Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why I Was Maced at the Wall Street Protests

Why I Was Maced at the Wall Street Protests

My boyfriend Frank and I are heading toward Liberty Square to check out what’s going on at the Occupy Wall Street protest, when we stumble upon the afternoon march toward Union Square. So we join up and walk along behind. The crowd looks like maybe 300 people, mostly punk-styled kids and folks carrying their computers (for live streaming, we found out later) and some aging-hippie types. People are beating drums, blowing whistles, carrying signs, and chanting: “Banks got bailed out, you got sold out!” and “We are the 99 percent!” and “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” and of course the classic “This is what democracy looks like!”

All in all, it starts out as a pretty good time. There are police, but for the most part they are walking behind the group casually, just beat cops bantering and laughing, keeping an eye on things. There are around 30 of them. We reach Union Square, circle it a couple times, and join the human microphone. The human microphone consists of one person speaking or shouting, and then everyone within earshot repeating, thus, a human amplifier, albeit with some delay. After about fifteen minutes, we are on the move again, the crowd spurred toward the United Nations by the messages transmitted from the human microphone.

As we circle Union Square, about twenty NYPD officers haul out orange plastic nets (the kind used to fence off construction sites) and close off the road, diverting the crowd. But the detour, too, is closed, leaving us only one option: straight down Broadway. The lighthearted carnival air begins to get very heavy as it becomes clear that we are being corralled. The main group, about 150 protesters, keeps on down the street, but the police are running behind with the orange nets, siphoning off groups of fifteen to twenty people at a time, classic crowd control.

A new group of police officers arrives in white shirts, as opposed to dark blue. These guys are completely undiscerning in their aggression. If someone gets in their way, they shove them headfirst into the nearest parked car, at which point the officers are immediately surrounded by camera phones and shouts of “Shame! Shame!”

Up until this point, Frank and I have managed to stay ahead of the nets, but as we hit what I think is 12th Street, they’ve caught up. The blue-shirts aren’t being too forceful, so we manage to run free, but stay behind to see what happens. Then things go nuts.

The white-shirted cops are shouting at us to get off the street as they corral us onto the sidewalk. One African American man gets on the curb but refuses to be pushed up against the wall of the building; they throw him into the street, and five cops tackle him. As he’s being cuffed, a white kid with a video camera asks him “What’s your name?! What’s your name?!” One of the blue-shirted cops thinks he’s too close and gives him a little shove. A white-shirt sees this, grabs the kid and without hesitation billy-clubs him in the stomach.

One of the blue-shirts, tall and bald, stares in disbelief and says, ‘I can’t believe he just fuckin’ maced us.’

At this point, the crowd of twenty or so caught in the orange fence is shouting “Shame! Shame! Who are you protecting?! YOU are the 99 percent! You’re fighting your own people!” A white-shirt, now known to be NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, comes from the left, walks straight up to the three young girls at the front of the crowd, and pepper-sprays them in the face for a few seconds, continuing as they scream “No! Why are you doing that?!” The rest of us in the crowd turn away from the spray, but it’s unavoidable. My left eye burns and goes blind and tears start streaming down my face. Frank grabs my arm and shoves us through the small gap between the orange fence and the brick wall while everyone stares in shock and horror at the two girls on the ground and two more doubled over screaming as their eyes ooze. In the street I shout for water to rinse my eyes or give to the girls on the ground, but no one responds. One of the blue-shirts, tall and bald, stares in disbelief and says, “I can’t believe he just fuckin’ maced us.” And it becomes clear that the white-shirts are a different species. We need to get out of there.

The other end of the street is also closed off, and we are trapped on this one block along with about twenty frustrated pedestrians. My eye is killing me and I’m crying, partially from the pain and partially from the shock of the violence displayed by these police. A shirtless young “medic” with ripped cargo shorts, matted brown hair, and two plastic bottles slung around his neck runs up to me and says, “Did you get pepper sprayed? Okay here, tilt your head to the side, this isn’t going to feel great,” at which point he squirts one of the plastic bottles of white liquid into my left eye, then tilts my head the other way and does the other eye, then repeats with water. Then he unties the white bandanna from his wrist and wipes my eyes with it saying, “You’ll be okay, this is my grandfather’s bandanna, he got through Korea with it, and if he got through that, then you’re going to get through this. Just keep blinking.” Thanks to the treatment—liquid antacid, pepper-spray antidote—the burning behind my eyes subsides.

A woman with two little girls in tow walks up to a cop at the end of the block and explains that they just need to get to ballet, but he won’t let them through. The woman seems to accept this, turns to the girls, thinks for a second, then marches straight to the edge of the fence at the corner of the building. A different officer sees them coming and, understanding their situation, lets them through. So Frank and I bolt for the same opening and escape.

The farther away we get, the more normal everyone starts to look. People have no clue about what’s happening just five or six blocks down. Frank and I say maybe two words to each other the whole five-hour bus ride home.

Just for the record, I love cops. I do, my mother worked in the justice system for 30 years, and I’ve known a lot of really good cops, really good honorable people just doing their jobs. I’ve never agreed with the sentiment, “Fuck the Po-lice,” and I still don’t. But these guys are fucked up. There was an anger in those white-shirt’s eyes that said, “You don’t matter.” And whether they were just scared or irrational or looking for a target for their rage, there was no excuse for their abuse of authority. I had always thought that people who complained about police brutality must have done something to provoke it, that surely cops wouldn’t hurt people without a really good reason. But they do. We were on the curb, we were contained, we were unarmed. Pepper spray hurts like hell, and the experience only makes me wish I’d done something more to deserve it.

17 Facts That Prove That The Average American Family Is Getting Absolutely Pulverized By This Economy

17 Facts That Prove That The Average American Family Is Getting Absolutely Pulverized By This Economy

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How in the world does the average American family survive in this economy? The median household income is a little bit less than $50,000 a year right now. So let's call that about $4000 a month. But before any of that money gets spent, you have to take out at least $1000 in taxes. That leaves about $3000 a month to pay all the bills with. With that $3000 you have to pay the mortgage (or rent), make the car payments, make the student loan payments, pay for power and water, pay for health insurance, pay for home insurance, pay for car insurance, pay the phone bill, pay the Internet bill and pay the cable bill. On top of all that, every member of the family needs three meals a day and the cars need to be filled up with gasoline or they won't go anywhere. Of course I haven't even mentioned expenses that don't happen every month such as car repairs or new shoes. No wonder so many families are feeling so financially stressed!

The truth is that American families are getting squeezed harder than they have been in ages. The number of good jobs is declining, incomes are going down, and the cost of living just keeps going up.

The following are 17 facts that prove that the average American family is getting absolutely pulverized by this economy....

#1 The cost of a health insurance policy for the average American family rose by a whopping 9 percent last year. According to a report put out by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research and Educational Trust, the average family health insurance policy now costs over $15,000 a year.

How in the world can most families afford that? Yes, in many cases employers are paying for at least a portion of that, but still that seems absolutely outrageous.

#2 Due to rising costs, a lot of employers are completely getting rid of health plans for their employees. In fact, the percentage of Americans covered by employer-based health plans has fallen for 11 years in a row.

#3 The number of uninsured Americans continues to rise. Things have gotten so bad that an all-time record 49.9 million Americans do not have any health insurance at all.

#4 At this point, most American families are tapped out financially. According to the U.S. Labor Department, incomes and spending were both down for the second straight year in 2010.

#5 At the same time, the employment picture continues to look worse with each passing month. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of layoffs in the United States was up 14 percent in August.

#6 Even if you do have a job that doesn't mean that you are doing much more than surviving. According to Paul Osterman, a professor of economics at MIT, approximately 20 percent of all employed Americans are making $10.65 an hour or less.

#7 The amount of debt that the average American family has piled up is absolutely staggering. The median yearly wage in the United States is just $26,261, but the average American household is carrying $75,600 in debt.

#8 Consumer confidence is extremely low right now. If the U.S. economy was in good shape, the Consumer Confidence Index would be up around 90. Instead, it is sitting at 45.4.

#9 Nearly every recent survey shows that the American people are feeling really depressed about the economy right now. In fact, one poll found that 80 percent of them believe that we are actually in a recession right now.

#10 Many consumers are seriously starting to cut back on spending again, and that is not a good sign for the U.S. economy. According to one recent study, 40 percent of all Americans have cut back on their spending within the last 60 days.

#11 It certainly does not help that millions of good jobs have been shipped out of the country. Sadly, the trend of offshoring our jobs is going to continue to accelerate if something is not done. According to Professor Alan Blinder of Princeton University, 40 million more U.S. jobs could be sent offshore over the next two decades.

#12 There is a lot of fear in the workforce right now. According to Gallup, 30 percent of all employed Americans are worried that they will be laid off soon.

#13 Today, there are 5.9 million Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 that are living with their parents. That is putting an even greater strain on the budgets of many families.

#14 American families have gotten very accustomed to using plastic to pay for things. Today, the average U.S. household has 13 different credit cards.

#15 Many American families are not making it at all in this economy. Last year, 2.6 million more Americans dropped into poverty. That was the largest increase that we have seen since the U.S. government began keeping statistics on this back in 1959.

#16 For many American families, living on food stamps has become a way of life. Today, there are more than 45 million Americans on food stamps and we keep setting a brand new record almost every single month.

#17 Things have gotten so bad that many American families are selling off whatever they can in order to survive. For example, down in Florida hundreds of people have been selling off their burial plots in an attempt to raise cash. The following is an excerpt from a local news report about this new trend....

Sellers are posting online, using burial plot brokers, and also funeral homes to market the real estate. Some of those advertisements show single plots starting at about $1,000, while family plots can go for up to $50,000.

Most American families are living in a state of almost constant financial stress. Way too many parents are spending way too many sleepless nights wondering how in the world they will be able to keep their heads above water for another month.

Very few families seem to have "extra money" for stuff these days. Yeah, there are the "privileged few", but most people are really struggling to get by.

In America today, if you are able to keep your home from being foreclosed and you are able to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of your family then you are doing pretty good.

Sadly, as our current economic crisis deepens, the average American family is going to have an even more difficult time trying to survive financially.

'Occupy Wall Street' Fighting Bankster Greed and the Surveillance State

'Occupy Wall Street' Fighting Bankster Greed and the Surveillance State

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The crackdown on the Wall Street protesters this weekend seems to have backfired. The campsite-cum-experiment in radical democracy is still there, holding general assemblies just shouting distance from Goldman Sachs and the Wall Street bull. It even appears to be growing.

The complaints that the media has ignored the sustained protest seem to be resonating—the park has cameras aplenty today, and food trucks line one side of the plaza. (Local eateries have been taking out-of-town orders for protesters.) Tourists seem to be catching on that this is something, as they snap pictures of protest signs.

While even theoretically like-minded folks had been a bit dismissive of the Wall Street occupation before Saturday, the heavy-handed moves by police to control a small march have brought worldwide attention to Zuccotti Park, formerly Liberty Plaza. The Guardian has broken stories ahead of the New York media, outing the police officer caught on tape pepper-spraying penned-up protesters as the same officer named in a wrongful arrest lawsuit from 2004's Republican National Convention protests.

Techniques honed from the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999, including penning up protesters with temporary fences or an orange mesh net, were deployed in 2004 and then exported to the UK in the past year, as student activists fighting their government's attempt to impose fee hikes on university attendees found out when they were trapped outside in so-called “kettles” for hours in the cold, unable to leave.

The orange mesh net came out on Saturday and the #OccupyWallSt Twitter hashtag was filled with warnings from those who had been there in 2004. “Anyone who finds themselves on the wrong side of the net, even if they were just out buying milk, is going to be arrested,” New York blogger and activist Phillip Anderson said.

The anger in 2004 stemmed from two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the GOP's politicization of the September 11 attacks, while the protests now are aimed squarely at Big Business and indeed at least some of the protesters would be happy if government would take action against the big banks. Camille Raneem, who has been at the occupation since the beginning, told me that she voted for Obama in 2008, but found herself getting involved in activism when the things she'd hoped to see didn't happen.

“I've been waiting for this for three years,” she said. And like many in 2004, she was angered by Guantanamo Bay, and the crackdowns on civil liberties of the Bush administration—things she sees continuing under Obama, and proved this week when many of the Wall Street protesters were arrested.

Many of the overzealous police moves in the past have been around political rallies or events where there were diplomats, politicians, world leaders involved that police could perhaps be justified in claiming a need to protect. Who was being protected in Union Square from girls behind an orange mesh net?

But though the police overreaction caught everyone's attention, crackdowns on political protests are nothing new—anyone who remembers Chicago in 1968 could tell you that. What's new now is the way information is both being spread, lightning-quick on Twitter and Facebook, videos uploaded instantly from smartphones to YouTube to go viral, and the way that same information is being suppressed, or used against people.

From Hacktivism to the Streets

Imagine Bull Connor, the infamous Birmingham, Alabama Commissioner of Public Safety, who authorized the use of fire hoses and attack dogs against civil rights protesters, in the age of YouTube and Google. Imagine videos of peaceful activists zapped around the world at the touch of a button, uploaded in seconds from a smartphone in Martin Luther King Jr.'s pocket.

That's what protesters in New York and around the country are counting on as they risk arrest.

The protests were organized on the Internet; they weren't taken seriously by many. The crowds at Zuccotti Park were shrugged off as dirty hippies, angry kids, incoherent. So were Anonymous and Lulzsec, two of the most prominent hacker “collectives,” until they showed that they could take down Visa and Mastercard.

The gradual politicization of Anonymous and the other hacktivism groups has seemed incoherent at times, but they've always stood for a loose sort of Internet freedom, jumping to the defense of WikiLeaks against both government and corporate attacks. In June, LulzSec and Anonymous declared Operation Anti-Security, making explicit the link between government power and big banks:

“Top priority is to steal and leak any classified government information, including email spools and documentation. Prime targets are banks and other high-ranking establishments.”

What they are opposed to is power and control. Which is why it makes perfect sense that hacktivists from Anonymous are supposedly down in Zuccotti Park, the Guy Fawkes masks they cribbed from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta as a badge of identity (and occasionally an excuse to arrest them). They are fighting the power out from behind a computer, putting their bodies on the line.

The Internet, after all, was a military invention, paid for with government dollars. It took the form we know it by now because the people creating it couldn't stop using it to talk to one another. Like the surveillance state itself, the 'net moved from the military to corporations, a center for profit. Yet despite the intentions of the tech companies who may or may not be intentionally obstructing the attempts of the Occupy Wall Street movement to get the word out (accusations of censoring emails have been raised against Yahoo and many have complained that Twitter is preventing #occupywallstreet from becoming a trending topic despite the frequency of tweets using the hashtag), the Internet still works best as a way for people to talk to one another, and it has been these protesters' ally, allowing them to get their message heard.

And after the ability of Hosni Mubarak's regime to effectively shut down the Internet during Egypt's revolution, a group of scholars and activists have been working on creating alternative networks to use in case of a similar government or corporate crackdown:

“At the heart of the movement is the idea that seemingly mundane technical specifications of Internet routers and social-networking software platforms have powerful political implications. In virtual realms, programmers essentially set the laws of physics, or at least the rules of interaction, for their cyberspaces. If it sometimes seems that media pundits treat Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Apple's Steve Jobs as gods, that's because in a sense they are—sitting on Mount Olympus with the power to hurl digital thunderbolts with a worldwide impact on people.

Instead of just complaining, many of those heading to New York next month believe they can build alternatives that reduce the power of those virtual deities and give more control to mere mortals.”

Marisa Holmes, a filmmaker who has been part of the media team at the occupation and who was one of those arrested Saturday the 24th, told me, “We know we're going to get shut down eventually. We're preparing for a long-term occupation, that includes not only physical space but digital space. Occupy the media.”

Their systems are not ultra-sophisticated but they are impressive for a week's worth, for something that was planned very loosely on the Internet. They have a power source and wireless Internet access in the square, a media team huddled around laptops all day long making sure the word gets out, keeping in touch with supporters around the world. They're making long-term plans, testing ideas, building community.

“It's a space where a community can form,” Holmes, who recently returned from a trip to Egypt, where she was documenting the rebuilding after the revolution, said. “Tahrir Square was a space for organizing, for building a community of resistance. Even though the targets are different, the message is different, we're creating a similar space. We're all affected by neoliberal economics, the stratification of wealth.”

They understand that this is a fight for information. As Matt Taibbi pointed out at Rolling Stone, “[D]emonstrations could be very important just in terms of educating people about the fact that there is, in fact, a well-defined conflict out there with two sides to it.”

Arrests and Backlash

Marisa Holmes was arrested by an officer she identified as Anthony Bologna, the same officer accused of pepper-spraying the girls in the video, and of false arrest in 2004. The charges against Holmes are disorderly conduct and, interestingly, obstructing government property.

She was filming Robert Stephens, another protester who stopped along Saturday's march path to tell the story of his family's foreclosure by Chase bank. “Officer Bologna pulled me aside and said 'This is a public sidewalk, do you want to be arrested?'” she recounted. She argued that she had a right to film on a public sidewalk, but was cuffed and taken to the First Precinct, where she was put in a cell with three other women. After hours of asking for food and water, she says, they were given a bag of potato chips to share before being transferred to Central Booking and held overnight.

She was back at the plaza on Tuesday, seated at her computer, determined not to leave.

The occupations might be small, but London's student movement started with occupations at universities, where students held teach-ins and experimented with direct democracy the way most students experiment with sex and drugs at school. They led to massive rallies in the streets, to students dancing in the freezing cold as they were kettled by police and left penned up for hours.

Hacktivists have been connected to the public demonstrations across Europe and in Egypt, and they share with street protesters a willingness to risk arrest. And reports released of the arrests of supposed members of LulzSec and Anonymous note that many of them have working class jobs—retail workers, a gardener; one of them is homeless.

It shouldn't be shocking, with unemployment in the double digits for young people, that smart kids with unchallenging jobs are finding ways to strike back at those they see as holding them down. Signs at the Wall Street occupation make it clear that the protesters have made the connection—one read “College Degree = Unemployment.”

The protesters have been criticized for not having concrete goals or a coherent message. Their movement does have many targets, one of which is the surveillance state itself, the apparatus of security developed and honed since 9/11 (“Operation Anti-Security” indeed) and tested first and harshest against American Muslims.

Aziz Huq at the Nation reported:

To begin, the NYPD has a record of trying to provide security for New Yorkers by infringing on the rights of racial minorities. In 2010, the NYPD reported a record 601,055 stops-and-frisks, 85 percent of which targeted minority residents. But empirical studies of stop-and-frisk suggest the practice did little to push down crime rates faster than in other cities. The harassing of minorities pioneered in New York coheres with a conservative rhetoric of “tough on crime”; it reinforces the notion of a law-abiding “us” and a disruptive “them.” It buys not only a perception of security but also a moral self-righteousness based on the belief that crime is a problem caused by someone else.

Moreover, the NYPD has a history of targeting those with ideological differences—and recently obtained permission to loosen safeguards around surveillance. In 1971, left-of-center activists led by Barbra Handschu lodged a complaint against the NYPD alleging wiretapping, eavesdropping and infiltration of political gatherings. The resulting settlement decree—the Handschu degree—forced the NYPD to install new guidelines limiting the monitoring and retention of information about political activities in their Patrolman’s Handbook. But in 2002, spooked by the shadow of 9/11, a federal district court judge allowed its substantial modification. Rather than focusing on alleged terrorists, the NYPD quickly returned to old habits of targeting political activists around the 2004 Republican National Convention.

At least some of the protesters are well aware of the history of the tactics used so recently on their group. Camille Raneem noted, “There's a huge connection between creating a bogeyman and also breaking a group of people, and maintaining economic control over a system as a whole.”

She continued, “It's a network of fearmongering and deception and the people that benefit are the one percent. They have created a system of control that goes straight into an individual psyche.”

The group down in the square at Liberty and Broadway call themselves the Other 99 percent—one protester held up a sign that said “Cops are Also 99%. Join Us.” That's their message to the country and the world—most of us are not being helped by the system as it is.

As Matt Taibbi pointed out:

“I would imagine the end game of any movement against Wall Street corruption is going to involve some very elaborate organization. There are going to have to be consumer and investor boycotts, shareholder revolts, criminal prosecutions, new laws passed, and other moves. But a good first step is making people aware of the battle lines. It sounds like these demonstrations have that potential.”

The continuing protests are a question to us all. Which side are you on?

Unequal Wealth

Unequal Wealth

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I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it.
—Thomas Paine, 1796

In the absence of the controls recommended by the Founders and early state regulation, corporations have continued to grow in size and power without limit. But they haven’t done it just by creating new wealth in the economy. Much of it, instead, has been accomplished by increasingly consolidating existing wealth, moving it out of the hands of the middle class and into the hands of the top few percent of Americans economically. Of course, some new wealth has been generated, but nowhere near enough to explain the observable facts.*

The past thirty years has, in fact, seen the largest transfer of wealth from working people to the rich and very rich in the history of both this nation and any nation on earth.

Consolidation: Mergers, Acquisitions, and Interlocking Boards

If you were to define and rank nations according to their gross domestic product, fifty-two of the world’s one hundred largest “nations” are actually corporations. Tracking the growth of the largest companies can be problematic because they’re constantly merging with or buying other companies. This trend has accelerated in the decreased regulatory environment of the 1980–2010 period—just a few generations after Americans busted the trusts during the Populist Movement of Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan.

One-third of 1980’s Fortune 500 companies no longer existed in 1990— not because they failed but because they had been merged or acquired. This accelerated in the 1990s: two-fifths of the Fortune 500 vanished in the five years from 1990 to 1995. They’re still there and still powerful; it’s just that now they’re even more powerful and wealthy, and they have less competition.[1] Statistics since 1995 are nearly impossible to find because the Clinton administration stopped the tracking of this sort of information and corporations don’t publish it. (And conservative think tanks have, over the past decade, systematically employed a small army of Libertarian true-believers to scrub the Internet and rewrite thousands of Wikipedia and other pages.)

The combined GDP of the world’s two hundred largest corporations is greater than all but nine nations, and just as the European royal families are interrelated, so too are the boards of directors of most of the world’s largest corporations.

Corporate observer Robert A. G. Monks reports that today 86 percent of billion-dollar company boards contain at least one CEO of another company, while 65 percent of outside directors serve on two or more boards. He documents how 89 percent of inside directors are outside directors on other companies’ boards, and 20 percent of all directors serve on four or more company boards.[2] Ralph Nader has testified about this extensively before Congress, suggesting that these interlocking boards violate antitrust statutes, and there are entire Web sites devoted to it, such as www.theyrule.net.

For example, the following is a 2002 snapshot showing how interconnected these companies are in that each has at least one board member who’s also a board member on another, creating a continuous daisy-chain:[3]

  • IBM shares a board member with Coca-Cola
  • Which shares a board member with AT&T
  • Which shares a board member with Citigroup
  • Which shares a board member with Lucent Technologies
  • Which shares a board member with Chevron
  • Which shares a board member with Hewlett-Packard
  • Which shares a board member with Boeing
  • Which shares a board member with Sara Lee
  • Which shares a board member with Bank One Corporation
  • Which shares a board member with Cardinal Health
  • Which shares a board member with Freddie Mac
  • Which shares a board member with Lehman Brothers Holdings
  • Which shares a board member with PepsiCo
  • Which shares a board member with Bank of America
  • Which shares a board member with Motorola
  • Which shares a board member with J. P. Morgan Chase
  • Which shares a board member with ExxonMobil
  • Which shares a board member with SBC Communications (owns Ameritech, PacBell, and Southwestern Bell, among others)
  • Which shares a board member with PG&E Corporation
  • Which shares a board member with Home Depot
  • Which shares a board member with General Electric
  • Which shares a board member with Delphi Automotive Systems
  • Which shares a board member with Goldman Sachs Group
  • Which shares a board member with Ford Motor Company
  • Which shares a board member with Sprint ? Which shares a board member with Allstate
  • Which shares a board member with AMR (owns American Airlines)
  • Which shares a board member with Aetna
  • Which shares a board member with Dell Computer
  • Which shares a board member with Prudential Insurance
  • Which shares a board member with Dow Chemical
  • Which shares a board member with Met Life
  • Which shares a board member with Verizon
  • Which shares a board member with USX (formerly U.S. Steel)
  • Which shares a board member with Lockheed Martin
  • Which shares a board member with Enron
  • Which at this writing shares board member Ken Lay with Compaq
  • Which shares a board member with Dynergy
  • Which shares a board member with CVS/Pharmacy
  • Which shares a board member with Fannie Mae
  • Which shares a board member with Conoco
  • Which shares a board member with E. I. du Pont de Nemours
  • Which shares a board member with IBM
  • Which shares a board member with Coca-Cola (which is where we started)

There is strong evidence that this much concentration of wealth and power is not healthy, and prior to the last century it was considered criminal behavior in many states, as interlocking boards were banned and most states had specific caps on how big a corporation could be.

But that was then and this is now. Today the world’s largest two hundred corporations, which employ fewer than 0.8 percent of the world’s workforce, account for more than 27 percent of the world’s total economic activity, more than all nations in the world combined except the top ten.[4]

The corporations of Samuel Adams’s day, like the East India Company, were the bald economic instruments of monarchy and imperial power, but during and after the American Revolution they were put firmly under the control of state legislatures and local municipalities. Today, empowered with human rights, they roam free, with few checks on their power or growth; and they have, in fact, reversed the old East India Company model by becoming the agents that more directly control democracies than do their individual citizens.

  • The United Nations reports that “about two-thirds of all world trade” is in the hands of transnational corporations, which “increasingly shape trade patterns” of the planet.[5]
  • Corporations reaching out from their home countries and into other countries have become “the main force in international economic integration,” according to the U.N.’s Trade and Development Conference.[6]
  • Sales of the two hundred largest corporations in the world equal
  • 27.5 percent of the world’s economic activity.[7]
  • If you added together the sales of every nation in the world except the top ten, the total would be less than the combined sales of the world’s two hundred largest corporations.[8]
  • The 1999 sales of General Motors were greater than the GDP of 182 nations. The same is true of Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, Ford Motor, and DaimlerChrysler.[9]
  • The eighty-two largest American corporations contributed $33,045,832 to political action committees in the year-2000 election cycle (and that doesn’t include “soft money,” for which statistics are unavailable), outspending labor unions by 15 to 1. This was apparently useful to candidates: in 94 percent of U.S. House of Representatives races, the candidate who spent the most money won.[10] By the 2008 election it had become much more difficult to track corporate money or that coming from wealthy individuals, particularly when that money was used to fund nonprofit (we pay their share of taxes) astroturf groups that spring up and seem to be grassroots advocacy efforts. A good guess, though, is that the numbers have increased about tenfold.

As this shift in income has happened, along with it came a shift in who owns pretty much everything.

  • In 1976 the richest 10 percent of America’s population owned 50 percent of American wealth. By 1997 they owned 73 percent. (In other words, 23 percent of America’s total wealth shifted from the poor and middle class to the very wealthy in twenty-one years.)[11]
  • This was not just because the economic pie got bigger: 44 percent more people work multiple jobs than did in 1970, and American workers are putting in, on average, a full month more at work than they did twenty years ago. And hourly earnings of America’s nonsupervisory workers, in 1998 dollars, have fallen by 9 percent since 1973, from $14.09 to $12.77.[12]
  • Looking at the same numbers from “the other end of the telescope,” in 1976 the lower 90 percent of the population owned half the wealth. By 1997 their share was down to 27 percent.[13]
  • In 2000 the top 1 percent of American households had financial wealth
  • greater than that of the bottom 95 percent combined.[14]
  • In 1998 the net worth of just one American, Bill Gates, at $46 billion, was greater than the bottom 45 percent of all American households combined.[15]
  • It’s not just an American phenomenon anymore. Worldwide, according to the United Nations Development Program, the difference between the richest and poorest nations in the world was 1 to 3 in 1820, 1 to 35 in 1950, and 1 to 72 in 1992. The gap has continued to grow since then.[16]

How can this be? What’s happening?

Spengler’s The Decline of the West

In his book The Decline of the West, first published in German in 1918 and then in English in 1926, Oswald Spengler suggested that what we call Western civilization was then beginning to enter a “hardening” or “classical” phase in which all the nurturing and supportive structures of culture would become, instead, instruments of the exploitation of a growing peasant class to feed the wealth of a new and growing aristocracy.

Culture would become a parody of itself, people’s expectations would decline while their wants would grow, and a new peasantry would emerge, which would cause the culture to stabilize in a “classic form” that, while Spengler doesn’t use the term, seems very much like feudalism—the medieval system in which the lord owned the land and everyone else was a vassal (a tenant who owed loyalty to the landlord).

Spengler, considering himself an aristocrat, didn’t see this as a bad thing. In 1926 he prophesied that once the boom of the Roaring Twenties was over, a great bust would wash over the Western world. While this bust had the potential to create chaos, its most likely outcome would be a return to the classic, stable form of social organization, what Spengler calls “high culture” and I call neofeudalism.

He wrote:

In all high Cultures, therefore, there is a peasantry, which is breed stock, in the broad sense (and thus to a certain extent nature herself), and a society which is assertively and emphatically “in form.” It is a set of classes or Estates, and no doubt artificial and transitory. But the history of these classes and estates is world history at highest potential. It is only in relation to it that the peasant is
seen as historyless. [All italics are Spengler’s from the original text.][17]

More-recent cultural observers, ranging from billionaire George Soros in his book The Crisis of Global Capitalism,[18] to professor Noreena Hertz in The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy,[19] have pointed to deep cracks in the foundational structure of Western civilization, traceable to the current legal status of corporations versus humans. The extent of the problems within our structures is laid bare with startling and sometimes frightening
clarity by a wide variety of books.*

The origin of many of modern global society’s problems are clearly laid out in The Trap by now-deceased billionaire speculator Sir James Goldsmith,[20] and it appears that perhaps that “crazy old coot” (as the media would have us believe) Ross Perot—with his charts and graphs and warnings about corporate money in the political process, GATT, and NAFTA—was right in many regards, at least from a nationalistic American point of view.

The summary version of these and dozens of other books documenting Spengler’s decline of the West is this: We’re entering a new and unknown but hauntingly familiar era. It’s new because it represents a virtual abandonment of the egalitarian archetypes the Founders of the United States put into place in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. And it’s hauntingly familiar because it resembles in many ways one of the most stable and long-term of all social structures to have ever established itself in the modern history of Europe—feudalism.

Boston Tea Party participant George R. T. Hewes mentioned the idea that the situation then was beginning to resemble feudalism, and there are those today who have made the same comparison.

The New Feudalism

Feudalism doesn’t refer to a point in time or history when streets were filled with mud and people lived as peasants (although that was sometimes the case).

Instead it refers to an economic and political system, just like democracy or communism or socialism or theocracy. The biggest difference is that instead of power being held by the people, the government, or the church, power is held by those who own property and the other necessities of life. At its essential core, feudalism could be defined as “of, by, and for the rich.”

Also, Watch: Let's Leave Feudalism Where It Should Be ... In School Textbooks

Marc Bloch is one of the great twentieth-century scholars of the feudal history of Europe. In his book Feudal Society, he points out that feudalism is a fracturing of one authoritarian hierarchical structure into another: the state disintegrates as local power brokers take over.

In almost every case, both with European feudalism and feudalism in China, South America, and Japan, “feudalism coincided with a profound weakening of the State, particularly in its protective capacity.”[21] Given most accepted definitions of feudalism, feudal societies don’t emerge in civilizations with a strong social safety net and a proactive government.

There is a slight debate, in that some scholars like Benjamin GuĂ©rard say that feudalism must be land-based, whereas Jacques Flach and others suggest that the structure of power and obligation is the key. But the consensus is that when the wealthiest in a society take over government and then weaken it so that it can no longer represent the interests of the people, the transition has begun into a new era of feudalism. “European feudalism should therefore be seen as the outcome of the violent dissolution of older societies,” Bloch says.

Whether the power and wealth agent that takes the place of government is a local baron, lord, king, or corporation, if it has greater power in the lives of individuals than does a representative government, the culture has dissolved into feudalism. Bluntly, Bloch states, “The feudal system meant the rigorous economic subjection of a host of humble folk to a few powerful men.”

This doesn’t mean the end of government but instead the subordination of government to the interests of the feudal lords. Interestingly, even in feudal Europe, Bloch points out, “The concept of the State never absolutely disappeared, and where it retained the most vitality men continued to call themselves ‘free’...”

The transition from a governmental society to a feudal one is marked by the rapid accumulation of power and wealth in a few hands, with a corresponding reduction in the power and the responsibilities of government. Once the rich and powerful gain control of the government, they turn it upon itself, usually first eliminating its taxation process as it applies to themselves. Says Bloch, “Nobles need not pay taille [taxes].”

Bringing this to today, consider that in 1982, just before the Reagan-Bush “supply side” tax cut, the average wealth of the Forbes 400 was $200 million. Just four years later, their average wealth was $500 million each, aided by massive tax cuts. Today those four hundred people own wealth equivalent to one-eighth of the entire GDP of the United States.[22]

Extreme Concentrations Are Destabilizing

Too much concentration of anything makes it vulnerable to toppling. Most historians and economists recognize that a root cause of the Great Depression was a severe economic imbalance. The sharp increase in concentration of wealth described in this chapter also has much in common with the statistics of the 1920s.

This is also the history of civilizations. As wealth and power accumulate into fewer and fewer hands, the rest of the populace loses its sense that there’s any point in trying to keep up. Whether on a national or a worldwide stage, revolutions and terrorism result when enough people perceive too great a gap between the most rich and the average poor.

In the 1980s the Reagan and Bush administrations effectively ceased enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act, just as the Coolidge administration had done in the 1920s. This led to a mania for mergers, acquisitions, and neotrusts, just as happened in the Roaring Twenties, and with a similar reconsolidation of power and wealth and rise in the stock market. In the 2002 edition of this book, the sentence that followed the previous one said: “Hopefully, the same cycle will not play itself out: If we act promptly, we can set in motion forces that will change the direction of the current trend.” Unfortunately, we did not act, as the Great Crash of 2008 showed.

The End of the American Dream?

Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I have a dream” speech, referred to how the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution “were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” The contents of that note King referred to were identified by Jefferson when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The American Dream is something every schoolchild understands. It’s the heart and soul of democracy. It means opportunity and freedom, the ability to raise a family or pursue one’s own dreams. It means the strong participate in the protection of the weak, lest they lose their own rights if they become oppressors.

In the Federalist Papers (No. 51), Alexander Hamilton wrote, “In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign”; and under such circumstances, eventually, even “the more powerful factions or parties will be gradually induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful.”[23]
Are we approaching that time Hamilton mentioned?

  • At the same time that the concentration of wealth has taken place over the past three decades, the entry-level wage of an American male high school graduate has declined 28 percent (in real dollars).[24]
  • Twenty percent of American workers now earn income below the official poverty rate defined by the U.S. government—and that doesn’t include the unemployed.[25]
  • The top 20 percent of American families have seen their income go up by 97 percent in the past two decades.

Meanwhile, the bottom 20 percent fell 44 percent in their real income, although most were working harder and working longer hours and many carried multiple jobs.[26]
Oswald Spengler noted that cycles of growth and collapse are built into the culture, and at a certain point it “hardens” and then becomes feudal or “classical.” The warning signs, he says, are easily seen: replacement of human and spiritual values with slogans and self-indulgence, concentration of wealth into the hands of a few as poverty increases exponentially, citizens who are politically disengaged and ignorant, and a culture that becomes a parody of itself as it obsesses on its slogans and symbols but ceases to live out its ideals.

The fall of the Roman Empire is a classic example, and we may be another.

  • In a 1998 survey of American teens, 2.2 percent could name the then– chief justice of the Supreme Court (William Rehnquist), but 59.2 percent could name Curly, Larry, and Moe as the fictional Three Stooges.
  • An impressive 74.3 percent of teens knew that Bart Simpson lives in Springfield, Massachusetts, but only 12.2 percent recognized that Abraham Lincoln lived most of his life in Springfield, Illinois.
  • Only 21.1 percent knew that there are one hundred U.S. senators, 1.8 percent could identify James Madison as a father of the Constitution, and a thin 25 percent knew what human right the Fifth Amendment protects. But 98.7 percent knew that Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the hit movie Titanic, and 75.2 percent knew the ZIP code associated with the popular television show Beverly Hills 90210.[27]

Ironically, and probably unknown to the National Constitution Center at the time they designed their poll, the Three Stooges, Bart Simpson, the movie Titanic, and the television show Beverly Hills 90210 were all owned by the same multinational corporation. Such single-corporation influence over popular culture would not have been the case two hundred years ago or even fifty years ago.

To blame all or even most of this on the Santa Clara “decision” would be overreaching: Wealth was concentrating and moving around the world well before the modern corporation came along. Rome had concentrations of wealth, as did Sumer and Greece. Medieval Europe and Japan were cultures of extreme wealth and poverty, as was India with its multimillennia caste system. Even Victorian England, not so very long ago, was a hellhole for all but the well born and the industrialists, as Charles Dickens reminds us in graphic, tragic prose. “This is nothing new,” some would say.
But there is. The difference between then and now is twofold:

  • The wealth in those days had a face and a name. Without corporations to blur who does what, the warlords and nobles and the high caste were identifiable. We know who the kings and queens of old were, from Gilgamesh six thousand years ago in Sumer to the King of France before the revolutionaries executed him and his family. Because that wealth had a face, saying things like “Let them eat cake” could be dangerous for one’s survival.
  • More important, those governments never claimed to be democratic. In the past six thousand years of modern worldwide agriculture-driven civilization, there were only two governments—Athens for about two centuries, and the United States for a century or so—that rose out of a dominator culture and claimed that they were truly democratic, truly government by the people, even the poorest of the people. Since the American experiment, almost a hundred countries have joined the club in various forms, but it’s still very much a new experiment worldwide, one that was tried only once before in all these millennia—Athens, 300 bce—and they were conquered and thrown back into oppression by the concentrated wealth and power of the warlord who called himself Alexander the Great.

In a Democracy...

The “great experiment” of a democratic republic is at a critical crossroads. Can it recover the “government of, by, and for the people” ideal that it held so recently and implement it again in the halls of governments in America and across the world?

Or has de Tocqueville’s worried vision come to pass? Have we become anesthetized and helpless as humans in the presence of a mighty machine that puts on a good face but, when push comes to shove, takes no prisoners and destroys its competitors without a second’s thought?

The answer will depend, in some part, on whether the doctrine of corporate personhood is allowed to stand. Will the people take back their government and assert democratic controls over the misdeeds of the fabulously powerful corporations among them?

To some extent, that will depend on whether We the People demand that our elected officials return to the time-tested principles of national trade policy and fair trade instead of the “free for multinationals trade” that has been so aggressively peddled to the world in the past two decades.

Notes

*Many of the statistics in this chapter (unless cited as otherwise) are from Jeff Gates in various sources. Jeff is president of the Shared Capitalism Institute and author of numerous books and articles, all of which I strongly recommend. His Web site is www.shared capitalism.org.

*See Sharon Beder, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2002); David Helvarg, The War against the Greens: The “Wise-use” Movement, the New Right, and Anti-environmental Violence (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1997); Marshall Barron Clinard, Corporate Corruption: The Abuse of Power (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1990); and Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

1. Harold James, The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
2. Robert A. G. Monks and Nell Minow, Corporate Governance (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 267.
3. From the map titled “Big Loop” at http://www.theyrule.net (circa 2002).
4. Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh, “Top 200: The Rise of Corporate Global Power,” The Institute for Policy Studies, December 4, 2000, http://www.corpwatch.org/article .php?id=377; http://s3.amazonaws.com/corpwatch.org/downloads/top200.pdf.
5. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report, “Foreign Direct Investment Soars,” September 18, 2001.
6. Ibid.
7. See note 4 above.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. “Working America: The Current Economic Situation,” http://www.aflcio.org.
12. Ibid.
13. Jeff Gates, Democracy at Risk: Rescuing Main Street from Wall Street (Cambridge, MA:
Perseus, 2000).
14. Ibid.
15. Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/berman-culture.html.
16. “Human Development Report 2000,” United Nations Development Program, http:// www.undp.org.
17. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1918, 1991).
18. George Soros, The Crisis of Global Capitalism: Open Society Endangered (New York: PublicAffairs, 1998).
19. Noreena Hertz, PhD, The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy (London: Heinemann, 2001).
20. Sir James Goldsmith, The Trap (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994).
21. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, trans. L. A. Manyon (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1961). All subsequent quotes from Bloch in this chapter are from this book.
22. Statistics from http://www.aflcio.org.
23. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers (No. 51), http://www.foundingfathers.info/ federalistpapers/fed51.htm.
24. See note 22 above.
25. “Estimates of Federal Tax Liabilities for Individuals and Families,” Congressional Budget Office Memorandum, May 1998, cited by Gates, Democracy at Risk.
26. See note 22 above.
27. All statistics for the 1998 survey of American teens are from the National Constitution Center, http://www.constitutioncenter.org.

Roubini: U.S. in Throes of Economic Contraction

Roubini: U.S. in Throes of Economic Contraction

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Most advanced economies are lapsing back into recession while the U.S. is already in the throes of an economic contraction, according to Nouriel Roubini, co- founder and chairman of Roubini Global Economics LLC.

“The way I see the global economy, I think we’re entering into a recession again in most advanced economies,” Roubini said in a panel discussion today at the Bloomberg Dealmakers Summit in New York. “I think we’re already into one in the U.S. based on the hard and soft data -- same with most of the euro zone, same with the United Kingdom.”

The Conference Board today said that confidence among U.S. consumers stagnated in September near a two-year low as the share of households saying it was difficult to find a job climbed to the highest level in almost three decades. European leaders over the weekend faced pressure at the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund to solve a debt crisis already spilling over into other parts of the world.

“At this point, the issue is not whether there is going to be a recession or a double-dip but whether it’s going to be relatively mild or whether it’s going to be a severe recession and a global financial crisis,” Roubini said. “The answer to that question depends on what’s going to happen in the euro zone and whether they can get their act together.”

“We are running out of policy bullets,” said Roubini, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. The debt crisis in Europe could have consequences that are “worse” than the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in 2008.

Predicted Bubble

Roubini predicted the bubble in U.S. housing prices before the market peaked in 2006. His forecasts haven’t all been accurate. When the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell to a 12-year low on March 9, 2009, he said it probably would drop to 600 or lower by the end of that year. Instead, the U.S. equity benchmark gained 65 percent for the rest of 2009.

Speaking at the same panel, billionaire Wilbur Ross, chairman of private-equity firm WL Ross & Co., said that Ireland will likely be the first country to recover from the debt crisis.

“The reason why I like Ireland is because unlike what I call the Club Med countries it doesn’t need reforming,” he said. “My leading indicator for Ireland is pub sales.”

“Club Med” countries is a term occasionally used to refer to nations in southern Europe.

European banks are “extremely dependent on the wholesale funding markets, in plain English, hot money,” Ross said. “That’s what makes them vulnerable.”

SHILLER: House Prices Probably Won’t Hit Bottom For Years

SHILLER: House Prices Probably Won’t Hit Bottom For Years

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The July numbers for the most widely followed measure of house prices, the S&P/Case-Shiller Index, were released this morning.

The numbers weren't terrible--on a seasonally adjusted basis, July was basically the same as June--but one of the creators of the index, Professor Robert Shiller of Yale University, isn't taking much solace in them.

The economy has deteriorated significantly since July, Professor Shiller observes, and he suspects that the housing market has followed suit.

And, from a broader perspective, house prices are still down more than 4% year over year.

In February, Professor Shiller startled those looking for an imminent "bottom" in house prices by suggesting that house prices could still fall 10% to 25%.

He's standing by that assessment.

House prices won't necessarily plunge from here in nominal terms, but in real terms--after adjusting for inflation--they could still drop significantly, Professor Shiller says.

And the bottom might not arrive for years.

WARNING: Stagnant Wages Can Support Only So Much Consumer Debt – We Appear To Have Hit The Ceiling Again

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Since my last update on U.S. Retail Sales and Consumer Credit in June, we have seen a continued slump in retail sales data (August sales growth was essentially zero) and a skyrocketing rate of consumer credit growth, which returned to levels last seen before the Great Recession.

As you may recall, I have been tracking growth rates in consumer credit and retail sales for some time now, and my methodology and conclusions are set forth in a report on the unsustainability of sales in an environment beset by stubbornly high underemployment and real (now looking like it will be nominal) wage deflation. My original report on the subject can be found here.

This time it seems clear that we have hit the ceiling on consumer credit again. For the first time since the recession, we experienced a sustained period of consumer credit growth (mostly student loans and autos, as well as plastic) rather than a continuation of the pattern of de-leveraging that we saw during – and immediately after – the recession.

The acceleration of borrowing had an inflection point that corresponds nicely with the announcement of QE2 and consumer credit growth actually became net positive almost exactly upon the commencement of Fed buying. Retail sales growth shot up too and remained up into the second quarter. Then matters begin to get really dicey – consumer credit continued to grow but retail sales growth began a seemingly inexorable decline and we now expect it to turn negative.

The problem is, you can’t service more and more debt with stagnant/declining aggregate wages and continued high underemployment.

The Confidence Fairy may help pry the plastic out of your wallet, but she’s not much help when the bill comes!

The data illustrated by the graph below sets off all sorts of warning signals and undoubtedly is playing a not-insignificant role in the apparent return to recessionary or near-recessionary conditions.

3 month consumer credit and retail

Image: EconoMonitor

NYPD Violence at Occupy Wall Street: Would Tea Partiers or Clinic Protesters Receive Such Treatment?

NYPD Violence at Occupy Wall Street: Would Tea Partiers or Clinic Protesters Receive Such Treatment?

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The Occupy Wall Street protests have been going on in lower Manhattan, with activists camping out and marching around the financial district. They self-describe as:

Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.

Media coverage has been mixed. First, the protests were ignored. Then they were criticized. They’re increasingly being lauded. I have mixed feelings, personally, about some of the tactics and the lack of coherent goals and the protestors comparing themselves to the Arab Spring activists, even while I support the protests and I’m on board with their general grievances pertaining to the prioritization of corporations over people and a government that allows corporate greed to go unchecked while millions of Americans struggle to make ends meet. Like Samhita says over at Feministing, “You can say what you will about protests that are not strategic or focused and those are legitimate critiques – but the fundamental power of protesting when all other avenues have failed us is important to any semblance of democracy we might have, whether it be a strategic single issue protest or a faceless unanimous mass uprising. If protesters aren’t listened to, represented or covered, we have all but lost our voice.”

Regardless of how I feel about the relative merits of some aspects of Occupy Wall St. — and regardless of whether you think the protestors are reclaiming the future or are a bunch of hippie socialists — we should all be concerned with how the NYPD is handling the situation. The protests have been, by almost all accounts, peaceful, even if the protestors didn’t have a permit. The NYPD is nonetheless making mass arrests, usingmace, and manhandling protestors. That kind of disproportionate response should scare all of us — especially when much of the media coverage has amounted to, “Well the protestors are a bunch of spoiled children anyway.”

Look at the pictures and tell me that seems right. Try to envision Tea Party activists or even abortion clinic protestors — two groups that routinely protest without permits, and with varying degrees of peacefulness — being maced, arrested en masse, violently thrown to the ground, or roughly dragged down the street.

It doesn’t happen. It shouldn’t happen. And it shouldn’t happen to left-wing protestors in lower Manhattan, either.

A terrifying number of important rights and liberties have been curtailed in the United States over the past ten years, often under the guise of keeping us safe or fighting evil. For the most part, Americans have looked the other way. But when peaceful protests are met with violence, and when force is used to silence political grievances, we all lose. Protests and public assemblies are such fundamental parts of the American story that they’re protected in the Constitution. For centuries they’ve been a major avenue through which we’ve achieved social change, or at least voiced our opinions. No matter what our political positions or our feelings about any particular group of activists, it should give us pause when a peaceful protestor has to decide if speaking her mind — or just showing up — is worth getting maced, arrested and brutalized. In looking at the photos and reading the accounts of the actions taken against the Occupy Wall St protestors, even the most right-wing among us should be disturbed. We should all be angry.

Live Stream of The Wall Street Occupation

Day 13: Live Stream of The Wall Street Occupation

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Thousands of activists have descended on Wall Street since past weekend as part of the #OccupyWallStreet protest organized by several action groups. What follows is a live video stream of this event as well as a live twitter stream of the #OccupyWallStreet Hash Tag.

Wall Street Occupation Coverage at NationofChange:

For more up-to-the-minute information about the protests, click here.

Watch live streaming video from globalrevolution at livestream.com

Wages of Fear: Lockdowns And The IMF on Occupied Wall Street

Wages of Fear: Lockdowns And The IMF on Occupied Wall Street

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I walked around lower Manhattan for a long time last Friday. looking for the #OccupyWallStreet protests. It was an experiment: Had Mayor Bloomberg and the forces of “security” hidden the demonstrators so effectively that they couldn’t be found, even if you went there specifically to look for them?

Yes.

But Wall Street was “occupied” anyway. Tourists, locals, and Stock Exchange employees were herded by police and barricades into tiny funnels of foot traffic. They shuffled down Wall Street and New Street and Broad Street as slowly as prisoners bound by ankle chains.

Wall Street is occupied ... by fear - of the public and of its anger.

Cattle call

If we were herded like cattle, there was a certain rough poetry to that. Wall Street has never needed less from ordinary people to generate its wealth, which is why corporate profits are so high during a period of massive unemployment and a decaying middle class.

But it still needs us a little. Our labors and debts are still the raw material that Wall Street slices, layers, bundles, and sells for its financial instruments.

Our household finances are to Wall Street derivatives what cows are to hamburgers.

Twist of Fear

The market had conducted one of its usual plunges the day before, after the Federal Reserve announced a miniscule program called “Operation Twist” that will do little for our broken and bleeding economy. The market may not be all-knowing. But it knows when a program is too weak to change our current picture of ongoing economic misery for millions, or to hold off the increasing probability of another severe economic shock.

That’s why we saw a sharp downturn after John Boehner and Barack Obama agreed on their austerity program a few months ago. The market knew that wouldn’t stop the ongoing pain of a stagnating economy and massive unemployment.

Wall Street is occupied ... by doubt.

Addicted

But the heads of our largest banks can’t stop paying their servant-class of Washington politicians to kill any programs that might rekindle the economy. They know what’s needed, but they can’t stop themselves from keeping their own taxes as low as possible for as long as possible. That forces them to fight government spending when it’s most urgently needed.

And it drives them to fight against the regulations that could prevent them from creating another disaster. (Have you heard of ETFs yet? You will. Remember, there was a time when you hadn’t heard of credit default swaps, either.)

They won’t lend money to people to buy homes or start businesses, because these new and complex financial instruments are so much more lucrative. Banking isn’t lucrative enough to interest bankers anymore. It’s not clever enough. From William Blake:

“... the water wheel that raises water into cisterns (was) broken & burned with fire ...

and in their stead, intricate wheels were invented, wheels without wheels,

to perplex youth in their outgoings ...”

You know why otherwise smart hedge fund managers say crazy things, why they call themselves “a persecuted minority” or react to the suggestion that they pay the same tax rates as a firefighter by comparing it to the invasion of Poland?

Because they’re addicts. Junkies, even the smart ones, say crazy things to get their next fix. Especially the smart ones.

Wall Street is occupied by ... addiction.

A rights-free zone

The fear could be seen in the barricades across Wall Street. And the greed could be seen in a bargain-hungry market that came roaring back that day, hoping to find gems among Thursday’s ruins.

But where were the demonstrators? They want to create an American Tahrir Square, but when it comes to public demonstrations Michael Bloomberg isn’t as democratically inclined as Hosni Mubarak. He proved that during the 2004 Republican convention, when his police force engaged in massive violations of civil liberties.

Mass arrests of demonstrators and “innocent bystanders” alike (aren’t they all innocent until proven guilty?), spying on nonprofit groups, illegal detentions ... Mayor Bloomberg’s antidemocratic skills were honed before #OccupyWallStreet came along.

“People have a right to protest,” said the Mayor, “and if they want to protest, we’ll be happy to make sure they have locations to do it.” The city found a location -- well away from Wall Street and the Stock Exchange. That’s straight out of the George W. Bush playbook, where “free speech zones” were set up --where the demonstrators couldn’t be seen.

Think about it: We cherish the rights of Tea Party demonstrators so much that they’re allowed to bring guns into a Presidential rally. But these demonstrators, whose critique of Wall Street speaks for a vast majority of the public, must be herded away from our titans of finance and their delicate senses.

Here’s something Mr. Bloomberg should know: We already have a “free speech zone.” It’s called “the United States of America.”

The politicians don’t know, but the IMF understands ...

Along comes the International Monetary Fund, the IMF. For decades the IMF has been seen, usually correctly, as the enforcer of the developed nations’ banking interests in Third World countries. I’ve seen it in action myself, in dozens of nations.

The IMF may be many things, but it is not addicted - and it’s not fearful. It can see what Wall Street bankers can’t see, and it can say what Wall Street bankers can’t say: The austerity economics which it promoted for so long has gone too far. Austerity is no longer just abusing the populations that give finance its raw materials. It’s destroying them. it’s not thinning the herd anymore. It’s slaughtering it.

When Christine Lagarde became the IMF’s President there was widespread fear that she would end the somewhat more progressive policies of her accused predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But she’s intelligent and articulate and unable to avoid stating the clear and obvious, even if she needed to cloud it in indirect language.

Here’s what she told a meeting of the G20, the IMF, and the World Bank while I was among the pedestrians being herded like cattle down Wall Street: “Very quickly the United States must reduce its fiscal deficit, particularly for the medium and the long term. It must deal urgently with unemployment and it must relieve pressure on overly indebted households.” (Reuters)

The People’s IMF

Several weeks ago she was considerably more specific. She said that “future consolidation” (deficit reduction) first required “policies that support growth and jobs today ... growth is necessary for fiscal credibility.” She added, “Who will believe that commitments to cut spending can survive a lengthy stagnation with prolonged high unemployment and social dissatisfaction?”

In other words, we need jobs now, or we might have British-style riots and social unrest later. Lagarde went on to suggest “more aggressive principal reduction programs for homeowners, stronger intervention by the government housing finance agencies, or steps to help homeowners take advantage of the low interest rate environment.” (via Matt Yglesias)

Christine Lagarde isn’t a radical populist. She’s saying we must be rescued for the sake of the entire financial system. That’s the same reason they helped Wall Street. But they won’t do it for us.

Ironic, isn’t it? The leader of this often-undemocratic institution is calling for policies that are widely popular among Democrats, Republicans, and independents, but which are considered “unrealistic” by the leaders and opinion makers in our “democratic” system.

Something’s broken.

Looking for Liberty

Meanwhile, back in lower Manhattan, I was trying to find a place I’d never heard of in all my years of working there: Zuccotti Park. That was where the demonstrators had been penned in by police, where they weren’t visible to offend the delicate sensibilities of Wall Street’s most effective predators.

Some quick Googling told me why I’d never heard of it. It was called “Liberty Plaza Park” when I worked here, but private investors rebuilt it after 9/11 under the leadership of executive Robert Zuccotti.

The name “liberty” had been replaced by the name of an investor. Perfect.

Wheels in Motion

The #OccupyWallStreet demonstrators are expressing the frustrations of the majority, hoping to channel them into Arab Spring-style change. That’s the work of our time. It’s the same work we’ll be discussing at next week’s Take Back the American Dream conference.

The work is urgent and the time is now. Unemployment is still high. Income inequality is higher in this country than it is in Egypt. For those lucky enough to have a job, wages are stagnated and opportunities for advancement are few. Those wheels of William Blake’s continue to spin, binding the youth of the country to

“grind & polish brass and iron, hour after hour, laborious task, kept ignorant of its use; that they might spend the days of wisdom

in sorrowful drudgery to obtain a scanty pittance of bread”

As for Mayor Bloomberg, and the men of women of Wall Street, and those who pass by without seeing the demonstrators a few blocks away, they’re destined to

“view a small portion & think that All,

and call it Demonstration, blind to all the simple rules of life.”

And to stay that way, unaware of the changes happening all around them. They’ll find out someday, hopefully before it’s too late.

Europe Leads the Way Back to Depression

Europe Leads the Way Back to Depression

By Mike Whitney

Political wrangling at this weekend's meetings of the IMF and G-20 in Washington, has deepened divisions between national leaders and pushed the eurozone closer to a breakup. Germany and the United States are increasingly at loggerheads over a strategy that will ease the credit crunch and strengthen the capital-position of EU banks and sovereigns. The US approach--which is being pushed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner--would leverage the existing 440 billion euro financial emergency fund (EFSF) by 5 or 10x, making it big enough to prop up the bond markets of both Spain and Italy. But Germany opposes the idea stressing that such a plan would make "state financing through monetary policy" a permanent fixture. Judging by the way that the TARP was administered after Lehman Brothers flopped, the Germans have a point. None of the big banks were nationalized or restructured; their shareholders were not wiped out nor did their bondholders face haircuts. The TARP was merely a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to bankers. Naturally, Germany wants to avoid that.

The Telegraph reports that the main players are working on a secret plan to save the euro. Here's an excerpt from the article:

"German and French authorities have begun work on a three-pronged strategy behind the scenes amid escalating fears that the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis is spiralling out of control.
...

According to sources, progress has been made at the G20 meeting in Washington ... the world’s leading economies set themselves a six-week deadline to resolve the crisis – to unveil a solution by the G20 summit in Cannes on November 4.
..

First, Europe’s banks would have to be recapitalised with many tens of billions of euros to reassure markets that a Greek or Portuguese default would not precipitate a systemic financial crisis....

The second leg of the plan is to bolster the EFSF. Economists have estimated it would need about Eu2 trillion of firepower to meet Italy and Spain’s financing needs in the event that the two countries were shut out of the markets. Officials are working on a way to leverage the EFSF through the European Central Bank to reach the target...("Multi-trillion plan to save the eurozone being prepared", Telegraph)

An expansion of the EU emergency fund to $2 trillion euros is an impossible obstacle for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to hurdle. She already faces stiff resistance in-and-out of her party as well as impressive legal challenges from opposition groups. Germans want to stay in the eurozone, but they are overwhelmingly opposed to more bailouts or setting up a transfer union that distributes wealth to deficit countries in the south. In other words, Merkel's hands are tied. Unlike the Fed--that can simply invoke an obscure clause in its charter ("unusual and exigent") to underwrite the entire financial system with $11.4 trillion in loans and other guarantees--Merkel has to comply to the law making sure she does not exceed her mandate. That means that the emergency fund will remain within its present range and its impact on the banking system and bond markets will be limited.

But an emergency fund with limited resources will merely embolden the bond vigilantes to push up yields and make it more difficult for cash-strapped states to finance government operations. That, in turn, will lead to more layoffs, more belt-tightening and bigger deficits. It's a vicious circle and the downward spiral is already visible wherever these Dark Ages policies have been implemented. The eurozone is slipping inexorably into another Depression.

This is from Reuters:

"Euro zone officials played down reports on Monday of emerging plans to halve Greece's debts and recapitalize European banks to cope with the fallout, stressing that no such scheme is yet on the table.

Europe came under fierce pressure from the United States and other major economies at weekend talks in Washington to take swift, decisive action to stop the Greek debt crisis engulfing bigger euro zone states and derailing world economic recovery.

But officials said media reports that planning was already in place for a 50 percent writedown in Greek debt and a vast increase in the euro zone rescue fund, the EFSF, were highly premature.

"There is no change to the framework we are working on," said a euro zone official who is involved in decision-making on financial assistance to Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

"All this talk of a specific haircut for Greece or an enlargement of the EFSF, it is all just speculation. We are not working along those lines," said the official." ("Euro zone damps talk of rapid debt crisis steps", Reuters)

So, while EU finance ministers smiled and played nice to their US hosts at the meetings in Washington, they have no intention of following Geithners' advice. There will be no blank checks for crooked banksters nor will there be looting on a scale of the TARP. EU leaders will decide which policies best reflect their own interests and those of their people. Judging from the results so far, that means the crisis is likely to persist for some time as the banking system comes under greater pressure and deflationary programs push bankrupt countries into a long-term slump.

There can be no doubt that Europe is leading the global economy back into recession. After all, contractionary policies tend to be, well, contractionary.