerism, cultural disintegration and economic growth of our time. As the late Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom showed, commons are an entirely sustainable, ecologically friendly model of resource management, contrary to the “tragedy” parable.

Commoners are not all alike. They have many profound differences in their governance systems, management practices and cultural values. And commons are not without their conflicts, struggles and failures. That said, most commoners tend to share fundamental commitments to participation, openness, inclusiveness, social equity, ecological respect and human rights.

The politics of the commons movement can be confounding to conventional observers because political goals are not the paramount priority; protection of the commons is. Commoners tend to be more focused on “prepolitical” social activity and relationships, which is why commons are embraced by such a wide variety of people. As German commons advocate Silke Helfrich notes in The Wealth of the Commons, “Commons draw from the best of all political ideologies.” Conservatives like the tendency of commons to promote responsibility. Liberals are pleased with the focus on equality and basic social entitlement. Libertarians like the emphasis on individual initiative. And leftists like the idea of limiting the scope of the Market.

It is important to realize that the commons is not a discussion about objects, but a discussion about who we are and how we treat each other. What decisions are being made about our resources? Does economic activity satisfy basic human needs and honor human rights and dignity? These kind of discussions are not often heard in in conventional business and policy circles, alas.

To conventional minds, the idea of the commons as a paradigm of social governance appears either utopian or communistic, or at the very least, impractical. But a diverse, eclectic universe of commons around the world demonstrates otherwise. It is the neoliberal project of ever-expanding consumption on a global scale that is the utopian, totalistic dream. It manifestly cannot fulfill its mythological vision of human progress through ubiquitous market activity and greater heaps of private consumption, if only because it demands more from Nature than it can possibly deliver – while inflicting too much social inequity and disruption as well.

Fortunately, the Internet and indigenous peoples, the re-localization movement and hackers, community foresters and fishing cooperatives and many, many others, are showing that the commons can be an effective vehicle for social and political emancipation. Jeremy Rifkin’s astute analysis of this powerful trend will help open up a much-needed discussion in the stodgy precincts of conventional economics.

David A. Bollier is an author, activist, blogger and independent scholar with a primary focus on “the commons” as a new paradigm for economics, politics, and culture. He is the founding editor of Onthecommons.org (2002-2010), co-founder and principal of the international consulting project Commons Strategy Group, and co-director of the Commons Law Project. Bollier is the author of numerous books, including “Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons.”

 http://www.alternet.org/economy/were-about-enter-whole-new-era-economics-and-its-going-make-everyone-feel-lot-more-wealthy?akid=11716.265072.WdcnEx&rd=1&src=newsletter981596&t=7&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Employee pensions under attack in the US

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By Andre Damon
15 April 2014

The American financial elite has launched a sweeping nationwide assault on the pension benefits of US workers in both the public and private sectors.

Following the example of the city of Detroit, municipalities and states throughout the country, including Illinois, California, and Pennsylvania, have sought to slash government workers’ legally protected pension benefits on the grounds that there is no money to pay for the “generous” retirement benefits that are owed to workers for decades of labor.

Now, private sector pensions, already decimated in the wave of corporate bankruptcies and buyouts that took place in the 1980s, are coming under renewed attack. In particular, multi-employer pension funds, once considered more secure than those operated by single employers, are being targeted for cutbacks.

The New York Times reported Saturday, “Labor officials, business groups, members of Congress and others have been quietly discussing a proposal to extend multiemployer plans’ life spans by letting them roll back even retirees’ pensions.”

Private employee pension funds have been over the course of decades starved of contributions by the corporations that are legally obliged to finance them. This is true not only of standard single-employer pension funds, but also larger, union-affiliated multi-employer funds, which provide retirement benefits for some 10 million Americans.

The Times noted that one major pension plan, the Teamsters’ Central States plan, pays out $2.8 billion per year in retirement funds, but only takes in about $700 million from corporations. The plan’s director said he expects the plan to run out of money in 10 to 15 years.

The multi-employer arm of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the government agency that insures private pensions, is expected to run out of funds within seven years, according to a report issued in February by the Congressional Budget Office.

Last year, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation posted a record deficit of $35.7 billion. “Within the next 10 years, more and more plans are going to run out of money,” said Joshua Gotbaum, director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp, in a November report.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, enacted in 1974, forbids companies from cutting their employees’ pension obligations for work they have already performed. But a subsequent 2006 law, signed by George W. Bush, allowed under-funded multi-employer pensions to stop paying some benefits, such as disability, death benefits, and early retirement.

The PBGC was conceived as self-financing, with insurance payouts to be covered by premiums paid by corporations. But these premiums have been steadily dwindling, as successive administrations from both parties have introduced loopholes to allow companies to reduce their contributions.

The Times noted that the PBGC multi-employer fund “now has premiums of about $110 million a year to work with. All it would take is the failure of one big plan to wipe out the whole program.”

Defined benefit pensions now cover only 18 percent of private-sector workers, down from 35 percent in the 1990s, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These pension plans have largely been replaced by completely inadequate defined-contribution 401(k) plans. The bureau of labor statistics found that the median households aged 55–64 with a retirement savings account had just $100,000 to retire, or about twice the yearly household income for older households.

The calls to slash private pensions are coupled with renewed attacks on public sector retirement benefits. Last week, the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates reported that public pensions in the United States have only $3 trillion in assets to cover some $10 trillion in scheduled payments over the coming decades. According to the report, 85 percent of public pensions will run out of funds within three decades.

These funds are insolvent because they have been looted by state and local officials to cover the billions of dollars in local tax cuts and incentives that have been handed out to big business over the course of the past several decades. Now, the Democratic and Republican politicians who have starved the pension funds are calling for workers’ pensions to be slashed to keep the funds solvent.

  • In Detroit, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has proposed to slash city workers’ pensions by 26 percent—or 34 percent if workers do not vote in favor of the deal. These pension cuts, coupled with equally draconian cuts to their dental, vision, and health insurance coverage, will effectively reduce their incomes by more than 50 percent. 10 percent of Detroit city retirees already live below the poverty line, and pension officials have said that the cuts will force at least another 20 percent into poverty.
  • On April 8, the Illinois legislature voted in favor of a law proposed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that will slash pensions for 57,000 city laborers and municipal employees. The law eliminates the workers’ cost-of-living increases, meaning that, as years go by, their pensions will be whittled down enormously.
  • A group of California Democrats, led by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, is campaigning for the implementation of a constitutional amendment to remove the state’s protections on public employee pensions. With the proposed amendment, cities, counties, and other government entities could lower cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. In addition, they could increase the retirement age or demand larger pension contributions from current employees.
  • Last month, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, announced plans to cut pensions for hundreds of thousands of state employees and teachers covered by the state’s pension system. The proposal would switch new workers to a 401(k)-style retirement plan, while even further underfunding existing pension plans. “The only question is whether we will do it now, when it’s still a manageable problem, or let others do it later,” said Corbett.

Even as retirement benefits are being slashed, on the grounds that there is supposedly no money to pay for them, the super-rich are doing better than ever. Last week, Equilar, the executive compensation research firm, reported that the 100 top-earning corporate CEOs had their median pay increase by 9 percent in 2013, to $13.9 million.

WALL STREET

 

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Quote of the Week

“Look around Wall Street. You’ll find tribal insularity, short-term thinking, personal irresponsibility, cynicism about playing by the rules, an aversion to socially productive labor, a habit of shameless materialism, an inability to defer gratification, and a lack of concern for what ‘message’ all this sends to the youth raised in such an environment. In short, you’ll find the very things typically imputed to the culture of poverty.”

Eric Liu, How America is rigged for the rich, CNN, April 9, 2014