Counterpunch Articles

Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life” in the Age of Trump and Modi

Forever known by his phrase ‘reverence for life’, Albert Schweitzer was a theologian, moral philosopher, physician and missionary. He was born in Alsace when it was German, and became a French citizen when it reverted back to France after the First World War.

To him this reverence implied regard for and a duty to all human beings, not “confined to blood relations or tribe” (The Teaching of Reverence for Life, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, p. 9). It is an inspiring thought for it leads naturally to peace and the end of wars. He did not claim originality for the idea, noting that Lao-Tse and Confucius among others had already preceded him in espousing it (pp. 9-10). He merely promoted it.

In this he was also of like mind with the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who reminded us of conscience and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. We are strings, he said, “that vibrate in sympathy with others”, endowed with a natural good that propels us to help our neighbors or the distressed (p. 20). I am reminded of my father who always said, “You don’t treat a disease; you treat a patient.”

And then one wonders if these instincts have been consciously suppressed in some human beings. One can think of two current leaders in particular: Donald Trump and Narendra Modi. Trump’s assertion, “he died like a dog” grates even if one violently disagrees with al-Baghdadi’s methods, wrenched as he was from the normal course of his life by a US invasion predicated on false charges.

Then there is Modi and his drumbeat of upper caste Hindu supremacy. As US Representative Ro Khanna noted forcefully in a tweet, “It is the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians.”

It was only a few days ago in India that a 27-year old Dalit man was beaten mercilessly and tossed in the river to die. He had been fishing. His crime: a refusal to give his catch to a nearby Brahmin who wanted an equal share. If it needs reminding, a Brahmin belongs to the highest caste, a Dalit or Untouchable to the lowest — someone who is frequently not allowed to use the village well. The Dalit man killed was the sole support of his family.

For the people of Kashmir there is little respite. A beautiful valley that could attract tourist dollars, instead is invaded by Indian troops. When the Kashmiris protest their humiliation through demonstrations, even children are blinded by pellet guns. Photos show decaying towns where empty streets are patrolled by sullen soldiers.

In Chile, protesters show no let-up and the country can no longer host the COP 25 climate change meeting. Spain has offered to step in, despite its own Catalan independence movement problems.

Examples of human strife do not end here. Yet in the present era there is a common goal for humanity for it faces the existential threat of climate change. Surely then we can form a common bond, extend Schweitzer’s reverence to include all life, and strive to save our one and only home. As Schweitzer observes (p. 31), “Reverence for life, arising when intelligence operates upon the will to live, contains within itself affirmation of the universe and of life.”

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Remove the Cows Not the Conifers

There is much debate in the scientific community about whether conifer “encroachment” is unnatural or due to ordinary ecological succession after massive wildfires.

Conifer removal is being promoted in the name of sage grouse recovery, though the real reason is to encourage higher forage production for livestock.

One of the myths perpetuated by the livestock industry is the notion that frequent low-severity fires occurred every 10-25 years in sagebrush ecosystems. So, the logic goes if fires were that frequent, conifers like juniper would be killed except for those growing in rocky areas where fires were limited.

There is debate about the accuracy of fire scar studies that are used to justify conifer removal. Some scientists feel the methodology of fire scar studies portray fire to be more frequent than may have occurred.

Recent research has found that wildfire in sagebrush ecosystems is far less frequent than previously assumed. Depending on the species of sagebrush, the fire rotation varies from 50-400 years.

Mountain big sage, the most common sagebrush on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, typically burns on several-hundred-year rotations.

As a result, there are extended periods in the absence of fire when juniper or other conifers can readily colonize an area.

Furthermore, juniper burns during severe droughts on a fire rotation of 400-600 years in stand replacement blazes of high severity. Then it takes centuries for them to repopulate an area.

Many of the areas where juniper and other conifers are said to be invading are merely recolonization after massive fires that occurred during periodic warm spells and drought that happened in the past.

The justification for conifer removal is to enhance the recovery of sage grouse. However, there are worse things that can impede sage grouse recovery than conifer spread.

Indeed, one of the negative consequences of the disturbance that accompanies conifer removal is the establishment and spread of cheatgrass. Cheatgrass, an annual grass, is highly flammable. In many parts of the West, cheatgrass and the wildfire they sustain is the biggest threat to sagebrush ecosystems and sage grouse.

An inconvenient truth that the land management agencies, often fail to acknowledge is that the presence of livestock facilitates the invasion of cheatgrass. Livestock trample the biocrusts that are common in arid land grass and shrub ecosystems. These biocrusts inhibit the establishment of cheatgrass.

While it’s true that sage grouse avoid areas of dense conifers, the idea that avian predators use juniper trees for perches is also bogus. The primary bird of prey that is a threat to sage grouse is golden eagles. In all my years, I’ve never seen a golden eagle in a juniper tree. To the degree that eagles may utilize juniper for perches, it is exceedingly rare and that is also the conclusion of five sage grouse and hawk experts I consulted.

However, what is well established is avian predators use that fence posts. And why do we have fences everywhere? You guessed it. Due to livestock grazing.

Furthermore, some studies show up to 30% of sage grouse mortality is due to collisions with fences. Why are there fences all over the public land? Again livestock grazing.

The grazing of grasslands reduces the abundance and height of grass and other plants exposing sage grouse nests and birds to predators.

There is a ton of research showing that cattle compaction of soils and damage to riparian areas has damaged watersheds and is responsible for decline in stream flows. These wetlands and riparian areas are critical habitat to sage grouse chicks early in life when they feed on insects and forbs. Livestock is responsible for the degradation of the majority of all riparian areas across the West.

What is abundantly clear if you review the science on sage grouse is that livestock production poses a far greater threat to sage grouse survival than conifer “invasion.” If one wants to really help sage grouse (and other sagebrush dependent species), land management agencies would be advocating for the removal of livestock, not conifers, from our public lands.

 

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Statement of Solidarity with the People of Haiti

November 6, 2019

The Haitian Studies Association is an interdisciplinary scholarly organization created in 1987. Our mission is to promote the production, exchange, and dissemination of ideas and knowledge about Haiti and its Diaspora in a global context in order to inform pedagogy, practice, and policy.

International media often portray Haiti as being in continuous crisis since the successful revolution against slavery for independence and the birth of the Republic of Haiti in 1804. This representation of Haiti’s national history concurrently silences real concerns in the country and paints an incomplete picture of the current situation and its transnational roots and global connections. Throughout the world, people are protesting against neoliberal austerity, state corruption, the shift to authoritarianism, and unbridled repression. In exceptionalizing Haiti, Western critics fail to consider how Haitians fight valiantly for their freedom and sovereignty.

Mass outcries began in July 2018 after the International Monetary Fund directed the Haitian government to increase gas prices. Food prices rise as gas prices rise, since Haiti imports more than 50% of its food. These initial protests led some to question, “Where are the PetroCaribe funds?” Noting a number of incomplete infrastructure and sanitation projects throughout the country, activists demanded an inquiry into the dilapidation of more than $2 billion of PetroCaribe money earmarked for development. Haiti’s Supreme Court of Accounts and Administrative Litigation (CSCCA) found evidence of official corruption in which President Jovenel Moïse is implicated.

Since July 2018, protests have been met with repression. To date, the National Haitian Police (PHN) has killed too many protestors. The signatories of the two CSCCA reports have been threatened and many have gone into exile. Gangs for hire terrorize the population at large, especially neighborhoods known for dissent.

The massacre and dismemberment of approximately 60 people, including six children, in La Saline, in November 2018 still looms in the collective memory of protestors. Moreover, at least three journalists who critique state violence have been targets of extra-judicial killings. The Haitian state has been complicit in its inaction. People are dying: schools and healthcare facilities are closed.

Following the 31st Annual Conference in Gainesville from October 17 to October 19, 2019, while noting the absence of many HSA members living and working in Haiti, professors and students alike, wherein there was a strong show of support by more than a majority of attendees to take a position on the current situation in Haiti, the Haitian Studies Association issues this statement of solidarity with Haitians of all social categories, who demand change, government accountability, justice, security and a more dignified life.

HSA members are citizens and residents of many countries including Haiti, the United States, and Canada. We belong to and identify with diverse racial and ethnic communities with distinct political ideologies and religious beliefs.

As a collective of scholars of and on Haiti, it is our ethical imperative to add our voice in solidarity to demand:

+ Government accountability, beginning with an investigation and trial of the officials who embezzled the PetroCaribe funds;

+ The current Haitian President Jovenel Moïse to respect the rule of law;

+ The protection of the freedom of speech and assembly without fear of reprisal;

+ The protection of all Haitians from all forms of violence;

+ The protection and support for researchers in official investigations;

+ The non-intervention of foreign governments and agencies in the internal affairs of Haiti.

Ak tèt ansanm (In solidarity)!

The Haitian Studies Association

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Republicans, Not Russians, Threaten Our Elections

Republicans are less likely to win elections when voter turnout is high.

It’s true: Four of the five states with the highest voter turnout voted blue in the last presidential and midterm elections. All are crucial swing states.

In 2016, the one that didn’t — Wisconsin — instituted a strict voter ID law that suppressed around 200,000 voters. Trump won the state by only 22,000 ballots.

Even Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell agrees. He called the notion of making Election Day a federal holiday, which would make it easier for working people to vote, a “power grab” by Democrats.

Unfortunately for Trump, McConnell, and the Republican Party, 2020 voter turnout is expected to reach record levels.

This leaves the party with two options. They can broaden their message to appeal to an increasingly diverse electorate… or suppress the voters that don’t share their values.

Sadly, their attacks on voting rights across the country make it clear which path they chose. Republican-led state legislatures have been rolling back voting rights in virtually every state they control in recent years.

The flood gates opened a few years ago, when the Supreme Court gutted the “pre-clearance rule” of the Voting Rights Act, a capstone achievement of the civil rights movement. That rule required states with histories of racist voter suppression to seek federal approval prior to altering their electoral rules.

The results have been ghastly.

Texas ended temporary voting locations, reducing access for rural voters and college students. Arizona restricted the use ofemergency voting centers and passed a more rigid voter ID law targeting Native Americans.

Less than two years ago, Georgia removed over half a million voters from its rolls. Right now it’s in the process of purging an additional 330,000 voters, mostly in Democratic-leaning districts.

In recent years, nine Republican-controlled states have closed 1,688 polling places. All nine were previously beholden to the pre-clearance rule, and all nine have significant minority populations.

Plainly, these rollbacks and closures disproportionately harm voters of color.

And it may get worse. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will soon determine whether districts that dilute minority votes through racial gerrymandering can be compelled to redraw their maps to ensure that minorities have an equal opportunity to choose their representatives.

The issue at hand is a section of the Voting Rights Act called the “results test,” which forbids any law that has the purpose or effect of curtailing the minority vote. It’s just a matter of time before the results test makes its way to the GOP-controlled Supreme Court, which could well strike it down.

Ever since the 2016 elections, politicians have agonized over foreign interference in our elections. But the truth is, it’s vote-suppressing Republicans, not Russians, who are the greatest threat to American democracy.

But hope is not lost.

Communities are taking things into their own hands, advocating for and winning automatic voter registration and same-day registration, upending proposed voter roll purges, and requesting absentee ballots.

Then there’s the For the People Act, which promises to restore the Voting Rights Act to full strength. It easily passed the House and is now sitting on McConnell’s desk itching for a chance to be taken up for a vote in the Senate.

It should get one. I’m not asking for much — just for my right, and the rights of other people of color, to have our votes counted. Political parties aside, our fundamental right to vote must be respected.

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On Coffee, Cantatas, and Unwed Daughters Crossing the Threshold

Your Musical Patriot has returned from the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, held this year in Boston—if you have the nerve to call the “redeveloped” harbor district where the meeting was held “Boston.” This desert of overpriced glass and steel could be detached from the peninsula of the old city and dragged across oceans to any global hub, from Saudi Arabia to Singapore, without anyone being able to divine its provenance. Having flown in from around the country and the world, the musicologists didn’t pay much heed to their pre-apocalyptic surroundings. Instead, they busied themselves with scholarly inquiries that ranged across the centuries and the globe, from “A Genealogy of the Recital Encore” to “Rethinking the Vibrational Politics of Solidarity in the Anthropocene.”

There was business to be done, too: books to be pitched and launched—including my own! Surfing the wave of enthusiasm that surged through the carpeted corridors and faux-colonial ball rooms of the convention hotel, I offer this excerpt from one of the later chapters of my recently published volume Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks.

Bitter Bean and Loose Ließgen — On Coffee, Cantatas, and Unwed Daughters Crossing the Threshold

Anna Magdalena’s musical albums were precious personal belongings to be used alone as well as shared with other members of the family. The owner filled in many of the pages with dances and songs, while her husband contributed ambitious keyboard works, and her children and stepchildren their early compositional efforts. This fare was infused with music and ideas from beyond the home. Amongst the Notebooks’ fashionably cosmopolitan minuets and polonaises there were grand connoisseurs’ suites whose nationally-inflected movements made for a veritable travelogue through Europe. Along these imagined journeys, the traveler could fortify herself with pious chorales and devotional melodies, and also indulge in diverting reflections on the joys of tobacco, and by implication, other bourgeois pleasures enjoyed in the home and in public places like Leipzig’s many coffee houses. Galant songs of love and sadness charmed and consoled, gracing the private realm, but suitable, too, for informal gatherings in semi-public salons.

This musical mélange expressed refinement at the keyboard and away from it. The Notebooks reveal that the Bach family (with its Wilcke addition) was changing: the contents belong to a world different from that of their forbears, those countless musicians who had so long lived and worked in Thuringia and Saxony: galant culture molded the conception of music and the good life embodied in the albums. Notebooks like Anna Magdalena’s were an expression of elevated bourgeois living, like the coffee service and other fashionable accessories that graced the Bach home. The Notebooks were—and are— emblems of feminine accomplishment and improvement, both musical and social.

If, as so many enthusiasts and scholars have maintained, the Notebooks offer an intimate glimpse into the marriage of Anna Magdalena Wilcke and Johann Sebastian Bach, these collections also reveal much about relationships among the generations and, more generally, between the sexes. The Bach daughters must have used their mother’s Notebooks, too, even if, in contrast to the boys, no girl’s hand has yet been identified in their pages. All the children were musically talented and trained, though the quality and scope of their tuition was certainly determined by gender. The males were being prepared for professional careers in the family trade, but the females, too, learned to sing and play. The Notebooks would have helped the girls to develop their musical skills and in so doing to increase their attractiveness to prospective spouses. In this chapter I want to examine a constellation of concerns involving sex, love, marriage, consumer culture, and upward mobility, and follow these themes out across the threshold of the Cantor’s apartments into urban, Enlightened Leipzig. There we can learn much about the hopes and fears Anna Magdalena and her husband harbored for their female children. Contemporary debates about daughters and fathers, mothers and marriage, pleasure and obedience throw light back on to the uses and meanings of the music of the Notebooks and the woman they belonged to.

Fashionable female enjoyment of coffee, clothing, and song was both encouraged and contested by authors and composers in books, conversations, and music—words printed, spoken, and sung. Contributions to, and awareness of, these debates was both a sign of cultural currency and itself a form of galant delectation. The refinements of dress, deportment, and singing were practiced at home, but they were also performed in public, perhaps even by the musical Bach daughters. Four of these girls survived to adulthood: did they enjoy more than simply singing about, or listening to, songs like the Aria di Giovannini (BWV 518) inscribed in Anna Magdalena’s 1725 Notebook and devoted to the promise and perils of hidden love? Did its message speak to their own expectations and desires? Did the Bach girls delight in coffee, conversation, and courting, as well as in vocal and keyboard performance? All these questions were encompassed by the most important one of all: Would the Bach daughters be married?

Public Consumption

As the Bachs’ library reminded them, finding a husband for a family’s young women and sending them safely out into the world was a basic duty of fathers—and sometimes mothers, especially when they were widowed. This parental worry is at the center of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Coffee Cantata (BWV 211) and demands attention, literally so when, at its very start, a tenor springs up from the midst of a noisy coffee house or somewhat less boisterous salon, to command the assembled company to:

Quiet down, stop jabbering,
And listen to what happens now:
Schweigt still, plaudert nicht
Und höret, was itzund geschicht:

The announced entertainment is not only to be watched by those gathered, but also to be participated in. The lines are delivered as recitative, direct musical speech in the present tense addressed to the audience, interrupting the din and inviting all to eavesdrop on a spat between the cantata’s two characters: the hapless father, Schlendrian, and his impudent daughter Ließgen. The text once again is by Johann Sebastian Bach’s main literary collaborator in Leipzig, Picander, who also wrote the libretto for the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), but this coffeehouse tenor does not stick around like the persistent Evangelist does on Good Friday. After making his public-service announcement, the pop-up narrator withdraws as quickly as he had appeared to let the father-daughter pair spar and pout without him: their conflict over coffee is a family matter aired in public. There is no instrumental prelude or introductory snippet to clear the air. Instead this opening plunges the action into its social surroundings, reveling in performance in a vibrant Leipzig nightspot. It is a comedy not just staged in the public sphere but proudly, even obstreperously, part of it.

The Coffee Cantata was composed sometime in the first half of the 1730s during Johann Sebastian Bach’s tenure as director of one of Leipzig’s two Collegia musica. The ensemble he led presented its programs in Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffeehouse or, in the summer, in the owner’s pleasant garden near the city’s Grimma Gate. Given the subject matter, Zimmermann’s establishment has seemed to most historians the likely performance venue for the piece. More recently, however, Katherine Goodman has proposed that the piece could have been performed at sometime Bach collaborator Christiane Mariane von Ziegler’s salon, held in her grand house just down the Catharinenstraße from Zimmermann’s. The cantata could well have been presented at both venues: the piece has all the traits of a favorite that, like the beverage at its center, was ready for reheating wherever coffee was drunk—which was pretty much everywhere in Leipzig during the Bachs time there.

A 1725 guide to Leipzig by the Dresden auctioneer Johann Christian Crell writing under the pen name of Iccander—a moniker not coincidentally close to that of Picander since both belonged to a literary society called the Blumen– und Elbschwanorden whose members favored such Greekified pseudonyms—gives a vivid impression of the lively milieu into which the cantata’s opening lines were tossed:

The entertainment of both locals and outsiders of high and low standing belonging to both the masculine and feminine sexes is increased by the eight officially-sanctioned public coffee houses, which are rightly famous both on account of their lovely settings, view, and pleasant accommodations, as well as by virtue of the grand assemblies that appear there, since the people who gather find pleasant diversion partly in the reading of all kinds of newspapers and historical books, and partly in society games (Academie de Jeux)—ingenious and permissible amusements such as chess, ladies’ games, and billiards.

Not mentioned here is music, though along with the pastimes listed by Crell, we see this being pursued in the famous frontispiece to Sperontes’ Singende Muse, that defining image of galant Leipzig, and a publication contemporary with the Coffee Cantata.

Leipzig’s other Collegium Musicum also held its musical evenings variously in the town hall’s wine cellar (Ratskellar) and another of the city’s famed locales, Helwig’s Coffee House. To be heard at all these venues was cosmopolitan music well-suited to the galant set. That the lady closest to the viewer in the Sperontes’s image plays the clavichord conveys how porous the border was between private and public spheres when it came to feminine music-making. She appears to be reading from an unseen book, perhaps, one is encouraged to imagine, a must-have publication like the Singende Muse itself. Or maybe she has brought along her own notebook. A well-dressed man at her table is listening intently: is he a suitor, the woman’s music master, or both? As the satyr hiding beneath the pair indicates, the gentleman’s focused attention could well be motivated by romantic interest, but it also seems to demonstrate the importance of women’s music-making as something that participated in, and contributed to, fashionable topics and tastes.

Sperontes, Singende Muse an der Pleiße (Leipzig, 1736)

The opening exhortation of BWV 211 seeks not only to quell the hub-bub as if from amidst its source, but also to frame the proceedings as a play within the drama occurring every night in a coffee house—a place of argument and gossip, games and flirtation, looking and being seen. From the start of the cantata the “grand assembly” described by Crell is directly involved, activated as auditors and viewers, and afterward (or perhaps even during the music) as commentators. They are not safely insulated from the action: the tenor makes them complicit in the entertainment because the story has to do with them, their foibles and follies, desires and fears. This is social comment camouflaged as comedy.

As was often the case in the repartee of coffee house conversationalists and gamers, the digs and swipes of the Bach/Picander intermezzo found their animating hilarity in contentious current topics. The potential divisiveness of these themes gives the humor its bite; the social implications of what was being laughed at impinged directly on the Bachs themselves, especially on the women of the family. In just a few printed pages, Picander’s libretto, along with the concluding reversal of the last two numbers added to the cantata by an unknown author, rattles off a veritable wish-list of galant accessories; these goods in turn signified other larger issues confronting a society ruled by a stern theocracy, yet increasingly being pried loose from religious control by the consumerist pull of modernity and the Enlightened ethics of personal pleasure. Coffee was then, as now, more than a trendy drink. For urban dwellers in the German states of the eighteenth century it was a steaming symbol not just of luxury and leisure, but also of women’s entry into the public sphere. Iccander’s account of Leipzig locales mentions both men and women seemingly on equal footing; alongside smoking, coffee-drinking, and making conversation, women might well have sung there, too, none more expertly than the one-time Cöthen Sängerin, Anna Magdalena Bach after her arrival in the city in 1723.

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Inequality and the Iron Law of Decaying Public Services

Photograph Source: Dave Hosford – CC BY 2.0

Fires are raging everywhere in California these days, and firefighters are having enormous trouble keeping up. Chronically understaffed local fire departments simply don’t have the resources to handle act one of what climate change has in store for us.

California’s wealthy aren’t particularly worrying about that lack of resources — because they have more than enough of their own. They can afford to shell out up to $25,000 per day for one of the private firefighting services that are popping up in California wherever the rich call home.

In a deeply unequal America, none of this should surprise us. Public services almost always take it on the chin in societies where wealth starts furiously concentrating. Why should inequality have this impact? A little incendiary parable — on tennis — might help us understand.

Imagine yourself in a comfortable suburban county. Every corner of the county has a pleasant public park, and most every park sports a tennis court or two. All comers can volley away on these free public courts, and every once in a while, on especially beautiful Saturday mornings, the courts can get a bit crowded. Players may even have to wait for court time.

But some local racket enthusiasts, the county’s wealthiest racket enthusiasts, never have to wait to play tennis. These players have had private tennis courts installed on their own ample grounds. They play whenever they want.

Installing a private court, of course, can run many thousands of dollars. In our imaginary suburban county, only a handful of local families — maybe one family in a thousand — have the sort of wealth necessary to afford a private court. Local contractors understand this market reality. Few of them bother offering private tennis court-making services. Private courts remain costly and rare.

But what if wealth in our tennis-loving county suddenly starts to concentrate? What if ten families in a thousand could suddenly afford to think about installing a home tennis court? At this point, contractors might start to take notice. More of them might start hawking court-construction services. Prices for private tennis courts would soon start sinking. A wider circle of affluent households would now be able to afford them.

Those affluent who choose to take the private plunge would, naturally enough, no longer frequent the county’s public courts. They would do all their volleying at home and invite their friends to join them. Eventually, noticeably fewer people are frequenting the public courts.

Local parks officials, in response, start devoting fewer dollars to court upkeep. The courts start deteriorating. Tennis buffs of modest means, disturbed by these shabbier courts, start looking for alternative places to play. A clever entrepreneur notes this burgeoning new market for quality tennis facilities and opens an enclosed tennis bubble. Tennis buffs of modest means quickly begin reserving court time in the new bubble.

For a fee, of course.

Back in the public parks, ever fewer people are now playing tennis. Parks officials start ignoring downed nets. Why bother keeping nets up, after all, when hardly anyone is knocking balls over them anymore? The public courts soon start going to seed. They become eyesores.

The commons in our imaginary county — the public space with access and services for all — has, in effect, been downsized.

Where wealth concentrates, our commons will always downsize. At some point, in every community becoming more unequal, affluent people will come to feel they’ll be better off going life alone, on their own nickel — better off installing their own private courts, better off sending their kids to private schools, better off living in a privately guarded gated development.

The greater the numbers of affluent who forsake the commons, the greater the danger the commons will be in. The affluent, in more equal communities, may grumble about paying taxes for public services they do not use. But grumbling will usually remain all they can do. In communities where wealth is concentrating, by contrast, the affluent have the clout and the numbers to go beyond grumbling. They mobilize politically to slash budgets and roll taxes back. And they succeed, because fewer people, in an unequal community, have a stake in the public services that taxes support.

With every such “success,” with every budget cutback, with every resulting deterioration in public services, the constituencies for maintaining quality public services shrink. Those who can afford to make the shift to private services, to reserve time in private tennis bubbles, do so.

With fewer people using public services, more budget cutbacks become inevitable. Services deteriorate still further. People of distinctly modest means now find themselves depending on private services, even if they really can’t quite afford them. Deteriorating public services leave them no choice.

This dynamic unfolds so predictably whenever wealth concentrates that one economist, the University of Chicago’s Sam Peltzman, has even formulated a “law” to account for it. Growing income equality, holds Peltzman’s Law, “stimulates growth of government.” Growing inequality has the exact opposite effect. In societies becoming more unequal, taxpayers are less likely to support spending that enhances a society’s stock of public goods and services.

“If wealth and income are unequally distributed, the ‘winners,’ so to speak, will want to maintain their advantage,” explain historians Carolyn Webber and Aaron Wildavsky. But “if substantial equality already exists, then citizens will want still more of it.”

Over recent decades, government spending in the United States has followed Peltzman’s Law as assuredly as if Congress had enacted it. Spending for public goods and services increased in times of growing equality, in the 1950s and 1960s, and fell significantly in the 1980s and 1990s, when gaps in income and wealth started rapidly growing wider.

In California, America’s middle class heaven after World War II, $1 of every $100 Californians earned in the 1950s went for the commons, for building schools, roads, water systems, and other public goods and services. By 1997, California had become the nation’s most unequal state. In that year, of every $100 Californians earned, only seven cents went for public services. The result: a massive deterioration of the California commons, from schools to roads.

In the late 1990s, notes the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson, three-quarters of the teachers hired by the Los Angeles school district, “lacked teaching credentials.” Freeways in the area remained “among the most clogged in the country.”

Americans, by century’s end, could see the same sort of disinvestment in public goods and services throughout the United States, and this disinvestment has continued. Unfortunately and dangerously, so has climate change, another product of our deeply unequal nation and world. The predictable end result: Middle-class homes burn while private fire services save the mansions of the awesomely affluent.

Tennis, anyone?

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Mexico: One Failed US War Doesn’t Justify Another

Photograph Source: Diego Fernández – Public Domain

On November 4, ten dual US-Mexican citizens — members of an offshoot sect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — died in a highway ambush, apparently the latest casualties of rampant and violent drug cartel activity in northern Mexico.

US president Donald Trump promptly called upon “Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!”

Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador just as promptly rejected Trump’s proposal.  That’s not surprising. He ran for president on a platform that includes ending, not escalating, Mexico’s status as a battlefield in the decades-long US “war on drugs,” a war that created, and continues to empower, the cartels.

AMLO’s right. Inviting direct US military intervention into Mexico’s internal affairs is not the solution.

The solution is for the US to re-situate American demand for recreational drugs from violent and corrupt “black markets” to peaceful legal markets.

After several decades of US regulatory, law enforcement, and military war on drugs, the “winners” of the war remain the cartels (who rake in billions serving customers forbidden to buy what they want legally) and US government agents (who dispose of huge budgets and earn comfortable salaries while boasting little impact on drug use at either the demand or supply ends).

Many (probably most) Americans like to get high.

Everything else being equal, they’d probably prefer to buy their marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and so forth from their local pharmacies, at reasonable prices and in known quantity, purity, and potency.

But if they can’t do that, they’re not going to stop getting high just because the US government tells them they must not. They’ll buy their drugs wherever they can find those drugs, even at the risk of being killed by the product or by the product’s sellers.

“Black market” sellers make bank on drugs because “white market” sellers don’t exist. The more money they make, the more they have to spend bribing government officials,  buying weapons with which to protect their drugs and their profits, and battling their competitors for market share with bullets rather than with lower prices or higher quality.

In the “war on drugs,” there was never any chance that the drugs would lose. Who does lose? All of us who continue to tolerate our rulers’ deadly and expensive folly.

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The Language of Erasure

Ecuadorian refugees near Guatemala – Public Domain

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

– Warsan Shire, from her poem “Home.”

Last month UK authorities came across a gruesome scene. Thirty-nine bodies were discovered in a freight truck in Essex. Most of these unfortunate souls originally came from Vietnam and were abandoned to die an agonizing, suffocating death alone; the alleged victims of human trafficking. It is not the first time that this has happened. In 2015 Austrian officials found seventy-one bodies in a truck lorry outside Vienna. And in 2000, the bodies of fifty-eight Chinese people were found in a container in Kent.

Many of the victims in the recent episode in Essex were from Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces of Vietnam, a region hit with disastrous policies of financial austerity and a monumental human caused environmental catastrophe in 2016, the worst in Vietnam’s history. Over 125 miles of coastline was sullied and marine life decimated in a toxic chemical spill from a steel plant. Those most severely impacted by the disaster have received little to no compensation for livelihoods that have been lost, and protest to this corporate and government malfeasance has been brutally crushed. Indeed, the tale of the burgeoning, global refugee crisis is one inextricably linked to deliberate policies of neoliberal-style economic disenfranchisement, corporate or military caused environmental devastation, militarized state surveillance and repression of dissent, and accelerating climate change related disasters.

Around the world millions of desperate people are facing near impossible challenges. Increasing drought and flood seasons have made it ever more difficult to grow food in many regions. Intense heat and fires have devastated ecosystems and the communities that depend upon them for survival. Others face violence from the state or from criminal gangs. More live under intolerable economic conditions. These people will do whatever they can for themselves and their families to survive. They will do what any human being would do when faced with catastrophe. They will flee.

In fact, according to a recent report by the UN, refugees have been increasing globally at a rate that outpaces world population growth. And last month a study from Nature Communications released its findings in this regard. It warned that rising seas will flood scores of coastal cities and communities, putting at least 300 million people at risk. Most of these people reside in what is referred to as the global south, and will have to eventually relocate for basic quality of life and even survival. But thanks to apathy, a dearth of planning and deliberate belligerence from world governments, they will face enormous obstacles and violent repression as they do. We know this because today hundreds of millions of people traverse near intolerable landscapes and tumultuous seas each year, attempting to escape famine, war, criminal violence, drought, and ecological disasters. Most have little choice but to entrust shady third parties to make their perilous sojourn. Many spend their life savings. Many traverse cold, wild oceans and fiercely hot deserts. Many die as a result. And almost all face uncertain futures if they reach their intended destination.

One sea, the Mediterranean, has become an ocean of despair in the first two decades of this century. Taking to the cold and raucous waters, many embark on a journey to a better life in shoddy boats or rafts. Thousands have perished. And the risk they take is not only in regard to environmental conditions. Several European nations have criminalized their desperate attempt for survival. And those who decide to assist these drowning people are subject to the most draconian of penalties. German ship captain Pia Klemp faces 20 years in prison for rescuing at least 14 thousand refugees from a horrifying death at sea. And it isn’t only in Europe. Scott Warren of No More Deaths, was charged with three felonies for leaving water, food and other provisions in the unforgiving Sonoran Desert for immigrants. Each year hundreds of people perish there too while attempting to make it to the north.

But the greatest irony of our times is that the global north has become the primary destination for refugees. The vast majority of the world who are suffering the consequences of Western military interventions, corporate economic exploitation and pollution, and climate change fueled catastrophe are fleeing to the main source of these maladies. So it comes as little surprise that there has been a subtle shift in the language around this issue.

You may have noticed at this point that I prefer to use the term refugee rather than migrant. This is because the word migrant infers that these human beings chose to embark on perilous journeys because it is their way of life. An integral part of who they are. It is not. The vast majority of refugees have been displaced from regions they have traditionally called home. Places they have a history in. Communities, ecosystems and economies which have been drastically altered or destroyed thanks to powers beyond their control. The powers of capital. Politicians, the military, the corporate media and even some NGOs and think tanks have chosen the word “migrant,” and this is not by accident.

When we hear the word migrant we often associate it with migratory birds or mammals. It is only recently that we have come to associate it with human beings. The insidious logic is simple: if you are a people without a permanent home or land, you are not a people who have a right to be someplace else. You are permanently transitory. And this has been the same argument made against many indigenous and nomadic peoples who have ancestral lands they traverse throughout the seasons of a year, but no city they reside in year round. It is also a term that is almost exclusively used to describe people of color. And it is a terminology with a purpose: erasure.

When people are deliberately dispossessed of their ancestral homelands they must be rendered permanently homeless. They must be cast in a light of obfuscation. That is, the causes of their dispossession must be obscured. There can be no discussion of belligerent foreign policy or corporate plunder from the global north. No talk of the decades of subversion of democracy movements or democratically elected governments by the West. No truth telling when it comes to who is the biggest contributor to climate change, who has the biggest carbon footprint, or who has polluted and raped the planet the most.

Even when refugees are talked about in relatively sympathetic language, there is obfuscation. “They are fleeing dictatorship, or crime and drug gangs in their own country,” it often goes. But it generally stops there. No discussion of the legacy of colonialism or imperialism. So in this light, the language around the term “migrant” becomes very important. Dehumanization, even when subtle, is still dehumanization. A migrant isn’t someone forcibly removed or displaced from their home. It is a personal choice. They are migrating, just like birds or caribou. It’s natural. They do not garnish lasting sympathy or even solidarity because, as the term suggests, they won’t be here or anywhere long enough for us to care too deeply. They will not form communal bonds with us. They will move on. In short, they are not us.

So then when a society tolerates children being forcibly removed from their parent’s arms and placed in squalid cages without even the kindness of human touch or embrace, or the prosecution of people who try to save fellow human beings from drowning in the sea or dying of thirst or exposure in the desert, we should take a long, hard look at the language being used. The term “migrant” is not as loathsome as Donald Trump’s association of immigrants and refugees with rapists or criminals. It is not as hideous as far right politicians and some media personalities calling them cockroaches, or a cancer, or “infiltrators.” But perhaps that is what makes the term even more dangerous. It has become an acceptable term even though it obscures the causes of why these people are moving in the first place. It denies the culpability of the global north in their plight and ignores their right as fellow human beings to seek a better life by subtly erasing their humanity. And when any dehumanization becomes acceptable, the path toward atrocity becomes ever wider.

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How Unofficial Capital Controls Stopped a Run on the Banks in Lebanon

Photograph Source: @joefoodie – CC BY 2.0

Lebanon’s banks were closed for two weeks due to the mass protests throughout the country. The banks opened last Friday (1 November). There was the expectation of a run on the banks and massive capital flight as Lebanese, expatriate Lebanese and foreigners withdrew their cash. It didn’t happen, but it doesn’t mean that all is well despite the repeated assurances of the banks, the Central Bank, and the Association of Banks in Lebanon. The banks are playing fast and loose with the realities on the ground.

Bank Audi, the largest bank in the country, tried to reassure investors in its weekly report: “Lebanese banks succeeded on Friday the stress test, as they ensured their customers’ needs firmly and promptly. This is also attributed to people’s awareness and sense of responsibility in addition to the high level of cooperation between banks’ employees and clients. This has helped sweep away all fears and rumors that reigned over markets shortly before banks re-opened their doors. In fact, banks’ clients became more aware about Lebanon’s capability to face challenges.”

There was minimal “awareness” or “responsibility” by the banks’ clients. Clients were not allowed to withdraw all their money, palmed off with being able to walk out of the bank with $2,000 to $3,000 a day. Neither were clients allowed to transfer significant amounts of money abroad. In fact, bank sources told me that if clients requested transfers, the bank would look more closely at a client’s accounts to see whether funds were being withdrawn abroad, and could put a stop to such activity (international transfers are not possible online). You can’t have a run on the bank if you can’t withdraw the money.

In fact, bank account holders outside of Lebanon are in a better position than those in Lebanon to withdraw funds in foreign currency, able to take out the maximum daily allowed ($500 to $1000 plus – although paying a transaction fee at the ATM and to the Lebanese bank).

Few, if any, Lebanese banks are allowing ATM withdrawals in US dollars, just in Lebanese Lira (Lebanon is one of the few countries in the world that allows withdrawals in greenbacks as well as the local currency). Lebanese want dollars as while officially the Lira is pegged to the US dollar at LL1,507, on the street the exchange rate is LL1,580, and hit LL1,850 in late October. Without dollars, you can’t import goods. That was a reason why the banks opened again as the protests simmered down. The country was reportedly days away from running out of wheat, fuel and other imported essentials.

The situation is unprecedented. Even during Lebanon’s 16 year civil war (1975-1990), the banks never closed for more than four or five days – militias had to be paid, after all. The joke was that Lebanese banks had survived everything except a nuclear bomb.

During the July 2006 war between Israel and Hizbullah, dollar withdrawals stopped, but the Lira peg stayed the same, in large part due to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait depositing $1.5 billion into the Central Bank to keep Lebanon afloat. Fast forward 13 years, and the Gulf countries have not been so ready to step in, although the UAE is hinting it might. Nonetheless, the situation today is very different.

The debt has spiraled out of control, at 151% to GDP (although some suggest this has been tinkered with as the statistics are produced by private banks, with the debt to GDP ratio much higher, having been 183% in 2006) with the banks holding the majority of the debt, and the economy flat-lining.

The country is between a rock and a hard place: the much needed $11.6 billion loan from the Cedre donor conference (see my Counterpunch article) is up in the air, in part because the conditionalities that come with the loans are austerity measures, the very ones the government tried to introduce that led to two weeks of protests and the resignation of the prime minister. Lebanese are being squeezed left, right and centre, with the cost of living rising while public amenities are floundering: powercuts, water shortages, and creaking infrastructure.

Corruption and elite capture siphoned off billions of dollars over the past few decades – “the top 1% richest adults receives approximately a quarter of the total national income placing Lebanon among the most unequal countries in the world,” according to researcher Lydia Assouad – while leaving the country a wreck. This is what has driven the protests, but the inability of the government to rectify the situation means the country is fiscally on a slippery downward slope, and the banking sector being hit is another nail in the coffin.

It was clear the situation was untenable before the protests occurred. In October 2019, banks started putting unofficial restrictions on foreign transfers. Earlier in the year, the banks also tried to prevent clients from transferring Lira deposits into US dollars, as since mid-2018 there there had been talk of the Lira being unpegged to the dollar and the debt being unsustainable, with the situation so serious that banks were offering 7.5% to 15% interest on the Lira, depending on how much was deposited. Interest on the dollar was 5% plus. Of course, you don’t get such high interest for nothing, it is due to instability. The problem in Lebanon was, as one ex-minister put it to me, “we keep approaching the edge of the cliff, but the cliff’s edge keeps moving.” Every time there was a scare the situation soon reverted back to seemingly normal. As a result, there was no major outflows of cash or Lebanese stuffing mattresses full of dollars and hoarding gold (although there has always been a fair amount of that; in less stable countries it is always wise to have a sizable stash of physical capital, a lesson I learned in July 2006).

The question now is whether the situation will return to normal, and if the banks will allow transfers and have plenty of dollars again. The banks are certainly doing their best to prevent outflows of cash, as the fundamentals indicate it will not be ‘business as usual’ any time soon. As Capital Economics noted in late October: “In the absence of an IMF deal, the uncertainty over the economic outlook would lead to a bout of capital flight. And the central bank has limited resources with which to mount a defence of the dollar peg. A messy devaluation and default could follow. The IMF estimates that the pound is overvalued by around 50% and that investors in Lebanese bonds could face losses of up to 75%. This would be enough to wipe out banks’ capital and result in severe strains in the financial system. Past experience shows that economies which have suffered debt, currency and banking crises simultaneously have, on average, contracted by 8% from peak to trough.” That is a pretty dire forecast, certainly dire enough to consider getting your cash out of Lebanon ASAP – if you can; Lebanon has also reportedly put restrictions on taking cash and bullion out of the country.

In the meantime, Lebanese bank account holders continue to go to ATMs to withdraw cash, and max out credit cards through spending as well as transferring abroad to digital bank accounts (gold dealers in Lebanon are only accepting dollars).

Yet if the situation does stabilize, and clients can actually withdraw funds, where do they transfer their cash? The financial system is very much skewered in favor of the wealthy countries. Digital bank Transferwise for instance, in line with US regulations, only allows dollar transfers from 15 countries into its US account: Europe, Australia and the UAE; Lebanon is not on the list. The same applies to Euros. Lebanese can also not easily open accounts abroad without residency or other legal requirements.

Yet Lebanese and Lebanese bank account holders need not worry if one is to believe the upbeat tone of the final paragraph of Bank Audi’s weekly report: “Lebanese banks have always proved their ability to overcome difficulties and meet customers’ needs firmly, while monetary authorities continued to defend the currency peg. On Friday, Lebanese banks have once again proved their readiness to meet customers’ needs, mainly due to the availability of FC [foreign currency] primary liquidity. This has helped the first working day to go smoothly, and spotted light on banks’ credibility and transparency in addition to their role in safeguarding depositors’ interests.”

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The Rediscovery of Civil Society: Perils and Potentials

Photograph Source: Krugerr – CC BY-SA 4.0

The concept of “civil society” gained epic popularity in the past few decades. The discourse of civil society entered dramatically into the global political and academic scene in the 1970s with the advent of the Polish Solidarity movement. We in the West watched with amazement and tears of joy as the power of the human spirit confronted totalitarian state power in country after country, first in Poland, then spreading to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, East Germany, and the former Soviet Union (including Russia and her former satellites).

The Polish rebellion has been accurately described as “civil society against the state.” The Solidarity leaders assumed that their own people would not use terror to repress them; in turn, they could not succumb to violent forms of action. To press their claims, they created self-governing associations and publications under the nose of the party-controlled institutional framework to give themselves some breathing room and reflective learning space.

Excitement abounded. A social space influenced by but not completely absorbed into the state and economy appeared to exist, resonant with potential to topple tyrannical states. In this poignant moment, Vaclav Havel affirmed that the powerless have within themselves the power to obstruct normality, to embarrass the authorities, to point to the possibility of living life differently—to live according to the values of trust, openness, responsibility and solidarity. Persons could refuse to do power’s bidding. But they had to agree that some things were worth suffering for and that they had to be prepared to say out loud what others thought in solitude.

This implausible political discourse didn’t take long emigrating into western academia. It is veritable cottage industry these days. During the 1980s the vocabulary of civil society pervaded the social science literature. By the 1990s, the disciplinary study of adult learning had begun to host this conceptual stranger, working its emergent understanding of social learning in terms of this new orientation to understanding the dynamics of social life and struggle. The scholarly world soon recalled that the discourse of civil society had an ancient pedigree. Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one can see that the idea of a social space, not under direct tutelage of state power, has been emerging in western consciousness and erupting in many different parts of the world. Now, social emancipation could no longer, for historical and philosophical reasons, be understood as an essentially economic question.

To assert this, one only had to look at the plethora of civil society associations engaging in discourse on the many big agenda issues of the day in the late 1990s. Some form of “global governance” seemed possible. Might it be, as Axel Honneth postulates in The Idea of Socialism (2017), that the public sphere itself is the only social sphere that can provide guidance to the tripartite economy, democratic will-formation and personal relationships?

Had we entered a post-Marxist world? The impetus for social change had certainly shifted to the cultural domain. But this acute sense of loss of collective agency registers strongly with Mark Murphy (“The politics of adult education: state, economy and civil society,” International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20, Sept-Oct. 2001) and other orthodox Marxist scholars. Some Marxist critics believe that Habermas has given up too much ground to liberal institutions and values. But others, like Axel Honneth, made a provocative case for returning Critical Theory to the workplace as an emancipatory site.

Simone Chambers (“A critical theory of civil society,” in S. Chambers and W. Kymlicka [Eds.], Alternative conceptions of civil society [2002]) argues compellingly that Habermas believes that one can use “liberal institutions”—the public sphere, equal citizen rights, and constitutions—to break out of authoritarian and bureaucratic modes of domination. One can both identify how the lifeworld (civil society is the lifeworld as it is expressed in institutions) is colonized by power, money, and domination and contains discursive possibilities.

Unless citizens struggle together to understand the world they inhabit, develop an alternative vision of the new world order and begin to lay its foundation, no change in the unjust economic and political order is even conceivable. The new world has to be imagined before it can appear.

Chambers (2002) is admirably clear on the centrality of the public sphere in deliberative democracy. She urges us to consider what elements must be present in cultural and political life for the public sphere to be an “arena of critical autonomous debate.” Ian Angus (Emergent Publics: an essay on social movements and democracy 2001) insists, with considerable gravity and urgency, that the vitality and openness of the public sphere is the basic way we can determine whether a society is authentically democratic. When people are excluded from voice in the public sphere, he contends, their powerlessness and misrecognition breed violence and hatred.

For her part, Chambers (2002) believes that the “malaise of modernity” is rooted in our lack of political efficacy. This assertion emerges out of Chambers’ perceptive discussion of “bad civil society.” Often idealized by its exuberant proponents, civil society can go bad; anti-progressive social movements, full of mean-spirited people, can occupy the (un)civil terrain. Chambers provides some sobering historical illustrations of how a well-organized civil society—she cites the Weimar Republic for illustration—can foster some very bad outcomes. She acknowledges that associations, clubs, churches, and families can be illiberal in outlook and non-democratic in their own internal life.

Too much hatred and anger spills out these days into everyday and political life. We can’t talk with each other anymore. Speechless, we toss firebombs at our enemies. Many of the protests around the world reveal that few are listening to anybody else. Nobody appears to consider the kind of world we want to build after the ruins of Neo-liberalism and smouldering Molotov cocktails. Social movements, for instance, lose their emancipatory potential when they are internally non-democratic.

In rights-based liberal democracies, there is nothing stopping groups from being mean-spirited, patriarchal, and racist. Critical theory’s strategy is to consider what forces are at work breeding intolerance and animosity towards the other. Chambers (2002), Angus (2001) and Welton (Designing the just learning society: a critical perspective [2005]) all argue that the absence of control over one’s life situation—powerlessness and exclusion from decision-making—are at the root of many cases of intolerance to the other. That speaks to our post-modern era. But the idea of “tolerance” was not a part of our vocabulary until the seventeenth century. Ironically, the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries triggered the quest for living tolerably with others, no matter the religious orientation.

A creative, evolving civil society learning infrastructure is challenged to find ways to build a path for those who are vulnerable and least likely to speak strongly to those with privilege and voice. When segments of society are quarantined from others—perhaps the riots in 2005 in the banlieues of Paris and the deep eruptions of the Arab Spring (M. Welton, “Subjects to citizens: adult learning and the challenges of democracy in the twenty-first century, in T. Nesbit and M. Welton, Adult Education and Learning in a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited [2013]) are evident examples selected from hundreds of possible examples—violence may explode, as those refusing to see or listen are targeted for hostile actions.

Civil society is the home ground for learning how to be an active citizen. Gerald Delanty (“Citizenship as a learning process: disciplinary citizenship versus cultural citizenship,” International Journal of lifelong education, 22(6), 2003), a political scientist, offers us a thoughtful reflection on citizenship as a learning process. Delanty argues that individual learning about citizenship must be translated and coordinated into collective learning and ultimately embodied in cultural and social institutions and legal norms.

Delanty considers citizenship an ongoing learning process where individuals name the world, create meaning, and construct viable citizen biographies, largely in the informal activities of everyday life. Delanty’s central argument is contained in his concept of cultural citizenship. He emphasizes the opportunities that persons have to construct meaning about themes pertaining to the common good.

Habermas is the one thinker who consciously considers the learning dynamics of civil society in its multiple interactions with state administrative systems and the economy. But one of the main challenges of the Habermasian framework is how, in the actually existing world of democracies, communicative power can be transformed into administrative power. The works of Zygmunt Bauman (In search of politics [1999]), Darin Barney (Prometheus wired: the hope for democracy in the age of network technology [2000]) and Manuel Castells (The power of identity 1997) provide some of the necessary substantive analysis of what the just learning society paradigm is up against.

Bauman’s “migration of power” stretches the idea of communicative power beyond its nation-state borders to a breaking-point. He wonders if it has the capability of fostering deliberative democratic forms of speech and action. Castells confronts us with the incredible power of the electronic media. In our historic moment, economic globalization appears to be driven by gargantuan transnational corporations wealthier than most of the world’s nation-states and able to subject national state administrative systems to their wishes through manipulation of the media.

Barney’s version of the “foreclosure of the political” presents challenges to us from a different angle. The world’s leading liberal democracies are, he claims, in fact, bound to a mono-focal way of imagining the world. Capitalism, liberalism and technology comprise an unholy trinity that brooks no opposition. For his part, Habermas would not be so despairing. Barney has closed off the political universe prematurely. Constitutional democracies have evolved legal systems that contain hard-fought human rights for citizens. And civil society is not yet shrouded in eternal darkness.

Legal systems in liberal democracies filter universal norms (of tolerance and respect for the other) into the everyday workings of civil society and the system. Though degraded, multiple public spheres do, in fact, function in the liberal democracies. Communicative action theory also confronts the persistent problem of social inequality. But the normative goal that decisions ought to be made that enhance life chances of the worst off and do not simply perpetuate opportunities for those better off to accumulate more wealth and goods is worth holding onto and striving for.

Thinkers as diverse as Havel, Giddens and Habermas himself agree that communicative reason is “history’s stubborn presence” (Jeffrey Isaac). Human beings have moral power to resist tyranny. The powerless have more power than they ever imagine, and moral acts of the person may reach beyond the isolated self—resonating deeply with those who are oppressed. Our oppressive conditions, be they South African apartheid, brutal communist regimes, Middle East and corporate dictatorships, or the soft coercion of consumerism, never totally exhaust us. We always possess the capacity to resist indignities. Take a look at the flames and chaos on many streets in the world: from Paris to Santiago to Barcelona to Beirut. The rage against unfulfilled needs, once bottled up, has exploded everywhere in the world. Who knows where this will lead.

Left to their own devices, governments would remain deaf to these unfulfilled needs (which often are linked to being oppressed behind closed doors). Thus, learning and action in public spheres and social movements help to expand public space, identity formation and social freedom. Social movements remain an integral, controversial, disruptive and conflictual part of civil society infrastructure of late modern societies. And public spheres hold out the most promise because they are intensely and intimately connected to the multitude of problems faced by the people of the world.

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Protecting the North Cascades: Looking for an Alternative that is Good for Grizzlies and Good for Wilderness

Copper Ridge, North Cascades National Park. Photo: NPS.

Wilderness Watch recently asked the National Park Service (NPS) to develop a new alternative in the planning for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades of Washington State. Our suggested proposal would both benefit grizzlies and protect designated Wilderness, something that none of the existing alternatives in the NPS’s current plan do. Wilderness Watch has requested that a natural recovery alternative be thoroughly developed and studied for grizzly restoration.

A natural recovery alternative doesn’t mean do nothing as some of its critics contend, but instead would call for real action in British Columbia and the U.S. to facilitate natural recovery. That could mean many things, such as changes in black bear hunting regulations in both countries, facilitating passage across highways, reducing road densities, guidelines for human behavior in the areas most likely used as connecting corridors for grizzly expansion, building social tolerance, and the like. In other words, it would be a cooperative plan between the U.S. and Canada for grizzly recovery. If this kind of cooperation can’t be obtained, then grizzly recovery in the U.S. portion of the North Cascades is likely to fail, regardless of the number of bears that are translocated there. And without linkages across the border with British Columbia, the long-term genetic viability of a relatively small grizzly population on the U.S. side of the border would also be at risk.

We recognize at least some of the current challenges to facilitating grizzly movement across the border from Canada, but we also believe it is imperative for the NPS to rigorously study, analyze, and disclose such an alternative. Sometimes grizzlies can confound even the experts. Twenty years ago, for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a plan (which died after the election of George W. Bush) to reintroduce 25 grizzlies into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness but as an “experimental, nonessential” population that would receive lesser protections under the Endangered Species Act. Most experts said there was absolutely no way that grizzlies could get into the Selway-Bitterroot on their own. But now, 20 years later, grizzlies are indeed moving in there on their own. The North Cascades ecosystem has differences with the Selway-Bitterroot regarding potential grizzly movement, of course, but the NPS has not seriously looked at the possibilities and pitfalls of a natural recovery option for grizzlies in the North Cascades.

The current plan by the NPS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to translocate grizzly bears into the North Cascades in Washington raises many concerns about the harms posed to individual bears, who will be snared or culvert-trapped or pursued by helicopters and shot with tranquilizers, removed from their familiar home territories, poked, prodded, and collared with electronic surveillance devices. The environmental analysis indicates bears would be taken “from source populations in northwestern Montana and/or south-central British Columbia” where, at least in Montana, grizzly bear populations are still struggling and suffering record high mortality rates. The heavy-handed capture and translocation methods proposed—as well as continued monitoring and handling methods—could result in death or injury of the bears, which are protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. And if that weren’t enough, the DEIS ignores the literature describing the negative effects—including severe stress responses and avoidance of important habitat—of all this helicopter traffic on wildlife, including grizzlies

And, as we’ve unfortunately seen again and again in Idaho and Washington, politically controversial predators with electronic tracking devices around their necks are regularly targeted for “removal actions.” Freedom of Information Act documents in Idaho showed that Idaho Fish and Game (and possibly the federal management agencies involved before delisting) regularly supplied Wildlife Services with GPS data from wildlife collars to locate and kill wolves, oftentimes through aerial gunning. Washington also has a long, sordid history of killing wolves at the behest of cattle ranchers. The environmental analysis here indicates “all released grizzly bears would be GPS-collared and monitored. If a bear frequents an allotment area, the FWS and WDFW would work with the USFS and livestock owners to determine the best course of action to minimize bear-livestock interactions.” We are sympathetic to the desire to move quickly if there are only a few bears left in the North Cascades, but what of the bears that are dropped there against their will? What of the struggling source populations? And, are we simply creating another island population that cannot survive without ongoing, heavy-handed intervention? Is this really good for the bears? For Wilderness? We think these are questions that deserve serious analysis and public disclosure.

The current plan is misguided in the many ways that it would violate the 1964 Wilderness Act. None of the current action alternatives in the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) are compatible with Wilderness. The proposed recovery area of 6.1 million acres includes North Cascades National Park and 2.6 million acres of Wilderness in the Pasayten, Mt. Baker, and Stephen Mather Wildernesses. All, or almost all, of the proposed helicopter landings would apparently be in Wilderness, either in North Cascades National Park or in surrounding national forests, despite the fact that 60 percent of the project area is outside of Wilderness. The plan proposes anywhere from 50 to 400 helicopter landings and twice that many flights (though the DEIS is somewhat inconsistent on the exact numbers) to move up to 160 bears, again all or mostly all within Wilderness despite more of the project area being outside of Wilderness. The extensive use of helicopters would continue indefinitely for monitoring bear movement and numbers.

The essential irony is that agencies recognize the best place to release bears is in the exceedingly rare wildness of the North Cascades. The best grizzly habitat is synonymous with Wilderness: space to roam, isolation, denning sites, safety from human-caused mortality, and distance from human conflicts and garbage. But the agency’s proposed methods of re-establishing grizzlies diminish all these advantages.

Wilderness Watch supports the recovery of grizzly bears and other native species where suitable habitat exists. The rugged North Cascades are historic grizzly bear habitat, and there are likely a few currently living on the U.S. side of border now, with a grizzly bear photographed there in 2010.

But recovery efforts must also meet the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act. This means restoring the area’s grizzly population without the use of motor vehicles and equipment, without endless landings of helicopters in Wilderness, without trammeling or manipulating the landscape or its wildlife. However suitable the habitat in the North Cascades is, we take issue with the methods proposed—the reintroduction plan is extremely intrusive, relies on activities prohibited by the Wilderness Act, and would come at a significant cost to Wilderness. What is good for Wilderness is good for bears, and those conditions are worth protecting.

It is precisely this type of heavy-handed manipulation of Wilderness that Wilderness Act author Howard Zahniser warned against, even when done for seemingly good reasons. In 1963, for example, the secretary of interior’s wildlife advisory board of ecologists led by Zahniser’s friend A. Starker Leopold recommended extensive manipulation of the National Parks and their wildlife (and the wilderness in the Parks). The Leopold Report called for manipulating parks and wildlife to re-create a representation of “the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man.” The report also stated, “Management may at times call for the use of the tractor, chainsaw, rifle, or flame-thrower but the signs and sounds of such activity should be hidden from visitors insofar as possible.”

Zahniser penned his classic rebuttal to this proposal. While some projects may have merit, he wrote, “it is certainly in contrast with the wilderness philosophy of protecting areas at their boundaries and trying to let natural forces operate within the wilderness untrammeled by man.” He continued, “Those who have advocated the preservation of wilderness by protecting at the boundaries the areas within which the natural community would be untrammeled by man have often been confronted with practical difficulties—the smallness of even the most extensive areas, for example. The ‘realism’ of their advocacy has been questioned.” But nonetheless, Zahniser urged us, when it came to Wilderness, to be “Guardians, Not Gardeners.” In the case of the North Cascades grizzly project, Zahniser would urge us to guard the Wildernesses of the North Cascades from manipulation, and to not manipulate (or “garden”) them for our own purposes, even for something as worthwhile as grizzly recovery.

If the Park Service adopts a translocation plan, it must be in line with the letter and spirit of the Wilderness Act. Monitoring should take place in a way that’s respectful to Wilderness and bears, including using hair snags, camera traps, scat collection, and on-the-ground sightings to know whether the bears are thriving. It’s wrong to rely on intrusive helicopter use, radio-collaring and ongoing handling and tranquilizing of the bears.

The DEIS entirely lacks a natural recovery option. The best way to meet the goal of a viable grizzly population in the North Cascades would be to allow for and boldly promote the natural recovery of grizzlies. This is a very different approach than the “no action” option in the DEIS, which is to “do nothing.” A natural recovery alternative would require working with British Columbia to protect grizzlies over a larger land base and would provide for connectivity between populations in the U.S. and Canada using protected habitat corridors. It would also include other measures to ensure that grizzlies are not killed by humans, regardless of what side of the border they are on and whether they are in national parks, Wilderness, or other public or private lands. It will take longer and require more patience than the instant gratification of capturing and releasing dozens of bears, but it would ultimately create a more durable population sharing the landscape with a human population that is more likely to respect the bears that make it back to the North Cascades on their own.

Let’s have the NPS look at this alternative that is both good for grizzlies and good for Wilderness.

The post Protecting the North Cascades: Looking for an Alternative that is Good for Grizzlies and Good for Wilderness appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Fighting Words for Young Workers From a Radical Elder

Photograph Source: frankieleon – CC BY 2.0

I was explaining to my 26-year-old son recently that while I’m continuing to work as a writer, because I waited until age 70 to begin collecting my Social Security benefits, I am now collecting almost $29,000 on top of what I earn doing my freelance journalism thing.

He said, matter-of-factly, “Well, I and most of my millennial friends don’t expect Social Security to be around when we reach your age…if we ever do.”

If that gloomy sentiment is widespread, and I believe it is (one recent poll found 71% of workers don’t think they’ll get Social Security), it’s no accident. There are a lot of scare-mongers out there, most, but not all of them Republican politicians and conservative pundits on cable and radio programs. These shameless shills for Wall Street’s investment industry are spreading the lie that Social Security is a “ponzi scheme” or that Social Security will go bust before young workers today ever get the benefits that they currently 6.2 percent of each paycheck deducted, supposedly to pay for.

Here is an example of the scare tactics:

“Social Security Will Be Insolvent in 16 Years” screams an article in the ironically named libertarian magazine Reason.

Another approach, popular in the financial advisory business, is to first tell people that fears that Social Security will go belly up, leaving future workers with nothing are “overblown,” but then to add that if nothing is done, the benefits they are supposed to get could be cut by 20% in 2034. That reduced benefit is an amount that could indeed be covered indefinitely by the payroll tax on current workers from that time going forward, but it would make Social Security even less adequate for funding retirees. This second attack on the system is typically followed by an admonition on the importance for current workers, especially younger ones, to “save and invest” (great advice to give if you’re an adviser earning fees for “managing” that money!).

But it’s all a lie. So here’s my message to you young folks like my son: Social Security isn’t going away, and it’s not going to even be cut 20%. In fact, the odds are that benefits in the future will be getting raised, not cut.

How can I say this? Isn’t the country getting grayer, with older retired people becoming an increasing share of the population? Aren’t old people taking all the money out of the Social Security Trust Fund and running it down to nothing, leaving nothing for their kids and grandkids?

Nonsense!

Why the Lies about Social Security Won’t Work

Let’s get a few things clear. Yes, the country’s population is aging but as Baby Boomers like myself born between 1945 and 1964 — a particularly large cohort now well into retirement age —start collecting our Social Security benefits, and as the next generation below us, now in their 50s, start thinking seriously about their Social Security benefits, all will want to ensure the durability of this New Deal program, and not just for ourselves, but for you, our kids and grandchildren.

Republican critics of Social Security, like former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming (now 88 and notorious for once calling Social Security a “milk cow with 310 million teats”) have tried to provoke a generational war between young workers and older retirees, the better to undermine and privatize the system. But this strategy has never worked.

Why? Think about it: Have you ever heard a young person complain about the amount of retirement benefits her or his parents were receiving being too great? Of course not! Kids know that without Social Security they’d be having to financially support their aging parents! And have you ever heard old people complain that they need higher benefits and the hell with their children’s future Social Security? No! Of course not. Older people have always been the strongest defenders of an enduring Social Security system that will be there for their progeny.

The reason I’m telling you to be confident in the future of Social Security is because everyone in this country depends on it, including you, especially as employers continue to eliminate company pension plans. And even if this democracy we supposedly live in is failing to live up to its promise, corrupted as it has become by the influence of money on politics, by lazy pro-corporate journalism, and by the deliberate misinformation spread by social media, if there are still elections in mid-century, and if there is still a functioning economy, there will be a Social Security System in place paying benefits at least at the level promised to those having the FICA payroll tax deducted from each paycheck to support it year in and year out.

All we have to do to ensure this is to vow to never vote for a candidate who doesn’t firmly back Social Security, and to always vote out an incumbent who goes back on that commitment.

That includes any new Alan Simpsons who might keep spreading the lie that the system is in trouble.

The Social Trust Fund is Supposed to be Depleted. That’s Its Purpose!

Now about that Trust Fund. It is starting to be depleted. That’s true. But what the media don’t tell you when they darkly intone that line is that the Trust Fund was set up in the early 1980s precisely because it was understood that retiring Baby Boomers would put a big drain on the system. The idea was to pre-fund some of those benefits and then to deliberately spend the Trust Fund down to zero to help cover the benefits as a wave of Boomers began getting benefit checks in 2007.

Faced with the challenge of funding Baby Boomer retirees, President Reagan and a Democratic Congress came up with a bi-partisan reform plan that combined higher payroll taxes by current workers, a slight increase in the so-called “full” retirement age, rising gradually from 65 to 66 and finally to 67, and taxes on some Social Security benefits. The combination of these changes predictably led to a growing surplus, eventually reaching over $2 trillion, a Trust Fund invested in Treasury Bills which it was thought would be sufficient to cover the looming cost of the those benefits.

Here’s the problem: In what should be viewed as a happy surprise, the birth rate has continued to decline, leading to a reduction of anticipated workers paying FICA payroll taxes into the system along with their employers, and longevity has also improved through medical breakthroughs and better health. As a result the Trust Fund has proven not to have been inadequate to the task. That is of course a good thing, but it means another adjustment is needed to fully cover Boomer retirement payments until that population wave is over sometime in about 2055 when the last surviving Boomers born in 1964 and still listening to the ‘80s Rock will be 91.

This actuarial problem has been known for at least two decades, and if our politicians were responsible people, they’d have tweaked things just a bit back then and we’d have no looming shortfall in benefits spread scare stories about. But Republicans have stubbornly refused to make those minor changes, like perhaps raising the payroll tax on employers and employees by 1% when that would have done the trick, or by raising the income level that gets subject to the payroll tax. Since they have refused to take any action, payroll taxes now would have to be raised by several percent, or the cap on income subject to the payroll tax would have to be raised significantly or eliminated altogether, making the wealthy pay a lot more than they’d get back in benefits.

The unstated goal of inaction by Republicans and some conservative Democrats has been to make Social Security too expensive to rescue, and thus to lead to privatization of retirement funding — something Wall Street has been trying to do for decades.

Time to Fight for What You Deserve

So your job, young people, is to not allow that to happen.

And you have the power to do that. Fully 79 million Americans will be receiving Social Security benefits by 2034. For the majority of retired couples those benefits will be their primary source of income, as it will be for 71% of single retirees. Cutting all those benefits by 20% would cause a national riot the likes of which this country has never seen.

The Social Security system we have isn’t perfect. Benefits are clearly far too low for most people to live on. But the system is nonetheless extraordinary. Despite being a socialist idea in a country that has always officially rejected and ridiculed socialism, it is hands down the most successful government program in the history of this nation. So don’t listen to the crooked doomsayers. Just vow to get rid Washington of them!

Most of the rest of the developed world has government retirement systems that are far more generous than ours. They have kept those systems, which allow people to have secure comfortable retirement years, under socialist, liberal and even conservative governments, solvent because the people of those countries, elders and their children, have demanded that from their elected officials.

We all, young and old, can have the same thing, but we need to demand it and to fight for it.

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Warren’s Excellent Opening Gambit on Medicare-for-All

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have set themselves apart from the Democratic presidential field in explicitly advocating Medicare for All proposals. Under their plans, an expanded Medicare system would fully cover everyone in the country. There would be no co-pays, deductibles and premiums — and no private insurance.

Warren has repeatedly been asked how she would pay for this plan. She had resisted saying that she would raise taxes and insisted that costs for the middle-class would go down. On Friday she outlined how this can be done.

The first part of her plan proposes cutting administrative costs. The administrative costs of private insurers are more than 25% of what they pay out in benefits each year. By contrast, the administrative costs of Medicare are less than 3% of what is paid in benefits. The potential savings from getting administrative costs for the whole system down to that of Medicare is close to $3 trillion over the next decade.

The current system imposes large administrative costs on hospitals, doctors’ offices, nursing homes and other facilities that need additional staff to deal with complex billing arrangements. These unnecessary administrative expenditures can exceed 20% of total payments. If administrative costs at providers were reduced to Canada’s levels (a country with universal coverage), it could save another $2.1 trillion over the next decade.

Warren also proposes large reductions in payments to health care providers. Patients in the US pay drug companies, medical equipment manufacturers, doctors and other providers on average roughly twice as much as in other wealthy countries.

The biggest chunk of her projected savings is on prescription drugs, where she proposes to reduce prices for brand drugs by 70% and generic drugs by 30%. She has likely underestimated the potential savings from these price reductions, since her calculations leave out the roughly $100 billion spent annually on drugs by hospitals, nursing facilities and other providers.

Even with these and other cost savings, Warren projects that the federal government will need another $20 trillion to cover her Medicare for All proposal. She calculates that $9 trillion of this gap will come from the premiums that employers now pay for their workers’ health insurance. Employers, she reasons, should not care whether they are paying this money to insurers or the federal government.

This still leaves a gap of $11 trillion, or roughly 5% of GDP. She proposes to fill it with a financial transactions tax, an increase in the corporate income tax, reduced tax avoidance and a wealth tax on the country’s very richest people.

Does it all add up?

There are a lot of moving parts here, each of which involves practical as well as political problems. Squeezing payments for pharmaceutical companies (we should do the same for medical equipment companies) will lead to lower spending on research. The government can make this up with additional funding to the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies. Still, the prospect of reduced privately funded research is an issue.

Similarly, lower payments for doctors may lead some to try to practice outside the system. Warren would want to make this difficult, but most likely doctors will have the legal option to practice on their own and charge whatever they want. Some well-connected doctors will likely do this.

There are issues with the planned funding mechanisms. It makes more sense just to charge employers a set percentage of wages rather than base payments on historic insurance premiums. In addition, a wealth tax may prove problematic for a variety of reasons.

However, we should realize this is an opening gambit, not a finished product. The final version of the Affordable Care Act was 2,300 pages when it went to a vote. It is unlikely that a Medicare for All bill will be any shorter.

Warren’s proposal is not the final word. But it is an excellent first draft that provides a basis for future debate.

This column first appeared on CNN.

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America’s Education System: Teaching the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

“Ask students to read for more than a couple of sentences and many will protest that they can’t do it. The most frequent complaint that teachers hear that it’s boring. It is not so much the content of the written material that is at issues here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed to be boring. What we are facing here is not just time-honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate New Flesh that is too wired to concentrate and the confining concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored means simply to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, You Tube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. Some students want Nietzsche in the same way they want a hamburger; the fail to grasp—and the logic of the consumer system encourages this misapprehension—the indigestibility, the difficult is Nietzsche.”

– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

I am a substitute teacher (grades K-12) in a public school system located in Virginia, a state on the eastern seaboard of the United States. For many years prior to becoming a substitute teacher, I also taught at a private school in Virginia. Tuition and fees at the private school are approximately $42,000 (USD), the public schools are, of course, tuition free.

To be sure, there are highly motivated students in both educational settings that call into question Mark Fisher’s observation above. But in the main, both organization’s struggle with figuring out if they are working with their subjects as students or as consumers of services provided by teachers and administrators.

From what I have observed in the tiny microcosm in which I’ve worked, adults have not figured out how to teach Generation Z. It is as if K-12 students are; well, lab rats, in a messy experiment that reflects adult confusion about how to facilitate learning in an era when all the “book learning” education seeks to impart is largely available on the World Wide Web (WWW). Reality hits video screens before adults can interpret it for their children; that is, assuming the adults are up to the task. Twitter, a modern day ticker-tape, dumbs down the American populace. Attention spans for students and adults are measured in 10 minute increments, if that.

Teachers are little more than circuits in America’s educational network and, as such, transmit surface information to the students and little more. The kids know a lot, for sure, but they, like the adults that school them and lead them, have no intellectual depth, something required for critical thinking. It is fitting, I suppose, that in these times when the United States is a polarized nation of cynics who believe in nothing, it’s not surprising that its educators teach the young to be cynics. But as Oscar Wilde noted through one of his characters, a cynic is “one who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”

And yet the very adults (academics, corporate leaders, politicians) that created this cynical, digitized short attention span world whine about students not being able to read and write, think critically or master math. There is a reason for that: They are not being taught effectively to do those things. All of which reaffirms something I wrote in 2013: The American Education System is creating Ignorant Adults.

The leaders of Boeing and Lockheed Martin worry out loud about the absence of US school aged students who can excel at science, technology, engineering and math disciplines (STEM). But they have no problem funding initiatives for Chinese students and aviation professionals in China.

Hocus Pocus

Back in the USA, school classrooms are a mishmash of technology, new wave/repackaged learning techniques and revisionist history. Apple I-Pads and Smart Boards are located in each classroom for student/teacher use. They are all connected to software that provides music, cartoons and learning platforms like Canvas for most grade levels. The latest teaching fads like Maker Learning with its “Digital Promise” backed by Google and Pixar, among others, competes with concepts like the Flipped Classroom, Blended Learning and other pedagogies that come in and out of vogue. And yet, along side all the technology are crayons, magic markers, pencils, paper and cardboard for writing and drawing.

It’s no stretch to say that I-Phones, Android and other hand held devices may cause epigenetic changes. Students, teachers/coaches and administrators are constantly staring head down at their computing-communications devices. It is tough to get a face-to-face conversation going with most anyone in these groups as their eyes and heads are in the down position while sitting, walking or standing. Even if you are having a meatspace meeting, participants will incessantly dart their eyes to the handheld safely nearby the hand, in the hand, or on the lap (looking down again).

America’s past, woeful in many respects, is being revised again by adults to suit the agenda of those who seek to promote a narrative that seeks to change the political/cultural narrative of US society and its history, and it is aimed at young students in particular. The New York Times (NYT) 1619 Project is an example of this. According to the World Socialist Website, “The 1619 Project, launched by the Times in August, presents American history in a purely racial lens and blames all white people for the enslavement of 4 million black people as chattel property. “

The NYT has provided teaching materials that are being used by colleges, universities and high schools across the United States. Who is willing or capable of debating the claims of the New York Times; or should we say, who is willing to be labeled a racist for disagreeing with The revisionist authors of the 1619 Project? At the collegiate level, at least, there may be debate on the matter but at the high school level, what teacher is going to argue against using 1619 teaching materials. After all it is the New York Times.

What is very troubling about the NYT revisionism is that it makes the preposterous claim that racism is part of the DNA of all white people. The World Socialist Website claims that: “This is dangerous politics, and very bad history…[it] mixes anti-historical metaphors pertaining to biological determinism (that racism is printed in a “national DNA”) and to religious obscurantism (that slavery is the uniquely American “original sin”). But whether ordained by God or genetic code, racism by whites against blacks serves, for the 1619 Project, as history’s deus ex machina. There is no need to consider questions long placed at the center of historical inquiry: cause and effect, contingency and conflict, human agency and change over time. History is simply a morality tale written backwards from 2019.”

Sharpen My Pencils, Fool!

I have often winced at some of the practices I observed in classrooms. On a typical day as a substitute, I arrive at a school, pick up instructions left by the teacher who is absent (or has a meeting), and head to the classroom. Substitute teachers, or Subs, are a lower class of species, members of the gig economy, and treated as such by the “real” teachers and students. I remember one teacher I subbed for was headed off to a meeting and as she left said, “Sharpen my pencils for me.” I dutifully did. A majority of the teachers and administrators don’t ask for your name, you’re just known as “The Sub.”

Once students complete their work (if they even choose to do it), which for most does not take much class time, they are free to play video games, stick ear buds in and listen to music or hang out with friends via the handheld device. One of the popular video games with male 6th to 12th graders is Krunker, a first person shooter game. Is US society really that concerned about active shooters in schools?

The State and corporations can be found in some form in the public school system. One elementary school has Lockheed Martin as a sponsor of a science program. In another elementary school, a class is learning about Virginia’s geography: The students print and video work product will ultimately be used by a tourism association in the State.

In both institutions learning is calibrated to the SAT, ACT and various Advanced Placement tests. Student test scores serve as one metric for teacher performance reviews along with standards set by school boards, the State, or independent audits in the private school case.

Students are not required to stand or even pay attention to the United States Pledge of Allegiance that is carried via intercom into the classrooms each morning. Some schools don’t even bother with it. Yet, during sporting events like American contact football, students/athletes and fans are required, or let’s say by the pressure of custom are compelled, to stand for the playing of the United States’ National Anthem. American flags are stitched into football jerseys and prior to games one football player is selected to run the American flag onto the field amidst the adrenaline fueled shouts and growls of fellow teammates following close behind. A color guard from a high school’s junior reserve officer training corps (JROTC) sometimes is present. They present in strict marching formation the American flag along with the flags of the US Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

To stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in a classroom takes one minute. To be upright for the National Anthem takes, perhaps, five minutes. The school band normally plays the latter and on occasion high school Madrigals will sing the National Anthem.

Yes, the militarization of US society and the deification of military personnel, even if they are accountants in uniform working at the Pentagon, is something to be concerned about. But saying the Pledge, and standing for the National Anthem, should be a requirement for students. There has to be some measure or display of loyalty to one’s country and the young must learn that. Still many want to wipe away any sense of citizenship, patriotism. Well, they are doing a fine job of that.

Mind the Inmates!

Students at both institutions are the beneficiaries of some serious force protection measures normally associated with protecting military personnel stationed at installations around the globe. The public schools in which I worked have armed police officers on site with a phalanx of civilian security/disciplinarians roaming the halls. Security cameras are everywhere indoors (hallways) and outside (entry and exit) recording movements. Public school buses are also outfitted with cameras and tracking systems.

The private school where I was once employed uses a less blunt force approach opting for a more subtle presence: security personnel are a bit less obvious and do not carry firearms. The school does employ a corporate style full-time director of security and safety with some serious emergency management credentials.

It is the same security scene at public and private schools across the United States which raises an interesting question: Are students really captive minds in minimum security enclosures subjected daily to social, emotional learning techniques or socialization/habilitation for entry into society? Or are they “free” learners allowed to be creative and explore beyond the confines of the pedagogy that seeks to “standardize” them.

No Student Untracked

There is a functioning big data brother at work tracking students as they make their way through K-12 known as the Common Core of Data (CCD). CCD is described by Marc Gardner in a presentation for the US National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)as “the annual collection of the universe of United States public elementary, secondary education agencies and schools. Data include enrollment by grade, race/ethnicity and sex, special education, english learners, school lunch programs, teachers, dropouts and completers.” The CCD also gathers information from state justice, health and labor departments. The NCES also collects data from private schools.

It doesn’t end there. Colleges and universities are tracking high school seniors as they begin their searches for schools they’d like to attend. The Washington Post recently reported that many colleges and universities have hired data capture firms to track prospective students as they explore websites. “Records and interviews show that colleges are building vast repositories of data on prospective students — scanning test scores, zip codes, high school transcripts, academic interests, web browsing histories, ethnic backgrounds and household incomes…”

The owner of Canvas, referenced above, is Instructure. Their mission, according to their investor website is to “grow [the young] from the first day of school to the last day of work [retirement].” One of the capabilities that Instructure provides its clients is Canvas Folio Management. According to the investor webpage, it “delivers an institutional homepage and deep, real-time analytics on student engagement, skills and competencies, network connections, and interactions across various cohorts. Allows institutions to generate custom reports tied directly to student success initiatives and export accreditation-ready reports on learning outcomes at the student, cohort, course, program, or institutional level.”

Ah, yes, the thrill of being hunted for a life time by big data brother. Anyway, there is no escape.

Don’t try this in a Classroom

“Learning is an active process, not simply a matter of banking information in a recipient passive mind. Teaching therefore has to be a transactional process rather than just the transmission of information. The transactional aspect is essential to enabling students to challenge their situations in life, which they must learn to do if they are to play their parts as active citizens of a better world…teaching must be approached as an intellectually disruptive and subversive activity if it is to instill inquiry skills in learners and encourage them to think for themselves rather than mindlessly accept received ideas. We believe it is more important in the digital age than ever before.” (Ingenious: The Unintended Consequences of Human Innovation by Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson, Harvard, 2019)

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Why is Latin America Burning?

In Latin America several countries are under turmoil, as people cannot even meet their most basics needs. The last few months have seen a remarkable spectacle: hundreds of thousands of citizens are taking to the streets to protest to what they perceive is their governments’ attack on their well-being, and the governments’ responses have been late and inadequate.

A reason for these failures can be found in an anecdote related by Jean Cocteau. A couple of drivers suffer a car malfunction in a small Chinese town: there is a hole in the gas tank. They find a mechanic that can repair it; he can do an exact replica of the tank in a couple of hours. When they pick up the car they restart the trip when, in the dark hours of the night, they face the same problem. The reason: the mechanic had also copied the hole in the gas tank. Governments, and alas, not only those in Latin America, are trying to solve problems facing them using the same recipe, the one that hadn’t succeeded before.

What is happening now is important not only in its dimension, but also in the possibility of a generalized continental chaos with unpredictable consequences. And this is happening after Latin America seemed to be a on a path to sustained development, based on years of high commodity prices. However, governments, rather than taking advantage of this situation, have instead used the remarkable financial resources obtained for their own spurious aims.

The citizenry, tired of false promises, resorts to voting for populist governments that, although they increase the countries’ external debt, have at least a policy of redistribution of resources that solves immediate problems and gives people a false sense of security. This has been starkly seen now in Argentina, where Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (they are not related) won the country’s presidential election although she has more than a dozen criminal cases against her.

Present economic and social crises have special characteristics according to what countries are considered. The common denominator to all is the profound economic inequality which, according to the United Nations, is greater in Latin America than in any other part of the world. The Economic Commission for Latin America and Caribbean states that, although in Chile poverty levels went down three percentage points between 2016 and 2019, one percent of the country’s population still owns 26.5 percent of its wealth.

David Konzevik, an Argentine economist and advisor to many governments, has developed the theory called “The revolution of expectations”. According to Konzevik, the degree of knowledge and information that exists today makes people aware of possibilities for better living that are unfulfilled. Governments by and large remain deaf to people’s demands. “The poor today are rich in information and millionaires in expectations,” Konzevik told me recently in New York.

In addition, in almost all countries judicial institutions are weak and as a result widespread corruption remains unpunished. As the worldwide economy has slowed down, governments lack resources to pay for social programs. As a result, the public has become increasingly more vocal in its demands for better services and salaries, and less willing to accept great levels of social inequality.

However, today not only the poor participate in the protests against the governments. Protesting as well are vast sectors of the middle class who also see their quality of life considerably lowered by government policies that favor mainly the rich.

Is there a way out of this morass? The answer may be in the following story told by the
Spanish-Mexican historian Juan María Alponte. “A man, passing a quarry, saw three stone cutters. He asked the first: ‘What do you do?’ ‘You see, cutting these stones.’ The second said: ‘I prepare a cornerstone.’ The third one simply said, unaffected. ‘I build a cathedral.’” We need politicians who want to build a cathedral.

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The Nature Conservancy and BLM Collaborate to DeFacto Privatize and Destroy Our Public Land

Sagebrush plain, Greater Yellowstone. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In a recent article the Bureau of Land Management, The Nature Conservancy, and local ranchers claimed that removing conifers, mainly juniper trees, on public lands increases and improves habitat for sage grouse, big game, and other species that rely on juniper/sagebrush habitat. But the best available science and on-the-ground evidence from similar projects show that it does just the opposite.

The majority of BLM conifer removal projects in Montana are in critical big game winter range where belts of low elevation forests progressively thin out into adjacent grasslands as growing conditions become less favorable for trees. The more open forests at the grassland fringe provide various grazing opportunities for big game, while the more dense forests above these areas reduce snow depth and wind speed, providing critical thermal protection for deer and elk during Montana’s severe winters.

Juniper trees also produce up to 20,000 berries per square meter of foliage, providing high-energy food for wildlife, migratory birds, wild turkeys, and upland game birds throughout fall and winter regardless of deep snow. Junipers in the inter-mountain West provide breeding habitat for at least 43 species of birds including many that have been identified as Montana Species of Concern. These include the Lark sparrow, Loggerhead shrike, pinyon jay, Cassin’s finch, Clark’s nutcracker, Ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, northern goshawk, and flammulated owl.

The conifer removal proponents neglected to mention that to remove juniper from large tracts of sagebrush the BLM actually burns the sagebrush so it will carry the flames into the juniper trees. Removing sagebrush and juniper not only decreases the likelihood of sage grouse recovery, it increases the chance of annually-recurring wildfires because non-native cheatgrass moves in after the sagebrush is burned. Cheatgrass is a very aggressive, highly flammable noxious weed that has proven almost impossible to eradicate.

The proponents claim conifers suck up water, are an invasive species, and cutting them down will help fight climate change because we will have more water without the trees. It’s certainly true that trees need water like all living things, but when it comes to climate change, trees are incredibly efficient at pulling carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, out of our overheating atmosphere. Trees also produce the oxygen we breathe. As is well known, junipers and Doug fir are native to Montana, not invasive species. The real invasive species are the cheatgrass and other noxious weeds that will move in when the sagebrush and juniper are burned.

The BLM, ranchers, and The Nature Conservancy apparently believe the best use of our public lands is to produce more and more cattle. Trees don’t produce cattle so they need to be cut. Cattle don’t eat sagebrush so it needs to be burned. Deer and elk eat grass that could be consumed by cattle so let’s get rid of the trees that provide critical hiding and thermal cover to reduce the grazing competition from native deer and elk.

In conclusion, burning thousands of acres of sagebrush and juniper on public lands owned by all Americans will hurt, not benefit, sage grouse recovery efforts, making it more likely that sage grouse will wind up on the Endangered Species List. It will substantially increase the risk of annually recurring wildfires, as has been documented throughout the West when cheatgrass invades. Nor will it benefit wildlife as the proponents claim. It will do just the opposite and reduce critical winter survival odds for big game and the many species of wildlife that rely on sagebrush/juniper habitat to make it through Montana’s long and cold winters.

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Living a Mixed Metaphor: Down the Rabbit Hole With Donald Trump

There can be no question about it. Donald Trump is Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. “Off with his head!” was the president’s essential suggestion for — to offer just one example — a certain whistleblower who fingered him on that now notorious Ukrainian phone call. And if The Donald hasn’t also been playing the roles of White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, and other characters from Carroll’s classic nineteenth century children’s book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, then tell me what he’s been doing these last years.

Unfortunately, in attempting to explain the Trumpian world we’ve been plunged into, I’m not Lewis Carroll. If only I were! Still, I realized recently that, like Alice, I had gone down the proverbial rabbit hole and was still falling, falling as if into a deep, deep well or through the very center of the Earth. Now Alice, if you remember, first had to follow a White Rabbit with pink eyes who rushed by wearing a waistcoat, suddenly pulled a watch from its pocket, and said to itself, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” It then disappeared down that memorably large rabbit hole by a riverbank near her house in nineteenth-century England.

Willingly or not, I — and here, I suspect, I speak for most of the rest of us, too — had little choice, given election 2016, but to follow our own rabbit down a twenty-first-century version of that rabbit hole. It goes without saying that our rabbit, that famed impresario of (un)reality TV shows, was distinctly a white rabbit, too. (After all, he would be the first to assure you that he’s no “Mexican rapist,” nor a compatriot of the recently dead Congressman Elijah Cummings whom he labeled a “brutal bully” representing a “rat and rodent infested” district of Baltimore.)

In his own twitchy fashion, the president recently refused to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game in Washington, D.C., because he knew that the Secret Service would dress him up in “a lot of heavy armor” and he would, as he put it, “look too heavy.” In other words, he rejected his own armored version of a waistcoat, a Kevlar vest, because it might, he felt, make him seem fat. This sort of thing, now our everyday reality, even Lewis Carroll might have had trouble inventing. And if any of this seems petty to you, keep in mind that never in our history has there been a pettier or more self-absorbed president. (On his introduction at that baseball game, by the way, he was greeted with a chorus of boos and — a first — chants of “Lock him up!”)

For those of you who remember Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with its classic John Tenniel illustrations, here’s one image that, I think, captures our Trumpian moment. Alice, already in Wonderland, finds herself in a room with a door too little to exit through. (It seems to me that, since 2016, all of us have found ourselves in just such a room — updated to include an @realDonaldTrump Twitter account — with no exit in sight.) On a small table, she suddenly notices a tiny bottle, “which certainly was not here before.” As Carroll describes it, “Round the neck of the bottle was a paper label with the words ‘DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters.”

After carefully checking to make sure it wasn’t marked “poison,” Alice sipped the liquid in that bottle. It had, she reported, a “mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered-toast.” As she drank it, Alice found herself shrinking until she was 10 inches tall, just the size for that little door. She would later grow giant indeed in a world in which nothing seemed to remain expectably normal-sized.

Whatever we Americans may think, including the 30% percent or more of us who make up Donald Trump’s ever-loyal base, it seems to me that we’ve all shrunk quite a bit in the years since he entered the Oval Office, even as he’s grown, in his own strange way, to gigantic proportions, Kevlar vest or no. Through no fault of their own, in the last election season, many of those who would become part of that base were already far down a rabbit hole of inequality and feeling an increasing sense of hopelessness. No wonder that, recognizing a Queen of Hearts on their TV sets ready to insult the surrounding world of political propriety (“Low-energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary“), they decided he would be the perfect messenger to give the finger to a Washington that had betrayed them.

Were he ever to enter the White House, they assumed, he might indeed take off the heads of some of those who had helped put them in such a spot. Since they undoubtedly had few illusions about just what sort of figure they were voting into the highest office in the land, they had no reason to reject or desert him almost three years later (though admittedly his administration and a Republican Congress have only increased inequality in this country). Today, with Donald Trump in Blunderland and themselves still falling, falling, they remain remarkably loyal to, and anything but disillusioned with, their very own Queen of Hearts.

The Donald’s Truest Moment in Blunderland

Now, consider for a moment just how wondrous (in a sense) all this has been. I mean, who, not in Blunderland, could ever have imagined that a bankrupted casino magnate and reality TV host might essentially — like his lawyer recently — butt-dial us all into a new form of (un)reality? Who could have imagined a world in which every camera would be focused on him and him alone, its red light seemingly always on? Who could have imagined that any bizarre thought our very own Queen of Hearts had or bit of braggadocio he tweeted or uttered(“[ISIS uses] the internet better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump”) would be the news of that day? Who could have imagined that, no matter how he insulted them, the “fake news media” would focus on him and him alone, assigning reporters to cover him in hordes that had been inconceivable in the pre-rabbit-hole history of journalism? In other words, in media terms, whatever Donald Trump drank, it made him far bigger than anything else on this planet.

And honestly, each day, when you tumble down that rabbit hole yet again, it hardly matters whether you’re heading there via CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. What once would have been known as the politics of it all is now, in many ways, beside the point in what I once termedthe White Ford Bronco presidency (in honor of the car O.J. Simpson drove down a California highway in a long-gone moment of no significance that was nonetheless blanketed by the TV news and watched by a nation).

Still, give Lewis Carroll the credit he deserves for grasping something of our twenty-first-century American fate so long ago. After all, his book ends on what might be thought of as the Wonderland version of an impeachment trial. There, the blustering Queen and King of Hearts are eternally eager for the heads of everyone, while the jurors — small animals, birds, and a lizard — desperately try to write down ridiculously irrelevant “evidence,” and Alice suddenly begins to grow ever larger as she watches the spectacle.

Much as it may anger Donald Trump, impeachment will be his truest moment in Blunderland, the one in which the focus on him will only become more extreme (“Drink this!”). In fact, count on it growing to proportions never before imagined on this planet. All of us will, by then, have drunk that potion and, despite what Carroll imagined in balmier times, it has indeed proven a kind of poison. The question, of course, is: Will the rest of us ever reach the book-ending moment in which all the characters in Wonderland, having turned back into so many playing cards, rise up “into the air” and come “flying down upon” Alice? As she beats them off, she suddenly awakens on that riverbank near her house, “her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.”

Will we someday wake up, too, and discover that our version of Wonderland, The Donald’s Blunderland, was all a kind of strange dream? Or in our time, in our world, might waking on that riverbank no longer be possible?

The New Hostage Crisis

In his acts, statements, and tweets, in his very essence, Donald Trump is the living version of a mixed metaphor. So it seems appropriate enough here to desert Wonderland and Blunderland momentarily for another set of images from our past.

Who, of a certain age, doesn’t remember November 4, 1979? That day, a group of Iranian student militants seized the American embassy in Tehran. They were protesting the arrival in the U.S. of the Shah, the ruler Washington had installed in power in their country via a CIA-British intelligence coup that overthrew a democratic government there in 1953. Only months before, the Shah had fled his country in the face of an uprising inspired by a fundamentalist cleric.

Those Iranian students took the diplomats and employees in that embassy hostage and held most of them under harsh conditions for 444 (highly televised) days, despite a failedAmerican military attempt to rescue them. As anyone who lived through that time will remember, the hostage crisis proved decisive in domestic politics, undoubtedly costing Jimmy Carter reelection as president and putting Ronald Reagan in the White House in his place. (Curiously enough, the students finally freed their hostages on the day of Reagan’s inauguration.)

That more-than-year-long saga represented an early, far more minor version of the Trumpian media madness that grips us today. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest — here comes that non-Wonderland mixed metaphor I promised you — that we are now in the midst of a new hostage crisis. Yes, 40 Novembers later, it’s happening again, only here. With the help of that “fake news media” of his, Donald Trump, a very different kind of fundamentalist, has taken us all hostage. And more than 1,000 days into his presidency, there seems little sign of rescue in sight.

Like those diplomats of long ago, we are all in some fashion blindfolded and somewhere in the distance we can, like them, hear the jeering crowds or perhaps, in our case, it’s just the jeering of our self-promotional president.

Yes, we are now, all of us, hostages in a country spiraling who knows where. To take another brief step back (though perspective on any of this couldn’t be harder to get), Donald Trump isn’t so much the cause of our present dilemma as the symptom and bizarre personification of it — of, that is, the sudden and precipitous decline of the American imperium at home and abroad.

It’s hard to wrap one’s head around all of this, in part because the very words “empire” and “imperial” aren’t in the American lexicon, not when applied to us anyway. And that’s too bad because they might give us a little perspective on the Blunderland we find ourselves in and how we got here.

Unfortunately, in the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, this country’s leaders, who took such pride in presiding over the only indispensable superpower on Planet Earth, managed to lead us into hell (a hell that is now Donald Trump). After years of the growth of devastating inequality here and failed wars in distant lands, that unparalleled imperial power is now in deep trouble. And don’t blame The Donald for that. As he’s pointed out before, he didn’t order the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq in the wake of 9/11. He wasn’t the one who pursued what really should be known (from the spread of terrorist groups in this period) as the American war not “on” but “for” terror.

Perhaps it’s time for us to pick up that other little bottle on Alice’s table, the one that says “failing empire: drink this.” Because 40 years after that first hostage crisis (which itself was a crisis of empire gone awry), we are all hostages to the blunderer who would never have been in the White House if it weren’t for a country that had already auctioned off its political system to the highest bidders and its government to the national security state. You know, what Donald Trump likes to denounce as the “deep state” (though its thinking couldn’t be more shallow).  And here’s the irony: much as he decries it, he still can’t help feeding it ever more taxpayer dollars galore.

Welcome, in other words, to Blunderland, a country already at the edge of oligarchy with a feel of autocracy to it. Consider it an irony of the worst sort that the United States, founded in response to a Mad King George and his empire, is now itself an empire on a downward spiral, whose populace is mesmerized by, distracted by a Mad King Donald. After so many endless centuries of imperial struggle on a planet heading into a crisis of pyromania unlike any we humans have ever experienced, perhaps what we need is our own Lewis Carroll to record it all.

Now, drink this!

This column first appeared on TomDispatch.

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America Will Keep Losing Its Middle Class as Long as ‘Free Markets’ Dominate the Economic Debate

Photograph Source: Eden, Janine and Jim – CC BY 2.0

National industrial policy was once something you might read about in today’s equivalent of a friend’s Facebook post, as hard as that might sound to believe. It was in newspapers; it was on the radio. Taxi drivers had opinions about it. That all changed in the last 35 years, when the rise and fall of the stock market and a shallow conversation about unemployment rates took over. Industrial policy became an inside-baseball conversation, and to the extent that it was discussed, it was through the prism of whether it imperiled the golden gospel and great economic distraction of our time, “the free market.”

The decades of free-market propaganda we’ve been exposed to are basically an exercise in distracting the public from the meaningful choices that are now made behind closed doors. The two big political parties that outwardly represent symbolic issues like gun rights and school prayer spend the bulk of their time and political energy on complex industrial and regulatory questions.

But much like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, they’d better start considering the question of a national industrial policy before there’s no industry left to manage. Manufacturing is now at its smallest share of the U.S. economy in 72 years, reports Bloomberg. Multinational supply chains undermine the negotiating power of workers, thereby exacerbating inequality.

Are there ways to bring back manufacturing, or should we just capitulate to a mindset that argues that these jobs are gone for good, that software retention is good enough, even as we shift what’s left of our manufacturing sector overseas to sweatshop economies? That seems short-sighted. After all, it’s pretty easy to steal IP; it’s not so easy to steal an auto manufacturing facility. The real question is: In the absence of some sort of national industrial strategy, how do Western societies retain a viable middle class?

Decades of American middle-class exposure to favor China and other Asian countries’ industrial capacity have foisted it right back from elite circles into our politics and the ballot box, in spectacular fashion, through the unlikely Donald Trump, who, in his typically blunderbuss fashion, has called attention to some serious deficiencies in our current globalized system, and the competitive threat posed by China to which we have remained oblivious for all too long.

Not that Trump’s 19th-century protectionism represents the right policy response, but his concerns about Beijing make sense when you compare how much China invests in its own industrial base relative to the U.S.: Robert D. Atkinson and Caleb Foote of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation write that a recent Harvard Business School “study estimated that the Chinese governments (national, provincial, and local) paid for a whopping 22.2 percent of business R&D in 2015, with 95 percent of Chinese firms in 6 industries receiving government cash—petrochemicals, electronics, metals and materials, machinery and equipment, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, and information technology.”

In addition to the direct government grants on R&D, Atkinson and Foote estimate that “the Chinese R&D tax credit is between 3 and 4.6 times more generous than the U.S. credit. To match China’s R&D tax credit generosity, the U.S. rate for the Alternative Simplified Credit would have to be increased from 14 percent to between 35 and 40 percent.” Atkinson and Foote also note that “97 percent of American federal government funding went to just three sectors: transportation equipment, which includes such as fighter jets, missiles, and the like ($14 billion); professional, scientific, and technical services ($5 billion); and computer and electronic products ($4 billion).”

Taken in aggregate, Atkinson and Foote calculate that “nearly 25 percent of all R&D expenditures in China come in the form of government subsidies to firms.” That’s the sort of thing that must enter the calculations of antitrust advocates when they call for breaking up big tech, without considering the ramifications to research and development, especially relative to their Chinese counterparts. (Statistically, as Anne Marie Knott and Carl Vieregger find in a 2016 paper “Reconciling the Firm Size and Innovation Puzzle,” there are ample studies illustrating that R&D spending and R&D productivity increase with scale.)

Why does this matter? Robert Kuttner, writing at the Huffington Post at the inception of Barack Obama’s presidency, made a compelling argument that many of America’s great industrial enterprises did not simply spring up spontaneously via the magic of the “free market”:

“American commercial leadership in aerospace is no naturally occurring phenomenon. It reflects trillions of dollars of subsidy from the Pentagon and from NASA. Likewise, U.S. dominance in pharmaceuticals is the result of government subsidy of basic research, favorable patent treatment, and the fact that the American consumer of prescription drugs is made to overpay, giving the industry exorbitant profits to plow back into research. Throwing $700 billion at America’s wounded banks is also an industrial policy.

“So if we can have implicit industrial policies for these industries, why not explicit policies to rebuild our auto industry, our steel industry, our machine tool industry, and the industries of the next century, such as green energy and high-speed rail? And why not devise some clear standards for which industries deserve help, and why, and what they owe America in return?”

In fact, Kuttner describes a problem that well preceded Barack Obama. America’s belief in national industrial planning has been undermined to the extent that the U.S. began to adhere to a doctrine of shareholder capitalism in the 1980s and beyond, a philosophy that minimized the role of the state, and gave primacy to short-term profitability, as well as production growth through efficiency (i.e., downsizing) and mergers. Corporate prioritization of maximizing shareholders’ value and the ways American corporations have minimized long-term R&D expenditures and capital investment, all of which have resulted in the “unproductive disgorging of corporate cash profits—through massive dividend payouts and unprecedented spending on stock repurchases—over productive investment in innovation,” write Professors Servaas Storm and C.W.M. Naastepad.

Although European companies have not gone quite as far down that route, their “stakeholder capitalism” culture has been somewhat subverted to the same short-term goals as their American counterparts, as evidenced via Volkswagen’s emissions scandal and the erosion of workers’ rights via the Hartz labor “reforms” (which actually undermined the unions’ stakeholder status in the companies, thereby freeing up management to adopt many of the less attractive American shareholder capitalism practices). The European Union too is now belatedly recognizing the competitive threat posed by China. There’s no doubt that the European political classes are also becoming mindful that there are votes to be won here as well, as Trump correctly calculated in 2016.

In the U.S., industrial policy is increasingly finding advocates on both the left (Elizabeth Warren’s policy director, Ganesh Sitaraman) and the right (Professor Michael Lind), via the convenient marriage of national security considerations and with international investment and trade. If trade policy is ultimately subordinated to national security concerns, it is conceivable that industrial policy could be “bi-partisanized,” thereby giving primacy to homegrown strategic industries necessary to sustain viable national defense and security.

But this approach is not without risks: it is unclear whether the “national security-fication” of the industrial policy renaissance will actually enhance or hinder creativity and risk-taking, or merely cause these firms to decline altogether as viable civilian competitors vis a vis Beijing. The current travails of Boeing provide a salutary illustration of the risks of going too far down the Pentagon rat hole. And there are a number of recent studies illustrating that the case for “dual-use” (i.e., civilian and military) manufacturing does not substantially enhance civilian industrialization and, indeed, may retard overall economic growth. On the other hand, as the venture capitalist William Janeway highlights in his seminal work, Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy, there are advantages at times to being “[d]ecoupled from any direct concern with economic return… [It allowed] the Defense Department… [to] fund numerous alternative research agendas, underwriting the ‘wasteful’ search for solutions that inevitably accompanies any effort to push back the frontiers of knowledge.” So there’s a balance to be struck here. But, as Janeway notes, “the strategic state interventions that have shaped the market economy over generations have depended on grander themes—national development, national security, social justice, liberation from disease—that transcend the calculus of welfare economics and the logic of market failure.”

Furthermore, to the extent that national security considerations retard offshoring and global labor arbitrage, it can enhance the prospects for a viable form of “national developmentalism,” given that both mean tighter labor markets and higher wages, which in turn will likely push firms toward upgrading R&D spending in order to upgrade on the high end of the technology curve (as Seymour Melman argued years ago), as well as enhancing productivity gains. As author Ted Fertik observes:

“Higher productivity makes possible more generous welfare states, and helps national industries compete to supply the world with high-tech products. If technological leadership and a prosperous, patriotic citizenry are the surest guarantees of military preponderance, such an economic policy represents the best military strategy in an era of great power competition.”

Both the left and the right are beginning to recognize that it makes no sense to make war on wage-earners while claiming to protect the same wage earners from Chinese competition. But governments need to do more than act as a neutral umpire, whose role never extends beyond fixing market failures. As Janeway has illustrated, governments have historically promoted the basic research that fueled innovation and nurtured the talent and skills that “became the foundation of the Innovation Economy”; “the central research laboratories of the great corporations were first supplemented and then supplanted by direct state funding of research.” But in spite of providing the foundational research for a number of leading commercial products (e.g., Apple’s iPhone), the government has proved reticent in considering alternative forms of ownership structure (e.g., a “government golden share,” which gives veto rights on key strategic issues, such as relocation, offshoring, special voting rights, etc.), or retaining intellectual property rights and corresponding royalty streams to reflect the magnitude of their own R&D efforts, as Professor Mariana Mazzucato has proposed in the past. At the very least, we need to consider these alternative ownership structures that focus entrepreneurial development on value creation, as opposed to capitulating to the depredations of rentier capitalism on the spurious grounds that this is a neutral byproduct of the market’s efficient allocation of resources.

Within the U.S., national industrial policy also suits green advocates, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, whose Green New Deal plan, while failing to address domestic/local content, or manufacturing in the broadest possible sense, at least begins to move the needle with regard to the federal government building and owning a national renewable grid.

Likewise in Europe, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier recently published a “National Industrial Strategy 2030,” which, according to Dalia Marin of Bruegel think tank in Brussels, “aims to protect German firms against state-subsidized Chinese competitors. The strategy identifies key industrial sectors that will receive special government support, calls for establishing production of electric-car batteries in Europe, and advocates mergers to achieve economies of scale.” It is striking that EU policymakers, such as Lars Feld of the German Council of Economic Experts, still apparently think it is a protectionist step too far to consider coordinating with the car companies (where there is already a high degree of trans-European policy coordination and international consolidation), and other sectors, to help them all at the same time—as Beijing is now doing. Of course, it would help to embed this in a manufacturing-based Green New Deal, but it represents a healthy corrective to offshoring advocates who continue to advocate that their car industry should migrate to China, on the short-term grounds of cost consideration alone.

Essentially, the goal should be to protect the industries that policymakers think will be strategically important from outsiders, and to further integrate with allies and partners to achieve efficiencies and production scale. (Parenthetically, it seems particularly perverse right at this juncture for the UK to break away from all this continental European integration, and to try to go it alone via Brexit.) The aim should not be to protect private rent-seeking and increasing private monopolization under the guise of industrial policy, which, as Dalia Marin notes, is why EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager blocked the proposed merger between France’s Alstom and Germany’s Siemens. The two companies “rarely compete with CRRC in third countries, because the Chinese company mainly focuses on its home market.” Hence, the grounds for creating “heavyweight champions” was really a cover for developing an oligopoly instead.

Much of the focus of negotiation in the seemingly endless trade negotiations between the U.S. and China has been on American efforts to dismantle the wave of subsidies and industrial support that Beijing furnishes to its domestic industries. This seems both unrealistic as well as being the exact opposite of what the U.S. should be doing if it hopes to level, or at least carve up, the playing field.

Likewise, the problem in both the EU and the U.S. is not the size of these companies generated by national developmentalism, but a size-neutral form of national regulation that precludes these companies from stifling competition. The goal of a truly successful and workable industrial policy should be to create an environment that supports and sustains value creation and that socializes the benefits of the R&D for society as a whole, rather than simply licensing it or selling it on to private companies so that it just becomes a vehicle that sustains rent extraction for private profits alone.

We are slowly but surely starting to move away from market fundamentalism, but we still have yet to make the full conceptual leap toward a sustainable industrial policy that creates an economy for all. At least this is now becoming a fit discussion as far as policy making goes, as many of the neoliberal shibboleths of the past 40 years are gradually being reconsidered and abandoned. That is a start.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

 

The post America Will Keep Losing Its Middle Class as Long as ‘Free Markets’ Dominate the Economic Debate appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Boris Johnson Opts For His Santa Claus Election

Photograph Source: Matt Brown – CC BY 2.0

BoJo ran out of rope when all his gambits intended to bounce parliament into accepting his Brexit deal got nowhere (as was widely predicted). The EU accepted his deal, but he wanted it rushed through parliament to meet his 31st October deadline, and parliament failed to oblige.

BoJo, never one to shun bombast, had promised to “die in a ditch” if Brexit did not take place by Halloween.

Few took BoJo’s deadline seriously, except for the hardline Brexit loons who hang on his every word.

Members of his immediate family say publicly they don’t trust him, so what hope is there left for the rest of us?

The only option left for “dead in the ditch” BoJo was to shelve his deal and seek a snap general election, which will now be held on 12th December.

BoJo is hoping to tap into the exhaustion resentful voters now feel about the endless Brexit delays, and the cornerstone of his campaign is to blame the “anti-people” parliament for these stoppages. He’s also promised to deliver Brexit by mid-January if elected.

This pretense of a having a “people’s election” is precisely that—a sham. For once The Guardian got it right:

“Mr Johnson wasted time after attaining office by not talking to the EU. He then unlawfully prorogued parliament to evade scrutiny. Mr Johnson came out with a set of proposals that were unacceptable to Brussels before being swiftly amended. There was no way MPs would permit Britain to be bundled out of the EU with no deal or on terms that threaten jobs, the economy, peace in Northern Ireland or the union with Scotland. The courts and MPs did not allow the prime minister to disregard proper procedure – to their credit, because a future government could use the precedent established for more sinister purposes. Mr Johnson does not care about such things. His calculations revolve around naked self-interest and power”.

It will be interesting to see how BoJo campaigns in the election, after having abandoned his promise to die in a ditch by Halloween.

When he ran for the leadership of the Tory party, BoJo’s handlers did their best to hide their gaffe-prone boss from party members, journalists, and the public.

BoJo’s handlers got away with this strategy then, but shielding a candidate who professes to be a “man of the people” from “the people” in a nationwide election was never going to be as easy.

Johnson’s team will have to let loose their bumbling but over-confident leader, and take their chances with whomever he encounters.

BoJo’s first public appearance did not go according to plan (if indeed there was one).

A politician who is on record as wanting to sell-off the NHS to the private sector would be advised not to visit an NHS hospital as a PR stunt.

However, BoJo’s handlers, aware that the Tory record on the NHS is a weak spot in their campaign platform, decided their candidate should display some fake love for the NHS by visiting the university hospital in Cambridge for a photo op.

BoJo was booed off the hospital premises by medical staff, patients, and visitors. His visit was covered by mainstream media, including the pusillanimous BBC, which did not however mention the raucous send-off given BoJo in the reception lobby at Addenbrookes hospital.

Social media though was more diligent in its coverage and did full justice to BoJo’s cynical visit to Addenbrookes.

Social media also had a field day with the Tory election slogan “Britain deserves better”. Given that the Conservatives have been in office since 2010, and made a complete pig’s ear of Brexit, the PR team responsible for this deeply ironical slogan should perhaps be banished by Tory HQ to the mansion of Prince Charles and made to flat-iron Charlie Boy’s shoelaces each morning.

The old adage “with friends like this you don’t need enemies” has always been applicable to Nigel Farage, the ever-opportunistic grifter who leads the far-right Brexit party, who has proven himself to be even more adept at lying than Johnson.

Farage pretends to be an ally of the Tories in wanting Brexit, but issued them an ultimatum: form an electoral alliance with us or else my Brexit party will field candidates in all seats in the election.

Farage had one condition, given that he considered BoJo’s shelved deal with the EU to be a “lousy” one–  a No Deal Brexit had to be on the table for Farage’s pact with the Tories to be implemented.

Farage’s condition is designed to peel-off hardcore Brexiters—most of them far-right nationalists, Little Englander xenophobes, and white supremacists– from the Conservatives, something BoJo can ill-afford to have happen.

At the same time, Farage’s seemingly uncompromising No Deal Brexit condition for a  pact with the Conservatives could drive Tories opposed to Brexit (and they do exist) into the arms of the Remainer almost-Tory Lib Dems.

Farage also had a fawning interview with Donald Trump on LBC radio.

Corbyn would be “so bad” for the UK, the “America First” president told Farage’s listeners, quite unaware that his huge unpopularity with Brits meant this message was bound to backfire.

Trump, unaware of the competition between Farage and BoJo for Brexit voters, sought to give BoJo and his Brexit deal a boost in this interview, but ended-up guaranteeing that BoJo would now be linked to someone regarded by many Ukanians as America’s sick joke on the world.

Meanwhile Johnson continues to come-up with his trademark whoppers.

On Sunday, The Daily Telegraph was forced to correct a column written by BoJo, in  which he falsely claimed the UK is set to “become the largest and most prosperous economy in this hemisphere”, i.e. that the UK will overtake Germany as an economic power “in our lifetimes”.

The reality is quite different. The World Bank’s GDP-by-country rankings shows something that is not on the horizon for Johnson— e.g. that far from overtaking Germany, the UK is about to be overtaken by India (UK $2,825,208 vs India $2,726,323).

I’ll be in London next week to get a further sense of the directions taken by the election campaigns of the main parties.

We already know that Nigel Farage has declined to stand as a candidate for parliament in the election.

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