The Tea Party and the Founding Fathers

By Vicki Warner

The rise of a grass-roots protest organization calling itself the Tea Party has aroused my curiosity.  The name reminds me of the story every child used to learn in elementary school, along with the Pilgrims and George Washington and the cherry tree – the story of the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773, when American colonists threw chests of tea off of British ships into the sea to protest the high British tax on the tea, leading to the famous slogan “No taxation without representation.”  Although the colonies did have a representative in London, Benjamin Franklin, he had no role in British decision-making.

This new Tea Party, as I understand it, wants to return to the ideas, to the Constitution, of the founding fathers.  They want, in essence, to throw overboard all that has been added to U. S. government since the days of the original Tea Party.  The word “originalist” has been coined to represent this point of view – “an originalist interpretation of the U. S. Constitution,” i.e., looking at the Constitution as the original writers did.   But to do this, it would be necessary to see the world as the founding fathers did, to live in the world they lived in.  These founding fathers lived in the last part of the 1700s.  Benjamin Franklin was an old man – he was born in 1706,  Thomas Jefferson, born in 1743, was relatively young.  In 1787, several years after the end of the American Revolution, the U. S. Constitution was formally adopted and then ratified by the several states.  The world they lived in was vastly different from the world we live in.  I decided to take a look at the world of the founding fathers.

Although feudalism, the world of kings, barons and serfs, had declined in the late middle ages, most of the nations of the world were still ruled by kings or emperors.  The idea of a nation in which the people were sovereign was unique – the history of democracy shows us that after the Roman Empire broke up, taking with it its Senate of nobles and Assembly of commoners, anything approaching a democratic government disappeared from the face of the earth.  The founding fathers realized that all of the problems associated with such a radical departure from traditional ruling structure could not be anticipated and wisely provided for methods of revising and amending the Constitution to compensate for the inevitable changes, leaving us a “Living” Constitution.

At the time of the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the Industrial Revolution had barely started in the textile mills of England.  Life was very different before the Industrial Revolution.  Most people lived a self-sufficient farming life, without electricity or hot and cold running water.  They grew most of their own food, and made most of their own clothes. Most people lived in small towns or villages.  Life was centered in communities, and people had to help each other, to depend on each other.  Transportation was difficult and slow – there were no paved highways, no cars, no railroad trains, no airplanes.  Communicaton was slow – although Ben Franklin made sure that provisions for a post office were included in the Constitution, mail was really snail mail.  There were no telephones, no radios, no television, no computers, no e-mail, and no smart phones.

There was no public education – although Thomas Jefferson was an ardent advocate, it wasn’t until 1840 that Horace Mann came along to promote the need for common schooling.  Massachuetts and New York, in the early 1850s, were the first states to pass laws requiring public schools. At the time of the writing of the U. S. constitution, education was private, and home-schooling, if any, was the rule.  There were private tutors for the wealthy, and Catholic schools for Catholics.  Actually, some people were afraid that educating the lower classes would make them dissatisfied with their lot and therefore cause trouble.

The founding fathers were not confronted with the enormous influence of corporations facing the legislators of today.  The only major corporations were the two East India Companies sponsored by the Dutch and British governments.  The first corporation of any consequence in the U. S. was The Boston Manufacturing Company, an industrial corporation which didn’t come along until 1813.

At the time of the writing of the U. S. Constitution, vast areas of the world had  not yet become nations.  Russia was still living in the dark ages – serfdom wasn’t abolished until 1861, about the time of our own Civil War.  Our closest ties continued to be with England and France, and to a lesser extent, with the rest of Europe.  Since information travelled so slowly, it was challenging, though not impossible, to know what was going on in the rest of the world.

At the time of the writing of the U. S. Constitution, England and France were experiencing the revolution in thinking that has been called “The Enlightenment,” a movement that wikipedia describes as  a “movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in Church and state.”  At the same time, founding father Thomas Paine was writing his influential book, “Common Sense,” advocating America independence, and Adam Smith was publishing his influential “Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” the bible of free-market capitalism.  The framers of the Constitution were educated men and were aware of the intellectual ferment of the times.  Although ihe U S. Constitution makes no mention of capitalism, nor indeed of any economic system, some historians equate the rise of capitalism with the rise of democracy.

The original seven Articles of the Constitution were concerned first, with the formation of a functioning government uniting the states under a system of three branches, Legislative, Executive. and Judicial, separate but interacting to assure mutual checks and balances; second, with specifying the means of changing the Constitution by Amendment; and third, with declaring the Constitution to be the supreme Law of the Land.  The original Constitution did not deal with the individual rights of man – the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, took care of that.

In short, I believe the founding fathers could never in their wildest flights of fancy imagine the world we live in today, nor can we really know how it was to lead the relatively uncomplicated life of the founding fathers, and any attempt to return to the state of mind of the past is futile – to understand it, perhaps, but to live it, no.  Given the nature of human beings, one thing we should have in common is mutual respect for individual rights and responsibilities, and by individual, I do not mean an artificial corporate “person,” and the key word is “responsibilities.”

This essay was written by UNA-NC member Vicki Warner earlier this month.

How Occupy Wall Street’s Moral Vision Can Beat the Disastrous Conservative Worldview

Editor’s Note: I love this essay by George Lakoff for how it emphasizes the core strengths of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

  • Its moral vision that transcends yet infuses specific policy goals
  • Its recognition that private enterprise exists within a moral sphere and therefore has moral responsibilities
  • Its understanding that extreme wealth inequality “is a thief” that robs from everyone
  • Its patriotism.
  • This powerful moral vision will — soon enough — lead to political action.

Reprinted from Alternet.

By George Lakoff

OWS has a progressive moral vision. They’re protesting the disastrous effects that have come from operating with a conservative moral, economic, and political worldview.

I was asked weeks ago by some in the Occupy Wall Street movement to make suggestions for how to frame the movement. I have hesitated so far, because I think the movement should be framing itself. It’s a general principle: Unless you frame yourself, others will frame you — the media, your enemies, your competitors, your well-meaning friends. I have so far hesitated to offer suggestions. But the movement appears to maturing and entering a critical time when small framing errors could have large negative consequences. So I thought it might be helpful to accept the invitation and start a discussion of how the movement might think about framing itself.

About framing: It’s normal. Everybody engages in it all the time. Frames are just structures of thought that we use every day. All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. But, ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which determines how we act.

In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a moral enterprise: it says what the character of a movement is.  All politics is moral. Political figures and movements always make policy recommendations claiming they are the right things to do. No political figure ever says, do what I say because it’s wrong! Or because it doesn’t matter!  Some moral principles or other lie behind every political policy agenda.

Two Moral Framing Systems in Politics

Conservatives have figured out their moral basis and you see it on Wall Street: It includes: The primacy of self-interest. Individual responsibility,  but not social responsibility. Hierarchical authority based on wealth or other forms of power. A moral hierarchy of who is “deserving,” defined by success. And the highest principle is the primacy of this moral system itself, which goes beyond Wall Street and the economy to other arenas: family life, social life, religion, foreign policy, and especially government. Conservative “democracy” is seen as a system of governance and elections that fits this model.

Though OWS concerns go well beyond financial issues,  your target is right:  the application of these principles in Wall Street is central, since that is where the money comes from for elections, for media, and for right-wing policy-making institutions of all sorts on all issues.

The alternative view of democracy is progressive: Democracy starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet. The role of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally via The Public: public infrastructure, laws and enforcement, health, education, scientific research, protection, public lands, transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, and on and on. Nobody makes it one their own. If you got wealthy, you depended on The Public, and you have a responsibility to contribute significantly to The Public so that others can benefit in the future. Moreover, the wealthy depend on those who work, and who deserve a fair return for their contribution to our national life. Corporations exist to make life better for most people. Their reason for existing is as public as it is private.

A disproportionate distribution of wealth robs most citizens of access to the resources controlled by the wealthy. Immense wealth is a thief. It takes resources from the rest of the population — the best places to live, the best food, the best educations, the best health facilities, access to the best in nature and culture, the best professionals, and on and on. Resources are limited, and great wealth greatly limits access to resources for most people.

It appears to me that OWS has a progressive moral vision and view of democracy, and that what it is protesting is the disastrous effects that have come from operating with a conservative moral, economic, and political worldview. I see OWS as primarily a moral movement, seeking economic and political changes to carry out that moral movement — whatever those particular changes might be.

A Moral Focus for Occupy Wall Street

I think it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific policy demands. If it did, the movement would become about those demands. If the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed.

It seems to me that the OWS movement is moral in nature, that occupiers want the country to change its moral focus. It is easy to find useful policies; hundreds have been suggested. It is harder to find a moral focus and stick to it. If the movement is to frame itself, it should be on the basis of its moral focus, not a particular agenda or list of policy demands. If the moral focus of America changes, new people will be elected and the policies will follow. Without a change of moral focus, the conservative worldview that has brought us to the present disastrous and dangerous moment will continue to prevail.

We Love America. We’re Here to Fix It

I see OWS as a patriotic movement, based on a deep and abiding love of country — a patriotism that it is not just about the self-interests of individuals, but about what the country is and is to be. Do Americans care about other citizens, or mainly just about themselves? That’s what love of America is about. I therefore think it is important to be positive, to be clear about loving America, seeing it in need of fixing, and not just being willing to fix it, but being willing to take to the streets to fix it.  A populist movement starts with the people seeing that they are all in the same boat and being ready to come together to fix the leaks.

Publicize the Public

Tell the truth about The Public, that nobody makes it purely on their own without The Public, that is, without public infrastructure, the justice system, health, education, scientific research, protections of all sorts, public lands, transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, …  That is a truth to be told day after day. It is an idea that must take hold in public discourse. It must go beyond what I and others have written about it and beyond what Elizabeth Warren has said in her famous video.  The Public is not opposed to The Private. The Public is what makes The Private possible. And it is what makes freedom possible. Wall Street exists only through public support. It has a moral obligation to direct itself to public needs.

All OWS approaches to policy follow from such a moral focus. Here are a handful examples.

Democracy should be about the 99%

Money directs our politics. In a democracy, that must end. We need publicly supported elections, however that is to be arranged.

Strong Wages Make a Strong America

Middle-class wages have not gone up significantly in 30 years, and there is conservative pressure to lower them. But when most people get more money, they spend it and spur the economy, making the economy and the country stronger, as well as making their individual lives better. This truth needs to be central to public economic discourse.

Global Citizenship

America has been a moral beacon to the world. It can function as such only if it sets an example of what a nation should be.

Do we have to spend more on the military that all other nations combined? Do we really need hundreds of military bases abroad?


We are part of nature. Nature makes us, and all that we love, possible. Yet we are destroying Nature through global warming and other forms of ecological destruction, like fracking and deep-water drilling.

At a global scale, nature is systemic: its effects are neither local nor linear. Global warming is causing the ferocity of the monster storms, tornados, floods, blizzards, heat waves, and fires that have devastated huge areas of our country. The hotter the atmosphere, the more evaporated water and the more energy going into storms, tornados, and blizzards.  Global warming cannot be shown to cause any particular storm, but when a storm system forms, global warming will ramp up the power of the storm and the amount of water it carries.  In winter, evaporated water from the overly heated Pacific will go into the atmosphere, blow northeast over the arctic, and fall as record snows.

We depend on nature – on clean air, water, food, and a livable climate. And we find beauty and grandeur in nature, and a sense of awe that makes life worth living. A love of country requires a love of nature.  And a fair and thriving economy requires the preservation of nature as we have known it.


OWS is a moral and patriotic movement. It sees Democracy as flowing from citizens caring about one another as well as themselves, and acting with both personal and social responsibility. Democratic governance is about The Public, and the liberty that The Public provides for a thriving Private Sphere. From such a democracy flows fairness, which is incompatible with a hugely disproportionate distribution of wealth. And from the sense of care implicit in such a democracy flows a commitment to the preservation of nature.

From what I have seen of most members of OWS, your individual concerns all flow from one moral focus.


The Tea Party solidified the power of the conservative worldview via elections. OWS will have no long-term effect unless it too brings its moral focus to the 2012 elections. Insist on supporting candidates that have your overall moral views, no matter what the local issues are.

A Warning

This movement could be destroyed by negativity, by calls for revenge, by chaos, or by having nothing positive to say. Be positive about all things and state the moral basis of all suggestions. Positive and moral in calling for debt relief.  Positive and moral in upholding laws, as they apply to finances. Positive and moral in calling for fairness in acquiring needed revenue. Positive and moral in calling for clean elections. To be effective, your movement must be seen by all of the 99% as positive and moral. To get positive press, you must stress the positive and the moral.

Remember: The Tea Party sees itself as stressing only individual responsibility. The Occupation Movement is stressing both individual and social responsibility.

I believe, and I think you believe, that most Americans care about their fellow citizens as well as themselves. Let’s find out! Shout your moral and patriotic views out loud, regularly. Put them on your signs. Repeat them to the media. Tweet them. And tell everyone you know to do the same.  You have to use your own language with your own framing and you have to repeat it over and over for the ideas to sink in.

Occupy elections: voter registration drives, town hall meetings, talk radio airtime, party organizations, nomination campaigns, election campaigns, and voting booths.

Above all: Frame yourselves before others frame you.

George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate‘ (Chelsea Green). He is Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Senior Fellow of the Rockridge Institute.

“What Started Here is Going to Continue in Other Ways We Can’t Predict”

Critics of the Occupy-Wall-Street Movement often say that it has no core policy statements, no universally agreed-upon policy demands.

But defenders of the OWS movement remind us that other nonviolent social movements started as simple acts of moral outrage, then grew to become powerful catalysts of social and political change.

Sometimes it begins with the single act of one person like Rosa Parks, who is soon joined by others.

Often it’s not possible to predict how it will unfold, whether it will become something lasting, or not.

But this is how it often begins … with moral outrage.

Here are a couple of voices from the following video:

“When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, or when four black students sat down at a lunch counter in 1960, no one knew what would happen. No one expected that four years later there would be a comprehensive civil rights act, or that one year after that there would be the voting rights act. Even if nothing else happens here, even if everyone goes home today, it’s enough. Because what started here is going to continue in other ways we can’t predict.”

“This is like … we were gonna open a mom-and-pop hamburger store, and all of a sudden we find out there’s an international demand for them!”

Is NPR Part of the 1% ?

From “NPR Gets Radio Host Fired for Occupying“:

National Public Radio on Wednesday discovered that a woman named Lisa Simeone who hosted a show about opera called “World of Opera” had been participating in a nonviolent occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., organized by That same day, NPR persuaded a company for which Simeone worked to fire her, cutting her income in half and purging from the so-called public airwaves a voice that had never mentioned politics on NPR.

After reading the above article, I sent this email today to NPR (

Dear NPR:

I’m very disappointed with your shabby campaign against Lisa Simeone, not even your own employee:

Since when does NPR oppose the right of American citizens to exercise free speech?

As Lisa Simeone says …

“This sudden concern with my political activities is also surprising in light of the fact that Mara Liaason reports on politics for NPR yet appears as a commentator on FoxTV, Scott Simon hosts an NPR news show yet writes political op-eds for national newspapers, Cokie Roberts reports on politics for NPR yet accepts large speaking fees from businesses. Does NPR also send out ‘Communications Alerts’ about their activities?”

I will have trouble supporting NPR financially or otherwise in the future.


Don Pelton
Editor, “Sierra Voices” (
Grass Valley, CA 95945

Thomas Ferguson: “Posted Prices and the Capitol Hill Stalemate Machine”

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Spectator‘s October 15, 2011 issue. For more essential reporting, check out their site or subscribe.

By Thomas Ferguson

Under the new rules for the 2008 election cycle, the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] asked rank-and-file members to contribute $125,000 in dues and to raise an additional $75,000 for the party. Subcommittee chairpersons must contribute $150,000 in dues and raise an additional $100,000. Members who sit on the most powerful committees … must contribute $200,000 and raise an additional $250,000. Subcommittee chairs on power committees and committee chairs of non-power committees must contribute $250,000 and raise $250,000. The five chairs of the power committees must contribute $500,000 and raise an additional $1 million. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip James Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel must contribute $800,000 and raise $2.5 million. The four Democrats who serve as part of the extended leadership must contribute $450,000 and raise $500,000, and the nine Chief Deputy Whips must contribute $300,000 and raise $500,000. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi must contribute a staggering $800,000 and raise an additional $25 million.
—Marian Currinder, Money in the House (2008

THE YEAR IS 1909. The U.S. income distribution is about as lopsided as it is today. J. P. Morgan is fine-tuning a tariff bill by telegraph from his yacht. Morgan and his fellow robber barons have for years reliably tied Congress up in knots whenever anyone proposes regulating trusts, railroad rates, financial speculation, or labor disputes. A notoriously corrupt ring of U.S. senators, the so-called “Millionaires Club,” is on hand to bury in committee any measures that the corporate titans frown upon.

Fast-forward to 2011. Being a millionaire in Congress is nothing special — just about half of all members are one. The legislative process works less operatically, but the result is pretty much the same: legislative gridlock punctuated by occasional blatant special-interest legislation. Banks are rescued; the unemployed are left to their own devices. The housing market is left in free fall, with the bailed-out banks mostly still left to call the tune on foreclosures.

As national income stagnates, financiers submerge financial reforms and derivatives regulation under waves of campaign contributions. Meanwhile, a vast array of interested firms and investors dispatch armies of lobbyists to stymie Congressional action on climate change, block the government from bargaining down prices of drugs paid for by federal health programs, and keep tax increases forever off the national agenda.

We watch the news to see if Congressional stalemates over deficits will lead to a government default that would throw world financial markets into turmoil or force draconian, across-the-board budget cuts at Thanksgiving time. But while we hold our breath, popular discussions about Congress have taken a curious turn. Pundits talk nostalgically about the good old days, when representatives from the two parties regularly played golf together and compromised their differences in the name of the larger national interest. Today such outcomes are said to be impossible. But why, exactly?

The rivers of political money that now swirl 24/7 around Capitol Hill surely play a role in producing the great D.C. stalemate machine. But tired recitations of astronomical campaign-finance spending totals don’t tell the full story. Neither does the observation that since the 1990s, Republican leaders both in Congress and out have raised enormous amounts of money from investor blocs that plainly hope to roll back the New Deal as a whole. We need to look at the bigger picture. The tidal wave of cash has structurally transformed Congress. It swept away the old seniority system that used to govern leadership selection and committee assignments in Congress. In its place, the parties copied practices of big-box retailers like Walmart, Best Buy, or Target.

Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, our Congressional parties now post prices for key slots on committees. You want it — you buy it, runs the challenge. They even sell on the installment plan: You want to chair an important committee? That’ll be $200,000 down and the same amount later, through fundraising. Unlike most retailers, though, Congressional leaders selling committee positions never offer discounts. Prices only drift up over time.

This practice is perhaps the one case where bipartisanship flourishes in Congress today. The Democrats’ 2008 price schedules quoted in Currinder’s Money in the House are just variations on themes introduced by the Republicans in the 1990s, when Newt Gingrich brought in the earliest versions of “pay to play” and Tom DeLay consulted computer printouts of members’ contributions at meetings to decide on committee chairs. Everybody in D.C. is in on the game. Only the public is still in the dark.

NEW NORMAL—Posting prices in this fashion does more than energize members of Congress to hunt up new sources of cash in hope of advancing their careers and winning reelection. The practice makes cash flow the basic determinant of the very structure of lawmaking. Instead of buffering at least some outside forces, Congressional committees and party leadership posts reflect the shape of political money — and in our New Gilded Age, it is obvious where most of that comes from.

The whole adds up to something far more sinister than the parts. Big interest groups (think finance or oil or utilities or health care) can control the membership of the committees that write the legislation that regulates them. Outside investors and interest groups also become decisive in resolving leadership struggles within the parties in Congress. You want your man or woman in the leadership? Just send money. Lots of it.

On the edges, of course, factors besides money still play some role, especially in ordinary committee assignments. But the New Normal looks like this: In 2009, when the Democrats controlled the House, their leadership slotted many junior representatives on the Financial Services Committee so they could haul in cash with both hands to enhance their prospects for reelection. All the money talked; today, despite the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, U.S. regulators can’t tell which American financial houses are exposed to what risk, if default by Greece knocks over one or another big European bank.

But the real rub is the way the system centralizes power in the hands of top Congressional leaders. In the new pay-to-play system, individual representatives dole out contributions to their colleagues to gain support for their individual bids for key positions within each chamber. But the system also requires them to make large contributions to the House and Senate national campaign committees. These are normally controlled by Congressional leaders in each chamber (along with, perhaps, the White House when the president comes from the same party).

MONEY TALKS—When cash is king, access to it determines who rules. The Congressional party leadership controls the swelling coffers of the national campaign committees, and the huge fixed investments in polling, research, and media capabilities that these committees maintain — resources the leaders use to bribe, cajole, or threaten candidates to toe the party line. This is especially true of “open-seat” races, where no incumbent is running; or in contests where an obscure challenger vies to upset an incumbent of the other party. Candidates rely on the national campaign committees not only for money, but for message, consultants, and polling they need to be competitive but can rarely afford on their own.

As though by an invisible hand, Congressional campaigns thus insensibly acquire a more national flavor. They endlessly repeat a handful of slogans that have been battle tested for their appeal to the national investor blocs and interest groups that the leadership relies on for resources. And crossing party lines becomes dangerous indeed, as the recent vote to raise the debt ceiling vividly illustrated. More than half the Tea Party Caucus voted with Speaker Boehner, despite heavy pressure from well-financed ultra-right groups such as the Club for Growth, and the Tea Party’s strident opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

This concentration of power also allows party leaders to shift tactics to serve their own ends. They grandstand by trying to hold up legislation. They push hot-button legislative issues that have no chance of passage, just to win plaudits and money from donor blocs and special-interest supporters. When they are in the minority, they obstruct legislation, playing to the gallery and hoping to make an impression in the media. Aware that most Americans pay little attention, both parties flood the airwaves with more of the same old same old, hoping that some of it will stick.

The parties’ efforts to emulate Best Buy, in short, create true Legislative Leviathans. They turn Congress into a jungle where individual members compete frantically for donations. The system also produces top-heavy, cash-rich leadership structures within each party. It ensures that national party campaigns rest heavily on slogan-filled, fabulously expensive lowest-common-denominator appeals to collections of affluent special interests. The Congress of our New Gilded Age is far from the best Congress money can buy; it may well be the worst. It is a coin-operated stalemate machine that is now so dysfunctional that it threatens the good name of representative democracy itself.

But democratic legitimacy is far from the only value at risk as the 2012 election approaches. Over the long run, the bonfire of inanities fueled by gridlock has encouraged more and more investors and interest groups on the right to keep raising the stakes. Groups like the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute have become ever bolder in challenging Republicans whose conservative credentials they deem suspect. Establishment Republican leaders in Congress, even with all their advantages, have a harder and harder time containing these groups. The leadership only just prevailed in the battle over the debt ceiling this summer. In a globalized world that is increasingly nervous, however irrationally, about budget deficits and sovereign debt repayments, it would be a mistake to underestimate how much havoc a small group of zealots could wreak in the next few months, as taxes and the budget promise to redefine American politics.

Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Other Resources

Thomas Ferguson gave a preview of this article recently in an interview with Dylan Ratigan:

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Letter to a Dead Man About the Occupation of Hope

Editor’s Note: No one has written more thoughtfully and passionately about the revolutionary power of hope than Rebecca Solnit, author of 13 books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster and Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.

Reprinted with permission from

By Rebecca Solnit

Dear young man who died on the fourth day of this turbulent 2011, dear Mohammed Bouazizi,

I want to write you about an astonishing year — with three months yet to run. I want to tell you about the power of despair and the margins of hope and the bonds of civil society.

I wish you could see the way that your small life and large death became a catalyst for the fall of so many dictators in what is known as the Arab Spring.

We are now in some sort of an American Fall. Civil society here has suddenly hit the ground running, and we are all headed toward a future no one imagined when you, a young Tunisian vegetable seller capable of giving so much, who instead had so much taken from you, burned yourself to death to protest your impoverished and humiliated state.

You lit yourself on fire on December 17, 2010, exactly nine months before Occupy Wall Street began.  Your death two weeks later would be the beginning of so much. You lit yourself on fire because you were voiceless, powerless, and evidently without hope. And yet you must have had one small hope left: that your death would have an impact; that you, who had so few powers, even the power to make a decent living or protect your modest possessions or be treated fairly and decently by the police, had the power to protest. As it turned out, you had that power beyond your wildest dreams, and you had it because your hope, however diminished, was the dream of the many, the dream of what we now have started calling the 99%.

And so Tunisia erupted and overthrew its government, and Egypt caught fire, as did Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, where the nonviolent protests elsewhere turned into a civil war the rebels have almost won after several bloody months. Who could have imagined a Middle East without Ben Ali of Tunisia, without Mubarak, without Gaddafi? And yet here we are, in the unimaginable world. Again. And almost everywhere.

Japan was literally shaken loose from its plans and arrangements by the March 11th earthquake and tsunami, and that country has undergone profound soul-searching about values and priorities. China is turbulent, and no one knows how much longer the discontent of the repressed middle class and the hungry poor there will remain containable. India: who knows? The Saudi government is so frightened it even gave women a few new rights. Syrians wouldn’t go home even when their army began to shoot them down.  Crowds of up to a million Italians have been protesting austerity measures in recent months. The Greeks, well, if you’ve been following events, you know about the Greeks.  Have I forgotten Israel? Huge demonstrations against the economic status quo there lasted all summer and into this fall.

As you knew at the outset, it’s all about economics.  This wild year, Greece boiled over again into crisis with colossal protests, demonstrations, blockades, and outright street warfare. Icelanders continued their fight against bailing out the banks that sank their country’s economy in 2008 and continue pelting politicians with eggs.  Their former prime minister may become the first head of state to face legal charges in connection with the global financial collapse. Spanish youth began to rise up on May 15th.

Distinctively, in so many of these uprisings the participants were not advocating for one party or a simple position, but for a better world, for dignity, for respect, for real democracy, for belonging, for hope and possibility — and their economic underpinnings. The Spanish young whose future had been sold out to benefit corporations and their 1% were nicknamed the Indignados, and they lived in the plazas of Spain this summer. Occupied Madrid, like Occupied Tahrir Square, preceded Occupy Wall Street.

In Chile, students outraged by the cost of an education and the profound inequities of their society have been demonstrating since May — with everything from kiss-ins to school occupations to marches of 150,000 or more. Forty thousand students marched against “education reform” in Colombia last week. And in August in Britain the young went on a rampage that tore up London, Birmingham, and dozens of other communities, an event that began when the police shot Mark Duggan, a dark-skinned 29-year-old Londoner. Young Britons had risen up more peaceably over tuition hikes the winter before. There, too, things are bleak and volatile — something I know you would understand. In Mexico, a beautiful movement involving mass demonstrations against the drug war has arisen, triggered by the death of another young man, and by the grief and vision of his father, leftwing poet Javier Cicilia.

The United States had one great eruption in Wisconsin this winter, when the citizenry occupied their state capitol building in Madison for weeks. Egyptians and others elsewhere on the planet called a local pizza parlor and sent pies to the occupiers. We all know the links. We’re all watching. So the Occupy movement has spilled over from Wall Street. Hundreds of occupations are happening all over the North America: in Oklahoma City and Tijuana, in Victoria and Fort Lauderdale.

The 99%

We are the 99% is the cry of the Occupy movement. This summer one of the flyers that helped launch the Occupy Wall Street protest read: “We, the 99%, call for an open general assembly Aug. 9, 7:30 pm at the Potato Famine Memorial NYC.” It was an assembly to discuss the September 17th occupation-to-come.

The Irish Hunger Memorial, so close to Wall Street, commemorates the million Irish peasants who starved in the 1840s, while Ireland remained a food-exporting country and the landed gentry continued to profit. It’s a monument to the exploitation of the many by the few, to the forces that turned some of our ancestors — including my mother’s four Irish grandparents — into immigrants, forces that are still pushing people out of farms, homes, nations, regions.

The Irish famine was one of the great examples of those disasters of the modern era that are not crises of scarcity, but of distribution. The United States is now the wealthiest country the world has ever known, and has an abundance of natural resources, as well as of nurses, doctors, universities, teachers, housing, and food — so ours, too, is a crisis of distribution. Everyone could have everything they need and the rich would still be rich enough, but you know that enough isn’t a concept for them.  They’re greedy, and their 30-year grab for yet more has carved away at what’s minimally necessary for the survival and dignity of the rest of us. So the Famine Memorial couldn’t have been a more appropriate place for Occupy Wall Street to begin.

The 99%, those who starve during famines and lose their livelihoods and homes during crashes, were going to respond to the 1% who had been served so well by the Bush administration and by the era of extreme privatization it ushered in. As my friend Andy Kroll reported at TomDispatch, “The top 1% of earners enjoyed 65% of all income growth in America for much of the decade” just passed.  “In 2010,” he added, “20.5 million people, or 6.7% of all Americans, scraped by with less than $11,157 for a family of four — that is, less than half of the poverty line.” You can’t get by on less than $1,000 a month in this country where a single visit to an emergency room can cost your annual income, a car twice that, and a year at a private college more than four times that.

Later in August came the website started by a 28-year-old New York City activist, we are the 99 percent, to which hundreds daily now submit photographs of themselves. Each of them also testifies to the bleak conditions they find themselves in, despite their hard work and educations which often left them in debt, despite the promises dangled before them that (if they played the game right) they’d be safe, housed, and living a part of that oversold dream.

It’s a website of unremitting waking nightmares, economic bad dreams that a little wealth redistribution would eliminate (even without eliminating the wealthy). The people contributing aren’t asking for luxuries. They would simply prefer not to be worked to death like so many nineteenth-century millworkers, nor to have their whole world come crashing down if they get sick.  They want to survive with dignity, and their testimony will break your heart.

Mohammed Bouazizi, dead at 26, you to whom I’m writing, here is one of the recent posts at that site:

“I am 26 years old. I am $134,000 in debt. I started working at 14 years old, and have worked Full-Time since I turned 20. I work in I.T. and got laid off in July 2011. I was LUCKY, and found a job RIGHT AWAY: with a Pay Cut and MORE HOURS.
 Now, I just found out that my Dad got laid off last week – after 18 YEARS with the same employer. I have debilitating (SP! Sorry!) O.C.D. and can’t take time away from work to get treatment because I can’t afford my mortgage payments if I don’t go to work, and I’m afraid I’ll lose my NEW job if I take time off!!! WE ARE THE 99%.”

Some of the people at we are the 99% offer at least partial views of their faces, but the young IT worker quoted above holds a handwritten letter so long that it obscures his face. Poverty obscures your face too. It obscures your talents, potential, even your distinctive voice, and if it goes deep enough, it eradicates you by degrees of hunger and degradation. Poverty is a creation of the systems against which people all over the planet are revolting this wild year of 2011.  The Arab Spring, after all, was an economic revolt.  What were all those dictatorships and autocracies for, if not to squeeze as much profit as possible out of subjugated populations — profit for rulers, profit for multinational corporations, profit for that 1%.

“We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers,” was the slogan of the first student protest called in Spain this year. Your beautiful generation, Mohammed Bouazizi, has arisen and is bringing the rest of us along, even here in the United States.

The People’s Microphone

Its earliest critics seemed to think that Occupy Wall Street was a lobbying group whose chosen task on this planet should be to create a package of realistic demands. In other words, they were convinced that the occupiers should become supplicants, asking the powerful for some kind of handout like college debt forgiveness. They were suggesting that a dream as wide as the sky be stuffed into little bottles and put up for sale. Or simply smashed.

In the same way, they wanted this movement to hurry up and appoint leaders, so that there would be someone to single out and investigate, pick off, or corrupt.  At heart, however, this is a leaderless movement, an anarchist movement, catalyzed by the grace of civil society and the hard work of the collective. The Occupy movement — like so many movements around the world now — is using general assemblies as its form of protest and process. Its members are not facing the authorities, but each other, coming to know themselves, trying to give rise to the democracy they desire on a small scale rather than merely railing against its absence on a large scale.

These are the famous Occupy general assemblies in which decisions are made by consensus and, in the absence of amplification (by order of the New York City police), the people’s mike is used: those assembled repeat what is said as it’s said, creating a human megaphone effect. This is accompanied by a small vocabulary of hand gestures, which help people participate in the complex process of a huge group having a conversation.

In other words, the process is also the goal: direct democracy. No one can hand that down to you. You live direct democracy in that moment when you find yourself participating in civil society as a citizen with an equal voice. Put another way, the Occupiers are not demanding that something be given to them but formulating something new. That it involves no technology, not even bullhorns, is itself remarkable in this wired era. It’s just passionate people together — and then Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, text messages, emails, and online sites like this one spread the word, along with some print media, notably the Occupied Wall Street Journal.

The beauty and the genius of this movement in this moment is that it has found a way to define its needs and desires without putting limits on them that would automatically exclude so many. In doing so, it has spoken to nearly all of us.

There is the terrible rage at economic injustice that is shared by college students looking at a future of debt and overwork, as well as those who couldn’t afford college in the first place, by working people struggling ever harder for less, by the many who have no jobs and few prospects, by people forced out of their homes by the games banks play with mortgages and profits, and by everyone the catastrophe that is healthcare in this country has affected. And by the rest of us, furious on their behalf (and on our own).

And then there is the joyous hope that things could actually be different. That hope has been fulfilled a little in the way that an open-ended occupation has survived four weeks and more and turned into hundreds of Occupy actions around the country and marches in almost 1,000 cities around the world last Sunday, from Sydney to Tokyo to Santa Rosa. It speaks for so many; it speaks for the 99%; and it speaks clearly, so clearly that an ex-Marine showed up with a hand-lettered sign that said, “2nd time I’ve fought for my country, 1st time I’ve known my enemy.”

The climate change movement showed up at Occupy Wall Street, too. What’s blocking action on climate change is what’s blocking action on all the other issues that matter: it would cut into profits.  Never mind the deep future, not when what’s at stake is quarterly earnings.

A dozen years ago, after the wildly successful revolt against neoliberal economic policy in Seattle, the slogan that stuck around was: “Another World Is Possible.” I was never sure about that one because in crucial places and ways that other world is already here.  In a YouTube video of the New York occupation, however, I watched an old woman in a straw hat say, “We’re fighting for a society in which everyone is important.” What a beautiful summation!  Could any demand be clearer than that? And could the ways in which people have no value under our current economic regime be more obvious?

What Is Your Occupation?

Occupy Wall Street. Occupy together. Occupy New Orleans, Portland, Stockton, Boston, Las Cruces, Minneapolis. Occupy. The very word is a manifesto, a position statement, and a position as well. For so many people, particularly men, their occupation is their identity, and when a job is lost, they become not just unemployed, but no one. The Occupy movement offers them a new occupation, work that won’t pay the bills, but a job worth doing. “Lost my job, found an occupation,” said one sign in the crowd of witty signs.

There is, of course, a bleaker meaning for the word occupation, as in “the U.S. is occupying Iraq.” Even National Public Radio gives the Dow Jones report several times a day, as though the rise and fall of the stock market had not long ago been decoupled from the rise and fall of genuine measures of wellbeing for the 99%. A small part of Wall Street, which has long occupied us as if it were a foreign power, is now occupied as though it were a foreign country.

Wall Street is a foreign country — and maybe an enemy country as well. And now it’s occupied. The way that Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay for 18 months four decades ago and galvanized a national Native American rights movement. You pick some place to stand, and when you stand there, you find your other occupation, as a member of civil society.

This May in Ohio, a group of Robin Hoods literally lowered a drawbridge they made so they could cross a “moat” around Chase Bank’s headquarters and invade its shareholders’ meeting. Forty Robin Hoods also showed up en masse last week in kayaks for a national mortgage bankers’ meeting in Chicago. Houses facing foreclosure are being occupied. Foreclosure is, of course, a way of turning people into non-occupants.

At this moment in history, occupation should be everyone’s occupation.

Baby Pictures of a Revolt

Young man whose despair gave birth to hope, no one knows what the future holds. When you set yourself afire almost ten months ago, you certainly didn’t know, nor do any of us know now, what the long-term outcome of the Arab Spring will be, let alone this American Fall. Such a movement arrives in the world like a newborn. Who knows its fate, or even whether it will survive to grow up?

It may be suppressed like the Prague Spring of 1968. It may go through a crazy adolescence like the French Revolution of 1789 and yet grow beyond its parents’ dreams.  Radiant at birth, wreathed in smiles, it may become a stolid bourgeois citizen as did such movements in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the reunited Germany after civil society freed those countries from totalitarianism.

It may grow up into turbulence as has the Philippines since its 1986 revolution ousted the kleptocracy of the Marcos family. Revolution may be assassinated young, the way the democratic government of Mohammed Mossadegh was in Iran in 1953, that of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and President Salvador Allende’s Chilean experiment on September 11, 1973, all three in CIA-backed military coups. On behalf of the 1%.

Whether a human child or a child of history, we can’t know who or what it will become, but it’s still possible to grasp something about it by asking who or what it resembles. What does Occupy Wall Street look like? Well, its siblings born around the world this year, of course, and perhaps in some way the American civil rights movement that began in the 1950s.

There was a national uprising in the United States no less spontaneous in its formation during the great depression of the 1870s, but the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 was violent, while the Occupy movement is deeply imbued with the spirit and tactics of nonviolence. The last Great Depression, the one that began in 1929, created a host of radical movements, as well as the Hoovervilles of homeless people. There are family resemblances. The marches and actions against the coming invasion of Iraq on February 15, 2003, on all seven continents (yes, including Antarctica) are clearly kin. And the anti-corporate globalization movement is a godmother.  And then there’s a sibling just a decade older.

Cousin 9/11

Zuccotti Park is just two blocks from Wall Street, and also just a block from Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 attack. On that day, it was badly damaged.  This September 21st, my dear friend Marina Sitrin wrote me from Occupy Wall Street: “There are people from more diverse backgrounds racially, more diverse age groups, including not just a few children here with their parents, and a number of working people from the area. In particular, some of the security guards from the 9.11 memorial, a block away have been coming by for lunch and chatting with people, as has a local group of construction workers.”

If the Arab Spring was the decade-later antithesis of 9/11, a largely nonviolent, publicly inclusive revolt that forced the Western world to get over its fearful fantasy that all young Muslims are terrorists, jihadis, and suicide bombers, then Occupy Wall Street, which began six days after the 10th anniversary of that nightmarish day in September, is the other half of 9/11 in New York. What was remarkable about that day 10 years ago is how calmly and beautifully everyone behaved.  New Yorkers helped each other down those dozens of floors of stairs in the Twin Towers and away from the catastrophe, while others lined up to give blood, desperate to do something, anything, to participate, to be part of a newfound sense of community that arose in the city that day.

There was, for example, a huge commissary organized on Chelsea Piers that provided free food, medical supplies, and work equipment for the people at Ground Zero and also helped find housing for the displaced. It was not an official effort, but one that arose even more spontaneously than Occupy Wall Street, without leaders or institutions — and it was forcibly disbanded when the official organizations got their act together a few days later. Those who participated experienced a sense of democracy amid all the distress and sorrow, a tremendous joy in finding meaningful work and deep social connections, and a little temporary joy, as they often do in disaster.

When I began to study the history of urban disaster years ago, I found such unexpected exhibitions of that kind of joy again and again, uniting the generative moments of protests, demonstrations, revolts, and revolutions with the aftermath of some disasters.  Even when the losses were terrible, the ways that people came together to meet the occasion were almost always inspiring.

Since I wrote A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, I have been asked again and again whether economic crisis begets the same kind of community as sudden disasters. It did in Argentina in 2001, when the economy crashed there. And it has now, in the streets of New York and many other cities, in 2011. A sign at Occupy San Francisco said, “IT’S TIME.” It is. It’s been time for a long time.

No Hope But in Ourselves

The birth of this moment was delayed three years. Argentinians reacted immediately to the 2001 crisis and to long-simmering grievances with an economy that had ground so many of them down even before the government froze all bank accounts and the economy crashed. On the other hand, our economy collapsed three years ago this month to headlines like “Capitalism is dead” in the business press. There was certainly some fury and outrage at the time, but the real reaction was delayed, or decoyed.

The outrage of the moment did, in fact, result in a powerful grassroots movementthat focused on a single political candidate to fix it all for us, as he promised he would. It was a beautiful movement, a hopeful movement, much more so than its candidate. The movement got its lone candidate into the highest office in the land, where he remains today, and then walked away as though the job was done. It had just begun.

That movement could have fought the corporations, given us a real climate-change policy, and more, but it allowed itself to be disbanded as though one elected politician were the equivalent of ten million citizens, of civil society itself. It was a broad-based movement, of all ages and races, and I think it’s back, disillusioned with politicians and electoral politics, determined this time to do it for itself, beyond and outside the corroded arenas of institutional power.

I don’t know exactly who this baby looks like, but I know that who you look like is not who you will become. This unanticipated baby has a month behind it and a future ahead of it that none of us can see, but its birth should give you hope.



TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit hopes to visit Occupy Wall Street soon. A product of the California public educational system back when the public schools were functional and universities affordable, she is the author of 13 books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster and Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.

Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit

Finally, Someone Invents a “Smart Bird” (TED Talk)

Michael Klare: “The New Thirty Years’ War”

Editor’s Note: I missed this article when it was originally published back in June, but not only is it still current, it will be current and relevant 30 years from now, as will most of Michael Klare’s writings.

Reprinted from (June 26, 2011)

By Michael T. Klare

A 30-year war for energy preeminence?  You wouldn’t wish it even on a desperate planet.  But that’s where we’re headed and there’s no turning back.

From 1618 to 1648, Europe was engulfed in a series of intensely brutal conflicts known collectively as the Thirty Years’ War. It was, in part, a struggle between an imperial system of governance and the emerging nation-state.  Indeed, many historians believe that the modern international system of nation-states was crystallized in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which finally ended the fighting.

Think of us today as embarking on a new Thirty Years’ War.  It may not result in as much bloodshed as that of the 1600s, though bloodshed there will be, but it will prove no less momentous for the future of the planet.  Over the coming decades, we will be embroiled at a global level in a succeed-or-perish contest among the major forms of energy, the corporations which supply them, and the countries that run on them.  The question will be: Which will dominate the world’s energy supply in the second half of the twenty-first century?  The winners will determine how — and how badly — we live, work, and play in those not-so-distant decades, and will profit enormously as a result.  The losers will be cast aside and dismembered.

Why 30 years?  Because that’s how long it will take for experimental energy systems like hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, wave power, algae fuel, and advanced nuclear reactors to make it from the laboratory to full-scale industrial development.  Some of these systems (as well, undoubtedly, as others not yet on our radar screens) will survive the winnowing process.  Some will not.  And there is little way to predict how it will go at this stage in the game.  At the same time, the use of existing fuels like oil and coal, which spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is likely to plummet, thanks both to diminished supplies and rising concerns over the growing dangers of carbon emissions.

This will be a war because the future profitability, or even survival, of many of the world’s most powerful and wealthy corporations will be at risk, and because every nation has a potentially life-or-death stake in the contest.  For giant oil companies like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell, an eventual shift away from petroleum will have massive economic consequences.  They will be forced to adopt new economic models and attempt to corner new markets, based on the production of alternative energy products, or risk collapse or absorption by more powerful competitors.  In these same decades, new companies will arise, some undoubtedly coming to rival the oil giants in wealth and importance.

The fate of nations, too, will be at stake as they place their bets on competing technologies, cling to their existing energy patterns, or compete for global energy sources, markets, and reserves.  Because the acquisition of adequate supplies of energy is as basic a matter of national security as can be imagined, struggles over vital resources — oil and natural gas now, perhaps lithium or nickel (for electric-powered vehicles) in the future — will trigger armed violence.

When these three decades are over, as with the Treaty of Westphalia, the planet is likely to have in place the foundations of a new system for organizing itself — this time around energy needs.  In the meantime, the struggle for energy resources is guaranteed to grow ever more intense for a simple reason: there is no way the existing energy system can satisfy the world’s future requirements.  It must be replaced or supplemented in a major way by a renewable alternative system or, forget Westphalia, the planet will be subject to environmental disaster of a sort hard to imagine today.

The Existing Energy Lineup

To appreciate the nature of our predicament, begin with a quick look at the world’s existing energy portfolio.   According to BP, the world consumed 13.2 billion tons of oil-equivalent from all sources in 2010: 33.6% from oil, 29.6% from coal, 23.8% from natural gas, 6.5% from hydroelectricity, 5.2% from nuclear energy, and a mere 1.3% percent from all renewable forms of energy.  Together, fossil fuels — oil, coal, and gas — supplied 10.4 billion tons, or 87% of the total.

Even attempting to preserve this level of energy output in 30 years’ time, using the same proportion of fuels, would be a near-hopeless feat.  Achieving a 40 %increase in energy output, as most analysts believe will be needed to satisfy the existing requirements of older industrial powers and rising demand in China and other rapidly developing nations, is simply impossible.

Two barriers stand in the way of preserving the existing energy profile: eventual oil scarcity and global climate change.  Most energy analysts expect conventional oil output — that is, liquid oil derived from fields on land and in shallow coastal waters — to reach a production peak in the next few years and then begin an irreversible decline.  Some additional fuel will be provided in the form of “unconventional” oil — that is, liquids derived from the costly, hazardous, and ecologically unsafe extraction processes involved in producing tar sands, shale oil, and deep-offshore oil — but this will only postpone the contraction in petroleum availability, not avert it.  By 2041, oil will be far less abundant than it is today and so incapable of meeting anywhere near 33.6% of the world’s (much expanded) energy needs.

Meanwhile, the accelerating pace of climate change will produce ever more damage — intense storm activity, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts, lethal heat waves, massive forest fires, and so on — finally forcing reluctant politicians to take remedial action. This will undoubtedly include an imposition of curbs on the release via fossil fuels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, whether in the form of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade plans, emissions limits, or other restrictive systems as yet not imagined.  By 2041, these increasingly restrictive curbs will help ensure that fossil fuels will not be supplying anywhere near 87% of world energy.

The Leading Contenders

If oil and coal are destined to fall from their position as the world’s paramount source of energy, what will replace them? Here are some of the leading contenders.

Natural gas: Many energy experts and political leaders view natural gas as a “transitional” fossil fuel because it releases less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than oil and coal.  In addition, global supplies of natural gas are far greater than previously believed, thanks to new technologies — notably horizontal drilling and the controversial procedure of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — that allow for the exploitation of shale gas reserves once considered inaccessible.  For example, in 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) predicted that, by 2035, gas would far outpace coal as a source of American energy, though oil would still outpace them both.  Some now speak of a “natural gas revolution” that will see it overtake oil as the world’s number one fuel, at least for a time.  But fracking poses a threat to the safety of drinking water and so may arouse widespread opposition, while the economics of shale gas may, in the end, prove less attractive than currently assumed.  In fact, many experts now believe that the prospects for shale gas have been oversold, and that stepped-up investment will result in ever-diminishing returns.

Nuclear power: Prior to the March 11th earthquake/tsunami disaster and a series of core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in Japan, many analysts were speaking of a nuclear “renaissance,” which would see the construction of hundreds of new nuclear reactors over the next few decades.  Although some of these plants in China and elsewhere are likely to be built, plans for others — in Italy and Switzerland, for example — already appear to have been scrapped.  Despite repeated assurances that U.S. reactors are completely safe, evidence is regularly emerging of safety risks at many of these facilities.  Given rising public concern over the risk of catastrophic accident, it is unlikely that nuclear power will be one of the big winners in 2041.

However, nuclear enthusiasts (including President Obama) are championing the manufacture of small “modular” reactors that, according to their boosters, could be built for far less than current ones and would produce significantly lower levels of radioactive waste.  Although the technology for, and safety of, such “assembly-line” reactors has yet to be demonstrated, advocates claim that they would provide an attractive alternative to both large conventional reactors with their piles of nuclear waste and coal-fired power plants that emit so much carbon dioxide.

Wind and solar: Make no mistake, the world will rely on wind and solar power for a greater proportion of its energy 30 years from now.  According to the International Energy Agency, those energy sources will go from approximately 1% of total world energy consumption in 2008 to a projected 4% in 2035.  But given the crisis at hand and the hopes that exist for wind and solar, this would prove small potatoes indeed.  For these two alternative energy sources to claim a significantly larger share of the energy pie, as so many climate-change activists desire, real breakthroughs will be necessary, including major improvements in the design of wind turbines and solar collectors, improved energy storage (so that power collected during sunny or windy periods can be better used at night or in calm weather), and a far more efficient and expansive electrical grid (so that energy from areas favored by sun and wind can be effectively distributed elsewhere).  China, Germany, and Spain have been making the sorts of investments in wind and solar energy that might give them an advantage in the new Thirty Years’ War — but only if the technological breakthroughs actually come.

Biofuels and algae: Many experts see a promising future for biofuels, especially as “first generation” ethanol, based largely on the fermentation of corn and sugar cane, is replaced by second- and third-generation fuels derived from plant cellulose (“cellulosic ethanol”) and bio-engineered algae.  Aside from the fact that the fermentation process requires heat (and so consumes energy even while releasing it), many policymakers object to the use of food crops to supply raw materials for a motor fuel at a time of rising food prices.  However, several promising technologies to produce ethanol by chemical means from the cellulose in non-food crops are now being tested, and one or more of these techniques may well survive the transition to full-scale commercial production.  At the same time, a number of companies, including ExxonMobil, are exploring the development of new breeds of algae that reproduce swiftly and can be converted into biofuels.  (The U.S. Department of Defense is also investing in some of these experimental methods with an eye toward transforming the American military, a great fossil-fuel guzzler,into a far “greener” outfit.)  Again, however, it is too early to know which (if any) biofuel endeavors will pan out.

Hydrogen: A decade ago, many experts were talking about hydrogen’s immense promise as a source of energy.  Hydrogen is abundant in many natural substances (including water and natural gas) and produces no carbon emissions when consumed.  However, it does not exist by itself in the natural world and so must be extracted from other substances — a process that requires significant amounts of energy in its own right, and so is not, as yet, particularly efficient.  Methods for transporting, storing, and consuming hydrogen on a large scale have also proved harder to develop than once imagined.  Considerable research is being devoted to each of these problems, and breakthroughs certainly could occur in the decades to come.  At present, however, it appears unlikely that hydrogen will prove a major source of energy in 2041.

X the Unknown: Many other sources of energy are being tested by scientists and engineers at universities and corporate laboratories worldwide. Some are even being evaluated on a larger scale in pilot projects of various sorts.  Among the most promising of these are geothermal energy, wave energy, and tidal energy.  Each taps into immense natural forces and so, if the necessary breakthroughs were to occur, would have the advantage of being infinitely exploitable, with little risk of producing greenhouse gases.  However, with the exception of geothermal, the necessary technologies are still at an early stage of development.  How long it may take to harvest them is anybody’s guess. Geothermal energy does show considerable promise, but has run into problems, given the need to tap it by drilling deep into the earth, in some cases triggering small earthquakes.

From time to time, I hear of even less familiar prospects for energy production that possess at least some hint of promise.  At present, none appears likely to play a significant role in 2041, but no one should underestimate humanity’s technological and innovative powers.  As with all history, surprise can play a major role in energy history, too.

Energy efficiency: Given the lack of an obvious winner among competing transitional or alternative energy sources, one crucial approach to energy consumption in 2041 will surely be efficiency at levels unimaginable today: the ability to achieve maximum economic output for minimum energy input.  The lead players three decades from now may be the countries and corporations that have mastered the art of producing the most with the least. Innovations in transportation, building and product design, heating and cooling, and production techniques will all play a role in creating an energy-efficient world.

When the War Is Over

Thirty years from now, for better or worse, the world will be a far different place: hotter, stormier, and with less land (given the loss of shoreline and low-lying areas to rising sea levels).  Strict limitations on carbon emissions will certainly be universally enforced and the consumption of fossil fuels, except under controlled circumstances, actively discouraged.  Oil will still be available to those who can afford it, but will no longer be the world’s paramount fuel.  New powers, corporate and otherwise, in new combinations will have risen with a new energy universe.  No one can know, of course, what our version of the Treaty of Westphalia will look like or who will be the winners and losers on this planet.  In the intervening 30 years, however, that much violence and suffering will have ensued goes without question. Nor can anyone say today which of the contending forms of energy will prove dominant in 2041 and beyond.

Were I to wager a guess, I might place my bet on energy systems that were decentralized, easy to make and install, and required relatively modest levels of up-front investment.  For an analogy, think of the laptop computer of 2011 versus the giant mainframes of the 1960s and 1970s.  The closer that an energy supplier gets to the laptop model (or so I suspect), the more success will follow.

From this perspective, giant nuclear reactors and coal-fired plants are, in the long run, less likely to thrive, except in places like China where authoritarian governments still call the shots.  Far more promising, once the necessary breakthroughs come, will be renewable sources of energy and advanced biofuels that can be produced on a smaller scale with less up-front investment, and so possibly incorporated into daily life even at a community or neighborhood level.

Whichever countries move most swiftly to embrace these or similar energy possibilities will be the likeliest to emerge in 2041 with vibrant economies — and given the state of the planet, if luck holds, just in the nick of time.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet.  A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation.

Copyright 2011 Michael T. Klare

Combating Elder Financial Abuse

Editor’s Note: I have a personal interest in the following article on the subject of elder abuse, not only because I hope to live long enough to be elderly myself some day, but also because my mother — when she was in her mid-eighties, recently widowed, and living alone in a suburb of Paradise, California — answered a knock on her door one day from a Kirby Vacuum Cleaner salesman, who had driven thirty miles up the mountain road from his office in Chico to ply his trade in her upscale mostly-elderly neighborhood. She told me later (too late to revoke the deal, unfortunately) that “he seemed angry, and I was afraid if I didn’t buy a vacuum cleaner, he wouldn’t leave.” She bought an $1800 Kirby Vacuum Cleaner that was too heavy for her, in her frail condition, to even push. She never used it, and we inherited it when she died. Some months after she bought it, I spoke to the manager of the Kirby Chico office and asked him whether he had trouble sleeping at night. He denied that they were doing anything wrong by focusing their sales efforts in such neighborhoods. Paradise requires door-to-door salesmen to register with the Paradise Police Department. When I called the PPD to check on the status of Kirby’s license, long after my mother died, Kirby had no active permit. I have no idea whether they are still selling vacuum cleaners in Paradise. The following article focuses on the financial aspects of elder abuse, and how to prevent it.

Reprinted from the California Progress Report (October 11, 2011)

By Norine Boehmer, CLPF, and Lori Hefner, CLPF

Elder financial abuse is the wrongful taking of money or property and is costing seniors nearly $3 billion a year according to a recent study. This problem is on the rise, striking one in four seniors in the U.S. Sadly, seniors are typically being taken advantage of by someone close to them such as a neighbor, family member, or caregiver.

Unscrupulous caregivers have come up with ingenious ways to take advantage of unsuspecting seniors. Most recently, a caregiver would play a game with her ward, Donna LeBoeuf, who suffers from early stage dementia. She’d have her scribble her signature on pieces of paper. What she didn’t know was that by playing this “game,” she ended up signing away control of her finances and medical decisions…all to someone to whom she thought was looking out for her best interest.

Scenarios like this one are all too familiar, and with the senior population expected to double by 2030, that situation could get worse…much worse. Luckily for LeBoeuf, some key individuals got involved to ensure she was no longer being victimized. This case was exposed when three California Licensed Professional Fiduciaries stepped in to investigate. My co-writer, Lori Hefner, in partnership with the late Kathaleen Radke, discovered the wrong doing and wrote a complaint to several agencies on behalf of five victims. Following the complaint, Professional Fiduciary David Hanks was brought in on two of the cases and he provided the forensic accounting that detailed the extent of the thefts. Today, the caregiver involved in the cases has been charged with four felonies and one misdemeanor count of financial elder abuse and is currently awaiting trial.

While LeBoeuf was saved from financial ruin, many seniors aren’t so lucky. Unfortunately, many seniors give Powers of Attorney to individuals they do not know and who are not licensed.

The key to stopping elder financial abuse is to be an advocate for your loved ones. Understand who you are working with and make sure they are licensed. Professional Fiduciaries play a unique and vital role in today’s society – serving everyone from those who can no longer care for themselves, to independent, productive people who need assistance making sound financial, health care and day-to-day decisions. Fiduciaries serve as a bridge between a client and his/her family, health care providers, caregivers, and attorneys, while protecting both physical and financial interests.

To better protect oneself or a loved one, there are important questions that should be asked before signing over Powers of Attorney or hiring a fiduciary when you need help making day to day decisions. Questions such as:

•  Are you licensed in the State of California? If so, please provide a copy of your current license

•  How long have you been practicing, and what is your background and expertise in the field?

•  What is your specialty?

•  What is the amount of assets under your control?

•  Can you provide me with a resume and references?

The Professional Fiduciary Association of California (PFAC) is working hard to protect seniors and other vulnerable individuals against financial elder abuse. PFAC was a key player in the original passage of the 2006 Professional Fiduciaries Act, which established the Professional Fiduciaries Bureau (PFB), a license and disciplinary body that oversees abuses and regulates the profession.

Consumers can learn more information about the profession, including what to look for when choosing a fiduciary, a referral list of PFAC members, code of ethics, complaint forms and licensure in California, by visiting For additional licensing information, visit the Professional Fiduciaries Bureau website, at

Norine Boehmer is the President of the Professional Fiduciary Association of California, who practices in Los Angeles, CA and Lori Hefner is a licensed fiduciary from Pleasant Hill, CA.

Ideological Inanity: The Republican Economic Debate

Reprinted from Campaign for America’s Future (Oct 12, 2011)

By Robert Borosage

The Republican debate on the economy was staged in New Hampshire, but quickly descended into a netherworld of Republican ideological cant.

Each candidate brought the idiosyncratic traits we’re learning to expect. Gingrich blustered about throwing Chris Dodd and Barney Frank into jail. Herman Cain touted Alan Greenspan – yes Alan Greenspan – as a great Fed Chair. That roused Ron Paul to come to the defense of the gold standard. Michelle Bachmann reminded us of all those children and her voice in the wilderness, where, as far as we can tell, she permanently resides. Rick Perry was AWOL most of the night, but aptly summarized the evening saying: “We don’t need to focus on this policy or that policy. We need to get America working again.”

And for all these Republicans it isn’t about this policy or that policy; it is about faith. All read from the same gospel, differing only in how literally they take the text. These debates have turned into Mitt Romney and not ready for prime time players, so let’s focus on what Romney says he believes.

Romney would do the following to get the economy going.

He’s against the American Jobs Act. He says the original stimulus failed, so apparently rules out increasing spending or decreasing taxes to get the economy going. He even suggested he was against extending the payroll tax cut. Thus he would embrace a government cutback that would cut about 2% of GDP next year – almost unavoidably driving the economy into a recession.

Instead, he calls for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. He’d cut corporate taxes and not raise individual taxes. He would not cut defense spending. So apparently, he’d balance the budget by savaging Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and domestic spending on everything from education to energy. The last effort to do this was the Republican House budget that dismantled Medicare to protect tax breaks for the wealthy.

Romney would repeal health care reform – but doesn’t say how he would make up for the trillion dollars in savings that are projected to come from the reform.

Romney would repeal Dodd-Frank and free Wall Street to go back to the unregulated excesses the drove the economy of the cliff.

He’d give multinationals a massive tax break, allowing them to repatriate over $1 trillion in off shore profits at a nominal tax rate. Apparently, the trillions that companies are sitting on, waiting for customers, are not sufficient.

He supports the bailout of Wall Street, but opposes the rescue plan that saved General Motors and Chrysler. He doesn’t explain why he prefers a failed plan but not a successful one.

Romney is by far the most rational of the Republican field. But his agenda is nonsense. Austerity for an economy verging on another downturn. Tax breaks for corporations swimming in money already. Deregulation for Wall Street whose excesses blew up the economy. Defense of a military budget about as large as the rest of the world’s military spending combined. Sending the bill for Wall Street’s mess to the most vulnerable, with deep cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education and more. The only thing that makes some sense is his pledge to cite the Chinese as currency violators in his first day in office. This gets him trashed for triggering a trade war in the debates but is likely to win him votes in the industrial midwest.

Most striking in the debate was that there was no mention of the policies that drove us into the mess we are in. What caused the collapse? It wasn’t Wall Street’s wilding; it was government, of course. It wasn’t the wealthy few and entrenched lobbies that rig the rules; it was the powerful poverty lobby that forced cowering banks to lend money to the impovident through the infamous “CRA,” Community Reinvestment Act. You have to imbibe gallons of kool ade to believe this stuff.

At one point, the candidates were asked about inequality – for thirty years, the incomes of the wealthiest one percent have soared while poverty has spread to record numbers. What caused this? Obama, of course, and his job killing plans. Hasn’t he been president for decades?

In fact, the sainted Ronald Reagan set us on this course. We have had thirty years of conservative domination of our politics: deregulation, top end tax cuts, corporate trade policies, Wall Street deregulation, the assault on labor, CEO plunder.

And not only is there no apology for the failure, there is no recognition of it. These candidates uniformly tout the same policies that got us into the mess we are in.

Like Herman Cain, it makes me miss Alan Greenspan, who at least had the momentary grace to admit that there was a “flaw” in his worldview.

Robert L. Borosage is the founder and president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future. The organizations were launched by 100 prominent Americans to develop the policies, message and issue campaigns to help forge an enduring majority for progressive change in America.

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