CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT THE ONLY “INCONVENIENT TRUTH”

11 10 2014

truthlies

(This is a slightly edited version of a blog post that first appeared in my candidate blog, “Holsinger for House.”  You can read the original here.)

Al Gore called his landmark presentation on climate change “An Inconvenient Truth.”  I think he chose the word “an” very purposefully,  He’s a smart guy, and he knows that climate change is not the only “inconvenient truth.”  There are many “inconvenient truths,”  subjects and realities that conventional American politics carefully avoids or glosses over.  Gore explored this in a subsequent book, “The Assault on Reason,” a volume that most Democrats seem to have chosen to ignore. I believe American politics would benefit from greater public awareness of and dialogue on these “inconvenient truths. ”  Here are some that come to my mind.  If you have any other ones you would like to nominate, feel free to comment!

GROWTH IS THE PROBLEM, NOT THE SOLUTION

Conventional politics is religiously dedicated to the proposition that fostering “economic growth” will solve all our problems, and that anything that halts or slows “economic growth” is a Bad Thing.  This theory has been most notoriously promulgated as “trickle-down economics,” AKA “Reaganomics,” but its practice is not confined to the GOP.  The fallacy of economic growth as a solution to our problems is that we live on a finite planet, with finite resources, and our dedication to “growth” is running up against the limits of those resources, whether we are talking about fossil fuels, phosphates, clean water, fish, other foodstuffs, arable land, oxygen, or anything else tangible.  If we use up all of these things, even over the next few hundred years, what will people (and  other animals) do to substitute for them in a thousand years? Ten thousand years?

The notion that “whatever increases the Gross National Product is good, “is gross.  Hurricane-caused damage increases the GNP.  Diseases that require expensive treatment increase the GNP; frequently, diseases are caused by other activities, such as environmental degradation, that increase the GNP.  Lots of things that increase the GNP make us less happy.  Happiness comes from a sane state of mind, not the possession of a mountain of toys.

“Economic growth” has tended to benefit those who are already wealthy more than those of us who are not.   That leads to another inconvenient truth, which is that

AMERICA IS AN OLIGARCHY

The wealthy and powerful, the people the Occupy! movement refers to as “The One Percent,” are the people who call the tune in this country. It doesn’t matter what is best for most people, whether it’s an open internet, a sane health care system, a decent neighbourhood, or a clean environment.  Our government will do what benefits the wealthy. Read the rest of this entry »





IT’S THE END OF THE WORK AS WE’VE KNOWN IT

12 02 2011

Last month, in a post entitled “Dude, where’s my $30K?,” I tried to shed some light on the magnitude of income inequality here in “the land of the free” by pointing out that our country’s per-capita spending on bank bailouts and our military apparatus, plus corporate profits, comes to $30,000 per person.  Yes, that’s $120 thou for a a family of four.  And they say we don’t have money for unemployment benefits, a national health care system, or social security.  Go figure!

That money, all $7.5 trillion of it, is not coming out of our tax dollars, at least not yet.  Mostly, it’s being created out of thin air by “quantitative easing” and/or being borrowed from the Chinese and the Saudis.  It’s not being created by the classic route of taking raw materials, conceiving a use for them, modifying them, and selling a product at a “profit”–profit being both the difference between what workers are paid and the true value of their work, and what we keep for ourselves instead of repairing (if possible) the damage to the environment that our extraction of raw materials has caused.  That paradigm as a road to wealth is obsolete, although it’s obviously what we are going to need to relearn how to do, minus the profit and plus the environmental repair–just to get by, as international trade implodes under the weight of the end of cheap fuel and other raw materials.

I was raised to believe in the virtue of the labor movement.  My early heroes were the IWW martyrs and all those who fought for the poor in the class war that runs through the history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  These were epic struggles for justice.  Workers fought for fair treatment by their employers, and, for a time, prevailed.  The result was the blossoming of the American middle class in the thirty years between the end of World War II and the mid-seventies, which we are starting to realize was America’s “golden age.”

But several things were wrong with that superficially happy picture .

The most obvious, and widely commented on, was the spiritual emptiness of our material paradise, noted by commentators as disparate as Jack Kerouac (who, I hope, needs no introduction!) and Sayyid Qutb, one of the leading lights of the Muslim Brotherhood and, along with the CIA, a major inspiration to the founders of Al Qaeda.  But that’s a whole other story.  Back to “work,” as it were.

Another thing that is wrong with the struggle of the American labor movement is that, after the marginalization of the IWW and the Socialist Party, the labor movement never questioned capitalism as an economic arrangement.  That has been the subject of much commentary and analysis, and certainly has a great deal to do with how the ruling class has been able to dump the American working class and its unions into that famous, even cliched, “dustbin of history.”

But there’s something else the labor movement never questioned, something that has rarely even been noted:  the labor movement, even the Socialists and “radical” anarchists of the IWW, never questioned whether the work they were doing was, in the long run, worth doing.  The forests of America were clearcut, Appalachia was despoiled, and General Motors destroyed America’s interurban railroad system so it could sell more cars–and all the unions wanted was a bigger piece of the pie.  Nobody in the labor movement questioned the wisdom of these moves.

That last one, GM’s dismantling of mass transit in America, is especially worth examining, because shifting from mass transit to personal motorized vehicles has had such a massive, destructive, and likely unintended effect on not only America, but the world.

Because individual automobile ownership has become the norm in this country, our population dispersed over a far wider area than would have been the case had we remained dependent on mass transit.  Suburbia became possible.  Urban sprawl sucked up millions of acres of woodland and farmland adjacent to cities, undermining local self-sufficiency.  In the name of boosting automobile and gasoline sales, our country’s intercity highway system was improved.  Thus subsidized, trucking and automobile travel undermined the country’s long-distance railroad system, once the best in the world.  Now, like the much of the rest of the country’s infrastructure, our railroads are struggling not to fall into third world status.  The net result of this is that now, as petroleum production slips into decline, we are tied to the most petroleum-dependent and inefficient methods of transport–road and air, and our automobile-addicted population is too scattered to be served by mass transit, even if we had the money left to build it.

Wait, there’s more!

The psychological effects of America’s transition to individual automobile transportation are likewise manifold.  Travelers no longer need to deal with railway schedules; we can leave whenever we want to, travel by any route we choose, stop where we feel like stopping, and we don’t have to share our space with anybody else and negotiate whatever compromises that might entail.  We do not sit on benches in train stations waiting for connections.  The primacy of individual preference has been enshrined, from our individual psyches to our lifestyle expectations to our national foreign policy.   It’s all me, all all the time, all splendid isolation, from our far-flung suburban homes to our daily commutes…oops, fewer and fewer of us have a job or the resulting daily commute.

And that is where it all starts falling apart.  I have commented before on the fascistic nature of American society–how our government increasingly exists solely to promote corporate interests.  It’s not just about health care or the right of corporations to spread GMOs for fun and profit. Full participation in American society, if you live outside a few urban areas, requires that automobile ownership.  For most people, that means an investment of twenty to forty thousand dollars or more–hundreds of dollars in monthly payments to a private corporation for an object that, ironically, does nothing but lose value from the moment you drive it off the lot.

Think about how much money is tied up in automobiles.  Five relatively new vehicles are easily worth a hundred thousand dollars.  How many cars do you encounter on a typical drive around town?  Five hundred?  ten million dollars.  Five thousand?  A hundred million dollars worth of automobiles, all stuck in rush hour traffic.

But, as I said, fewer and fewer of us are stuck in rush hour traffic, because fewer and fewer of us have jobs, nor are we going to have “jobs,” at ;east not in the traditional meaning of that term.  As I pointed out last month, it would take 630 businesses with 35,000 employees each just to absorb people who are currently “unemployed,” let alone create cubicles for all those who are, as they say, “just entering the labor market.”  There are no buyers in the labor market, not in America.

But that’s not the same as there being nothing to do.  On the contrary, there is everything to do.  Somewhere along the line in its drive to monetize everything, the official economy of America has largely ceased to do the things that really matter to people.  There is food to grow for people who want something besides sugar, starch, fat, and salt.  There are young people, old people, and sick or handicapped people who need care that is truly caring rather than being motivated by the promise of a paycheck.  Increasingly, there will be a need to manufacture and use basic tools, a need and the skills to sift through America’s trash middens and waste stream to find what can be reused or repurposed.

Our profit-crazed, out-of-touch formal economy now places a higher value on putting people out of their homes than it does on keeping them in those homes.  There are currently eighteen million unoccupied houses in this country, many of them foreclosures, and about 700,000 homeless people.  Do the math.  Many of the unoccupied houses have been stripped of wiring and copper pipes and anything else that could be recycled.  Many homes, unoccupied or occupied, are poorly insulated and inefficiently heated,  These are all jobs screaming out for someone to do them, but there is no money to be had, because housing the poor is of no value to the rich.

Soon enough, it won’t matter.  Our system has stoutly resisted reform, which means that the only alternative left is collapse, and a rebuild from the ground up.  The web of car payments, college loans, and credit card debts that keeps so many ensnared in a world a few removes from reality, running on a paycheck treadmill, will melt away like a bad dream, and we will find ourselves in a different world altogether.  All together, indeed.  That will be the only way to succeed at surviving.  And there will be plenty of work for everyone.

music: Burning Times, “The Only Green World”





DUDE, WHERE’S MY $30K?

8 01 2011

Last month I referred at some length to the writing of Robert Anton Wilson, and this month I want to examine another of his essays from my “deep green perspective.”

The closing essay in “The Illuminati Papers” is entitled “The RICH Economy.” R-I-C-H stands for”Raising Income through Cybernetic Homeostasis.”

It opens with these words:

If there is one proposition which currently wins the assent of nearly everybody, it is that we need more jobs. “A cure for unemployment” is promised, or earnestly sought, by every Heavy Thinker from Jimmy Carter to the Communist Party USA, from Ronald Reagan to the head of the economics department at the local university, from the Birchers to the New Left.

I would like to challenge that idea. I don’t think there is, or ever again can be, a cure for unemployment. I propose that unemployment is not a disease, but the natural, healthy functioning of an advanced technological society.

The inevitable direction of any technology, and of any rational species such as Homo sap., is toward what Buckminster Fuller calls ephemeralization, or doing-more-with-less. For instance, a modern computer does more (handles more bits of information) with less hardware than the proto-computers of the late ’40’s and ’50’s. One worker with a modern teletype machine does more in an hour than a thousand medieval monks painstakingly copying scrolls for a century….

Unemployment is directly caused by this technological capacity to do more-with-less. Thousands of monks were technologically unemployed by Gutenberg. Thousands of blacksmiths were technologically unemployed by Ford’s Model T. Each device that does-more-with-less makes human labor that much less necessary.

Aristotle said that slavery could only be abolished when machines were built that could operate themselves. Working for wages, the modern equivalent of slavery — very accurately called “wage slavery” by social critics — is in the process of being abolished by just such self-programming machines.

Wilson wrote this in the late seventies, and for the most part  it is as true today as it was then.  Politicians promise jobs, but businessmen, guided by economics, are working even harder to eliminate jobs, or at least move them out of the high-priced US economy and into a country where workers expect and receive less–like China.  The result is that we are stumbling towards not just a “post-industrial economy,” but a “post employment economy.”

Wilson suggested that we junk the concepts of “welfare” and “unemployment compensation” in favor of a “national dividend,” a “Guaranteed annual income,” or a “negative income tax” to ensure that everybody in the country could meet their basic physical needs.  He also proposed coupling this with

a massive investment in adult education, for two reasons. (1) People can spend only so much time (schtupping)…and watching TV; after a while they get bored. This is the main psychological objection to the workless society, and the answer to it is to educate people for functions more cerebral than (schtupping) … watching TV, or the idiot jobs most are currently toiling at. (2) There are vast challenges and opportunities confronting us in the next three or four decades….

But something has gone awry.  The “idiot jobs” have largely vanished (call “idiot job” a twentieth-century evolution of Marx’ term “alienated labor”), but the economy has not been socialized to make sure everybody is included, much less educated; instead, the massive savings created by eliminating the American middle class have gone to the wealthy few, increasing the level of  class division in the US to the point where we are now one of the least financially egalitarian countries in the first world.  The top 20% of Americans control 85% of the country’s wealth: the middle 40%, about 15%, and the bottom 40%, only 0.3%. Among the top 20%, the breakdown is just as breathtaking:  the top 1% of America’s wealthy control about 35% of the country’s wealth, while the next 19% control half the country’s wealth.

It is also worth remarking that Wilson, in the palmy 70’s, expected that, in addition to lifespan and intelligence increase, we would turn to space migration.  This was before we started coming to the realization that we have used up our planet’s resources fighting wars and filling the oceans with plastic tschotschkes and the air with carbon dioxide, and no longer have the wherewithal to embark on a major space program, if indeed we ever did.  The answer to the question of “why haven’t we had evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy?” may be that planets the proper size to produce critters like us are too small to bankroll, as it were, interstellar travel, unless the critters out there are a whole lot wiser than we’ve been.  We have no way of knowing where we fall in the intergalactic intelligence bell curve, y’know?

.  Then again, maybe we’re just so psychologically toxic that they’ve got a quarantine shield around us so we won’t be able to detect and infect them….after all, our radio and television transmissions have, by now, reached other stars, and between the news and the soap operas, that’s not the greatest PR for our species…the first major TV broadcast was Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies…but I digress…

What has most especially gone awry, as I was saying, is the distribution of income in this country.  There are twenty-five hedge fund managers in America who “earned” (if you can call it that) twenty-five billion dollars among them last year.  If it were taxed as “income,” the government would get 35% of that, but instead it’s taxed as “capital gains,” so the government only takes 15%.  That twenty-five bil alone is enough to pay $30K a year to about 1.2 million people.  OK, that’s just a drop in the bucket–there are 22 million people out of work in this country right now. Well, our military spending, including “supplemental appropriations,” comes to about $1.25 trillion dollars.

Five hundred billion–less than half of it–would be enough to pay every unemployed American $30K a year.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it, folks.  And sure, military spending is borrowed money, but putting it in circulation here in America would do a whole lot more for our “national security” than using it to blow up what’s left of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Another example–the government bailed out the banks to the tune of $4.7 trillion dollars, and corporate profits in the US last year hit  a record $1.6 trillion–in part because they’ve “cut labor expenses,” i.e., put people out of work  Let’s see….  44 million people could be paid $30,000 a year out of a trillion dollars, and we are looking at about $7.5 trillion between defense, bank bailouts, and corporate profits. Defense and corporate profits alone come to $2.85 trillion, enough for 125 million people to receive that $30K a year.  That’s half the adult population of the country.  Throw in the bank bailout, and the slush fund that currently goes to a few wealthy individuals and corporations could pay out that $30K to 330 million people–that’s every man, woman, and child in the country and then some.  So, the money for Wilson’s proposal is here, but we ain’t getting it.  It’s going to the uber-rich and we’re footing the bill, losing our jobs and homes in the process. Somehow I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he said “Unto them that have, shall be given.”

As Wilson said, “there are vast challenges and opportunities facing us in the next three or four decades,” all the more so because in the three or four decades since he wrote that, this country has largely been making a determined effort to deny and ignore those challenges and opportunities.

I sincerely doubt that jobs as we have known them in our lifetimes will be making much of a comeback.  As Les Leopold points out in Huffington Post:

We now need 22 million new jobs to get us back to full employment (5 percent unemployment). In addition, each month the economy must generate another 105,000 jobs just to keep up with new entrants into the workforce. To get to full employment, the private sector would have to create about 630 firms the size of Apple (35,000 employees each). These numbers don’t lie. Does anyone on Wall Street really believe that the private sector alone can pull off this miracle? But really, why should they care? They’ve got theirs, thank you very much.

And neither the higher education that Wilson hoped for, which involved propagation of culture and teaching people to think, nor the practical education we now know we need to meet the challenges of a hotter, fossil-fuel deprived world–gardening and food preservation, blacksmithing, hand weaving and sewing and the like–are being funded.  Instead, the mega-corporations who have stolen our birthright use outlets like Fox News and the “Conservative Christian” networks to hypnotize people into believing that what’s bad for them–complete corporate control of their lives–is good for them, and what’s good for them–ecological consciousness and self-direction–is bad for them.

Can you say “sheep,” boys and girls? How about “lemmings”?

There’s a lot more to talk about here, but I’m running out of time…to be continued next month!  Those of us who are far enough away from Big Brother to think for ourselves have a sacred trust, if you don’t mind me using the s-word, to guard our insight and share it as best we can.  The interplanetary possibilities Wilson saw in humanity’s future are probably no longer possible. Longer lives may be slipping from our grasp, as well. The intelligence increase of his vision is still within our grasp.  Let’s give it all we’ve got.  We’re going to need it.

music: James McMurtry, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”








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