Robert Reich: “The Next Crash”

By Robert Reich
Reprinted from robertreich.org

Sorry to deliver the news, but it’s time to worry about the next crash.

The combination of stagnant wages with most economic gains going to the top is once again endangering the economy.

Most Americans are still living in the shadow of the Great Recession that started in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009. More have jobs, to be sure. But they haven’t seen any rise in their wages, adjusted for inflation.

Many are worse off due to the escalating costs of housing, healthcare, and education. And the value of whatever assets they own is less than in 2007.Which suggests we’re careening toward the same sort of crash we had then, and possibly as bad as 1929.

Clear away the financial rubble from those two former crashes and you’d see they both followed upon widening imbalances between the capacity of most people to buy, and what they as workers could produce. Each of these imbalances finally tipped the economy over.

The same imbalance has been growing again. The richest 1 percent of Americans now takes home about 20 percent of total income, and owns over 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.

These are close to the peaks of 1928 and 2007.

The underlying problem isn’t that Americans have been living beyond their means. It’s that their means haven’t been keeping up with the growing economy. Most gains have gone to the top.

But the rich only spend a small fraction of what they earn. The economy depends on the spending of middle and working class families.

By the first quarter of this year, household debt was at an all-time high of $13.2 trillion. Almost 80 percent of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck.

It was similar in the years leading up to the crash of 2007. Between 1983 and 2007, household debt soared while most economic gains went to the top. If the majority of households had taken home a larger share, they wouldn’t have needed to go so deeply into debt.

Similarly, between 1913 and 1928, the ratio of personal debt to the total national economy nearly doubled. After the 1929 crash, the government invented new ways to boost wages – Social Security, unemployment insurance, overtime pay, a minimum wage, the requirement that employers bargain with labor unions, and, finally, a full-employment program called World War II.

After the 2007 crash, the government bailed out the banks and pumped enough money into the economy to contain the slide. But apart from the Affordable Care Act, nothing was done to address the underlying problem of stagnant wages.

Trump and his Republican enablers are now reversing regulations put in place to stop Wall Street’s excessively risky lending.

But Trump’s real contributions to the next crash are his sabotage of the Affordable Care Act, rollback of overtime pay, burdens on labor organizing, tax reductions for corporations and the wealthy but not for most workers, cuts in programs for the poor, and proposed cuts in Medicare and Medicaid – all of which put more stress on the paychecks of most Americans.

Ten years after the start of the Great Recession, it’s important to understand that the real root of the collapse wasn’t a banking crisis. It was the growing imbalance between consumer spending and total output – brought on by stagnant wages and widening inequality.

That imbalance is back. Watch your wallets.

The Tax-the-Rich Animation that Riled the 1%’s Most Fervent Cheerleaders

Reprinted under a Creative Commons 3.0 License

By Fred Glass

Five years ago, an eight-minute cartoon delightfully demolished all the conventional rationales for grand concentrations of private wealth.

Why it’s a disastrous mistake for Democrats to call Trump voters “stupid”

Don Pelton
September 1, 2017

Kansas native, lover of populism (the good kind, the FDR kind), historian Thomas Frank gives the most brilliant analysis I’ve heard yet of the failure of the Democratic Party and the resurgence of right-wing populism (the bad kind!) all around the world.

He says that the answer to the right-wing populism that has plagued us for decades is to “give them the real thing.” He talks about why calling Trump voters “stupid” is a disastrous mistake for Democrats.

He calls Trump “a man whose main appeal is as a human middle finger raised to the complacent, responsible, status quo world.”

This talk, called “Why Democrats Lose,”  was given in Seattle in April of 2017 as an introduction to his most recent book, “Listen Liberal.” His book and his talk focus, as the title implies, on what’s wrong with the Democratic Party, and how it could return to its traditional role of representing the middle class.

Interestingly, Frank mentions that his message is not welcomed today by the current leadership of the Democratic Party, which is still obsessed with Russian dirty tricks as an excuse for losing the election. (Frank used to appear regularly on MSNBC, for instance, but is no longer invited).

His is precisely the message that Democrats should be hearing and heeding today.

Upbeat and entertaining and well worth an hour of your time.

 

Old West theme parks paint a false picture of pioneer California

Reprinted from the August 30, 2017 edition of The Conversation

Editor’s Note: The nostalgia for California’s past is still very much an influence throughout much of the state, and is especially conspicuous in the Gold Country, where many old-timers long to re-open old polluting gold mines, such as the Idaho-Maryland mine here in Grass Valley.

By Amanda Tewes

Old West, as seen through 1967 Orange County eyes. Orange County Archives, CC BY

In 1940, just a year before Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into a world war, Walter and Cordelia Knott began construction on a notable addition to their thriving berry patch and chicken restaurant in the Orange County, California, city of Buena Park. This new venture was an Old West town celebrating both westward expansion and the California Dream – the notion that this Gold Rush state was a land of easy fortune for all. The Knotts’ romanticized Ghost Town – including a saloon, blacksmith’s shop, jail and “Boot Hill” cemetery – became the cornerstone of the amusement park that is today Knott’s Berry Farm.

While Ghost Town is arguably the first of its kind, since 1940 Old West theme parks have proliferated around the United States and the world. They’re more than just destinations for pleasure seekers. Like Hollywood Westerns and dime novels, these theme parks propagate a particular myth of “the West.”

The relationship between history and entertainment is especially complex when these theme parks exist in California – a place that actually experienced “the Wild West.” Visitors can have a hard time differentiating between fantasy landscapes and local history.

In studying California’s Old West theme parks and their version of the state’s past, I’ve conducted oral histories, visited these sites and observed continued nostalgia for these places. What do these imagined spaces reveal about cultural conflicts of politics and regional identity in midcentury California? How do they demonstrate the attraction of a fantasy past that has captivated Californians?

Knott’s original berry stand, Buena Park, California, circa 1926. Orange County ArchivesCC BY

Chicken with a side of ‘pioneer spirit’

The addition of a Ghost Town may seem an odd choice for the Knotts, who were farmers and restaurateurs. But it was a calculated move to entertain guests waiting upwards of three hours in line for their chicken dinner – as well as to tell a particular story about the California Dream.

Walter Knott grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales about traveling across the Mojave Desert to California in a covered wagon, with her young daughter (Walter’s mother) in tow. Knott admired his grandmother’s “pioneering spirit,” which influenced his own decisions to homestead (unsuccessfully) in the desert. For Knott, his grandmother’s account sparked ongoing admiration for independence and adventure, qualities that embody the myth of the West but not necessarily the realities of California’s past.

And it was this personal connection to California’s past that colored Knott’s critique of his present. Looking back over the devastation the Great Depression wrought on California, the farmer – a lifelong proponent of free enterprise – concluded federal interference had prolonged the situation by offering aid and social welfare programs, instead of encouraging struggling residents to work harder.

In the 1930s, Orange County was starting to transition from a land of orange groves and strawberry fields.Orange County Archives, CC BY

This assessment ignores the fact that an agricultural hub like Orange County gained much from New Deal programs. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, for instance, offered farmers price support for their crops, which Orange County growers accepted.

But Knott remained steadfast. In an oral history from 1963, he explained,

“We felt that if [Ghost Town visitors] looked back, they would see the little that the pioneer people had to work with and all the struggles and problems that they had to overcome and that they’d all done it without any government aid.”

This virulent independence shaped Ghost Town and ensured that Knott’s Berry Farm’s memorial to California history was a political statement as much as a place of leisure.

Beyond its political message about the past, Walter Knott wanted Ghost Town “to be an educational feature as well as a place of entertainment.” Indeed, the first edition of the theme park’s printed paper Ghost Town News in October 1941 explained, “…we hope it will prove of real tangible educational advantage and a lasting monument to California.” By 1963, Knott asserted,

“I suppose there’s hundreds of thousands of kids today that know what you mean when you say, ‘pan gold.’ I mean, when they read it in a book they understand it because they’ve gone down and actually done it [at Ghost Town].”

Indeed, the message reached generations of visitors.

Perpetuating the myth of rugged individualism

But Knott learned – and taught – the wrong lesson from the past. Certainly 19th-century Anglo pioneers faced financial, physical and psychological challenges in reaching California. But these individuals did actually benefit from the “government aid” Knott scorned.

Federal funds and policies supported land grants in the West, a military to expand territory and fight indigenous peoples and even the development of the railroad that eventually connected California to the rest of the country. Government intervention helped support these Anglo pioneers as much as it did their Depression-era descendants.

What’s left out of this picture? Orange County Archives, CC BY

Despite the fantasy past it represented, the premise of Ghost Town inspired local appreciation. Visitors to Knott’s Berry Farm saw evidence of California’s financial greatness when they panned for gold. Stories about the trials Walter Knott’s own relatives faced crossing the Mojave Desert reinforced the fortitude of those who settled in the Golden State. Indeed, by midcentury many Orange County residents had themselves moved west to California and could well identify with the theme of 19th-century migration.

Ghost Town played on mid-20th-century nostalgia for simpler and more adventurous times in California, especially as the area began to rapidly shed its agricultural past in the years following World War II. The Knotts’ nod to California’s 19th-century history was a welcome distraction from the modernization efforts in Orange County’s backyard.

Richard Nixon pans for gold with Walter Knott in 1959. Orange County Archives, CC BY

The romantic and often whitewashed version of California’s past embodied by Ghost Town played an ongoing role in shaping midcentury cultural and political identity in the region. The Knotts used the living they earned from Ghost Town and their other attractions to support conservative causes locally and nationally. In 1960, Ghost Town and the Old California it represented was the literal backdrop of a Richard Nixon rally during his first presidential run.

Later, fellow conservative and the Knotts’ personal friend Ronald Reagan produced a segment about their attraction on his political radio show. On the July 15, 1978 episode, Reagan said, “Walter Knott’s farm is a classic American success story…And, it still reflects its founder’s deep love and patriotism for his country.” Reagan celebrated the theme park as the pinnacle of free enterprise and the California Dream.

Among California’s Old West theme parks, Ghost Town at Knott’s Berry Farm is not unique in tweaking the state’s 19th-century past to more closely align with a Hollywood Western than the complex racial, cultural and political reality. Today Ghost Town serves millions of domestic and foreign visitors annually and continues to sell a fantasy version of the Golden State’s history. But this fantasy memorializes mid-20th-century conservative values rather than 19th-century California.

With renewed debates about public memory and monuments, it’s more important than ever to examine sites like historical theme parks as places where individuals learn (false) history. These romantic and politicized versions of the Old West can leave visitors longing for a past that never was.


Disclosure statement

Amanda Tewes does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Centrist Democrats Riled as Warren Says Days of ‘Lukewarm’ Policies Are Over

“The Democratic Party isn’t going back to the days of welfare reform and the crime bill.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addresses a rally against Trump Administration budget cuts to education funding outside the U.S. Capitol July 19, 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) addresses a rally against Trump administration budget cuts to education funding outside the U.S. Capitol July 19, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In a wide-ranging and fiery keynote speech last weekend at the 12th annual Netroots Nation conference in Atlanta, Georgia, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) relentlessly derided moderate Democratic pundits calling for the party to move “back to the center” and declared that Democrats must unequivocally “fight for progressive solutions to our nation’s challenges.”

“We’re not going back to the days when universal healthcare was something Democrats talked about on the campaign trail but were too chicken to fight for after they got elected.”
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren

As The Hill‘s Amie Parnes reported on Friday, Warren’s assertion during the weekend gathering that progressives are “the heart and soul of today’s Democratic Party”—and not merely a “wing”—raised the ire of so-called “moderate” Democrats, who have insisted that progressive policies won’t sell in swing states.

But recent survey results have consistently shown that policies like single-payer healthcare, progressive taxation, a higher minimum wage, and tuition-free public college are extremely popularamong the broader electorate. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—the most prominent advocate of an ambitious, far-reaching progressive agenda—has consistently polled as the most popular politician in the country.

For Warren, these are all indicators that those pining for a rightward shift “back to the center” are deeply mistaken.

Specifically, Warren took aim at a recent New York Times op-ed by Democratic commentators Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, who argued that Democrats must moderate their positions in order to take back Congress and, ultimately, the presidency.

Warren ridiculed this argument as a call for a return to Bill Clinton-era policies that “lock[ed] up non-violent drug offenders and ripp[ed] more holes in our economic safety net.”

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

“The Democratic Party isn’t going back to the days of welfare reform and the crime bill,” Warren said. “We’re not going back to the days of being lukewarm on choice. We’re not going back to the days when universal healthcare was something Democrats talked about on the campaign trail but were too chicken to fight for after they got elected.”

“And,” Warren concluded, “we’re not going back to the days when a Democrat who wanted to run for a seat in Washington first had to grovel on Wall Street.”

For months media outlets have speculated that Warren is gearing up for a 2020 presidential run, but she has denied the rumors.

Warren’s remarks came as a large coalition of progressive groups is mobilizing during the congressional recess to pressure Democrats to formally endorse the “People’s Platform,” a slate of ambitious legislation that includes Rep. John Conyers’ (D-Mich.) Medicare for All bill.

Watch Warren’s full speech at Netroots Nation:

Are We Doomed? Let’s Have a Talk

We’re not all ready to have the same conversation, but perhaps that’s a good place to start

      Reprinted from CommonDreams under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

 

A placard warning against the dangers of climate change used in the March on Washington stands by an overflowing garbage can on Saturday, January 21, 2017. (Photo by Epics/Getty Images)

 

My most recent essay, in which I discussed a highly publicized controversy over the efficacy of plans for a comprehensive transition to an all-renewable energy future, garnered some strong responses. “If you are right,” one Facebook commenter opined, “we are doomed. Fortunately you are not right.” (The commenter didn’t explain why.) What had I said to provoke an expectation of cataclysmic oblivion? Simply that there is probably no technically and financially feasible energy pathway to enable those of us in highly industrialized countries to maintain current levels of energy usage very far into the future.

My piece happened to be published right around the same time New York Magazine released a controversial article, titled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” in which author David Wallace Wells portrayed a dire future if the most pessimistic climate change models turn to reality. “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” wrote Wells. “If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.” Wells’s article drew rebukes from—of all people—climate scientists, who pointed out a few factual errors, but also insisted that scaring the public just doesn’t help. “Importantly, fear does not motivate,” responded Michael Mann with Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles, “and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.”

“We humans have overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for our species…”It’s true: apocalyptic warnings don’t move most people. Or, rather, they move most people away from the source of discomfort, so they simply tune out. But it’s also true that people feel a sense of deep, unacknowledged unease when they are fed “solutions” that they instinctively know are false or insufficient.

Others came to Wells’s defense. Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist and founder of the climate action group The Climate Mobilization, which advocates for starting a “World War II-scale” emergency mobilization to convert from fossil fuels, writes, “it is OK, indeed imperative, to tell the whole, frightening story. . . . [I]t’s the job of those of us trying to protect humanity and restore a safe climate to tell the truth about the climate crisis and help people process and channel their own feelings—not to preemptively try to manage and constrain those feelings.”

So: Are we doomed if we can’t maintain current and growing energy levels? And are we doomed anyway due to now-inevitable impacts of climate change?

First, the good news. With regard to energy, we should keep in mind the fact that today’s Americans use roughly twice as much per capita as their great-grandparents did in 1925. While people in that era enjoyed less mobility and fewer options for entertainment and communication than we do today, they nevertheless managed to survive and even thrive. And we now have the ability to provide many services (such as lighting) far more efficiently, so it should be possible to reduce per-capita energy usage dramatically while still maintaining a lifestyle that would be considered more than satisfactory by members of previous generations and by people in many parts of the world today. And reducing energy usage would make a whole raft of problems—climate change, resource depletion, the challenge of transitioning to renewable energy sources—much easier to solve.

The main good news with regard to climate change that I can point to (as I did in  this essay posted in June) is that economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves are consistent only with lower-emissions climate change scenarios. As BP and other credible sources for coal, oil, and natural gas reserves figures show, and as more and more researchers are pointing out, the worst-case climate scenarios associated with “business as usual” levels of carbon emissions are in fact unrealistic.

Now, the bad news. While we could live perfectly well with less energy, that’s not what the managers of our economy want. They want growth. Our entire economy is structured to require constant, compounded growth of GDP, and for all practical purposes raising the GDP means using more energy. While fringe economists and environmentalists have for years been proposing ways to back away from our growth addiction (for example, by using alternative economic indices such as Gross National Happiness), none of these proposals has been put into widespread effect. As things now stand, if growth falters the economy crashes.

There’s bad climate news as well: even with current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, we’re seeing unacceptable and worsening impacts—raging fires, soaring heat levels, and melting icecaps. And there are hints that self-reinforcing feedbacks maybe kicking in: an example is the release of large amounts of methane from thawing tundra and oceanic hydrates, which could lead to a short-term but steep spike in warming.  Also, no one is sure if current metrics of climate sensitivity (used to estimate the response of the global climate system to a given level of forcing) are accurate, or whether the climate is actually more sensitive than we have assumed. There’s some worrisome evidence the latter is case.

But let’s step back a bit. If we’re interested in signs of impending global crisis, there’s no need to stop with just these two global challenges. The world is losing 25 billion tons of topsoil a year due to current industrial agricultural practices; if we don’t deal with that issue, civilization still crash even if we do manage to ace our energy and climate test. Humanity is also over-using fresh water: ancient aquifers are depleting, while other water sources are being polluted. If we don’t deal with our water crisis, we still crash. Species are going extinct at a thousand times the pre-industrial rate; if we don’t deal with the biodiversity dilemma, we still crash. Then there are social and economic problems that could cause nations to crumble even if we manage to protect the environment; this threat category includes the menaces of over-reliance on debt and increasing economic inequality.

If we attack each of these problems piecemeal with technological fixes (for example, with desalination technology to solve the water crisis or geo-engineering to stabilize the climate) we may still crash because our techno-fixes are likely to have unintended consequences, as all technological interventions do. Anyway, the likelihood of successfully identifying and deploying all the needed fixes in time is vanishingly small.

Many problems are converging at once because society is a complex system, and the challenges we have been discussing are aspects of a systemic crisis. A useful way to frame an integrated understanding of the 21st century survival challenge is this: we humans have overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for our species. We’ve been able to do this due to a temporary subsidy of cheap, bountiful energy from fossil fuels, which enabled us to stretch nature’s limits and to support a far larger overall population than would otherwise be possible. But now we are starting to see supply constraints for those fuels, just as the side effects of burning enormous amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas are also coming into view. Meanwhile, using cheap energy to expand resource-extractive and waste-generating economic processes is leading to biodiversity loss; the depletion of soil, water, and minerals; and environmental pollution of many kinds. Just decarbonizing energy, while necessary, doesn’t adequately deal with systemic overshoot. Only a reduction of population and overall resource consumption, along with a rapid reduction in our reliance on fossil fuels and a redesign of industrial systems, can do that.

Economic inequality is a systemic problem too. As we’ve grown our economy, those who were in position to invest in industrial expansion or to loan money to others have reaped the majority of the rewards, while those who got by through selling their time and labor (or whose common cultural heritage was simply appropriated by industrialists) have fallen behind. There’s no technological fix for inequality; dealing with it will require redesigning our economic system and redistributing wealth. Those in wealthy nations would, on average, have to adjust their living standards downward.

Now, can we do all of this without a crash? Probably not. Indeed, many economists would regard the medicine (population reduction, a decline in per-capita energy use, and economic redistribution) as worse than whatever aspects of the disease they are willing to acknowledge. Environmentalists and human rights advocates would disagree. Which is to say, there’s really no way out. Whether we stick with business as usual, or attempt a dramatic multi-pronged intervention, our current “normal” way of life is toast.

Accepting that a crash is more or less inevitable is a big step, psychologically speaking. I call this toxic knowledge: one cannot “un-know” that the current world system hangs by a thread, and this understanding can lead to depression. In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually. Some willfully ignore their own mortality for as long as possible; others grasp at a belief in the afterlife. Still others seek to create meaning and purpose by making a positive difference in the lives of those around them with whatever time they have. Such efforts don’t alter the inevitability of death; however, contributing to one’s community appears to enhance well-being in many ways beyond that of merely prolonging life.

In some ways, the systemic crisis we face is analogous to the individual existential crisis of life and death, which we each have to confront eventually.

But is a crash the same as doom?

Not necessarily. Our best hope at this point would seem to be a controlled crash that enables partial recovery at a lower level of population and resource use, and that therefore doesn’t lead to complete and utter oblivion (human extinction or close to it). Among those who understand the systemic nature of our problems, the controlled crash option is the subject of what may be the most interesting and important conversation that’s taking place on the planet just now. But only informed people who have gotten over denial and self-delusion are part of it.

This discussion started in the 1970s, though I wasn’t part of it then; I joined a couple of decades later. There is no formal membership; the conversation takes place through and among a patchwork of small organizations and scattered individuals. They don’t all know each other and there is no secret handshake. Some have publicly adopted the stance that a global crash is inevitable; most soft-pedal that message on their organizational websites but are privately plenty worried. During the course of the conversation so far, two (not mutually exclusive) strategies have emerged.

The first strategy envisions convincing the managers and power holders of the world to invest in a no-regrets insurance plan. Some systems thinkers who understand our linked global crises are offering to come up with a back-pocket checklist for policy makers, for moments when financial or environmental crisis hits: how, under such circumstances, might the managerial elite be able to prevent, say, a stock market crash from triggering food, energy, and social crises as well? A set of back-up plans wouldn’t require detailed knowledge of when or how crisis will erupt. It wouldn’t even require much of a systemic understanding of global overshoot. It would simply require willingness on the part of societal power holders to agree that there are real or potential threats to global order, and to accept the offer of help. At the moment, those pursuing this strategy are working mostly covertly, for reasons that are not hard to discern.

The second strategy consists of working within communities to build more societal resilience from the ground up. It is easier to get traction with friends and neighbors than with global power holders, and it’s within communities that political decisions are made closest to where the impact is felt. My own organization, Post Carbon Institute, has chosen to pursue this strategy via a series of books, the Community Resilience Guides;  the “Think Resilience” video series; and our forthcoming compendium, The Community Resilience Reader.  Rob Hopkins, who originated the Transition Towns movement, has been perhaps the most public, eloquent, and upbeat proponent of the local resilience strategy, but there are countless others scattered across the globe.

Somehow, the work of resilience building (whether top-down or bottom-up) must focus not just on maintaining supplies of food, water, energy, and other basic necessities, but also on sustaining social cohesion—a culture of understanding, tolerance, and inquiry—during times of great stress. While it’s true that people tend to pull together in remarkable ways during wars and natural disasters, sustained hard times can lead to scapegoating and worse.

Most people are not party to the conversation, not aware that it is happening, and unaware even that such a conversation is warranted. Among those who are worried about the state of the world, most are content to pursue or support efforts to keep crises from occurring by working via political parties, religious organizations, or non-profit advocacy orgs on issues such as climate change, food security, and economic inequality. There is also a small but rapidly growing segment of society that feels disempowered as the era of economic growth wanes, and that views society’s power holders as evil and corrupt. These dispossessed—whether followers of ISIS or Infowars—would prefer to “shake things up,” even to the point of bringing society to destruction, rather than suffer the continuation of the status quo. Unfortunately, this last group may have the easiest path of all.

By comparison, the number of those involved in the conversation is exceedingly small, countable probably in the hundreds of thousands, certainly not millions. Can we succeed? It depends on how one defines “success”—as the ability to maintain, for a little longer, an inherently unsustainable global industrial system? Or as the practical reduction in likely suffering on the part of the survivors of the eventual crash? A related query one often hears after environmental lectures is, Are we doing enough? If “Enough” means “enough to avert a system crash,” then the answer is no: it’s unlikely that anyone can deliver that outcome now. The question should be, What can we do—not to save a way of life that is unsalvageable, but to make a difference to the people and other species in harm’s way?

This is not a conversation about the long-term trajectory of human cultural evolution, though that’s an interesting subject for speculation. Assuming there are survivors, what will human society look like following the crises ensuing from climate change and the end of fossil fuels and capitalism? David Fleming’s book, Surviving the Future, and John Michael Greer’s, The Ecotechnic Future, both  offer useful thoughts in this regard. My own view is that it’s hard for us to envision what comes next because our imaginations are bounded by the reality we have known. What awaits will likely be as far removed from from modern industrial urban life as Iron-Age agrarian empires were from hunting-and-gathering bands. We are approaching one of history’s great discontinuities. The best we can do under the circumstances is to get our priorities and values straight (protect the vulnerable, preserve the best of what we have collectively achieved, and live a life that’s worthy) and put one foot in front of the other.

The conversation I’m pointing to here is about fairly short-term actions. And it doesn’t lend itself to building a big movement. For that, you need villains to blame and promises of revived national or tribal glory. For those engaged in the conversation, there’s only hard work and the satisfaction of honestly facing our predicament with an attitude of curiosity, engagement, and compassion. For us, threats of doom or promises of utopia are distractions or cop-outs.

Only those drawn to the conversation by temperament and education are likely to take it up. Advertising may not work. But having a few more hands on deck, and a few more resources to work with, can only help.

“Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that”

“With a billionaire real estate tycoon occupying America’s highest office, the effects of riches upon the soul are a reasonable concern for all of us little guys. After all, one incredibly wealthy soul currently holds our country in his hands. According to an apocryphal exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, the only difference between the rich and the rest of us is that they have more money. But is that the only difference?

“We didn’t used to think so. We used to think that having vast sums of money was bad and in particular bad for you — that it harmed your character, warping your behavior and corrupting your soul. We thought the rich were different, and different for the worse.

“Today, however, we seem less confident of this. We seem to view wealth as simply good or neutral, and chalk up the failures of individual wealthy people to their own personal flaws, not their riches. Those who are rich, we seem to think, are not in any more moral danger than the rest of us. Compare how old movies preached the folk wisdom of wealth’s morally calamitous effects to how contemporary movies portray wealth: For example, the villainous Mr. Potter from “It’s A Wonderful Life” to the heroic Tony Stark (that is, Iron Man) in the Avengers films.”

Read the full article by  Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark in the Washington Post here.

About the authors:

“Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he teaches courses on religion, politics, and ethics.”

“Evan Sandsmark is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.”

 

Will Democrats in Congress Go Bolder or Backwards?

The new Democratic Party ‘Better Deal’ agenda features a job-training proposal that demands less from CEOs than the training proposal Bill Clinton ran on a quarter-century ago.

 
By Sam Pizzigati

Originally published in Inequality.org
Reprinted under a Creative Commons License 3.0

The Democratic Party’s congressional leadership has just unveiled a new slogan — and set of policy proposals — to help the party prep for the 2018 midterm elections ­­­


 

America Last: Will Trump Set a Record for the History Books?

By Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com

In its own inside-out, upside-down way, it’s almost wondrous to behold. As befits our president’s wildest dreams, it may even prove to be a record for the ages, one for the history books. He was, after all, the candidate who sensed it first.  When those he was running against, like the rest of Washington’s politicians, were still insisting that the United States remained at the top of its game, not an — but the — “indispensable nation,” the only truly “exceptional” one on the face of the Earth, he said nothing of the sort.  He campaigned on America’s decline, on this country’s increasing lack of exceptionality, its potential dispensability.  He ran on the single word “again” — as in “make America great again” — because (the implication was) it just isn’t anymore.  And he swore that he and he alone was the best shot Americans, or at least non-immigrant white Americans, had at ever seeing the best of days again.

In that sense, he was our first declinist candidate for president and if that didn’t tell you something during the election season, it should have. No question about it, he hit a chord, rang a bell, because out in the heartland it was possible to sense a deepening reality that wasn’t evident in Washington.  The wealthiest country on the planet, the most militarily powerful in the history of… well, anybody, anywhere, anytime (or so we were repeatedly told)… couldn’t win a war, not even with the investment of trillions of taxpayer dollars, couldn’t do anything but spread chaos by force of arms.

Meanwhile, at home, despite all that wealth, despite billionaires galore, including the one running for president, despite the transnational corporate heaven inhabited by Google and Facebook and Apple and the rest of the crew, parts of this country and its infrastructure were starting to feel distinctly (to use a word from another universe) Third Worldish.  He sensed that, too.  He regularly said things like this: “We spent six trillion dollars in the Middle East, we got nothing… And we have an obsolete plane system. We have obsolete airports. We have obsolete trains. We have bad roads. Airports.”  And this: “Our airports are like from a third-world country.”  And on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, he couldn’t have been more on the mark.

In parts of the U.S., white working-class and middle-class Americans could sense that the future was no longer theirs, that their children would not have a shot at what they had had, that they themselves increasingly didn’t have a shot at what they had had.  The American Dream seemed to be gaining an almost nightmarish sheen, given that the real value of the average wage of a worker hadn’t increased since the 1970s; that the cost of a college education had gone through the roof and the educational debt burden for children with dreams of getting ahead was now staggering; that unions were cratering; that income inequality was at a historic high; and… well, you know the story, really you do.  In essence, for them the famed American Dream seemed ever more like someone else’s trademarked property.

Indispensable? Exceptional? This country? Not anymore. Not as they were experiencing it.

And because of that, Donald Trump won the lottery.  He answered the $64,000 question.  (If you’re not of a certain age, Google it, but believe me it’s a reference in our president’s memory book.)  He entered the Oval Office with almost 50% of the vote and a fervent base of support for his promised program of doing it all over again, 1950s-style.

It had been one hell of a pitch from the businessman billionaire.  He had promised a future of stratospheric terrificness, of greatness on an historic scale. He promised to keep the evil ones — the rapists, job thieves, and terrorists — away, to wall them out or toss them out or ban them from ever traveling here.  He also promised to set incredible records, as only a mega-businessman like him could conceivably do, the sort of all-American records this country hadn’t seen in a long, long time.

And early as it is in the Trump era, it seems as if, on one score at least, he could deliver something for the record books going back to the times when those recording the acts of rulers were still scratching them out in clay or wax. At this point, there’s at least a chance that Donald Trump might preside over the most precipitous decline of a truly dominant power in history, one only recently considered at the height of its glory.  It could prove to be a fall for the ages.  Admittedly, that other superpower of the Cold War era, the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991, which was about the fastest way imaginable to leave the global stage.  Still, despite the “evil empire” talk of that era, the USSR was always the secondary, the weaker of the two superpowers.  It was never Rome, or Spain, or Great Britain.

When it comes to the United States, we’re talking about a country that not so long ago saw itself as the only great power left on planet Earth, “the lone superpower.”  It was the one still standing, triumphant, at the end of a history of great power rivalry that went back to a time when the wooden warships of various European states first broke out into a larger world and began to conquer it.  It stood by itself at, as its proponents liked to claim at the time, the end of history.

Applying Hard Power to a Failing World

As we watch, it seems almost possible to see President Trump, in real time, tweet by tweet, speech by speech, sword dance by sword dance, intervention by intervention, act by act, in the process of dismantling the system of global power — of “soft power,” in particular, and of alliances of every sort — by which the U.S. made its will felt, made itself a truly global hegemon.  Whether his “America first” policies are aimed at creating a future order of autocrats, or petro-states, or are nothing more than the expression of his libidinous urges and secret hatreds, he may already be succeeding in taking down that world order in record fashion.

Despite the mainstream pieties of the moment about the nature of the system Donald Trump appears to be dismantling in Europe and elsewhere, it was anything but either terribly “liberal” or particularly peaceable.  Wars, invasions, occupations, the undermining or overthrow of governments, brutal acts and conflicts of every sort succeeded one another in the years of American glory.  Past administrations in Washington had a notorious weakness for autocrats, just as Donald Trump does today.  They regularly had less than no respect for democracy if, from Iran to Guatemala to Chile, the will of the people seemed to stand in Washington’s way.  (It is, as Vladimir Putin has been only too happy to point out of late, an irony of our moment that the country that has undermined or overthrown or meddled in more electoral systems than any other is in a total snit over the possibility that one of its own elections was meddled with.)  To enforce their global system, Americans never shied away from torture, black sites, death squads, assassinations, and other grim practices.  In those years, the U.S. planted its military on close to 1,000 overseas military bases, garrisoning the planet as no other country ever had.

Nonetheless, the cancelling of the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, threats against NAFTA, the undermining of NATO, the promise of protective tariffs on foreign goods (and the possible trade wars that might go with them) could go a long way toward dismantling the American global system of soft power and economic dominance as it has existed in these last decades.  If such acts and others like them prove effective in the months and years to come, they will leave only one kind of power in the American global quiver: hard military power, and its handmaiden, the kind of covert power Washington, through the CIA in particular, has long specialized in. If America’s alliances crack open and its soft power becomes too angry or edgy to pass for dominant power anymore, its massive machinery of destruction will still be left, including its vast nuclear arsenal.  While, in the Trump era, a drive to cut domestic spending of every sort is evident, more money is still slated to go to the military, already funded at levels not reached by combinations of other major powers.

Given the last 15 years of history, it’s not hard to imagine what’s likely to result from the further elevation of military power: disaster.  This is especially true because Donald Trump has appointed to key positions in his administration a crew of generals who spent the last decade and a half fighting America’s catastrophic wars across the Greater Middle East.  They are not only notoriously incapable of thinking outside the box about the application of military power, but faced with the crisis of failed wars and failing states, of spreading terror movements and a growing refugee crisis across that crucial region, they can evidently only imagine one solution to just about any problem: more of the same.  More troops, more mini-surges, more military trainers and advisers, more air strikes, more drone strikesmore.

After a decade and a half of such thinking we already know perfectly well where this ends — in further failure, more chaos and suffering, but above all in an inability of the U.S. to effectively apply its hard power anywhere in any way that doesn’t make matters worse.  Since, in addition, the Trump administration is filled with Iranophobes, including a president who has only recently fused himself to the Saudi royal family in an attempt to further isolate and undermine Iran, the possibility that a military-first version of American foreign policy will spread further is only growing.

Such “more” thinking is typical as well of much of the rest of the cast of characters now in key positions in the Trump administration. Take the CIA, for instance.  Under its new director, Mike Pompeo (distinctly a “more” kind of guy and an Iranophobe of the first order), two key positions have reportedly been filled: a new chief of counterterrorism and a new head of Iran operations (recently identified as Michael D’Andrea, an Agency hardliner with the nickname “the Dark Prince”).  Here’s how Matthew Rosenberg and Adam Goldman of the New York Times recently described their similar approaches to their jobs (my emphasis added):

“Mr. D’Andrea’s new role is one of a number of moves inside the spy agency that signal a more muscular approach to covert operations under the leadership of Mike Pompeo, the conservative Republican and former congressman, the officials said. The agency also recently named a new chief of counterterrorism, who has begun pushing for greater latitude to strike militants.”

In other words, more!

Rest assured of one thing, whatever Donald Trump accomplishes in the way of dismantling America’s version of soft power, “his” generals and intelligence operatives will handle the hard-power part of the equation just as “ably.”

The First American Laster?

If a Trump presidency achieves a record for the ages when it comes to the precipitous decline of the American global system, little as The Donald ever cares to share credit for anything, he will undoubtedly have to share it for such an achievement.  It’s true that kings, emperors, and autocrats, the top dogs of any moment, prefer to take all the credit for the “records” set in their time.  When we look back, however, it’s likely that President Trump will be seen as having given a tottering system that necessary push.  It will undoubtedly be clear enough by then that the U.S., seemingly at the height of any power’s power in 1991 when the Soviet Union disappeared, began heading for the exits soon thereafter, still enwreathed in self-congratulation and triumphalism.

Had this not been so, Donald Trump would never have won the 2016 election.  It wasn’t he, after all, who gave the U.S. heartland an increasingly Third World feel.  It wasn’t he who spent those trillions of dollars so disastrously on invasions and occupations, dead-end wars, drone strikes and special ops raids, reconstruction and deconstruction in a never-ending war on terror that today looks more like a war for the spread of terror.  It wasn’t he who created the growing inequality gap in this country or produced all those billionaires amid a population that increasingly felt left in the lurch.  It wasn’t he who hiked college tuitions or increased the debt levels of the young or set roads and bridges to crumbling and created the conditions for Third World-style airports.

If both the American global and domestic systems hadn’t been rotting out before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, that “again” of his wouldn’t have worked.  Thought of another way, when the U.S. was truly at the height of its economic clout and power, American leaders felt no need to speak incessantly of how “indispensable” or “exceptional” the country was.  It seemed too self-evident to mention. Someday, some historian may use those very words in the mouths of American presidents and other politicians (and their claims, for instance, that the U.S. military was “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known”) as a set of increasingly defensive markers for measuring the decline of American power.

So here’s the question: When the Trump years (months?) come to an end, will the U.S. be not the planet’s most exceptional land, but a pariah nation?  Will that “again” still be the story of the year, the decade, the century? Will the last American Firster turn out to have been the first American Laster?  Will it truly be one for the record books?


 

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, as well as John Feffer’s dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Tom Engelhardt

 

Steve Frisch: “It’s Time to Kill This Tired Old Cliche That Government Should Run Like a Business”

By SteveFrisch

Editor’s Note: Steve Frisch offered the following comments on his Facebook page in response to the article linked below, about Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner to a “swat team to fix government with business ideas”

So I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to create an office to advance innovation in government. How we approach issues and how government provides services should always be getting a fresh look.

I am profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of putting someone in charge who has absolutely no experience in government, and whose success in business was inherited, reporting directly to someone else with equally no experience in government.

Government and business are not the same thing.

Government does the stuff business can’t do or won’t do because there is no profit in it, or the profits to be realized in it have such a long return on investment that the private sector won’t invest in it. The purpose of business is to maximize profit (much to my chagrin) and serving all of the people does not necessarily maximize profit.

Add to that the fallacy of the basic concept that competition inherently provides lower costs and higher efficiency. That concept has been disproved time and time again, in certain areas of investment. Sometimes it just provides an advantage for profit making businesses.

Let’s just take the example of pharmaceuticals. Costs are higher in the US with a basically unregulated market than they are in any other developed nation on earth, largely because government refuses to play the role of negotiating prices and centralizing supply.

Some things are simply so costly that the only way to provide them is for government to take on the burden. Infrastructure, basic research, national defense, and governance itself are prime examples.

The purpose of government as defined in our Constitution is to ‘promote the general welfare.” If one breaks that down based on the meaning of the words, it means, “to support or actively encourage advancements for most or all of the people that improve health, happiness or fortune.”

In essence business, with a mandate to maximize profits to shareholders, and government, with a mandate to promote the general welfare, have sometimes diametrically opposed objectives that are often in competition with each other….that is why we have governments, because what is good for GM is not necessarily what is good for the country.

The idea that reforming government to be like a business also ignores a basic reality of government itself, which Trump just learned by getting his ass handed to him over health care; government is inherently about collaboration between interests to get the best possible deal. Henry Paulson famously said, “You succeed in Washington by collaborating.” Business may be increasingly about collaboration but that ethic has not reached the board room yet; in the board room business is about making decision that affect shareholder value.

Finally this gets down to one basic truth, that not everything that is profitable is of social value and not everything of social value is profitable. Kim Kardashian is profitable but has low social value (I would argue the same of The Apprentice). Research has high social value but low profit. There is no worse place to be in business than “the first” one who pioneers a new idea or technology. They bear all the development cost and have to share the profit.

It’s time to kill this tired old cliche that government should run like a business. What we really mean is that government should run efficiently, should provide value, and should promote the general welfare.

There is no worse way to get to that ideal than to give the reins to a guy whose sole qualification for digging into the issue is running his parents real estate fortune.

If one is serious about governing one puts seasoned professional with a track record in the area of expertise being addressed in position of management authority.


Steve_FrischSteve Frisch is President of Sierra Business Council and one of its founding members. Over the last 20 years Sierra Business Council has leveraged more than $100 million of investment in the Sierra Nevada and its communities through community and public-private partnerships.  Sierra Business Council also manages the Sierra Small Business Development Center focusing on advancing sustainable business practices and linking new and expanding businesses to climate mitigation and adaptation funding. Steve manages SBC’s staff and programmatic development.

Prior to joining the Sierra Business Council, Steve owned and operated a small business in Truckee. Steve serves on the board of the California Stewardship Network, the Large Landscape Practitioners Network, the National Geographic Geo-tourism Council, Capital Public Radio, and Leadership For Jobs and a New Economy.  Steve is also a former Fulbright Exchange Program Fellow, sharing information and knowledge gained in the Sierra Nevada in China and Mongolia.  Steve is a graduate of San Francisco State University with a B.A. in Political Science.

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