Friday, September 28, 2012

Spain could indicate the direction America is taking

The Economy - Eleonore Weil
"The Economy"
Suddenly, Spain and Greece are being racked by strikes and huge demonstrations. The public in these countries is, in effect, saying that it has reached its limit: With unemployment at Great Depression levels and with erstwhile middle-class workers reduced to picking through garbage in search of food, austerity has already gone too far.  Paul Krugman - New York Times

What began as an economic storm has blown into a full-scale political crisis. Amid popular discontent and separatist protests, Spain has stumbled towards a crossroads: without decisive action by the government, the post-Franco democratic settlement is at risk. Financial Times
David Seaton's News Links
It is said that every historical phase carries within it the embryo of the next phase to be born in the future. If this is so, then someday we may come to consider the mountain of debt that threatens to crush our present system as an explanatory, broken condom.
One of the paradoxes here is that the enormous robustness of the United States, its size, population, its natural resources, military power and perhaps most of all, its ability to create money out of thin air to pay its debts, probably means that it would not see the total systemic crisis arriving until it was too late to really do anything about it.  
If Americans wonder where the world economic crisis is taking them, a look at what Spain is going through right now might give them some serviceable hints.
Spain is one of the world's oldest nation-states, with a population of 40M and a large economy somewhere in the world's top ten. Thus, unlike Greece, it is large enough and complex enough to serve Americans as a guinea pig.
Spain is infinitely more fragile and vulnerable than the USA, but for that very reason it is able to provide a valuable early warning for Americans... in much the same way that coal miners used to take little canary birds down into the mine to detect odorless, poisonous gases. Long before the burly miners noticed anything, the tiny bird would keel over in a faint from gas inhalation. When the canary passed out, the miners would run for the exit. Spain has just keeled over...
The distress signals coming from the American system are much more subtle than those emanating from Spain.
Here, for example is some socially ominous data:
Lower-paying jobs, with median hourly wages from $7.69 to $13.83, accounted for just 21% of the job losses during the recession. But they've made up about 58% of the job growth from the end of the recession in late 2009 through early 2012. Los Angeles Times
Whether people are actually "entitled" to "to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it" is open for discussion. But, the fact is that if enough of them don't have any plausible way of getting health care, food or housing, finally they are going to turn against any system that denies them these things. And if the number of the disgruntled is sufficient then, to maintain some sort of order and domestic tranquility, the system will have to give them health care, food and housing, whether they want to do so or not.
Probably the reason the American right wing has become so grotesquely strange and wacky of late is that the extremely lucid money financing all the zany craziness is aware that somewhere down the road, if the trends of growing middle class impoverishment continue, some sort of serious redistribution, strongly reminiscent of socialism, is going rear its head.
To me it is clear that the people who are willing to pay $50K to hear Romney talk over rubber chicken are trying to deny the declining middle class and the growing mass of working poor any kind of clarity of thought, if possible. If the Spanish crisis is any harbinger of things to come, it will be the people's stomachs however that will finally do the talking. DS

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mitt Romney or "Class Struggle for Dummies"


We thought Romney was secretly moderate, but it turns out that he’s secretly cruel, a social Darwinist just like his running mate. Maureen Dowd - New York Times

What these comments definitely tell us, though, is what Mitt Romney, master consultant, feels his “clients” in the Republican donor base want to be told about this election and what will inspire them to dig deep and give freely to his cause. Assuming those instincts are correct, his comments help illuminate the way many well-off Americans feel about their less-fortunate fellow countrymen – and it isn’t a pretty thing to see. Ross Douthat - New York Times
David Seaton's News Links
My opinion of Romney is somewhere between Maureen Dowd's and Ross Douthat's. Like Maureen, I have no doubt that Romney is a cold hearted Darwinist and like Douthat I think Romney will say almost anything he thinks his audience would like to hear. I can well imagine him extolling the benefits of "boy love" to a group of well-heeled pedophiles.
So I think the real lesson is that Willard-Mitt's audience that day were truly cruel, social Darwinists and that Mitt is anywhere the wind blows. Personally a jerk, but that wouldn't mean very much... anywhere but in the White House, with the button for unleashing an atomic holocaust in his hands.
As to the 47% that Mitt dismisses-pisses on, they sure aren't parasites, they are fellow countrymen and women... and children. And no they don't think they are victims... although in fact they are victims (see illustration).
Someday this 47% may wake up and change things, but till then, keeping Mitt Romney and all who sail in him out of the White House, out of the House of Representatives and out of the Senate and the Supreme Court will have to do. DS

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11... on the record

”fae ghosties & ghoulies & lang-legged beasties & things that go bump in the nicht...guid lord, deliver us” (traditional scottish prayer)
David Seaton's News Links
Today is the anniversary... a time to remember where you were, and what happened that day.
September eleventh, 2001, at 9AM, Madrid time, I was in a meeting at an energy brokerage, a customer of mine, with other content-providers for their website... I was in the throes of channeling a Celtic, "second sight" attack that I had awakened with that morning... You may or may not remember (you might be excused for forgetting) that the Palestinian Intifada had reached its peak then and was at unbearable levels of tension... My feeling that Spanish morning (middle of the night EST) was that something had to give, that something big was going to happen, something which would radically change the energy market, (at the very least), a feeling that I communicated to others at the meeting. I received several phone calls on this during the afternoon.
Early that afternoon I was shopping in a huge Madrid department store, when passing the TV section, I noticed a group of people standing around a big demo-tv set... The first plane had just hit the first tower... I stood watching the live broadcast... a tiny, Central American Indian, immigrant standing beside me muttered to himself, "¡es la guerra!", "it's war". "¿Contra quiĆ©n?" I said to myself, "against whom?"... It turned out to be against Iraq. Iraq?
One thing for sure, everybody forgot about the Palestinians and their Intifada and till this day they are still forgotten... unintended consequences? Who knows?
Today, September 11th, 2012 I have also awakened with another Celtic-whim-wham-juju, and I just want to get on record with it... I have the feeling that China is going to go all funny, to the extent that we will be led to question all the received truths, doctrines of faith and preconceptions about globalization that guide all our planning at the moment. My "insight" is no clearer than that.
I have no clear idea of what form this "going all funny" will take, only that I pick up the same accumulations of errant variables that set me off back in 2001. DS

Friday, September 07, 2012

Democrats and the vanishing American middle class

It seems that the Democrats have had the modicum of mother wit to make the middle class the framework and theme of their 2012 campaign. We know that the Democrats can't really walk the walk, but it is nice to hear somebody at least talk the talk for a change. For the sad truth is that the American middle class is on its way to join the buggy whip and whalebone corsets as a charming relic of America's past.

Historically, such a middle class is totally exceptional; the norm over ages, and in much of the world still today, is a small group of very rich people, who own everything and a great mass of people, uneducated and unhealthy, whose life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", and whose role is to serve the rich and powerful as soldiers, policemen, domestics, nannies and sex workers.

The European middle class was created as a bulwark of social stability, basically to prevent the masses from taking the "winter palace" and stringing up the super rich. The American middle class as we know it really came into being when Henry Ford decided to pay his workers enough to buy the cars they made. It made Ford rich and led to turning America into a land of mass prosperity.

The American middle class is perhaps the United States' greatest social achievement, an enormous mass of prosperous, educated and healthy citizens which has been the envy of all the world for nearly a hundred years, and the not so secret weapon that destroyed the Soviet Union and reoriented China.

Simplifying to the extreme you could say that the modern, American middle class was created by Henry Ford and literally saved from extinction, (the first time) by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The whole story is in that reductio ad absurdum.

What most Americans, except for the one-percent perhaps, don't seem to understand is that the American middle class is in reality a totally artificial construction, which if not carefully nurtured will dry up and die like an un-watered house plant. The super-rich are quite comfortable with its disappearance, as they think that they no longer depend on its prosperity for their own prosperity or even for their own physical safety.

I would argue that if the middle class is devastated then all the problems it was created to solve, all the dangers that it was meant to allay would reappear, just like uncut grass grows on the lawn of a foreclosed house.

What is this middle class really?

The middle class that most Americans believe they belong to is a transitory place on a voyage from some place harder and more difficult than the present to someplace softer and less difficult. It is place of anxiety, what it is not, or what it could be, is often more important than what it actually is: any loss of momentum may have disastrous and dreaded results. Without an adequate social net most middle class Americans are only a serious illness or a layoff away from traveling downward. Examples of that voyage surround them everywhere they look... if they dare to look.

Those who are cheerfully going about the work of dismantling the welfare state seem blissfully unaware that the welfare state was created by men as, or even more, conservative then themselves, (Bismark, for example) in order to avoid revolutionary social movements which would destabilize and jeopardize the entire economic system and society itself. This was a strategy that was so eminently successful that it has practically destroyed revolutionary praxis.

In my opinion dismantling the welfare state at this time is similar to a person who has successfully survived an operation for lung cancer and endured the ensuing chemotherapy and then, finding himself now in  remission, decides that it is ok for him to go back to smoking, the very thing that caused his cancer in the first place: idiotic.

It occurs to me that this tunnel vision, expressed in the obsession of  placating the financial markets, which  ignores popular anger, is the result of the rise and predominance of the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) economy and the diminishing influence of manufacturing and agriculture.

The financial sector works with platonic mathematical models: money in the abstract moves with the speed of light. Fortunes that buy admiration, sex and luxury are made by simply tapping the key of a computer in a cubicle or on a trading floor.  All very clean and a bit autistic.

Reality, unfortunately, in as much as it touches living organisms, is never that clean and neat.

Thus farmers and manufacturers understand how the world of living creatures works better than financiers do.

They understand better, because both farmers and manufacturers exploit living creatures for profit and, leaving ethical question aside, to do this they need to have what farmers call "stock sense": an understanding of the animal off of which they make their living.

Take pigs for example.

A pig lives on death row from the day he is born.

Few animals are as reviled as the pig, the very word "pig" is an insult... and yet, perhaps no other animal on earth is eaten with such relish as the pig. Thus there is a lot of money to be made raising pigs

Very few of those who live off of pigs like them personally, however pig raisers make sure that their pigs get plenty to eat, clean water to drink and clean air to breathe and they make sure that their charge's excrement is removed at timely intervals... They also provide them with free veterinary care. The farmers don't do this for love of the pig or from the goodness of their hearts, but simply because if pigs aren't treated like this, they won't get fat soon enough or their flesh pass health inspection after they are slaughtered.

Pigs are not alone.

The short time that chickens pass among the living is also accompanied by a careful attention to their health and diet, as commodity chickens are terribly vulnerable to contagious diseases: plagues that can wipe out a farmer's investment in only a few days or sometimes hours.

Dairy cows have a bit better time of it than most food producers, live longer lives and often get special treatment, as it has been shown that not only clean food and air and lack of stress improves the quantity and quality of the milk they produce, even playing classical music for the cows helps increase milk production. To get the most and the best milk from a cow a farmer will even play Mozart for her.

So, if not properly cared for hens don't lay, pigs don't get fat and cows don't give milk.

In short, farmers know that to make decent a profit from their animals they must treat them carefully and that signs such as wet noses, shiny fur, neat feathers, bright eyes and a good appetite and the quantity and quality of their droppings, all must be watched closely if a good business is to be made from them.

In manufacture everything we have said about pigs, chickens and cows goes in spades for people too.

Manufacturers know as much about the human beings  they exploit as farmers know about pigs, chickens and cows and for much the same reasons: their livelihood depends on getting as much work, both in quantity and quality that they can with the smallest cash outlay possible.

As an example of how the techniques of animal husbandry can be advantageously applied to humans, soccer became the British working class passion par exellence, because 19th century factory owners encouraged their workers to play football in order to keep them healthy and productive in the miserable conditions of the industrial revolution.

Exploiting human animals is a dicey business however.

We are talking about a very bad monkey here, one who can sabotage a factory, go slow, work to rule, go on strike: an animal that to be most profitable requires much training and re-training and much "motivation".

Like farming, manufacture is a messy, hands-on affair, filled with the sort of dangerous, dirty, intangible things that sentient beings produce that are difficult to quantify in  numbers. This makes farming and manufacture unattractive for most Masters of Business Administration.

People don't feel right spending all those years at Harvard or Stanford, just to have to get a recalcitrant assembly line up and running or to stand up to their knees in manure in the middle of a freezing night holding a lantern for a vet himself up to his elbows performing a breech delivery on a struggling milch cow.

To leave the farm, to leave the factory floor and then move to a quiet office to follow numbers that flit across a screen, and while doing it make millions of dollars more than ever would be possible in either the factory or on the farm is a no-brainer.

Managing filthy pigs or cantankerous people with grease on their hands is not an attractive career choice for a good student today. Pigs are a drag. So are people.

Truly though, I can't imagine Walt Whitman celebrating these new masters of the universe.

A curious thing: if nobody ate pigs or eggs or chickens or drank milk, there would be no cows, pigs or chickens: nobody keeps them for pets. That's the way things work.

Here is an example: right up until the 1970s Spain used to be filled with donkeys, an emblematic animal, Sancho Panza rode one, they had a million uses... now there are hardly any donkeys left... The modern world doesn't need donkeys and donkeys can't do anything about it.

In many developed countries it appears that what goes for donkeys goes for human beings too. Their messy needs and wants get in the way of the beautiful numbers. Let us then move all the messy things far away and leave ourselves to contemplate our  exquisite numbers as they shimmer and dance on the screen and fill our bank accounts.

Of course we are talking about human beings, not pigs, chickens and donkeys, so putting numbers aside, we begin to talk about the brotherhood of man in the fatherhood of God and other ancient, creaky concepts that Darwinist, number-crunchers would consider sentimental twaddle.

And so in love are the crunchers with their platonic models and their markets, that they blithely assume that those whose lives they disrupt and futures they jeopardize will simply oblige them by just shriveling up and blowing away.

Students have been traditionally involved in all serious movements for change.

The Occupy and Indignados movements show that that could still be true today.

Up till now the children of the credit bubble have had little to rebel against, all the things that the 1968 generation fought for, especially sexual freedom, this generation have had in abundance. While they enjoyed their freedom or became bored with it they became proficient with computers, cell phone messaging and social nets, all valuable skills for potential agitators. Now the battle is not just about personal freedom and against being drafted to get killed or maimed in imperialist wars, as it was back then, today it is about health, education and welfare: the basics.

Now as politicians like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are attacking their future education, future jobs and even their future pensions, today's youth have something more challenging than "Grand Theft Auto" to test their skills against.  And perhaps they will be able to do something that the students of 1968 couldn't do in those times of prosperity and full employment, make common cause with working people and the older generations. If all those segments of society came together for once, things might change.

Because, unlike donkeys, human beings, before they disappear, can do much nastier things than just bray and kick. DS

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Clint Eastwood and his contempt for America

"This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama." @jabouie tweet re Eastwood's speech (ht Doonesbury)
Clint Eastwood’s performance was the most decadent, self indulgent thing I have ever seen. Watching him wank for 12 minutes to wild applause makes me think that the Republicans are washed up, an empty shell. What was on display was pure Hollywood, someone who thinks his feces is crushed pineapple and that making schoolboy jokes about the POTUS, before the acceptance speech of someone who in January of next year could be POTUS himself is appropriate behavior.
I think our celebrity culture may have dissolved American’s brains.
Eastwood drained all the solemnity out of the moment. Phoney as he is, Romney is the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, which makes him the direct “apostolic” successor of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight D. Eisenhower. If he wins the election he will become the world’s most powerful political figure, with the atomic button that could destroy humanity in his hands… his “coronation” is a solemn moment… or should be. I think having Clint Eastwood as closing speaker of the RNC shows clearly how shallow and superficial Mitt Romney is. DS