“Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.” — a Hopi Prophecy
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has sent hundreds of internet communications satellites into low Earth orbit, and has plans to launch thousands more such satellites in the near future. Other companies, among them Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, have similar plans. Within the span of several years, the number of satellites launched into orbit could double from the amount that have been launched since the beginning of the Space Age in 1957. The clutter could interfere with astronomers’ observations and measurements, and even with casual enjoyment of the night sky by lay people.
“A Fleet of East Indiamen at Sea”, an 1803 painting by Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821).
There are terrestrial alternatives to webbing near Earth space with tens of thousands of satellites in order to get internet service to rural communities around the world. in the United States, rural electric cooperatives have worked steadily for years to overcome infrastructure and regulatory obstacles to provide internet service along the last mile to their members. It is the big telecommunications and cable television companies, with their friends in big government, that have often made operations difficult for alternative internet service providers. Even when the local governments of towns and small cities try to cooperate with small internet service providers, their efforts are often undercut and overruled by larger government entities working at the behest of large corporations that will brook no competition.
Now comes SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, backed by their founders’ deep pockets and enabled by their existing links to big government, links that will only strengthen and deepen as the companies take over near Earth space and provide launching and communications services to government agencies. The partnership with government may even prove to be the primary consideration for both companies, and providing internet service to private individuals a secondary, though lucrative consideration. The partnership could develop into a Space Age equivalent of the British East India Company’s close association with the British Empire, which saw the two entities merging in so many areas public and private that eventually one could hardly tell where one left off and the other began.
In addition to the Space Age, the modern era has come to be known as the Information Age. The internet via the world wide web has become the chief vector of information in these times and, as many have often observed, information is power. In the days when the British East India Company held sway along with equivalent companies sanctioned by other European powers, trade goods from far off lands were the valued currency that governments sought to procure and protect. Governments guarded the trade routes to and from the far off lands as well as the lands themselves. Over time, the various East India Companies adopted their own paramilitary arms to protect their interests. Similar relationships could develop in the coming years as companies seek the help of government in protecting their interests in space in return for providing essential services.
Why should SpaceX, for instance, invest hundreds of billions of dollars in the infrastructure needed to establish colonies in space with the potential for enormous profitability in the long run without being assured tens of billions of dollars in government contracts in the short term and the perpetual cash cow of providing internet service to billions of people every day? Look up in the night sky for answers and soon enough you’re likely to see the winking reflections off tens of thousands of satellites, glinting like dew along the strands of a spider’s web.
The last scene of the 1982 meditative documentary Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, with cinematography by Ron Fricke and music by Philip Glass.
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
— Benjamin Franklin, in reply to a question about what sort of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had settled on.
February 2 is the day some people, primarily in North America, attempt to divine the next six weeks of weather by observing groundhogs who briefly exit from winter hibernation in their burrows. If it’s a sunny day, the groundhog will see his or her shadow and, counter intuitively, those watching the animal will pronounce six more weeks of wintry weather. On a cloudy day, with no shadows in sight, the prediction is for an early start of spring weather. People in some parts of Europe have a similar tradition involving different animals, such as badgers in Germany and hedgehogs in Britain.
Emerging briefly from hibernation in February 2014, a groundhog takes leaves to line its burrow nest or toilet chamber. Photo by Ladycamera.
This is all silliness, of course, with no proof of accuracy, but it is mostly harmless except for possibly obnoxious intrusions on the lives of peace loving groundhogs. In ancient Rome, prognostication using animals took a more deadly turn. All sorts of animals – chickens, sheep, and goats among them – were confined until the day they were sacrificed for the purpose of having a kind of priest called a haruspex examine the dead animal’s entrails for signs of the future. This was deadly serious business, not only for the sacrificial animals, but for the generals and politicians who often did not make a move unless the signs from the entrails were auspicious.
There is no record proving the consistent accuracy of haruspicy (divination by the inspection of entrails), just as there is no record for the accuracy of groundhogs at predicting the weather based on the presence or absence of cloud cover on a particular day. Nonetheless, people have been wasting their time and efforts on these methods of divination for millennia. The ancient method, haruspicy, was a nasty business all around, while Groundhog Day observations cause little harm and are of no consequence.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra performs a suite of themes from Ennio Morricone’s music for the 1968 Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West. Tuva Semmingsen performs the vocals that were sung by Edda Dell’Orso on the original soundtrack recording.
What about reading the signs of the times, such as looking at newspapers to follow developments in the republic called the United States of America? What about a Senate majority of Republicans who vote to exclude witnesses in the impeachment trial of a corrupt president? What about a Republican state legislator in Montana who maintains that the Constitution of the United States sanctions the shooting and imprisonment of Socialists, merely for being Socialists? What about the chortling lunatics cheering on Orange Julius as he threatens and demeans his opponents at his demented pep rallies? And what about those same cheering, jeering lunatics threatening violence if their Chosen One is removed from office either by impeachment or by the results of an election?
Those signs and others are easy enough to read for anyone paying attention to developments in order to honor the obligations of an informed citizen. There are those citizens, however, who are too lazy to pay attention. Very well; they should continue in their laziness and stay home on Election Day in nine months, rather than show up and vote for the incumbent president simply because the wolf is not yet at their door. And then there are those voters, more culpable in the decay of the republic than anyone else, who are interested only in the health of their financial portfolio, and who are deaf and blind to the cries and despair of anyone shut out of the bounty and suffering under the oppression of the oligarchy. The signs now point toward a Tyranny by Corporate Oligarchy, and if citizens continue to choose it by doing nothing, then after Election Day in November there will be no going back and we will have gotten the government we deserve.
For those who can’t get enough of the sound of the loss of the republic, here it is on the theremin. Katica Illényi performs with the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra in Budapest, Hungary.
Private companies have been making their electric scooters available for riders to share in cities around the United States and in Europe over the past two years, and the results are a mixed bag. Riders appear to appreciate the service, even if some of them don’t show that appreciation in how they ride or park the e-scooters. City governments appear to like that the service fills gaps in their often inadequate public mass transit services, even though they are learning that more regulation is required of e-scooter companies to rein in their sometimes arrogant disregard for city ordinances and of inconsiderate riders whose behavior can be a public nuisance. Members of the public who have no personal need for the e-scooters are largely tolerant of their presence in their cities, but in many places they are finding their patience tested by the problems mentioned above.
The technology behind e-scooters and smartphones or, in some places, simple cellular phones, makes the business model of sharing e-scooters in a city possible. An e-scooter rigged for sharing has a Global Positioning System (GPS) module and an inexpensive, basic cellular connection for small amounts of data transfer to communicate its exact position and condition. A lithium ion battery provides power. A rider needs to use the internet application provided by the company for use on a smartphone to unlock the e-scooter and provide for payment for the service. Some localities insist as a condition for operating in their city that e-scooter companies make the service available to people without a data connection on a simple cellular phone. One of the ideas behind the service, after all, is to provide a low cost transportation option for poor people.
Lime e-scooters parked next to a subway entrance at Masaryk train station in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Martin2035.
The problems arise because, like all private services which take advantage of the public commons, there are abuses. The private companies either do not seek out and pay for permission to park their e-scooters on public property or they may not hold up their end of agreements they have with cities that allow their operations. Since the e-scooters do not belong to them, some riders are unconcerned about how they use them or park them. Equipment abuse is the lookout of the company operating the service, but the abuse of the commons caused by careless parking is a public nuisance at best, a menace at worst. Crime problems have arisen mostly from overnight vandalism of the equipment and from the dangers to workers who must go out at night to find and maintain the equipment.
Bringing e-scooters into cities is a good idea on its surface, and they solve a mobility problem for some poor people or for commuters without cars who find using them more appealing than walking or biking. But with the problems their presence and use are causing by abuse of the commons, it would be better if cities improved their mass transit systems instead. For one thing, e-scooters are not as ecologically benign overall as people may assume, and certainly not in comparison to mass transit options. For another, solving the problems encountered during the initial rollout of e-scooter sharing programs would appear to take up public resources in the form of tighter regulation and consequent enforcement. Wouldn’t it be easier in that case to regulate a comparatively smaller number of mass transit units and operators rather than thousands or tens of thousands of e-scooter units and operators strewn all over a city?
E-scooter sharing programs may last only a year or two more if the current abuses continue, and that’s a shame because many decent people who appreciate the services and have a dearth of other options would probably like to see them continue. Unfortunately this business model appears to go against human nature in that where the commons are concerned, there are always enough bad faith users around to take unfair or inconsiderate advantage of the situation and eventually push the public at large to demand an end to it for everyone. In the words of James Madison, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” — Techly
By the 1960s, of the hundreds of streetcar lines that had once been a primary mode of transportation in cities and suburbs across the United States in the first half of the 20th century, only a small fraction still operated, and usually only in city centers. Competition from automobiles and buses was one cause for declining ridership of streetcars, and supposedly the costs of installing and maintaining lines was higher than costs associated with infrastructure for cars and buses. The history of what happened in the major mid-century makeover of American urban mass transit is muddled, and one explanation for it that keeps popping up has to do with the machinations of the automobile manufacturers, chiefly General Motors (GM).
The idea springs from how GM bought out streetcar lines around the country, and then dismantled the lines, junked the streetcars, and signed city governments to contracts for purchase and ongoing use of the buses GM manufactured. GM also sold cars to urban and suburban commuters who found themselves with fewer alternatives than they had before the 1920s, when the streetcar lines were still thriving. That’s a neat story, and it certainly fits in with the behavior we have come to expect of large corporations and the executives who run them, but in this case it turns out to be a little too neat and only partially true.
A postcard circa 1930-1945 depicts Purchase Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection.
Market forces generated by consumer preferences played the greatest part in the decline of ridership on streetcar lines starting in the 1920s and accelerating through the next quarter century. The streetcar lines were privately owned and the companies bore the costs of maintaining the tracks they operated on and other infrastructure costs, even though they used the same publicly maintained roads as buses and cars. The streetcar lines were more and more at a competitive disadvantage as public money benefited those other modes of transportation and as consumers came to prefer the relative freedom of driving their own cars or taking buses that weren’t restricted to tracks.
Comforting as it might be to blame the automobile and gasoline industries for ripping up streetcar tracks around the nation, depriving commuters of a useful commuting option, the truth in this case is that the public shoulders the greater responsibility. Individual consumers operating in their own self-interest took advantage of cheap gasoline and publicly financed road building, such as the interstate highway system started in the 1950s, to buy at least one car for every household. In most cities, taxpayers balked at public ownership of the streetcar lines, a move which would have saved many of the lines from the corporate scavenging that ultimately killed them off. In other words, GM and other auto and gas corporate interests didn’t precipitate the demise of the streetcar lines, but neither did they mourn their loss, and ultimately, of course, GM and the others profited greatly from the makeover of the American transportation system.
By the time of the 1959 release of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the streets of Manhattan were dominated by vehicular traffic, and mass transit options for New Yorkers were limited to subways and buses. Bernard Herrmann composed the music for the film, and Saul Bass designed the titles. The director makes his cameo appearance at the end of the title sequence.
More than a half century after streetcars were all but wiped off the map in America, they are coming back in spots like Brooklyn, driven by the desire of some people to get around town without the hassles of car ownership, the pollution of cars and buses, the blight of enormous parking lots, and the swallowing up of green spaces for more roads to alleviate the congestion on existing roads, only to have the new roads fill up as well. Streetcars powered by electricity generate pollution at a remove, to be sure, but as more power plants use renewable energy sources, that problem should lessen. Meanwhile, building out more mass transit infrastructure should take off the road some of the oversized vehicles too many Americans appear to love, and which the automobile makers and the fossil fuel industry love turning out for them since they are highly profitable. It has taken a century for Americans to learn anew the value of mass transit options like streetcars, and perhaps soon, before we reach the end of the line, gridlock on the roads will clear, and so will the air everywhere.
In an idiotic stunt on her Fox News television program on September 6, right wing commentator Laura Ingraham thought it would be good fun to upset liberals by sticking plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs into a slab of cooked meat and then sucking on one of the straws. The stunt revealed more about her emotional immaturity and that of her viewers who might have enjoyed the bizarre demonstration than it did about the ultimate worth of the causes she was mocking. That wasn’t her point, of course; the point for people like Ms. Ingraham and her fans is provoking liberals merely for the dubious enjoyment of provoking liberals, an attitude that displays all the maturity of a seventh grader shooting spitballs from the back of a classroom.
An Optimist and a Pessimist, an 1893 painting by Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920).
The unwillingness of bad faith media figures like Laura Ingraham to honestly and substantively discuss issues such as the environment generally, and the Green New Deal in particular, reveals their worries about how environmental initiatives like the Global Climate Strike may disrupt their lives and worldviews, and how because of their fears they resent the people backing the initiatives. They see it all as an infringement on their liberty rather than as a concession to sharing limited resources and playing nice with those unlike themselves. To them, it is not a matter of viewing the relative fullness or emptiness of a glass as it is a matter of resenting the people telling them that for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants, flora as well as fauna, all of us had better accept the situation of a glass not entirely full because constant demands by a relative few for an always full glass are causing environmental degradation and eventually, perhaps sooner rather then later, the glass will be empty for everyone.
But that’s what environmental science is telling us. Getting upset about it or denying it and hiding one’s head in the sand is not going to change it, any more than immature and unhelpful behaviors have ever changed other scientific realities. Worse yet is attacking the messengers in a bad faith attempt to disregard the messages. Why disregard clear, coherent messages? Because they disrupt the status quo for powerful people with vested interests in keeping things as they are, in continuing the business as usual of corporate profiteering at the expense of the long term habitability of the commons. Right wing pundits may not always consciously carry water for corporate exploiters of the environment and of workers, but since their interests often align with them the result is the same. The pundits know their audience is uniquely susceptible to fear and hate mongering, and they peddle those wares regularly to enrich themselves.
In this talk Noam Chomsky gave in April 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts, he looked back at the original New Deal to examine how the Green New Deal promises to change economic relationships while enacting energy and environmental initiatives.
The Green New Deal is felt as a threat by right wingers and by entrenched corporate interests because its environmental initiatives will reach into and change the entire economy, and that’s something they cannot help but see any other way than as a negative, a glass half empty. The privileges of white people generally, and of rich people in particular, will be eroded during these economic changes, and that’s a good thing for everyone else and for the planet, because the over extension and abuse of those privileges has been largely responsible for getting all of us into this mess in the first place. No matter how the over privileged feel about the changes, they will have to accept them and get used to them, because the alternative for them is grimmer still, as well as for everyone on our lifeboat Earth as it continues moving around the Sun.
Editor’s note: This post has been delayed one day on account of dismally slow internet service, most likely caused by the service provider’s defective equipment. Thanks, Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, for continuing to safeguard the interests of monopolistic corporations while disregarding those of ordinary citizens!
Waiting through an outbreak of severe weather can be nerve wracking if you’re one of the millions of Americans living in substandard housing. Related to withstanding severe weather events, substandard housing means no basement or a weak foundation, poorly engineered roofing, shoddy workmanship overall, bad drainage around the structure, easily shattered windows, and any number of other problems large and small generally not present in the well built housing of the upper classes. Should something bad happen to a substandard structure due to severe weather, the people living there often do not have the resources to recover from it.
Severe weather affects everyone, rich and poor, but what is usually overlooked is how the poor disproportionately suffer the adverse effects of it both coming and going. To know that should a tornado, a hurricane, a derecho, a hailstorm, ice storm, or flood deal even a glancing blow to the place you live causes many anxious days, first in watching the weather forecast and then during the day or days of the event. There’s personal safety, of course, and the possibility of unaffordable emergency medical attention, and then the possibility of damage to the structure and the unaffordability of repairs, if it is repairable. The last thing any person living in a structure without a safe, reinforced room or basement wants to hear is the freight train roar of an approaching tornado, and to have children to protect must make even imagining such a scenario unbearable.
Hurricane, Bahamas, an 1898 painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
All things are relative, and while comparatively few people in the United States have to exist in notoriously unsafe conditions like those in a Brazilian favela, there are still far too many in this rich country who live a hair’s breadth away from personal and financial disaster, a ruin which can befall them in a few unfortunate moments with the caprice of bad weather. As severe weather outbreaks become more frequent and as the population continues to increase, the possibilities for deaths, injuries, and property damage will also increase, all of which burden poor people more than others (yes, even death, because of the costs to survivors).
In the 1978 BBC television production of dramatist Dennis Potter’sPennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins as sheet music salesman Arthur Parker encounters a busker called The Accordion Man, played by Kenneth Colley, who in return for Arthur treating him to a meal treats Arthur to a rendition of the song “Pennies from Heaven” (lip synched to a 1937 recording by Arthur Tracy).
Insurance companies’ business model currently has them paying out after disaster strikes (contesting the payout all the way, and digging in their heels where they can), while offering little incentive for builders and developers to proof structures against disaster. Eventually, as expenses incurred by natural disasters mount to insupportable levels, insurance companies will have to come around to a more preventive strategy of offering lower premiums for stronger structures, something easier for them and builders and developers to cooperate on for wealthier homeowners. Where government can step in to protect poor people is to enforce insurance policy standards for their housing, rather than continuing to allow the corruption and slapdash oversight which currently riddles the market. Meantime, as always you’re on your own out there, particularly if you’re not rich, and you have to look out for yourself to stay safe. Good luck.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” — from “The Second Coming”, a 1919 poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939).
The problem with cable news junkies is that they believe themselves with utmost confidence to be well informed, when really they are not. Their misplaced confidence in their knowledge of current events that matter is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Since these people sit before their televisions for hours each day absorbing cable television news programs, they assume they are better informed than the average citizen, a situation which they will cite smugly and insufferably to everyone in their personal orbit.
They are wrong. Cable news may give them a broad grasp of current events that is broad, but it is an inch deep. Alternately, they may have a deep grasp of stories such as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, but in the usually superficial ways that cable news promotes the story as a kind of tawdry reality TV drama, rather than an examination of hard issues. Cable television networks long ago blurred the line between entertainment and news, probably beginning with around the clock live coverage of the 1990 Gulf War by the Cable News Network (CNN), coverage that was steered by the American government as much as possible and resulted in a narrative arc showcasing video footage of superior American battlefield technology fed to CNN by the American military.
Two men attending the October 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., make satirical comments about Fox News and its viewers. Photo by David Shankbone.
13 years later other cable news outlets, and corporate media generally, followed the 1990 Gulf War CNN formula in coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this time accompanied by some unashamed cheering from major media figures such as Dan Rather at the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). When the cable news companies, which unlike CBS need to fill 24 hours with supposedly newsworthy content, weren’t breathlessly following America’s overseas military adventurism, they were jumping in with both feet into the latest scandal, controversial congressional hearing, or human interest story of dubious news value such as the 2009 balloon boy hoax.
What the cable news junkies who sit rapt before their televisions as all this unfolds fail to account for are the corporate puppet masters behind the scenes of the major media companies. In this accounting, it is the questions that are not asked that matter, and the stories that are not pursued by reporters who have either absorbed the parent corporation’s views or are reined in by editors who have. They are not getting the whole story, maybe not even half of it. In the interest of selling their viewers to advertisers, the corporate media steers clear of uncomfortable territory, now more than ever over the past 30 years.
A scene from the 1988 film A Fish Called Wanda, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline. Warning: foul language.
Now a loyal viewer of Fox News or of MSNBC, to name the two most popular cable news providers from ostensibly opposite ends of the political spectrum, can go through an entire day of watching without having his or her world view and opinions seriously challenged. Yes, there are real differences in coverage and bias between the two networks. In the broader picture that includes smaller independent news organizations like Democracy Now!, however, the differences between Fox News and MSNBC amount to the choleric disagreement between the Yooks and the Zooks in Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book. Neither network questions the basic assumptions of their corporate masters. Day after day of gobbling up the news as dished out by CNN, the perceived middle-of-the-road cable news outlet, does not make a consumer well informed so much as well suited to be a foot soldier in the corporate takeover of America and its transformation into a full-blown police state.
“And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may think it’s a movement.” — Arlo Guthrie, from his song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”.
Progressive Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected Representative from New York’s 14th Congressional District, have their work cut out for them even before they take their seats in January as they battle the Old Guard within their own party. The Old Guard of the Democratic Party, led by Nancy Pelosi in the House and Chuck Schumer in the Senate, are working to co-opt, minimize, and undermine the incoming progressives so that business as usual shall continue after January. The Old Guard appears to have little interest in understanding that business as usual by corporate Democrats such as themselves is what brought this country to the precipice of authoritarian rule by the current president and his accomplices in Congress and the judiciary over the past two years.
Harriot Daley, standing, was appointed telephone operator at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1898 when there were only 51 stations on the switchboard. On July 30, 1937, when this photo was taken, Miss Daley was Chief Operator and supervised a staff of 37 operators as they answered calls from 1200 extensions. Library of Congress photo by Harris & Ewing.
Corporate Democrats are a better option for leading this country than fascist Republicans in the same way that a kick in the behind is marginally better than a kick in the groin, but that’s hardly a hearty endorsement of their policies and practices. That is not a positive view of the future for young people starting out and raising children of their own into the world. There has to be a better option still, one that is outside the stale choice between the lesser of two evils, both of them more interested in serving corporate interests than those of the people at large. The Old Guard of the Democratic Party will continue trying to scare progressives into backing down from real change by claiming they are splintering the Party and allowing the minority party, the Republicans, to win votes in the House of Representatives and pass their agenda.
There’s truth in their argument, too, particularly since Republicans historically are more likely than Democrats to maintain lock step with their colleagues in the face of opposition and subsume their differences, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that progressives should move to the center and join ranks with the corporate Democrats instead of the other way around. What’s needed to convince corporate Democrats to drop Old Guard methods and beliefs, besides not re-electing them time after time, is pressure from ordinary citizens that builds to a point overpowering their allegiance to corporate money.
Phone calls. E-mails. Snail mails. Attendance and vocal presence at town halls. Boycotts of corporations making large political donations. Taking to the streets. Voting in local elections for school board and county supervisor and city council seats. Knocking on doors to get out the vote and helping people register to vote. Speaking up when someone among your friends, family, or neighbors expresses hateful ideas counter to our democratic principles. Refusal to participate in the national security state by calling for the repeal of the PATRIOT Act and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and condemning the persecution of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and John Kiriakou.
The presentation in Frank Capra’s 1939 movieMr. Smith Goes to Washingtonprobably strikes most people today as corny, but that should not overshadow the principles of good government and citizen participation it espouses and their relevancy today.
Starting and supporting statewide initiatives such as California’s Proposition 11 in 2008 which took legislative district reapportionment away from partisan politicians and gave that power to the people. There are many more ways to convince business as usual Democrats in Congress and across the nation that the future for them and us lies in their scooting over to the left, in the direction this country came from before it swung too far right in the last generation, rather than stubbornly obstructing progressives in order to better serve their corporate masters. Getting up off the couch and making phone calls and doing the other things is the only way to make it happen.
Amazon.com,the internet’s everything store, recently announced it will be opening two secondary headquarters, one in the New York City borough of Queens, and the other in the Arlington, Virginia, area near Washington, D.C.. City and state officials in both locations offered Amazon enormous benefits at taxpayers’ expense, though the exact amounts are unknown because officials claim they have a competitive advantage by keeping their bids secret.
Nonsense. It’s the taxpayers’ money and they have every right to know how officials spend it. The whole nationwide competition for Amazon’s secondary headquarters was a yearlong sham and circus, the kind of municipal debasement and looting that has become far too common as states and cities are pitted against each other for the dubious prize bestowed on them by corporate behemoths relocating or opening new places of business.
Caricature of “Organized Big Business Interests” illustrated by John Miller Baer (1886-1970) for part of the November 17, 1919 cover ofThe Nonpartisan Leader. Nearly one hundred years later, a caricature of a big business interest is more likely to appear trim and fit, wearing jeans and a turtleneck or other informal clothing.
Amazon is to labor practices and corporate citizenship as an internet business as Walmart is to labor practices and corporate citizenship among brick and mortar stores, which is to say they are leaders in their respective fields in abusing their lowest tier workers and siphoning funds away from local communities. Both Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, and the Walton family at the head of Walmart are obscenely rich. They got that way because of their cleverness at exploiting the properties mentioned above, not because of their own virtuousness and hard work as they would have everyone believe. There are millions upon millions of people who are every bit as virtuous and hard working as Mr. Bezos and the Walton family, probably more so, and they are not obscenely rich, or even well off.
Buy Nothing Day demonstration in San Francisco, California, in November 2000. Photo by Lars Aronsson.
Mr. Bezos and others like him are obscenely rich because they are, among their other qualities in starting and running a business, both good and bad, obscenely greedy. Shoppers visiting the Amazon website cannot be blamed for taking advantage of the low prices and good service. That would be a kind of “blaming the victim”. Besides, it is all too easy for shoppers to forget about or remain ignorant of Amazon’s bad labor practices and exploitative corporate citizenship since it does those things mostly out of sight and therefore out of mind, a benefit it has as an internet company that Walmart does not have as a brick and mortar outfit.
Shoppers might fairly ask themselves, however, that even if they are not entirely complicit in sustaining Mr. Bezos’s greed, perhaps their own much smaller proportion of greed is something worth examining. It is a form of greed that drives most purchases from Amazon. Amazon sells some necessities such as groceries, but then so do stores at neighborhood shopping centers throughout the country. Most of what Amazon sells are not necessities. They are convenient luxuries, great or small, delivered to the shopper’s door. With the enormous emphasis on shopping around Thanksgiving all but swallowing up the holiday and its meaning, people might want to step back from the shopping cart, both real and virtual, and reflect on how their own petty greed feeds the monstrous greed of Jeff Bezos and his fellow billionaires and millionaires, while around the world millions upon millions of decent people go hungry.
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.
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.
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.