|March 10, 2014|
|Jan Koum and Brian Acton, the founders of the messaging software WhatsApp, have ample reason to celebrate this week’s 25th anniversary of the Internet’s World Wide Web. The pair have just become billionaires.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire ever, gave Koum and Acton that distinction last month when he gobbled up WhatsApp for $19 billion. The three of them have lots of online company in the global billionaire club. Forbes now counts 120 other high-tech whizzes with billion-dollar fortunes.
The Internet has become, in effect, the fastest billionaire-minting machine in world history. Should we consider this incredible concentration of wealth an outcome preordained? Did the last 25 years of online history have to leave us so much more unequal? We ask that question in this week’s Too Much.
And what about the future? How might we change the online world to help create a more equal real world? We ask that question, too.
|GREED AT A GLANCE|
|New European Union rules adopted last year limit banker bonuses to no more than triple their base salary. Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green Party lawmaker, led the drive for that cap, and now he’s struggling to stop the British government from letting UK bankers sidestep the EU’s modest new pay restrictions. One such sidestep: Banking giant HSBC is now paying its CEO Stuart Gulliver an extra $53,500 every month as an “allowance.” Lamberts wants the EU to take the UK to court. Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins, for his part, is defending his bank’s bonus culture. Nearly 500 power suits at Barclays, half of them in the United States, are taking home at least $1.6 million a year. Paying them any less, says Jenkins, would force his bank into a “death spiral.” To do business in America, adds the CEO, we must “reconcile ourselves to pay high levels of compensation.”
Don’t talk to Miami maritime lawyer Jim Walker about greedy bankers. The real greedy, says Walker, are running cruise lines and incorporating their operations offshore to avoid U.S. taxes and wage laws. The greediest cruise character of them all? That might be Carnival Cruise chair Micky Arison. He’s now selling off 10 million of his Carnival shares, a sale that figures to bring in $395 million and still leave his family holding over $6 billion in Carnival stock. Arison’s share sale began as passengers left adrift last year on a faulty Carnival cruise ship were testifying on the lawsuit they’ve filed against the company. That incident subjected over 4,200 passengers and crew to five days of overflowing toilets and rotting food. Carnival is dismissing the suit as “an opportunistic attempt to benefit financially” from “alleged emotional distress.”
You won’t find any billionaires standing in line to get their family heirlooms appraised on the hit public TV series Antiques Roadshow. But the world’s ultra rich, luxury editor Tara Loader Wilkinson noted last week, are definitely “going gaga for antiques.” The average billionaire, calculates a new billionaire census from the Swiss bank UBS and researchers at the Singapore-based Wealth-X, holds $14 million worth of antiques and collectibles. Why are so many uber rich hungering for antiques? French antiques expert Mikael Kraemer notes that “anyone with enough money can buy a jet.” Not everyone, he adds, has “what sets one billionaire apart from another”: enough “culture and knowledge” to find and buy something like an 18th century antique royal chandelier.
Quote of the Week
“Do you recall a time in America when the income of a single school teacher or baker or salesman or mechanic was enough to buy a home, have two cars, and raise a family? I remember.”
|PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK|
|Fracking can be a dirty business. Big Energy CEOs don’t mind. Can’t let those environmentalists endanger our energy security, they like to insist. Unless the environment at risk happens to be their own. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that’s trying to stop the construction of a 160-foot water — for fracking — tower near his manse north of Dallas. Tillerson isn’t talking about his lawsuit. But an Exxon flack says his boss doesn’t object to the tower “for its potential use for water and gas operations for fracking.” He’s just upset because the tower would be “much taller” than originally proposed. If the lawsuit fails, Tillerson might have to buy the tower site himself to prevent the fracking eyesore. He can afford it. His 2012 Exxon take-home: $40.3 million.||
|IMAGES OF INEQUALITY|
The promoters of the new “Wealth Badge” are either cynically exploiting a new luxury niche or acutely exposing the cultural depravity of our unequal times. Their new Web site offers the affluent a metal pin that reads “Because I can.” The cost: $5,000. Explains the Wealth Badge pitch: “The idea is simple: If you buy something just because you can, you are truly rich.” The site claims to have sold 61 badges — and features photos of privileged people showing them off. The pins have begun drawing media play. But no one has so far answered the basic question: Is the Wealth Badge crew trying to make money or a point?
|PROGRESS AND PROMISE|
|Few people have contributed as much to our online world as Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who helped pioneer — and label — what we call “virtual reality.” Lanier has been wondering of late about his fellow contributors, those hundreds of millions of Internet users who donate — for free — the information that a tiny cohort of tycoons has been able to crunch into billion-dollar fortunes. In his latest book, Lanier envisions a “universal micropayment system” that pays people who go online for whatever information of value their online clicks may create, “no matter what kind of information is involved or whether a person intended to provide it or not.” Such a system, says Lanier, would help us “see a less elite distribution of economic benefits.”||
Youth groups eager to help young people understand inequality’s impact on how we relate to each other can download the Theatre and Education Resource Guide from the London-based Equality Trust, part of a package of interactive learning materials.
|inequality by the numbers|
Stat of the Week
The world’s “ultra high net worth” crowd — individuals worth at least $30 million — now number 167,669, says a new Knight Frank report. Their total wealth: $20.1 trillion in 2013, almost half as much as the combined net worth of the 4.2 billion global adults who hold less than $100,000 in wealth.
A Thought for the Web’s Silver Anniversary
Let’s learn from our not-so-distant past and share the gold. New technologies don’t have to bring us new inequalities.
Exactly 25 years ago this week the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee conceptually “invented” the World Wide Web — and began a process that would rather rapidly make the online world an essential part of our daily lives.
By 1995, 14 percent of Americans were surfing the Web. The level today: 87 percent. And among young adults, the Pew Research Center notes in a just-published silver anniversary report, the Internet has reached “near saturation.” Some 97 percent of Americans 18 to 29 are now going online.
Americans young and old alike are using the Web to work wonders few people 25 years ago could have ever imagined. We’re talking face-to-face with people thousands of miles away. We’re finding soulmates who share our passions and problems. We’re organizing political movements to change the world.
Life with the Web has become, for hundreds of millions of us, substantially richer. Not literally richer, of course. The same 25 years that have seen the Web explode into our consciousness have seen most of us struggle to stay even economically. The Internet and inequality have grown together.
Tim Berners-Lee never saw this inequality coming. The ground-breaking research he published on March 12, 1989, the paper that proposed the system that became the Web, carried no price tag. Berners-Lee would go on to release the code for his system for free. He didn’t invent the Web to get rich.
But others certainly have become rich via the Web. Fabulously rich. Forbes magazine last week released its annual list of global billionaires. Some 123 of them, Forbes calculates, owe their fortunes to high-tech ventures. The top 15 of these high-tech billionaires hold a collective $382 billion in personal net worth.
Numbers like these don’t particularly bother — or alarm — many of today’s economists. Grand new technologies, their conventional wisdom holds, always bring forth grand new personal fortunes for the entrepreneurs who lead the way.
In the 19th century, points out this standard narrative of American economic progress, the coming of the railroads dotted our landscape with the fortunes of railroad tycoons. In the early 20th century, the new automobile age created huge piles of wealth for car makers like Henry Ford and the oilmen who supplied the juice that kept his auto engines humming along.
Why should the Internet age, mainstream economists wonder, be any different? A new technology comes along that alters the fabric of daily life. That new technology gives rise to a new rich. The one outcome naturally follows the other. No need to get bent out of shape by the resulting inequality.
But epochal new technology doesn’t always automatically generate grand new fortunes. The prime example from our relatively recent past: television.
TV burst onto the American scene even more rapidly — and thoroughly — than the Internet. In 1948, only 1 percent of American households owned a TV. Within seven years, televisions graced 75 percent of American homes.
These TV sets didn’t just drop down into those homes. They had to be designed, manufactured, packaged, distributed, marketed. Programming had to be produced. Imaginations had to be captured. All of this demanded an enormous outlay of entrepreneurial energy.
But this outlay would produce no jaw-dropping grand fortunes, no billionaires, even after adjusting for inflation. That would be no accident. The American people, by the 1950s, had put in place a set of economic rules that made the accumulation of grand new private fortunes almost impossible.
Taxes played a key role here. Income over $400,000 faced a 91 percent tax rate throughout the 1950s. Regulations played an important role as well. In television’s early heyday, for instance, government regs limited how many commercials could run on children’s TV programming. TV’s original corporate execs could only squeeze so much out of their new medium.
And television’s early kingpins couldn’t squeeze their workers all that much either. Most of their employees, from the workers who manufactured TV sets to the technicians who staffed broadcast studios, belonged to unions. TV’s early movers and shakers had to share the wealth their new medium was creating.
Today’s Internet movers and shakers, by contrast, have to share nothing. In an America where less than 7 percent of private-sector workers carry union cards, online corporate giants seldom ever need bargain with their employees.
In a deregulated U.S. economy, meanwhile, these Internet kingpins face precious few public-interest rules that keep them from charging whatever the market can bear — and rigging markets to squeeze out even more.
And taxes? Today’s Internet billionaires face tax rates that run well less than half the rates that early TV kingpins faced.
We can’t — and shouldn’t — fault Tim Berners-Lee for any of this. He freely shared, after all, his invention with the world.
“I wanted to build a creative space,” Berners-Lee observed in an interview a few years ago, “something like a sandpit where everyone could play together.”
Some people didn’t play nice.
Isaiah Poole, Paul Ryan Misses Top Reason We Haven’t ‘Won’ the War on Poverty, OurFuture.Org, March 4, 2014. That reason: policy decisions that concentrate wealth in the top 1 percent.
Joseph Olanyo, African growth fails to bridge inequality gap, Observer, March 4, 2014. Nations need tax systems that could redistribute wealth more fairly.
J.D. Alt, Forget The 1%, New Economic Perspectives, March 5, 2014. They serve no useful social function.
Wayne Besen, Will Economic Inequality Undermine LGBT Equality? Falls Church News-Press, March 5, 2014. Growing divides spawn powerful right-wing movements that scapegoat minorities.
Kathleen Geier, The IMF (Finally) Admits That Inequality Slows Growth, Nation, March 6, 2014. Good background on an important new IMF study.
Colin Gordon, Our Inequality: An Introduction, Dissent, March 6, 2014. Exploring U.S. inequality and antidotes to it.
Yves Smith, Tax Havens Make US and Europe Look Poorer than They Are, Naked Capitalism, March 6, 2014. Around 8 percent of global financial wealth is now sitting in tax havens.
James Kwak, Posturing from Weakness, Baseline Scenario, March 6, 2014. The tax hikes on the rich in the new Obama budget: only for show?
“Make room for The Rich Don’t Always Win on your book shelf right next to Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of America.”
|NEW AND notable|
A Statistical Guide to Our New ‘Plutonomy’
Sherle Schwenninger and Samuel Sherraden, The U.S. Economy After The Great Recession, New America Foundation, Washington, D.C., March 4, 2014.
Need to better understand how the Great Recession — and the political responses to it — have played out? This no-nonsense set of slides brings together, in one place, the key trends that have defined the the U.S. economy since the Great Recession hit in 2008. Just a few of the report’s many choice tidbits . . .
Good times at the top: From 2009 to 2012, America’s top 1 percent incomes grew by 31.4 percent. Bottom 99 percent incomes rose all of 0.4 percent.
Shrinking returns to labor: From 2007′s fourth quarter to 2013′s third, the labor compensation share of national income declined from 64 to 61% percent. If this labor share of national income had remained at the 2007 level, American workers would have earned $520 billion more in 2013 than they actually did.
Enter the “plutonomy”: The U.S. economy is revolving ever more around consumption by the rich. In 2012 the top 5 percent of American income earners accounted for 38 percent of domestic consumption, up from 28 percent in 1995.
Popular Resistance Newsletter
Above: OWS Puppets protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The Joy and Resolve of a Movement Built on Creative Resistance
Beginning with the iconic image of the ballerina on top of the Wall Street Bull, art has been central to occupy and was an important reason for its powerful impact.
Art adds vitality and energy to advocacy; and it reaches people at deeper emotional levels and in their hearts conveying what cannot be said with mere facts.
We had been covering art as part of our reporting on the movement at Popular Resistance, but it wasn’t enough. There has been so much artistic activism that we decided it needed to be highlighted with its own website, Creative Resistance.org. It is a place where community members, activists and activist artists can connect and inspire each other. We encourage everyone to find ways that art can be incorporated into your actions and into the work in your community.
Art Builds Commitment, Community and Movement
One goal of public protest is to pull people to the movement in order to grow into a mass movement that cannot be ignored. Activist art turns a protest into a spectacle, from a turn-off to a turn-on, from an event ignored to one that is widely reported. The protest becomes art itself. If done well and with intention, it will draw people to the movement.
For example, before a protest or other event, a community art build can be organized where people involved in advocacy create art together; and where families, community members, professional colleagues and others are invited to co-create. This process builds stronger connections within the community, deepens the understanding of the issue and provides a way for individuals to express their personal relationship to the issue.
As Tatiana Makovkin, an organizer with Creative Resistance, wrote recently: “Art is good for our communities, and artistic collaboration is a bonding experience. We make art together, not just because of the changes it can bring to the world around us, but because of the way it changes us internally.”
Another group that uses the creation of art as a catalyst for change is the Bee Hive Collective. This Maine-based group tells stories through incredible graphics. They are done in a sophisticated cartoon-like style in order to make them accessible and engaging. The stories are based on concerns that communities have about their lives and the environment. They have gone to the coal fields of Appalachia, refugee camps in Latin America and partnered with other communities whose voices need to be amplified, whose stories need to be heard and whose struggle for social and environmental justice needs to be told.
Sometimes art lifts a protest to what Bill Moyer of the Backbone Campaign calls a “spectacle action.” We’ve been involved in protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Moyer and each was a spectacle action. In a recent TPP protest we draped four massive banners on the building of the US Trade Representative, across from the White House complex. The action, which the Washington Post called the greatest guerrilla theater in DC history, created images used by media all over the world and showed people who are opposed to the TPP in other countries that there is opposition in the US too.
In a protest in Salt Lake City as TPP negotiators were inside a hotel conducting secret negotiations, the Backbone Campaign and other groups flew massive weather balloons holding a banner outside their conference window saying “Psst TPP. What are you hiding?” The banner used humor to mock their secret negotiations and raise the issue of why they were hiding from all of us who will be impacted by the deals they make behind closed doors.
These spectacle protests also sent a message to our adversaries that we are a force to be reckoned with because we were willing to take risks and were clear in our denunciation of their unpopular, anti-democratic actions. They were put on notice – proceed and you should expect resistance.
That same type of message has been sent all up and down the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring toxic tar sands sludge from Canada through the farm belt of America, over precious fresh water sources and to the Gulf of Mexico to be processed for transport overseas. When the Tar Sands Blockaders began in the southern portion of the pipeline, they put up massive banners in the trees where activists were doing tree sits. The message on the banner: You Shall Not Pass was a clear threat of resistance.
In the South and in the northern part of the pipeline where Obama has not yet approved construction, indigenous peoples, landowners, ranchers and farmers have joined people concerned about climate change and ecological destruction to protest in creative ways like putting up a solar energy producing barn where the pipeline is planned to go. TransCanada is so afraid of this resistance they are urging police to treat protesters as terrorists, including an absurd glitter terror case in Oklahoma.
The use of art in resistance can make protests less frightening and something people want to attend and join. Protest signs that advertise an event or are used at the event draw attention and spread our message, as do the massive puppets seen at many protests produced by groups like People’s Puppets, Bread and Puppet Theater, the Backbone Campaign and others. As these puppets march through neighborhoods accompanied by singing and chanting, people are drawn to them and some end up participating. Street theater is another way to attract people. Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir is one example of many groups who perform.
A book which shows the breadth of creativity in activism is Beautiful Trouble. It compiles hundreds of examples of creative resistance. The authors write, “The realization is rippling through the ranks that, if deployed thoughtfully, our pranks, stunts, flash mobs and encampments can bring about real shifts in the balance of power. In short, large numbers of people have seen that creative action gets the goods — and have begun to act accordingly. Art, it turns out, really does enrich activism, making it more compelling and sustainable”
Reaching People Beyond Their Heads
To be effective in our advocacy it is not enough to provide facts, figures and graphs and reach people in their heads. Studies have shown that facts that contradict someone’s belief are often ignored and even have the opposite effect of strengthening people’s preconceived notions. In order to change people, we have to reach them at a deeper, more emotional level.
The Center for Artistic Activism describes their rationale for the use of creative resistance writing:
Throughout history, the most effective political actors have married the arts with campaigns for social change. While Martin Luther King Jr is now largely remembered for his example of moral courage, social movement historian Doug McAdam’s estimation of King’s “genius for strategic dramaturgy,” likely better explains the success of his campaigns.
Dramaturgy means the art or technique of dramatic composition and theatrical representation. One of the co-founders of the Center for Artistic Activism, Stephen Duncombe, describes the story of how King used drama when the civil rights movement selected Birmingham, AL as the place for protest by creating a confrontation with Police Chief Bull Connor. Connor had been an abusive police chief in Birmingham for 23 years and in 1961 had abused the Freedom Riders. Connor tried running for mayor, but lost the election. The day Connor lost the election, King’s group announced Project C (for confrontation) challenging the racist police practices of Connor. The goal was mass arrests and confrontation that would overwhelm the police and penal system. King’s arrest led to his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
On May 2, 1963, King’s group used a new tactic in Birmingham by having children march through the streets, resulting in 959 children aged 6 to 18 being arrested. The next day large numbers of protesters came out and Connor turned the dogs and fire hoses on them. This went on for several days and produced images that created anger at Connor and support for the civil rights activists. Three thousand protesters were arrested over a five day period. The impact on the reputation and economy was extremely negative causing a majority of businesses to reach agreement with King to desegregate lunch counters, rest rooms and drinking fountains on May 10. The businesses also helped to get the protesters released and created systems for black-white communication. On May 11, Connor was ordered to leave his office.
King had picked the stage, the antagonist and protagonists. The narrative was predictable because they knew how Connor would react and the civil rights activists had been trained to respond appropriately. Through dramaturgy, King had created a dramatic composition that was vivid, emotional and engaged the American people – based on the truth – to tell the story of racism in Birmingham and advance the cause of civil rights by reaching people beyond their minds, deep into their emotions.
Think of the iconic photos of African Americans being attacked by dogs and having the fire hoses turned on them; and of children being arrested. These iconic images are still carried with many Americans because they reached deep down into people. Sometimes when the stage is set and the narrative is being told, the iconic image, unimagined before it happens, is created and advances a movement.
Another path into the emotions of people is humor. The Yes Men are one of the groups that have used humor to make a point. The Yes Men describe their work as “Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them, and otherwise giving journalists excuses to cover important issues.” And, they have mocked some of the biggest corporate criminals on the planet. Their method is to put these corporations in an uncomfortable position, forcing them to respond to hoax news that ‘reports’ the corporation is going to do something good. The corporation then responds – ‘no we’re not going to do something good.’
The Yes Men are now working to share their experience and broaden the talent of hoax humor activism with the Yes Lab. Their goal is to help activists carry out media-getting creative actions through a series of brainstorms and trainings. They call their tactic that creates a public spectacle to spark public debate “laughtivism” as they recognize that humor opens people’s minds.
Another powerful artistic tool is music. It draws people in and can open the door to a movement message. From hip-hop to folk music to rock and roll, there is musical activism. And it is also a tool for creating solidarity and confidence when activists face difficult situations.
Creativity sustains movements
The struggle for social justice is a long-term endeavor that goes through periods of ups and downs. Artful activism in resistance movements can provide new energy and make the goals feel more tangible. Art allows us to imagine the future and sense the world differently.
Art does not have to be expensive. It can be as simple as a can of spray paint for graffiti. The artist Bansky has brought street art to a new level, but at its root it is simple and accessible. Another group that takes graffiti to a new direction is the California Department of Corrections, which ‘corrects’ billboards to put forward a social and economic justice message by adding their comments or changing a few words on the billboard.
Bread and Puppet Theater describes the birth of the “Cheap Art Philosophy … born in 1979 when [they] filled their old school bus with hundreds of small pictures painted on scraps of masonite, cardboard and newspaper, painted slogans and statements about art and Cheap Art, and hung them on the outside of the bus. Then they drove it to neighboring towns and sold the stuff for 10 cents to 10 dollars.” They report the idea has spread:
“Today Cheap Art is practiced by all kinds of artists and puppeteers all over, and continues to cry out: Art is Not Business! Art Is Food! Art Soothes Pain! Art Wakes Up Sleepers! Art Is Cheap! Hurrah!”
Isn’t this the sharing world want we need to see? Imagine art builds in every town bringing communities together and deepening commitment, massive puppets and balloons carrying the message of justice in parades and protests across the country, entertaining and educating theatrics in the streets, music reaching the uninvolved and strengthening the resolve of the already active. People sharing and participating together in building a movement of creative resistance whose foundations are joy and resolve spurs us to re-imagine and create the world we want to see.
For years, environmentalists and the gas drilling industry have been in a pitched battle over the possible health implications of hydro fracking. But to a great extent, the debate — as well as the emerging lawsuits and the various proposed regulations in numerous states — has been hampered by a shortage of science.
In 2011, when ProPublica first reported on the different health problems afflicting people living near gas drilling operations, only a handful of health studies had been published. Three years later, the science is far from settled, but there is a growing body of research to consider.
Below, ProPublica offers a survey of some of that work. The studies included are by no means a comprehensive review of the scientific literature. There are several others that characterize the chemicals in fracking fluids, air emissions and waste discharges. Some present results of community level surveys.
Yet, a long-term systematic study of the adverse effects of gas drilling on communities has yet to be undertaken. Researchers have pointed to the scarcity of funding available for large-scale studies as a major obstacle in tackling the issue.
A review of health-related studies published last month in Environmental Science & Technology concluded that the current scientific literature puts forward “both substantial concerns and major uncertainties to address.”
Still, for some, waiting for additional science to clarify those uncertainties before adopting more serious safeguards is misguided and dangerous. As a result, a number of researchers and local activists have been pushing for more aggressive oversight immediately.
The industry, by and large, has regarded the studies done to date — a number of which claim to have found higher rates of illness among residents living close to drilling wells — as largely anecdotal and less than convincing.
“The public health sector has been absent from this debate,” said Nadia Steinzor, a researcher on the Oil and Gas Accountability Project at the environmental nonprofit, Earthworks.
Departments of health have only become involved in states such as New York and Maryland where regulators responded to the public’s insistence on public health and environmental reviews before signing off on fracking operations. The states currently have a moratorium on fracking.
New York State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah is in fact conducting a review of health studies to present to Governor Andrew Cuomo before he makes a decision on whether to allow fracking in the state. It is unclear when the results of the review will be publicly available.
Other states such as Pennsylvania and Texas, however, have been much more supportive of the gas industry. For instance, Texas has been granting permits for fracking in ever increasing numbers while at the same time the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that monitors air quality, has had its budget cut substantially.
1. An Exploratory Study of Air Quality near Natural Gas Operations. Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, 2012.
The study, performed in Garfield County, Colo., between July 2010 and October 2011, was done by researchers at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a non-profit organization that examines the impact of low-level exposure to chemicals on the environment and human health.
In the study, researchers set up a sampling station close to a well and collected air samples every week for 11 months, from when the gas wells were drilled to after it began production. The samples produced evidence of 57 different chemicals, 45 of which they believe have some potential for affecting human health.
In almost 75 percent of all samples collected, researchers discovered methylene chloride, a toxic solvent that the industry had not previously disclosed as present in drilling operations. The researchers noted that the greatest number of chemicals were detected during the initial drilling phase.
While this study did catalogue the different chemicals found in air emissions from gas drilling operations, it did not address exposure levels and their potential effects. The levels found did not exceed current safety standards, but there has been much debate about whether the current standards adequately address potential health threats to women, children and the elderly.
The researchers admitted their work was compromised by their lack of full access to the drilling site. The air samples were collected from a station close to what is known as the well pad, but not the pad itself.
The gas drilling industry has sought to limit the disclosure of information about its operations to researchers. They have refused to publicly disclose the chemicals that are used in fracking, won gag orders in legal cases and restricted the ability of scientists to get close to their work sites. In a highly publicized case last year, a lifelong gag order was imposed on two children who were parties to a legal case that accused one gas company of unsafe fracking operations that caused them to fall sick.
In 2009, the Independent Petroleum Association of America started Energy In Depth, a blog that confronts activists who are fighting to ban fracking and challenges research that in any way depicts fracking as unsafe.
Energy In Depth responded to this Garfield County study and criticized its lack of proper methodology. The blog post also questioned the objectivity of the researchers, asserting that their “minds were already made up.”
The industry has also been performing its own array of studies.
Last year, for instance, an industry-funded study on the methane emissions from fracking wells was published in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It concluded that only very modest amounts of methane — a known contributor to climate change — was being emitted into the air during fracking operations.
The study came under heavy criticism from Cornell researcher Robert Howarth, who two years prior had published work that claimed methane emissions from shale gas operations were far more significant.
“This study is based only on evaluation of sites and times chosen by industry,” he said.
2. Birth Outcomes and Natural Gas Development. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2014.
The study examined babies born from 1996 to 2009 in rural Colorado locations — the state has been a center of fracking for more than a decade. It was done by the Colorado School of Public Health and Brown University.
The study asserted that women who lived close to gas wells were more likely to have children born with a variety of defects, from oral clefts to heart issues. For instance, it claimed that babies born to mothers who lived in areas dense with gas wells were 30 percent more likely to have congenital heart defects.
The researchers, however, were unable to include data on maternal health, prenatal care, genetics and a host of other factors that have been shown to increase the risk of birth defects because that information was not publicly available. A common criticism of many scientific studies is that they do not fully analyze the possibility of other contributing factors.
The study has thus come under attack from both the industry and state public health officials. In a statement, Dr. Larry Wolk, the state’s Chief Medical Officer, said “people should not rush to judgment” as “many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored” in the study.
But Lisa McKenzie, one of the lead authors of the study, said there was value to the work.
“What I think this is telling us is that we need to do more research to tease out what is happening and to see if these early studies hold up when we do more rigorous research,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, Elaine Hill, a graduate student at Cornell University, obtained data on gas wells and births between 2003 and 2010. She then compared birth weights of babies born in areas of Pennsylvania where a well had been permitted but never drilled and areas where wells had been drilled. Hill found that the babies born to mothers within 2.5 kilometers (a little over 1.5 miles) of drilled gas sites were 25 percent more likely to have low birth weight compared to those in non-drilled areas. Babies are considered as having low birth weight if they are under 2500 grams (5.5 pounds).
Hill’s work is currently under review by a formal scientific journal, a process that could take three or four years.
3. Health Risks and Unconventional Natural Gas Resources. Science of the Total Environment, 2012.
Between January 2008 and November 2010, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health collected air samples in Garfield County, Colo., which has been experiencing intensive drilling operations. Researchers found the presence of a number of hydrocarbons including benzene, trimethylbenzene and xylene, all of which have been shown to pose health dangers at certain levels.
Researchers maintained that those who lived less than half a mile from a gas well had a higher risk of health issues. The study also found a small increase in cancer risk and alleged that exposure to benzene was a major contributor to the risk.
“From the data we had, it looked like the well completion phase was the strongest contributor to these emissions,” said Lisa McKenzie, the lead author of the study.
During the completion phase of drilling, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced down the well at high pressure, and is then brought back up. The returning mixture, which contains radioactive materials and some of the natural gas from the geological formation, is supposed to be captured. But at times the mixture comes back up at pressures higher than the system can handle and the excess gas is directly vented into the air.
“I think we ought to be focused on the whole thing from soup to nuts because a lot of the potential hazards aren’t around the hydraulic fracturing step itself,” said John Adgate, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Colorado School of Public Health and co-author on the study.
Energy In Depth, the industry blog, responded at length to this study and cited several “bad inputs” which had affected the results of the study. The researchers’ assumptions and data were criticized. For instance, the researchers had assumed that Garfield residents would remain in the county until the age of 70 in order to estimate the time period over which they would be exposed to the emissions.
“Unless the ‘town’ is actually a prison, this is a fundamentally flawed assumption about the length and extent of exposure,” Energy In Depth said.
Scary Emerging Scientific Consensus
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Christy Thompson
Amy Goodman:“Are any plastics safe?” That’s the title — that’s the question of a new exposéby Mother Jones that may shock anyone who drinks out of plastic bottles, gives their children plastic sippy cups or eats out of plastic containers. For years, public campaigns have been waged against plastic containing BPA, Bisphenol-A, a controversial plastic additive. But a new investigation by Mother Jones magazine has revealed that chemicals used to replace BPAmay be just as, if not more, dangerous to your health than their cousin compound.
BPA is still widely used in everything from the lining of soup cans to printed receipts, even though studies show it mimics the behavior of estrogen in the human body, and have linked it to breast cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Just last week, a study estimated the use of BPA in food and beverage containers is responsible for some $3 billion a year in healthcare costs. But because BPA can hamper brain and organ development in young children, it’s been banned in bottles and sippy cups since 2012. Now new studies show the plastic products being advertised as BPA-free, and sold by companies such as Evenflo and Nalgene, Tupperware, are still releasing synthetic estrogen.
The Mother Jones report goes on to look at how the plastics industry has used a Big Tobacco-style campaign to bury the disturbing evidence about the products you use every day.
We’re joined in Washington, D.C., now by Mariah Blake, staff reporter with Mother Jones magazine. Mariah, welcome to Democracy Now! Just lay out what you have found.
Mariah Blake: Well, essentially, there is relatively new research showing that the vast majority of plastics, at least commercially available plastics that are used for food packaging, contain BPA-like chemicals, so chemicals that are what they call estrogenic.
AG: And explain what BPA is.
MB: So BPA is a chemical that mimics the hormone estrogen. And estrogen plays — we all have estrogen in our bodies. It plays an essential role in various bodily functions and is also very important in human development, so the development of our brain, the development of our organs. However, too much or too little of this hormone, basically, especially during early childhood or prenatally, can set you up for disease later on in life. So, exposure — what the research shows is that exposure in the womb can then lead to breast cancer, diabetes, increased aggression, really sort of a staggering list of health problems later on in life.
AG: And so, talk about what has happened since BPA has been banned.
MB: So, yes, and many people will recall that in 2008 the dangers of BPA became very widely known. There was a scare. Major retailers pulled BPA from their shelves. Customers began demanding BPA-free products, especially for children. And many manufacturers began introducing products that were BPA-free. And all of us who have children have these BPA-free products in our home, most likely. One of the — so — and in many cases, it turns out that the chemicals that were used to replace BPA, or the plastics contained chemicals that were, you know, similar to BPA — at any rate, many of these chemicals had not been tested to see whether they had similar properties to BPA, whether they mimicked estrogen, in essence. And it turns out that many of them do. So, the implication is that they could have similar effects on human health.
AG: You begin your piece by telling us the story of Michael Green and his daughter.
AG: Talk about that experience.
MB: So, Michael Green is — he had a two-year-old daughter. He’s somebody who works in the environmental health field. And he had heard — he had seen research suggesting that BPA-free plastics may have posed some of the same problems to human health. And — but he told me this very moving story about himself and his two-year-old daughter. Somebody else in the family had given his two-year-old daughter this pink plastic sippy cup with a picture of a princess on it, which she just loved. And every night at dinner time, they would have this battle of the wills over this pink plastic sippy cup: He wanted to give her the stainless steel sippy cup; she wanted the pink plastic sippy cup. And in the interest of maintaining peace in the household, occasionally he gave in and gave her this pink plastic sippy cup. But the decision really weighed on him. And I think that those of us who have children — I have a three-year-old son — can relate to this situation, where sometimes you do the expedient thing in the interest of peace, but you wonder if it’s the best thing for your child. And in this case, he decided that he would try to answer that question. And he runs this environment health organization, and he collected sippy cups from Wal-Mart and Toys”R”Us — Babies”R”Us, I’m sorry — and he sent them to an independent lab in Texas to be tested. And he found out that in fact roughly a third of them did contain estrogen-like chemicals.
AG: And that pink sippy cup?
MB: His daughter’s sippy cup was leaching estrogenic chemicals. So his fears were founded.
AG: And what can that do to her?
MB: This is the big question. We know a lot about BPA. BPA is one of the most studied chemicals on the planet. And we know that these chemicals generally are associated with a range of negative health effects. But the specific effect of any given chemical varies slightly from chemical to chemical, and we actually don’t know what chemical is leaching out of that sippy cup. So it’s impossible to know. I mean, there’s a very high correlation with breast cancer, for example, with all of these estrogenic chemicals, and with certain developmental problems. But other specific diseases vary from chemical to chemical. So, Michael Green, the way he describes it is an unplanned science experiment that we’re doing on our families all of the time.
AG: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion and talk about Big Tobacco, what Big Plastic has learned from Big Tobacco. We are talking to Mariah Blake, a staff reporter with Mother Jones. Her story is in the new issue of the magazine. It’s called “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics: And the Big Tobacco-Style Campaign to Bury It.” Stay with us.
AG: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are with Mariah Blake, staff reporter for Mother Jones magazine. “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics: And the Big Tobacco-Style Campaign to Bury It” is her new piece. What is the campaign to bury the information, Mariah Blake?
MB: Well, there are multiple facets to the campaign, but the primary — the primary objective is to cast doubt on the scientific evidence linking these chemicals to human health problems. So — and there are various ways this is done. In the case of BPA, for example, the industry funded studies, which were biased studies that found that this — that the chemical was not harmful to health. And there’s a sort of network there. They published them in certain journals that, in many cases, had links to the tobacco industry. They relied on scientists that, in many cases, had helped to discredit the science linking smoking and secondhand smoke to disease. So, in many ways, this is — they didn’t only borrow strategies and tactics from Big Tobacco; they are actually relying on the same cadre of experts that Big Tobacco relied on to bury — to bury the truth about smoking.
AG: I want to turn to a video made by the plastics industry featuring the vice president of Eastman’s specialty plastics division, Lucian Boldea, speaking in the video made by the company. A pregnant woman is one of the people shown buying plastic products as Boldea speaks.
Lucian Boldea: We understand that there are concerns about plastic materials that are used in consumer products that consumers use every day. Those products include water bottles, baby bottles and food storage containers. We can see how available information about plastic materials can be confusing and how it can be difficult for consumers to tell what is really safe. We want you, the consumer, to know the facts behind our clear, tough material named Tritan. Consumers can feel confident that the material used in the product is free of estrogenic activity.
Consumers should have high expectations of the products that they use, and no one is tougher on our products than the researchers and engineers at Eastman Chemical. Most importantly, we have used reputable, independent, third-party laboratories that have used well-recognized scientific methods to prove that Tritan is free of estrogenic activity. Numerous regulatory agencies around the world have independently reviewed our data and have approved the product for use in food contact applications. Some of the world’s most recognized brands trust Tritan as their ingredient.
AG: That was Lucian Boldea, who is president of Eastman Chemical’s specialty plastics division. Can you respond to this, Mariah Blake?
MB: Well, the Eastman product, called Tritan, which is the product that Boldea is speaking about in this video, is actually one of the primary focuses of my investigation. A number of independent scientists have tested this product and found that it is actually more estrogenic than polycarbonate, which is the plastic that contains BPA. And Eastman Chemical, according to internal documents which were released as part of a lawsuit, has taken pains to suppress the evidence showing that its products — or that this product, in particular, is in fact estrogenic.
AG: So how is it the EPA isn’t regulating this?
MB: Well, and this is one of the most surprising things to me when I read this — when I was reporting the story. So, there are about 80,000 chemicals in circulation in the United States. Virtually none of those chemicals has been tested for safety, or a very, very small fraction of those chemicals has been tested for safety. In general, chemicals are presumed safe until proven otherwise under the U.S. regulatory system. So, when a chemical like BPA is removed from a production line, the industry will substitute another chemical that is untested, and we really, in many cases, just don’t know the health effects of that chemical. So, it’s largely an unregulated realm.
AG: Tell us about George Bittner.
MB: OK. George Bittner is a neuroscientist at the University of Texas, and he has launched an independent lab called CertiChem — it also has a sister company called PlastiPure — and it tests products for estrogenic activity. And he — working with a prominent Georgetown professor, he and his staff tested, I think it was, 455 commercially available plastics that are on the market and published a paper in Environmental Health Perspectives, which is the premier NIH journal, which found that virtually all commercially available plastics have estrogenic activity. And among the plastics he tested were Tritan products, several Tritan products. And this publication, this finding, prompted a pretty big backlash from the industry. So he ended up being targeted by the industry as a result and, in fact, was sued by Eastman, which is — many of the documents that formed the basis of my story were released as a result of that lawsuit.
AG: I want to read from a memo that Eastman’s senior chemist, Emmett O’Brien, wrote after customers began asking about George Bittner’s tests that showed that Tritan may still be estrogenic. O’Brien describes a meeting with Whole Foods executives who were considering replacing their polycarbonate bulk food bins with ones made from Tritan. He wrote, quote, “We called Bittner a mad scientist. They didn’t know his name actually. They asked twice, by two independent people, what we thought of them. I hemmed and hawed (ducked and dodged) saying I prefer not to comment, but we joked and pushed and flat out said the guy was ‘shady’ — with this non-stereotypical crowd it was a good term.” O’Brien added, “They asked if they could do their own tests — I mentioned the cost is very high and they were quick to chime in that the tests take very long.” Can you respond to that, Mariah Blake?
MB: I think you chose the most telling possible quote. So this was effective — this was the strategy they used. Firstly, they worked to discredit Bittner, and they did this through a campaign of personal character assassination and by calling his business practices into question. And secondly, they worked to discredit the science. So, one of the things that Eastman did was they claimed that the test that Bittner is using, which relies on a specialized line of breast cancer cells, had been rejected by the EPA, when in fact it hadn’t. The EPA is considering using this very line of breast cancer cells for its own screening program for what they call endocrine-disrupting chemicals. BPA is one of those.
So, the other thing they did was they commissioned their own research, so they paid labs to perform research which found that Tritan was not estrogenic. And — but if you look at — if you look at the research closely, you’ll see that it is — the studies are essentially designed in a way that guarantee that estrogenic activity will not be found. So, for instance, they use a type of rat; it’s called a Charles River Sprague Dawley rat. This rat is known to be insensitive to estrogen, so it can withstand doses, according to one Japanese study, a hundred times higher than a human female can withstand, with — and show absolutely no effect. They also used doses that are below what is known as the no-observable-effect level, so the doses that are known not to cause an effect. And they then published their own study in a scientific journal, which is — has numerous tobacco industry ties, finding that Tritan was in fact not estrogenic. So, that is essentially how they responded to the finding that their product contained these chemicals that are potentially harmful to human health: They attempted to cover it up.
AG: Your report cites some leaked minutes from a 2009 meeting of the BPA Joint Trade Association, whose members include the American Chemical — the American Chemistry Council, Coca-Cola, Del Monte. During the meeting, they explored messaging strategies that included using what they called, quote, “fear tactics.” For example, “Do you want to have access to baby food anymore?” The attendees agreed that the “holy grail” spokesperson was a, quote, “pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA.” Mariah?
MB: Yes, and this is one of the most disturbing things I discovered during the course of reporting this, is that in their efforts to portray plastics as safe, they oftentimes target the groups who are most vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals. So, prenatal exposure and exposure during early childhood is potentially the most harmful, and oftentimes the marketing of these products targets pregnant women, targets families with children. And also, Eastman, for example, in their efforts to portray their products as safe, also targeted these specific groups.
AG: Can you talk about Nalgene bottles, Evenflo — is it Evenflo? — Tupperware, Rubbermaid, CamelBack?
MB: Yes, all of these companies produce at least some products that are made with Tritan, so — and they’re not alone. There are hundreds, probably, of companies that use this. This is the only plastic on the market that markets itself as being free of all estrogenic activity, so many companies that cater to consumers who are concerned about their health and many of the high-end consumer brands have started using this plastic. I think the thing to keep in mind is that Eastman misrepresented their product to their customers, as well. So these brands are not necessarily to blame for this. They have been told by Eastman that Eastman produced — performed independent, third-party testing and found no evidence of estrogenic activity. And so, in many cases, it appears that these companies are trying to do the best thing for their customers, but they were not given — they were not given accurate information about the plastic that they use in their products.
AG: Last week, NPR did a report, “Maybe That BPA In Your Canned Food Isn’t So Bad After All.” Can you talk about that?
MB: Yes. So, this is based on a recent study that was performed by FDA scientists. This is a $30 million taxpayer-funded study. And the FDA used many of the same tactics that the industry uses. For instance, they used the Charles River Sprague Dawley rat. The other thing about this study is that the lab appears to have been contaminated. So the control group of rats — these are the rats that are supposed to not be exposed to BPA, so that you can — you have some sort of a baseline to measure the animals that have been exposed to this chemical — they were somehow accidentally exposed to BPA. I have been talking to scientists about this and am planning to write about this later this week. And the academic scientists I have been speaking to say that this essentially — this raises very serious questions about the validity of the findings, and it’s unclear whether any conclusions can be drawn based on this study.
AG: What most shocked you in all your research, Mariah?
MB: Boy, that’s a good question, because there were a lot of — a lot of shocking things I discovered. I would say there’s a couple things. One, the fact that so few of the chemicals that are in the products we use every day have been tested for safety. So, as I said, there are 80,000 chemicals that are in commercial use in the United States; only a tiny fraction of those have been tested for safety.
Two, how easy it is for the industry to bias that safety testing in their favor. I had — obviously, many of us know about Big Tobacco and the way they were able to essentially buy science saying their products were safe. But I was not aware that that was happening on such a grand scale today. And it really is. You know, plastics — as I worked on the story, it became evident to me that plastics — that this is not the only industry — the plastics and chemical industry are not the — is not the only one that is using these tactics. These tactics are fairly widespread.
And I guess, on a micro level, one of the things that surprised me most, in Bittner’s testing, he looked at various types of commercially available plastics, and one of the types of plastic that was most frequently estrogenic was the corn-based plastic, so the plastic that is biodegradable, that you often find in restaurants — health food restaurants, health food stores, that this is potentially one of the most harmful types of plastic.
AG: Explain that again.
MB: So, Bittner looked at various kinds of plastic, Bittner and his colleagues, when they tested plastics. There’s a variety of different kinds of plastic — polyurethane, PET-P, polycarbonate — all these different kinds of plastic. So he broke it down by types of plastic. He tested a number of samples of each one. And he — in the final paper, they showed which ones — what percentage of each type of plastic tested positive in their tests. And there is a type of plastic that is — frequently you’ll find it in Whole Foods, you’ll find it in health food stores. It is corn-based, and it is marketed as biodegradable. Oftentimes there are forks made out of this, for example, in health food restaurants. I believe the statistic was 95 percent of samples made out of this kind of plastic tested positive for estrogenic activity.
AG: So what are you going to do with your three-year-old? What have you decided to use?
MB: Well, what I’ve already done is removed all plastic from my home. So, I have switched to natural materials. We use glass or stainless steel for our Tupperware, for our sippy cups, for everything that we possibly can. Plastic is unavoidable, so we still buy food packaged in plastic, because there is no alternative. But we try to minimize it.
AG: Saran Wrap?
MB: Saran Wrap, actually, in Bittner’s tests, I believe it was somewhere around 99 to 100 percent of plastic wraps tested positive for estrogenic activity.
AG: And where does the EPA come down when you question them about when they’re going to be regulating some of this, in the way that they regulated BPA?
MB: Well, the EPA still does not regulate BPA. The FDA — the FDA banned BPA in sippy cups and bottles at the request of the industry. So — and they still — the agency still insists that BPA is safe. So the industry asked the FDA to ban it, because they wanted to reassure parents that their products are safe. There has been no meaningful regulation of any of these chemicals, with the exception of phthalates. And in the case of the EPA, they have a program which was supposed to screen these 80,000 chemicals for what’s called endocrine disruption. So, endocrine-disrupting chemicals are chemicals that mimic hormones, like BPA. And they — this was supposed to be at least partially done by 2000. They still haven’t fully vetted a single chemical. So the industry has managed to throw stumbling blocks in their path. And delay is the name of the game, essentially, sowing doubt and delay. So —
AG: And how much does the plastic in water bottles and juices leach into the water and the juices?
MB: PET or PETE, which is most commonly used for water bottles, is — I believe 75 percent of samples in Bittner’s study leached estrogenic activity. There is another study performed by a scientist in Germany which also found that this particular type of product was estrogenic. So, it seems, based on the available evidence, that many or most of these bottles leach estrogen.
AG: And the longer the bottle of water you buy sits, is the water becoming increasingly contaminated?
MB: Well, there are certain factors that increase the risk of these chemicals being released. So, exposure to UV rays, heat, if they’re put in a dishwasher, these are the things that are known to increase — increase the risks that these chemicals leach out of plastics. So, with reusable plastics, in particular, this is a concern. If you boil them, if you put them in your dishwasher, if you leave them in your car, that causes plastics to break down, and it’s more likely that estrogenic chemicals will leak into whatever those containers contain.
AG: Well, Mariah Blake, we want to thank you for your research, staff reporter with Mother Jones magazine. Her story is just out in the new issue; it’s called “The Scary New Evidence on BPA-Free Plastics: And the Big Tobacco-Style Campaign to Bury It.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. You can also follow her on Twitter. Later today, she’ll be doing a Twitter chat with readers.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
|March 3, 2014|
|America isn’t just becoming more economically unequal. America is becoming more economically segregated. New national numbers on this segregation have just emerged, and we take a look at this fresh data in this week’s Too Much.
But sometimes we need local anecdotes to really make national trends come alive. Here’s one: In San Francisco today, not one single home or apartment is currently on sale at a price an average local public school teacher can afford.
What’s driving this incredible mismatch? Inequality, of course. Deep pockets spending lavishly on housing are driving up San Francisco home prices. These deep pockets see no particular need to support local public schools. With shrinking local support, San Francisco teacher paychecks are shrinking, too.
Could tax reform reverse the wealth concentration that triggers all these discouraging dynamics? Congress now has a brand-new — and rather surprising — tax reform package now pending. We explore it below.
A technical note: We’ve just switched to a new email delivery service for Too Much, and a transition snafu left some readers missing our last two issues. Our apologies! Please check our Too Much archive for all past issues. Thank you!
|GREED AT A GLANCE|
|Airlines chasing after well-heeled flyers are now offering a goodie that goes far beyond king crab and Grande Cuvee: plenty of distance from the peasants who have to fly coach. To give first-classers “an almost private jet-like experience,” airlines like United and Delta have set up first-class only private airport suites and now drive high-end passengers from one gate to another in luxury cars. Lufthansa has an entire special first-class terminal in Frankfurt. Gulf Air continues the extra-special treatment with on-board first-class chefs. The aroma from the fine cuisine these chefs are cooking sometimes drifts out into coach class, notes air travel expert Henry Harteveldt, just another reminder to squeezed coach passengers how “unimportant as a traveler” the airline considers them to be . . .
The latest trend in luxury real estate: “iceberg extensions.” Global billionaires are thinking iceberg, reporter Patrick Gower observed last week, because the mansions they covet in neighborhoods like London’s Knightsbridge simply “lack the space and amenities the richest homeowners expect.” So those rich are digging deep into their pockets — and underground — to expand regal homes with multi-floor giant basements. London’s current iceberg king: telecom magnate John Caudwell. He recently won approval for an underground extension that will connect his two Mayfair manses. The 10,000 square-foot extension — four times the size of a typical U.S. home — will boast a games room, plant room, media room, kitchen, pool, sauna, and car lift. His new digs, realtors are estimating, will be worth $250 million . . .
Have communists seized the International Monetary Fund, modern capitalism’s go-to institution for enforcing market “discipline”? Policy wonk Howard Schneider raised that tongue-in-cheek possibility in the Washington Post last week after the IMF released a “staff discussion note” that skewers conservative orthodoxy on taxing the rich. Such taxes, this orthodoxy holds, turn economies into sluggish basket cases. But the new IMF research — the first ever to incorporate pre- and post-tax data from a broad swatch of nations — concludes that taxing the rich has a “generally benign” impact. The new IMF findings, says one Canadian analysis, will boost policy makers “who regard high levels of income inequality as not only a moral stain on society but also economically unsound.”
Quote of the Week
“I consider income inequality the most dangerous part of what’s going on in the United States. You can see the deteriorating impact of that on our current political system, and you cannot talk about politics without talking about its impact on the economy.”
|PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK|
|The CEO of a luxury company that markets $800 sequined dresses and $250 clutches believes that America’s 99 percent should stop bellyaching about the 1 percent — and realize that they’re wealthy, too. Enough “woe is me, woe is us,” Nicole Miller CEO Bud Konheim exclaimed on CNBC last month. Insisted the chief exec: “We’ve got a country that the poverty level is wealth in 99 percent of the rest of the world.” Someone making $35,000 year, added Konheim, “the guy is wealthy” in “China, anyplace.” Konheim’s tirade, says the Yale business school’s Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, “shrieks of insensitivity and grandiosity.” Serendipity, Sonnenfeld goes on, figures in every CEO’s individual success. One percenters like Konheim need “to have the humility to recognize that.”||
|IMAGES OF INEQUALITY|
Carson the butler and all the rest of the servants in the 1920s Britain the hit TV series Downton Abbey so vividly portrays lived in a society slightly “less unequal” than today’s United States, says economist Peter Lindert, the author of a new National Bureau of Economic Research study. Adds MarketWatch analyst Brett Arends: “Half of our country are just like Daisy the kitchen maid or Thomas the scheming footman a hundred years ago. They basically have nothing.”
Compare Your Country/ Are Americans overtaxed? You can use this interactive OECD online tool to compare actual tax burdens, on everything from personal income to corporate profits, for any developed nations.
|PROGRESS AND PROMISE|
|Fix the Debt, the faux “grassroots” lobby, is “shedding staff and going into hibernation,” in a major defeat, says Institute for Policy Studies analyst Sarah Anderson, for the corporate CEOs behind it. Fix the Debt began arguing two years ago that only tax breaks for business and cuts to Social Security could ensure “our economic survival.” But think tanks like IPS revealed that Fix the Debt CEOs were using tax havens to avoid billions in corporate taxes — and sitting on personal pension windfalls. Real grassroots groups like National People’s Action then highlighted Fix the Debt’s core hypocrisy at anti-austerity protests the nation over. Says Anderson: “Through creative jujitsu, non-moneyed interests can turn extreme wealth and privilege into an extreme liability.”||
From Ghent in Belgium to California’s Santa Rosa, citizens worldwide are organizing “Sharefests” to kickstart local sharing efforts. Learn more and launch a Sharefest in your community.
|inequality by the numbers|
Stat of the Week
The top exec at private equity powerhouse Apollo Global, Leon Black, collected $369 million in dividends in 2013 from the Apollo stock he owns. Over the course of last year, notes Bloomberg News, Black took in from his dividends “every 21 minutes what a worker on the federal minimum wage earns in a year.”
A Tax Turnabout in the Ranks of the Right
A prominent conservative in Congress has released a tax reform package that actually will not leave the rich significantly richer. Should we be grateful for small blessings — or suspicious? Or both?
The two cousins who run the private equity giant KKR, required disclosures revealed last week, together took home an astounding $327 million in 2013.
Even more astounding: Analysts expect that the top execs at two of KKR’s biggest private equity rivals, Leon Black of Apollo Global and Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group, will end up with considerably bigger 2013 windfalls than KKR cousins Henry Kravis and George Roberts.
The three biggest players at the Carlyle Group already have. William Conway Jr., David Rubenstein, and Daniel D’Aniello, news reports indicated last Thursday, will split $750 million for their 2013 private equity “labors.”
A hefty chunk of all these outrageously lush private equity windfalls comes via “carried interest,” Wall Street-speak for the cut that financial fund kingpins take on the profits they make on the money they invest for their investors.
Kravis and Roberts each pulled in $43.3 million in carried interest last year. Uncle Sam won’t get much of that. Taxpayers with carried interest income enjoy one of the most generous loopholes in the entire federal tax code.
Thanks to this convenient loophole, private equity wheelers and dealers face just a 23.38 percent federal tax on their tens of millions in carried interest, a rate well off the 39.6 percent rate on ordinary income over $450,000.
In other words, on every $10 million in carried interest that private equity and hedge fund masters of the universe collect, the carried interest loophole saves them over $1.6 million in taxes.
Will this situation ever change? Maybe. A surprising new “change agent” has just emerged. Representative Dave Camp, the Republican chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, last week proposed a tax reform package that would repeal the carried interest loophole.
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This same package includes a variety of other moves that progressive tax justice activists have been demanding for years.
Camp’s tax plan, for instance, denies corporations tax deductions on any annual corporate executive compensation that runs over $1 million — and also calls for a special tax on the assets of too-big-to-fail banks.
All these proposals represent an abrupt and rather amazing about-face from the “no-new-taxes” orthodoxy that congressional GOP leaders have robotically mouthed over recent years. Camp even describes his proposals with phrasing that Republican lawmakers typically dismiss as pure “rich-people bashing.”
“Stop Subsidies for Excessive Compensation,” reads the title that Camp’s official summary places over his proposal to limit how much corporations get to deduct off their taxes for executive pay.
“Today,” Camp’s description for this proposal continues, “Wall Street tycoons” are receiving “compensation packages riddled with special tax-exempt treatment — courtesy of hardworking taxpayers.”
A powerful Republican going after tax loopholes near and dear to “Wall Street tycoons”? This turn of events last week had veteran Capitol Hill observers scratching their heads — and searching for the catch. They found a bunch.
Yes, the Camp proposal does go after some longstanding loopholes that have funneled huge tax savings to America’s rich. But Camp’s tax plan also lowers the top tax rate on both individual and corporate income.
The Camp tax reform package drops the top personal federal income tax rate down to 25 percent from the current 39.6 percent. A surtax he proposes does bring that top rate up to 35 percent on “certain types” of family income over $464,000. But those certain types don’t include all capital gains and dividend income, the prime source of wealth for America’s super rich.
The loophole-plugging proposals in the Camp plan, for their part, turn out to have some leaks. Camp’s limit on how much corporations can deduct for executive pay only applies to a few top executives at each corporation.
Reform legislation introduced last year by Senators Jack Reed and Richard Blumenthal, by contrast, would apply a $1 million deductibility limit to all corporate power suits.
Camp’s tax reform package, economist Dean Baker points out, also leaves untouched the tax code provision that lets corporations deduct off their taxes the interest they pay on loans, the loophole that makes private equity wheeling and dealing so fabulously lucrative in the first place.
The Camp tax plan essentially gives America’s top income-takers a free pass from higher taxes — and, as a result, will make no dent whatsoever on America’s staggering levels of income inequality.
If the Camp tax plan becomes law, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates, tax bills for taxpayers reporting over $1 million in income will actually fall slightly in 2015.
Affluents in the $200,000-to-$1 million per year income range, interestingly, figure to see a slight increase in their tax burden.
Should these affluents on the outside of the top 0.1 percent looking in be worrying about the Camp plan actually becoming law? Probably not. Both Republican and Democratic congressional leaders are declaring that Camp’s tax package has zilch chance of passage any time soon.
So why pay the Camp plan any attention at all?
One reason: The bill reflects the first crack in the GOP’s stonewall against undoing tax code provisions that tilt the wealthy’s way. Senior GOP legislative heavyweights like David Camp are clearly sensing deep public anger over an economic system that privileges the rich.
Astute conservatives are realizing they can’t afford politically to keep handing Wall Street blank checks. Something, they understand, has to change — if only for show.
But show can have consequences. Conservatives can’t call for ending subsidies for carried interest and executive pay and then holler when progressives push legislation that actually sets out to accomplish these same goals.
Representative Camp has pushed open a door. Advocates for greater equality in America now need to rush in.
Roni Bar, Who’s afraid of a maximum wage? Haaretz, February 25, 2014. Not this Israeli journalist, who’d like to see CEO compensation capped as a multiple of worker pay.
Leo Gerard, The Billionaires’ Scheme to Destroy Democracy, In These Times, February 25, 2014. The Steelworkers union president on one dollar, one vote.
Mark Bittman, Rethinking Our ‘Rights’ to Dangerous Behaviors, New York Times, February 25, 2014. Let’s prevent CEOs from getting super rich off products that cause premature mortality.
Bob Lord and Emily Schwartz Greco, The Way Forward: Tax and Spend, OtherWords, February 26, 2014. A strategy to reduce joblessness and inequality.
Dean Baker, Washington Post Complains that Bill Gates’ Riches Come at the Expense of Everyone Else, CEPR, February 26, 2014. Actually, this leading economist points out, the Post has once again done the reverse, blaming public workers for fiscal problems the 1 percent create.
Simone Pathe, A new study: How overpaid CEOs tank their firms, PBS NewsHour, February 26, 2014. CEOs who receive higher incentive pay display overconfident behavior, taking risks that undercut future returns.
Robin Hayes, Why Ivy League Schools Are So Bad at Economic Diversity, Atlantic, February 27, 2014. Elite schools should not be asking, “Why do we have so few low-income kids?” but “How do we have so many wealthy ones?”
David Ferguson, Bill Maher wants to give self-pitying billionaires something real to cry about, Raw Story, March 1, 2014. Like FDR’s 1942 proposal for a maximum wage.
James Surowiecki, The Mobility Myth, New Yorker, March 3, 2014. Why we need more talk about redistribution.
“Make room for The Rich Don’t Always Win on your book shelf right next to Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of America.”
|NEW AND notable|
The Best Look Yet at Corporate Welfare?
Phil Mattera, Subsidizing the Corporate One Percent, Good Jobs First, February 2014.
The good folks at Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, have been tracking the subsidies that state and local governments shell out to businesses — in the name of “job creation” — ever since 1998.
That hasn’t been easy. States and localities love to hand out our tax dollars to business. They don’t particularly enjoy keeping good — or even any — records on what those subsidy dollars actually achieve. So Good Jobs First has had to develop its own “Subsidy Tracker” database.
Findings from this database’s latest iteration appear in this new report, a stunning study that David Cay Johnston, the nation’s premiere tax journalist, is calling the “most thorough analysis to date of corporate welfare.”
America’s largest corporations, the new Good Jobs First study shows, are receiving the bulk of the subsidies that states and localities distribute. Fortune 500 companies alone have received $63 billion in handouts over the last two decades. And almost all the big names of Corporate America — from Boeing and IBM to Alcoa and Google — have been collecting our tax dollars.
Average Americans, in effect, have been directly subsidizing companies that need no subsidizing. Those excessive paychecks that go to the CEOs of these companies? Our tax dollars are pumping them up ever higher.
What can we do? We clearly need more transparency. Lawmakers need to require full and detailed disclosure of all the subsidies corporations are receiving.
The next step? We could make sure that any subsidies that do go out support jobs for average Americans and not paychecks for rich ones. We could — and we should — deny subsidies to any corporations that pay their top executives over 10 or 25 or even 100 times what they pay their top executives.
American CEOs in 2012 took home 354 times average worker pay.
Last week, in Washington, D.C., representatives from the AFL-CIO, America’s labor center, and Wagemark, the new Toronto-based campaign for wage decency, joined to discuss — you can watch the video here — how campaigns that leverage pay ratios could help change the face of our modern economies.
Let’s start that changing soon.
Popular Resistance Newsletter
There is something for everyone to do in this movement for social, economic and environmental justice. Here are four opportunities. We hope that if you are not already plugged in, that you may find ideas here. This movement needs everyone and that includes you!
We’re very excited to announce our latest project, CreativeResistance.org, a showcase for activist art. It is designed to spur your creativity and encourage you to incorporate art into your work in educating and organizing people. We’ve covered activist arts on Popular Resistance, but with CreativeResistance.org the many artists involved in the movement have a place to share work, find each other and inspire everyone.
One of the amazing things about the impact of art is that it hits people at a deeper level than facts and expert opinions. It reaches the heart and emotion; it creates unpredictable reactions as Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock describes and new ways of seeing the reality around us. Art can be transformative in ways other tools can’t. As Tatiana Makovkin, one of the people responsible for CreativeResistance.org says, “The nonverbal emotional messages embedded in symbols, color, melody and rhythm, are intuitively received. Creativity is outside of control and ‘dangerous.’ The act of creating is subversive.”
You don’t have to be an artist to use CreativeResistance.org in your activism. The page is searchable by issue so if you are working on a specific issue – healthcare, corporate power, fracking, youth, racism and so much more – you can find great art specific to that issue. You can incorporate what you find into your writing, into memes for social media, protests or in whatever way you communicate. Art can sharpen your message and turn a protest into a spectacle action that can’t be ignored as the People’s Puppets of Occupy Wall Street and so many others have done.
And, as Tatiana says “Art breeds more art, and cross-pollination erupts in a volcano of inspiration.” We’d love to see a growing positive spiral of art in the movement for social and economic justice because we know it will increase the impact of our actions.
We also know that an art spiral will result in people coming together to make art. We’ve watched the beauty of monthly Art Builds in Seattle organized by our colleagues at the Backbone Campaign and others. Communities come together to make art that shows the vision of the future they want – a clean energy environment, everyone with access to healthcare, an end to war and poverty. When people make art together – neighbor to neighbor, parent with child – it creates community bonding and deep commitment to our work. Imagine community art builds across the country.
Please get involved, let people in your community know about Creative Resistance and urge artists to submit art. The site includes music, visual art, poetry, performance art, animation, puppets and protest signs.
We also want to make sure you check out the relaunch of our economic democracy website, ItsOurEconomy.US. The site provides fact-based analysis of the current economy and its shortcomings; and describes the potential of economic democracy, a new economy where people work together to solve community problems, wealth is shared equitably and people have greater control over their economic lives.
Economic democracy is sweeping the nation with increasing worker and consumer cooperatives, land trusts being put in place to provide affordable housing, new forms of money as people rethink how money is created and used and new decentralized sustainable energy systems as the country breaks the choke-hold of the carbon-nuclear economy.
It is an exciting time to understand the potential for a new economy based on democratic and human rights principles. We hope that ItsOurEconomy.US helps all of us to understand the potential for an economy that serves all of us and what economic democracy will look like.
So much of what we do is about justice. So many of the current systems related to finance, healthcare, jobs, prisons, global trade, elections and more produce unjust results. But, injustice also comes at the personal level. In recent weeks Popular Resistance has highlighted the case of Cecily McMillan, a New York occupy activist who was knocked unconscious by New York police and suffered seizures after she reacted to one of them brutally grabbing her breast from behind. We’ve highlighted the case because Cecily is now facing felony assault charges and a potential 7 year prison sentence, even though she was the one who was assaulted.
It is an absurd case that brings shame to the NYPD and we have been urging the New York district attorney to drop the charges. Many of you have joined us in emailing and tweeting District Attorney Cyrus Vance. If you haven’t, you can do so here. I hope you will share this page with everyone you know so we can continue to flood the DA with messages of support for Cecily. He needs to know people are watching how he pursues this prosecution.
There was some potential good news in Cecily’s case this week. Her lawyer, Martin Stolar who has handled many cases involving protests in New York City, filed a motion for the personnel file of the police officer involved. This is a motion that is usually routinely denied, but this week we learned that Cecily’s case has been postponed and instead there will be a hearing on this motion on March 19. The motion in this case is more serious because we already know about some unethical and abusive behavior by the police officer that undermines his credibility. His credibility is important because he is the sole witness to what occurred, of course, he is a witness because he is the one who abusively grabbed Cecily’s breast from behind.
We want to urge people to take action to help Cecily and get these unjust charges dismissed. Here’s what you can do:
- Visit the Justice for Cecily campaign website
- And, sign this Avaaz petition
Finally, here is a meme you can copy and share throughout your social networks. When you do, tell people to visit: http://www.popularresistance.org/drop-the-charges-against-cecily/ and urge them to join you in taking action for justice.
Finally, today is the one year mark for John Kiriakou’s 30 month term in prison. John is the only person in government to go to prison for the illegal U.S. torture program. He was imprisoned because he was the first to acknowledge the use of waterboarding by U.S. officials in illegal torture interrogations.
Prison officials have been mistreating him, punishing him for talking to the media and reneging on a deal to send him to a halfway house. When he talks to the media he comes back to find his cell has been torn apart by guards. His cellmate’s areas are also turned into a mess, and one cellmate suspects they are trying to turn the inmates against John with these actions. Now there are threats of “diesel therapy,” that is when an inmate is moved from prison to prison so no-one can contact him or provide support.
John needs our help. On this page we provide you with a model letter to send to the Bureau of Prisons protesting John’s mistreatment. And, we also provide John’s address so you can write to him.
We so appreciate the whistleblowers that risk their lives and freedom to get the truth out. This week Chelsea Manning received the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence given out by retired US intelligence officials. In response she put forward this acceptance statement that describes how the security state is undermining the Constitution. Another whistleblower, who won the award last year, Edward Snowden announced that Manning was this year’s winner in this video statement in which he criticized the increasing number of secret documents.
We also don’t want to forget whistleblowers Jerry Hammond whose ten year sentence feeds the flame of revolt; and Barrett Brown who is a journalist facing life in prison for reporting on Hammond’s released Stratfor documents. Finally, remember that Julian Assange has been living in the Embassy of Ecuador in London since August 16, 2012 to avoid charges that he fears could result in him being extradited to the United States to face espionage and other charges. We find ourselves regularly referring to documents published by Wikileaks in a great deal of our work. Wikileaks has produced more real news than all the corporate media in the United States combined.
There is so much to do at this moment in time. Our tasks include educating ourselves and others about what is happening and why, protesting and stopping injustice where we see it and creating alternative systems to meet our needs that are based on the values of the new world we are creating. Together we are making a difference.
Thank you for being part of Popular Resistance.
“You can either try to do your best as an individual, or you’ll have to somehow, together with others, fundamentally alter the existing social system.”
Global Uprisings interview series:
I: Mariam Kirollos — Fighting Sexual Assault in Egypt
II: Paul Mason — The Economics of Revolt
III. Paul Mattick — More Business as Usual
The following interview was conducted in December 2013 at Paul Mattick’s home in Brooklyn, NY. Paul Mattick Jr. (born 1944) is a Marxist theorist and philosopher. His latest book is Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011, PM Press). Brandon Jourdan is an independent filmmaker and media activist responsible, together with Marianne Maeckelbergh, for the Global Uprising documentary series.
This is the third in a series of interviews conducted with participants from the Global Uprisings conference, which took place during the weekend of November 15-17, 2013.
Brandon Jourdan (Global Uprisings): So looking now at this period of time since we last talked, there was this dominant narrative in the U.S. that the U.S. is in a period of recovery, really starting in 2009…
Paul Mattick: Yes, June 2009, [that’s] when the recovery officially began.
Brandon Jourdan: But that recovery has been fairly weak, I mean, unemployment may have went down, or at least unemployment statistics went down. But the crisis actually seems to have, quite a bit, intensified.
Paul Mattick: Yes.
Brandon Jourdan: Where are we at right now?—in regards to the political and economic situation… on a macro level? Is this crisis really over?
Paul Mattick: My guess was—I don’t like to dignify these things with the name of science or knowledge—but my guess was in 2008 that what we experienced then was the beginning of what would be a very long and deep depression, and I have the impression that that guess was correct. What’s very striking to me is that despite the fact that officially the crisis was to be over—was supposed to be over—and recovery was supposed to have begun by the summer of 2009, by now the consensus, even among normal orthodox economists, has shifted to a much more pessimistic position.
So, for example, Lawrence Summers, who was originally supposed to become the next head of the Federal Reserve, and who’s probably the most important and famous non-ultra-right-wing economist in the United States, produced a paper [in November] in which he said, “we are probably now in a period of long-term or semi-permanent stagnation”—which was a very radical thing for somebody like that to say. Of course, they don’t know much more than I do about what’s going on. They’re also just guessing, and extrapolating from the trends, and also they really don’t have an analytical point of view or theory which would allow them to do much better than guess. But I find it quite interesting and striking that—the extent to which the more realistic economists, the economists who are actually involved with policy, and are paying some attention to the numbers and to what the policy choices facing governments are, are rather pessimistic, and I find that interesting because—of course, I like it because it confirms my own view.
So I would have to say yes, I think we are in a continuing crisis which is not becoming less serious. For example, in the United States, there has been some decline in the unemployment numbers, but that is largely—as is openly admitted when this is discussed—due to the fact that more and more people are dropping out of the labor force. So as the labor force becomes smaller, the unemployment number goes—the percentage—goes down. But, to me, the most striking and fascinating information about the American economy is the rolling tide of bankruptcies: cities in California, Detroit—Philadelphia is on the verge of bankruptcy; and the bankruptcies are largely provoked, although not only provoked, by the inability of one major municipality after another to pay the pensions which they have promised to city workers and state workers. So there simply is not the money available even for the keeping of old promises to the population, much less to deal with the toll which is being exacted now by the continuing decline of the private capitalist economy.
Brandon Jourdan: At the same time, the social results of the crisis are still ongoing. We have, you know—now, I live in the Netherlands—but the Dutch king came out two months ago and said that they’re “ending the social welfare state” … which was ironic, because he’s getting millions of—
Paul Mattick: Not for him, necessarily—right.
Brandon Jourdan: So, the social effects are far from over.
Paul Mattick: No. The social effects are very far from over. That they are continuing to press the weakest countries: Greece, Portugal, Spain—and you can see in the United States, where the same processes are going on with the ongoing attempt to cancel—in fact, by law—the emergency extension of unemployment insurance has not been renewed. So, you know, even the most simple response to the crisis, which is to give people who are unemployed a little extra money for a few months, they are trying to stop [it]. So yes, I say that not only is the crisis ongoing, but the austerity policies, which have been put in place by all governments at this point, are being expanded.
One of the few exceptions was China, where you had an enormous expansion of credit to sort of create a construction bubble throughout the country and this has got out of control, and is now sort of coming to end, and as far as I can tell there is a great deal of anxiety internationally about the effects of this—the coming contraction in China due to the limitation of government spending, which of course was unable to solve the fundamental problem, which is due to the fact that the Chinese economy is basically an export economy, and dependent on the economy in other countries for its own continued progress.
Brandon Jourdan: What would something like the crisis in China mean for the global economy?
Paul Mattick: Well, probably in itself not very much, but it will mean a lot for the Chinese population which already has a rather high level of social conflict. And … Chinese projects do import a certain amount of machine tools and other materials from the external world—from Europe, from Germany—and also, they import a lot of energy from other parts of the world, and China is very dependent on energy exports in the form of oil and coal.
So a decline in the Chinese economy would have a certain dampening effect, but I think it’s not fundamental—the fundamental engines of the world economy remain the United States and Western Europe. And until those areas of the world emerge from the crisis, there will be no general upturn in the world economy as a whole.
Brandon Jourdan: You spoke quite a bit about this in your presentation [at the Global Uprisings conference]—how this crisis differs from other ones, in regards to sovereign debt, and debt in general—private and public debt. Can you tell me just a little bit about that?
Paul Mattick: To put it very briefly, there was the Great Depression of the 1930s, [which] really marked a turning point in the history of capitalism, as has been recognized by almost all commentators in one fashion or another. Not only was it an extremely deep depression which affected very large numbers of people all over the world, and which lasted for a very long time, and not only did the attempt to resolve it give rise to a World War which included the killing of 50 or 60 or possibly even 70 million people, but also—and this is part of the story of that war—it was felt by the major capitalist powers that the social upheavals occasioned by this very long period of depression and mass unemployment required government intervention into the economy on a hitherto unknown scale.
Governments had always, of course, supported capitalists by helping subsidize the building of railroads, and various kinds of schemes. But the actual intervention of the government as a major economic player—as an employer, as a supplier of funds to private industry—had not occurred on such a scale before the mid- to late 1930s. And of course the high point of this process was the Second World War itself, during which, for example, in the United States, about 50% of all economic activity was financed by the government: mainly work production. It was the war, and the government spending for war, which ended unemployment in Germany and in the United States, and curiously enough, after the war, it turned out not to be possible to completely retire the position of the government as an economic actor as had been planned. Governments were still very worried that the end of the war would bring a return of depression conditions, and so they were ready to maintain state activity. And they did—of course not on the same level as during the war.
But the role of the government in economic affairs never went back to the pre-Depression condition, and instead of returning after the Depression to another period of free enterprise, what we had was instead what came to be called the mixed economy of about 65% private capitalism and 35% state activity, and what is very significant is that they have not been able to retire—to get rid of the state’s role in the economy. And any attempt to do so had produced an immediate rise in unemployment—even today, when under the name of austerity, every government in the world is obsessed with limiting the growth of government debt, and limiting government spending. They are actually not really able to decrease the activity of the government in the economies of the major capitalist countries. They are trying to make a kind of compromise, which involves taking it out of the hide of weaker countries, like the European peripheral countries and of course the rest of the world—so that the austerity is being applied unevenly. But they are stuck, in a way—they’re somehow caught between the fear of really eliminating the role of the government, and at the same time being afraid that it might become even larger, which would threaten the continued existence of capitalism as a private free enterprise system.
Brandon Jourdan: So, all these more Keynesian left people who say, “What we need now is a ‘New New Deal’”—they are ignoring this kind of fact.
Paul Mattick: They’re ignoring this. David Harvey for example says, “We need a ‘New New Deal’”, but he doesn’t explain where the money is supposed to come from, because governments don’t have any money. They have to borrow it, they have to tax it, or they can just print it—which is another way of borrowing it or taxing it.
So, the governments themselves—which is to say, the various business interests that are represented by political figures in governments—understand that it would be very dangerous to return completely to a pure capitalist system. But at the same time, they don’t see the possibility of a “New New Deal.” I don’t even think that people would be against it. Don’t forget that Keynesianism was the official policy in the late 1950s and 1960s. By the end of the 1950s Keynesianism had triumphed. There was the famous remark of President Nixon himself, saying “We are all Keynesians now”. So Keynesianism was the official doctrine. It is no longer. The Keynesian economists and the left Keynesians should ask themselves: “Why is this policy, which was the official orthodoxy of every capitalist country in the world, no longer the acceptable policy?”
And, you can either explain it in terms of the kind of meanness or unpleasantness of politicians, or you have to explain it in terms of some deeper rationality which expresses the functioning of the system and an inherent limit to the expansion of the state finance and state-run section of the economy, if the private capitalist system is to continue. What strikes me as so interesting about this is that it’s the end of the enthusiasm for Keynesianism or the end of sort of free-flowing Keynesianism, and the turn to austerity is a kind of recognition of the inherent limits of the present moment of capitalist growth—that they can see on the one hand that it is the limit of growth which calls for Keynesian methods. But the limit of growth also means that you can’t apply them, because the money simply is not there; and a further expansion of government spending would mean really undermining what remains of capitalism.
Brandon Jourdan: And at the same point, there is this kind of failure of Keynesianism, but there is also this other element of the left which focuses on neoliberalism from the 1970s up until the present. But in this crisis, what is interesting is that [governments] are just kind of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks—I mean, there has been anywhere from a cut to certain social spending to, say, the nationalization of banks in, say, Greece and the Netherlands, to some sort of financial stimuluses.
Paul Mattick: Well, first of all, the people who run things themselves don’t really know what to do. They don’t really understand how their system operates, and they don’t know what to do. They have various recipes from the past, and then there are different national traditions: for example, in Europe, there is more social welfare spending; in the United States there is less—and the United States still doesn’t have a serious public health care system which every normal European country now has.
So, also, in some places you can nationalize banks; in the United States, you sort of nationalize the banks—I mean, the banks are basically functioning with government money, they just they don’t call it “nationalizing the banks,” and actually what you have is a kind of—you know—banks taking over the government. But it’s sort of the same thing, and it’s the same people. And you know, it sounds very exciting if you say “oh, well, the government is nationalizing the banks,” but the government and the banks are basically just the same people. So whether you call it a “bank bailout” or a “nationalization of the bank,” the essential thing is that the banks were not able to function, and they had to be rescued by public money.
And then, there are simply local differences that play out in the different political forms and structures through which this was accomplished. But essentially, whether it’s the Netherlands or the United States or Argentina, the process is the same: namely that collective funds have to be used to rescue the financial system which was no longer able to function on its own.
Brandon Jourdan: In some countries, there’s been a legitimation crisis—but, it has been kind of shallow. For instance, in Greece in 2011: at that point, it seemed like every element of society was sick of not just politicians. There was also a frustration with union leadership, frustration with capitalism in general in a more advanced way, I think, than some other countries I’ve been in. There was also similar developments in Spain. But now, there’s sort of, I think, this desire for a sort of social peace—a sort of burnout, like “oh, we haven’t accomplished anything.” What do you think about all these developments? Now there are these kind of “calls” for new political parties, which—whether they liked it or not, are basically a repeat of some of the social democratic parties (SYRIZA, etc). I mean, is it even possible at this period of time to really—for states to both give to the population and create growth? And when does it come a point where we actually have to say, “Well, it’s kind of fucked up that the economy has to grow 3% every year for this to be a functioning economy”?—despite whatever is happening with the environment, which you also have written quite a bit—that, despite what types of exploitation, makes it have this type of growth?
Paul Mattick: Well, you’re raising quite a few questions—which is normal, because they’re all very connected to each other [laughs]. So if I can take them apart a little bit, the first thing which you notice that struck me as very true and very important, namely—one interesting feature of the last, has been the general disgust with politicians, and with politics, with business as usual. And you can see that this is a reaction to the crisis, and to the inability of the politicians to do anything about it. So then, you know, the official story was first of all that capitalism was supposed to be good for everybody. It was supposed to keep growing, and the rising tide would lift all boats. But then if there were any problems, then the government was supposed to step in and take care of those problems.
First, capitalism did not keep growing, and the government has been unable to take care of the problems. So people suddenly discover that the economy is maybe not so great as a social system, and that the politicians cannot be trusted and are just a bunch of crooks—which in their hearts everybody always knew. I mean, anybody who pays any attention to politics knows, as the eternal folklore of modern politics has always held, that politicians are crooks—but people don’t mind it as long as they are getting something out of it. But when they no longer get something out of it, then they get angry at the politicians. On the other hand, since the various social movements that developed in response to this economic downturn have been unable to change anything fundamental in social, political, and economic reality, there are no forces in power which are in a position to act other than the various people who are striving for political positions.
The problem is that there are people who make a living as politicians, and there is nothing else for them to do but continue playing the role of political figures, and making promises, and having strategies and plans, and making coalitions, and when possible even accomplishing this or that, or putting somebody in jail from an earlier regime. So, the political charade goes on. And since there is no alternative that seems to make a difference, there is always a certain percentage of the population which will become interested in it. Sometimes it can operate on an extremely cynical level, like in the United States where you have this peculiar phenomenon of the ultra-reactionary Tea Party people, who are all financed by big business and Wall Street, and who are really only preoccupied with imposing austerity and cutting taxes for the wealthy—and really no other interest whatsoever—but who nonetheless can get some befuddled right-wing yokels to vote for them on the illusion that they are somehow representing the people against Washington and Wall Street.
So you can have a revival of social democratic ideals, but I think a true revival of social democracy is not possible, any more than a true revival of fascism would be a possibility, because both of those require the possibility of government spending, of Keynesianism—and that seems to me at the moment just not to be in the cards. There is no social power that has any force behind it which is interested in further expanding the role of government. The thing that is called neoliberalism—which is not as it claimed to be, a movement for the freeing of markets, because it is entirely dependent or largely dependent on the use of government forces and means to control and manipulate the economy nationally and internationally—but what it did represent was an attempt to utilize the governments to funnel social wealth to smaller and smaller portions of the population: to the largest corporations, to break down the social welfare systems, to ensure that the money at the disposal of the state gets circulated more completely to the top layers of society.
So this remains the dominant structure in politics and in economics, and I think it is extremely unlikely that any political forces able to fight that are going to arise. Because in order to do that, you would have to mobilize—actually mobilize people to take direct action. And I think there is today no political structure, no political organizations, which are interested in mobilizing the kind of energy which has appeared in the global uprisings of the last five years. It would be extremely dangerous to do so. No one is going to do that.
Brandon Jourdan: So when you hear these right-wingers … There’s this kind of rhetoric, that is sort of a joke, about big government, and getting rid of it, [but] actually the government hasn’t gone away (in the crisis)—
Paul Mattick: Oh no, it’s bigger than ever. It’s more directly now devoted to serving the interests of major multinational corporations. That’s more—it always was the major function of governments. But now, that’s sort of—almost their only function.
Brandon Jourdan: That, and policing.
Paul Mattick: And policing, which is the same thing, because—that’s to say, because you must control the population. You need a certain amount of social order. And you know, they’re very open about it. If you read OECD discussions on this question, they will say: “We cannot completely get rid of social welfare measures” because that would threaten what they call “social cohesion” or social peace, meaning: people will riot in the streets. So, they understand that the price of a certain kind of social order, of political passivity in the population is that you don’t let very large numbers of people starve to death in the streets. So they will maintain, as long as possible, a certain level of social welfare spending — although they try to contract it and, you know, make people retire later and make their pensions lower, and so on … But that’s what it’s about. So that … is the other side of policing. Those are the two sides of maintaining social consensus, social order, and social cohesion.
Brandon Jourdan: What do you think of the movements of the last few years? There’s been certainly a show of numbers … lesser here actually than, say, Europe or North Africa—but still, pretty widespread protests, occupations, proliferation of certain general assembly-type organizations—even some factory occupations. The real impact [of these movements]is that they have brought people together, they felt a temporary sense of power—only to be kind of crushed and rolled right over. What do you think about all this and what do you think that it really takes to kind of end such a globalized system like the one we’re living in?
Paul Mattick: Well, it will take much more action, much more serious, and much more long-lasting action. As you said earlier when we were talking, a one-day general strike is a symbolic occasion, and a very exciting one, and [it’s] always nice to see them happen. But to change a society you need a strike that goes on for a month, or a year, because it’s only under such conditions that new issues arise such as “how do we maintain the flow of food?”, “how do we maintain the flow of electricity and gasoline and gas?”, “how do we maintain the operation of public services?”—that means that the strikers then have to begin to reconstruct the social system on their own. And then you come to the point of actually facing the existing society with the attempt to construct new modes of social organization.
So, it’s very exciting, and it’s not just the people who are in those events who feel excited and empowered and free temporarily, but even just reading about them or thinking about them or hearing about them is very exciting and wonderful. But it remains true that none of these events actually threatens the basis of the existing social system, which is the division between the people who own the materials and means for producing and distributing goods, and people who have to work for them in order to earn the money to buy back a certain portion of their product. And unless that division—the division between the ownership and control of social wealth, and the activity of producing more social wealth—unless that division between those two groups of people is overcome, society will remain what it is.
And to the extent that it remains the society that exists, we will be faced—at least for the immediate future—with a continuing depression, with government-imposed austerity, and private enterprise-imposed austerity. So people will have to go much farther than seemed to them reasonable to go, in order to get beyond the existing situation. And that means encountering very high levels of violence from the state, as well as going against all of the training that people experience as they grow up, and which they learn to take for granted—the existing social system is natural and normal—and even to distrust attempts to change it. So people have to undergo an internal change in order to be able to confront the existing social system. And it’s that which I think is so important about these experiments and demonstrations and uprisings of the last year(s)—is that these are the beginning of people get[ting] the idea: “Oh, well, we don’t just have to put up with things as they are.” But they will have to go much farther in order to actually change something.
You can—if you just take one little example, like Egypt—you can, if you demonstrate enough, and you are willing to put up with enough people being killed, you can get rid of Mubarak. But then there’s the army. You know, fighting the army is another thing, because the army is willing to sacrifice Mubarak to restore [order]—they don’t care about him. It’s the army that actually runs Egypt, that owns the economy. And, so, then there’s a battle between a few families which are allied with Mubarak and the other families which are running the economy with the army, and they can let him go. But the next step, if you want it to go farther in Egypt, then you would actually have to take that ownership of the economic system away from the army. But then you have to fight the army—that’s not just going to Tahrir Square and demonstrating for a month. Then you have to be ready to fight the army, and you may not even be able to do that if you’re just Egyptians. You know, maybe that’s something which can only happen in the context of a much larger social upheaval, not just in the Middle East, but in Europe. It would provide a context in which the Egyptian population would be able to oppose the military forces that are running Egypt.
Brandon Jourdan: [Switching topics] Your father was very critical of the state capitalist economies that were developed under the guise of socialism in the 20th century, and was active in Germany, was a revolutionary, and there were these revolutionary explosions that happened around this period of time, before the end of World War One, and you think that any of these movements, now they could look back at these movements and see both inspiring ideas, but also lessons in history that should be learned—
Paul Mattick: Yeah—you know, I was thinking before, that one of the problems—for me, the big problem in thinking about radical change is that on one hand it’s so obvious: you can see the existing system is so irrational, so dangerous, so harmful. And, it would be so easy to change it from a technical point of view—not from a military point of view or, the problem of actually overthrowing it is a very complex and difficult one. But if you just think, “Oh yeah”, you could sort of begin to reorganize it in a more rational way, rather—it doesn’t take a great deal of thought to think how you would at least begin to do that. But on the other hand, if you look at the history of capitalism, there is almost no revolution—you know, there is almost no socialist history. I always think that labor history is one of the most depressing fields of study because it’s a story of endless defeats and endless lost opportunities and endless mistakes and endless delusions. And that’s why there are these sort of little beacons, like [flares], like, people still talk about the Paris Commune: an uprising of one city that lasted for a month.
Why do people still talk about, why do people still think about the Paris Commune in the 21st century? Because it’s one of the very few examples that there is of some kind of—for however short a moment—of the actual attempt to create a different social system. So in this rather miserable history, the period right after the First World War—in fact, the period that ended the First World War—is really an outstanding moment, because it demonstrated a number of very important things, particularly the German revolution. First of all, it showed that revolutions are quite independent of prior organizations of the traditional political sort—that the role of the major left-wing political party was, if anything, an entirely counterrevolutionary one. And the other side of this is that it showed that people have an enormous capacity to organize themselves and to spring into action, if they feel that on one hand their backs are to something that they experience as a wall, and secondly if they can see a way forward.
I mean, it’s quite remarkable that as soon as the movement began with the first mutiny of sailors in Kiel in 1918, it spread so rapidly that within something like two weeks there were ten thousand workers’ and soldiers’ councils throughout the entire country. They had overthrown the government, they were essentially running the localities, they were beginning to organize a new political and economic structure. Having spent years fighting for the success of the Social Democratic Party, they then voted themselves out of control of society and handed it over to the party who returned to society social life as normal. And that was a very terrible defeat. But what’s very striking about that period was the capacity of people to create completely new forms of organization, which were actually quite capable of organizing social, political, and economic life on the scale of a whole country. So that’s a really important lesson which I think is yet to be digested, and one thing that has made it very hard to digest was the simultaneous revolution in Russia, which was quickly taken over and liquidated by the victory of the Bolshevik Party which then became, with the crushing of the revolutionary movement in Western Europe, kind of the dominant voice of anti-capitalism.
And that then became sort of the—because Russia actually existed, there actually was an apparently communist system, a non-capitalist system functioning somewhere—that became then the beacon that everyone who was opposed to capitalism looked to, and that has distracted people for, you know, 80 years from really absorbing and utilizing the actual lessons of the revolutionary upheaval after the First World War. But if we now go back to that, now that—you know, now that communism is dead and buried—it may be possible to go back and look again at that history, and draw some lessons from it. Again, we live in a very different world, so you can’t copy it. You could not reproduce those events today and you can’t reproduce exactly those forms of organization, but what you can see is the enormous capacity of people to create a new structure of social organization that was really quite capable of toppling a well-founded regime, of bringing the war to the end, and of altering daily life—you know, practically from one week to the next in extremely fundamental ways.
Brandon Jourdan: The one thing that strikes me about these little uprisings, you know—when we were doing our project we decided to call it “uprisings,” we weren’t going to call it “revolutions” or anything like that—people can actually shift their ideas and ways of thinking pretty fast.
Paul Mattick: Yes.
Brandon Jourdan: I mean, of course they don’t create new social relationships immediately. There is no sort of externality to capitalism—there’s not really like a real autonomous zone. It can be autonomous and independent yet subservient to the laws of capital. When they want to push it aside, unless you become something big. Can you talk a little bit more about that—the ability of people to transcend? And you talked a little bit about this in your book: about that people can persevere in pretty harsh situations and people can kind of create different forms of life when they’re forced in the position to.
Paul Mattick: Well, again, you know, we don’t have that much experience of it. But I think the main thing you said is really important, which is: it is amazing how rapidly people can change. You know, I remember this even from relatively unimportant examples of this, but thinking of going to a, say, a meeting at a college around 1970 when the American students’ strike against the expansion of the Vietnam war into Cambodia was going on. And a discussion would start in the morning with one or two people saying: “Oh, maybe we should join the strike”—and two hours later, everybody would be involved in it. And it would be quite striking that the discussion would get more and more radical, and people would then begin thinking of things that they could do, and be rushing out to start making projects.
So I think it’s absolutely true that people are ready to—people are able to change very quickly, and it’s probably because people have a lot of resources for creative thought and feeling which are stifled and not utilized in the existing social system. This is something which is always argued, particularly by anarchists who talk about the revolutionary process. And in my experience with that situation, it seems to be true. The other main class of experiences that bear on this are the ones that Rebecca Solnit talks about in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, which is the response of people to natural disasters, where again, typically, you know, so-called “regular people”—which just means whoever happens to be living there—very often respond to disasters by starting to take care of other people, and creating help centers, and cooking food, and building buildings, and people always experience these events as exciting and fulfilling—the best times they ever had in their lives.
So it’s clear that the existing social life is one which is stunting, which does not fulfill some aspect of human personality, which wants to live socially and do things together with other people—and that people will respond to emergency situations in which normal life simply can’t go on, whether because there was an earthquake or a fire or a war which is just hammering them to death—and that in these situations they are able to very quickly start behaving in new ways. And something which is noted by people over and over in every kind of revolutionary or uprising situation, as well as in sort of normal economic or natural disasters, [is] the capacity of people to begin to reconstruct. But then, there always comes the moment where you come up against the limits of the existing social system. For example, one of the interesting features of people’s response to disasters is that authorities immediately begin trying to dismantle all of these self-help organizations. And of course, in more politically radical situations, in situations of uprising or revolutionary moments, of course the authorities are quite seriously involved in trying to prevent the generalization of attempts to create new modes of social life. Human history is not a very cheerful affair—but one of the reasons that I think it would be wrong to just give up or be completely depressed is what does seem to be the capacity of people to engage in a very active and spontaneous way in constructing new modes of social activity.
Brandon Jourdan: So, when you did your talks, and also in your books, you actually use the metaphor of the scissors, of the two blades. There’s one—there’s the constant economic crisis. The other thing is climate change. This was something not really talked so much about at the [Global Uprisings] conference until you sort of injected it. There were a couple of other people that wanted to talk more about this. Do you think that capitalism has any idea of what to do with climate change? I mean, you had—a few years ago, for instance—just a personal anecdote. I went to the COP15, the climate change conference in Copenhagen, and I remember doing a talk then about the sort of green capitalist menace that some of us were convinced, wholeheartedly, that this might be the way that they try to get out of the crisis—to create economic growth. And the fucked up limits of it—all the greenwashing campaigns and all the bullshit that was—sorry, I’m using all these strong words, but it’s just my feelings about it … it just seemed incompatible that any type of positive environmentalism could come from capitalism. And it seems doomed—
Paul Mattick: Yeah, I agree with that. They know what to do. They have to stop burning fossil fuels. They can’t do it. You know, they set limits, they have meetings, they have the Kyoto protocols, they, you know, and—they’re still struggling, and they haven’t even managed in the United States to have a, you know, a carbon taxing system or one of those cap and trade systems where you pay for the right to pollute—something which is already known to be completely ineffective because it has been tried in Europe. So, what they’re struggling for is something that they already know can’t possibly work. So of course they know what to do: they would have to stop burning coal, they would have to stop burning oil, they would have to go solar, they would have to completely change consumption patterns, they would have to completely retool the whole industrial system. They cannot do it, because somebody would have to pay for all that. There are trillions of dollars invested in planting equipment which are premised on this particular regime of energy. And you’re not going to be able to force those people to lose all that money. You would have to have some kind of enormous battle between capitalist entities, and at the moment, there’s no one who can see a way to make money with what are still very underdeveloped technologies.
So there was an article in The New York Times the other day that now the big oil companies are beginning to say: “Okay, we will eventually—they will force us to buy permits to pollute.” So they’re now putting that in their growth prospectuses; they’re putting that in their plans, so presumably that will mean that they will then charge more for energy. And they’re trying to figure out ways to deal with the fact that, politically, the governments will have to do something, and the thing that they will probably do, because it is the least harmful, is to have some kind of a carbon tax or have some kind of cap and trade system of pollution permits—which is already having very bad effects now because people are selling those pollution permits and the system is now [leading] to an increase in pollutants because of the international trade and the permits to pollute. But they see that’s the future.
So no, I don’t think that this is a—I’m sorry, because I think that this is a very serious and terrible problem from the point of view of the human race—but I do not see that they have the slightest chance of dealing with it fast enough, because this is now out there. The problem is that the time scale is actually rather short in which they would have to act, and it is very, very difficult for capitalism which is very disorganized, and which is very competitive, to get itself under control, so to speak, and try to deal with a problem like this. So I actually think that the ecological problems will simply become more and more serious, and this will also put enormous pressure on people in terms of simply the experience of daily life.
Brandon Jourdan: And the thing that capitalists tend to do—is that they offer these really bad solutions, like, oh, natural gas—
Paul Mattick: Then they poison the water supply everywhere and—earthquakes and—yeah. Of course, it’s not because natural gas burns cleaner; the real reason they do it is, there actually is natural gas and they have found a cheap way to get it out which will be paid for by somebody else over the next 50 years, and right now, because the price of oil is relatively high, and the price of coal is even higher than it was, it turns out that gas is cheaper. So now they can make more money with gas. That’s all it is.
Brandon Jourdan: And there’s always these short-term solutions.
Paul Mattick: They have only short-term solutions. They cannot think in a long term way because the money has to be made in the short term.
Brandon Jourdan: I can’t really remember—oh, so there was, really, one kind of fun moment for me at the conference was in the Q&A, when you were asked: “What do we have to do?”—and so I’m just going to ask you that again.
Paul Mattick: The question was what would I like to see happen—and my answer was the abolition of wage-labor and the destruction of the state, which is of course a kind of a flippant answer. But what I mean to say is that I really think there is no solution to these problems, but one which is as fundamental as that. Now it seems like a weirdly old-fashioned thing to say, but that might just be because of my age, maybe now for many younger people it isn’t old-fashioned anymore: to say, “You really have to get rid of capitalism. Capitalism cannot deal with these problems.” Even if capitalism manages to grow again, I do not think that the economy will be able to grow at a rate which will make possible high enough employment levels to sort of afford lives to people that workers got used to in the developed countries in the 1950s and 60s and even 70s. So I think from the economic point of view, the medium- and long-term perspectives are very bleak, and I think from the ecological point of view, the medium- and long-term perspectives are catastrophic, and there simply is no possibility to get out of this without actually changing the social system.
And that means that you must end the ownership and control of the productive system on which human life depends by that minority of humans who control it, and for whom everybody else has to work if they are lucky enough to be able to do so. There is no way out of it. So that’s why, when somebody said at the conference “But what, short of that, could you do?”, the only thing that I could think of to say was: then you have to try to get a job, because other than that you have to survive as well as you can. Those are the choices: either on an individual basis or on a national basis or a group basis, you know, if you are white people, or men, or Europeans, or Northern Europeans, you can try—maybe you can do better than some other group. Or as a particular individual, you might be able to live better than another individual. So you can try to do as best as you can for yourself as an individual, or you have to somehow, together with other people, fundamentally alter the existing social system. And by alter, I mean really destroy it and create a new system: a system of a radically different type, which would be based on the collective democratic control of the interaction of human beings with nature—that the economists call “production”, but which you could also call the “daily life.”
Brandon Jourdan: But I think there is kind of a period of time that is exciting. Within these insurrections or uprisings or protests there have not been real clear examples of a new world, but there’s sort of like a—I think it was a term in the Spanish Civil War—a kind of “revolutionary gymnastics”, which you kind of go through these real social explosions, you develop new ideas…
Paul Mattick: Well, you know, it doesn’t look like they’re going to just sort of peter out—and that’s because nothing is really changing. So people get tired—you know, it’s very interesting, if you look at a country like France, you had a few years ago a lot of energy, and high school strikes, and unemployment demonstrations, and high school teachers were fighting when they were cutting schools, and parents were occupying the schools because they were firing teachers. So then that all just sort of—you know, then people felt “Oh god! Nothing—we’re not getting anywhere.” Then it just sort of dies down. But in the meantime, of course, now things are gradually getting even worse. So it seems to me quite expectable that in the future these things will break out again.
So, it’s possible that if this continues, then people will, through these experiences, both learn of their unwilling discovery, of their own unwillingness simply to put up with the shit, discover their ability to make some kind of effort to protest, and discover the limits of protest, and then people will be faced with the choice: either we have to go farther, we have to go very far in a very radical direction, or we just have to give up. Once people are beginning to act, it’s harder for them to just give up.
How “Thou Shalt Not” Became “Thou Shalt”
In January 2009, Barack Obama entered the Oval Office projecting idealism and proud to be the constitutional law professor devoted to turning democratic principles into action. In his first weeks in office, in a series of executive orders and public statements, the new president broadcast for all to hear the five commandments by which life in his new world of national security would be lived.
Thou shalt not torture.
Thou shalt not keep Guantanamo open.
Thou shalt not keep secrets unnecessarily.
Thou shalt not wage war without limits.
Thou shalt not live above the law.
Five years later, the question is: How have he and his administration lived up to these self-proclaimed commandments?
Let’s consider them one by one:
1. Thou Shalt Not Torture.
Here, the president has fared best at living up to his own standards and ending a shameful practice encouraged and supported by the previous administration. On his first day in office, he ordered an end to the practice of torture, or as the Bush administration euphemistically called it, “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs), by agents of the U.S. government. In the president’s words, “effective immediately” individuals in U.S. custody “shall not be subjected to any interrogation technique or approach, or any treatment related to interrogation, that is not authorized by and listed in [the] Army Field Manual.”
No questioning of future terror suspects would henceforth be done without using standard, legal forms of interrogation codified in the American criminal and military justice systems. This meant, among other things, shutting down the network of secret prison facilities, or “black sites,” the Bush administration had established globally from Poland to Thailand, where the CIA had infamously tortured its captives in the Global War on Terror. With that in mind, Obama ordered the CIA to “close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and… not operate any such detention facility in the future.”
The practice of officially sponsored torture, which had, in fact, begun to fall into disuse in the last years of the Bush administration, was now to come to a full stop. Admittedly, there are still some issues that warrant attention. The continued force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo is a case in point, but state-sponsored torture, justified by law, is now, as before the Bush years, illegal in America.
The commandment banning torture has, it seems, lasted into the sixth year of Obama’s presidency — and so much for the good news.
2. Thou Shalt Not Keep Guantanamo Open.
On his first day in office, President Obama also pledged to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility, home at the time to 245 detainees, within a year. The task proved politically impossible. So today, the president stands pledged once again to close it within a year. As he said in his State of the Union Address last month, “this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” And it’s possible that, this time, he might actually do so.
In June 2013, the president appointed former Clinton White House lawyer Cliff Sloan as special envoy in charge of closing Guantanamo. After a long period in which the administration seemed stymied, in part by Congress, in its efforts to send detainees approved for release home or to a third country, Sloan has overseen the transfer from the island prison of 11 of them. He is now reportedly working to transfer the less than 80 remaining individuals the Pentagon has cleared.
But there’s a catch. No matter how many prisoners Sloan succeeds in releasing, President Obama has made it clear that he only means to close Guantanamo in the most technical sense possible — by emptying the current facility in one fashion or another. He is, it turns out, quite prepared to keep the Guantanamo system of indefinite detention itself intact and has no intention of releasing all the detainees. Those who can’t be tried — due, it is claimed, to lack of evidence — will nonetheless be kept indefinitely somewhere. Fewer than 50 prisoners remain behind bars without charges or trial until — as the formula goes — the authorities determine that they no longer pose a risk to American national security. Although the population is indeed dwindling (Gitmo currently holds 155 detainees), the most basic aspect of the system, the strikingly un-American claim that suspects in Washington’s war on terror can be held forever and a day without charges or trial, will remain in place.
In other words, when it comes to his second commandment, the president will be able to follow it only by redefining what closure means.
3. Thou Shalt Not Keep Secrets.
The first issue that Obama singled out as key to his presidency on his initial day in office was the necessity of establishing a sunshine administration. Early on, he tied his wagon to ending the excessive secrecy of the Bush administration and putting more information in the public arena. Bush-era policies of secrecy had been crucial to the establishment of torture practices, warrantless wiretapping, and other governmental excesses and patently illegal activities. Obama’s self-professed aim was to restore trust between the people and their government by pledging himself to “transparency” — that is, the open sharing of government information and its acts with the citizenry.
Transparency, he emphasized, “promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.” Towards that end, the president made a first gesture to seal his good intentions: he released a number of previously classified documents from the Bush years on torture policy.
And there, as it happened, the sunshine ended and the shadows crept in again. In the five years that followed, little of note occurred in the name of transparency and much, including a war against whistleblowers of every sort, was pursued in the name of secrecy. In those years, in fact, the Obama administration offered secrecy (and its spread) a remarkable embrace. The president also sent a chill through the government itself by prosecuting seven individuals who saw themselves as whistleblowers, far more than all other presidents combined. And it launched an international manhunt to capture Edward Snowden, after he turned over to various journalists secret National Security Agency files documenting its global surveillance methods. At one point, the administration even arranged to have the Bolivian president’s plane forced down over Europe on the (mistaken) assumption that Snowden was aboard.
After the drumbeat of Snowden’s revelations had been going on for months, government officials, including the president, continued to insist that the NSA’s massive, secret, warrantless surveillance techniques were crucial to American safety. (This was denied in no uncertain terms by a panel of five prominent national security experts Obama appointed to examine the secret documents and propose reforms for the NSA surveillance programs.) Spokespeople for the administration continued to insist as well that the exposure of these secret NSA policies represented harm to the nation’s security of the most primal sort. (For this claim, too, there has still been no proof.)
Before Snowden’s revelations about the gathering of the phone metadata of American citizens, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper evidently had no hesitation in lying to a congressional committee on the subject. In their wake, he claimed that they were the “most massive and most damaging theft of intelligence information in our history.” Certainly, they were the most embarrassing for officials like Clapper.
By 2014, it couldn’t have been clearer that secrecy, not transparency, had become this government’s mantra (accompanied by vague claims of national security), just as in the Bush years. One clear example of this unabashed embrace of secrecy came to light last month when that presidentially appointed panel weighed in on reforming the NSA. While constructive reforms were indeed suggested, the idea that a secret court — the FISA court — could be the final arbiter of who can legally be surveilled was not challenged. Instead, the reforms suggested and accepted by Obama were clearly aimed at strengthening the court. No one seemed to raise the question: Isn’t a secret court anathema to democracy?
Nor, of course, has secrecy been limited to the NSA. It’s been a hallmark of the Obama years and, for instance, continues to hamper the military commissions at Guantanamo. Their hands are tied (so to speak) by the CIA’s obsessive anxieties that still-classified material might come out in court — either the outdated information al-Qaeda figures detained for more than a decade once knew or evidence of how brutally they were tortured. Perhaps the most striking example of government secrecy today, however, is the drone program. There, the president continues to insist that the Justice Department documents offering “legal” authorization and justification for White House-ordered drone assassinations of suspects, including American citizens, remain classified, even as administration officials leak information on the program that they think will make them look justified.
On the commandment against secrecy, then, the president has decidedly and defiantly moved from a shall-not to a shall.
4. Thou Shalt Not Wage War Without Limits.
At the outset of Obama’s presidency, the administration called into question the notion of a borderless battlefield, aka the globe. He also threw into the trash heap of history the Bush administration’s term “Global War on Terror,” or GWOT as it came to be known acronymically.
This January, in his State of the Union address, the president stated his continued aversion to the notion that Washington should pursue an unlimited war. He was speaking by now not just about the geography of the boundless battlefield, but of the very idea of warfare without an endpoint. “America,” he counseled, “must move off a permanent war footing.” Months earlier, in speaking about the use of drone warfare, the president had noted his commitment to pulling back on the use of force. “So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the [Authorization for the Use of Military Force’s] mandate.”
Despite the president’s insistence on placing limits on war, however, his own brand of warfare has helped lay the basis for a permanent state of American global warfare via “low footprint” drone campaigns and special forces operations aimed at an ever morphing enemy usually identified as some form of al-Qaeda. According to Senator Lindsey Graham, the Obama administration has already killed 4,700 individuals in numerous countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. It has killed four U.S. citizens in the process and is reportedly considering killing a fifth. The president has successfully embedded the process of drone killings in the executive branch in such a way that any future president will inherit them, along with the White House “kill list” and its “terror Tuesday” meetings. Unbounded global war is now part of what it means to be president.
On the commandment against waging limitless war, then, the president has visibly failed to comply with his own mandate.
5. Thou Shalt Not Live Above the Law
At the outset of his presidency, Obama seemed to hold the concept of accountability in high regard. Following the spirit of his intention to ban torture, his attorney general, Eric Holder, opened an investigation into the torture policies of the Bush years. He even appointed a special prosecutor to look into CIA interrogation abuses. Two years later, though, all but two of the cases were dropped without prosecution. In 2012, the final two cases, both involving the deaths of detainees, were dropped as well on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence “to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.” Nor was there any appetite inside the administration for prosecuting the Bush-era Justice Department lawyers who had drafted the “torture memos” providing the bogus justifications for applying torture techniques such as waterboarding in the first place.
Not punishing those who created and applied the policy was clearly a signal that no acts committed as part of the war on terror and under the rubric of national security would ever be prosecuted. This was, in its own way, an invitation to some future presidency to revive the torture program. Nor have its defenders been silenced. If torture had been considered truly illegal, and people had been held accountable, then perhaps assurances against its recurrence would be believable. Instead, each and every time they are given the chance, leading figures from the Bush administration defend the practice.
In former CIA Director Michael Hayden’s words, “the fact is it did work.” Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, has underscored this message: “Dick Cheney is right. The CIA interrogation program did produce valuable intelligence that stopped attacks and saved lives.”
While the case against the torturers was dropped, a potentially shocking and exhaustive analysis of CIA documents on the “enhanced interrogation program,” a 6,000 page report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is still tangled up in administration secrecy rules and regulations (see Commandment 2), despite innumerable requests for its release. Supposedly the report claims that the torture program did not work or fulfill any of the claims of its supporters.
In other words, the absence of accountability for one of the most egregious crimes committed in the name of the American people persists. And from drone killings to NSA surveillance policies, the Obama administration has continued to support those in the government who are perfectly ready to live above the law and extrajudicially.
On this commandment, then, the president has once again failed to meet his own standards.
Five years later, Obama’s commandants need a rewrite. Here’s what they should now look like and, barring surprises in the next three years, these, as written, will both be the virtual law of the land and constitute the Obama legacy.
Thou shalt not torture (but thou shalt leave the door open to the future use of torture).
Thou shalt detain forever.
Thou shalt live by limitless secrecy.
Thou shalt wage war everywhere and forever.
Thou shalt not punish those who have done bad things in the name of the national security state.
Karen J. Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, is the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First One-Hundred Days, as well as of numerous articles on national security policy after 9/11, and a TomDispatch regular. Kevin Garnett, legal research fellow at the center, contributed research to this article.
Copyright 2014 Karen J. Greenberg
Is There Any Hope in an Era Filled with Gloom and Doom?
By Ira Chernus
Wherever we Americans look, the threat of apocalypse stares back at us.
Two clouds of genuine doom still darken our world: nuclear extermination and environmental extinction. If they got the urgent action they deserve, they would be at the top of our political priority list.
But they have a hard time holding our attention, crowded out as they are by a host of new perils also labeled “apocalyptic”: mounting federal debt, the government’s plan to take away our guns, corporate control of the Internet, the Comcast-Time Warner mergerocalypse, Beijing’s pollution airpocalypse, the American snowpocalypse, not to speak of earthquakes and plagues. The list of topics, thrown at us with abandon from the political right, left, and center, just keeps growing.
Then there’s the world of arts and entertainment where selling the apocalypse turns out to be a rewarding enterprise. Check out the website “Romantically Apocalyptic,” Slash’s album “Apocalyptic Love,” or the history-lite documentary “Viking Apocalypse” for starters. These days, mathematicians even have an “apocalyptic number.”
Yes, the A-word is now everywhere, and most of the time it no longer means “the end of everything,” but “the end of anything.” Living a life so saturated with apocalypses undoubtedly takes a toll, though it’s a subject we seldom talk about.
So let’s lift the lid off the A-word, take a peek inside, and examine how it affects our everyday lives. Since it’s not exactly a pretty sight, it’s easy enough to forget that the idea of the apocalypse has been a container for hope as well as fear. Maybe even now we’ll find some hope inside if we look hard enough.
A Brief History of Apocalypse
Apocalyptic stories have been around at least since biblical times, if not earlier. They show up in many religions, always with the same basic plot: the end is at hand; the cosmic struggle between good and evil (or God and the Devil, as the New Testament has it) is about to culminate in catastrophic chaos, mass extermination, and the end of the world as we know it.
That, however, is only Act I, wherein we wipe out the past and leave a blank cosmic slate in preparation for Act II: a new, infinitely better, perhaps even perfect world that will arise from the ashes of our present one. It’s often forgotten that religious apocalypses, for all their scenes of destruction, are ultimately stories of hope; and indeed, they have brought it to millions who had to believe in a better world a-comin’, because they could see nothing hopeful in this world of pain and sorrow.
That traditional religious kind of apocalypse has also been part and parcel of American political life since, in Common Sense, Tom Paine urged the colonies to revolt by promising, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
When World War II — itself now sometimes called an apocalypse — ushered in the nuclear age, it brought a radical transformation to the idea. Just as novelist Kurt Vonnegut lamented that the threat of nuclear war had robbed us of “plain old death” (each of us dying individually, mourned by those who survived us), the theologically educated lamented the fate of religion’s plain old apocalypse.
After this country’s “victory weapon” obliterated two Japanese cities in August 1945, most Americans sighed with relief that World War II was finally over. Few, however, believed that a permanently better world would arise from the radioactive ashes of that war. In the 1950s, even as the good times rolled economically, America’s nuclear fear created something historically new and ominous — a thoroughly secular image of the apocalypse. That’s the one you’ll get first if you type “define apocalypse” into Google’s search engine: “the complete final destruction of the world.” In other words, one big “whoosh” and then… nothing. Total annihilation. The End.
Apocalypse as utter extinction was a new idea. Surprisingly soon, though, most Americans were (to adapt the famous phrase of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick) learning how to stop worrying and get used to the threat of “the big whoosh.” With the end of the Cold War, concern over a world-ending global nuclear exchange essentially evaporated, even if the nuclear arsenals of that era were left ominously in place.
Meanwhile, another kind of apocalypse was gradually arising: environmental destruction so complete that it, too, would spell the end of all life.
This would prove to be brand new in a different way. It is, as Todd Gitlin has so aptly termed it, history’s first “slow-motion apocalypse.” Climate change, as it came to be called, had been creeping up on us “in fits and starts,” largely unnoticed, for two centuries. Since it was so different from what Gitlin calls “suddenly surging Genesis-style flood” or the familiar “attack out of the blue,” it presented a baffling challenge. After all, the word apocalypse had been around for a couple of thousand years or more without ever being associated in any meaningful way with the word gradual.
The eminent historian of religions Mircea Eliade once speculated that people could grasp nuclear apocalypse because it resembled Act I in humanity’s huge stock of apocalypse myths, where the end comes in a blinding instant — even if Act II wasn’t going to follow. This mythic heritage, he suggested, remains lodged in everyone’s unconscious, and so feels familiar.
But in a half-century of studying the world’s myths, past and present, he had never found a single one that depicted the end of the world coming slowly. This means we have no unconscious imaginings to pair it with, nor any cultural tropes or traditions that would help us in our struggle to grasp it.
That makes it so much harder for most of us even to imagine an environmentally caused end to life. The very category of “apocalypse” doesn’t seem to apply. Without those apocalyptic images and fears to motivate us, a sense of the urgent action needed to avert such a slowly emerging global catastrophe lessens.
All of that (plus of course the power of the interests arrayed against regulating the fossil fuel industry) might be reason enough to explain the widespread passivity that puts the environmental peril so far down on the American political agenda. But as Dr. Seuss would have said, that is not all! Oh no, that is not all.
When you do that Google search on apocalypse, you’ll also get the most fashionable current meaning of the word: “Any event involving destruction on an awesome scale; [for example] ‘a stock market apocalypse.’” Welcome to the age of apocalypses everywhere.
With so many constantly crying apocalyptic wolf or selling apocalyptic thrills, it’s much harder now to distinguish between genuine threats of extinction and the cheap imitations. The urgency, indeed the very meaning, of apocalypse continues to be watered down in such a way that the word stands in danger of becoming virtually meaningless. As a result, we find ourselves living in an era that constantly reflects premonitions of doom, yet teaches us to look away from the genuine threats of world-ending catastrophe.
Oh, America still worries about the Bomb — but only when it’s in the hands of some “bad” nation. Once that meant Iraq (even if that country, under Saddam Hussein, never had a bomb and in 2003, when the Bush administration invaded, didn’t even have a bomb program). Now, it means Iran — another country without a bomb or any known plan to build one, but with the apocalyptic stare focused on it as if it already had an arsenal of such weapons — and North Korea.
These days, in fact, it’s easy enough to pin the label “apocalyptic peril” on just about any country one loathes, even while ignoring friends, allies, and oneself. We’re used to new apocalyptic threats emerging at a moment’s notice, with little (or no) scrutiny of whether the A-word really applies.
What’s more, the Cold War era fixed a simple equation in American public discourse: bad nation + nuclear weapon = our total destruction. So it’s easy to buy the platitude that Iran must never get a nuclear weapon or it’s curtains. That leaves little pressure on top policymakers and pundits to explain exactly how a few nuclear weapons held by Iran could actually harm Americans.
Meanwhile, there’s little attention paid to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, right here in the U.S. Indeed, America’s nukes are quite literally impossible to see, hidden as they are underground, under the seas, and under the wraps of “top secret” restrictions. Who’s going to worry about what can’t be seen when so many dangers termed “apocalyptic” seem to be in plain sight?
Environmental perils are among them: melting glaciers and open-water Arctic seas, smog-blinded Chinese cities, increasingly powerful storms, and prolonged droughts. Yet most of the time such perils seem far away and like someone else’s troubles. Even when dangers in nature come close, they generally don’t fit the images in our apocalyptic imagination. Not surprisingly, then, voices proclaiming the inconvenient truth of a slowly emerging apocalypse get lost in the cacophony of apocalypses everywhere. Just one more set of boys crying wolf and so remarkably easy to deny or stir up doubt about.
Death in Life
Why does American culture use the A-word so promiscuously? Perhaps we’ve been living so long under a cloud of doom that every danger now readily takes on the same lethal hue.
Psychiatrist Robert Lifton predicted such a state years ago when he suggested that the nuclear age had put us all in the grips of what he called “psychic numbing” or “death in life.” We can no longer assume that we’ll die Vonnegut’s plain old death and be remembered as part of an endless chain of life. Lifton’s research showed that the link between death and life had become, as he put it, a “broken connection.”
As a result, he speculated, our minds stop trying to find the vitalizing images necessary for any healthy life. Every effort to form new mental images only conjures up more fear that the chain of life itself is coming to a dead end. Ultimately, we are left with nothing but “apathy, withdrawal, depression, despair.”
If that’s the deepest psychic lens through which we see the world, however unconsciously, it’s easy to understand why anything and everything can look like more evidence that The End is at hand. No wonder we have a generation of American youth and young adults who take a world filled with apocalyptic images for granted.
Think of it as, in some grim way, a testament to human resiliency. They are learning how to live with the only reality they’ve ever known (and with all the irony we’re capable of, others are learning how to sell them cultural products based on that reality). Naturally, they assume it’s the only reality possible. It’s no surprise that “The Walking Dead,” a zombie apocalypse series, is their favorite TV show, since it reveals (and revels in?) what one TV critic called the “secret life of the post-apocalyptic American teenager.”
Perhaps the only thing that should genuinely surprise us is how many of those young people still manage to break through psychic numbing in search of some way to make a difference in the world.
Yet even in the political process for change, apocalypses are everywhere. Regardless of the issue, the message is typically some version of “Stop this catastrophe now or we’re doomed!” (An example: Stop the Keystone XL pipeline or it’s “game over”!) A better future is often implied between the lines, but seldom gets much attention because it’s ever harder to imagine such a future, no less believe in it.
No matter how righteous the cause, however, such a single-minded focus on danger and doom subtly reinforces the message of our era of apocalypses everywhere: abandon all hope, ye who live here and now.
Doom and the Politics of Hope
Significant numbers of Americans still hold on to the hope that comes from the original religious version of the apocalypse. Millions of evangelical Christians seem ready to endure the terrors of the destruction of the planet, in a nuclear fashion or otherwise, because it’s the promised gateway to an infinitely better world. Unfortunately, such a “left behind” culture has produced an eerie eagerness to fight both the final (perhaps nuclear) war with evildoers abroad and the ultimate culture war against sinners at home.
This “last stand” mentality, deeply ingrained in (among others) some uncompromising tea partiers, seems irrational in the extreme to outsiders. It makes perfect sense, however, if you are convinced beyond a scriptural doubt that we’re heading for Armageddon.
A version of plain old apocalypse was once alive on the political left, too, when there was serious talk of a revolution that would tear down the walls and start rebuilding from the ground up. Given the world we face, it may at least be time to bring back the hope for a better future that lay at its heart.
With doom creeping up on us daily in our environmental slow-motion apocalypse, what we may well need now is a slow-motion revolution. Indeed, in the energy sphere it’s already happening. Scientists have shown that renewable sources like sun and wind could provide all the energy humanity needs. Alternative technologies are putting those theories into practice around the globe, just not (yet) on the scale needed to transform all human life.
Perhaps it’s time to make our words and thoughts reflect not just our fears, but the promise of the revolution that is beginning all around us, and that could change in a profound fashion the way we live on (and with) this planet. Suppose we start abiding by this rule: whenever we say the words “Keystone XL,” or talk about any environmental threat, we will follow up with as realistic a vision as we can conjure up of “Act II”: a new world powered solely by renewable sources of energy, free from all carbon-emitting fuels, and inhabited in ingeniously organized new ways.
In an age in which gloom, doom, and annihilation are everywhere, it’s vital to bring genuine hope — the reality, not just the word — back into political life.
Copyright 2014 Ira Chernus
Simultaneous uprisings are happening right now in the Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela and Northern Africa … meanwhile dozens of latent protest movements are bubbling away in Turkey, Brazil, Russia, Egypt, Iran, Canada, China and the USA.
We’re living through a revolutionary age. Some of it good. Some of it bad. All of it real.
Just like the world-splitting epochs that were ignited in 1848, 1917, 1968, 1989 and 2011 … today we have entered into an epic battle between the new democratic aesthetic and counter revolutionary fervour. The world is up for grabs like never before.
Faced with global warming, dysfunctional economics and secret corruption across the geopolitical spectrum, people have suddenly found the power to unseat autocrats, depose corrupt presidents, make stock markets plunge by 10% and bring cities and whole nations to a standstill. A new kind of governance is emerging, struggling to be reborn against the greatest of odds. And one thing that we know without a doubt is that people are sick of just voting and then waiting for four years or more for something to happen …
Sudden, spontaneous, bottom up, play jazz democracy is the meme of the year … watch out!