A Little Respect

 

A working class person who lives in the countryside may feel frustrated conveying to a better off city dweller the economic stagnation outside cities since the Great Recession (or Lesser Depression) of 2008. If that working class person has had his or her rural homestead on the market for over a year, a not uncommon length of time to sell real estate in rural working class areas, particularly since 2008, the city dweller might have a hard time understanding why that should be when places in the city sell well within a year if they are reasonably priced. For people in the cities, recovery from the Great Recession has progressed to pre-recession levels since the low point in 2009. For people in the countryside, where the economy has been on a downward trend for decades, there has been little to no recovery in jobs or in the housing market since 2008.

 

Family Dollar Store with freestanding sign, Lenox
A Family Dollar store in Lenox, Georgia. Photo by Michael Rivera. Dollar stores have become a ubiquitous sign of the times in rural and small town America over the past 20 years.

Living in a middle class or upper middle class urban bubble can make it hard to understand how divided the country has become along class lines delineated between the city and the countryside. Those lines have always existed, but never more clearly than now. It’s little wonder many city dwellers, especially those living on either coast, were blindsided by the result of the 2016 election. Because their own economic situation has rebounded since 2008, they failed to notice there was no similar rebound for their country cousins, for whom things have only gotten worse. Beyond economics there is also a growing social and cultural divide between city and country. Again that is nothing new, but again it is a chasm that has opened wider than ever before.

The president elected in 2016 by the weight given to rural votes in the Electoral College has not delivered on any economic improvements to rural life he promised, such as infrastructure jobs, nor will he ever deliver on his promises. Rather than implementing policies meant to improve the lives of many of the people who voted him into office, the current president is primarily interested in stoking their anger and resentment over social and cultural issues while working toward their further economic exploitation by the corporations he really represents. To the extent those voters refuse to recognize their fleecing, they deserve contempt. The difficulty for rural voters who are not true believers in the current president’s cult of vile invective has been that corporate Democrats have forced them into a corner by not offering them a decent alternative.

A clip from “Bailey’s Bad Boy”, a 1962 episode of The Andy Griffith Show, with Bill Bixby and Don Knotts. The Andy Griffith Show ceased production in 1968 while still at the top of the ratings for CBS. Its successor, Mayberry R.F.D., fell to the axe of the Rural Purge a few years later, in which CBS and the other networks got rid of programs targeted at older, rural audiences, and replaced them with programs aimed at younger, urban viewers.

When there are only two substantial political parties, which in their allegiance to corporate donors over all other constituencies have come to resemble each other almost as closely as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, ordinary voters feel powerless and ignored by the system. Social and cultural policy differences remain between the two parties, but ultimately both parties serve their corporate masters before all else. Democrats, most of whom appear to live in urban bubbles on the coasts, would do well to recognize the dissatisfaction of those in the countryside, in fly over country, or the presidential election of 2020 could be a repeat of 2016. Recognition starts from understanding problems unique to rural America, and perhaps then people in cities won’t be surprised to learn not everyone has access to unlimited broadband, as well as many other things they have come to take for granted in wealthier urban centers. A little respect flowing both ways, between city and country, can seem hard to come by in these polarized times, this Cold Civil War, but it can go a long way toward healing divisions.
— Ed.

 

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Consumer or Citizen

 

The Keynesian economic model which held sway in Western capitalist societies in the middle of the twentieth century has long since given way to neoliberalism, a policy and a philosophy which is a reworking of the laissez faire economies of the early industrial revolution. No wonder that we live in a new Gilded Age, the culmination of increasing economic inequality and degradation of publicly subsidized social services for everyone but the rich. Neoliberalism, a term which has meant many things in theory over the last one hundred years, has come to mean in fact laissez faire economics for the poor and middle class, and corporate welfare for the wealthy.

 

The result has been the takeover of the economy by short-sighted financial interests among the largest banks, and the takeover of politics and public policy making by those same banks and international corporations which owe allegiance to their executives and their shareholders instead of to any one national or local community. Consumers bear a great deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs, while citizens can change it.

American corporate flag
A protester at the second presidential inauguration of George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., in January 2005 holds up Adbusters’ Corporate American Flag. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

Consumers are passive; citizens are active. Consumers are inattentive to politics; citizens pay attention to what’s going on in government. Consumers struggle to get by and blame themselves when they cannot; citizens understand larger forces are arrayed against their interests and demand an equal place at the table. Consumers look at the wealthy and see people who helped themselves; citizens know how wealth creates wealth and privilege looks out for its own. Consumers feel helpless to change the course of society; citizens band together because they realize their power is in their numbers.

2018 Women's March in Missoula, Montana 179
A sign at the January 2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana. Photo by Montanasuffragettes.

 

The neoliberal philosophy of the past forty years has stripped people of their view of themselves as citizens with rights, duties, and responsibilities in society and replaced it with the lumpish, passive recognition of themselves as consumers, replaceable parts in the economic machine. Meanwhile, neoliberals have sold the consuming masses on the idea that unions and publicly funded healthcare and education are bad policies, but tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations are good because of some nebulous trickling down that’s supposed to happen. Mission accomplished!

Taking action to change neoliberal policies on the environment, on economic inequality, and on the accountability of corporations, banks, and politicians is going to have start with a change in attitude among the populace from consumers to citizens. It starts with getting the money out of politics, and that starts with overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which equated money with speech. What greater symbol for the neoliberal outlook can there be than “money talks”? The second most important step toward change would diminish the power of the big banks by reinstating the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking. The third step would end government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and divest from it entirely. All easier said than done, of course, and only the first few of many steps to curtail the undue influence of the rich and powerful over society, but once consumers get up off their couches and walk down as citizens to their voting places they will be taking the steps necessary to change a system that works only for a privileged few, and not for them.
— Vita

 

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The Artist’s Rendering

 

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
— Words of Jesus Christ quoted in Matthew 22:21, King James Version of the Bible.

Mona Lisa moustache
Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, with digitally added mustache. Derivative work by Perhelion.

 

This past Friday evening at a Sotheby’s art auction in London, the English graffiti artist Banksy remotely activated a shredder hidden within the frame of his painting Girl With Balloon moments after it had sold for one million British pounds. The lower half of the painting shredded, and there is some question now about the status of the sale and whether Banksy’s vandalizing of his own painting will render an even greater value for it.

Discussion of an artwork’s value outside of its aesthetic appeal is a reminder that for the rich who can afford to pay tremendous prices for art the value lies more in other, equally idiosyncratic, considerations than in its aesthetics. For the rich, art is an investment and a step on the ladder of social climbing. They may not find a particular piece they buy aesthetically appealing whatsoever. The essential thing is that enough other important people find an artwork appealing so that its value is driven up, checking off the boxes for high return on investment and an increase in high society credentials for its new owner. The artwork itself may languish in a warehouse after sale rather than go on private or public display.

 

The investment value of an artwork is, like money itself, largely artificial and sustained by the beliefs of the people who hold it or wish to hold it. No one can eat art, any more than they can eat money, nor can they grow food on it like they could on land, nor withdraw food from it as they might withdraw fish from the sea. It has no monetary value unless enough people believe it does. Aesthetic value, on the other hand, is almost entirely in the eye of the beholder, though some people may in their appreciation of art be too dependent on the opinions of “experts”. For an extreme case of wishful thinking brought on by peer pressure, look to the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Titian - The Tribute Money - Google Art Project
The Tribute Money, a painting by Titian (1490-1576).

Before the Renaissance, art was for decoration of public spaces and the homes of the rich, and for religious instruction in places of worship since most people were illiterate and did not receive their education from books. The names of very few medieval and ancient artists have come down to us along with their works. That changed with the Renaissance, when artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael acquired reputations beyond their immediate patrons among the rich and powerful. Note how we have come to know all three by single names, as if they were modern day celebrities. And it was the widening of cultural influence beyond the insularity of any one city-state’s walls during the Renaissance that allowed artists to break out of anonymity.

The international renown of a few popular artists such as Rembrandt was slow to build at first, and their artworks commanded modest prices by today’s standards. It is the international culture of today and the concentration of great wealth among an ever smaller percentage of the population that has enabled the explosion in high prices for the artworks of a relatively small number of well known artists. The last great jump in prices was roughly during the Gilded Age around the turn of the twentieth century, when a great concentration of wealth created a new aristocracy of capitalists.

In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, wealthy newspaper publisher and art collector Charles Foster Kane, modeled on tycoon William Randolph Hearst and played by Orson Welles, discusses his changing economic circumstances with his banker Mr. Thatcher, played by George Coulouris, and his longtime assistant Mr. Bernstein, played by Everett Sloane.

Now there is another concentration of wealth occurring, this time on a worldwide scale rather than limited to Europe and North America. Nothing has changed, of course: as always, the rich get richer. It’s the scale of wealth accumulation that has changed, and when artworks are selling for hundreds of millions of British pounds or American dollars, a mere million for a painting by anti-establishment artist Banksy is entry level stuff. The rich people sitting on mountains of the wealth of the world would not flinch at shredding a million pounds, and the irony of one artist’s rendering matters not at all to them as long as the artist’s growing fame increases their return on investment.
— Vita

10/8/2018 Update: Since last Friday, when Banksy’s Girl With Balloon partially shredded after being sold at auction for about £1,000,000, its value has increased by at least 50%, and may have doubled.

 

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Grow a Perfect Tomato

 

To grow a perfect tomato, start with a planter on wheels. You could put your tomato plant in the ground, but you would have to erect a fence to protect it from critters, and you couldn’t control the soil nutrients and watering as well as you could when the plant is in a pot. Place the planter as close as possible to your house or apartment, preferably on a deck or balcony, the idea being to discourage critters, while making it easier for you to tend your plant. The planter needs wheels because your tomato plant needs as much soil as possible, preferably in a deep pot, and that makes the whole contraption heavy. Depending on where the sunlight falls at your place and on your critter situation, you may want to move that planter around a bit.

Now that you have a planter on wheels, preferably a deep planter so that it holds water longer than a shallow one, fill that planter with high quality organic potting soil that has good stuff already in it, like bat guano and worm castings. In order for your tomato plant to stay healthy and productive throughout the growing season, quality potting soil which doesn’t rely on synthetic fertilizers is the key component. Plant your plant, good and deep, and water it in. Your tomato plant is off to a good start.


Tomato on its stem
A tomato growing on its stem. Photo by tooony.

Once your tomato plant starts growing, you will need to place a cage or some kind of sturdy supports around it before it gets out of hand sprawling all over the place. Some tomato plants are more compact than others, but even they will appreciate support for their fruits when they come along. Now is also the time to consider additional critter control measures if necessary by installing a net or other guard along with the cage or supports. Your tomato plant is of value to you, and it could be to others as well, others who are always watchful and ready to strike the moment the fruit is ripe.

Water your tomato plant deeply and infrequently, rather than shallowly and frequently. You will need to keep an eye on the weather. A rain gauge may help. Too much water is bad, as is too little. The amount and intensity of sunlight affects the amount of water your tomato plant needs. Stick your finger several inches deep into the potting soil, and if the soil is dry and no rain is in the forecast, water your plant well. Inspect your plant weekly for tomato hornworms, more if you see signs of leaf eating. Pick off and discard the hornworms. The same goes for leaves stricken with blight – pick off and discard them.

Pomidor
A ripe and ready perfect tomato. Photo by Letrek.

Once your tomato plant starts bearing fruit, be even more judicious with your watering. Too much water at this point could lead to disfigurement of the fruit, as well as ruining their flavor. Add calcium to the soil, along with an organic fertilizer high in phosphorous. Phosphorous will help the fruits grow and multiply, and calcium will keep them healthy. Relax and watch the fruits of your tomato plant turn from green to pink to red. When the fruits are ready for you, they will separate from the plant with a gentle tug from you. If they won’t come free readily, you can still cut them free at the stem and put them on the kitchen counter to continue ripening over a couple of days. They will be delicious!

Cost per tomato: Between 5 and 10 dollars the first year, cheaper afterward.
— Izzy

 

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Name Your Price

 

Now that Christmas is past, shoppers will be out looking for bargains as retailers slash prices in an attempt to clear inventory off their books before the end of the year. That brings up the subject of pricing, which beyond the obvious need to cover costs and generate profits, leaves some leeway in the ongoing, never ending psychological games between sellers and buyers.

 

Why $9.99 instead of $10.00? What about the typesetting of that $9.99? Is $9.99 better? How about 9.99, dropping entirely the suggestion that the seller is asking for real money from the buyer? Gas stations price fuel at even finer increments, using tenths of a cent, such as $2.299/10 per gallon. These pricing systems seem like they have been around forever, and it’s surprising to learn they are no older than 150 years, and in the case of gasoline pricing no older than the 1920s or 1930s.

1894 - Koch & Shankweiler Newspaper Ad2 Allentown PA
An 1894 newspaper advertisement for Koch & Shankweiler clothiers in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The fractional pricing is almost all in quarter dollar increments.

Retailers started pricing items at fractions of a dollar rather than rounding the price to the nearest dollar in the late nineteenth century partly in response to inflation which raised their costs past one dollar for many things, and partly to convey to shoppers that they were getting a bargain. When inflation raised the cost of most items in a department store past a dollar, some retailers responded by rounding up the price to the consumer to the next dollar, while others retained fractions in their pricing. Eventually the retailers who retained fractions found they sold more than the retailers who rounded up, and the same principle applied to items within their own stores where they tried the different tactics. For reasons that psychologists and sellers dispute to this day, buyers like fractions of a dollar in pricing, and they respond by purchasing those items over the ones that are priced at rounded dollars, even though those prices may be only one cent higher.

Vintage Radio Advertising - Crosley Radio, "Crosely Again Lowers Prices", "Big Reduction in Famous Trirdyn and Other Radios", From the Literary Digest, January 17, 1925 (9700961943)
A Crosley Radio advertisement in a 1925 edition of The Literary Digest. Prices were at whole dollars or at half dollar fractions, underscoring how even in the early twentieth century fractional pricing was uncommon. Photo from Flickr user Joe Haupt.

At first retailers thought fractional pricing attracted bargain shoppers, and therefore they used the tactic principally for sale items. By the 1920s, however, fractional pricing became commonplace throughout retail marketing, regardless of whether items were on sale or not. The one area where sellers rarely use fractional pricing is for high profile, luxury items, presumably because those shoppers look down on bargain hunting, and because at a certain high dollar amount adding a fraction to the end of the price becomes ludicrous. The only aspect that needed fine tuning was the exact fraction that worked best as a compromise for sellers and buyers. It appears that fractions in the ninetieth percentile have worked best, which is why prices at half dollar fractions, which were once popular, are rarer now than they once were.

As for gas stations’ pricing fuel down to tenths of a cent, that practice dates to the 1920s and 1930s when government entities first started taxing gasoline to raise money for road building and maintenance. The government taxed the fuel sellers, and the sellers passed the cost on to consumers. When gasoline cost ten or fifteen cents per gallon as it did in those times, it made sense to fine tune fractional pricing down to tenths of a cent. The business of selling gasoline retail has always run on slim margins, which is why those businesses have always diversified, first by offering automobile mechanical services, and now more commonly by selling convenience items at a high markup. Gasoline retailers have learned that consumers will drive a mile down the road to save a penny a gallon on fuel, and since the gasoline on offer is essentially a loss leader for the higher priced items the retailer sells, it makes sense even in these times of fuel prices in the range of dollars for retailers to retain the tenth of a cent fractional pricing that could make the difference in their profitability from month to month.

The 1980 comedy Used Cars, directed by Robert Zemeckis, included this television advertisement for one way of dealing with high prices. Note that the Mercedes luxury car price is rounded to $24,000. Warning: foul language.

The latest development in the continuing tug of war between sellers and buyers that deserves mention is the one in which grocers have challenged the math skills of shoppers beyond simply rounding fractions off to the nearest dollar by posing more complicated division skills, such as 4/10.00, 5/12.50, or 10/16.90. These are not terribly difficult math problems, and many people would not need a calculator to figure them out. This pricing ploy is instead an attempt by the retailer to get the consumer to buy more of the item not only by suggesting it is a great value, but also by confusion over what the price is per unit.

Particularly when the consumer has to compare one item priced in such a manner to a similar item priced in the same way, the laziness and confusion of the shopper works to the advantage of the retailer. In that case, even buyers who do not have a calculator with them should take comfort in understanding that by law in most places they do not have to pick up the suggested amount in order to take advantage of the advertised price. A “Buy one, bet one free” promotion, for example, does not necessarily require the shopper to pick up two items in order to receive the benefit of buying only one item at half price. As always, however, caveat emptor – buyer beware – and check with the store manager to be sure of the applicable policy.
― Vita

 

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The Art of the Steal

 

The Republicans have passed their tax bill in the House of Representatives, and next week it goes to the Senate for a vote. This week the Senate Finance Committee held hearings on the tax bill, and Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) became so upset with Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) criticism of the bill and of Republicans’ motives in trying to pass it, that he exclaimed “Bullcrap!” in response. “Bullcrap” seems to be a favored light curse among Republicans in public life. The last time the term made headlines was when a self-absorbed Republican representative from Oklahoma used it earlier this year to rebuke some critical constituents.

 

Senator Brown’s criticism of the bill was entirely accurate and to the point, which of course was why Senator Hatch called it “bullcrap”. No need to respond with strong language like “bullcrap” if Senator Brown’s remarks weren’t close enough to the mark that they might alert the slumbering masses they were about to be screwed so that a handful of wealthy people and corporations could stuff even more money in their pockets at the expense of everyone else. Like any old master at shilling for wealthy patrons, Senator Hatch understands that the game is pretty obvious to anyone who is halfway paying attention, even mainstream journalists, but it lacks decorum to point it out to the rubes, who must always be led to believe there is something in it for them.

If-us-land-mass-were-distributed-like-us-wealth
An illustration of income inequality. Map by Stephen Ewen.

The tax bill plainly enough steals from the poor and gives to the rich. The question remains whether the Republicans will get away with it, not only by passing it in the Senate, thereby making it the law of the land once the Capitalist-in-Chief signs it, as he certainly will, but in the 2018 congressional elections. Americans have notoriously short memories, at least for the dry details of economics.

Orson Welles as the plutocrat Charles Foster Kane in his 1941 film Citizen Kane campaigns for governor of New York with the usual palaver about the “working man.”

The conventional wisdom says people vote their pocketbooks, but that has been disproved over and over again in recent elections. The wealthy vote their pocketbooks, but since there are relatively few of them and therefore their actual votes don’t amount to much, they open their pocketbooks to their favored candidates, who then convince the rubes to get fired up about social issues like gay marriage, and never mind that in the long run they are voting against their economic self-interest. Getting screwed by the very people who profess to be your friends has been a time honored strategy that works, just ask the Native Americans not long after the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrim settlers, and again and again to their misfortune through the years after that.
― Ed.

 

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The Check Is in the Mail

 

At the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, which can be dated to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, there was much talk in the West of a “peace dividend” on account of the anticipated reduction in military spending. The dividend never amounted to anything as far as average Americans were concerned, particularly since the Gulf War came along a year later, and then through the 1990s the US involved itself in flash points around the globe in its self-appointed role as world police force. In the new century, the so-called War on Terror has preoccupied this country and dragged it into middle eastern quagmires ever since 2001. That peace dividend looks like it’s never going to show up.

Counting minor skirmishes and interventions, America has been in conflict with enemies foreign and domestic for most of its history. Always in the past after a major conflict, the military would draw down its personnel and weaponry and return to a reduced level that was considered the peacetime military norm, even if small conflicts were bound to flare up. Again after World War II, it appeared the armed forces would follow the pattern and draw down, and indeed they did for several years in the late 1940s. But then the Berlin Airlift happened, heightening tensions with the Soviet Union, and more or less beginning the Cold War. Shortly after that came the Korean War. The country has pretty well been on a war footing ever since, a condition President Eisenhower warned against in his 1961 farewell address when he spoke of the military-industrial complex.

The Ladies' home journal (1948) (14763515784)
From The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1948, an article in the magazine described the trials of a young family making ends meet. Here the father balances the family books while the mother irons clothes. No doubt they juggled income and expenses in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, not billions or trillions.
In a 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama anticipated a peace dividend from reductions in American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dividend he said he would use to pay down the national debt and put Americans back to work repairing and improving infrastructure at home. Like the Cold War peace dividend, the dividend that was supposed to follow from over a decade of middle eastern wars also proved illusory. For one thing, our enormous military spending, larger than the military budgets of the next eight biggest spenders combined, has been done with borrowed money. Claiming a reduction in military spending would yield a dividend from the balance is like a homeowner taking $20 out of the household budget meant for repayment of various debts and calling it a windfall. Not only will the homeowner have to repay the $20 next month, but he or she will have to come up with an additional $20 to make up for the shortfall.

 

The other thing about this country’s huge military is that some interested parties in the military and in the defense industry like to keep it sky high. That is what Eisenhower was warning us about in 1961. These are people who, while they may not like war exactly – when it comes to actual military service, for instance, a good many of them seem to have other priorities – nonetheless have acquired a taste for the profits and power of the military-industrial complex. They are the friends of Halliburton and Blackwater, and they are in high places. They are the people who will see to it a peace dividend never gets beyond their own sticky fingers into the wallets of the American people who have paid for all their boondoggles.

From Mel Brooks’s 1974 film Blazing Saddles, with Harvey Korman and Robyn Hilton, and Mel Brooks himself as the Governor, this scene could just as well be depicting activities in the modern day Oval Office as in a fictional governor’s office in 1874. Warning: foul language.

There will not be enough money in the federal budget for fixing the nation’s infrastructure, moreover bringing it up to 21st century standards, until the obscene amounts spent on the military-industrial complex are drastically reduced. There will not be enough money for health care, for public education, for Social Security, for fighting climate change by ditching the fossil fuel industry in favor of renewable energy, for doing all the things we want to do to improve our society as a whole, and not merely improve the fortunes of the oligarchy, if we do not come to our senses regarding our budget for interfering around the world and in some unintended ways making it a more dangerous place. Throwing all that borrowed money into the war machine for the past 70 years has bought us a grand house, with a grand mortgage to match, and meanwhile the termites have been busy at the foundations.
― Vita

 

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30 Years and 16 Tons

 

Paying off a mortgage is a wonderful thing, and something that is more remarkable now than it was forty or fifty years ago. Tighter lending standards since the burst of the housing bubble in 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, mean fewer people are qualifying for mortgages now, but the people who currently have mortgages are less likely to ever pay them off because low interest rates mean they will refinance at least once, resetting the clock.

 

Until the 1930s, mortgages were an uncommon way to purchase a house, and mortgages with 15 or 30 year terms were unheard of. House buyers put as much as 50% down, and the mortgage was for three to five years, all of it interest. At the end of the term, a balloon payment for the remaining principal was due, and it’s not surprising there was a high default rate. The federal government changed the mortgage market in the 1930s by stepping in and insuring lenders against the risk of default on certain approved loans, and later by buying those loans to sell as securities in financial markets.

AC Mortgage Burning Party
Mortgage burning party of the Antelope Club of Indianapolis, Indiana, in June 1977; photo by Sheariner.

The modern mortgage market followed from those New Deal policies and the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). After World War II, the Veterans Administration (VA) gave another boost to home ownership rates by insuring mortgage loans to veterans with no down payment. The demand for new housing was so great that mass production methods came to house construction and the firm of Levitt & Sons built what would be called Levittown on Long Island, New York, a planned community of over 17,000 houses they built between 1947 and 1951.

 

Subprime Mortgage Offer
The window sign of a mortgage lender in July 2008, offering subprime mortgages; photo by The Truth About.
Housing and mortgage markets stayed healthy through the 1970s, but by the 1980s they turned down when interest rates spiked past 10% nearly to 20%, and wages for middle and working class people started stagnating, as measured against inflation. As home ownership rates slipped, the federal government in the 1980s and 1990s deregulated the financial sector of the economy, loosening restrictions on lending, and especially on the financial instruments related to mortgages. For Wall Street, the doors to the candy store had been flung open.

 

Home ownership rates hit an all time high by 2005, when the bubble was inflated to its biggest extent. That’s not surprising considering all the shady wheeling and dealing going on at the time. What’s also not surprising was what happened next, when the bubble burst – millions of new homeowners defaulting on their mortgages and the housing market tanking; while the Wall Street financiers, and the federal legislators and regulators who were supposed to keep a watchful eye on them, all walked away with hardly a scratch.

Tennessee Ernie Ford sings his number one hit “Sixteen Tons” in this 1955 television appearance.

 

The Wall Street people and their media mouthpieces tried to blame the homeowners for taking on more debt than they could afford. Meanwhile, the taxpayer bailout of Wall Street in 2008 and 2009 did almost nothing to help those homeowners. They weren’t bailed out. No trickle down economics for them. Through all that, the wages of middle and working class people that started stagnating in the 1980s have stayed flat. People who acquired a 30 year mortgage in the 1990s, when the market was turning up, still have to make their payments each month.

From the Monty Python’s Flying Circus television show on the BBC in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

 

Meanwhile, their other costs of living have gone up, such as the student debt for their children who may now be, in the 2010s, graduating from college. That’s assuming they can help their children pay for college; if not, the children will be saddled with such an onerous debt upon graduation they may not feel ready for a mortgage of their own until they are in their 40s. Who can blame current homeowners (in name only, and not in deed), these indentured servants, these wage slaves, for continually turning to their homes as a source of funds by refinancing again and again, to the point they will never have a mortgage burning party? The only economic positives they see are the low interest rates that make refinancing an attractive, and maybe a sole, option for clinging to the American Dream.
― Vita

 

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My Way or the Highway

 

While infrastructure in the United States crumbles from neglect and is starved of public funds needed for its repair, the owners of sports teams seem to have little trouble extracting public funds for what are ultimately private facilities. Most new stadiums, arenas, and ballparks are financed with a mixture of private and public funds, and when a municipality refuses to throw taxpayer money into the pot, team owners threaten and cajole until they either get their way or successfully shop their team to another municipality that will contribute financing to their liking. It’s a corrupt bargain, and the benefits of a new facility for the municipality are not nearly as great as city and team officials would conjure when they are selling the plan to taxpayers.

 

Colosseum in Rome-April 2007-1- copie 2B
The Colosseum in Rome, Italy, at dusk in April 2007; photo by Diliff. The ancient Romans had their bread and circuses, too, but they built things to last.
The National Football League’s Raiders, after long negotiations with Oakland city officials in which the city was prepared to bend over backwards to keep the Raiders, but refused to contribute taxpayer money for a new stadium, will move sometime within the next few years to Las Vegas, Nevada, where city officials bent over backwards and kicked in taxpayer money to help build the team a new stadium. Once the new stadium is built, it won’t be named for the good people of Las Vegas, or the Raiders, or even the team’s owner, Mark Davis, but for a corporation, in the form of advertising sold as naming rights. Tickets and concession stand items for a family of four can cost over two hundred dollars for an afternoon or evening of entertainment. Add to that a higher tax bill for years to come to pay off a luxury with nebulous benefits for the fans and the city, all of it ultimately benefiting a handful of team owners and banks, and it’s a wonder ordinary people put up with it.

 

But put up with it they do and, remarkably, mostly without complaint. People are so rabidly engrossed in their sports team affiliations that they allow greedy team owners and craven city officials to raid the public treasury to finance luxurious private facilities, the revenues from which will mostly go to others, and little to the taxpayers. The ordinary people allow this while they themselves depend on roads, bridges, water supplies, and public facilities that are neglected, derelict embarrassments. They point with a kind of perverse civic pride instead to the new, billion dollar plus stadium or arena or ballpark in their city, a facility which isn’t even their own, despite having helped pay for it. Why do they care a great deal about something that means little, when all about them meaningful things crumble to dust?

 

Through the middle years of the twentieth century, Americans built the great hydroelectric dams and the major roads, including the interstate highway system we rely on still today. In those years, three of the four major sports – football, basketball, and hockey – were peripheral to the lives of most people. Only baseball took a central place, and even it wasn’t the enormous business it is today, with billions of dollars at stake. What changed all that?
Aqueduct of Segovia 02
Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain; photo by Bernard Gagnon.

 

Television and mass media played a part, starting in the 1950s and gathering momentum and power through subsequent decades. The NFL Super Bowl, inaugurated in 1967, is now annually the most watched television event. The next day at work, people buzz with their co-workers about the Super Bowl commercials. Another factor is the lack of civic involvement people feel, particularly in big cities. The 1950s and 1960s gave rise not only to mass media, but mass man and woman as well. Faceless cogs in the corporate machine. One person’s lonely voice doesn’t matter. You can’t fight city hall, and the Chief Executive Officer of your company is out of reach.

 

Via appia
Remains of the Via Appia (Appian Way) in Rome, Italy, near Quarto Miglio; photo by Kleuske.
But you can sing your team’s fight song from your seat in it’s sparkling new stadium, the stadium you may have grumbled about having to pay for, but in the end you didn’t speak up and object. It’s your team, after all, one of the few things you have left to cling to in this uncertain world. Try taking your enormous foam hand with the forefinger raised in a “We’re Number 1” gesture and going to a nearby highway overpass, one where the concrete has crumbled away in spots, exposing the rusting reinforcing bars, and sit underneath that bridge on the sloping concrete revetment, with your enormous foam finger in your team’s colors, and start pointing out to passing motorists the decay all around you, and see where that gets you.
― Ed.

 

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How About That Free Lunch Now

 

The great thing about the internet is that it is interactive; interactivity is also one of the bad things about the internet. When people read paper newspapers, way back when, they were exposed to advertisements paid for by commercial establishments in the news and features sections, and to classified advertisements paid for mostly by individuals or small businesses in a section of their own. Paper newspaper advertisements were interactive only in the sense that the reader could choose to ignore them. This was reasonably easy for the reader because the ads themselves did not hop up and down, yell and scream for attention, obfuscate the actual content of the newspaper for a period, or otherwise make a nuisance of themselves and detract from the peaceful enjoyment of the newspaper by the person who had paid a dime or a quarter for it.

When newspapers and writers of other content moved to the internet, they still needed to make a living, of course, and naturally they turned to advertisers to help fund their efforts. Since there was no pay model for the internet, such as had been the case in the days of paper newspapers when readers either subscribed for home delivery or paid directly at street corner kiosks, publishers relied even more heavily on advertisers for income. For some reason, people had gotten the notion that internet content should be free, and rightly or wrongly that’s the way things developed. Here is where the interactive part kicked in and started an internet arms race.

Bob Dylan performs his song “Mr. Tambourine Man” at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan’s guitar and harmonica rig is much like the getup buskers used then and today to make a few dollars for their efforts. All that’s missing here is the hat or guitar case for collecting money tossed in by passers by. Many small websites, like this one, have to either pass the hat by posting a “Donate” button, or hope for the best from advertising revenue, or both.

Advertisers realized that since the internet was interactive and didn’t just lie there waiting to wrap fish after it was published like the old paper newspapers did, they could do things to jazz up their ads and, they thought, readers would pay closer attention and the advertisers would see higher returns. Great! Not all advertisers, just the ones who lacked any restraint, got their ads to hop up and down, to yell and scream for attention, to obfuscate for a period the content the reader was actually there to see, and to otherwise make a nuisance of themselves in order to draw attention. It turns out people did not like that, particularly the ones with slow internet connections or limited bandwidth, which the sparkly new advertisements ate into, much to the hapless reader’s dismay. Enter software engineers with a retaliatory response.

The software engineers had some experience in combating opponents in the advertising field after having worked to swat away the pop up army of advertisements that plagued internet users in the early days. One thing many advertisers have never been known for is restraint. Now here they were again, but instead of pop ups they were employing twitchy, sparkly, pushy advertisements. The software engineers working on behalf of browser makers and internet users came up with ad blockers. Now all ads were blocked. Hah hah! Internet users had the option of whitelisting – or permitting – ads on a website in the options menu of their ad blocker, but who would ever bother to do that? Publishers noticed, however, that their internet ad revenue plummeted.

An emotionally fraught rendition of “Silver Springs” in a 1997 concert by Fleetwood Mac, which demonstrates why they continued to draw large crowds well after their heyday. The song, written and sung by Stevie Nicks, who as a songwriter ranks in the top echelon of 1970s and 1980s pop and soft rock, is a deeply personal revelation. Fleetwood Mac had by 1997 long passed their peak of popularity for album sales, but concert ticket prices for such an established group with an extensive catalog of hits remained high, from $20 to $50 for the cheap seats, to over $100 for the best seats. The internet works similarly, with an enormous underclass of websites barely making it, and several well established websites with large followings dominating the market.

Enter Google in the spring of 2017 with the Funding Choices program and their own ad blocker built into their Chrome browser, which in the past year has overtaken Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the world’s most popular browser. But since Google makes the lion’s share of its revenue selling ads and marketing user information, why would Google then be against ads? Because the obnoxious ads that prompted the development of ad blockers have poisoned the well for everybody, and Google, with its dominant market position, can dictate which ads will fly and which ones won’t.

The Funding Choices program is geared toward internet users, telling them they can pay to subscribe to a publisher’s content and go ad free, or view the content free on condition they allow ads, which Google assures them they have vetted for good behavior. Google’s ad blocker built into its Chrome browser is geared toward advertisers, telling them essentially that unless they allow Google to vet their ads for good behavior, they will not see the light of day on the world’s most popular browser. All of this would seem a boon to both internet users and publishers. But that depends on how much they trust “Don’t Be Evil” Google. Rather than turn over yet more power to Google, a company which has already surpassed Microsoft in ways not only financial but morally suspect, perhaps the time has come for internet users to seek alternatives not only for search but for the multitude of other applications which Google has used to ingratiate itself as the public’s servant, the servant whose ear is always at the door. This website, for one, will seek alternatives to displaying Google ads. Oh, you weren’t even aware there were Google ads on this website?
― Techly

 

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