10 09 2011

Texas Governor Rick Perry recently lead a three-day prayer marathon, asking for God to make it rain on Texas.  God’s answer?  Tropical Storm Lee skipped the state, and even more wildfires have broken out.  No reports yet of any brimstone, but a volcanic eruption in Texas would put quite a cap on the summer disaster season, wouldn’t it?  Where are all the Evangelicals who have framed other natural disasters as God’s wrathful judgment on the sinners of New Orleans, New York,  or wherever?  If God is all-powerful and on their side, how come he’s burning up the home state of his self-proclaimed most devoted servant?  Do I blaspheme?

Speaking of God’s wrath, today is the tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center.  I’m starting to suspect we will never know the real story of what happened, despite the many obvious contradictions and peculiar decisions contained in the official version.  For instance:  cell phones didn’t work on airplanes in 2001–how was someone allegedly on one of the hijacked flights able to make cell phone calls?  How could an airliner hit a building at ground level (the Pentagon), and disintegrate so thoroughly that virtually no trace of the airliner was left?  How could somebody with virtually no experience flying an airliner do such a good job of flying it so close to the ground?  Why was no attempt made to shoot the plane down before it hit?  And if, as some claim, it was a missile and not an airplane that hit the Pentagon, thus explaining the lack of debris, what happened to the missing airplane?

And that’s just the Pentagon–moving to the main event, in New York, we don’t know how a kerosene (aka jet fuel) fire could get hot enough to melt structural steel–there are videos that seem to show molten metal pouring out of the stricken floors of the World Trade Center, and plenty of eyewitness reports of molten metal in the collapsed ruins.  Why were the remains of the buildings hastily recycled, rather than carefully examined for evidence of why they collapsed?  Why were traces of high explosives found in World Trade Center structure samples that were independently analyzed?  Why did Building 7, which was not hit by an airplane, and contained the security camera records for the towers, collapse and burn hours after the main event?

On the other hand, if it was, as many allege, a controlled demolition, how could the enormous amount of material needed have been spirited into the building and put in place without attracting notice?  Such a task would require so many hands that it is hard to believe that everyone’s lips would remain sealed after ten years.

I haven’t even touched on the larger questions–who knew what, and when.  Perhaps that is why our government took such great care to seal Mr. Bin Laden’s lips and confiscate his records.  We may never know if the attack occurred without the knowledge of our government, or whether it occurred with the collusion or outright participation of our government.  After all, the neoconservative “Project for a New American Century” had, only the year before, proclaimed a need for “a new Pearl Harbor” to galvanize Americans into supporting a war that, they believed, would result in American dominance of the Middle East and its oil.  And Pearl Harbor, let us not forget, was an attack that upper echelons of U.S. intelligence may have known  about, and allowed to happen, in order to…galvanize Americans into supporting a war.  Maybe that’s what happened.  As I said, there’s a lot we just don’t know.

But, in a way, it doesn’t matter whether Dick Cheney was in on the 9-11 plot or not.   It doesn’t even matter that the country, or at least the media, has largely lost interest in these questions. What the attack really succeeded in doing was provoking a massive increase in U.S. government spending–and borrowing.  Our national debt nearly doubled during the Cheney administration, largely due to increased war and “homeland security” spending.  This was all part of a mindset that saw no need to regulate or rein in government spending on big business , or in any way question the basic assumption on which our economy runs:  economic growth is the ultimate good thing.

And that is where this country has run into trouble, because our commitment to unrestrained economic growth at any cost was bound to create a crash, sooner or later, and increased government spending and borrowing–not to mention private sector spending and borrowing, as in the consumer credit boom–just brought the contradictions to a head that much faster.

Here’s the key:  a financial system based on loaning money at interest presumes that the economy can somehow grow indefinitely.  There is no way to pay off an interest-bearing loan other than to somehow create more wealth than the original loan represents.  But oops!  That presumes infinite growth on this small and extremely finite–not to mention fragile–planet.

In the prescient climactic scene from the 1983 Monty Python movie “The Meaning of Life,” the Chairman of the Very Big Corporation of America says

… which brings us once again to the urgent realisation of just how much there is still left to own.

In 1983, it seemed that there was still a lot left to own, but, just a few years later, the field had narrowed considerably.  By the early 90’s, the planet’s material resources were pretty much accounted for or tapped out, and bankers started resorting to what you could call ‘creative financing”–Collateralized Debt Obligations, Collateralized Bond Obligations, and so forth, even a second generation of essentially artificial financial instruments based on CDO’s, etc., which catapulted high finance into a realm of such huge amounts of–ultimately–imaginary money that the only “collateral” for these abstract investment opportunities was more  abstract money, because there just wasn’t enough actual stuff to do the job.  The world of finance had run out of things to own, and yet  banksters made billions in a market that resembled nothing so much as an off-track betting parlor for an imaginary horse race.  They made enough money to buy the U.S. government, with the result that, when their schemes blew up in their faces, they were able to manipulate that government into bailing them out instead of prosecuting them for theft and fraud.

The rest of us are not so well-connected.  Debt also became overwhelming at the family/individual level, resulting in a flood of bankruptcies and foreclosures that has decimated the American middle class and shoved the poor even farther down the storm drain.  Oh, and did I mention that part of the corporate Ponzi scheme involved moving as much manufacturing out of the US as possible, to places where they wouldn’t have to pay their workers as well, or observe expensive environmental safeguards?

Here’s some numbers:   real wages for the average person have declined by about 14% since the early 1970’s, while the cost of living,  as measured by the consumer price index,  has risen by a factor of five.  The cost of living increase is partly due to price increases, but also  involves using television to hypnotize people into believing they need things that they do not, in fact, need, thus inflating demand.

A more concrete example:  the average home price in 1972 was $27.000.  Adjusted for inflation to 2007 prices, that’s about $134,000.  But, in 2007, the average home price in the U.S. was  around $300,000, and the median was in the neighborhood of $250,000.  So, for the average American, income–down 14%,  while the price for keeping a roof over our head is up nearly 100%.  That has opened up a big hole between our expectations and our ability to fulfill them, a hole known as a “debt trap.”  The total amount of individual debt in the U.S. is about 2.4 trillion dollars, about a third of it credit card debt, the rest mostly home and college loans.  In 2009, the average household debt was only about $16K, but the average household debt of households with credit card debt was $54K.  The good news is, both these figures were about half of what they had been a year earlier.

The bad news is that a fair amount of this debt disappeared when banks gave up on collecting it, because the debtors went bankrupt.  Foreclosure, of course, technically transfers the asset to the bank, but unoccupied, unsaleable homes have a funny tendency to lose value rather rapidly.  Too bad for the banks.  My heart bleeds.

The other bad news is that, since our economy is based on credit, the fact that people are borrowing and spending less is ‘bad for the economy.”

But the good news is, our unsustainable, growth-dependent economy needs to wither and die, to keep the planet from withering and dying.  I’m not too hung up in the “either/or” of this, because it looks like the planet is going to wither and die enough to shake the cancer of our civilization, and possibly our entire species.  As one who appreciates what is valuable in humanity–our self-awareness, our ability to understand large concepts, and our ability to be compassionate with each other–I hope it doesn’t come to that.  But unless several million mostly rich, white, mostly Americans ( who are overall somewhat deficient in self-awareness, understanding, and compassion) don’t get a clue pretty quick, it could, indeed, be curtains for us.  These are interesting times, indeed.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “2153


30 03 2008

You can hear all kinds of wild stuff on the internet.  If you’re not careful, you might end up thinking Lyndon Larouche or one of his front groups is a credible source….

England’s Economist, however, is by no means a radical publication, but nevertheless enjoys a good reputation for clear vision and honest reporting.  So when they run a story like this one, with this headline, you want to be sure you’ve got a good plan:

Bankruptcies in America

Waiting for Armageddon

Mar 27th 2008 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition

The recent rise in corporate bankruptcies in America may well be a sign of much worse to come

Illustration by David Simonds

CAPITALISM without bankruptcy, it is said, is like Christianity without hell. With recession looming, the air in America’s bankruptcy courts is thick with brimstone and the coals are being heated in readiness for the many sad souls whose sin was to borrow too much. After several heavenly years, in which bankruptcies fell to record lows, going bust is back. How bad will things get?

If the debt markets are to be believed, companies could be in at least as much trouble as they were in the previous two downturns, in the early 1990s and at the start of this decade, after the dotcom bubble burst. A leading indicator is the spread between yields on speculative “junk” bonds and American Treasury bonds. A year ago, the spread was only about 280 basis points; the long-term average is around 500 points. This month the spread exceeded 800 points for the first time since March 2003, reaching 862 on March 17th.

The bankruptcy rate (in the previous 12 months) for high-yielding bonds has so far edged only modestly higher, to 1.28% from a record low of 0.87% in November. But most forecasters expect it to rise sharply over the coming months. 


A look at the firms with distressed debt shows that problems are rapidly moving beyond the long-term sick (airlines, cars) and the industries immediately affected by the crisis (home builders, mortgage lenders, monoline insurers). Craig Deane of AEG Partners, a restructuring-advisory firm, says he is now seeing troubled companies in retailing, restaurants, manufacturing and food processing.


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This story from the Sydney, Australia, Herald-Sun talks about the likelihood that the dollar will, over the next three to five years, cease to become the world’s common currency.  No matter who gets elected in November, this is going to take the US down a few pegs and diminish our ability to influence world affairs–such as the boycott of Iran that the Junta is currently orchestrating.  For now, they are succeeding, and there are no signs that Hillary or Obama disagrees with the tactic, but if US banks lose their hegemonic position in the world market, plenty of countries will be only too happy to tell us to go wipe our ass with our stupid greenbacks.  At a certain point, oil will speak louder than anything else.

STATE-backed sovereign wealth funds are likely to diversify their investments and move away from US dollar-denominated assets, a World Bank official says.

Central banks are likely to follow suit, shifting away from the US dollar over the next “three to five years,” World Bank principal investment officer Arjan Berkelaar told a business conference in Sydney yesterday.

Sovereign funds, which are either government-owned or controlled, will increasingly switch from high-grade fixed-income assets such as government bonds to equities and broader-based assets including infrastructure and commodities, he said.

Alternatives would include investments denominated in the euro and pound, with some possible interest in the higher-yielding Australian and New Zealand currencies.



13 01 2008

I was driving to Nashville with my 18-year old grandson. We had about an hour on the road; it was the first time we’d been alone together in a while. I was curious to see what would arise between us, but I was a bit surprised when he asked me, “What is the deal with these subprime mortgages?” It’s just not the question I expected from an 18-year old, but I was gratified to know he was interested.

“It’s about human greed, stupidity, and shortsightedness,” I said. “The bankers figured that if they could sell the loans they made to somebody else, they wouldn’t have to worry about collecting on them. And the people they sold the loans to figured the same thing, and so on up the ladder. It’s a pyramid scheme, a hot potato.”

My grandson was amazed and dismayed to discover that so many supposed adults could be that stupid. I have to agree. What were they thinking? Well, if they were thinking that they personally could get away with it, so far they’ve been right. To pick the most egregious example, Countrywide Financial, which is responsible for a big chunk of the bad mortgages that are clouding the financial air these days, was just sold to Bank of America, and Countrywide’s CEO is getting not just a golden parachute but a whole golden airplane out of the deal, in spite of the likelihood that BoA was nudged by the Fed to buy Countrywide in order to avoid the beginning of a domino-effect chain of bankruptcies that would have left the US ecomony bleeding to death in short order.

What a world for my grandson to grow up into. How could so many people have believed that the value of their homes was going to go up forever? That’s why they signed on the dotted line for all those adjustable-rate mortgages–they figured that by the time the rate went up, their home would be worth more, so they could just refinance, pay off the old mortgage, and be sitting pretty. Meanwhile, savings plummeted and debt soared. There was always going to be somebody to borrow from when it was time to pay the piper. Then, one day, the bubble burst and housing prices started to slide. Oops.

The bubble was still inflating when the junta, with copious assistance from the Dimocrats, passed a bankruptcy bill so draconian that anyone filing for bankruptcy is pretty much opting for a lifetime of indentured servitude, not freedom from debt. Hey, bankruptcy is for deadbeats, right? Well, it’s also for people with overhwhelming medical bills and people whose jobs get outsourced. Banks don’t go for hard luck stories and good intentions. They want cash, especially when they’re not the hometown bank but some mutual fund in Germany that’s trying to make a fortune in CDO’s.

CDO–Collateralized Debt Obligation. In theory, it makes a certain amount of sense. I loan you money, but instead of waiting around to collected it back as you make payments, I sell the debt to Joe, who gives me a lump sum and collects your payments. In practice, several other things happen, leading to unintended consequences. One is that huge numbers of debts are bundled up and sold, with the buyer pretty much having to take the seller’s word that all the apples in the bag are good. Another thing that happens is that these bundled debts are in their turn bundled and sold, and then we have another round or more of that, which leads to a complete disconnect between the bank that holds the mortgage and the person who is paying it off. If you are talking to your local bank about the possibility of defaulting on your mortgage, your local bank is interested in making sure the community in which it does business stays healthy and viable, and is more likely to try and work with you to keep you in the house and making some kind of payment. If your debt is owed to some bank overseas somewhere, they could care less about what’s happening to neighborhoods in Cleveland, or wherever you happen to be. Furthermore, they are not in much of a position to do anything with the house they have kicked you out of, because the house is not worth the value of the note they are holding on it, so the house is likely to stay empty and gradually be vandalized until it really is worthless.

And, speaking of “worthless,” anybody or any institution that bought these rotten debt securities finds, as the mortgages go bellyup, that they have a worthless piece of paper on their hands instead of an asset. So that means that hundreds, maybe thousands of governments, retirement funds, banks, and other institutions wake up one morning and discover that they are worth a lot less than they thought. Bye-bye municipal services, welfare payments, salaries. Bye-bye new loans. Bye-bye pensions and medical insurance.  Good luck, run of the mill business credit!

If this were taking place in a country that was financially healthy, it could be contained and repaired, but the US is not a financially healthy country. Just as the Ottoman Empire was once “the sick old man of Europe,” so the US is now everybody’s sick, needy Uncle Sam, constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul (or, all too often, borrowing from China to pay China), making a little money from arms sales (the last intact chunk of our manufacturing sector), but not really paying our own way in the world. It is only because the US owes so much to so many that we stay afloat. It’s the last big bubble. Everybody knows that we’re in over our heads, but nobody wants us to drown fast, because we’d pull them down with us; so, they’re going to let us slowly sink. As peak oil kicks in further, we will be outbid for fossil fuels; as Europe’s saner fiscal and social policies keep it afloat, the Euro will supplant the dollar as the international currency of choice, and US bond offerings will go begging. When everybody knows the only reason you’ve got money to spend is because of the printing press in your basement, they get shy about doing business with you, y’know? Well, kids, that’s where the US dollar is headed. From the government’s perspective, the only way out of this mess is massive inflation. Visualize a shopping bag full of money…to pay for a shopping bag full of groceries. That, in my crystal ball, is where we are headed.

And what will this do to our vaunted world hegemony? You can expect to see the civilian sector get squeezed to maintain the military, whether “hundred years in Iraq” McCain or “invade Pakistan” Obama is elected, but things are going to get thin for the military, as well. Right now they’re just taking it out of veterans’ benefits, but you can bet that sooner or later lack of equipment and fuel will hinder the government’s ability to bully the world. You can see it looming in all the National Guard equipment that has been abandoned or destroyed in Iraq, and has not been replaced.

These are the realities that the next President of the United States is going to have to deal with, although it is certainly not what is getting talked about on the campaign trail. Expensive health care plans? Fuggedaboutit. The next president will either be cleaning up the Bush Junta’s mess or making it worse. In either case, he or she will be increasingly constrained by the twin choke chains of internal financial collapse and international moral and financial bankruptcy.

There is a certain perverse upside to this. The worse the financial situation in the US becomes, the less demand on the world’s resources we will make. With no loan money available, suburban development will dry up–but, with money tight, there may be an even stronger pull to harvest any natural resources–from forests to coal–that can be easily turned into cash–but there will be less demand for them. My crystal ball gets a little cloudy on this one.  Sorry…

If I were the financial adviser to a Green President of the United States, with a solidly Green Congress to back me up, what would I advise? Where would I begin to unravel this fine mess we’re in?

I’d start by repealing the bankruptcy act that Bush passed, and go back to the status quo ante coup when people really could write off their unpayable obligations by declaring bankruptcy. I’d pass a law that forbade mortgage holders from evicting people except under extenuating circumstances. I’d make stockholders liable for the misdeeds of the corporations they own, to encourage corporate responsibility. I’d institute a corporate death penalty for irresponsible corporate behavior, and replace big chunks of the banking, insurance, and health “industries” with credit unions, co-ops, non-profits, and single-payer health insurance. I’d pull the US out of all so-called “free trade” agreements and work to encourage local, sustainable self-reliance in all sectors–food, clothing, housing, manufacturing, transportation, communication, entertainment…what have I left out? And I’d demilitarize the US and unlock all the resources we have tied up in world domination to meet the multiple threats of global warming and peak oil. And one last thing…me and Dennis Kucinich are gonna carry this snowball through hell!

Yep, that’s about the chance we have of making the right moves in America, unless millions of people have a road-to-Damascus moment and something even more pervasive than the fall of Communism takes place here…the fall of Capitalism! It has a nice ring, but it won’t be an overnight phenomenon. The revolution, as Gil Scot-Heron famously said, will not be televised. On television and in the corporate media in general, there will be an insistent drumbeat that things are fine and all our problems are about to be solved. There will be increased security against “terrorism,” increased focus on trivial news (BRITNEY HAS HOT FLASHES, STRIPS NAKED AS THOUSANDS WATCH)….now, what was I talking about? Gee, let’s go to Walmart…they just sent me a credit card…..as long as I keep both my job at MacDonalds and the 7-11, I can keep up with the interest on one more card…maybe we can find somebody else to live here, with ten of us in this apartment the rent’s not bad….

Is that the future? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it will be stranger than we can imagine. Maybe there will be a lot of self-reliant, interconnected people taking care of each other under the government’s radar, and “the government” will become increasingly irrelevant until it just fades away. Sooner or later, we’ll find out. I wish I had a better situation to leave to my grandson.

music: REM, “Fireplace”

still more stories to watch

9 01 2008

i used to save these stories to files on my computer, then pull them out to write my stories, but i’ve decided to post the links, with comments, instead…probably shoulda done this months ago, but i’m slow to change sometimes….when i started writing these, i didn’t even put in links at all!

anyway, this one comes via www.climatecrisiscoalition.org, and it tells us how sincere the Bush junta’s reps were when they said after being booed in Bali that they’d go along with efforts to curb global warming:

EPA stonewalling Barbara Boxer’s investigation of its denial of a waiver for California and other states

some good news from the same source:

Community-Owned Wind Power Development Planned in North Dakota.

popular rebellion? A judge in Ohio has ruled that owners of CDOs have no right to foreclose and evict people from their homes…

just how fast is Greenland melting? And what will it mean to live in an era of rapidly rising sea level?


11 06 2006

Back during the winter, I wrote about my State House Representative ,Gary Moore, who chaired the meeting that ended the possibility of a landfill on the Harpeth River. Not long after that, I was one of those who received a questionnaire from him about various issues facing the Tennessee legislature.. I was glad to be asked, and gladder still that he had managed to craft questions to which I could give a simple yes or no answer.

I don’t know about you, but I frequently get so-called “surveys” from the Democratic Party that are just ridiculous—the questions are framed in such a way that I have no choice but to scrawl all over them, usually to the effect of, “you spineless shoelickers gave a free pass to the no-more bankruptcy for the poor bill, Mussalioto, the Patriot Act, and the war in Iraq—a war with as much moral justification as the Nazi invasion of Poland—and now you think if you promise to cut gas prices and boost ethanol production (and what a bad joke that is!) I’m gonna send you money? Fergeddaboutit!” Well, since I never send them any money, I doubt if they count my survey, but they haven’t taken me off the mailing list yet. Not that I think that means they’re paying any attention to me—more likely, it means they’re NOT paying me any attention whatsoever. But, I digress.

Anyway, I recently received the results of Representative Moore’s poll, and I want to share them with you, along with some reflections on what I think they mean. Also, I want to thank his office for being kind enough to answer some background questions about the questionnaire.. It was sent to a little over three thousand voters, identified by the board of elections as the most frequent voters in the district, and about seven hundred of us responded. About 22,000 people voted in this district in 2004, giving Democrat Moore a 2-1 victory over his Republican opponent. I’m willing to bet the voters out here weren’t so enthusiastic about John Kerry, but I haven’t been able to determine that from public information.  (Since publishing this, a reader who knew which precincts constitute Rep. Moore’s district has told me that, in fact, the district split about 50-50 between Bush and Kerry.  Intuition confirmed–thank you, jeune66!)

So anyway, the seven hundred and some most opinionated and vocal citizens of my neighborhood have spoken, so I think it’s worth some attention. This isn’t a poll of what some of the more cosmopolitan parts of Nashville think. The northwest side of Nashville, where I live, is pretty rural, though not without suburban patches, but probably the most “old Tennessee” part of Davidson County, with the possible exception of Antioch. This is the red edge of a blue county. So, on with the show….he began with

“Do you feel the current law recently passed by the legislature adequately addresses the ethics issue?” (including a link to a website comparing “before” and “after”changes that were made by the bill www.legislature.state.tn.us . We were instructed to click on “joint ethics bill,” then on “summary of joint committee ethics bill draft”)

This “summary” is a 21-page pdf. Now, maybe I’m selling my fellow voters short, but I think I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have the patience to plow through 21 pages detailing that contributions must be reported within 24 hours instead of 72, that payments on credit cards must specify what was paid for, and that all this will be put online where nobody will have the time to read it. I mean, if you really want to clean up legislative ethics, give all candidates government funding and equal media access and bar ALL contributions from lobbyists, PACs, business associations, or businesses. They don’t vote, why should they get to buy our legislators? Hey, I’ve given money to Moveon and the like, but I’d rather live in a world where I didn’t have to fight the overwhelming influence of those with more money to throw around than I’ll ever see.

Well, cut to the chase: 70% of Representative Moore’s respondents agreed with me in principle—that the recent ethics bill did not adequately address the ethics issue. Slightly under eight percent thought the bill was adequate, and about 22%were undecided, one of the largest “undecided” calls on the survey. Those must be the folks that tried to form an opinion by reading the pdf.

So—how ’bout it, Representative Moore—are you willing to make a bold, positive move and propose public financing of political campaigns as a solution to the ethics and influence mess? It seems to be working well in Arizona and Maine.

Second question: “Would you support a law that would allow the Tennessee Highway Patrol to arrest undocumented illegal immigrants? This would be achieved by a Memorandum of Understanding between the Federal Immigration and Naturalization Services and the Tennessee Highway Patrol. “

Eighty-three percent of respondents would approve of that, and only ten percent would not.

I was one of the ten percent who did not approve, mostly out of sympathy for the murky mess it would create for the Highway Patrol. You rarely encounter people with no documents whatever—and that’s where it starts getting sticky. To determine whether someone is here legally, you have to check the veracity of their papers. If the THP targets brown skinned people for this treatment, there will be a justifiable fuss raised, all the more so because not all illegal immigrants are Hispanic or Asian—there’s European illegals, too, dontcha know? So the THP will have to check everybody’s status every time they make a traffic stop. This could add a lot of time to an officer’s day, for the most part to no real law enforcement benefit.

–Well, gee, if we had a National Identity Card that everyone had to have….

Hey, when I was a kid and the Cold War was almost hot, a great deal was made of how wonderfully free we are in this country. “In Russia, you have to have an Identity Card and show it to the police when asked”–that’s what they told me. Now there is a strong move towards just such an ID card. When you couple that with our country’s having the biggest per capita prison population in the world, calling America “The Land of the Free” starts to sound downright Orwellian.

Fortunately, the proposal to sic the Highway Patrol on illegal immigrants died in the Tennessee House, where the forces of reason prevailed. It’s worth noting that they prevailed not by debate and vote, but by putting the bill in an isolated corner of the House where it would just kind of die. No impassioned speeches, just an administrative veto. Thank you, guys. Sometimes “nothing” is the right course of action..

The next immigrant question on Rep. Moore’s survey found even more overwhelming support from the electorate but met the same fate as its companion—87% of respondents were in favor of “substantial fines for businesses caught utilizing the services of undocumented illegal immigrants.” Whoa, that would mean going after Walmart, most likely, and after almost every construction contractor in the state. It would criminalize what’s left of the state’s fruit and vegetable industry. If you defined “business” loosely enough, you’d be issuing citations to half of Brentwood. Can’t have that, by golly, those people are all major campaign donors. It could have been effective in discouraging undocumented workers, but oh well, can’t throw out the babies with the bathwater now, can we?

I have to say that I feel a lot of ambivalence about the illegal immigrant question. On the side of compassion, I recognize that these people are economic refugees who are coming here because the North American Free Trade Agreement destroyed the economy of rural Mexico and Central America, and then the race to the bottom created by the World Trade Organization destroyed the nascent industrial economies of those same countries, leaving millions of people just south of here broke, hungry, and increasingly desperate. There’s no place for these people to go but here. Before NAFTA, there were about a million illegals in the US; now there are at least ten times that many. QED, I believe?

But I also have to recognize that these huddled masses yearning to breathe free are being exploited by corporate America. They are a tool for depressing wages, benefits, and worker power in this country. And sure, America has an unnaturally high standard of living compared to the rest of the world, but we need to change that by redistributing our aristocracy’s ill gotten gains, not by making the poor poorer.

What to do? It has been pointed out over and over again in this debate how difficult it is for Americans to work in Mexico, especially compared to vice-versa. So it seems to me that it would be OK to make it much harder for businesses to hire undocumented workers, as long as we renounce NAFTA and the WTO and make a concerted effort to rebuild localized, sustainable economies in our southern neighbors by recreating a small farm, small manufacturing economy—if our bankers, the Chinese, will let us, and if the pace of global warming doesn’t turn Mexico into the Western Sahara. Two big ifs, fer sure.

music: James McMurtry, “Safe Side

Rep. Moore’s 4th question was about raising the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 an hour. About 75% approved that, less than 20% opposed. The Nashville Living Wage Coalition ran some numbers and figured out that a living wage in Nashville is someplace around eleven or twelve dollars an hour. The Nashville City Council was unwilling to guarantee that people working for the city would make that much. Five-fifteen an hour is about ten thou a year, six-fifteen is about twelve. The legislators just gave themselves a two-thousand dollar a year raise, but failed to do that for low-income Tennesseans who can’t give themselves a raise.

Here’s what happened: the Tennessee House actually passed a bill that officially raised the minimum wage by a dollar—but exceptions were made for companies employing less than fifty people, waitstaff who receive tips, college students working for their schools, people without a high school diploma or GED, farm and landscape nursery workers, undocumented workers—in other words, just about everybody who’s getting less than $6.15 an hour—estimated to be about 40,000 people statewide and 12,000 here in Nashville. Oh, and there were no enforcement provisions in the bill—somebody making less than minimum wage would have had to sue their employer in order to enforce the law. Fat chance. I think that’s taking privatization a bit too far!

So, the Tennessee Senate voted this bill down, 17-12, which was probably just as well—a bad bill can be worse than none at all, because it creates the illusion that something has been done.

Question 5 addresses health care costs:”Would you support a law that would require businesses with one hundred or more employees to provide insurance coverage for their employees, or be required to pay into a State-administered health care pool?”

About 73% supported this proposition while just over 18% opposed it. This is a reflection from a nationwide movement that is targeted primarily at Walmart, which is notorious for using Medicare and state health programs for the poor as employee health insurance. I’m not crazy about this kind of reformist proposal because it puts more money and power in the hands of the insurance companies, which are a big part of the problem, and also I’m not in favor of reforming Walmart, I’m in favor of hitting the company with antitrust lawsuits and hacking it into little bitty pieces and making sure it never rises again. Silver bullets, garlic, the works.

But Walmart need not fear even reform in Tennessee, let alone dissolution. The Fair Share Health Care Act died in committee. Walmart will not have to pick up health care costs for the nearly ten thousand of its workers who are (or were) on Tenncare, which is a good thing for the company’s bottom line—because those ten thousand workers are about a quarter of the company’s employees here in the state. Paying their doctor bills would really screw up profit margins. Can’t have that.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is revving up to repeal the estate tax, which will enable the Walton family (and a few other members of the uber-rich) to hang on to still more of their ill-gotten gains. When are all these rich white guys who are posturing about this being a “Christian Nation” going to get the part about “not laying up your treasures where moth and rust doth corrupt?”

music:  Joan Baez,  “Satisfied Mind

A resounding 83% of respondents favored raising the cigarette tax to offset lowering the sales tax on food, but that didn’t stop our state senators from voting this idea down, with encouragement from our so-called health-care governor. Tennessee has the highest food sales tax of any state in the country, and the third lowest tax on cigarettes—and, of course, no income tax, making the sales tax the backbone of state revenue. I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense not to base your revenue on taxing something people would be better off not using at all, but the food tax hits the poorest people in the state the hardest. Everybody admits it’s unfair, but there’s no political will to do anything about it. Chalk one up for the tobacco lobby.

Of course, the cigarette tax also hits poor people the hardest, because more poor people smoke, but to me that’s kinda like the lottery—anybody dumb enough to get involved with tobacco or the lottery deserves to lose their money. At least the lottery won’t give you cancer.

Question seven is about an issue you’ve heard about from me before: the Harpeth dump, which went down to defeat in the face of overwhelming neighborhood rejection. Overall, however, when more than those who were not looking at a dump in their backyard were polled, 49% thought it would be OK, with only 39% demurring—must be the folks who live near the Harpeth. Not in my backyard, but yours will do! Ah, the American spirit!

It’s not exactly “Profiles in Courage” material, but I hope Rep. Moore would have fought the dump just as vigorously even if he had known that his constituents weren’t solidly behind him on it.

Question eight asked whether Tennessee should require a photo ID before allowing an individual to vote, and a fairly decisive 71% came down in favor of this subtle but radical change in governmental procedure.

I think this indicates that we need to do extensive education on this issue. I alluded before to the totalitarian nature of mandatory ID cards, and this is a little different, because it’s specifically about voting and not about the rest of life in wartime, but I think it indicates public misperception about the nature of voting fraud in this country. Old-fashioned, Tammany-Hall style voter fraud involved having people who were not actually registered cast ballots. New-style, Ed Blackwell/Katherine Harris style voting fraud removes people from the voting rolls unjustly and then hacks the computers so that, if you do get to vote, your vote goes to someone other than who you thought you voted for.

Georgia attempted to pass a law requiring photo id in order for citizens to vote, and it was struck down by the courts as too restrictive of voters’ civil rights. I think that if people understood that this is a proposal that makes it harder for older and poorer citizens to vote, their opinion of this idea would shift. As far as I can tell, there was no proposed legislation on this question in Tennessee this year—but the Federally mandated “Real ID” act, which is an unfunded mandate, is coming into force in 2008 and will push the state to create a more rigorous form of ID. May I see your papers?

Slightly more people, 77%, wanted the state to restrict its driver’s license tests to the English language. which seems to me to be a form of gratuitous racism—the amount of English you need in order to navigate the road system is considerably simpler than the conceptual grasp of English a person needs in order to pass a written test. I think this kind of racism is part of what the voodoo economists who are running America refer to as “the trickle-down effect,” otherwise known to plumbers, parents, and battered women everywhere as “poop rolls downhill.” Franz Fanon referred to it as “the psychology of the oppressed.”

What it boils down to is this: almost all of us here in America are oppressed by this country’s elite, those whom George Bush famously addresses as “my power base.” Our oppression is carefully frosted over with a blitz of consumer goods, public spectacles, and the propaganda message that this is “the freest country in the world.” (with, again, the highest prison population in the world) Even those of us who are aware of this snow job and the truth behind its lies feel practically powerless to counter it; those who are not aware will always be inclined to vent their frustration on some vulnerable “other.” Now it’s the Mexicans; it’s been the hippies, it’s been the communists, it’s been the Jews, the labor organizers….if you can’t stop the pain, pass it on.

Well, I’m philosophizing and psychologizing and getting far away from Representative Moore’s questions. The next one is a bit of a no-brainer: “Should Tennessee require proof of automobile insurance before issuing or renewing license plate tags?” That one was favored 92 to 5. Hey, if you’re going to travel at high speed in a small metal box that, if you lose control of it, will inflict damage on things you don’t own and can’t afford to pay for, the thoughtful, compassionate thing to do is have liability insurance.

As a raving anti-corporatist, of course I’d prefer to see single-payer car insurance that came out of gas taxes along with my single-payer health insurance that comes out of income taxes, but in the meantime (and I’m not holding my breath for nationalized insurance, believe me) I’m more than willing to be practical and buy from a private insurer. There’s even a politically progressive company out there to buy from—most insurance companies do make most of their donations to Republicans, in case you didn’t know.

music:  James McMurtry,”Comfortable

The next question surprised me, because I would have thought it as much of a no-brainer as the insurance question: Should Tennessee require seatbelts in schoolbusses, even if it means increasing taxes to pay for it? That gathered only a plurality, 45-31. To me it’s the metal box deal again: if you’re traveling at high speed in a metal box, strap yourself down so you won’t go bouncing around if there’s an accident. Especially, make sure your kids are strapped down. Did the tax increase bug people? How many seat belts could you install for the price of one kid having to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair? Or spend the rest of his life dead?

Well, it might just be the tax thing. One result of the corporate takeover of our government over the past several decades has been a shift of the tax burden from corporations to individuals, and from wealthier individuals to poorer ones. According to an Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy study, in 2003 the uppermost 1% of Tennessee taxpayers paid about 3% of their income in state and local taxes, while the middle of Tennessee’s income pyramid, the people earning $24-38,000 a year, paid 8.7%. Those at the bottom, with incomes of $14,000 a year or less, pay 11.7% of their income in taxes—and that doesn’t even count the lottery tickets they buy.

Nationally, corporate taxes are sinking towards 1% of GDP, from a 1960 level of 4% and, more relevantly, over 2% as recently as 1999. In Tennessee, there have been tax giveaways to encourage corporations like Dell and Nissan to locate here. “Tax giveaway” is a misleading term for this—the government may be giving it away, but you and I are paying for it. So, if people feel a little edgy about paying for seatbelts in schoolbusses, I can forgive them. Let Nissan be a “good corporate citizen” and donate ’em, hey? Of course, then they’d all hafta say “NISSAN” in big bold letters, but, gee, ya can’t get something for nothing, can you?

Question 13 is another potential bureaucratic nightmare fueled by people’s insecurity. 84% of all those responding to this poll would support fingerprinting of pawnshop customers to “help identify persons trafficking in stolen property.” Oh, yes, it would also build up the government’s fingerprint files, wouldn’t it? And concentrate law enforcement’s attention on small time criminals, leaving less time for corporate crime, which steals from thousands of us by making everything we pay for more expensive. Well, local law enforcement doesn’t do much with that anyway.

As I investigated this peculiar law—which would net the fingerprints of more wannabe musicians than active burglars—I found that it has been implemented as a “special-case” law—only in Knoxville and Memphis must pawnshop customers give up their prints to buy or sell. How effective has this been? It’s hard to tell; an article on stolen bicycles in Knoxville made no mention of fingerprinting, pro or con, and the Tennessee State Pawnbrokers’ Association has nothing to say about it on their website.

Karl Marx, that supposedly discredited prophet, used to rave about what he called “commodity fetishism”—the attribution of great desirability to consumer goods that are not intrinsically valuable. It looks to me like this “commodity fetishism” is the water us American fish swim in—we are encouraged to have lots of stuff, and to keep our stuff secure. That’s what makes the economy go ’round, and if too many people start stealing from others in order to satisfy their perceived needs, we have a breakdown of law and order.

With the vast disparities of income and opportunity that exist in this country, the eroding economy, and the lust for consumer goods that the mass media are built to feed, people are going to fear for their possessions, and they will look to the state to protect them from the perceived danger of robbery. My own view is that the way to work on this is to make the wealth more equal and back off on the commodity promotion. Many of those who clamor loudest for strong property protection are ones who follow a religion that enjoins them not to—here it comes again– “lay up wealth where moth and rust doth corrupt,” and I think taking that more seriously would help, too; I’m just not sure what the State of Tennessee could do to promote it without becoming a theocracy.

music:  Greg Brown, “The Way They Get Themselves Up”

And, speaking, at least obliquely, of theocracy, the next question asked, “Do you feel that alcohol products such as wine from out of state or outside the country should be allowed to be purchased over the internet?” That one lost on a plurality, 40%-45%. I checked online and, sure enough, you can’t buy wine online in Tennessee and have it shipped to you. Why someone would want to go to the expense of having a bottle of wine shipped to them from out of state is a question I can’t answer, as I’ve never understood why people drink wine in the first place—but why would some people want to prohibit other people from buying wine? That’s another philosophical question that goes beyond the bounds of this survey. All I can say is, some people don’t let logic or tolerance get in the way of their opinions. What to do?–”All intolerant people should be rounded up and shot?” I don’t think so. I’ve devoted many hours of my life to trying to understand how a tolerant society should deal with intolerant people, and I still don’t have an answer.

“The Green Party—the only political party honest enough to say,’We don’t know.’” Well, maybe that’s not a good campaign slogan.

Question 15 asks if “Tennessee should pass a law that would give local governments the power to enact laws to prohibit smoking in public places?” This power was stripped from municipalities by a 1994 law. As a nonsmoker, I was pleasantly surprised to find that getting a 72%-22% pass, although I am concerned that if they make smoking in public illegal, the next target will be passing gas, and then I’ll be in trouble.

The last time I went out to a club to hear a band, I had to leave about halfway through the show because the thick pall of tobacco smoke in the room was making me sick. A couple of days later, I read a review of the show that complemented the club on how well its new ventilation system worked. Really?

Here’s what I think about tobacco—and alcohol, for that matter: we need to take the corporate money out of the equation. Anybody who wants to grow their own tobacco, brew their own beer, ferment their own wine, or distill their own single-malt scotch is welcome to do so, and free to share it with their friends—but no public sale, advertising, resale, etc. allowed. Is that too draconian? How could we still have bars? OK, so maybe we can work in a way to create and license “public houses” for that purpose—and maybe we could treat all currently illegal drugs the same way. Just a thought.

The second to last question was “Do you think Tennessee should pass a law that would require a statewide uniform voting procedure utilizing a verifiable paper ballot?”

That got a slim majority—51%–with about 27% definitely opposed and 22% undecided, one of the highest undecided groups in the poll. This made me realize that, while I’ve been attentive to the furor over the apparent stealing of the last two elections, this issue has been pretty much absent from the mainstream media, which finds missing teenage girls and runaway brides more important than whether the guy in the White House is there legitimately or not. Hey, he’s not a cute blonde. Even Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s authoritative, annotated article in a recent Rolling Stone hasn’t raised a blip on the don’t-rock-the-boat boys’ radar. So I suppose it’s a bit of a victory for us pesky types if over half the people out here in the boondocky, redneck part of Davidson County would like to make sure there’s a paper record of how they voted.

OK, final question—an essay question! Well, not exactly—Representative Moore asked, “What are the three major issue that concern you the most?” Taxes was first, with 30%, followed by illegal immigrants at slightly under thirty percent, followed by health care at 26%, ethics at around 20%, education running a distant 5th at about 9%, and fuel costs the last large grouping at around 6%.

Taxes? Yes, the current system is unfair, even if most people don’t understand why. This is an issue that will take a lot of voter education to counter the persistent smokescreen that covers the truth about corporate abandonment of civic responsibility.

Illegal immigrants? Not much Tennessee can do about that one—it’s a national problem that needs an international solution. If they could stay where they came from, they would, y’know, so let’s help ’em find ways to stay home. Meanwhile, we do need to admit that big business is complicit in bringing these people into the country because their willingness to accept low wages works to the advantage of the businesses that hire them, and that’s going on because CAFTA, NAFTA, the WTO, and our open trade with China have created a race to the bottom in which the US has a long and unpleasant way to go. The US trade deficit was $9B ten years ago; it was over $70B last year, and that’s a greater threat to our national security than terrorists or illegal migrant workers.

Health care? Yes, it’s a serious concern. Even if you stay healthy all your life and then go into a nursing home when you can’t take care of yourself anymore, the nursing home will suck up your savings, so you’ll have nothing to leave your kids but memories. The for-profit, out-of-control health care industry is sucking America dry. We could do something about this at the state level in the short term, although it will take national legislation (or maybe a revolution) to recreate the health care industry in a way that truly serves people.

There are serious issues that didn’t make it into this questionnaire. The interconnected questions of urban sprawl, peak oil, and global warming are intensely local in their effects. At this point, most of the people in Rep. Moore’s district commute by car into Nashville; before the automobile, most of the few people in this area pretty much stayed put—they got to Nashville once a week or once a month, maybe. The district, along with the rest of Nashville, is too spread out for mass transit to work effectively. What is going to happen? It should certainly be a function of state government to create a co-ordinated regional plan for the future, but there doesn’t seem to be much long-range vision in the legislature. Maybe longer terms would help; certainly public financing of campaigns would free legislators from constant fundraising and its concomittant preoccupation with the short-term needs of wealthy business owners.

I have been commenting on the details of Representative Moore’s survey from a Green perspective—what’s the overall shape of it look like? I think that what we see here is a society and a legislature engrossed in, and all too frequently distracted by, the immediate symptoms of problems that are rooted deep in the structure of our political system, our society, and our economy. From the myopic mainstream perspective, these problems have complicated, uncertain solutions, or none at all—f’rinstance, the 21-page “summary” of the legislative ethics law. We Greens offer solutions to these questions that are, in the literal sense, radical—we see how to cut these afflictions off at the root.

Increasing corporate taxes and instituting a graduated income tax will take the burden of taxation off those least able to bear it—and that ain’t Wal-mart. The way to solve the flood of illegal immigrants here in America is to improve conditions in their homelands. A national single-payer health plan, curbs on the for-profit health industry, and a strong emphasis on prevention will bring health care costs under control. Stating these solutions is easy; bringing them to statewide or national attention is another question entirely.

The harvest is great, the laborers are few, and the crop will soon spoil. There is no guarantee of success; we hardly even know what “success” will look like. Let’s get moving, people.

Eliza Gilkyson, “Old Coat

Wow—I just did almost a whole show on state and local issues. There’s just time to mention a few things: the honesty in unlikely places award goes to U.S. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, relentless drug warrior and architect of the plan to lock up all eleven million illegal immigrants, who chose to buck the corporate tide and work to preserve internet neutrality. We lost that battle in the House, but maybe the Communications Act of 2006 will meet the same fate as arresting eleven million people. If not, it’s likely the end of America’s Democracy Wall; how close are we to our own Tienamen Square?

If I’d had more time, I would have written about the accelerating thaw in the Arctic and the desertification of age-old oases in western China; about the peculiar and scary intersection of Christianity and Fascism that’s going on in this country; about how even Republican judges don’t like the new bankruptcy law, which our own Jim Cooper voted for, because it assumes that most bankruptcies stem from people being deadbeats when the truth is that eighty percent of all bankruptcies are the result of catastrophic medical bills…..like the lady here in Nashville who got hit by a police cruiser and has almost $400,000 in bills, but so-called “tort reform” in Tennessee has capped the damages the city can pay at $250,000.

I would have spent a lot of time talking about the latest bad news about electronic voting; I would have talked about how the psychiatric industry labels people—mostly women and children– as mentally ill, so they can sell them meds—did you know “road rage” is now a treatable—that means prescribable and billable—mental illness? I would have speculated on why Dick Cheney maintains such a veil of secrecy and why he recently empowered our Secret Service chief, John “the Butcher” Negroponte, to exempt corporations from SEC reporting rules. I would have talked about how funny it is that the mainstream media are alarmed that Venezuelan businessmen have just bought Sequoia, a voting machine company, but nobody seems alarmed about how Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel owns the voting machines that elected him in Nebraska. I could go on, and next month on July 15th, I will. Meanwhile, you can read this and other rantings of mine at brothermartin.blogsource.com. Rose will be in next week. Enjoy!.
music:  James McMurtry, “Memorial Day

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