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Bill Moyers: The Great American Class War

9:50 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Stencil: No War but Class War

Bill Moyers on Class War in America

If you’ve heard the phrase “class war” in twenty-first-century America, the odds are that it’s been a curse spat from the mouths of Republican warriors castigating Democrats for engaging in high crimes and misdemeanors like trying to tax the rich.  Back in 2011, for example, President Obama’s modest proposal of a “millionaire tax” was typically labeled “class warfare” and he was accused by Congressman Paul Ryan, among others, of heading down the “class warfare path.”  Similarly, in 2012, Mitt Romney and other Republican presidential hopefuls blasted the president for encouraging “class warfare” by attacking entrepreneurial success. In the face of such charges, Democrats invariably go on the defensive, denying that they are in any way inciters of class warfare.  In the meantime, unions and the poor are blasted by the same right-wing crew for having the devastatingly bad taste to act in a manner that supposedly might lead to such conflict.

In our own time, to adapt a classic line slightly, how the mighty have risen!  And that story could be told in terms of the fate of the phrase “class war,” which deserves its Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart moment.  After all, for at least a century, it was a commonplace in an all-American lexicon in which “class struggle,” “working class,” and “plutocrat” were typical everyday words and it was used not to indict those on the bottom but the rich of whatever gilded age we were passing into or out of.  It was essentially purged from the national vocabulary in the economic good times (and rabidly anti-communist years) after World War II, only to resurface with the Republican resurgence of the 1980s as a way to dismiss anyone challenging those who controlled ever more of the wealth and power in America.

It was a phrase, that is, impounded by Republicans in the name of, and in the defense of, those who were already impounding so much else in American life.  All you have to do is take a look at recent figures on income and wealth inequality, on where the money’s really going in this society, to recognize the truth of Warren Buffet’s famed comment: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Recently, Bill Moyers (who needs no introduction) gave a speech at the Brennan Center in New York City in which he laid out what class warfare really means in this society.  The first appearance of the host of Moyers & Company at TomDispatch is a full-throated call to save what’s left of American democracy from — another of those banned words that should come back into use — the plutocrats.  Tom

The Great American Class War
Plutocracy Versus Democracy
By Bill Moyers

I met Supreme Court Justice William Brennan in 1987 when I was creating a series for public television called In Search of the Constitution, celebrating the bicentennial of our founding document.  By then, he had served on the court longer than any of his colleagues and had written close to 500 majority opinions, many of them addressing fundamental questions of equality, voting rights, school segregation, and — in New York Times v. Sullivan in particular — the defense of a free press.

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Laura Gottesdiener: Wall Street’s Rental Empire

7:37 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Note for TomDispatch Readers: Our next piece will be posted on Sunday evening, December 1st. Happy Thanksgiving! Tom

Foreclosed home

Wall Street is up to the same old tricks in the housing market.

“One shitty deal.” “Shitty deal.” “Shitty.” The date was April 27, 2010, and Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was pissed as he launched into a rant with those pungent quotes in it. As part of a Senate subcommittee investigation into the causes of the financial meltdown, Levin was grilling Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and several other current and former Goldman higher-ups about their roles in that crisis and in particular the exotic, opaque investment deals they had created and peddled.

What had Levin steaming mad were internal emails revealing that, on the cusp of the financial crisis, Goldman staffers knew that they were selling crummy investments. Levin’s tirade was inspired by an email in which a Goldman staffer describes a product he’s selling as “one shitty deal.” That, of course, did not stop Goldman from selling such products. Not only that, but the firm’s traders later bet against those deals to make even more money! Contempt, thy name is Goldman.

At the heart of that April 2010 hearing, and at the heart of the financial crisis itself, were countless “shitty deals” in the form of so-called mortgage-backed securities. Remember those? It’s been a few years, so here’s a quick refresher. Wall Street firms like Goldman cooked up an idea to bundle together thousands of home mortgages — loans made to people from Fresno to Lubbock to Kalamazoo to Baltimore — and sell them to investors. Goldman profited off their sale and, as long as those homeowners made their mortgage payments, investors enjoyed a constant income stream.

But as we now know, many of those home loans were filled with tricks and trap-doors and, in some cases, were made to people who simply couldn’t afford them. First gradually, and later in cascades, millions of people stopped paying their mortgages, which meant that those mortgage-backed securities went sour. The losses were historic, plunging the U.S. economy into what we now call the Great Recession.

Five years later, the fallout from that mortgage-fueled meltdown and the bailing out of many of the financial institutions that profited from them is far from over. However belatedly, the feds continue to investigate the nation’s biggest banks for having sold shoddy mortgage-backed securities. On November 15th, JP Morgan Chase, one of the nation’s largest banks, agreed to a $4.5 billion settlement with 21 institutional investors who claimed they were wrongly sold bad mortgage-backed securities. Days later, the Justice Department announced a $13 billion settlement with JP Morgan — “the largest settlement with a single entity in American history” — for wrongdoing related to the packaging, marketing, and selling of those securities.

But as Laura Gottesdiener writes today, you can’t keep a bailed-out industry down. Wall Street and its masters of the universe are at it again. They’ve devised a new way to profit off the housing market — and this time it has nothing to do with risky mortgages. Now, Wall Street is securitizing something else: your rent check. Andy Kroll

The Empire Strikes Back 
How Wall Street Has Turned Housing Into a Dangerous Get-Rich-Quick Scheme — Again 
By Laura Gottesdiener

You can hardly turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about the nation’s impressive, much celebrated housing recovery. Home prices are rising! New construction has started! The crisis is over! Yet beneath the fanfare, a whole new get-rich-quick scheme is brewing.

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Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, Victories Come in All Sizes

6:26 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

I was electrified, and my own trajectory in life changed, by the antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.  That experience, those years, mobilized me.  They shocked me — quite literally — about what my country was capable of.  They destroyed my rather idealistic urge to be a part of the government.  I had long dreamed of becoming a diplomat, and at one point in the 1960s even applied for a job at the United States Information Agency.  In the years when I was growing up, the thought that I should and could find some way to represent my country proudly to the world was a powerful and motivating one for me.  In it lay a citizenly urge to serve.  What I learned in the anti-Vietnam movement stripped me of that urge or, at least, of the urge to apply it to the U.S. government.

Even when that movement died out and great effort in the popular sphere went into turning the dismal, disastrous, and deeply destructive war that called it up into a “noble cause” and the movement I had been a part of into so many “hippies” who “spit on” the returning troops, I never forgot.  Nor, by the way, did I, or anyone I knew in those years, ever see any antiwar activist spit on returning troops.  My life then had, in fact, been thoroughly entangled with Vietnam vets who had come back from the war in a state of protest and G.I.s still in the military who were antiwar and happy to say so.

Even in the decades after, when I demobilized and my most active work was simply putting good books into the world as an editor at the edge of mainstream publishing, I remained a changed person, primed for I had no idea what.  After 9/11, the urge to serve manifested itself powerfully once again and what the antiwar movement had taught me decades earlier helped organize and mobilize me to create TomDispatch.com, which has been the obsession of my later life.  Today, I feel that, thanks to what a movement now half-forgotten did to my life and sense of self, I do in some modest way finally represent my country — the best of it and the worst of it — to the world (and to us as well).

Still, if you had looked at my life in the 1980s or 1990s, you might have been hard-pressed to know just what, if any, effect those antiwar years had on me.  You might well have said: none at all.  Similarly, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit points out — in a piece adapted from her introduction to Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy — we tend to want to measure the importance of any oppositional movement by its instant results, not by the seeds it may plant in its participants that sometimes don’t sprout for years or decades. Tom 

Joy Arises, Rules Fall Apart: Thoughts for the Second Anniversary of Occupy Wall Street
By Rebecca Solnit

I would have liked to know what the drummer hoped and what she expected. We’ll never know why she decided to take a drum to the central markets of Paris on October 5, 1789, and why, that day, the tinder was so ready to catch fire and a drumbeat was one of the sparks.

To the beat of that drum, the working women of the marketplace marched all the way to the Palace of Versailles, a dozen miles away, occupied the seat of French royal power, forced the king back to Paris, and got the French Revolution rolling. Far more than with the storming of the Bastille almost three months earlier, it was then that the revolution was really launched — though both were mysterious moments when citizens felt impelled to act and acted together, becoming in the process that mystical body, civil society, the colossus who writes history with her feet and crumples governments with her bare hands.

She strode out of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City during which parts of the central city collapsed, and so did the credibility and power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI that had ruled Mexico for 70 years. She woke up almost three years ago in North Africa, in what was called the Arab Spring, and became a succession of revolutions and revolts still unfolding across the region.

Such transformative moments have happened in many times and many places — sometimes as celebratory revolution, sometimes as terrible calamity, sometimes as both, and they are sometimes reenacted as festivals and carnivals. In these moments, the old order is shattered, governments and elites tremble, and in that rupture civil society is born — or reborn.

In the new space that appears, however briefly, the old rules no longer apply. New rules may be written or a counterrevolution may be launched to take back the city or the society, but the moment that counts, the moment never to forget, is the one where civil society is its own rule, taking care of the needy, discussing what is necessary and desirable, improvising the terms of an ideal society for a day, a month, the 10-week duration of the Paris Commune of 1871, or the several weeks’ encampment and several-month aftermath of Occupy Oakland, proudly proclaimed on banners as the Oakland Commune.

Weighing the Meaning

Those who doubt that these moments matter should note how terrified the authorities and elites are when they erupt. That fear is a sign of their recognition that real power doesn’t only lie with them.  (Sometimes your enemies know what your friends can’t believe.) That’s why the New York Police Department maintained a massive presence at Occupy Wall Street’s encampment and spent millions of dollars on punishing the participants (and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more, in police brutality payouts for all the clubbing and pepper-gassing of unarmed idealists, as well as $47,000 for the destruction of the OWS library, because in situations like these a library is a threat, too).

Those who dismiss these moments because of their flaws need to look harder at what joy and hope shine out of them and what real changes have, historically, emerged because of them, even if not always directly or in the most obvious or recognizable ways. Change is rarely as simple as dominos.  Sometimes, it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly turn out to be flowers that emerge from plants with deep roots in the past or sometimes from long-dormant seeds.

It’s important to ask not only what those moments produced in the long run but what they were in their heyday. If people find themselves living in a world in which some hopes are realized, some joys are incandescent, and some boundaries between individuals and groups are lowered, even for an hour or a day or — in the case of Occupy Wall Street — several months, that matters.

The old left imagined that victory would, when it came, be total and permanent, which is practically the same as saying that victory was and is impossible and will never come. It is, in fact, more than possible. It is something that participants have tasted many times and that we carry with us in many ways, however flawed and fleeting. We regularly taste failure, too. Most of the time, the two come mixed and mingled. And every now and then, the possibilities explode.

In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a “we” that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency. New possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society reemerges and — at least for a little while — shines.

Utopia is sometimes the goal. It’s often embedded in the insurrectionary moment itself, and it’s a hard moment to explain, since it usually involves hardscrabble ways of living, squabbles, and eventually disillusionment and factionalism, but also more ethereal things: the discovery of personal and collective power, the realization of dreams, the birth of bigger dreams, a sense of connection that is as emotional as it is political, and lives that change and do not revert to older ways even when the glory subsides.

Sometimes the earth closes over this moment and it has no obvious consequences; sometimes it’s the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall and all those glorious insurrections in the East Bloc in 1989, and empires crumble and ideologies drop away like shackles unlocked. Occupy was such a moment, and one so new that its effects and consequences are hard to measure.

I have often heard that Freedom Summer in Mississippi registered some voters and built some alliances in 1964, but that its lasting (if almost impossible to measure) impact, was on the young participants themselves. They were galvanized into a feeling of power, of commitment, of mission that seems to have changed many of them and stayed with them as they went on to do a thousand different things that mattered, as they helped build the antiauthoritarian revolution that has been slowly unfolding, here and elsewhere, over the last half century or so. By such standards, when it comes to judging the effects of Occupy, it’s far too soon to tell — and as with so many moments and movements, we may never fully know.

Preludes and Aftermaths

If aftermaths are hard to measure, preludes are often even more elusive. One of the special strengths of Nathan Schneider’s new book about Occupy Wall Street, is its account of the many people who prepared the fire that burst into flame on September 17, 2011, in lower Manhattan, and that still gives light and heat to many of us.

We know next to nothing about that drummer girl who walked into a Parisian market where many people were ready to ignite, to march, to see the world change. With every insurrection, revolution, or social rupture, we need to remember that we will never know the whole story of how it happened, and that what we can’t measure still matters. But Schneider’s book gives us some powerful glimpses into the early (and late) organizing, the foibles and characters, the conflicts and delights, and the power of that moment and movement. It conveys the sheer amount of labor involved in producing a miracle — and that miraculousness as well.

Early in Thank You, Anarchy, Schneider cites a participant, Mike Andrews, talking about how that key tool of Occupy, the General Assembly, with its emphasis on egalitarian participation and consensus decision-making, was reshaping him and the way he looked at the world: “It pushes you toward being more respectful of the people there. Even after General Assembly ends I find myself being very attentive in situations where I’m not normally so attentive. So if I go get some food after General Assembly, I find myself being very polite to the person I’m ordering from, and listening if they talk back to me.”

This kind of tiny personal change can undoubtedly be multiplied by the hundreds of thousands, given the number of Occupy participants globally. But the movement had quantifiable consequences, too.

Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street appeared in the fall of 2011, it was clear that the national conversation had changed, that the brutality and obscenity of Wall Street was suddenly being openly discussed, that the suffering of ordinary people crushed by the burden of medical, housing, or college debt was coming out of the shadows, that the Occupy encampments had become places where people could testify about the destruction of their hopes and lives. California passed a homeowner’s bill of rights to curtail the viciousness of the banks, and in late 2012 Strike Debt emerged as an Occupy offshoot to address indebtedness in creative and subversive ways. Student debt suddenly became (and remains) a topic of national discussion, and proposals for student loan reform began to gain traction. Invisible suffering had been made visible.

Change often happens by making the brutality of the status quo visible and so intolerable. The situation everybody has been living in is suddenly described in a new way by a previously silenced or impacted constituency, or with new eloquence, or because our ideas of what is humane and decent evolve, or a combination of all three.  Thus did slavery become intolerable to ever more free people before the Civil War. Thus did the rights of many groups in this country — women, people of color, queer people, disabled people — grow exponentially. Thus did marriage stop being an exclusive privilege of heterosexuality, and earlier, a hierarchical relationship between a dominant husband and a submissive wife.

When the Silent Speak

Occupy Wall Street allowed those silenced by shame, invisibility, or lack of interest from the media to speak up.  As a result, the realities behind our particular economic game came to be described more accurately; so much so that the media and politicians had to change their language a little to adjust to — admit to — a series of previously ignored ugly realities. This, in turn, had consequences, even if they weren’t always measurable or sometimes even immediately detectable.

Though Occupy was never primarily about electoral politics, it was nonetheless a significant part of the conversation that got Elizabeth Warren elected senator and a few other politicians doing good things in the cesspit of the capital. As Occupy was, in part, sparked by the vision of the Arab Spring, so its mood of upheaval and outrage might have helped spark Idle No More, the dynamic Native peoples’ movement. Idle No More has already become a vital part of the environmental and climate movements and, in turn, has sparked a resurgence of Native American and Native Canadian activism.

Occupy Wall Street also built alliances around racist persecution that lasted well after most of the encampments were disbanded. Occupiers were there for everything from the Million Hoodie Marches to protest the slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida to stop-and-frisk in New York City to racist bank policies and foreclosures in San Francisco.  There, a broad-based housing rights movement came out of Occupy that joined forces with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) to address foreclosures, evictions, corrupt banking practices, and more. Last week a conservative warned that “Occupy may soon occupy New York’s City Hall,” decrying mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio’s economic populism, alleged support for Occupy, and opposition to stop and frisk (while Schneider warns that the candidate is a liberal, not a radical).

Part of what gave Occupy its particular beauty was the way the movement defined “we” as the 99%.  That (and that contagious meme the 1%) entered our language, offering a way of imagining the world so much more inclusive than just about anything that had preceded it. And what an inclusive movement it was: the usual young white suspects, from really privileged to really desperate, but also a range of participants from World War II to Iraq War veterans to former Black Panthers, from libertarians to liberals to anarchist insurrectionists, from the tenured to the homeless to hip-hop moguls and rock stars.

And there was so much brutality, too, from the young women pepper-sprayed at an early Occupy demonstration and the students infamously pepper-sprayed while sitting peacefully on the campus of the University of California, Davis, to the poet laureate Robert Hass clubbed in the ribs at the Berkeley encampment, 84-year-old Dorli Rainey assaulted by police at Occupy Seattle, and the Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen whose skull was fractured by a projectile fired by the Oakland police. And then, of course, there was the massive police presence and violent way that in a number of cities the movement’s occupiers were finally ejected from their places of “occupation.”

Such overwhelming institutional violence couldn’t have made clearer the degree to which the 1% considered Occupy a genuine threat. At the G-20 economic summit in 2011, the Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said, “The reward system of shareholders and managers of financial institution[s] should be changed step by step. Otherwise the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ slogan will become fashionable in all developed countries.” That was the voice of fear, because the realized dreams of the 99% are guaranteed to be the 1%’s nightmares.

We’ll never know what that drummer girl in Paris was thinking, but thanks to Schneider’s meticulous and elegant book, we know what one witness-participant was thinking all through the first year of Occupy, and what it was like to be warmed for a few months by that beautiful conflagration that spread across the world, to be part of that huge body that wasn’t exactly civil society, but something akin to it, perhaps in conception even larger than it, as Occupy encampments and general assemblies spread from Auckland to Hong Kong, from Oakland to London in the fall of 2011. Some of them lasted well into 2012, and others spawned things that are still with us: coalitions and alliances and senses of possibility and frameworks for understanding what’s wrong and what could be right. It was a sea-change moment, a watershed movement, a dream realized imperfectly (because only unrealized dreams are perfect), a groundswell that remains ground on which to build.

On the second anniversary of that day in lower Manhattan when people first sat down in outrage and then stayed in dedication and solidarity and hope, remember them, remember how unpredictably the world changes, remember those doing heroic work that you might hear little or nothing about but who are all around you, remember to hope, remember to build. Remember that you are 99% likely to be one of them and take up the burden that is also an invitation to change the world and occupy your dreams.

Rebecca Solnit, author most recently of The Faraway Nearby spent time at Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and wrote about Occupy often for TomDispatch in 2011-2012. This essay is adapted from her introduction to Nathan Schneider’s new book, Thank You, Anarchy (University of California Press).

Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit

Barbara Garson, How to Become a Part-Time Worker Without Really Trying

7:10 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Down the Up Escalator

Barbara Gerson’s book explains how corporations used the recession to hurt workers.

Bad news out of Bentonville. On Thursday, Walmart, the American retail behemoth, announced that it had slumped through another quarter. Sales were sluggish, and a Walmart executive said the company was downgrading expectations for the rest of 2013. The reason? “The customer doesn’t quite have the discretionary income, or they’re hesitant to spend what they do have,” said Charles Holley, Walmart’s chief financial officer.

There is a cutting irony at play here. Yes, one effect of the great recession was to put many people out of work, or to relegate them to part-time status. And yes, the expiration of the payroll tax cut earlier this year took money out of the pockets of millions of Americans. Yet wages for working Americans flatlined long before the financial crisis, and Walmart is one reason for that. Because of its size and buying power, Walmart sets the standard for much of the big-box retail industry and the retailer is infamous for paying low wages. The company says the average wage for a full-time Walmart worker in the U.S. is $12.78 an hour, but the business research firm IBISWorld pegs it at closer to $9.  In addition, it generally allots its “associates” less than 40 hours of work a week. In Washington, D.C., Walmart has threatened to cancel plans to build three new stores and possibly close three more stores due to open if the city passes an ordinance mandating that the retailer pay a “living wage” of $12.50 an hour.

In other words, the type of person who shops at Walmart today has less money to shop at Walmart — because of, among other things, Walmart.

Today, Barbara Garson, author of the book Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, writes about how the tactics Walmart has used for years to cut costs and goose profits – cutting employees’ hours and keeping wages down – are spreading as the U.S. economy limps back to health. It’s nothing for the executives in the corner offices to fret about: after all, Walmart CEO Mike Duke earned $20.7 million in 2012, a sum so large it would take a Walmart employee earning $12 an hour 785 years to match Duke’s compensation. So it goes in post-recession America. Andy Kroll

Abracadabra: You’re a Part-Timer
How Corporate America Used the Great Recession to Turn Good Jobs Into Bad Ones 
By Barbara Garson

Watch closely: I’m about to demystify the sleight-of-hand by which good jobs were transformed into bad jobs, full-time workers with benefits into freelancers with nothing, during the dark days of the Great Recession.

First, be aware of what a weird economic downturn and recovery this has been.  From the end of an “average” American recession, it ordinarily takes slightly less than a year to reach or surpass the previous employment peak.  But in June 2013 — four full years after the official end of the Great Recession — we had recovered only 6.6 million jobs, or just three-quarters of the 8.7 million jobs we lost.

Here’s the truly mysterious aspect of this “recovery”: 21% of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were low wage, meaning they paid $13.83 an hour or less.  But 58% of the jobs regained fall into that category. A common explanation for that startling statistic is that the bad jobs are coming back first and the good jobs will follow.

But let me suggest another explanation: the good jobs are here among us right now — it’s just their wages, their benefits, and the long-term security that have vanished.

Consider the experiences of two workers I initially interviewed for my book Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession and you’ll see just how some companies used the recession to accomplish this magician’s disappearing trick.

Freelance Nation

Ina Bromberg genuinely likes to outfit people.  Trim and well dressed herself, Ina sells petites at the Madison Avenue flagship store of a designer brand boutique with several hundred outlets.  Even I had heard of the label.  I had to ask what its exact place in the fashion hierarchy was, though.  “We fall into a niche below Barney’s-Bergdorf-Chanel,” she explained.

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Pepe Escobar, The Tao of Containing China

6:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Chinese President Xi Jinping

China is poised to embrace global capitalism under Xi Jinping.

Yes, the predictions are in.  By 2016 (or 2030?), China will have economically outpaced the U.S.  So say the economic soothsayers.  And behind them lie all those, in the Pentagon and elsewhere in Washington, who secretly fear that, if nothing is done to contain it, China will within decades be dominant in the Pacific, the overlord of Asia, and perhaps later in the century the — to steal a phrase — “sole superpower” of planet Earth.

The first signs of things to come, it’s believed, are already there, including the way China has been building up its military and has started nudging its neighbors about a set of largely uninhabited islands in energy-rich areas of the Pacific, not to speak of recent more informal claims to a large, heavily inhabited, very militarized island in the region — Okinawa.  Like the previous global superpower, China, it is believed, has designs on turning the Pacific into its own “lake” and possibly even setting up military and other bases (“a string of pearls”) through the Indian Ocean all the way to Africa.

It’s a great story, but hold your horses!  As that peripatetic reporter for Asia Times and TomDispatch regular Pepe Escobar indicates in today’s vivid plunge into China’s roiled waters, that country faces potentially staggering problems.  After all, contradictions — to use a classic Marxist word — abound: a Communist Party leading a capitalist revolution with its own stability as a ruling elite dependent, above all, upon ever greater economic growth.  And yet this isn’t the nineteenth century.  China is on an imperiled planet.  Every economic move it makes has potentially long-term negative consequences.  For all we know, there may be no twenty-second-century superpower on planet Earth and if there is, don’t necessarily count on China.

As Escobar explains, to spur the staggering levels of growth that keep the country and the Party afloat, the Chinese leadership is embarking on a kind of forced urbanization program that may have no historical precedent.  It is guaranteed to destabilize the countryside, while yet more peasants flood into the cities.  It’s seldom acknowledged here (though the Chinese leadership is well aware of it) but China has a unique, almost two-thousand-year-long record of massive peasant uprisings (often religiously tinged) sweeping out of the countryside and upsetting established rule.  The last of them was Mao Zedong’s peasant revolution that established the present People’s Republic.

Mass protest in China has been on the rise.  Environmental conditions are disastrous.  Let the Chinese economy falter and who knows what you’ll see.  This is not a formula for an expansive imperial power, no less the next master of planet Earth, whatever Washington’s fears and militarized fantasies may be. Tom

The Chimerica Dream
Two Nations, Two Dreams, One Pacific
By Pepe Escobar

Sun Tzu, the ancient author of The Art of War, must be throwing a rice wine party in his heavenly tomb in the wake of the shirtsleeves California love-in between President Obama and President Xi Jinping. “Know your enemy” was, it seems, the theme of the meeting. Beijing was very much aware of — and had furiously protested — Washington’s deep plunge into China’s computer networks over the past 15 years via a secretive NSA unit, the Office of Tailored Access Operations (with the apt acronym TAO). Yet Xi merrily allowed Obama to pontificate on hacking and cyber-theft as if China were alone on such a stage.

Enter — with perfect timing — Edward Snowden, the spy who came in from Hawaii and who has been holed up in Hong Kong since May 20th. And cut to the wickedly straight-faced, no-commentary-needed take on Obama’s hacker army by Xinhua, the Chinese Communist Party’s official press service. With America’s dark-side-of-the-moon surveillance programs like Prism suddenly in the global spotlight, the Chinese, long blistered by Washington’s charges about hacking American corporate and military websites, were polite enough. They didn’t even bother to mention that Prism was just another node in the Pentagon’s Joint Vision 2020 dream of “full spectrum dominance.”

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Barbara Garson: Going Underwater in the Long Recession

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Cover of Down The Up Escalator by Barbara Garson

Barbara Garson studies the lives of the 99% in our troubled economy.

They call it the “spring swoon.” For the third straight year, the American economy bounded out of the starting blocks, adding hundreds of thousands of jobs in January and February. And for the third year in a row, that momentum melted away in the spring like the last traces of winter snow. Employers added only 88,000 jobs this March, the Labor Department announced on Friday, the worst monthly jobs report since June. Economists predicted gains of at least twice as much, and the news fed fears that the economy’s modest recovery might be faltering. And this before we’ve even felt the real effect of the “sequester,” those $85 billion across-the-board budget cuts recently approved by Congress and President Obama.

The biggest cause for concern, however, isn’t actually that anemic monthly job-gain figure. Measuring the job market is, at best, an inexact science, and the number crunchers at the Labor Department could yet revise that number upward (or, god forbid, downward) in time for next month’s report. Here’s the real news, as U.S. corporations rake in record profits (and shift record amounts of money into offshore tax havens): nearly half a million workers “disappeared” last month. Yes, disappeared. The Labor Department tracks what it calls the “labor force participation rate” — wonk-speak for the percentage of people working or actively hunting for a job. In March, that number slumped to 63.3%, the lowest point since 1979. That means there are millions of people out there who have lost their jobs, stopped interviewing or even applying, who have packed it in, given up. The government excludes them when it calculates the main unemployment rate.  They have entered the invisible workforce.

The unemployment rate ticked down from 7.7% to 7.6% in March. Some might cheer that news. Don’t. The jobless rate didn’t dip because the economy improved; it dipped because the government simply stopped counting a half-million out-of-work people as out of work.

In her new book, Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, Barbara Garson, who has long chronicled the lives of people for whom bad times began decades ago, focuses on the self-declared members of the “Pink Slip Club.” She memorably journeys across the United States to introduce us to a range of Americans just scratching by in the toughest of tough times, trying to carve out a living with — not being bankers — no government to bail them out. They, like Duane, the man she focuses on in today’s post, deserved so much better. Andy Kroll

Down Is a Dangerous Direction 
How the 40-Year “Long Recession” Led to the Great Recession 
By Barbara Garson

If you had to date the Great Recession, you might say it started in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers vaporized over a weekend and a massive mortgage-based Ponzi scheme began to go down.  By 2008, however, the majority of American workers had already endured a 40-year decline in wages, security, and hope — a Long Recession of their own.

In the 1960s, I met a young man about to be discharged from the Army and then, by happenstance, caught up with him again in each of the next two decades.  Though he died two months before the Lehman Brothers collapse, those brief encounters taught me how the Long Recession led directly to our Great Recession.

In the late 1960s, I was working at an antiwar coffee house near an army base from which soldiers shipped out to Vietnam.  One gangly young man, recently back from “the Nam,” was particularly handy and would fix our record player or make our old mimeograph machine run more smoothly.  He rarely spoke about the war, except to say that his company had stayed stoned the whole time. “Our motto,” he once told me, “was ‘let’s not and say we did.’”  Duane had no intention of becoming a professional Vietnam vet like John Kerry when discharged.  His plan was to return home to Cleveland and make up for time missed in the civilian counterculture of that era.

I often sat with him during my breaks, enjoying his warmth and his self-aware sense of humor.  But thousands of GIs passed through the coffee house and, to be honest, I didn’t really notice when he left.

In the early 1970s, General Motors set up the fastest auto assembly line in the world in Lordstown, Ohio, and staffed it with workers whose average age was 24.  GM’s management hoped that such healthy, inexperienced workers could handle 101 cars an hour without balking the way more established autoworkers might.  What GM got instead of balkiness was a series of slowdowns and snafus that management labeled systematic “sabotage” until they realized that the word hurt car sales.

I visited Lordstown the week before a strike vote was to be taken, amid national speculation about whether a generation of “hippy autoworkers” could “humanize the assembly line” and so change forever the way America worked.  On a guided tour of the plant, I was surprised to spot Duane shooting radios into cars with an air gun.  He recognized me and slipped me a note with his phone number.

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Steve Fraser: A Disaster for All Seasons

6:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Sandy Hook Wreckage

Devastation in Staten Island. Wall Street is learning how to profit more from disasters.

Even if you set aside the man-made environmental disaster that is China (at a cost now estimated conservatively at $230 billion annually), ever more expensive disasters seem to be on the rise globally.  Moreover, thanks to climate change — that is, the greenhouse gases we’ve been pumping into the atmosphere at record levels — the distinction between man-made catastrophes and natural ones is rapidly blurring.  In the United States, we’ve recently suffered a one-two punch when it comes to extreme weather: 2011 now holds the American record for weather disasters that cost $1 billion dollars or more with 14 of them, and 2012 came in an uncomfortably close second with 11.  (You can check out the list here.)  The Swiss Insurance firm Munich Re points out that “nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America.”  A dubious honor.

And of them all, perhaps the most expensive of recent times, already estimated to have cost more than $50 billion, is the drought that had 60% of the country in its grip last year and has continued relentlessly into 2013, parching the Southwest, the Midwest, and parts of the West.  This, in turn, almost assures another season of “record” wildfires and, according to early predictions, possibly a new round of flooding from late season heavy snowfall in the upper Midwest and especially along the Red River.

In addition, on the billion-dollar bad-news side of things, scientists now believe that the continuing dramatic loss of ice in Arctic waters, which has been heating up that region, is also changing northern hemispheric weather patterns.  It is evidently ensuring more extreme weather in the middle latitudes which helps explain, for instance, Europe’s “frozen spring” of 2013, and will evidently lead to even warmer summers for most of us.

And when we’re talking about extreme weather, extreme events, and disasters, let’s not forget that globally the likelihood of extreme energy events like BP’s massive oil spill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico is also on the rise.  After all, as Michael Klare has long argued at this site, energy companies are now ever more regularly going after extreme energy in situations of rising danger.  As a result, from the frack zone in the U.S. and the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil to the Arctic seas of Alaska, the possibility of distinctly energy-company-made disasters is on the rise (as, of course, are record oil company profits).

In other words, we’re now on a planet where extreme disaster seems ever more normal and, when it comes to the weather, such extremes can increasingly be considered man-made or at least human-influenced.  It’s important to keep in mind as well that what’s a catastrophe for many of us always turns out to be the main chance and a profit center for at least a few of us.  As Steve Fraser, TomDispatch’s historian-in-residence (who tells tales of American history you never learned in school), reminds us, there’s a backstory to the way genuine disasters are never disasters for everyone and it couldn’t be more relevant to our increasing catastrophe of a world.  (As a tiny example, consider that each horrific oil spill means more oil company dollars flowing to lobbyists and to Congress — and so yet more high times on Washington’s K Street.)

With that in mind, sit back and let yourself be enveloped in the great fires, earthquakes, and floods of our past history, and those who profited from them.  Tom

Making Disaster Pay
From the San Francisco Earthquake to Superstorm Sandy, How Capitalism Stacks the Deck on Disaster
By Steve Fraser

In 2007, a financial firestorm ravaged Wall Street and the rest of the country.  In 2012, Hurricane Sandy obliterated a substantial chunk of the Atlantic seaboard.  We think of the first as a man-made calamity, the second as the malignant innocence of nature.  But neither the notion of a man-made nor natural disaster quite captures how the power of a few and the vulnerability of the many determine what is really going on at ground level.  Causes and consequences, who gets blamed and who leaves the scene permanently scarred, who goes down and who emerges better positioned than before: these are matters often predetermined by the structures of power and wealth, racial and ethnic hierarchies, and despised and favored forms of work, as well as moral and social prejudices in place before disaster strikes.

When it comes to our recent financial implosion, this is easy enough to see, although great efforts have been expended trying to deny the self-evident.  “Man” did not bring the system to its knees; the country’s dominant financial institutions and a complicit government did that.  They’ve recovered, the rest of us haven’t.

Sandy seems a more ambiguous case.  On the one hand, it’s obvious enough that an economy resting on fossil fuels played a catalytic role in intensifying the storm.  Those corporate interests profiting from that form of energy production and doing all they can to defend it are certainly culpable, not the rest of mankind which has no other choice but to depend on the energy system we’re given.

On the other hand, rich and poor, big businesses and neighborhood shops suffered; some, however, more than others.  Among them were working class communities; public-housing residents; outer borough homeowners; communities in Long Island, along the New Jersey shore, and inland as well; workers denied unemployment compensation; and the old, the sick, and the injured abandoned for days or weeks in dark and dangerous high-rises without medical help or access to fresh food or water.  Help, when it came to these “disadvantaged” worlds, often arrived late, or last, or not at all.

Cleaning up and rebuilding New York City and other places hit by the storm will provide a further road map of who gets served and whose ox gets gored.  It’s ominous, if hardly shocking, that Mayor Bloomberg has already appointed Mark Ricks of Goldman Sachs to the business-dominated team planning the city’s future.  Where would this billionaire mayor turn other than to his fraternity brothers, especially in this era when, against all the odds, we still worship at the altar of the deal-makers, no matter their malfeasances and fatal ineptitudes?

Still, it is early days and the verdict is not in on the post-Sandy future.  However, an incisive analysis by sociologists Kevin Fox Gotham and Miriam Greenberg of what happened after the 9/11 attacks in New York and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina offers some concrete forebodings.  Everyone knows that, as soon as Katrina made landfall, the racial divisions of New Orleans became the scandal of the month when it came to which communities were drowned and which got helped, who got arrested (and shot), and who left town forever.  To be poor in New Orleans during and after Katrina was a curse.  To be poor and black amounted to excommunication.

Gotham and Greenberg prove that, post-9/11 and post-Katrina, reconstruction and rehabilitation was also skewed heavily in favor of the business community and the wealthier.  In both cities, big business controlled the redevelopment process — and so where the money landed and where it didn’t.

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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Next War?

7:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

"Senkaku" Island

Could disputes over largely uninhabited islands like this one lead to war?

Once upon a time, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping suggested that Asia’s Pacific powers and wannabes should “put aside differences and jointly develop resources.”  That was, of course, when China itself was still something of a wannabe and no one was talking about it becoming the world’s largest economy.  Now, it’s the rising power on planet Earth, achieving a more-than-century-old dream of returning to national greatness — as well as an eye-blistering, health-endangering level of industrial and car pollution that has its own name, “airpocalypse.” Problem is the idea of regional cooperation turns out to have been the real dream and now, it seems, everyone in the Pacific basin has woken up.

“Jointly develop?” What an ephemeral thought at a time when the urge to power up ever more cars and factories (sending yet more pollution, not to speak of greenhouse gases, into Asian and planetary skies) has merged with advances in drilling technology for “extreme energy.”  Together, they have made a series of previously unremarkable islets in the Pacific — which just happen to have prospective oil and natural gas reserves under them — look too valuable to resist claiming. So China, Japan, and various other Asian countries are insisting those bits of land are theirs and theirs alone.  Toss in that hideous imponderable national pride and, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out today, you have the potential for one of the dumber, more destructive face-offs in recent history.  With its usual fabulous timing, the U.S., already heavily garrisoning parts of Asia, has jumped in with both feet, only exacerbating tensions in the region, while promising to bring more of its own weaponry to bear, and sell more of that weaponry to its allies.

As Klare, author of the invaluable The Race for What’s Left (just out in paperback), indicates, this couldn’t be more ludicrous.  After all, China, Japan, and the U.S. are so economically intertwined that one can’t twitch without the others suffering.  In other words, any kind of conflict among them is bound to make mincemeat of their collective economic wellbeing.  In fact, last October, after a confrontation over some of those islands, angry anti-Japanese protests and calls for boycotts of Japanese goods swept China.  The uproar briefly closed Japanese plants in that country, took a bite out of Japanese car sales, and knocked down Japanese stock prices.  Japan’s economy took a serious hit as well, which should surprise no one since China has recently pulled ahead of the U.S. as that country’s major export market.  All of this, until tamped down, threatened the wellbeing of the global economy, and yet it was a mere hiccup in terms of what might be coming.

What better argument could there be for self-interested cooperation in the Pacific, if only anyone in the involved countries, including ours, were actually walking the walk, instead of just intermittently talking the talk? Tom

Powder Keg in the Pacific
Will China-Japan-U.S. Tensions in the Pacific Ignite a Conflict and Sink the Global Economy?
By Michael T. Klare

Don’t look now, but conditions are deteriorating in the western Pacific.  Things are turning ugly, with consequences that could prove deadly and spell catastrophe for the global economy.

In Washington, it is widely assumed that a showdown with Iran over its nuclear ambitions will be the first major crisis to engulf the next secretary of defense — whether it be former Senator Chuck Hagel, as President Obama desires, or someone else if he fails to win Senate confirmation.  With few signs of an imminent breakthrough in talks aimed at peacefully resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, many analysts believe that military action — if not by Israel, than by the United States — could be on this year’s agenda.

Lurking just behind the Iranian imbroglio, however, is a potential crisis of far greater magnitude, and potentially far more imminent than most of us imagine.  China’s determination to assert control over disputed islands in the potentially energy-rich waters of the East and South China Seas, in the face of stiffening resistance from Japan and the Philippines along with greater regional assertiveness by the United States, spells trouble not just regionally, but potentially globally.

Islands, Islands, Everywhere

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Tom Engelhardt: The Meaning of a Do-Nothing Election

7:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Mandate of Hell
How Not to Change the World
By Tom Engelhardt

John Boehner

In the fall of 1948, Harry Truman barnstormed the country by train, repeatedly bashing a “do-nothing Congress,” and so snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in that year’s presidential campaign.  This year, neither presidential candidate focused on blasting a do-nothing Congress or, in Obama’s case, “Republican obstructionism,” demanding that the voters give them a legislative body that would mean an actual mandate for change.

We now know the results of such a campaign and, after all the tumult and the nation’s first $6 billion election, they couldn’t be more familiar.  Only days later, you can watch a remarkably recognizable cast of characters from the reelected president and Speaker of the House John Boehner to the massed pundits of the mainstream media picking up the pages of a well-thumbed script.

Will it be bipartisanship or the fiscal cliff?  Are we going to raise new revenues via tax reform or raise tax rates for the wealthiest Americans?  Will the president make up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or not?  Will it be war or something less with Iran?  And so on and so forth.  It’s the moment the phrase déjà vu all over again was made for.

A Hell of Our Own Making

When a new Chinese dynasty came to power, it was said that it had received “the mandate of heaven.”  We’ve just passed through an election campaign that, while the noisiest in memory, was enveloped in the deepest of silences on issues that truly matter for the American future.  Out of it, a “mandate” has indeed been bestowed not just on Barack Obama, but on Washington, where a Republican House of Representatives, far less triumphant but no less fully in the saddle than the president, faces media reports that its moment is past, that its members are part of “the biggest loser demographic of the election,” and that its party — lacking the support of young people, single women, those with no religious affiliation, Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans — is heading for the trash barrel of history.

If true, that does sound like a mandate for something, sooner or later — assuming you happen to have years of demographic patience.  In the meantime, there will be a lot more talk about how the Republicans need to reorient their party and about a possible “civil war” over its future.  And while we’re at it, bet on one thing: we’re also going to hear a ton more talk about how much deeply unhappy Americans — the very ones who just reinstalled a government that’s a senatorial blink away from the previous version of the same — really, really want everyone to make nice and work together.

But isn’t it time to cut the b.s., turn off those talking heads, and ask ourselves: What does election 2012 really mean for us and for this country?

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Kramer and Hellman: It’s the Politics, Stupid

8:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

After the first $6 billion election, $3 billion in (mostly attack) ads, billions paid out to political consultants, presidential campaigns that raised more than $1 billion each, piles of “dark money,” and a year of debates, punditry, robocalls, ground games, polls by the trillions, and just about anything else you might want to name, Election 2012 is officially over — and strangely, it’s left the country with the same president, and essentially the same party breakdown in the Senate and the House of Representatives.  In other words, the most expensive, most gargantuan election of our lifetimes has brought us an almost exact replica of the week before yesterday.  The (same) president is already talking about the (same) bipartisanship to the same House of Representatives whose leader has just, post-election, reclaimed the (same) mandate as theirs.  We’ve lived this story.  Don’t we kinda know how it ends?

Livening up the period between the old Congress and the old president and the “new” Congress and the “new” president is a brewing Washington “crisis” we’ve been hearing about for months on end and that’s already back in the headlines.  It’s the “fiscal cliff” and the only question, it seems, is who or what exactly is going to run off its edge, Wile E. Coyote-style.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, for example, has for a year been assuring Americans that, should Congressionally mandated automatic defense cuts go through as 2013 begins under what’s called “sequestration,” the biggest military on the planet, engorged with staggering sums of money these last years, will face nothing short of a “devastating” situation.  No kidding, actual doom.

Congress is similarly launching fearsome warnings about its own decision to institute such cuts.  Imagine, in fact, a wrestler who has put himself in a fearsome hammerlock and is now railing against his fate and his own arms, pleading for outside help or mercy.  This largely fake crisis whipped up into a froth of warnings out of far deeper problems is going to keep the pundits and headliners busy indeed for the next two months.  So expect the news, punditry, and governmental equivalents of screams of pain, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments.  As it happens, TomDispatch has two preternaturally sane and reasonable analysts, Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman of the superb National Priorities Project, who suggest that a little old-fashioned rolling of eyes is in order. Tom

Washington’s Cliff Notes 
How to Get Yourself to the Edge of the Fiscal Abyss and Not Jump 
By Mattea Kramer and Chris Hellman

They don’t call it the “cliff” for nothing.  It’s the fiscal spot where a nation’s representatives can gather and cry doom.  It’s the place — if Washington is to be believed — where, with a single leap into the Abyss of Sequestration, those representatives can end it all for the rest of us.

An Americorps worker fights a forest fire. Americorps could face austerity cuts.

In the wake of President Obama’s electoral victory, that cliff (if you’ll excuse a mixed metaphor or two) is about to step front and center. The only problem: the odds are no one will leap, and remarkably little of note will actually happen.  But since the headlines are about to scream “crisis,” what you need to understand American politics in the coming weeks of the lame-duck Congress is a little guide to reality, some Cliff Notes for Washington.

As a start, relax.  Don’t let the headlines get to you.  There’s little reason for anyone to lose sleep over the much-hyped fiscal cliff.  In fact, if you were choosing an image based on the coming fiscal dust-up, it probably wouldn’t be a cliff but an obstacle course — a series of federal spending cuts and tax increases all scheduled to take effect as 2013 begins. And it’s true that, if all those budget cuts and tax increases were to go into effect at the same time, an already weak recovery would probably sink into a double-dip recession.

But ignore the sound and fury.  While prophecy is usually a perilous occupation, in this case it’s pretty easy to predict how lawmakers will deal with nearly every challenge on the president’s and Congress’s end-of-year obstacle course. The upshot? The U.S. economy isn’t headed over a cliff any time soon.

Sequestering Congress

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