Income inequality soars in every US state

By Andre Damon
30 January 2015

Income inequality has grown in every state in the US in recent decades, according to a new study published this week by the Economic Policy Institute. The report, entitled The Increasingly Unequal States of America, found that, even though states home to major metropolitan financial centers such as New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area had the highest levels of income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor has increased in every region of the country.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re looking at Hawaii or West Virginia or New York or California, there has been a dramatic shift in income towards the top,” said Mark Price, an economist at the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and one of the study’s co-authors, in a telephone interview.

Source: Economic Policy Institute
The report noted that between 2009 and 2012, the top one percent of income earners captured 105 percent of all income gains in the United States. This was possible because during this period the average income of the bottom 99 percent shrank, while the average income of the top one percent increased by 36.8 percent.

To varying degrees, this phenomenon was expressed throughout the country. In only two states did the income of the top one percent grow by less than fifteen percent.

The enormous concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent was even further concentrated in the top .01 percent. In New York, for instance, someone had to make $506,051 per year to be counted in the top one percent, but $16 million to be in the top .10 percent. The average income within the top .01 percent in New York was a staggering $69 million.

“Most of what’s driving income growth are executives in the financial sector, as well as top managers throughout major corporations,” said Dr. Price. “Those two together are the commanding heights of income in this economy.”

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Dr. Price and his co-author, Estelle Sommeiller, based their study on the methods of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, whose widely-cited research analyzed the growth of income inequality for the United States as a whole. Using state-by-state data from the Internal Revenue Service, much of which had to be compiled from paper archives dating back almost a century, Price and Sommeiller were able to make a state-by-state analysis of income inequality since 1917.

Nationwide, the average income of the top one percent of income earners is 29 times higher than the average income of the bottom 99 percent. But in New York and Connecticut, the average income in the top 1 percent is 51.0 and 48.4 percent higher than the average for the rest of earners, respectively.

New York City is the home of Wall Street and boasts more billionaires than any other city in the world. Connecticut is home to many of the largest hedge funds in the world. Ray Dalio, the founder of Westport, Connecticut-based hedge fund Bridgewater Associates earned $3 billion in 2011 alone.

While the average income of the bottom 99 percent of income earners in New York state was $44,049, the income of the top one percent was $2,130,743. For the United States as a whole, the top one percent earned on average $1,303,198, compared to the average income of $43,713 for the bottom 99 percent.

In California, the most populous US state, the top one percent received an average income of $1,598,161, which was 34.9 times higher than the average pay of the bottom 99 percent. In 2013, four of the highest-paid CEOs in the United States were employed by technology companies, which are disproportionately located in California. At the top of the list was Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, with a current net worth of $53.4 billion, who made $78 million in pay that year.

The study shows that the average income for the bottom 99 percent of income earners is relatively consistent across states, with no state showing an average income of more than 33 percent above or below the average for the whole country.

The average incomes of the top one percent varied widely, however: from $537,989 for West Virginia to $2.1 million in New York. According to Forbes, the wealthiest resident of West Virginia is coal magnate Jim Justice II, who, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, is the state’s only billionaire. New York City, by contrast, has four residents worth more than $20 billion, including chemical tycoon David Koch, with a net worth of $36 billion; former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with a net worth of $31 billion; and financiers Carl Icahn and George Soros, worth $20 billion apiece.

Yet despite the broad disparity in the relative concentration of the ultra-rich, every single state showed a pronounced and growing chasm between the wealthy few and the great majority of society. In Alaska, which has relatively high wages and few billionaires, the incomes of the top one percent were on average more than fifteen times higher than the bottom 99 percent.

The report noted that exploding CEO pay has set “new norms for top incomes often emulated today by college presidents (as well as college football and basketball coaches), surgeons, lawyers, entertainers, and professional athletes.”

Price added, “As the incomes of CEOs and financiers are rising, you’re starting to see that pull, almost like a gravity starting to pull up other top incomes in the rest of the economy.

“A University president might claim, ‘I run a big institution, you expect me to raise money from some of the wealthiest people in the country, you’ve got to pay me a salary that helps me socialize with them.’”

Price said that, while inequality figures are not available nationwide on the local level, his work on income inequality in the state of Pennsylvania shows that income inequality is growing in counties throughout the state, in both rural and urban centers.

Nationwide, the income share of the top one percent fell by 13.4 percent between 1928-1979, a product of the New Deal and Great Society reforms, as well as higher taxes on top earners. These measures were the outcome of bitter and explosive class struggles. But in subsequent years, that trend has been reversed.

As a result, income inequality in New York State was even higher in 2007 than it was in 1928, during the “roaring 20s” that gave rise to the Great Depression. In the period between 1979 and 2007, every state had the income share of the top 1 percent grow by at least 25 percent.

Citing a previous study by the Economic Policy Institute, the report noted that “between 1979 and 2007, had the income of the middle fifth of households grown at the same rate as overall average household income, it would have been $18,897 higher in 2007—27.0 percent higher than it actually was.”

The enormous growth of social inequality is the result of an unrelenting, decades-long campaign against the jobs and living standards of workers. Under the Obama administration, the redistribution of wealth has escalated sharply, through a combination of bank bailouts and “quantitative easing,” which has inflated the assets of the financial elite.

These policies have been pursued by both parties and the entire political establishment which is squarely under the thumb of the corporate and financial oligarchy that dominates American society.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/30/ineq-j30.html

First we take Athens: Europe’s debt colony revolts

By Heathcote Ruthven On January 28, 2015

Post image for First we take Athens: Europe’s debt colony revolts
Syriza’s victory — a product of Greece’s vibrant, antagonistic culture of direct action and prefigurative politics — will resound throughout Europe.
Image: Syriza MEP Manolis Glezos faces off with a riot cop in 2011.
In April 1941, after nearly a year of the Greeks staving off Italian forces, the armies of the Third Reich rolled their tanks into Athens. An Evzoni guarding the Parthenon was ordered to replace the national flag with the fascist ensign. After taking it down, he wrapped himself in the redundant flag and jumped to his death from that democratic theater rock.One evening, barely two months later, Nazi troops were toasting Hitler’s invasion of Crete. Two boys — including the then 18-year-old Manolis Glezos — armed with a knife and lantern, snuck past them, into the Acropolis and captured the billowing Swastika. That evening they tore it to shreds and buried it, keeping rags as souvenirs. Telegrams blazed around the continent, and the action became a call to arms for resistance movements in Greece and beyond.

Why the harsh treatment?

Throughout his life, Glezos has been sentenced to death three times; spent over a decade incarcerated; been memorialized on a Soviet postage stamp; written six books; innovated new systems of flood preventative water irrigation and has been granted honorary professorships in geology, civil engineering, and philosophy. Now 92, he is one of the most prominent members of Syriza — a coalition of radical left parties that has gone from 3% of the national vote in 2004, to 36% today.

Still on the streets in a 2010 Athenian street protest, Glezos was hit in the face by a riot cop and teargassed by another. In 2012, he became a Member of Parliament, and as of 2014 he is representing the party in European Parliament. Bringing an “anti-government, anti-system and anti-Troika” message to Brussels, he campaigns, amongst other things, for reparations from Germany. Here’s an extract of an open letter he penned last year:

Due to bombings, executions, famine, disease, and reduced fertility our country lost 13.4% of its population. The USSR 10%, Poland 8%. Yugoslavia 6%. At the same time it suffered an incredible economic catastrophe: our infrastructure was destroyed, our resources were looted. At the same time our cultural treasures were stolen and taken to Germany.

And yet, 70 years after the end of the occupation our country has not received from Germany any redress, any compensation! When indeed all of the other countries invaded by Germany have received reparations from Germany. All of them except Greece! Why? And furthermore: the loan Greece was forced to make has not been repaid to our country whereas Germany has repaid the equivalent obligatory loans made by Poland and Yugoslavia. Finally the archaeological treasures and priceless works of art which were stolen from Greece have not been returned. Why? What is the reason for this particularly harsh treatment of us?

Europe’s debt colony

‘Harsh treatment’ indeed. In the past four years Greece’s economy has shrunk by a quarter. Child poverty is at 40%. A quarter of a million people are without electricity. Unemployment stands at 26%, and most of these people do not receive benefits. For those in work, job security and wages have been cut and 33% of the population has no health insurance. The list goes on.

The story is a familiar one. The Greek state was lent huge amounts by the IMF and Eurozone countries — it is 175% of it’s GDP in debt — in exchange for brutal austerity conditions to be imposed. Syriza want to stop all of this. The newFinance Minister described the bailout deals, with characteristic Greek flair, as “fiscal waterboarding policies that have turned Greece into a debt colony.” He is now aiming to negotiate 50% of their debt to be wiped off (such a thing has happened many times before, including to Germany in 1953).

Syriza now lead the only anti-austerity government in Europe, with the 40-year-old former communist student leader Alexis Tsipras at the helm. Their emphasis on negotiating with their creditors has drawn criticism from the left, with many accusing them of tempering their views or never really having been that radical in the first place.

Syriza seems to understand the fundamental antagonism of its relationship with the Troika: debtor doesn’t want to pay, lender wants its money back. Along with Spain, Italy, and Ireland, they may have a certain ability to bargain collectively. “We both want us to be in the euro. We’re not going to pay though. Kick us out? Then we’ll all leave and your EU is finished,” so to speak.

Roots in years of struggle

No matter how ideologically brilliant this “formidable coterie of academics, human rights advocates, mavericks and visionaries” may be, there have been two prongs of anarchist practice that have made demands for radical change realistic:

  1. The alternatives: the citizen-run health clinics, food centers, public kitchens, legal aid centers, and various forms of mutual aid co-operatives necessitated by the poverty of recent years;
  2. The critique: riots, hunger strikes against incarceration, occupied factories, strikes, the molotovs. Paul Mason describes the Exarcheia district of Athens — “the last of the great bohemias” — as resisting gentrification by “night after night of barricade fighting and random attacks on TV news crews.”

It is only possible for Syriza to exist because of the country’s vibrant, antagonistic culture of direct action and prefigurative politics. They are the result of years of struggle. To talk about party politics without talking of these networks is entirely illiterate.

What happened in Greece is deeply intertwined with social movements around the world. Syriza would mean nothing without, for example, Spain’s Podemos — a one-year old radical leftist party set to win the 2015 elections. Their victory would put an end to the two-party system that has reigned since Franco. Podemos’ leader, Pablo Iglesias, took to a stage with Tsipras a few days before the election. Side by side, punching their fists in the air, they looked like two cute drunk IT-workers as they sang along to Leonard Cohen’s classic:

They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

The ‘contagion effect’ of this far left victory will resound throughout Europe, boosting support for a range of left parties: Sinn Féin in Ireland, the Greens in United Kingdom, Die Linke in Germany, Parti de Gauche in France, and also in Greece’s historic nemesis Turkey, where marginalized leftist and Kurdish groups such as the HDP have found an ally in Syriza.

The specifics of these groups are unremarkable enough, but the widespread rejection of traditional political parties, and the breakdown of a parliamentary consensus on debt is something new.

Global resonance

There is a feedback loop. Each of these anti-austerity parties is a product of mass social movements. They were created by these social movements, and in turn, the success of these parties will (hopefully) facilitate those movements to progress in creating non-state, non-market networks.

It reaches far beyond Europe. Since 2011, in South America, North Africa, East Asia, and beyond, prefigurative politics have come to the fore in a previously unimaginable way. Around the world, there is a change in common sense about what constitutes democracy, and how to practice it. These behaviors are the murmurs laying ground for our post-capitalist future.

Stepping down from utopia for a moment. The most important reason for thinking outside Europe is simple and ignored: reparations. There is an absence of discussions about what Syriza’s potential successes here could herald. If Germany would repay Greece for the misery it has been in since WWII, it will resound through the (post-)colonized world, and embolden the cries for historical justice long written off as ‘unrealistic.’

Heathcote Ruthven studies Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote his dissertation on the relationship artists and musicians have with capitalism in Iceland.

Follow him on Twitter at @heathcoter.

http://roarmag.org/2015/01/syriza-glezos-tsipras-podemos/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

A Student Jubilee! Liberate 41 Million Americans From Crushing Loan Debt

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‘It is time to forgive this debt and set our students and their families free,’ write the authors. ‘We propose a Student Debt Jubilee which will forgive all $1.3 trillion in American student loan debt.’ (Image: via youtube)

President Obama’s proposal for tuition-free community college education, and the broader discussion which it has inspired, confirms our belief that it is time for a comprehensive solution to a $1.3 trillion problem: student debt in the United States.

We strongly support the concept of tuition-free public higher education, and are encouraged by renewed arguments in its favor. But we must also confront what has been done to the last several generations of students. They have been forced to take on debt that is crippling to them, to our economy and our society.

A student debt “jubilee” would reflect both the values upon which this nation was founded, and the economic principles which have sustained it through its greatest periods of growth and prosperity.

It is time for a truly transformative idea:  Let’s Abolish All Student Loan Debt in America.

If you agree, click here to take action.

Jubilees Then and Now

The Liberty Bell represents our nation’s core values, combining personal freedom with community action. The words inscribed on the Bell – “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof” – are from the Book of Leviticus and refer to a Biblical “Year of Jubilee,” when all debts were periodically forgiven by the nation’s rulers.

Those Jubilee years – proclaimed at 49 year intervals for over 4,000 years – were both moral and practical in nature. On one hand, they were an acknowledgement that prolonged and excessive debt was an unconscionable burden. That morality is woven into the ethical foundation of Western civilization, which accepts the notion of fair debt but rejects indebtedness which is usurious or impinges on human freedom.

But they were also an economic necessity, preserving social harmony while ensuring uninterrupted production. The practical value of debt forgiveness has been explored by scholars who note that it reinforces social cohesion and prevents large groups of people from falling into poverty or oppression.

These goals remain as important today as they were in ancient times. A vibrant middle class is the engine of a functioning economy. A sustainable future is impractical without it.

While “Jubilee Years” were created long ago, the concept lives on today in different forms. Most modern Western societies have drawn on similar moral and practical arguments to end usury, indentured servitude, and slavery. Bankruptcy laws extend a kind of individualized “jubilee” to people who are over-burdened with debt. (Ironically, student debt is exempted from most forms of bankruptcy relief.)

Now we face a new moral challenge.  We need a new and transformative movement, one which echoes the struggles of recent history while drawing its inspiration from ancient traditions. Our massive student debt burden is a moral and ethical challenge. This debt draws upon the as-yet unearned wealth of each new generation, mortgaging tomorrow’s wealth and inhibiting the prosperity of the future.

How did we get here?

The Rise of Student Debt

There was a time in living memory when many Americans could obtain public higher education at little or no tuition cost. Today a college degree has become prohibitively expensive for many, while millions of others are required to borrow extensively in order to meet its soaring costs.

Rather than address the cost of education, the root cause of the problem, the government became the primary lender for student debt,  a move which contributed to runaway costs and crippling indebtedness. As a result, student debt is now the second-largest form of personal debt in this country, exceeding credit card debt and trailing only home mortgages.

Student debt is a dark betrayal at the heart of the American promise, and it must come to an end.

The statistics paint a clear picture: Student debt has soared, and continues to rise. The total amount owed is now $1.3 trillion. Approximately 41 million Americans now carry student debt, a figure which rose 40 percent between 2004 and 2012. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average amount owed for each graduating borrower has risen from less than $10,000 in 1993 to more than $30,000 in 2014 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). This debt has disproportionately affected lower-income Americans, but has affected households at all but the very highest income levels.

It gets worse. Unscrupulous “educators” and loan servicers in the private sector have exploited unwary students and their families. For the last six years, debt-burdened college students have entered the worst employment environment for young people and graduates in modern history. Politicians who have been too timid to tax hedge fund billionaires the same way they tax their personal assistants are ironically using the money from debt-burdened students and their families to offset the loss.

Social factors make the burden even greater.  Upward social mobility is at record lows for the United States, and continues to fall. We pride ourselves on being a nation where “anyone who wants to work hard can get ahead,” but the statistics belie that statement. Education seems to be the last avenue of advancement for lower- and middle-class American young people, many of whom are faced with a terrible choice: either accept their economically disadvantaged lot in life, or assume a crushing debt on the hope that tomorrow’s earnings will eventually offset today’s burden.

This is not a moral system. It is our nation’s Faustian bargain with the future, forcing students and their families to mortgage their hopes and dreams because society is no longer willing to provide them with an education. That is a moral abdication and it has led to a form of indentured servitude for young college graduates, many of whom entered the worst job market in decades.

A Moral – and Practical – Solution

Student debt doesn’t just represent a breakdown in our social conscience. It also reflects a loss in our longstanding economic judgment. The entire society benefits from well-educated citizens, who provide it with better employees, brighter visionaries and leaders, artistic enrichment, and wiser participants in a collaborative democracy.

It is time to forgive this debt and set our students and their families free. We propose a Student Debt Jubilee which will forgive all $1.3 trillion in American student loan debt. Here’s how it can work:  Most student loan debt (approximately 86 percent) is held by the Federal government. That means it is actually owned by the very people who owe the debt.  That debt will can be forgiven by government action. The remainder is held by private lenders and will be the subject of future proposals.

Many people’s first reaction will be: We can’t afford it. While we will provide more detail on the funding process soon, the answer is a simple one:  Yes, we can.

First, let’s reflect on our priorities. The Jubilee would cost less than the 2001 tax cuts, which  primarily benefited the wealthiest among us – and is only slightly more than the ten-year cost of offshore tax loopholes for corporate America.  For another perspective, astudy published 18 months ago showed that the costs of the war in Iraq had already exceeded $2 trillion.

We realize that a “student debt jubilee” will cost money. But it will also stimulate economic growth, by injecting more money into the overall economy, and that growth will provide more tax revenue for the government.  There will also be a major expansionary effect, as young Americans liberated from debt are able to buy homes, start businesses and pursue their dreams. And in the future our economy will benefit from a better-educated population.

Going Forward

As we address today’s student debt, we must also ensure that tomorrow’s college students aren’t forced into excessive debt. We must therefore see to it that residents of every state have access to tuition-free public higher education. This is not a radical notion, or even a new one.  President Obama’s plan for free community college stands on firm footing.  The University of California was tuition-free until the 1960s, for example, and free higher education was available in New York City for well over a century.  Germany has just joined the growing list of nations which offer their citizens a cost-free college education.

We are pleased that the President’s community-college proposal has sparked a new debate about four-year education as well. But tomorrow’s free tuition, should we achieve that goal, will not relieve the crushing debt burden of the past.

We are not naive. We know that this idea will meet with bitter resistance from those who argue that it “rewards the undeserving” or encourages irresponsible borrowing. (Paradoxically, many of those who will make those arguments remained silent as Wall Street was rescued and tax breaks were offered to undeserving financial speculators.) There are those who will argue that the idea is fiscally irresponsible, despite the fact that it will have a positive economic impact in the long-term.

We also know that, while the concept is simple, it will require more thought and discussion. That’s why we will continue to explore and expand upon this proposal until we have reached our goal. This is a new idea to most people. It represents a fundamental shift in our moral universe, just as other such struggles – for workplace rights, women’s rights, and civil rights – have in the past. It is an idea whose time has come.  But these shifts don’t come easily. They take time, and debate – and an organized movement.

We hope you will join us.

If you agree, click here to take action.

“Public sentiment is everything.  With public sentiment, nothing can fail.  Without it, nothing can succeed.”  — Abraham Lincoln

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a senior fellow at Campaign for America’s Future.

Mary Green Swig is a senior fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at  Harvard University and co-founder of the National Student Debt Jubilee Project.

Steven Swig is a senior fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University and co-founder and President Emeritus of the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco.

 

http://www.commondreams.org/views/2015/01/27/student-jubilee-liberate-41-million-americans-crushing-loan-debt

The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9

Obama’s State of Delusion

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22 January 2015

The delusional character of  address on Tuesday—presenting an America of rising living standards and a booming economy, capped by his declaration that the “shadow of crisis has passed”—is perhaps matched only in its presentation by the media and supporters of the Democratic Party.

The general tone was set by the New York Times in its lead editorial on Wednesday, which described the speech as a “simple, dramatic message about economic fairness, about the fact that the well-off—the top earners, the big banks, Silicon Valley—have done just great, while middle and working classes remain dead in the water.”

The attempt to present Obama’s remarks as a clarion call to combat social inequality runs first of all into the inconvenient fact that the individual supposedly making this call has been the head of state for the past six years. The Times writes as if the policies of the Obama administration—the multitrillion-dollar bailout for the banks, the coordinated assault on wages, relentless cuts to social programs and the social counterrevolution in health care known as Obamacare—have nothing to do with the record levels of social inequality that prevail in the United States.

The Times quotes Obama’s question delivered toward the beginning of the speech: “Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes an effort?”

Anyone listening to the speech with even a passing knowledge of the record of his presidency would immediately respond that, for Obama and for the entire political establishment that he heads, the answer is clearly the former.

As for the proposals themselves—including tuition assistance for community colleges, tax credits for child care and college education, an increase in the minimum wage and paid maternity leave—they consist of insincere and paltry measures, tailored to the interests of big business, that no one, least of all Obama, expects will pass.

The Times itself acknowledges, “Mr. Obama knows his prospects of getting Congress to agree are less than zero.” White House officials freely admitted ahead of the State of the Union that Obama had no expectations that the measures he proposed would be taken up on Capitol Hill. “We will not be limited by what will pass this Congress, because that would be a very boring two years,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer told the press before the speech.

Previous State of the Union speeches have produced similar wish lists aimed at generating illusions that Obama sought to advance a “progressive” agenda, proposals dropped as soon as the president completed the obligatory tour of photo-ops and speeches at college campuses.

In his 2014 State of the Union, Obama called for ending tax loopholes for corporations that ship jobs overseas, investing tens of billions in infrastructure projects to create jobs, making pre-kindergarten available to every four-year-old child, regardless of family income, and enacting equal pay for women. Instead, one million people were cut off food stamps, long-term unemployment remained stubbornly high, poverty increased, and wages stagnated.

On the other hand, every major initiative by Obama in domestic policy—the 2009 stimulus program, the 2010 health care reform legislation, the 2010 financial regulatory overhaul, countless budget deals with the congressional Republicans, right up to the executive order on immigration issued a month ago—was dictated by the needs of corporate America, and, in many cases, drafted by corporate lobbyists.

The consequences for working people—record long-term unemployment, a tidal wave of home foreclosures, the slashing of wages in basic industry, the steady decline in living standards over all—were not accidental. They were the deliberate goal of government policy, for both Democrats and Republicans, because mass suffering by the working class was required to obtain the resources needed to bail out the financial aristocracy.

The main purpose of Obama’s remarks was to give the various publications and organizations that orbit the Democratic Party—the Times, the Nationmagazine (whose columnist John Nichols described the spech as a “serious effort to address income inequality”), the trade unions, and the network of pseudo-left organizations that present themselves as “socialist”—fodder for promoting the Democrats in the 2016 elections.

Thus, Obama’s speech was peppered with references aimed at the upper-middle class practitioners of various forms of identity politics (Time magazine, for example, enthused that Obama “made history Tuesday night” by the inclusion in his speech of one word: “transgender”).

Here is how to paint the Democratic Party in progressive colors, he was telling them. Here is how the Democratic Party will seek to fool the American people as it collaborates with the Republicans in enacting ever more right-wing policies over the next two years, combined with endless war abroad and the assault on democratic rights.

The delusions, self-delusions and lies of Obama and his supporters cannot, however, alter the underlying reality of American political life: the unbridgeable gulf between the entire state apparatus and the vast majority of the population. It is notable that Obama’s speech, delivered less than three months after the midterm elections, made no reference to the debacle that the Democratic Party suffered at the polls—due primarily to the collapse in voter turnout produced by six years of right-wing policies from the “candidate of change.”

Perhaps the most striking delusion of all is the belief by the ruling class and its representatives that it can, through a few honeyed and lying phrases, forestall the tidal wave of social opposition that is on the horizon.

Patrick Martin and Joseph Kishore

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/22/pers-j22.html

Delusion and deception in Obama’s State of Union

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By Patrick Martin

21 January 2015

Two weeks ago, the WSWS published its initial review of the results of the year 2014 and the prospects for 2015. We wrote, “In examining the strategies and policies of the ruling elites of one or another country, it would be a mistake to either underestimate their ruthlessness or overestimate their intelligence.”

The State of the Union speech delivered by President Barack Obama Tuesday night confirms this assessment in the case of the United States. The US ruling elite exhibits a determination to stop at nothing in the defense of its wealth and privileges, and pig-headed blindness and stupidity, both on a colossal scale.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Obama’s hour-long address, riddled with tired clichés and empty rhetoric, was the sheer unreality of the picture he presented of America, totally at odds with the actual experience of tens of millions of working people: mounting social and economic crisis, escalating attacks on democratic rights and the growing danger of world war.

“The shadow of crisis has passed,” Obama claimed, declaring that the US has successfully emerged from the economic slump that followed the 2008-2009 financial crash. “At this moment, with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production—we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth.”

No one not hypnotized by the ever-rising share prices on the New York Stock Exchange can accept that as a serious description of American social reality. A few figures released in the past month make this clear:

* Nine million workers are officially unemployed, another six million have dropped out of the labor force, eight million work part-time when they want full-time jobs and 12 million work for temporary employment agencies.

* Real wages have fallen steadily for American workers since 2007, dropping another five cents an hour in December 2014. The real income of the average working-class family is now back to the level of 2000—15 years of stagnation in living standards.

* The US poverty rate has risen from 12.6 percent in 2007 to 14.5 percent in 2013. Nearly half of all Americans and more than half of all US school children are poor or near poor.

* One fifth of American children do not get enough to eat, while the overall rate of food insecurity has jumped from 11 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2013. One million Americans will be cut off food stamp benefits this year.

Obama evaded any discussion of such figures, substituting instead the proposal for “middle-class economics,” a term deliberately chosen to conceal the ongoing attack on jobs and living standards of American workers. It is the latest brand-name his speechwriters have concocted for the policy of both capitalist parties, Democratic and Republican alike, of promoting the interests of American corporations and banks against their foreign rivals and the working class at home.

The State of the Union speech made a brief reference to the monstrous growth of economic inequality, where “only a few of us do spectacularly well,” but Obama passed over in silence the connection between the growth of the fortunes of the super-rich and his own policies. Skyrocketing wealth for the few and mounting social misery for the many are not merely coincidental. They are product of a deliberate policy, spearheaded by the Obama administration, of handing trillions of dollars to the banks while orchestrating a coordinated attack on jobs, living standards and social programs.

Equally unreal was Obama’s depiction of the state of American democracy. “As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened,” he said, “which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained.”

The formal prohibition of torture, however, has been combined with a lengthy rearguard action against the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, in the course of which Obama blocked any prosecution of the torturers. The White House is directly implicated in illegal activities, including the CIA’s spying on the US Senate and its efforts to withhold documents implicating the highest levels of the state in clear violations of national and international law.

As for “constraints” on the use of drones, there are none. The Obama administration has declared that the president has the unlimited right to order the assassination of any person on the planet, including American citizens, using drone-fired missiles, without any judicial review and without regard to US and international law.

Similarly, Obama claimed that “our intelligence agencies have worked hard … to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.” In fact, the NSA, CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies carry out unlimited surveillance on the population of America and the world, vacuuming up all electronic communications, telephone and Internet, and creating massive databases and political dossiers.

In the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, the threat of terrorism has been used as the pretext for building up the structure of a police state in America. This process will only accelerate in the wake of the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the attacks in Paris January 7. Obama declared, “We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we’ve done relentlessly since I took office.”

This was only one of the many occasions in the State of the Union speech where the US president asserted his willingness to use force to insure the primacy of American imperialism over all its rivals. Half his speech was devoted to such threats, including against Russia, a nuclear-armed power, over Ukraine, and against Iran, where Obama, for the second time in five days, threatened to go to war to destroy the country’s nuclear technology program.

Perhaps the bluntest assertion of American supremacy came when Obama discussed negotiations over trade practices within the Asia-Pacific region (including China and Japan, the world’s second-largest and third-largest economies). “We should write those rules,” Obama declared, as though no other country mattered.

While Obama claimed that he had brought the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a close, reducing the total troop deployment in the two countries from 180,000 to 15,000, this represents a shift in focus to a more extensive, not scaled-back, imperialist intervention. The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) deployed forces to 133 countries in 2014, more than two thirds of the globe.

Obama concluded his speech with an appeal to the Republican Party, which now controls a majority of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, for bipartisan collaboration over the next two years. He warned against “always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.”

This language was chosen, not so much to urge the Republicans to resist the pressure of their ultra-right Tea Party faction, as to urge the Democrats to get on with devising bipartisan attacks on the working class, regardless of the popular reaction among workers, particularly the poorest and most oppressed who, if they go to the polls, generally vote for the Democratic Party.

Obama proposed a handful of measures aimed at sustaining the threadbare pretense that the Democrats still adhere to policies of liberal reform—free tuition for community college students and a child care tax credit for working families, to be paid for by increased taxes on the wealthy and the banks. But no one in official Washington takes these seriously for a minute. They are window dressing, while the policy of the US ruling elite moves further and further to the right.

Aside from the delusional character of the speech, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of Obama’s remarks was the fact that, for the vast majority of the population, it was a non-event. Obama stands at the head of a state apparatus that, increasingly, is talking to itself.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/01/21/sotu-j21.html

State of the Union: Twenty Pounds of BS in a Ten-Pound Bag

Wednesday, 21 January 2015 11:11

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, in the House Chamber of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address, in the House Chamber of the Capitol Building in Washington, Jan. 20, 2015. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Let me be perfectly clear from the jump: It was a fine speech, one of the best of President Obama’s political career, which makes it automatically one of the best in the State of the Union’s august history. The last fifteen minutes, in particular, were absolutely soaring, not just in rhetoric, but in the delivery as well. The man parked it as deep as it can be parked, like a majestic David Ortiz line drive deep into the bleachers at Fenway, thanks for coming, turn out the lights when you leave. No one does it better that Barack Obama when the bright lights are on.

…and when it was over, my immediate thought was of Steven the Irishman, the self-declared madman from the film Braveheart. Mel Gibson had just given his rousing speech to keep the Scots from fleeing before the battle at Stirling Bridge.

“Fine speech,” said Steven. “Now what do we do?”

Indeed.

You see, apparently we’ve “turned the page” on the economic wasteland created by our Neo-Con/Neo-Liberal brain trust in Washington. The shadow of crisis has passed, and we’re on a new foundation.

How many people do you know who actually feel that way?

Just about everyone I know is economically scared to death, and most of them are living paycheck to paycheck…and brothers and sisters, I know a whole hell of a lot of people, in all fifty states and most of the territories. I ain’t Pew or Gallup, so take this with as many grains of salt you need to choke it down, but here’s the hard truth: No pages have been turned, and the new foundation is just as porous as the old one…because it’s the same old God damned foundation. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The President of the United States gave a speech on Tuesday night that would, in parts, have gone over like gangbusters at any Occupy rally in the country, and then he turned on a dime to brag about our massively impressive oil and gas production, i.e. fracking and maybe the Keystone XL pipeline, and then went on further to give an impassioned aria about climate change, at which point my brain crawled out of my ear and slithered into the bathroom, where it wept piteously into the cold porcelain truth of the base of the toilet.

Stephen King, in several of his books, deployed a line I’ve never forgotten: “So full of shit you squeak going into a turn.” Between his cheerleading for fracking and his full-court press for the Trans-Pacific Partnership – which he championed again on Tuesday night out of the other side of his mouth – I honestly don’t know how the president sleeps at night, especially after coughing up so many demonstrably phony hairballs about protecting the environment.

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” but gods be good, this is a bridge too far.

And then it got worse.

“Now America thrived in the 20th century,” said the president on Tuesday night, “because we made high school free, sent a generation of G.I.s to college, trained the best workforce in the world. We were ahead of the curve. But other countries caught on.”

Caught on?

Caught on? To what? To this nation’s deliberate defenestration of its manufacturing infrastructure and loyal Union work force, all in the name of a quick buck? Never mind the implication that other nations are incapable of their own innovations, but have to “catch on” to what we do. Yeah, that’s exactly how we wound up in this ditch.

No, you serial apologist, we signed on to trade pacts like the TPP you’re begging for and sold our economic strengths to the lowest bidder. We gave away the best of what we were to serve the people paying your bills and cut our guts out in the process, and you don’t have the courage to tell it like it really is.

It was a fine show on Tuesday night, a masterful performance, and a comprehensive waste of time. Leaving aside everything I’ve said, there is the stone-cold fact that absolutely none of the progressive ideas President Obama proposed on Tuesday night have the vaguest chance of seeing daylight in this new GOP-dominated congress…which begs the question:

Why did he wait until now – when everything he proposed was demonstrably doomed before the words even passed his teeth – to uncork the kind of rhetoric so many of his voters have been waiting for? Was it to poke a stick in the eye of this new assemblage? Perhaps to lay some rhetorical groundwork for the 2016 presidential race?

Or did he never mean any of it in the first place, and said it on Tuesday night secure in the fact that none of it would ever come to pass?

As I said, it was a fine speech. Soaring at points, in fact.

Now what do we do?

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

WILLIAM RIVERS PITT

William Rivers Pitt is Truthout’s senior editor and lead columnist. He is also a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of three books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know, The Greatest Sedition Is Silence and House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America’s Ravaged Reputation. His fourth book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with Dahr Jamail, is available now on Amazon. He lives and works in New Hampshire.

 

http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/28649-twenty-pounds-of-bs-in-a-ten-pound-bag