Swans Commentary » swans.com April 11, 2011  



Blips #108
 From The Martian Desk


by Gilles d'Aymery





"The facts of the situation amount to this: that a comparatively small number of men control the water power...that the same number of men largely control the railroads; that by agreements handed around among themselves they control prices, and that same group of men control the larger credits of the country... The masters of the government of the United States are the combined capitalists and manufacturers of the United States."
Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) - 28th president of the USA
Indignez vous!
Stéphane Hessel (1917- ) Title of a 32-page essay published in October 2010. (Translated in English by Charles Glass as Time for Outrage)


(Swans - April 11, 2011)   THE FIRST SENTENCE of Bob Herbert's last column in The New York Times on March 26, 2011 -- "So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home." -- has resonated in many quarters, including my Blips #107. Paul Street quoted it in his cogent analysis of "Libya, the Left, and Losing Our Way" (Znet, March 30, 2011). So did Michael Yates in "Speak Out, Fight Back," a poignant piece -- and a call to arms -- he posted on his Blog on April 1, 2011. Michael Yates, for readers who may be unfamiliar with him, is a life-long labor activist, a retired professor of economics and labor relations, an associate editor of Monthly Review and editorial director of Monthly Review Press, and the author of several books and countless articles and reviews. (Full disclosure: Michael is also a friend of Swans whom I hold in the highest regard for his humanness and intellectual probity.)

LET ME TAKE A SMALL DETOUR in my train of thought, as I often do... Upon retiring from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2001, Michael and his wife, Karen Korenoski, got rid of most of their possessions and embarked on a six-year, 100,000-mile journey across America in a Dodge Grand Caravan with a two-burner hot plate to cook their meals. They traveled through over 30 states, worked odd jobs, stayed in cheap motels (when not sleeping in the van) and took a lot of notes about the struggle of low-wage workers to make a living, the existing gulf between the wealthy and the poor, and the environmental destruction that increasingly disfigures the land. Out of their experiences and observations Michael wrote a fascinating travelogue, Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist's Travelogue (Monthly Review Press, ISBN: 1-58367-143-6, March 2007) -- hence the name of his Blog. Of the book the late, great Studs Terkel wrote: "Everyone knows about Estes Park, CO, Jackson, WY, Flagstaff, AZ, Moab, UT -- those treasures become fashionable destinations because travel pages sing of their lush beauty and comfort. Never a word about those who work there, those we seldom see. In Michael Yates's book we get the invisible made visible: the stark and powerful truth of the haves and have-nots. Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate is what we are all about." One chapter of the book is devoted to Ford City, a small coal mining Western Pennsylvanian borough, 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, where Michael's mother still lives in the house in which he grew up. The town was home to a big glass factory and a plumbing manufacturer, whose operations were closed in the 1990s and 2000s, respectively, wreaking havoc on the local socioeconomic system.

BACK TO MY TRAIN OF THOUGHT: In January-February 2011, Karen and Michael spent six weeks down in Ford City. In contrast to the 1950s, what the couple witnessed was not only disheartening, it was heartbreaking. Writes Michael:

Today the good times are all gone. The population (a little over 3,000) declined by nearly 10 percent in the last decade, and it has been falling since the 1970s. It is half what it was when I was a teenager. Jobs are scarce; drug and alcohol abuse are rampant (there were two heroin overdoses in one evening); wages are shockingly low; and homeowners, including one of my relatives, are selling out to the Marcellus shale companies for ridiculously small sums of money.


High unemployment, enormous and growing inequalities in wealth and income, and endless wars are pestilences that stalk the land, leaving in their wakes a litany of woes: homicides, suicides, heart attacks, hypertension, arrests, prison admissions, mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, family dysfunctions, and a host of others. . . . The U.S. economy and the economies of nearly every other country are under the firm control of financiers rich beyond comprehension, and these individuals and the firms they direct want a pliable and insecure worldwide labor force that will do their bidding.

DOES MICHAEL EXAGGERATE? On March 5, 2011, filmmaker Michael Moore delivered a speech in Madison, Wisconsin. Among his remarks he said:

Right now, this afternoon, just 400 Americans -- 400 -- have more wealth than half of all Americans combined.

Let me say that again. And please, someone in the mainstream media, just repeat this fact once; we're not greedy, we'll be happy to hear it just once.

Four hundred obscenely wealthy individuals, 400 little Mubaraks -- most of whom benefited in some way from the multi-trillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of 2008 -- now have more cash, stock and property than the assets of 155 million Americans combined.

ACTUALLY, THIS WAS a factual statement. The American food journalist Mark Bittman who writes a weekly column for The New York Times and who is not a flaming leftist had this to say in "Why We're Fasting" (NYT, March 29, 2011):

...the effective tax rate on the nation's richest people has fallen by about half in the last 20 years, and General Electric paid zero dollars in U.S. taxes on profits of more than $14 billion. Meanwhile, roughly 45 million Americans spend a third of their posttax income on food -- and still run out monthly -- and one in four kids goes to bed hungry at least some of the time.

MEANWHILE, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the compensation of workers in the private sector grew by a mere 2.1% in 2010 (and only 1.7% in the past 12 months), which is less than the official rate of inflation, while that of the top CEOs grew by 27% and their bonuses by a whopping 47%. According to William Lazonick of the University of Massachusetts, "While companies in the S&P 500 boosted profit 47% last year, much of that was due to cost-cutting and layoffs, not from the creation of businesses and growth." (Source: "CEO pay soars while workers' pay stalls," by Matt Krantz and Barbara Hansen, USA TODAY, March 31, 2011.) The article indicates that Philippe Dauman, the CEO of Viacom, was the highest paid CEO with $84.5 million, an increase of 149% over 2009...

...WHICH LEADS MICHAEL YATES TO NOTE: "Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living. . . ." Yet another correct statement, whatever the "good news" the pundits profess about job creation in non-farm payroll employment during the first quarter of 2011 -- 68,000 in January, 194,000 in February, and 216,000 in March. The bureaucrats at the BLS are far more candid than the paid propagandists -- aka, journalists -- you watch on your favorite TV channels. It turns out that the vast majority of new jobs have been created in what the BLS calls the "service-providing industries" like health care, professional and technical services, leisure and hospitality (food services and drinking places) -- only 17,000 were created in the "durable goods industries" (manufacturing) in March. Lots of these new jobs are temporary positions and almost all pay low or minimum wages! I can't resist another short detour... The mumbo jumbo phraseology used by the BLS ought to be analyzed by linguists. They talk of "service-providing industries" as though the service sector was an industry producing durable goods. Non-farm payroll employment continues to "trend up," while employment in local government continues to "trend down." Average workweek and wages "edge up" or "down" depending on the month and year. They are not talking about human beings, just numbers. We have all become commodified, like fishes, cows, chickens, trees, corn, and everything else -- a commodity whose value can be exchanged for an ever shrinking fistful of dollars -- modern serfdom encouraged by our government, no less! End of detour.

THE QUESTION THEN is whether President Obama, the Democrats, the Republicans, the next elections, or the mainstream media can make a difference. Let me give the floor to Michael Yates again as he provided his own take on the question in the essay I mentioned supra:

Educate yourselves so that you can learn what is going on in the world. Do not be taken in by the mainstream media, whose owners are more interested in making money than in telling us the truth. Do not fall for the hatemongers who would have us believe that immigrants or Muslims or the Chinese are to blame for what is happening. They are not. It is the economic system and those who control it that bear responsibility. We must make common cause with all exploited people, no matter their race, ethnicity, or religion. We have more things in common than not.

We must stop believing that this or that election will make much difference. It will not. President Obama says he is a man of the people. He is not. He is a war maker. He cares little for democracy and a lot for Wall Street. When he and his opponents tell us that taxes on the rich must not be raised, that deficits must be immediately cut, that we can't afford Social Security and Medicare, that public services must be cut or privatized, that money doesn't matter when it comes to quality schooling, that Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and all the new wars being planned are necessary to protect our freedoms, that all the things we think are good are really bad, remember that they are lying. Remember that it is better not to vote than to vote for the lesser of two evils. Fight politically for programs not for people. Build an independent party for workers.

Organize your workplaces. You have no chance otherwise.

EVIDENTLY, WERE I to second Michael's position, readers could legitimately accuse me of partisanship, of being biased toward a position I espouse, and of demonstrating my prejudices. I otherwise could call upon Louis Proyect or Paul Street and others to offer their well-thought-out opinions on the matter, but here again I would be accused of relying upon people on the same wavelength. In an age in which post-partisanship and the end of history reign, I must do better. I must remain neutral, as neutral as the PBS NewsHour. I must stick to blandness and general equivocation. I even thought of asking Chris Matthews of MSNBC fame or Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, but the couple of times I attempted to contact them in the past, my queries remained unanswered. I don't belong to that crowd. Who else could get on board and rejoin Michael's assertion?

WHAT ABOUT OBAMA HIMSELF? Fortunately (for me) Louis Proyect posted an excerpt of Obama's 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, on the Marxmail List Louis owns and moderates with the help of Les Schaffer.

Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means -- law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate.


And although my own worldview and theirs corresponded in many ways -- I had gone to the same schools, after all, had read the same books, and worried about my kids in many of the same ways -- I found myself avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations.


Still, I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population -- that is, the people that I'd entered public life to serve. And in one fashion or another, I suspect this is true for every senator: The longer you are a senator, the narrower the scope of your interactions. You may fight it, with town hall meetings and listening tours and stops by the old neighborhood. But your schedule dictates that you move in a different orbit from most of the people you represent.

And perhaps as the next race approaches, a voice within tells you that you don't want to have to go through all the misery of raising all that money in small increments all over again. You realize that you no longer have the cachet you did as the upstart, the fresh face; you haven't changed Washington, and you've made a lot of people unhappy with difficult votes. The path of least resistance -- of fund-raisers organized by the special interests, the corporate PACs, and the top lobbying shops -- starts to look awfully tempting, and if the opinions of these insiders don't quite jibe with those you once held, you learn to rationalize the changes as a matter of realism, of compromise, of learning the ropes. The problems of ordinary people, the voices of the Rust Belt town or the dwindling heartland, become a distant echo rather than a palpable reality, abstractions to be managed rather than battles to be fought.

(Source: The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Crown, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-0-307-23769-9, hardcover -- page 113-114.)

PRETTY STRAIGHTFORWARD, NO? For the 2008 presidential election cycle, the Obama camp raised $750 million, $250 million more than Bush Jr. raised in 2004. Obama just launched his campaign for 2012 with a fund-raising goal of $1 billion in the next 18 months. Seems to me that Michael Yates's description is accurate, with perhaps one exception. They are not lying. Actually, Mr. Obama is quite candid. He belongs to the top 1% and works for the top 1% in his position of Mediator in Chief. "Ordinary people" have become "abstractions to be managed." (Suggestion for Michael: Please send a signed copy of your Travelogue to Obama to remind him of these pesky "abstractions.") Now, I do not invent anything. These are Obama's words. And I am not the only one to have noticed the trend. Joseph Stiglitz, who is not a particularly radical economist -- professor at Colombia U., former chair of Clinton's council of economic advisors (1995-1997), and senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank (1997-2000) -- put it this way in "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" (Vanity Fair, May 2011):

Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent. When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift -- through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price -- it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.

THE SYSTEM DOES WORK, INDEED. The House Republican 2012 budget resolution under the chair of Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) would cut the income tax top marginal rate down to 25 percent...as well as, of course, deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid -- including renewed efforts to privatize Social Security -- and practically all social services. And if they could get their way, they would get rid of the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, the IRS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the department... Heck, they'd close ALL governmental agencies with the exception of the sacred cow, the Department of Defense, better known as the department of war, over which presides our Nobel peace prize Mediator in Chief (three wars and counting) -- the same Barack Obama who wrote in The Audacity of Hope, "[Ronald] Reagan spoke to America's longing for order, our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism, and faith."

IN LIGHT OF THE REAL OBAMA, and not the fairy tale of "change we can believe in," I can understand Michael Yates's call to arms. "It is time," Michael writes, "to resurrect what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels said at the end of The Communist Manifesto: 'The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries, unite!'" It certainly is time, but when no political freedom exists, when union bosses are as close to the 1 percent blood-sucking leeches as can be, and when the self prevails, the chains have become all but invisible.

DON'T TAKE ME WRONG. I much agree with Michael's vision of workers' unity and the absolute requirement to build a third party. I've advocated (and spent money on) these goals for years, to no avail. Michael and I, and a few other comrades, are true romantics in an 18th century sense. We are about love and the commonality of humanity. But, again, there are humans and less equal humans (cf. Orwell). Some, the happy, power-hungry 1 percent, have been trouncing us forever -- and they even have been able to lead the narrative of life and death. We are whistling in the wind...

MY BELOVED AND LATE PHILIP GREENSPAN used to shout "Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!" He did not think that the so-called democratic process would work. For him, the status quo was the end result of the game. To his last day, he agitated, firmly believing in the words of Charles de Gaulle: "Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!" (June 1940). So does Stéphane Hessel, the 93-year-old French intellectual and diplomat who in Indignez vous! ("Time for outrage!") calls for indignation and non-violent revolution. For Hessel, what's desperately needed is to re-adopt the values envisioned in the 1944 Program of the Conseil National de la Résistance (National Council of the Resistance): Interest of the commons instead of private interests; a planned economy based on a strong public sector; independence and promotion of trade unions; social programs for all people; progressive taxation; nationalization of banks, insurance companies, utilities, etc. Hessel writes:

Those in positions of political responsibility, economic power and intellectual authority, in fact our whole society, must not give up or let ourselves be overwhelmed by the current international dictatorship of the financial markets, which is such a threat to peace and democracy...

We must realize that violence turns its back on hope. We have to choose hope over violence -- choose the hope of nonviolence. That is the path we must learn to follow. The oppressors no less than the oppressed have to negotiate to remove the oppression: that is what will eliminate terrorist violence. That is why we cannot let too much hate accumulate...

HE CONCLUDES HIS 32-PAGE OPUSCULE thusly: "To you who will create the twenty-first century, we say, from the bottom of our hearts, Créer, c'est résister. Résister, c'est créer." ("To create is to resist. To resist is to create.") I'm convinced Michael will agree...

 . . . . .

C'est la vie...

And so it goes...


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Published April 11, 2011