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.

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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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And Another Thing

 

Telling someone off, no matter who they are and how high and mighty they may seem, is as American as apple pie. In fact, the more important a person purports to be, the better for all concerned in our society that someone tell that person off sooner or later, either before or after they get too big for their britches. That’s democracy. Last October, when Juli Briskman was out for a bicycle ride in Sterling, Virginia, and the motorcade of the Duffer-in-Chief passed her on the road on their way back from yet another weekend on the links, Ms. Briskman exercised her rights as well as herself by flipping off the Duffer and his motorcade. Her gesture was every bit an expression of American freedom as the “thumbs up” gesture the Duffer favors using, or even the one where he points to the person next to him in an awkward and strange display of his dominance.

 

Ms. Briskman is now suing her former employer, Akima, a federal contractor in the facilities maintenance business, for unlawful termination in order to collect legal fees and the severance pay they promised, but never gave her. Akima’s management used the excuse of an obscene social media posting by Ms. Briskman to fire her, because she posted the photo of herself flipping off the president’s motorcade after it had already circulated widely through the news media. She was making a political statement on her own time when she flipped off El Presidente, and she posted the picture on her personal social media account, with no reference to the company she worked for, yet the Akima bosses saw fit to throw her under the bus once it became widely known she worked for them, a federal contractor seemingly at the mercy of the whims of El Presidente.

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The Women’s March on January 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., one day after the installment of Spanky the Pussy Grabber in the Oval Office. Photo by Liz Lemon.

It’s unfortunate Ms. Briskman lost her job over her political statement, though considering how Akima management reacted it is perhaps best for her in the long run to get away from those people. What’s particularly interesting about the lawsuit she is bringing against them is the effect it may have on employers’ control over their employees lives outside of work. There has been a trend toward companies’ monitoring of employees’ social media accounts, and whether the companies or the public disapproves of any individual’s social media postings or political activity outside of work should be immaterial under the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is worth noting the irony that the Supreme Court, with its 2010 decision in Citizens United, upheld the notion that the political campaign expenditures of corporations qualify as free speech, with protection under the First Amendment, yet there has been no Supreme Court ruling on the broad capacity of corporations to intimidate their employees when it comes to the employees expressing themselves freely on their own time.

People are free of course not to work for such corporations, just as they are free not to work for a corporation like Sinclair Broadcasting, which forces its employees to spout the company line over the airwaves on the company’s time, whether they agree with it or not. The problem comes when these companies acquire undue influence throughout their particular industry, and can then effectively blackball not only dissent, but the dissenters as well. That’s where the courts are supposed to step in to protect the rights of individuals, the rights that are codified in many laws from the Constitution’s Bill of Rights on down to state laws against discrimination and unequal treatment of all sorts. But it’s expensive to fight large corporations in court. The corporations know that, and they will often act in that case in what they perceive as their own best interest, letting the legal chips fall where they may, which often as not happens to be in their favor.

A fine display of the art of telling someone off in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, from the play by David Mamet about real estate salesmen, and starring Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, and Jack Lemmon. Warning: foul language.

There ought to be a better way, and in fact there was a better way at one time. It was called “unions”. Corporations have non-disclosure agreements, arbitration agreements, end-user license agreements, and any number of other agreements in legalese meant to tie up individuals one by one and render them powerless against the mighty corporation with its cadre of lawyers on retainer. An individual such as Juli Briskman has to rely on a GoFundMe campaign in order to go to court to ensure her rights are respected, and to be able to pay the fees of attorneys working on her case as well as necessary household expenses while she looks for a new job. She is actually lucky, in that her case has generated sufficient publicity to get people interested in donating to her cause. Most people have to fight on their own, falling back on scanty resources. Unions, as corrupt and inefficient as some of them were, helped keep corporations in check, and now that the unions are almost entirely gone there is no check remaining on the corporations, not with the government in their pockets, and so now they seek to control every aspect of our lives, economic, social, and political.
— Ed.

 

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Slowed to a Trickle

 

There’s a story of how in eastern Siberia in past centuries, where the people often partook of the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, for its mind and mood altering properties, the rich often hoarded the supply and the poor had to do without until the rich threw a party such as a wedding, at which event they could be counted on to ingest some mushrooms and, when they ventured out to urinate, the poor would somehow capture the rich people’s urine, which was still loaded with the psychoactive ingredient, and the poor would drink it for their own trippy experience. The difference between that old story and modern trickle down economics is that in the story, if true at least to some extent, the peasants actually did reap some kind of reward finally. No such evidence exists for the modern economic theory.

Gary Cohn at Regional Media Day (cropped)
Gary “Hands Up” Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council.

 

It’s a good line to trot out as cover for tax cuts for the rich, apparently, and that’s why to sell the latest tax cut package it’s been used again by current presidential administration flacks like Gary Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council and former Goldman Sachs executive. The package passed the U.S. Senate on December 2, and now it awaits reconciliation with a similar package already passed by the House of Representatives. Republican leaders in Congress hope to have the bill ready for the president to sign by Christmas. Happy Holidays! Or Merry Christmas, if you prefer that with your egg nog.

Besides selling the bald-faced lie that the tax package is somehow supposed to benefit any other economic group but the wealthy, through the voodoo of trickling down, Republicans are cramming in several other things before they tie up the package with a nice bow. One is the repeal of the individual mandate from the Affordable Care Act, which will leave 13 million people uninsured. Another is the authorization of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. And a third is the destruction of the Johnson Amendment, which will be like a Citizens United watershed moment for right wing churches, allowing them to flood political campaigns with money from their congregations without endangering their tax exempt status. Of course, other churches, left wing or neutral, will be able to do the same, but it is the religious right that has long scorned the Johnson Amendment as an impediment to its agenda. Indeed, all three of these additions to the tax package will scratch itches conservatives have been worrying over for years or decades.

 

There are other items added to the basic tax package that will satisfy many conservatives, though surprisingly not all, and not because the tax cuts don’t go far enough, but because they go too far or are misplaced. At a presentation before an auditorium full of CEOs in November, Gary Cohn stressed that the corporate tax cuts in the new package should spur investment, and to prove his point he asked for a show of hands from those present who would increase their company’s investments. A few raised their hands, but not the majority, and certainly not as many as Mr. Cohn apparently expected, because he asked “Why aren’t the other hands up?” before quickly moving on to other business. CEOs elsewhere have also questioned the necessity of the corporate tax cuts, which is to their credit considering how greedily corporate America generally behaves.

Steven Mnuchin official portrait (cropped)
Steven “Mr. Cruella De Vil” Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury.

No, the corporate tax cuts in the latest bill are intended to benefit the financial sector, Wall Street. That’s why people like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, creatures of Wall Street, like the bill and defend it. They understand it. It means more money for themselves and their colleagues. They talk about how it will help producers of things produce more and better things, and how it will improve life for the lower orders. They believe none of that, nor do they understand it. They never produced anything. They have no interest in producing anything. They can barely conceal their contempt for people who produce things, and particularly the ones who get their hands dirty doing it.

From the 1940 Disney film Fantasia, the Chinese dancers of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet envisioned as mushrooms very much like the fly agaric kind.

People like Mnuchin and Cohn and the Supreme Leader who appointed them understand only money, meaning the more of it for themselves the better, especially if it means less for everyone else. To move economic metaphors from the latrine to the marina, from trickle down to a rising tide lifts all boats, the Wall Street Greed Heads could follow a better model than trickle down by investing in the bottom, the rising tide. They don’t understand that, however, nor can they spare what little empathy they have for it, and that leaves 99 percent of the country coping with the trickled down policies the Greed Heads do understand, which is all for the few, the one percent.
― Ed.

 

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Separated at Birth

 

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

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . “
― excerpt from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

 

The two quotes above seem straightforward in their meaning, even if some people with self-serving agendas insist there is room for interpretation in both. Some religious groups, but by no means the majority, chafe at the straightforward interpretations and would rather see the federal government allow them to get involved in partisan politics while maintaining their tax exempt status. They applaud any effort to roll back enforcement of the Johnson Amendment to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code, which forbids charitable or non-profit organizations with tax exemptions from directly endorsing political candidates. In May, the current president signed an executive order relaxing those restrictions, essentially directing the IRS to use discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment. Since the law would have to be changed by Congress, court challenges to the executive order will probably crop up, though none have as of yet.

 

The simple solution for religious groups who want to submerge themselves in the American political process is to forgo tax exempt status. That appears not to be an option they care to consider. They want their cake, and to eat it, too. The Johnson Amendment, added to the IRS code in 1954 by Lyndon Johnson, at the time a Democratic senator from Texas, has always been laxly enforced by the IRS, revoking the tax exemptions of only the most egregious violators. That’s not good enough for some people. They want the wall separating church and state torn down.
LBJ and Diaz Ordaz
President Lyndon B. Johnson hosts the President of Mexico, Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, at his Texas Ranch in 1964; photo by Yoichi Okamoto.

 

But not necessarily torn down completely. Muslims, in the view of the Christian Right, should probably not be included in a law respecting an establishment of religion by allowing them to funnel their congregants’ money to chosen political leaders, just like their Christian counterparts. Not so sure about the Jews, either. Catholics? We’ll have to think about that one. Once we start making exemptions for the exemption, we have to decide who gets it and who doesn’t. What would Jerry Falwell do? His son, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Liberty University President and leader of the evangelical Christian Right, believes the Johnson Amendment has to go because it infringes on the free speech rights of religious leaders.

In this scene from the 1980 film Caddyshack, Bishop Pickerling, played by Henry Wilcoxon, plays golf during a thunderstorm, with groundskeeper Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray, serving as his caddy. The Bishop exercises his free speech rights at the end, with consequences. Note that the music quotes the score from the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments.

That argument ignores the reality of religious leaders already expressing themselves freely, just not being allowed to funnel money to candidates while maintaining their own tax exempt status. What religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., really appear to mean is that the Johnson Amendment is an infringement on their free speech rights in the sense that was addressed by the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens United decision, which found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) was violating the free speech rights of corporations, both for profit and non-profit, when they limited campaign contributions. Money talks. Now some religious groups, such as Mr. Falwell’s, want the same kind of special dispensation, while also maintaining their exemption from paying taxes. That’s called the Sweet Deal!

George Carlin, a man who really did “tell it like it is”, in a bit from his 1988 performance What Am I Doing in New Jersey? Warning: foul language.

For the week beginning August 21, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is organizing what they call Hometown Congressional Visits to express support for the Johnson Amendment. This is a country of many faiths and to allow one vocal minority – regardless of it’s billing of itself as “The Moral Majority” – to usurp the voices of the many would be not only wrong now, but unconstitutional from the founding of the republic.
― Ed.

 

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We the People

Tuesday the nation celebrates independence from the British Crown and eventual establishment of a democratic republic. That’s the story, at least. Of the independence part there is no doubt, because that is pretty straightforward. It’s the democratic republic part that doesn’t quite coincide with historical reality, and certainly not with what the United States of America has become today. Today it is an oligarchy, and looking back over the history of the country it becomes clear the inclination was always present.

 

The Founding Fathers were never for a broadly based democracy, instead leaning toward governance by a limited set of people – white males with property. Some Founding Fathers, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Washington among them, believed the democratic republic would be stronger if more people owned property, or capital, and therefore had a say and a stake in governance. Though they were rather wealthy men themselves, they would probably be horrified at the current state of income inequality in this country and how that has wrought havoc on the democratic republic they established.

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Originally entitled Yankee Doodle, this is one of several versions of a scene painted by Archibald Willard (1836-1918) in the late nineteenth century that came to be known as The Spirit of ’76.

Suffrage has broadened greatly since the eighteenth century, but a vote for candidate A over candidate B makes little difference when both candidates are backed by the same small clique of financiers and corporate boards. Once the candidate is in office, he or she tunes in the oligarchy and tunes out the voters, at least until the next election. Of what use then is a vote when the person voted for doesn’t represent your interests when in office, will often in fact work against your interests? Strangely, people will vote for that person again two, four, or six years later.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood there is no real political power without economic power. Enactment of his proposed Second Bill of Rights is long overdue.

To regain political power, the people need to take back wealth; to regain wealth, the people need to take back political power. Hand in hand. Remember the capitalist credo: Money talks. We have the honesty of the Supreme Court to thank for enshrining in the 2010 Citizens United decision what everyone has always known, going back to the days of the Founding Fathers, it’s just that Washington, Adams, Madison, and Jefferson had the wisdom to understand the money should be spread around a lot more in order for the government to listen to we the people.
― Vita

 

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The Greed and Amorality of the Suits

 

Take a college course in starting your own business and you will likely find the instructor emphasizing “growing your business”, without ever mentioning why that would be necessary or desirable. It is an unquestioned given that making your business larger will be the determining factor defining your success. Employing other people for your business makes you a “job creator”, though you could be someone who seeks to exploit the labor of others in order to boost yourself higher on the economic pyramid. It’s possible to be an ethical job creator, but unfortunately too many business owners lose sight of that in the daily struggle to grow their business and be seen as successful.


The economist Kate Raworth talks about growth in this animated short for the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). She doesn’t use the term “cancer”, but the effects of out of control economic growth brings the term to mind.

The economic model that said the world’s resources were boundless was always a fantasy, but people were able to ignore that for many centuries while the population stayed well within the earth’s capacity to sustain it. Now we are pushing against those limits, yet the business owners at the top continue to insist there are no limits, because it suits their self-interest. In the natural world, populations of animals and insects boom and bust depending on the capacity of their habitat, which is in all cases more narrowly defined than it is for humans. Because humans have adapted to the widest array of habitats on the planet, it does not follow that our expansion can be limitless. The physical problem is population growth pushing earth’s resources to the breaking point, but there is also a mindset problem caused by those at the top of the economic pyramid pushing the snake oil of limitless growth.

 

Native Americans have called this spirit of cannibalistic greed and lust for dominion wetiko, or wendigo. Their culture recognized it, but was not consumed by it, at least not from within. They recognized it in its most rapacious form in many of the white Europeans who started pushing into North America five centuries ago. The white Europeans came from a culture where being fruitful and multiplying was the means to have dominion over the earth and all creation, goals which they saw as not only morally sound, but their religious right and duty. When there were only tens of millions of humans spread out across the entire continent of North America, those beliefs were more defensible than now.
Dole Corporate Person Parody (Washington, DC) (5377338107)
Dole corporate person parody in Washington, DC, on January 21, 2011, marking the one year anniversary of the Supreme Court Citizens United decision; photo by Flickr user palnatoke.

 

In the eighteenth century, a white settler family huddled in their isolated cabin in the vast woodlands covering what would eventually become the eastern United States could hardly be blamed for feeling that nature was hostile, red in tooth and claw, and that a competitive, fighting spirit was the way to eat and not be eaten. Now there are hundreds of millions of us in North America, and billions across the earth, and the technological powers available to us for taking advantage of nature’s resources are well beyond even the imaginings of those early inhabitants. Yet many people cling to the old beliefs, ignoring how destructive they have become, and always were. Some people cling out of ignorance, and there is hope that their minds can be changed; but there are others, often wearing suits and making greedy, amoral decisions in corporate boardrooms, who are possessed by the spirit of wetiko and whose minds either cannot or will not be changed. The rest of us can recognize that on a finite Earth growth has limits, and work to lessen our impact before the Earth takes care of that for us.
― Ed.

 

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Casino Banking

 

The passage of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act separated commercial banking from investment banking, and for 75 years there were no enormous financial meltdowns in the United States originating from the banking sector of the economy. In 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act repealed the main provisions of Glass-Steagall and, in the view of critics of the repeal, the countdown to financial meltdown began, culminating in the Great Recession which began in 2008. The meltdown, like the Great Depression which gave birth to Glass-Steagall, had worldwide repercussions, but in the aftermath there have been only watered down reforms of the banking industry in the US such as the Dodd-Frank Act, and no high level banking executives have gone to jail, been taken to court, or even been indicted. It’s only a matter of time therefore before a similar financial crisis strikes the US, particularly since the new presidential administration is talking about dismantling Dodd-Frank.

 

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Crowd gathering on Wall Street after the stock market crash on October 25, 1929.
Like other European nations, Iceland was swallowed up in the 2008 financial crisis. Like the United States, it had its own unruly banking sector contributing to the crisis – casino banks, in the sense that they used the money from depositors in their commercial operations to gamble on dubious investments, always passing along losses to customers while reaping the profits mostly for themselves. As in casinos, the house rarely loses, and in the case of casino banks when it appears they might lose the government will be there to bail them out. That’s the deal banks have come to count on, particularly if they are “too big to fail.” Unlike other European nations and definitely unlike the United States, Iceland allowed its casino banks to fail and then vigorously investigated and prosecuted the casino bankers responsible. In Iceland, 26 top bankers have gone to jail since 2008, and moreover their economy has rebounded robustly. In the US, 0 top bankers are wearing orange jumpsuits as a consequence of causing the 2008 financial meltdown, and the economy has limped slowly toward recovery ever since.

 

It’s interesting to note that the 2016 Republican Party platform included a plank about reinstating Glass-Steagall. Wall Streeters were alarmed at first, but then everyone realized it was merely politics as usual and that the incoming Republican administration and Congress had no intention of taking the idea seriously. They have been proven correct. Democrats make rumbling noises occasionally about reinstating Glass-Steagall, but even if they had the will, they don’t have the votes. It’s all just politics at this point, since Wall Street money has long since turned heads in both major parties.


“Let them eat cake!”

There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.

― Gore Vidal, from his 1975 essay “The State of the Union”.

Social reforms wrought from identity politics are all to the good, but as always in our culture the primary fixation should be on the money. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood this when he traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to speak to striking African-American sanitation workers. Without work and the personal dignity that comes from a living wage, people cannot begin to address their social situation and have the energy to improve their lot within society as a whole. For the poor and the middle class it all starts with money, and for the rich it ends there as well. The oligarchic elite take advantage of social issues like gay marriage to divide and distract the majority while they continue to concentrate wealth and power in their own hands. There are two financial reforms which would go a long way toward stemming the rising power of the corporate oligarchy and restoring power to the majority of Americans: reinstatement of Glass-Steagall or something very much like it, and the legislative or constitutional rescission of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010.
― Vita

 

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