Sean Parker and the next generation of libertarian billionaires

Young, rich and politically ignorant:

A young billionaire adorably thinks he can solve Washington’s problems through centrism! Why our democracy’s a mess

Young, rich and politically ignorant: Sean Parker and the next generation of libertarian billionaires
Sean Parker (Credit: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes)

Those who own the country ought to govern it -Founder John Jay

That quote may be apocryphal, but the sentiment has been with us since the beginning of the Republic. I think we all know he wasn’t talking about that amorphous mass known as “the people,” don’t you? Much better for the real stakeholders of democracy to be in charge. You know, the people with money and property.

And it appears as though they got what they wanted. According to this blockbuster study from Martin Gilens and Benjamin Gage, the fact that the people sometimes have their policy preferences enacted is purely a matter of coincidence: It only happens if it happens to coincide with the preferences of the wealthy. If not, we’re just out of luck. The practical result of that is that while the wealthy might view certain issues along progressives lines, such as gay rights or maybe even gun control, it’s highly unlikely they will ever allow us to get too far out on the egalitarian limb. They tend to draw the line at anything that affects their own interest. And that interest is to keep most of the money and all of the power within their own control, regardless of whether they see themselves as liberals or conservatives.

Take, for instance, what Thomas Frank in this piece astutely described as liberal Mugwumpery, the “reformist” strain among aristocrats in which they take it upon themselves to reform the state and better the characters of the lower orders. Yes, they may want to clean up government corruption and coerce the “unhealthy” to change their ways, whether through temperance or prohibition, but they cannot be counted upon to fully engage on issues that infringe on their own interests. Frank quotes historian Richard Hofstadter describing the “Mugwump types” of the 19th century:



[T]he most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses. As a rule, he was dogmatically committed to the prevailing theoretical economics of laissez faire. . . . He imagined that most of the economic ills that were remediable at all could be remedied by free trade, just as he believed that the essence of government lay in honest dealing by honest and competent men.

Frank applied that term specifically to Michael Bloomberg, who has pledged to spend $50 million to defeat the NRA, a worthy cause if there ever was one. As he points out, however, as much as this particular pledge might benefit the population at large, Bloomberg will also use his power to defeat anything that looks to directly benefit working people economically. Just as the Gilens-Gage paper suggests, as long as the billionaires’ interests align with the people, there is a chance it might get done. Where they diverge, it might as well be impossible. That is a very odd definition of democracy.

Not all of our wealthy warriors for liberal causes are as openly hostile to the economic reforms at the center of the progressive agenda as a Wall Street billionaire like Bloomberg. In fact, many of them are probably just unaware of it, as they are the scions of great wealth who are flush with the idealism of youth and simply wish to make a difference. These Baby Mugwumps have good intentions, but somehow their focus also tends to be directed at worthy causes that don’t upset the economic apple cart.

For instance, these nice young would-be philanthropists who were invited to the White House last week to share their thoughts on how to fix the problems of the world:

“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.

The well-heeled group seemed receptive. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt. His family’s Carlson company, which owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, T.G.I. Friday’s and other brands, is an industry leader in enforcing measures to combat trafficking and involuntary prostitution.

A freshman at Georgetown University, Mr. Gage was among the presenters at a breakout session, titled “Combating Human Trafficking,” that attracted a notable group of his peers. “The person two seats away from me was a Marriott,“ he said. “And when I told her about trafficking, right away she was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I want to do that.’ ”

Of course. Who wouldn’t be against human trafficking? Or limiting the proliferation of guns, either? But I think one can see with those two examples just how limited the scope of our patrician betters’ interest in the public good really is. Whether undertaken through the prism of their own self-interest or a youthful idealism born of privilege, it represents causes, not any real challenge to the status quo.

But what should we make of the latest audacious entry into the political arena? Sean Parker, Napster inventor and Facebook billionaire, announced that he’s jumping into politics with both feet. He’s not signing on to any specific cause or even a vague political philosophy. In fact, it’s almost impossible to figure out what it’s about.

One of the nice things about being a billionaire is that even if you have no idea about what you believe or any sense of how the political system works in theory or in practice you can meet with the actual players and have them explain it to you. That’s what Parker has been doing, meeting with politicians of such disparate ideologies as Rand Paul, Bill DeBlasio and Charlie Christ. I’m sure they all told him to put them on speed dial and to call day or night if he had any questions.

His plan, if one can call it that, makes the naive young heirs to the great fortunes look like grizzled old political veterans by comparison:

Unlike other politically-inclined billionaires, such as the conservative Koch brothers and liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer, Parker hopes to avoid a purely partisan role as he ventures more deeply into politics.

Having donated almost exclusively to Democrats up to this point, Parker made a trip to Washington in December for the purpose of meeting quietly with Republican officeholders and strategists around town. He plans to donate to both sides starting this year, associates say, for the first time committing big sums to aid Republicans he views as credible deal-makers in a bitterly divided Congress.

He’s not even a Mugwump. He’s just a mess. Apparently, he thinks he can “make Washington work” by financing a group of deal makers in both parties who will knock some heads together and get the job done. What, exactly, it is they are supposed to get done remains a mystery. Indeed, from the sound of it, it doesn’t really matter.

I have an idea for Parker. There’s a group of “activists” out there who are right up his alley. He could just buy their outfit outright and rebrand it to his liking. It’s called “No-Labels” and they’ve been flogging this idea of bipartisan nothingness for a very long time. For some unknown reason it just hasn’t taken hold with the public. But if anyone can market this dog to the public, the guy who made hundreds of millions for the singular advice to take “the” out of “The Facebook” seems like just the guy to make it happen.

According to the article, a battalion of opportunistic political consultants from across the ideological spectrum are already on the payroll and are going to make a whole lot of money from this quixotic venture, however it goes, so no matter what, I suppose he’s at least trickling some of his wealth down to lower orders. In the current political environment run by radical right-wing billionaires, Mugwumps and fools, that may be the best we can hope for.

Heather Digby Parton is a writer also well-known as “Digby.” Her political and cultural observations can be found at www.digbysblog.blogspot.com.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/22/young_rich_and_politically_ignorant_the_next_generation_of_libertarian_billionaires/?source=newsletter

Portrait of a modern-day plutocrat: Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle

http://static2.businessinsider.com/image/4fdb632c69bedd9e20000004-480/larry-ellison-with-a-gun.jpg

By Julien Kiemle
22 April 2014

Earlier this month, the data firm Equilar published its list of the highest paid CEOs for 2013. The report paints a picture of vast inequality, with extraordinary sums being paid to a tiny layer of the population. Pay for the top-earning 100 CEOs in the US increased by 9 percent last year, to $13.9 million a piece.

Topping the list was Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle Corporation, a man who exemplifies the social character of the ruling class and its manner of wealth accumulation.

Ellison’s total compensation for 2013 was $78.4 million, almost all of it in stock options. For the eight years that Equilar has tracked executive compensation, Ellison’s cumulative pay was $582 million, almost $83 million more than the runner-up, Tim Cook of Apple. His pay in 2013 was more than double that of the runner-up for that year, CEO Bob Iger of Walt Disney Company, paid $34.3 million.

Ellison’s pay was actually down $18 million from its high in 2012, perhaps a reflection of the slowing performance of Oracle’s stock. Ellison’s wealth consists largely of real estate, and his fortunes have been amassed primarily through the medium of the stock market—a practice that has become pervasive among the ruling class since the 1980s, and vastly accelerated by the policies of the Federal Reserve.

Indeed, Ellison is one of the intended beneficiaries of the Obama administration’s policy since the 2008 crash, which has consisted of making available an unlimited stream of cash to the financial system. The stock market has soared as a result, even as pay for the vast majority of the population has stagnated or declined, and unemployment remains at catastrophic levels.

Oracle Corp. is a developer of business software, such as supply chain management and enterprise resource planning, founded by Ellison and Bob Miner. One of the famed Silicon Valley startups, the company is now a tech giant, with revenues second only to Microsoft in the world of software development.

Ellison runs his company as something of a despot, even over its shareholders. Though Ellison himself owns only about a quarter of the company’s stock, their votes to roll back his pay package in two consecutive years were offered as nothing more than nonbinding suggestions, and promptly ignored.

Nominal management of the company has catapulted Ellison up the ranks of the super-rich. He is now the fifth-wealthiest person in the world, with a personal net-worth of about $50 billion. Ellison is a personification of the obscenity of contemporary capital accumulation, the object of a fawning media and his fellow aristocrats. A New York Times feature on the CEO recently proclaimed, “It is good to be the king. It is even better to be Larry Ellison.” In this they have surely not exaggerated.

Oracle’s CEO is well-known for his egomaniacal and costly pet projects. His recent sponsorship of the America’s Cup race in San Francisco at a cost of $100 million is a small expense compared with some of his previous undertakings, such as spending $250 million to buy up a third of Malibu.

In 2004 he commissioned a gargantuan custom “superyacht” for $377 million, and his 2012 purchase of the sixth-largest island in the Hawaiian chain, Lanai, was paid for with between $500 million and $600 million—cash. He continues to make changes and “develop” the island as a “model for environmentally sound living.”

Frugal in his own way, Ellison managed to cheat San Mateo County out of $3 million of property taxes by arguing that one of his mansions, an imitation of a Japanese Shogun estate, was “functionally obsolete” and worth hundreds of millions less than he paid for it. As a result, the public school system lost some $1.4 million in tax dollars.

Like many billionaires of his type, he gives freely to both political parties, including some of the most influential figures at the national level, such as Democratic Party House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and former Senator, now Secretary of State in the Obama administration, John Kerry.

Breaking down Ellison’s pay on the assumption of a 40-hour workweek means that the CEO makes more in an hour ($37,692.31) than a typical worker is likely to in a year—paying the much lower capital gains tax rate on almost all of it.

The tragedy of this spectacle hardly needs to be pointed out, when 12.5 percent of the globe’s population sits on the cusp of starvation. In the United States, Ellison’s home, a third of Americans experienced “poverty” in its narrow official definition between 2009 and 2011.

In a period when the most basic forms of assistance to the working class—food stamps, unemployment insurance, education, health care, nurturing of culture—are being systematically dismantled to free up resources for the accumulation of capital by the aristocracy of finance, the likes of Oracle Corp.’s “king” are the incarnation of reaction all down the line.

In the early years of Oracle, possessing a fortune several orders of magnitude smaller than today, Ellison invited the company’s co-founder Bob Miner to come along with him for a joyride on a hired fighter jet. Miner wrote back, perhaps more prophetically than he intended, “You obviously have far more money than you should. It’s things like this that caused the French Revolution.”

What goes for Ellison goes for the social layer of which he is a particular expression. Drunk on wealth, their relationship to society as a whole is fundamentally parasitic. They sit atop a social power keg—not unlike the aristocracy of the ancien regime. And similar causes produce similar effects.

Chicken Little and Inequality

Too Much
THIS WEEK
Folks who find themselves rich — and getting richer — typically tend to react psychologically in one of two ways. They can either see themselves as incredibly fortunate or incredibly deserving.

Those rich who come to see the luck in their lives also usually come to understand that they have no more talent — and work no more diligently —  than plenty of people who hold not much wealth at all. Those among the rich who see their wealth as a well-deserved reward, on the other hand, often come to see those without wealth as undeserving — of anything except contempt.

The latest sign of that contempt: The rush by localities to criminalize sleeping in cars. Communities where the wealthy predominate — like Palo Alto in Silicon Valley — have been particularly eager to do this criminalizing. Palo Alto last year had over 12 times more homeless people than available shelter beds.

We have housing meanness in America today. We also have housing madness. This week’s Too Much has a bizarre example of the latter. And lots more, too.

GREED AT A GLANCE
Last year’s congressional “fiscal cliff” deal raised the tax rate on ordinary income over $450,000 from 35 to 39.6 percent — and the tax on capital gains from 15 to 20 percent. On paper, taxpayers making over $2.6 million a year — America’s top 0.1 percent — should now each be paying about $232,000 more in federal taxes this year than last. In real life, many may not. The reason: Federal budget cuts have left the IRS, the Associated Press reports, with “fewer agents auditing returns than at any time since at least the 1980s.” IRS funding this year has dropped 7 percent. Last year the agency audited only 10.9 percent of taxpayers with over $1 million in income. This year’s audit rate, IRS chief John Koskinen acknowledged last week, will run lower. That will mean that “some people we should catch,” says Koskinen, “we’re not going to catch.”

Lee ScottThey pay Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer the big bucks — $24.9 million last year — to make the big decisions. Mayer two years ago decided to hire Henrique De Castro to overhaul her stumbling company’s operations. De Castro, Mayer led everyone to believe, “had a unique set of highly valuable skills and experiences.” Fifteen months later, after still more corporate stumbling, Mayer gave Mr. Unique the heave-ho. De Castro is walking away, Yahoo has just disclosed, with $58 million in severance. Shareholders seem none too happy about that. Mayer’s answer? To calm down anger over Yahoo’s executive pay giveaways, she’s bringing on to the Yahoo board H. Lee Scott Jr., the retired Wal-Mart CEO. In his last year as Wal-Mart’s chief, Scott took home $30.2 million, over 1,500 times average Wal-Mart worker pay . . .

For generations, the Guardian reported earlier this month, “fine dining” has meant “haughty waiters, hushed rooms, starched table linen, and endless interruptions to pour wine and water.” But celebrity chefs these days are going casual. At the UK’s uber trendy House of Tides, for instance, Michelin-starred chef Kenny Atkinson has “dispensed” with “hovering waiters” — and has diners pouring their own wine.  And no fancy-pants dress code either. Atkinson doesn’t mind if people come dressed in jeans: “Their money is as good as anybody else’s.” Any diners in jeans will need, of course, to bring plenty of the money Atkinson so prizes. His tasting menu starts at $92.

Quote of the Week

“Even in this era of extreme partisanship, broad bipartisan agreement supports an agenda that helps the wealthy — including austerity budgets, free trade, big bank bailouts, and policing the world. Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agra, the health insurance industry, and Wall Street deploy legions of lobbyists to make it clear that messing with them costs dearly.”
Robert Borosage, Populism? Where are the pitchforks? April 16, 2014

PETULANT PLUTOCRAT OF THE WEEK
Howard LutnickRecreation? Howard Lutnick, the CEO at high-finance power Cantor Fitzgerald, can’t get enough of it. The 40-acre Hamptons estate he bought back in 2003 — at a cost of $56 million — came with a swimming pool, spa, and tennis court. Lutnick moved quickly to add a basketball court and a barn big enough to house an equestrian team. But three different zoning and planning boards refused to grant the permits for Lutnick’s additions. The chief exec then sued the boards — and all their individual members — for $56 million in damages. Wall Streeters who frolic in the Hamptons every summer, one of those sued noted last week, “don’t like to be told what you can or can’t do.” Lutnick’s lawsuits, he added, amount to an attempt at “’intimidation plain and simple.”

IMAGES OF INEQUALITY
Huguette Clark mansion

Get the dust mops ready. This French-style chateau in Connecticut’s New Canaan has gone empty the last 60-odd years. But fashion designer Reed Krakoff has just picked up the 52-acre estate for a relative song, a mere $14 million. The manse went on the market after the 2011 death of the long-time owner, Hugette Clark, the 104-year-old copper heiress. Clark had bought the manse in 1951 as a refuge in case the Russkies ever threatened to drop an atom bomb on her Manhattan isle home. She never moved in. She never even furnished the place.

Web Gem

Populist Majority/ This Campaign for America’s Future site tracks poll data to show that Americans remember when we shared our prosperity and want that America back.

PROGRESS AND PROMISE
PayWatch siteWith vivid graphics and first-person worker testimonials, the 2014 edition of the AFL-CIO’s online PayWatch is putting some needed new pressure on executive pay excess. CEOs at companies listed in the S&P 500, the labor site calculates, took home 331 times the pay of average American workers last year — and 774 times the take-home of minimum-wage workers. The backdrop for this gap: Corporate profits in 2013 — for the nation’s top 500 corporations — averaged $41,249 per employee, a 38 percent jump over the profit level in 2008. If the minimum wage had kept up with top 1 percent income gains since 1968, adds the new PayWatch, minimum-wage workers would now be making $31.45 per hour.

Take Action
on Inequality

At the new PayWatch site, Americans working at major firms can compare their pay to their CEO’s compensation — and CEO pay in their state. Spread the word and help build the charge for a smaller corporate pay gap.

inequality by the numbers
real wages since peak years

Stat of the Week

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison leads the latest New York Times list of America’s most highly paid CEOs. Ellison makes more per second, notes analyst Deborah Meier, then the current federal hourly minimum wage.

IN FOCUS

Why Our Sky Sometimes Does Start Falling

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be able to demonstrate the link between inequality and catastrophic environmental change. But a little help from rocket scientists can certainly help.

The sky, we all learn as children, is not falling — and never falls. Only silly Chicken Littles prattle about “precipitous collapses.”

Only silly Chicken Littles, apparently, and applied mathematicians.

One of those mathematicians, the University of Maryland’s Safa Motesharrei, has joined with two colleagues to publish a new paper that sees the “precipitous collapse” of our global order as a distinct possibility.

In fact, the three conclude, that possibility will become a hard-to-avoid probability unless the world becomes a far less unequal place.

Motesharrei and his fellow researchers — University of Maryland meteorologist Eugenia Kalnay, a former Goddard Space Flight Center exec, and University of Minnesota political scientist Jorge Rivas — reached that conclusion after running “a range of hypothetical scenarios” through an innovative model developed with funding support from NASA, America’s space agency.

Scientists at NASA usually spend their time looking up at the heavens. The investigators behind this new study kept their focus distinctly earth-bound.

Sophisticated human civilizations, the three investigators point out, have in the past collapsed and on a fairly regular basis. The Romans broke down, as did the Han in China and the Gupta in India, the Maya in Central America, and a variety of Mesopotamian civilizations.

These collapses, Motesharrei and his collaborators note, naturally raise the question whether we today remain “similarly susceptible.” Or can our modern civilization, with all our “greater technological capacity, scientific knowledge, and energy resources,” survive whatever did in our sophisticated predecessors?

And what did do in these predecessors? In previous collapses, we see some similar patterns. The doomed societies overextended themselves environmentally. They depleted their natural resources at an unsustainable pace — and failed to see, despite their sophistication, the warning signs of their impending implosion. They soldiered on, oblivious to the danger.

Or rather, to be more precise, the elite movers and shakers of these societies soldiered on. In deeply unequal societies, elites seldom feel the strain and pain that environmental degradation engenders — until that degradation has gone too far to reverse.

This “buffer of wealth,” as the Motesharrei team puts it, “allows elites to continue ‘business as usual.’”

Could we go down the same clueless path? The Motesharrei study explores that question with “the first model of its kind that studies the impacts of inequality on the fate of societies.” Under conditions “closely reflecting the reality of the world today,” the study finds an eventual collapse “difficult to avoid.”

Difficult but not impossible. We can avoid collapse, the Motesharrei paper notes, if we reduce the “per capita rate of depletion of nature” to a “sustainable level” and start distributing resources in a more “reasonably equitable fashion.”

For specifics on what that would actually mean in practice, we need to look elsewhere. The new Motesharrei paper soars at a theoretical level and offers no practical roadmap to a more sustainable and equal society.

Other analysts have made that effort, no one more so than Herman Daly, the former World Bank senior economist now widely considered the founding father of ecological economics.

Daly and his colleagues have been calling for a “steady-state economy” that acknowledges the limits of our physical world. We can’t go on, they contend, endlessly depleting our stocks of natural resources and polluting the world with the wastes from our resource exploitation.

“We need,” says Daly, “to build the physical constraints of a finite biophysical environment into our economic theory.”

And into that theory, he adds, we need to build justice, too. This past fall, Daly spelled out ten specific steps that could help us push back against our current unsteady state. Among them: “Limit the range of inequality in income distribution with a minimum income and a maximum income.”

“Rich and poor separated by a factor of 500,” Daly observes, “have few experiences or interests in common.”

Maybe not even, the new Motesharrei study suggests, avoiding a cataclysmic environmental collapse.

New Wisdom
on Wealth

Matt Taibbi, The Super Rich in America Have Become ‘Untouchables’ Who Don’t Go to Prison, Democracy Now! April 15, 2014. Our income gap reflects a “justice” gap.

Susan Holmberg, The Pay’s the Thing: How America’s CEOs Are Getting Rich Off Taxpayers, Next New Deal, April 16, 2014. The price we pay for tolerating the performance pay loophole.

Robert Reich, Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, April 16, 2014. America is facing the same concentrations of wealth and economic power that endangered democracy a century ago.

Howard Steven Friedman, American Inequality: Ticking Time Bomb, Huffington Post, April 17, 2014. Plutarch had it right: An “imbalance between rich and poor” remains our most “fatal ailment.”

Floyd Norris, Merely Rich and Superrich: The Tax Gap Is Narrowing, New York Times, April 17, 2014. A step toward a tax policy less hostile to work.

Will Hutton, Extravagant CEO pay doesn’t reflect performance, it’s all about status, Observer, April 19, 2014. We now live in an era of “conspicuous executive pay,” only understandable as a social phenomenon because its excess has ceased to have any economic logic.

Zoë Carpenter, Will Phony Populists Hijack the Fight Against Inequality? Nation, April 21, 2014. Plenty of top Dems are still arguing that wealth’s concentration doesn’t really matter.

The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class cover

Barbara Ehrenreich, Gar Alperovitz, and Jim Hightower would like you to read this book. Read this excerpt online and check out more details.

NEW AND notable

Do Americans Still Live in a Real Democracy?

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average CitizensPerspectives on Politics, forthcoming Fall 2014.

America’s political scientists have been arguing for generations over who really runs the United States. Do Americans have a democracy where the people rule? Or something else? Do American citizens, as political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page ask in this blockbuster new paper just published online, rate as “sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless”?

Gilens and Page, distinguished professors from Princeton and Northwestern, give a surprisingly chilling response to that question, based on their analysis of “a unique data set” that culled responses to 1,779 policy questions pollsters asked between 1981 and 2002.

The researchers crunched this set of response data by income level and then probed to see whose policy preferences actually prevailed.

“Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they conclude, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

One analyst is already calling this new Gilens-Page paper “the first-ever scientific study” of the question whether the United States can rightfully claim to be a democracy. Gilens and Page, for their part, pull no academic punches.

“Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public,” the pair write, “actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts.”

The nation, the scholars note, does sport “many features central to democratic governance,” everything from elections to freedom of speech and association.

“But we believe that if policy making is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans,” they go on to add, “then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

Google: the unelected superpower

Google has cosied up to governments around the world so effectively that its chairman is a White House advisor
Google Glass, smart glasses under development by Google are seen in handout photo

If Google Glass is widely adopted, it will be able to clock everything we see Photo: Reuters

Researchers at Princeton and Northwestern universities have pored over 1,800 US policies and concluded that America is an oligarchy. Instead of looking out for the majority of the country’s citizens, the US government is ruled by the interests of the rich and the powerful, they found. No great surprises there, then.

But the government is not the only American power whose motivations need to be rigourously examined. Some 2,400 miles away from Washington, in Silicon Valley, Google is aggressively gaining power with little to keep it in check.

It has cosied up to governments around the world so effectively that its chairman, Eric Schmidt, is a White House advisor. In Britain, its executives meet with ministers more than almost any other corporation.

Google can’t be blamed for this: one of its jobs is to lobby for laws that benefit its shareholders, but it is up to governments to push back. As things stand, Google – and to a lesser extent, Facebook – are in danger of becoming the architects of the law.

Meanwhile, these companies are becoming ever more sophisticated about the amount of information they access about users. Google scans our emails. It knows where we are. It anticipates what we want before we even know it. Sure there are privacy settings and all that, but surrendering to Google also feels nigh on impossible to avoid if you want to live in the 21st century. It doesn’t stop there either. If Google Glass is widely adopted, it will be able to clock everything we see, while the advance of Google Wallet could position the company at the heart of much of the world’s spending.

One source at the technology giant put it well when she referred to the company as an “unelected superpower”. I think this is a fair summary. So far, we are fortunate that that dictatorship is a relatively benign one. The company’s mantra is “do no evil”, and while people may disagree on what evil means, broadly speaking, its founders are pretty good guys. But Larry Page and Sergey Brin will not be around forever. Nor should we rely on any entity that powerful to regulate its own behaviour.

The government in America, and its counterparts around the world, should stop kowtowing to Google and instead work in concert to keep this and any other emerging corporate superpowers firmly in check.

“Cubed”: How the American office worker wound up in a box

From the Organization Man to open-plan design, a new history of the way the office has shaped the modern world

 

"Cubed": How the American office worker wound up in a box

Over the past week, as I’ve been carrying around a copy of Nikil Saval’s “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace,” I’ve gotten some quizzical looks. “It’s a history of the office,” I’d explain, whereupon a good number of people would respond, “Well, that sounds boring.”

It isn’t. In fact, “Cubed” is anything but, despite an occasional tendency to read like a grad school thesis. The fact that anyone would expect it to be uninteresting is striking, though, and marks an unexpected limit to the narcissistic curiosity of the average literate American. The office, after all, is where most contemporary labor takes place and is a crucible of our culture. We’ve almost all worked in one. Of course it’s a subject that merits a thoroughly researched and analytical history, because the history of the office is also the history of us.

Saval’s book glides smoothly between his two primary subjects: the physical structure of offices and the social institution of white-collar work over the past 150 years or so. “Cubed” encompasses everything from the rise of the skyscraper to the entrance of women into the professional workplace to the mid-20th-century angst over grey-flannel-suit conformity to the dorm-like “fun” workplaces of Silicon Valley. His stance is skeptical, a welcome approach given that most writings on the contemporary workplace are rife with dubious claims to revolutionary innovation — office design or management gimmicks that bestselling authors indiscriminately pounce on like magpies seizing glittering bits of trash.

Some of the most fascinating parts of “Cubed” come in the book’s early chapters, in which Saval traces the roots of the modern office to the humble 19th-century countinghouse. Such firms — typically involved in the importation or transport of goods — were often housed in a single room, with one or more of the partners working a few feet away from a couple of clerks, who copied and filed documents, as well as a bookkeeper. A novice clerk might earn less than skilled manual laborers, but he had the potential to make significantly more, and he could boast the intangible but nevertheless significant status of working with his mind rather than his hands.



Even more formative to the identity of white-collar workers (so named for the detachable collars, changed daily in lieu of more regular washings of the actual shirt, that served as a badge of the class) was the proximity to the boss himself and the very real possibility of advancement to the role of partner. Who better to marry the boss’ daughter and take over when he retired? Well, one of the other clerks is who, and in this foundational rivalry much of the character of white-collar work was set. “Unlike their brothers in the factory, who had begun to see organizing on the shop floors as a way to counter the foul moods and arbitrary whims of their bosses,” Saval writes, “clerks saw themselves as potential bosses.” Blue-collar workers, by contrast, knew they weren’t going to graduate to running the company one day.

The current American ethic of self-help and individualism owes at least as much to the countinghouse as it does to the misty ideal of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer. An ambitious clerk identified and sought to ingratiate himself with the partners, not his peers, who were, after all, his competitors. He was on his own, and had only himself to blame if he failed. A passion for self-education and self-improvement, via books and night schools and lecture series, took root and flourished. So did a culture of what Saval calls “unctuous male bonding,” the ancestor of the 20th century’s golf outings and three-martini lunches, customs that would make it that much harder for outsiders like women and ethnic minorities to rise in the ranks — once they managed to get into the ranks in the first place.

The meritocratic dream became a lot more elusive in the 1920s, when the population employed in white-collar work surpassed the number of blue-collar workers for the first time. Saval sees this stage in the evolution of the office as epitomized in the related boom in skyscrapers. The towering buildings, enabled by new technologies like elevators and steel-frame construction, were regarded as the concrete manifestation of American boldness and ambition; certainly modern architects, reaching for new heights of self-aggrandizement, encouraged that view. They rarely acknowledged that a skyscraper was, at heart, a hive of standardized cells in which human beings were slotted like interchangeable parts. Most of the workers inhabiting those cells, increasingly female, could not hope to climb to the executive suites.

Office workers had always made observers uncomfortable; the clerk, with his “minute leg, chalky face and hollow chest,” was one of the few members of the American multitude that Walt Whitman scorned to contain. After World War II, that unease grew into a nationwide obsession, bumping several works of not-so-pop sociology — “The Lonely Crowd,” “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “The Organization Man,” etc. — onto the bestseller lists. In turn, the challenge of managing this new breed of “knowledge workers” became the subject of intensive rumination and theorizing. Saval lists Douglas McGregor’s 1960 guide, “The Human Side of Enterprise,” as the seminal work in a field that would spawn such millionaire gurus as Tom Peters and Peter Drucker.

Office design — typically regimented rows of identical desks — was deemed in need of an overhaul as well, and perhaps the most rueful story Saval recounts is that of Robert Propst, hired to head the research wing of the Herman Miller company in 1958. Propst made an intensive study of white-collar work and in 1964, Herman Miller unveiled his Action Office, a collection of pieces designed to support work on “thinking projects.” Saval praises this incarnation of the Action Office as the first instance in which ” the aesthetics of design and progressive ideas about human needs were truly united,” but it didn’t entirely catch on until the unveiling of Action Office II, which incorporated wooden frames covered with fabric that served as short, modular, temporary walls.

Oh, what a difference 30 degrees makes! Propst’s original Action Office II arranged these walls in 120 degree-angles, an orthogonal configuration that looked and felt open and dynamic. One of Propst’s colleagues told Saval of the dismal day that “someone figured out you don’t need the 120-degree [angle] and it went click.” Ninety-degrees used up the available space much more efficiently, enabling employers to cram in more workstations. The American office worker had been cubed.

The later chapters of “Cubed” speak to more recent trends, like the all-inclusive, company-town-like facilities of tech firms like Google and wacky experiments in which no one is allowed to have a permanent desk at all. Saval visits the Los Angeles office of the ad agency Chiat/Day, which is organized around an artificial main street, features a conference table made of surfboards and resembles nothing so much as a theme park. Using architecture and amenities to persuade employees that their work is also play is a gambit to keep them on the premises and producing for as much of the day (and night) as possible. It all seems a bit desperate. In my own personal experience, if people 1) are paid sufficiently; 2) like the other people they work with; and 3) find the work they do a meaningful use of their energy and skills, then they don’t really care if they work in cubicles or on picnic benches. Item No. 3 is a bitch, though, the toughest criteria for most contemporary corporations to meet. Maybe that’s what they ought to be worrying about instead.

 

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/20/cubed_how_the_american_office_worker_wound_up_in_a_box/?source=newsletter

America’s hungry 21st Century

21 April 2014

Feeding America, the US national network of food banks, released its annual report on local food insecurity Thursday, showing that one in six Americans, including one in five children, did not have enough to eat at some point in 2012.

The report found that there are dozens of counties where more than a third of children do not get enough to eat. The incidence of hunger has grown dramatically. The percentage of households that are “food insecure” rose from 11.1 percent in 2007 to 16.0 percent in 2012.

Food insecurity is more widespread in the United States than in any other major developed country. According to separate data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the rate of food insecurity in the US is nearly twice that of the European Union.

The growth of food insecurity has paralleled the growth of extreme poverty. The number of American households that live on less than $2 a day per person more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million. There are now nearly 3 million children who live in households that earn less than $2 per day.  Fresh milk and dairy products are a luxury, as are fruit and vegetables. With an average food stamp allotment of $1.40 per person, per meal, it is not possible to buy the types of food required to maintain “an active, healthy lifestyle.”

Widespread hunger exists alongside the most shameless displays of wealth. Just last week, Copper Beech Farm, a palatial 50-acre estate just outside New York City, sold for $120 million, setting a new record for the most expensive home sale in history. The ultra-luxury car market is also booming. Luxury carmaker Bentley, which recently introduced a revamped quarter-million-dollar, twelve-cylinder coupe, said sales were up by 17 percent last year.

Christie’s, the art auction house, sold $7.1 billion worth of art last year, a 16 percent increase from the year before and the highest on record. This included the $142 million sale of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” the most expensive art sale on record, to casino mogul Stephen A. Wynn.

According to Feeding America, food-insecure people reported needing an average of $2.26 per person, per day to have enough food. On that basis, ensuring that all 16 million hungry children in the US had enough to eat would cost just $13 billion a year. There are 80 billionaires in the United States whose wealth, as individuals, exceeds this amount.

In an earlier period of American history, these levels of poverty and hunger amidst opulence were seen as a national disgrace. Michael Harrington’s 1962 exposure of poverty in Appalachia and elsewhere, The Other America, moved sections of the political establishment of the day to support such reforms as Medicare, Medicaid and Food Stamps. There is no significant tendency in the political or media establishment today that identifies itself as “liberal” and supports genuine social reform.

The prevalence of hunger is “higher than at any time since the Great Depression,” Feeding America told the WSWS in an interview earlier this week. Yet the spread of hunger is barely noted by politicians of either party or by the media.

The responsibility for this social disaster lies with the capitalist system and its political defenders. Administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have starved antipoverty programs of funds for decades. The Obama administration and Congress have overseen two successive food stamp cuts over the past six months: first in November, when benefits were slashed across the board by $36 per month for a family of four, and again in January of this year, when benefits were cut by an average of $90 per month for nearly a million households.

In between these two cuts, the White House and Congress allowed federal extended jobless benefits to lapse for some three million people, together with their two million dependent children. These cruel and inhuman actions come from an administration that has transferred trillions of dollars to Wall Street while refusing to prosecute the financial criminals responsible for the 2008 crash.

Obama’s signature social initiative, Obamacare, is already being exposed as a scheme to reduce the quantity and quality of health care available to ordinary working people while increasing their out-of-pocket costs. Government spending on health care will be slashed, Medicare gutted, and corporate outlays reduced, boosting the profits of the insurance monopolies, hospital chains and pharmaceutical companies.

Then there is the corporate-controlled media, which treats the roaring stock market and lavish displays of wealth by the rich with either open or thinly veiled enthusiasm, while barely acknowledging the existence of poverty. Major networks spend just 0.2 percent of their airtime covering issues relating to poverty, according to data from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

As for the auxiliary organizations of the corporations and the government, the trade unions, they too have facilitated the attack on working people. As the ruling class has carried out an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, the unions have focused their efforts on suppressing working-class opposition and preventing a political break with the Democratic Party.

What is emerging is the true, brutal face of capitalism, a system that piles up vast wealth at one pole of society and ever-greater poverty and wretchedness at the other.

This is true not only in the United States, but internationally. To satisfy the dictates of the banks, brutal austerity measures are being imposed around the world. The 85 richest individuals in the world now possess more wealth than the bottom half of the global population—some 3.5 billion people.

The means exist to provide all people with the necessities for a comfortable and fulfilling life—healthy food, decent housing, health care, education, access to culture and recreation. But the capitalist system, and the ruling class that sits atop it, make any rational control of production and distribution impossible. This system must be done away with and replaced with socialism—the rational planning of society under the democratic control of the working class to meet social needs, not the drive of a financial aristocracy for personal wealth and corporate profit.

Andre Damon

Sunlight in cities is an endangered species

Welcome to the permanent dusk:

As cities grow taller, light has become a precious commodity. Is it time for it to be regulated like one?

Welcome to the permanent dusk: Sunlight in cities is an endangered species

What would you pay for more natural light in your apartment? $10,000 per sunlit window, in TriBeCa? A 15 percent surcharge for an apartment that faced south, in London? An annual levy of 60 pounds for 20 windows, as the English monarchy demanded during a 150-year period beginning in 1696, under the so-called Window Tax?

Would you support a municipal effort to install a giant mirror to reflect winter sunshine into the town square? The Norwegian mountain town of Rjukan spent $800,000 to do just that. In Islamic Cairo, researchers have developed a sheet of corrugated plastic that can double the amount of light that trickles into the narrow alleyways.

The importance of light to great architecture is no secret. But in cities, where natural light is instrumental to urban design and property values, sunlight is a fickle friend. It can account for the prices of apartments, the popularity of parks, and even influence commercial rents on big avenues. Its holistic properties are obvious, but its economic benefits no less important, including the effect of solar radiation on heating costs and the burgeoning potential for urban solar panel use. But sunlight can be taken away in an instant, from a backyard, a kitchen window or a treasured park, with neither notice nor consequence.

As American cities grow taller and denser — and most everyone agrees that they must — natural light becomes a more precious commodity. Does that mean it should be regulated like one? Or would preserving current sun patterns — so-called “solar rights” — grind real estate development to a halt? Put simply: Should Americans, in their homes and in their cities, have a right to light?

Planners, lawyers and homeowners have been arguing about this for two millennia. The Greeks incorporated the sun in their city planning; the Roman emperor Justinian ensured that no neighbor could block light “previously enjoyed for heat, light or sundial operation.” In desert climes, the same consideration was incorporated into city planning with even greater verve, for opposite results. In the Mozabite enclave of Ghardaia, Algeria, streets wind and curve so that the Saharan sun cannot penetrate.



In England, as the first throes of the Industrial Revolution wrought their transformations, Parliament attempted to legislate this concept with more objectivity. The so-called “Ancient Lights” law, passed in 1832, prevents new constructions from blocking light that has continuously reached the interior of a building for 20 years. The amount of light protected is determined by “the grumble line,” the point at which one might begin to complain about the lack of light.

It’s a law that British homeowners can still invoke today, though with only partial success. On the BBC reality show “The Planners,” an 87-year-old homeowner failed to prevent the construction of a neighbor’s light-hogging extension… and the law is even less likely to order the demolition of a larger, more expensive construction.

In Japan, where tall buildings are more common, a similar law, called “nissho-ken,” is more frequently cited. As skyscrapers proliferated in Japanese cities alongside small homes during the 1960s, sunshine suits exploded, from six in 1968 to 83 in 1972. More than 300 cities adopted “sunshine hour codes,” specifying penalties that developers must pay for casting shadows. Tokyo adopted a stricter zoning code for residential areas. In 1976, the Tokyo District Court delivered $7,000 in sunshine damages to residents at the foot of a new office tower. “Sunshine is essential to a comfortable life,” the court opined, “and therefore a citizen’s right to enjoy sunshine at his home should be duly protected by law.” Such rewards are not common, though in theory a developer can be forced to pay as much as $10,000 to each shaded homeowner.

But in America, the concept of property has never been so expansive. In the second half of the 19th century, the subject was a hot legal issue, but never overcame opposition from pro-growth circles. As the New York Times wrote in 1878, “Courts have rendered decisions that the law of ancient lights is inappropriate and inapplicable in America… Our sparsely settled country, they say, has not required such a law; encouragement of building is more needed than restrictions upon it.” That same logic still fuels opposition to zoning measures today.

Quality-of-life concerns struck back. In a series of tenement laws, New York City required habitable domiciles to include features like external windows in every room. It was the seven-acre shadow of the Equitable Building, completed in 1915, that inspired the nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution. New York’s setback laws required buildings to taper as they rose, and shaped the city’s skyline and its streets for the next half-century. Many cities followed suit.

But there are few direct protections on the books, and the issue has again come to the forefront as a rash of super-tall buildings rise in Midtown Manhattan, casting half-mile-long shadows on Central Park. A quarter-century ago, activists led by Jackie Kennedy Onassis and the Municipal Arts Society successfully obtained architectural concessions from developer Mort Zuckerman when his plans threatened to devour sunlit stretches of Central Park. Today the issue has spawned scattered complaints but no results.

If New York had a law like San Francisco’s, that would be different. Voters in the famously sun-starved city passed a ballot ordinance in 1984 that prohibited new buildings from casting significant shadows on public parks. It has since required hundreds of real estate projects to be altered, and is regularly targeted by developers for repeal.

It’s a microcosm of a much larger debate about the wisdom of zoning, and the balance between regulation and development. High-rent cities like New York and San Francisco desperately need new units of housing. Which quality-of-life requirements represent basic human rights, and which are not-in-my-backyard claims to stymie new construction in a crowded city? Some proponents of maximizing the potential for new housing in American cities have proposed repealing some of the Progressive-era stipulations for proper apartments.

The rise of solar power further complicated the debate, even as it neatly quantifies the pecuniary value of sunlight. Even decades ago, American legal ambivalence to the sunbeams was called “the single most important legal issue concerning solar energy.” These days, many U.S. states and a handful of U.S. cities have introduced “solar permits,” through which an owner can ensure that his or her solar access cannot be disrupted. In Portland, Ore., existing vegetation (i.e., a tree that grows taller) is exempted. In Ashland, solar collectors are protected from encroaching vegetation but not from new construction. Boulder, Colo., has some of the most extensive solar rights in the U.S.

Sometimes this leads to odd conflicts. In Sunnyvale, Calif., one neighbor sued another over a crop of redwood trees that were casting shadows on his solar panels. Under the state’s 1978 solar rights law, he won — the neighbors had to trim their trees to let more sun through to his panels.

Developers contend that such regulations can amount to extortion: solar panels could be used to extract limitless concessions from nearby properties. Then again, without the assurance of continuing sunlight, what homeowner could invest in solar power?

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/20/welcome_to_the_permanent_dusk_sunlight_in_cities_is_an_endangered_species/?source=newsletter

The Rise of the Digital Proletariat

In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized,’ says author and activist Astra Taylor. (Deborah DeGraffenreid.)

Astra Taylor reminds us that the Internet cannot magically produce revolution.

BY Sarah Jaffe

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this.

The conversation about the impact of technology tends to be binary: Either it will save us, or it will destroy us. The Internet is an opportunity for revolution; our old society is being “disrupted”; tech-savvy college dropouts are rendering the staid elite obsolete. Or else our jobs are being lost to automation and computers; drones wipe out families on their wedding day; newly minted millionaires flush with tech dollars are gentrifying San Francisco at lightning speed.

Neither story is completely true, of course. In her new book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, out now from Metropolitan Books, Astra Taylor takes on both the techno-utopians and the techno-skeptics, reminding us that the Internet was created by the society we live in and thus is more likely to reflect its problems than transcend them. She delves into questions of labor, culture and, especially, money, reminding us who profits from our supposedly free products. She builds a strong case that in order to understand the problems and potentials of technology, we have to look critically at the market-based society that produced it.

Old power dynamics don’t just fade away, she points out—they have to be destroyed. That will require political action, struggle, and a vision of how we want the Internet (and the rest of our society) to be. I spoke with Taylor about culture, creativity, the possibility of nationalizing Facebook and more.

Many people know you as a filmmaker or as an activist with Occupy and Strike Debt. How do you see this book fitting in with the other work you’ve done?

Initially I saw it as a real departure, and now that it’s done, I recognize the continuity. I felt that the voices of culture makers were left out of the debate about the consequences of Internet technology. There are lots of grandiose statements being made about social change and organizing and about how social media tools are going to make it even easier for us to aggregate and transform the world. I felt there was a role I could play rooted in my experiences of being a culture maker and an activist. It was important for somebody grounded in those areas to make a sustained effort to be part of the conversation. I was really troubled that people on all sides of the political spectrum were using Silicon Valley rhetoric to describe our new media landscape. Using terms like “open” and “transparent” and saying things were “democratizing” without really analyzing those terms. A big part of the book was just trying to think through the language we’re using and to look at the ideology underpinning the terminology that’s now so commonplace.

You make the point in the book that the Internet and the offline world aren’t two separate worlds. Can you talk about that a bit more?

It’s amazing that these arguments even need to be made. That you need to point out that these technologies cannot just magically overcome the structures and material conditions that shape regular life.

It harkens back to previous waves of technological optimism. People have always invested a lot of hope in their tools. I talk about the way that we often imbue our machines with the power to liberate us. There was lots of hope that machines would be doing all of our labor and that we would have, as a society, much more free time, and that we would have this economy of abundance because machines would be so dramatically improved over time. The reasons that those predictions never came to pass is because machines are embedded in a social context and the rewards are siphoned off by the elite.

The rise of the Internet really fits that pattern. We can see that there is this massive shifting of wealth [to corporations]. These gigantic digital companies are emerging that can track and profit from not just our online interactions, but increasingly things that we’re doing away from the keyboard. As we move towards the “Internet-of-things,” more and more of the devices around us are going to have IP addresses and be leaking data. These are avenues for these companies that are garnering enormous power to increase their wealth.

The rhetoric a few years ago was that these companies are going to vanquish the old media dinosaurs. If you read the tech books from a few years ago, it’s just like “Disney and these companies are so horrible. Google is going to overthrow them and create a participatory culture.” But Google is going to be way more invasive than Mickey Mouse ever was.

Google’s buying drone companies.

Google’s in your car, Google’s in your thermostat, it’s in your email box. But then there’s the psychological element. There was this hope that you could be anyone you wanted to be online. That you could pick an avatar and be totally liberated from your offline self. That was a real animating fantasy. That, too, was really misleading. Minority groups and women are often forced back into their real bodies, so to speak. They’re not given equal access to the supposedly open space of the Internet.

This is one of the conversations that I think your book is incredibly relevant to right now. Even supposedly progressive spaces are still dominated by white people, mostly men, and there’s a real pushback against women and people of color who are using social media.

It’s been amazing how much outrage can get heaped on one person who’s making critical observations about an institution with such disproportionate power and reach.

The new media elites end up looking a whole lot like the old ones. The other conversations about race and gender and the Internet recently has been about these new media websites that are launched with a lot of fanfare, that have been funded in many cases by Silicon Valley venture capital, that are selling themselves as new and rebellious and exciting and a challenge to the old media—the faces of them are still white men.

The economic rewards flow through the usual suspects. Larry Lessig has done a lot of interesting work around copyright. But he wrote basically that we need to cheer on the Facebooks of the world because they’re new and not the old media dinosaurs. He has this line about “Stanford is vanquishing Harvard.” We need something so much more profound than that.

This is why I really take on the concept of “openness.” Because open is not equal. In open systems, discrimination and barriers can become invisibilized. It’s harder to get your mind around how inequitable things actually are. I myself follow a diverse group of people and feel like Twitter is full of people of color or radicals. But that’s because I’m getting a very distorted view of the overall picture.

I think it’s helpful to look at the handful of examples of these supposedly open systems in action. Like Wikipedia, which everyone can contribute to. Nonetheless, only like 15 percent of the editors are women. Even the organizations that are held up as exemplars of digital democracy, there’s still such structural inequality. By the time you get to the level of these new media ventures that you’re talking about, it’s completely predictable.

We really need to think through these issues on a social level. I tried to steer the debate away from our addiction to our devices or to crappy content on the Internet, and really take a structural view. It’s challenging because ultimately it comes down to money and power and who has it and how do you wrest it away and how do you funnel some of it to build structures that will support other types of voices. That’s far more difficult than waiting around for some new technology to come around and do it for you.

You write about this tension between professional work from the amateurs who are working for free and the way the idea of doing work for the love of it has crept in everywhere. Except people are working longer hours than ever and they’re making less money than ever, and who has time to come home at the end of your two minimum wage jobs and make art?

It would be nice to come out and say follow your heart, do everything for the love of it, and things’ll work out. Artists are told not to think about money. They’re actively encouraged to deny the economic sphere. What that does though is it obscures the way privilege operates—the way that having a trust fund can sure be handy if you want to be a full time sculptor or digital video maker.

I think it’s important that we tackle these issues. That’s where I look at these beautiful predictions about the way these labor-saving devices would free us all and the idea that the fruits of technological advancement would be evenly shared. It’s really interesting how today’s leading tech pundits don’t pretend that [the sharing is] going to be even at all. Our social imagination is so diminished.

There’s something really off about celebrating amateurism in an economy where people are un- and under-employed, and where young people are graduating with an average of $30,000 of student debt. It doesn’t acknowledge the way that this figure of the artist—[as] the person who loves their work so much that they’ll do it for nothing—is increasingly central to this precarious labor force.

I quote this example of people at an Apple store asking for a raise and the response was “When you’re working for Apple, money shouldn’t be a consideration.” You’re supposed to just love your work so much you’ll exploit yourself. That’s what interning is. That’s what writing for free is when you’re hoping to get a foot in the door as a journalist. There are major social implications if that’s the road we go down. It exacerbates inequality, because who can afford to do this kind of work?

Of course, unpaid internships are really prevalent in creative fields.

Ultimately, it’s a corporate subsidy. People are sometimes not just working for free but then also going into debt for college credit to do it. In a way, all of the unpaid labor online is also a corporate subsidy. I agree that calling our participation online “labor” is problematic because it’s not clear exactly how we’re being exploited, but the point is the value being extracted. We need to talk about that value extraction and the way that people’s free participation feeds into it.

Of course we enjoy so much of what we do online. People enjoy creating art and culture and doing journalism too. The idea that work should only be well-compensated and secure if it makes you miserable ultimately leads to a world where the people who feel like they should make a lot of money are the guys on Wall Street working 80 hours a week. It’s a bleak, bleak view.

In many ways the problem with social media is it does break down this barrier between home and work. You point this out in the book–it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it, especially if you are an independent creative person where you have to constantly promote your own work, or it is part of your job. There’s now the Wages for Facebook conversation—people are starting to talk about the way we are creating value for these companies.

It really challenges the notion that we’re all on these social media platforms purely by choice, because there’s a real obligatory dimension to so much of this. Look also at the way we talk to young people. “Do you want a college recruiter to see that on your Facebook profile?” What we’re really demanding is that they create a Facebook profile that appeals to college recruiters, that they manage a self that will help them get ahead.

I was at a recent talk about automation and the “end of jobs,” and one researcher said that the jobs that would be hardest to automate away would be ones that required creativity or social intelligence—skills that have been incredibly devalued in today’s economy, only in part because of technology.

Those skills are being pushed out of the economy because they’re supposed to be things you just choose to do because they’re pleasurable. There is a paradox there. Certain types of jobs will be automated away, that can be not just deskilled but done better by machines, and meanwhile all the creative jobs that can’t be automated away are actually considered almost superfluous to the economy.

The thing about the jobs conversation is that it’s a political question and a policy question as well as a technological question. There can be lots of different types of jobs in the world if we invest in them. This question of what kind of jobs we’re going to have in the future. So much of it is actually comes down to these social decisions that we’re making. The technological aspect has always been overhyped.

You do bring up ideas like a basic income and shorter working hours as ways to allow people to have time and money for culture creation.

The question is, how do you get there? You’d have to have a political movement, you’d have to challenge power. They’re not just going to throw the poor people who’ve had their jobs automated away a bone and suddenly provide a basic income. People would really have to organize and fight for it. It’s that fight, that element of antagonism and struggle that isn’t faced when we just think tools are evolving rapidly and we’ll catch up with them.

The more romantic predictions about rising prosperity and the inevitable increase in free time were made against the backdrop of the post-war consensus of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. There was a social safety net, there were structures in place that redistributed wealth, and so people made predictions colored by that social fabric, that if there were advancements in our tools that they would be shared by people. It just shows the way that the political reality shapes what we can collectively imagine.

Finally, you make the case for state-subsidized media as well as regulations—for ensuring that people have the ability to make culture as well as consume it. You note that major web companies like Google and Facebook operate like public utilities, and that nationalizing them would be a really hard sell, and yet if these things are being founded with government subsidies and our work, they are in a sense already ours.

The invisible subsidy is the thing that we really have to keep in mind. People say, “Where’s the money going to come from?” We’re already spending it. So much innovation is the consequence of state investment. Touchscreens, the microchip, the Internet itself, GPS, all of these things would not exist if the government had not invested in them, and the good thing about state investment is it takes a much longer view than short-term private-market investment. It can have tremendous, socially valuable breakthroughs. But all the credit for these innovations and the financial rewards is going to private companies, not back to us, the people, whose tax dollars actually paid for them.

You raise a moral question: If we’re paying for these things already, then shouldn’t they in some sense be ours? I think the answer is yes. There are some leverage points in the sense that these companies like to talk about themselves as though they actually are public utilities. There’s this public-spiritedness in their rhetoric but it doesn’t go deep enough—it doesn’t go into the way they’re actually run. That’s the gap we need to bridge. Despite Silicon Valley’s hostility to the government and the state, and the idea that the Internet is sort of this magic place where regulation should not touch, the government’s already there. We just need it to be benefiting people, not private corporations.

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

The State Department’s Overseas Contingency Operation

http://scrapetv.com/News/News%20Pages/Politics/images-7/john-kerry-secretary-of-state-nomination-confirmed.jpg

Whatever Happened to Minding Our Own Business?

by RENEE PARSONS

It had been some time since I tuned into a Senate hearing on CSpan – this one was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department’s 2015 budget with Secretary of State John Kerry as the only witness.   Having once walked the marbled halls of Congress for a living, I am familiar with Congressional hearings but times have changed and so have the Democrats who are virtually indistinguishable from Republicans – if only by tone rather than content.

Staged as a legitimate legislative process, the hearing served as a rude reminder of the self-delusional nature of American foreign policymakers, assuming the American public will accept their version of reality – although current polls show 61% of Americans still believe the country is headed in the wrong direction with 53% disapproval on Obama’s foreign policy. Two and a half hours of listening to  distorted adaptations of the historical record left me wondering that if a country’s elected officials repeatedly act contrary to the wishes of its citizens, is that country still a democracy?

Chair of the Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez greeted Kerry citing his recent travel itinerary of 44 countries with over 855 hours in the air equivalent to 35 days of continuous flying which could be one explanation for the Secretary’s sometimes obvious jet-lag and unpredictable off-the-cuff responses.  Oxygen deficiency, gravity overload  –  all that rarified air can play tricks on one’s ability to get your feet on the ground.

Menendez, a reliable carrier of legislative water for AIPAC who frequently sounds as if he is reciting AIPAC talking points, opened the hearing with these noteworthy excerpts:

“As the situations in the Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela demonstrate, never has the need for American leadership and engagement in the world been greater. “

“…in this complex and rapidly changing global environment, we know that our national security interests are our priority number one and they cannot be jeopardized.  The $40.3 billion in base discretionary funding for the Department of State and US AID provides solid footing after years of   uncertainty for our international efforts…. and the $5.9 billion for overseas contingency operation activities allow us to continue to address challenges in the middle east and north Africa including the Syrian humanitarian crisis, in Afghanistan and other front line states.”

“We also need to make sure this budget is structured so our nation is capable of meeting the new challenges and opportunities of today’s world.”

“…the menacing threat by Russia in the Ukraine – a challenge to its very existence.   We can and will continue to stand with the Ukrainian people who by right will choose their own destiny.  …authorizing a billion dollars in loan guarantees and other assistance to strength civil society  and security in the region, we have also have given you tools to respond to Russia in the form  of sanctions.  Our message to President Putin and his cronies must be robust and swift. “

“On Syria, as we commemorate the third anniversary of the uprising, I am pleased that the Administration is prioritizing assistance both in humanitarian aid and support for the opposition … the $1.7 billion request sends an important signal to Syria and to the world of our commitment.”

Even a semi-conscious reader with a less than discriminating eye can find good cause for alarm in Menendez’s words.   All the talk about ‘engagement’ and ‘national security” and ‘priority number one’, ‘new challenges,’ ‘support the opposition’ and a ‘robust and swift’ response are frightening indications of an indifferent, out-of-control government on the edge of lunacy.

It was ‘overseas contingency operation activities’ that caught my eye and when Menendez, a prominent Republicrat, describes those activities using legislative-ese lingo, he is cautious to not alert the comatose media or American public as to exactly what ‘activities’ the US State Department is spending $5.9 billion a year on ‘overseas’.

In case you’re wondering why ‘overseas contingency’ is a function of the State Department,  “Overseas Contingency Operations” from the Department’s 2012 budget request says that the Department “will take on new roles previously filled by the Department of Defense (DOD) in order to maintain its civilian presence, and face security and logistical challenges for expeditionary diplomatic missions.  These vital national security roles place unprecedented demands on the Department and its people.”

In other words, the OCO serves as political rationale for a continued US presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as a funding and organizing source for ousting legitimate governments like Ukraine and similar ‘activities’ elsewhere.  A critical piece of State Department exploits, the OCO operates with little public awareness or any real Congressional oversight.

Here are added reasons for concern from the OCO document:

“The Department will work with Pakistan to disrupt violent groups that destabilize the region while strengthening Pakistan‘s resolve to combat those elements. These tasks are formidable.”

… “essential foreign policy goals’ include ‘safeguard nuclear stockpiles to supporting over 250 locations overseas.”

“The increased role in the frontline states (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) will be an exceptional test for the Department, its diplomats and its resources, one that adds considerable expense and requirements to an already ambitious mission.”

“The OCO request will fund extraordinary Department operations in the frontline states that are above and beyond the Department‘s normal mission costs.”

While praising the Department’s goals and direction, Menendez confessed that he was ‘incredibly troubled” that State Department funding for the western hemisphere would be decreased $358 million and that those cuts would “lead us to a lack of comprehensive approach  in Latin America  and necessary resources to back it up whether in  Central America where nations are facing a threat of  criminal violence and  major challenges to governance and the rule of law….and then threats to democracy, freedom of expression and human rights in our hemisphere in Cuba and Venezuela and Ecuador.   As we have seen a volatile situation in Venezuela, undermining democracy can lead to political crisis and violence that has implications for the entire region.”

And while $5.9 billion may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to what has already been squandered on American wars since 2003, it would be a heaven-sent lifeline to millions of Americans who have lost unemployment benefits or their homes or their food stamp allocation or to twenty million homeless American children –  but then people programs are not Sen. Menendez’s ‘priority number one’ and when Victoria Nuland referred to $5 billion spent in Ukraine by the State Department, we now know it was an ‘overseas contingency operation’.

As the hearing moved on, I do hereby publicly confess to a modicum of empathy for Kerry when Menendez who has taken his role as Senate spokesman for AIPAC, oops, I mean committee Chair ultra- seriously, went after Kerry like a dog on a bone in a lengthy exchange opposing the Obama Administration’s proposed uranium enrichment agreement with Iran.

In response to Sen. Corker (R-Tenn) regarding why the US had not yet implemented the ‘use of force’ resolution that the Committee (and Congress) had approved months earlier in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons, Kerry missed the opportunity to suggest that Corker read  Seymour Hersh’s recent investigation that Turkey and Saudi Arabia had roles in providing sarin (a different strain from what is found in the Syrian government arsenal) to al Nusra, the US -supported rebel group.

But that would have meant that Corker and Kerry would have had to read either Hersh’s reportage or the highly classified US Defense Intelligence Agency briefing paper – but maybe they are not on the distribution list.  Instead, Secretary Kerry went on to inform the Committee that “we are deeply engaged with opposition, more engaged than we have ever been before.”  Corker and Kerry tussled briefly whether the Congressional ‘use of force’ resolution on Syria would have been a ‘limited strike’ as Kerry contends or whether dropping bombs had the effect of ‘going to war’ as Corker maintained.

The Secretary assured the Committee that Russian “provocateurs and paid operatives” had “crossed an international boundary” and were operating in eastern Ukraine with the purpose of “creating chaos” and that it was “absolutely unacceptable” and part of a ‘transparent’ effort to “destabilize a sovereign state” and to create a “contrived crisis.”  At times, it was confusing whether the Secretary was referring to Russia or the US.

Sen.  Ben Cardin (D- Md), another AIPAC champion. raised the controversial idea  that  “those responsible for  attacks on innocent civilians should be held accountable by international community.”  What he probably meant to say is that every country should be held accountable, except Israel and the US.

Cardin went on to disparage Palestinians for “making negotiations difficult “ because they  “will not acknowledge the right of a Jewish state” but  the basic question of why there should be a separate Jewish state to the exclusion of other ethnicities never seems to get asked.  It would seem plain common sense that Israel would benefit from becoming a more diverse, a multi-denominational, all-encompassing country integrating Jews along with other peoples; a nation where all religions can live side by side.

The next Democrat to take the microphone was Sen.  Chris Murphy (D-Conn) who will be remembered for taking the stage in Kiev to stand with Oleh Tyahnybok, a member of the  anti-semitic Svoboda party, during the Ukrainian uprising.   Regarded as a liberal Democrat, Murphy’s comments that ‘one of the guiding principles behind Putin’s foreign policy is to poke a stick in the eye of the US”  and that ‘we are not willing to play by the same rules he is willing to play” did little to enhance his stature as a thoughtful progressive.

Secretary Kerry assured the Senators that the State Department would “manage the process going forward  with a clarity,”  “…that things were professed before going into Crimea that weren’t upheld; statements were made about not violating the integrity of Ukraine and they did”…“all of our European partners, countless other people are invested in this notion that what has happened is a violation of the international order, a structure by which we have dealt since WWII  in recognizing boundaries of countries and sovereignty  and integrity of territory.”

In praising US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoff Pyatt (see Victoria Nuland audio tape), Murphy described how the committee rushed Pyatt’s nomination “voted out of the committee and Senate expeditiously (approved by the Senate,  July, 2013) so that he was on the ground in time to know the country, learn the players so that he was ready to go when this crisis erupted, having no idea at the moment of his confirmation that he would be needed in this way “  But that raises the question of how did the Statement Department know to ‘expeditiously’ get Pyatt into Ukraine if they did not know that a rebellion was about to occur?

The only small glimmers of any analytical or independent thinking appeared at the end of the hearing as the two newest Senators on the Committee took their turns.

Sen. Ed Markey (D- Mass) referred to recent protests in Donetsk with pro-Russian citizens demanding a referenda on May 11 ahead of the Ukraine presidential election on May 25 with  “clearly the goal in that part of the country wishing to secede and go back to Russia.”  Markey asked Kerry about a referenda strategy as it is unfolding and what is the Obama Administration’s thinking on such strategy and how would it deal with additional  requests for secession to Russia.

Markey’s question deserved a response but all he received was that secession requests would be seen as  ‘very dangerous’, ”completely unconstitutional”, ”internationally unsupportable”, in “violation of territorial integrity of Ukraine” and so on blaming it all on some unknown  ‘paid individual’ in Donetsk.

The last Senator to address Kerry was Sen. Rand Paul  (R- Ky) who pointed out certain department expenses such as $100,000 for an electric charging station in Vienna, $700,000 for landscaping at Brussels Embassy, $100,000 to send a “make chai, not war’ comedy tour to India, $650,000 for Facebook ads and a whopping  $5 million for crystal glassware.  Without specifically naming the ‘overseas contingency operation,’ Paul resuscitated Benghazi in the context of whether the State Department should be in charge of security and whether it can ‘adequately be in charge of security.’

Secretary Kerry responded that there is a “very significant increase in American personnel on the ground (in Libya);  more significant emergency contingency plans.”

But all Senators missed the mark -  absent was any reference to minding our own business and when will the troops come home.

Renee Parsons was a staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and a lobbyist on nuclear energy issues with Friends of the Earth.  in 2005, she was elected to the Durango City Council and served as Councilor and Mayor.  Currently, she is a member of the Treasure Coast ACLU Board.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/18/whatever-happened-to-minding-our-own-business/

 

A new wave of environmental protest rocks China

by James Smart on April 18, 2014

Post image for A new wave of environmental protest rocks China

As recent protests against the construction of a PX refinery in Maoming attest, environmental issues are of greater concern than ever for the Chinese.

It began as an environmental protest of about a thousand people a few weeks ago on Sunday, March 30 in Maoming, southern China. By day five it had grown to over twenty times its initial size, with about a dozen deaths, scores of arrests and images of dozens of unarmed protesters scattered across the streets, lying in pools of their own blood. The government blamed protesters for the tipping over of police vehicles and attacking official buildings, while the protesters in turn accuse the police of attacking unarmed, peaceful citizens.

In an authoritarian state like China, where people are unable to let off steam on election day, protests are common — albeit risky and usually illegal. But what was behind this particular environmental protest, and how did it get so out of hand? We start by looking at the production of a chemical that is common, but seemingly misunderstood: paraxylene.

Paraxylene, or PX for short, is made in large quantities for the production of plastic bottles and polyester. China is the world’s largest user of PX, and has to import about half of what it consumes. The government recently decided that a 500 million dollar factory would help make up the shortfall, and went into partnership with Sinopec, Asia’s biggest refiner, to open a factory near Maoming.

Paraxylene is dangerous to produce. It affects the nervous system if ingested through the skin or breathed in. Organs can be affected upon bodily exposure. It affects body development and reproduction — at least in mice. Pregnant women are told not go near it. It damages hearing, and can cause chemical pneumonia. And it is highly flammable, even explosive at warm temperatures. Local people became concerned that a dangerous behemoth on their doorstep could damage the environment and affect their health.

Still, the production of most chemicals carries an element of danger, and one might have thought that, if properly regulated, such a large factory would have enormous economic benefits for the community. Indeed, the local authorities believed just that, but when they sent ten thousand brochures to the public informing them of the economic benefits the factory would bring, it backfired — culminating in a popular protest shortly afterwards. Why the public didn’t trust the state to provide a safe, regulated factory is not difficult to see in the context of rapid capitalist development, widespread environmental irresponsibility and an authoritarian state apparatus.

Ahkok Wong is an activist and school lecturer from down the road in Hong Kong, potentially enjoying his last two days of freedom.

“Environmental problems are one of the main outcomes of a one party-ruled, corrupted, non-humane government,” he starts. “The citizens started discovering what harm the PX plant can bring, so there are [a lot] of protests, and then the police arrest and kill protesters, forcing people to sign agreements that they support PX plants,” he continues. “They control the media and the internet so the news cannot get across the country.”

Protesters like Ahkok are sentenced by a judiciary with links to the government, which in turn has links to big business — for example, the Maoming PX joint venture between Sinopec and the state. Ahkok is going to court in a few days, for his participation in a 300,000 person-strong anti-Chinese government protest in Hong Kong. Is he expecting a fair trial? “I’m expecting nothing, to be honest.”

The other context in which to see this disagreement is with regards to the catastrophic levels of pollution and environmental damage all over China, particularly in the north. For example, at any given moment the air in most Chinese cities is somewhere along a spectrum between mildly harmful and extremely unsafe. Furthermore, China produces nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as the second biggest emitter, the USA. On top of this, one quarter of China already is, or is rapidly becoming, desertified. This leads to silted rivers, floods, drought, dust storms and erosion. In addition, a wealthier population with a penchant for ivory, rhino horn and shark fin soup is leading to diminishing biodiversity, within its borders and beyond.

Most of China’s groundwater is so polluted that it can’t be used for drinking even if treated. Underground water supplies are also extremely polluted. Wildlife soon perishes upon contact with the water from many rivers. Last year thousands of dead pigs clogged up a river running through Shanghai which was contaminated by benzene through a factory spillage. Twenty people were hospitalized. Factories pollute rivers with impunity — and this has in many cases lead to cancer villages — areas so polluted as to now be uninhabitable. Animals in these villages die, the rivers change color, touching the water makes the skin itch, and as the name suggests, there are high levels of cancer.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the state of the environment is up to fourth — and rising — on the list of Chinese public concerns, according to a Pew Survey carried out earlier this year, behind inflation, corruption and inequality. With growing environmental concerns comes a growing grassroots movement. No surprise, then, that environmental issues were at the heart of half of all the protests in 2013 that had over 10,000 participants. Meanwhile, the government is taking notice, and has taken steps to be seen to be paying attention.

“We shall resolutely declare war against pollution as we declared war against poverty,” Li Keqiang, China’s Prime Minister told parliament, live on state television, last month. This was followed by an increased budget to help prevent deforestation, a sizable clean water fund, and some modest pollution-culling targets. Fifteen thousand companies now have to declare all of their pollution levels to the environment ministry, which will make the information public.

This seems quite impressive, particularly as China didn’t even have an environmental ministry until 2008. Rules are all very well of course — the problem is implementation. Factory owners discharge waste at night, sabotage monitoring equipment, and easily skip around or bribe underfunded law enforcement agencies. They can quietly mix leftover chemicals with water and dump it into the nearest river. Still, the new laws show that the government is paying attention, so perhaps that ought to placate a restless public. Some give the government credit — others think it is mostly for show.

To understand where the government might really stand on this issue, we need to think in terms of how China values itself when comparing itself with the rest of the world. Economic indicators such as GDP seem to have a higher priority than harder-to-measure indicators of quality of living, especially when national pride vis-à-vis America comes into play. A paraxylene plant boosts business, jobs and output. As long as the state can be seen to be taking action with pollution, while doing relatively little, the government can help to maintain its position so long as the media remains compliant. And here seems to lie the Chinese contrast — what seems to be the case is sometimes quite the opposite.

Take the PX plant protests. At one point, authorities told the local newspaper that the building of the plant was being suspended. But it seems they told Sinopec no such thing, and work on the plant continued uninterrupted. While the authorities are now finally acknowledging the existence of cancer villages, they go into opaque partnerships with polluting industries. They allow protests in theory, but put so many restrictions into the ‘small print’ as to make them almost impossible in practice.

“If there are more than three people gathering in public and the police assume you are a threat to society, you can be arrested,” says Ahkok.

The government tell their own citizens they are listening to their environmental concerns. Meanwhile they block searches for “Maoming” or “PX” on search engines and on the popular social media site Weibo. People are told to trust the authorities. Meanwhile, on the very first day of the protests, seventy Maoming city officals were investigated for graft. A supposedly communist government represses the poor and benefits the wealthy. China starts to resemble a chemical spillage, public health deteriorates and those who speak out get arrested.

On a somewhat more optimistic note, however one may feel about the obvious human rights challenges that come with China’s one-child policy, there is no doubt it helped curb the country’s dangerously oversized population. With the help of a burgeoning economy and a strong inclination towards school success, an educated cadre is growing within the population; one that is more and more aware of the world, of their government, and of the quality of their lives. China’s hyperactive microblogger community are a byproduct of this, and are helping to heighten awareness for a lot of people.

But calling for the truth has its own risks. Xu Zhiyong, an anti-government activist, is halfway though a four-year prison sentence for calling on government officials to disclose their assets. “Those of you watching this trial from behind the scenes, or those awaiting for orders and reports back, this is also your responsibility. Don’t take pains to preserve the old system simply because you have vested interests in it,” he said as he was being sentenced. “No one is safe under an unjust system. When you see politics as endless shadows and reflections of daggers and swords, as blood falling like rain with its smell in the wind, you have too much fear in your hearts.”

Back to Ahkok Wong: “China does not have law and system,” he says. “They bribe, they arrest people who investigate truth, but there are no standards to follow. Only those who have absolute power and capital can change the situation, but then they benefit from all of this development and capital growth.”

“China is not meant to last,” concludes Ahkok. “It wouldn’t make any sense if this country could last.”

James Smart is from the South of England and is currently working as a university teacher and teacher trainer in Istanbul, Turkey.