LOCAL VOTERS SURVEY

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





ETHNIC CLEANSING, AMERICAN STYLE

8 01 2006

The spotlight is no longer on New Orleans, so it should come as no surprise that the rats have been at work there. The Big Easy, once home to over three hundred thousand Americans of colour who comprised 65% of its half-million population, has an estimated thirty-five thousand black residents now, out of a total city population of around one hundred thousand.

Alphonso Jackson, President George Bush’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary, told the Houston Chronicle, “Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time … New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”

Joseph Canizaro, one of the city’s biggest developers, and now a member of New Orleans’ rebuilding commission, was quoted in England’s Manchester Guardian as saying, ”As a practical matter, these poor folks don’t have the resources to go back to our city, just like they didn’t have the resources to get out of our city. So we won’t get all those folks back. That’s just a fact. It’s not what I want, it’s just a fact.’ Mr. Canizaro, by the way, also contriubuted about $200,000 to W’s 2004 re-election campaign. Guess he’s just sentimental about missing all the darkies, ’cause you know and I know that a whiter New Orleans is likely to be a more Republican New Orleans.

Rental and hiring tactics countenanced by both the Bush junta and ostensibly Democratic governor Kathleen Blanco are contributing to this switchover. FEMA has said it will not give loans to rebuild in “flood-prone areas”–i.e., the lower ninth ward and other low-income, low elevation parts of the city. The city has hinted that it may require any rebuilding in low areas to be done on stilts, which raises the cost of rebuilding considerably. (Actually, it’s not a bad idea, just an expensive one)

Landlords have been evicting not just tenants who have become refugees, but those who have been making every effort to stay in New Orleans and pay their rent. When a court ruled against the landlords’ efforts to run thousands of summary evictions through the courts, many landlords turned to brute force, simply breaking into their evacuated rental properties and throwing their former tenants’ belongings out on the street so that they could rent the properties out at two or three times the rent they had been receiving—frequently to workers who have been brought in from out of state to do cleanup and rebuilding.

Why have they been brought in from out of state? Because the contracts for the cleanup have gone to out-of-state companies who are primarily geared to hire—let’s call them–”guest workers.” Guest workers come from outside of the United States, from places whose poverty we can barely grasp. They have learned to live on less, and part of that involves banding together to share food and housing. We did that thirty years ago and called it hippies living in communes, but this is (mostly) Latinos living in whatever they can rent. They do have a talent for something there. I knew a guy who came up from El Salvador and worked as a janitor for five years, making about the same money I was. While I barely survived, he put his sister through the University of El Salvador, so that she became a schoolteacher—and still earned less money than he did pushing a broom in America. But I digress. More on the economics of the hiring process a little later.

I just quoted two high-ranking Republicans’ view of the future of New Orleans. The city attempted to fulfill their prophecies by unilaterally beginning the demolition of over five thousand homes in the lower ninth ward. Residents have gotten a temporary restraining order to stop this. When I say unilaterally, I mean that no one was told that the remains of their home were about to be removed—it was only when the backhoes showed up that they had any idea of what was in store. That ain’t fair. Nor is it fair that, although much of the city’s public housing is habitable, it is not being opened and made available.

What irony—the good news is, unilateral demolitions have been stopped. The bad news is, more than four months after the hurricane, almost none of the 50,000 homes estimated to need demolition in New Orleans have actually been cleaned up. Maybe the 2006 hurricane season will take care of it, eh?

So, that’s the rat-infested mess. What’s the deep green perspective on it? First of all, yeah, New Orleans is a lousy place for a large city, and with a warming climate, rising sea levels and intensifying storm seasons, it is only going to get worse, even if we come up with the fourteen billion dollars (only a month and a half of military expenditures in Iraq, after all) it will take to restore the wetlands that once provided a measure of protection to southern Louisiana.

Now, I confess that I once had a vision that my life’s work could be tearing down a formerly great city and recreating wilderness where once it stood, and so to me there’s a certain environmental justice, I think, in turning big parts of New Orleans back into cypress swamps. But you don’t do that by executive fiat. You don’t move people around by strong-arming them from above. You educate them about the situation, you help them formulate plans of their own. And if they don’t want to move after all that? Well, you figure out the best way to help them stay where they’ve been, with their friends and family. Human life is about community, not consumerism.

And the way the wreckage from the storm is being cleaned up is just another pyramid scheme, just another indictment of the Bush junta. FEMA hires well-connected contractors—well connected to the Republican establishment, not well connected to the communities that need cleaning—for $24 a cubic yard, and those companies take a cut and find a subcontractor, and THOSE companies do the same thing, so that the guys who are actually doing the work are getting paid $4 a cubic yard to clean up the hurricane debris.
How big is a cubic yard? I mean sure, it’s three feet by three feet by three feet, but to put it more visually, the back of a medium size pickup truck will hold a little over two cubic yards. So, the contractors on site are getting about ten bucks a pickup load, while Kellogg, Brown, and Root is getting over fifty bucks a pickup load for doing none of the work—but you can bet they’ll be making some hefty campaign donations sooner or later. And that’s why they’re hiring Latinos to do the cleanup—the fat cats have squeezed it down to where an American couldn’t make a living doing New Orleans cleanup. Herr Bush talks about wanting to bring in guest workers to do “jobs Americans won’t do.” It’s more like bringing them in to do jobs companies don’t want to pay Americans a living wage to do. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would now be $8.85 an hour. If the minimum wage were high enough to keep full-time workers above the poverty level, nationwide it would be $9.50 an hour. Here in Nashville it would be $11.50 an hour. Is that too much to ask? How does it compare to what you make?

If I were running this program, I would be giving first priority for cleanup jobs to current and displaced New Orleans residents, and while I had them all together taking care of the dirty business on the ground, I would be educating them about the overall situation and helping them figure out what to do. There’s parameters, if you know what I mean. Housing that will withstand a category 5 or 6 hurricane in a location below sea level? Waterproof bunkers, big bucks, not for everyone. Inexpensive,simple structures that will keep you cool and dry during most tropical weather and be easy to replace when they blow away? That’s the time-honored way of living in the hurricane belt. It’s not the American way of life. But there might be something to it, eh?

music: Steve Earle, “Amerika v. 6.0”








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