American Idol or American Ideal?

Jordi Comas took the people’s mic last Friday night and led Occupy Lewisburg in an unlikely exercise he called “American Ideal.”  Offering five creative options for collective action, he then challenged the occupiers to propose their own ideas and compete in an activist “beauty contest.”

Groups of occupiers put their heads together and came up with some darlings.

“This is just a beauty contest,” Comas continued to emphasize, seemingly to no avail.  After two rounds of advocacy and voting, here is what our local occupiers came up with.

Joanne F. Henry spoke eloquently on behalf of an intergeneration collective of artists/performers who would periodically create a mobile Occupation by the Arts in response to community concerns.  Occupying an old school bus, the performers would travel to a specific local site in need of an Occupy event and create an artistic performance/installation to draw attention to the need.  By filming the artistic endeavor, the Art Bus would use various media platforms to generate awareness of the particular community issue.

“Artistic expression cuts though our thinking in a way that reading words on a page does not.  It lets us take in ideas we may otherwise brush away,” Joanne said.  “This community has such a wealth of performers. I would like to see our creations cross lines of gender, race and class to include everyone in the community and slip into many different media platforms.”

Stacy Richards shared her experience with an ongoing project in New Berlin to create energy independence at the community level.  The Community-Wide Energy Independence Project has focused for the past two years on reducing energy use through conserving energy.  The project is also exploring further energy reductions through renewable energy options such as solar PV, solar thermal and bio fuels. Financial models are being explored, including individual and community-owned renewable projects in which community members would be shareholders.

“The community is well on its way to reducing its energy consumption by 20% within three years through energy conservation in homes, churches and businesses.  They are poised to create a real alternative to fossil fuels,” Richards said. “I think we can really do this.”

Don Stechschulte offered his vision of community-based health care.

“The two most important question that determine your odds of recovering from illness, be it cancer, diabetes, HIV, are not medical.  Are you economically secure?  Do you like your job?  These are not questions that doctors are trained to ask,” Stechschulte explained.

A community health initiative would explore ways of providing economic security and meaningful employment as a means of improving community wellbeing on all levels.

“We need to take responsibility for peoples’ health and wellbeing in this community beyond the hospital and the doctor’s office and put it back in peoples lives,” Stechschulte concluded.

Kate Parker spoke on behalf of the idea of creating a Community Kitchen.

“We have it in our power, probably within this room, to feed our entire community if we want to.  Yes, it requires work to create a meal, but if you take the time and if you do it with love, you cannot only feed people’s bellies, but you can feed their hearts and souls and help them feel cared for.”

A number of occupiers spoke up in favor of this idea, connecting the idea of the kitchen to the creation of community meeting space, space for kids and parents, community education and outreach and space for the performing arts.

“It is an opportunity to spend time working together, which is something we also need to do, and when you care for people, when you offer them something with no expectations, they remember that and it creates a community bond,” Parker added.

The Community Kitchen ended up winning the title of the “American Ideal.”

“We have decided nothing,” Comas insisted.  “This is just a beauty contest, just an opportunity to generate ideas.”  And it was clear that, indeed, those present had begun to see possibilities of combining these ideas into the first sketch of a plan of action.

“We need to put a human face on the Occupy movement,” Margaret Moyer insisted, “and sharing a meal is an ideal way for people to see the real people behind this effort, and perhaps to begin to question the information they are getting on the news.”

“If you don’t like what you see on the news,” offered Steve Mitchell, drawing on the wisdom of earlier protests, “Go out and make your own news.”

It seems the seeds planted on Friday night at Occupy Cherry Alley may have already begun to take root.  If you would like to be part of the Occupy Lewisburg efforts to support the American Ideal, go to OccupyLewisburgPA on Facebook or contact me at kristjan@bucknell.edu.

Capitalism is the Enemy of Democracy

Originally published at Truthout.org

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment for #OWS to date is that the occupiers have managed to poke a hole in the legitimacy of neoliberal capitalism and its central claim that unregulated markets provide opportunity and freedom.   They have accomplish this feat in a surprising way, with their persistent presence, and with home made signs, signs that say things like, “If I had a lobbyist, I wouldn’t need this sign.” Occupy Wall St. has poked this hole by having the audacity simply to gather in public, in bold defiance of the police and to demonstrate, by their solidarity and cooperation, that a different world is possible.

 

Phil Rockstroh puts it this way: “the walls of the neoliberal prison are cracking…We are no longer isolated, enclosed in our alienation, imprisoned by a concretized sense of powerlessness; daylight is beginning to pierce the darkness of our desolate cells.”

At the core of this neoliberal ideology is a simple assertion – economic exchanges promote freedom because they are voluntary, and thus they only occur if both parties believe they will benefit.  Unregulated market exchanges thus allow individuals to engage with others in complex social arrangements without coercion, without impinging on individual liberty.  Government is needed, but only to define and enforce property rights, and to create and regulate the currency individuals need to undertake market exchanges.

 

Liberals, who argue for expanding government in order to regulate or oversee individual exchange, necessarily interrupt these free and voluntary agreements and therefore undermine individual liberty.  This view of markets underlies Reagan’s famous dictum: “Government is not the solution to the problem; Government is the problem.”  In this extreme libertarian view, capitalism is the champion of democracy, the champion of freedom.

 

The flaw in this neoliberal reasoning is not hard to see.  Ownership of wealth obviously confers power; it gives some individuals an upper hand in the ‘voluntary’ exchanges they make with others.  Lacking the means otherwise to support ourselves, most of us must hire out our ability to do work in exchange for wages.  We might do quite well if we are educated and talented, lucky or white, but even so, we ultimately produce more value than we are paid – that is, after all, the reason we are hired.  Wealth ownership thus gives an upper hand to employers in these voluntary exchanges.  The extra value we create flows steadily into the hands of wealth holders, and we don’t have a say over what it is used for.

 

This upper hand in these so-called voluntary exchanges provides an ongoing and increasing source of wealth accumulation that is self-reinforcing.  Money begets money.  That is after all what capital is, money advanced for the purpose of making more money.   Excluding people from having a say over what happens to the wealth we create is the first, and the most fundamental, way that any capitalist system undermines democracy.  We are fundamentally disenfranchised in the places we work.  Wealth owners control the levers of investment and thus the “needs” of capital trump those of workers when it comes to making decisions about what gets produced, how and for whom.

 

Beyond this, neoliberal capitalism goes further – it uses the value you and I create to enforce a virtual dictatorship-by-wealth in the political sphere.   The most obvious manifestation of this dictatorship-by-wealth is the unlimited corporate financing of our elected representatives.  But this financing is only the tip of the iceberg.  Not only must candidates pander to corporate interests to successfully raise the funds needed to run for office, once they are in office they are plied and courted with unrelenting advances designed to ensure that they do not do lose their focus and begin to think about something other that promoting a favorable business climate.

 

Even deeper in the subsoil of this treasonous takeover of our democracy is the ownership and influence over the main vehicle of public discourse, the news media.  The manufacture of consent is accomplished by narrowing the acceptable range of debate to the question of how best to support economic growth (read profits) and American imperialism (read war).   Where do the millions, or billions, that candidates raise end up?  Primarily this money ends up in the coffers of the corporate media – campaign advertising is the single most important source of revenue for the corporate media.

 

So it is an odd fact of American life, that capitalism is equated with democracy while at the same time acting as democracy’s most corrosive force.  But think about it, if capitalism really supported democracy, if it really welcomed open, honest, wide-ranging debate about the values and practices of corporations and their elected representatives, why would they be sending their police in with bats and pepper spray to prevent the free open exchange of ideas?  Why would they not be handing out microphones, providing open access to the airwaves, organizing televised debates?  If capitalism really were the champion of democracy, the Occupiers and their many allies would be celebrated.  Instead we are disdained.

 

The corporate elites fear and resist any questioning of their core beliefs because their ideas do not hold up to scrutiny and reasoned debate.  That’s how we all know – capitalism is the enemy of democracy.

 

But is there any alternative?  It is tempting to think that if we can only regulate capitalism effectively, we can harness its virtues and contain its vices.  In fact, there is some evidence to support this view.  The 99% were much better served in the post-war era in the United States and they continue to benefit from efforts to reign in capitalism’s excesses in Scandinavia and Northern Europe.  But these efforts to regulate are under constant attack, and a return to regulations is ultimately a brief inconvenience to the corporate elites.

 

As Richard Wolff and others have noted, as long as the value you and I create is credited to the owners of capital, these owners have both the means and, given their distorted values, the incentive to undermine and neutralize any effective regulation and oversight we attempt to impose.  Capital will continue to corrode democracy, as certainly as oxygen corrodes iron, as long as a few hold sway over investment and jobs and are committed to using the wealth that we generate to undermine the will of the people.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “You can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, or you can have democracy; you cannot have both.”

 

Fortunately, a proven alternative to corporate capitalism already exists.  For over fifty years it has provided a practical example of how we can extend democracy to the workplace as a means of preserving democracy in our political lives.  The basic idea of this experiment is to address the root of the problem, to uncover the means by which capitalism undermines democracy, and to provide new institutional rules governing how we organize our economic lives.

 

Over fifty years ago, the Mondragon Cooperatives in northern Spain developed their poverty-stricken regional economy by developing worker-owned and managed cooperatives.  Co-ops place the ownership of wealth and the decisions concerning how wealth is invested in the hands of the people who produce the wealth.   These institutions recognize that the wealth generated by an enterprise is the result of the collective efforts of all, and that those most affected by the decisions of the enterprise, workers and community members, ought to have the principle say in what happens to the wealth, how it is distributed and the purposes to which it is put.

 

Many people argue that co-ops are impractical but this simple democratic principle rests at the heart of this highly successful, internationally competitive, stable and flourishing regional economy.  It is an economy based on democratic management, worker ownership and democratic oversight and it faces its own challenges, yes, but has certainly proven the lie that there is no alternative to corporate capitalism.  It shows that people, acting together, can use democratic principles to imbue their economic lives and their political lives with agency and meaning.

 

And this effort is spreading to America’s heartland.  The Evergreen cooperatives in Cleveland have successfully applied the principles of the Mondragon experiment to develop a successful urban development project.   As Gar Alperovitz argues, the linking of large anchor institutions with worker-owned enterprises offers a practical economic development strategy that is politically feasible in the context of our current economic crisis.

 

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea that working people can do without their corporate bosses.  Quite a bit of time and energy has been spent trying to convince us that the idea that workers can manage themselves is preposterous.

Occupy Wall St. has provided the opening for us to consider, debate and discuss what has previously been off the table.  Economic democracy is not only possible, it is essential if we are to realize that peculiar American Dream of a government of, by and for the people.

So let’s not overlook the significance of what Occupy Wall St. is doing.  We need to step through the hole they have opened in the shiny façade of our glad-handled, Madison Avenue, faux democracy and take up the challenge of creating the real thing, right here and now, in this unlikely place we call America, as a means of reclaiming our own dignity, our own liberty and a livable world for those who come next.

 

 

An Open Letter to Supporters of Occupy Lewisburg

Let me start by saying I get how difficult things are, and how busy we have all become.  I get how overwhelming it can be to just keep up.

Part of what we are fighting, what we’ve all agreed is the problem, is the way that we are being disabled by the 1%.  After all, if these folks had not conspired to rig the financial system in their favor, we would all have approximately 50% more income to use to help us meet our needs, and at least 20% more time.  That’s one extra workday a week, and, for many families, one extra income.

So our efforts to restore sanity and justice to a system gone mad are hobbled by the insanity and injustice of the system we are up against.  I get that.

I want you to know, too, I appreciate the efforts you are already making.  I know we are all, daily engaged in unseen and unrewarded efforts to help those near and dear to us, and, for some, just to meet our own needs.

Several of us have managed to go beyond our immediate friends and family and it is important to acknowledge the work these folks are doing.

  • Sam Pearson is working tirelessly on a number of fronts, the Local Action Network and the Sierra Club, among other things addressing the environmental threat from natural gas fracking,.
  • Charles Sackrey is working with OUE on opposing the proposed tire burning plant upwind of Lewisburg.
  • Jove Graham and Steva Stowell-Hardcastle and John Peeler and others are working to prevent the worst-case electoral scenario.
  • Barb Sundin, Charles Facka and Lexie Orr are working on electoral reform so we can vote with ballots not dollars.
  • Kathy Kristjanson-Gural is working to shore up community ties to help families in our community.
  • Cindy Peltier is working with CARE on racism.
  • Judy Peeler and others supporting the work of the Heiter Center to provide support for working families and their kids.
  • Pat Rock and others are working on a Clean Water Initiative.
  • Joe Manzi is promoting non-violence through the CNL;
  • Joe and Jackie Detelj, Johnny and Leah Tewks, Jen and Harvey Partica are helping to restore sanity to our food system.

Each of these people are working with many others, and many other organizations and individuals deserve mention.  Most are doing this work on top of paid jobs that also serve the community.

So, yes, I am going to ask us all to do more, but please know that I get how much we are already doing, privately and publicly.  And I get that what I am asking is completely unreasonable.

It’s a bit hard to wrap our minds around what is happening to us.  I think about Virginia Zimmerman’s comparison to the Elizabethan era explorers who first gazed out across the unbelievable expanse of the Grand Canyon.  They saw evidence of the true dimension of time, the incomprehensible scope of our past, and they simply had no conceptual framework to understand it.  They literally couldn’t see what was before them.  That was a moment like the one we are in now.

It makes perfect sense to be thrown off balance.  Our hearts are telling us something is true that our minds simply can’t comprehend.  Our minds are encountering truths that our hearts are just not willing to take in.  I get that too.

Here is the rub.  Our inaction is the only guarantee of our defeat.

This week, in Durban, South Africa, the representatives of the global poor are dashing themselves on the rocks of those who represent us, the nations of privilege, desperately hoping to get our representatives to see reason.  I listened to Apisai Ielemia, Foreign Minister of Tuvalu, whose nation will be entirely underwater in my lifetime, asking, in vain, only that we set and enforce a limit on what we are entitled to spew out into the air, the ocean of air on which we all depend.

The planet is warming and the polar ice caps are melting faster than even the most pessimistic scientists predicted.  That’s not just bad news for Tuvalu.  It means the storms we’ve seen this fall, storms that our neighbors in Bloomsburg are still recovering from, will become commonplace.  It means that we can no longer depend upon the weather patterns we require to grow our food.  We’ve seen the effects already on the bee populations, these unpaid, unsung heroes of the food system without which we would be hamstrung in our efforts to feed ourselves.

How many of us are already feeling the effects of this emergency?  How many have more friends sick or dead from cancers and other chronic ailments than they believed possible?  How many have seen their households striven by divorce or their children founder on the way to independence?  How many have already lost their jobs, our homes to this scandalous betrayal by our corporate elite?

So there is the problem.  We are all too busy, and feel too powerless, to undertake the collective actions we need to change our deadly course, but unless we change course, we will only become more embattled.

The only answer I can see is this:  We have to act together.   And we have to do it now.

We have to act on two fronts.  One is to interrupt business as usual in order to change the course we are on. This means challenging the priorities of the institutions we are part of and the institutions on which we depend. The longer we wait, the more serious the disruption to the planet and its people.  The other is to continue to maintain and extend a safety net for each other, to mitigate the harsh effects of this increasingly heartless system on our community.

So I know it seems that coming together on a monthly basis to hold signs and listen to each other seems futile.  But despair is the very glue that holds this immoral system together.  And the only thing that dissolves that glue is our unrelenting determination to show up – to show up against the odds, against the dictates of our unmanageable schedules, against the ongoing demands of our children, our jobs and our marriages.

And, I know it is counter-intuitive, we need to celebrate.  Yes, celebrate.  Because unless we find some joy in this most perilous moment that we inhabit, we will surely be pulled under by the tides of resignation.   We need to call on the better angels of our most resilient selves to laugh at the absurdity of the army arrayed before us, to weaken their hold on us through our ability to sing, to speak poetry, to enact on stage our refusal to be swallowed up.

We need to activate our most creative, most resilient selves in order to be able to imagine what we can do in the face of this deepening crisis.  We need to draw encouragement from what we see in each other, our faces that reflect back to us the knowledge that we can do this impossible thing.

That is the reason I am asking you to continue to lend your support to the Occupy Lewisburg gatherings.  That’s why I am asking you to come to Cherry Alley on Friday night.  Just show up once a month, on top of everything else you are doing, to lend your encouragement and support to others and, in turn, to gather strength of purpose and resolve to continue to insist that we can learn to live with each other with respect, in solidarity, and in mutual recognition of the enormity of what we are facing.

If you can’t make dinner, come after dinner.  Read the attached articles and think about what you would like us to all to take up. If you can’t come Friday, join us at the Post Office from noon to one on Saturday, bring your homemade sign, and share your abiding presence.

If you can’t make either, I get that, but please, somehow seek to make visible your continuing support for our courageous collective effort, the effort to create a world that makes sense for us, for the people of Tuvalu and for all those who come next.

In solidarity,

David Kristjanson-Gural

I am the Spokesperson for #OWS and These are Our Demands

The general assemblies of New York, Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dallas and 350 communities across the United States have appointed me spokesperson for the Occupy Wall St. movement.  I am hereby empowered to submit the following demands:

1. We demand free and fair elections based upon open discussion and debate and support of the majority.  To this end we demand that all elections be publicly financed, that candidates qualify for public financing by collecting signatures supporting their campaign, and that television stations be required to devote a percentage of prime-time viewing to candidates for the purposes of promoting their positions.  Elections will be run by instant run-off, permitting multiple candidates to express divergent views on economic and social policies.

2. In order to ensure public discourse is not co-opted by the corporate press, we demand that media companies be owned and managed by their staff – that no outside financial interest be permitted to own or influence the content of the news so that journalists can perform their democratic duty of informing citizens on the events of the day.   Citizens will receive a tax reduction of up to $200 to permit them to support media outlets with editorial views they support.

3. We demand citizen boards be empowered to decide on the regulation of large corporations.  These citizen boards, acting like juries, will hear testimony of the industry experts along with testimony of those affected by the enterprises’ activities.  These boards will make democratic decisions concerning what regulations are needed and how they are to be enforced, in order to prevent the types of abuses we see in the finance, energy, defense and pharmaceutical industries.

4. We demand the immediate expropriation of the health insurance industry, which holds American working people hostage to a system that systematically deprives a significant portion of the population access to vital health care services when they  need them.

5. We demand the immediate review of our constitutional rights and the emergency powers adopted under the Patriot Act and enforced by the Department of Homeland Security in order to protect the civil rights of all.

6. We demand the immediate institution of publicly funded zero-interest student loans and the gradual implementation of a publicly funded pre- and post-secondary education system in order to provide equal opportunity to education across lines of race, gender and class and to end the systematic debt peonage of young people.

7. We demand the restoration of the social safety net including eldercare, childcare, and parental leave so that we fully support the elderly, the young, the infirm and their caretakers and so that those suffering from mental illness and the men and women reeling from the post-traumatic effects of war need not live on the streets of our country to our collective shame.

8. We demand an end to imperialist wars that inflict untold damage on working people at home and abroad, that reinforce a cycle of violence that ends up making all of us less safe and that severs the bonds of international cooperation on which our survival as a species now depends.

9. We demand that private corporations producing goods and services be required to create an employee ownership plan that contributes a percentage of corporate profits into a fund to purchase shares in the corporations to be held by workers.  Over a 10 -12 year period this fund would become a majority stake in the company at which point elected representatives of the workforce will replace the managers and board of directors and any existing outside ownership of the enterprise will be purchased at fair market value by the workers.

10. We demand an immediate public investigation of the financial industry, with the purpose of punishing those responsible for willfully profiting by committing fraud on American homeowners and disabling small businesses by denying credit.  We demand that these financial industries be immediately broken up and replaced by institutions that are publicly-owned, worker managed and devoted to providing access to credit to home-owners and businesses, not to the maximization of profit for shareholders.

11.  In short, we demand an economy and political system that works for the 99%, that respects and incorporates the values of direct and representative democracy – the idea that people have a right to a say in decisions that directly affect them and the right to a government of, by and for the people.

So there they are, the demands of the Occupy Wall St. movement.  How do we best proceed?

Do we hand them over to the radical right, the Limbaughs and the Becks and the Koch brother lackeys, who can’t wait for the chance to ridicule and demean them?  Can’t wait because they know they control the bully-pulpit of the commercial media, that any sensible set of demands, demands that really get at the dark heart of the shameful domination of ordinary American’s by the corporate elite, indeed any demands Occupy Wall St. makes, can be painted pink, jeered at, confounded and distorted.

Isn’t that the function of the right-wing media – to take off the table any set of ideas that actually represent the will of the people, to keep the debate well to the right of what working American’s believe and value; to keep the moneyed interests of their wealthy funders safe from scrutiny; and to keep reasoned, well-intentioned, and compassionate voices from informing our public policy?

Please don’t imagine that the so-called ‘liberal media,’ the New York Times and NPR, are the answer.  The truth is that our commercial media system is a pale reflection of what a democracy requires of its press.  On the issues that count, issues central to our working and civic lives, these media outlets fail ordinary working Americans, again and again, by giving a pass to the corporate interests who have disemboweled our democracy, made off with our collective wealth, and left the middle class and working class in tatters.

Part of our work is to re-imagine our media system, to take it out of the hands of the 1%, and to begin to build a real, lasting and inclusive democracy that extends beyond the ballot box into the places where we sweat and toil to provide for ourselves and for our families.  Until we do that, no set of demands can be honestly considered.

But no, these are not the official demands of Occupy Wall St. and I am not its official spokesperson.  But these are real proposals, embodying the values of our democratic tradition, which have been imagined, fought for, and, in many cases, implemented in an ongoing attempt to reign in the reckless gluttony of high finance and the corporate elite.

Demand #1, for free and fair elections, has been partially implemented in Maine where it is now possible for an elected representative to actually legislate on behalf of those who elected her, rather than on behalf of her corporate supporters.

Demand #2 is based on the struggle that occurred in the 1930’s and that eventually resulted in the institution of public media, here and abroad.  It is based on efforts to return our public media to its proper place, as an independent source of investigative journalism and not a corporate-sponsored and therefore toothless imitation.

Demand #3 is based on developments in regulatory reform in Belgium intended to ensure that industry insiders do not capture regulatory boards, a solution which is sorely needed here in the U.S. in this era of regulatory capture.

Demand #4 is widely practiced in the area of health insurance in all other industrialized economies whose citizens widely support the view that private interests should not be permitted to profit by denying health care to those who need it.

Demand #5 is based upon broad-based support for reviewing the powers granted to the government by the Patriot Act and for protecting the civil liberties enshrined in our constitution and bill of rights.

Demand #6 has been widely practiced in most industrial countries in the post-war WWII era in order to provide equal access to education as a condition for meaningful participation in a representative democracy; in order to provide a basis for equal opportunity for positions of authority in the economy and in politics, and in order to prevent those most vulnerable in our society from experiencing poverty and destitution.

Demand #7 is prevalent in many industrialized countries and reflects the belief that those most vulnerable should not be pushed to the margins of our society and that the work of caring for others, be they young, old, infirm or otherwise dependent ought to be recognized and valued.  It reflects the belief that our veterans, young and working class, do not receive the treatment and care they deserve when they are ruined by war.

Demand #8 inspired ten million to take to the streets across the globe to protest the “shock and awe” bombing of innocent civilians in Iraq.  Ending these wasteful and immoral wars is a necessary precondition for building international solidarity to respond effectively and immediately to the threat of global warming.

Demand #9 is based on the Meidner plan, that came close to being implemented in Sweden in the 1970’s until it was derailed by corporate interests.  It is based on the belief that democratic participation ought to be extended to decisions affecting the work lives of individuals; that the corporate capitalist system disenfranchises workers who have a right to participate in decisions concerning the value they create.

Demand #10 is a response to the continued arrogance and hubris of an industry that has not demonstrated the ability to contribute to economic wellbeing, has arguably done more harm to the fortunes of American working families than any foreign threat, and that does not deserve the immunity from crime that has be granted it by the Obama Administration, this Congress or the Securities and Exchange Commission who’s mission is to uphold and enforce the law as it pertains to Wall St brokers, the banks and hedge funds who have made off with our national wealth.

Demand #11 is a summary statement of the purpose of Occupy Wall St. – to open a space, literal and figurative for the discussion of the ideas that the media have pushed to the margins, and that the corporate elites in this country, those who own and control the means by which we obtain our livelihoods, are afraid to acknowledge because they are afraid to openly debate and discuss the moral legitimacy of plutocracy.

What happens when the elites in a country are afraid to permit discussion of the underlying justification of the economy and political institutions?

That’s easy; the citizens take to the streets, rise up and demand to be included.  After all, when you are excluded from participating in meaningful public debate, excluding from decisions about how corporations are owned, operated, regulated and held accountable, excluded from discussions of whether and how real reforms might be undertaken; when you have no hope of intervening in a political system in which free speech has all been bought and paid for, what do you do?

You occupy.

That’s what’s happening now, and that’s why the corporate media keeps asking who is the spokesperson and what are the demands.

They don’t actually want to hear the demands; they just want us all to go away.

Let’s disappoint them, shall we?

Let’s Occupy Together

I’m not sure why the media are having such trouble figuring out the demands of Occupy Wall St.  Recently, a seven-year-old girl, Celia Cooley, went down to Zuccotti Park and, posing as a reporter, she asked people why they were there (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x12iOQYY0w8).  What they said was quite consistent and quite reasonable and quite comprehensible to this young girl.  They said: We want our democracy back.

Anyone who is confused about what the protesters want has probably been listening to too much corporate news.  Corporate news stations present themselves as trustworthy and unbiased, but they are owned by large multinational corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse, and these are the folks that are benefitting from the policies that the protesters decry.

These news outlets don’t want the message of Occupy Wall St. to be heard.  They don’t want the protesters portrayed as ordinary Americans who have been bilked of their savings and booted out of the middle class and who are justifiably demanding that things change. If you’ve been watching corporate news and you are confused, the first thing to do is to broaden your sources of information.  Go to the non-commercial news sites on the Internet and listen to the chorus of ordinary Americans who are saying very clearly what’s wrong and who are making sensible suggestions about how to go about fixing it.

Here is some of what you will learn.

The economic crisis did not start because suddenly poor people started taking out mortgages on homes they couldn’t afford to pay for.  It didn’t start because of some corporate bad apples. Think about it.  The job of a lender is to determine if a person is credit worthy.  The reason loans were given to people who couldn’t afford them was simply that banks no longer had an incentive to find out if people were credit worthy.  Why?  Because banks were permitted to sell the mortgages to other companies for a profit, rather than waiting to collect on the loan.  The big banks pushed loans on people because they were making profit, hand over fist, from selling these loans to investors.

Why were the investors buying bad mortgages? Because they were permitted to bundle them together with other loans to look like safe investments.  Why did these investments look safe, because the folks in the rating agencies, who were supposed to rate these investments, were not sufficiently regulated and worked in cahoots with the big banks.

The problem, in short, was not individual behavior; the problem was that the system was jury-rigged.  Corporate lobbyists took over Congress and rewrote the banking laws in their favor.  As long as home prices went up, banks made a killing.  When the music stopped, instead of taking their consequences, big banks got their insiders at the Fed and the Treasury Department in D.C. to bail them out.  Then they got their friends their in corporate media affiliates to point their fingers at the borrowers ( the ones who are now homeless) and at big government (for wasting taxpayer money).  Meanwhile, Wall St. banks go on their merry way, paying out bonus, rewarding failure, avoiding the consequences of their actions, and continuing to use our Congress as their personal playground.

That’s just wrong.  That’s why folks are on the streets.

If you are in the Tea Party, you probably believe many of the same things that Occupy Wall St. supporters believe.  People should play by the rules.  People should be punished when they do something wrong.  If you reward people for cheating, they are likely to continue to misbehave.  Like supporters of OWS, you probably believe that our government should be accountable to us, we the people, and that the government should not collude with powerful elites to deprive people of the right to a livelihood, or to kick them out of their homes.  You probably believe that government shouldn’t write laws that favor powerful interests in order to raise enough money to get re-elected.

I support Occupy Wall St.  You and I may have our differences, but I think we share a commitment to restoring the integrity of this democracy.  I think we can agree that when a government no longer is responsive to the desires of the citizens, that it is the responsibility of citizens to act together.  The government itself is not the problem; the problem is that the government has been taken over by wealthy elites who do not have our interests at heart.  It is time for us to stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, Republican and Democrat, on the streets of this great country and take our democracy back.

Turn off the corporate news, talk to your fellow Americans, one by one, until you decide for yourself whether what I am saying is true.  That’s what Celia is doing.  There is no other test in a democracy but that of the ability of ideas to stand the test of evidence and reason.  The values that our forbearers fought and died for are at stake.  Nothing less.

Occupy Lewisburg?

This Saturday, October 15th from 1 – 2 pm, citizens of Lewisburg are gathering at the Post Office to support Occupy Wall St.

Occupy Wall St. represents a response to a serious question: What ought we to do, we the citizens of a democratic republic, when our elected representatives from the only two major parties are no longer responsive to the will of the people? Occupy Wall St. is an effort to gather the energy of those who believe that we need to restore integrity to our democracy, of those who believe we need to harness that energy in an ongoing grassroots effort to create real and lasting change.

Unlike the Tea Party, Occupy Wall St. doesn’t identify big government as the problem. Rather, the problem is that government has been hijacked by the wealthy and is being run, not in the interests of the people, but to preserve the wealth and power of the few. One of the most telling outcomes of this take-over of political power is the burgeoning inequality in our country. When 1% of the population owns and controls over half the country’s business wealth, when CEO’s are paid three hundred times as much as average workers, when wealth investors like Warren Buffet pay lower tax rates that their administrative assistants, when tax breaks for billionaire are routinely extended but funding for real social needs goes wanting, we undermine the basis for a vibrant democracy and a viable economy.

It would be one thing if the inequality resulted in prosperity for all, but the opposite is true. Splendor at Saks on 5th Avenue has been achieved at the expense of punishing destitution for much of working American. In spite of the fact that the American workforce is almost twice as productive we are taking home no more than we did in 1985. Corporations continue to offshore jobs; banks are foreclosing on record numbers of mortgages; the government stands idly by. The 1% continue to cop out of paying their fair share of taxes, and we are being asked to close schools, lay off city workers, cut badly needed services. And, of course, we are asked to put in longer hours on the job when millions are without work.

This economic crisis did not drop from the sky – it is the direct result of allowing corporations to seek the maximum profit with limited oversight from regulators and little scrutiny by the corporate press. The solution to the crisis in not to restore conditions for further economic growth, if economic growth means a continued exploitation of American and foreign workers, continued plundering of our common resources and continued release of carbon emissions that threaten the integrity of the planet’s ecosystems. What we need instead is a thorough and fearless rethinking of how we organize our economy, what behavior we reward, and who controls our common wealth.

It’s easy to write off this type of movement. But before doing so, ask yourself this question: what do you recommend we, as concerned citizens committed to democracy, do instead? Is it really possible to effect real change from within a political system when the ballot box is stuffed with money? Is it really viable to sit back and just hope things change for the better? If we are going to resuscitate our democracy, we need to begin by gathering, in public spaces and listening to each other, we need to make proposals, discuss, debate, compromise and then move forward. That is what we will do Saturday, in Lewisburg.

We will not be alone. Right now, all over the world, more than 1600 communities large and small, are organizing Occupy Wall St. actions to begin to take back our democracy. On this Saturday, October 15th, over 650 cities and towns are holding actions. Come see what this is all about and find out for yourself whether real change is possible and how it feels to be part of the solution.

This Article will appear in the Daily Item (Sunbury, PA) on October 15th, 2011

Beltway Fantasies – Part 1

Corporate control of the media undermines democracy by displacing reasoned consideration of opposing points of view to the margins of public discourse.  In place of considered arguments, the corporate media simply repeats and amplifies the fallacious and self-serving fantasies of the corporate elites and their representatives in Washington.  As a result we base our economic and social policies on Beltway fantasies that succeed in garnering (bare) majority support but that bear almost no relation to reality or good sense.  These fantasies promote the short-term corporate bottom line at our considerable expense, threaten the viability of our ecosystem and make a mockery of the ideals of democracy for which our fore-bearers organized, fought and often died.  This article, written by the members of the Spilling Ink writers’ collective, is the first in a series of articles written to throw some needed cold water on beltway fantasies.  Comments or suggestions are welcome at http://www.SpillingInk.net.

Fantasy #1:  Regulation is bad – it burdens business, kills jobs, and hurts the economy. (Chris Schell)

Non-existent, poorly designed, weakly administered, under funded and intentionally ignored regulations have killed more jobs, bankrupted more businesses and done more damage to the economy than any over-regulation has ever done.  And that’s just the business and financial regulations.  Most Superfund sites (scenes of environmental destruction) were caused by regulation lapses of one kind or another.  The gulf oil spill – lack of regulation.  And the number of lives saved by regulation of cars, highways, medicines, hospitals, nursing homes, food supply, workplace safety?   Countless.  Someone is always willing to make money by endangering other peoples lives and homes.

Lack of financial regulation, deregulation, or unenforced regulation (through greed or ideological blindness) has been at the root of nearly every major economic disaster of my lifetime.  The Savings and Loan scandal, the buying and dismantling of businesses to raid workers pension funds, the recent housing and financial collapse all resulted in what can only be termed obscene wealth being reaped by bankers, Wall Street financiers and corporate CEOs.  All of these scandals resulted in devastation for working Americans.  This is true class warfare.   Alan Greenspan could have stopped this last collapse but he believed in the free market.  He believed regulation was not needed because Wall Street would not be so blind and greedy to risk economic destruction for short-term greed.  He really nailed that one didn’t he?

Today microsecond trading which makes huge profits for a few while adding value to absolutely nothing could easily be taxed or regulated out of existence but the SEC does nothing.  Today grain and oil prices spike without regard to supply because the Bush administration removed limits on the futures commodity market.  These limits could easily be replaced but Republican appointees on the Federal Trade Commission do not believe it is necessary.  People around the world are starving because of our ideological blindness, including in the Middle East, contributing to the current turmoil there.

Deregulation has consequences.

Fantasy #2. All tax cuts are good all the time. (David Kristjanson-Gural)

This belief follows from the following claims:

i)               that government run services are inefficient and should be replaced by privately run services which are efficient;

ii)             that providing money and assistance to people in need causes them harm because it undermines their initiative and causes them to become more dependent;

iii)            that tax cuts provide an incentive to businesses to increase production and create jobs;

iv)            that wealth and income distribution results from fairly rewarding individual effort so redistributing income through taxation is unjustified.

In fact:

i)               Many government run services are highly efficient and many privately run services are inefficient.  Monopolies, in particular, maximize profits by restricting supply and charging high prices and they lack competitive incentives to innovate.   Adam Smith advocated the regulation or elimination of monopolies because they impose “an absurd tax” in the form of monopoly prices.  Most mature industries – drugs, agriculture, insurance, banking to name a few – are dominated by monopoly.

ii)             Providing money and assistance to people in need most often allows them to regain self-reliance and contribute to their families and communities.  Incidents of welfare fraud or recidivism are very low.  Crime and health costs are higher when we fail to provide assistance to people in need.

iii)            Tax cuts are not associated with greater business investment.  Business investment is governed primarily by the expected future rate of return, which depends highly on the business cycle and consumer confidence.  Cutting taxes simply allows corporations and wealthy individuals to free ride on the social investments taxpayers finance including education, infrastructure, and research and development without which corporations would be less profitable.

iv)            Wealth and income distribution is not the result of individual effort and innovation but largely results from ownership and control of productive or financial assets.  These assets “produce wealth” only because they allow owners to lay claim to the value created by the workers they employ.  Furthermore, social investments in education, research and development, common property in the form of raw materials, the legal and political system – all publicly financed – form a collective basis for the privately acquired wealth.  Taxing income and wealth is a means of ensuring individuals pay their fair share of the social investment.

The belief that cutting taxes is good rests on self-serving beliefs concerning fairness and the role of government.  Many working class people, whose pay has been squeezed by private corporations for 30 years, have been hoodwinked into believing these false claims because taxes are one thing they can affect.  Instead of focusing on cutting taxes, it is time to focus on raising wages, breaking up monopolies and calling into question the legitimacy of corporate profits.

Fantasy #3.  Government should be run like a business.  (Joe Detelj)

This bit of corporate propaganda is actually based on a false equivalency.

A business is chartered for the express purpose of generating profits for the owners. A business offers products and charges what the market will bear in order to maximize these profits.  Any activity that generates revenue, no matter the social costs, is an institutional imperative.

Governments impose taxes in order to generate revenue for investments in infrastructure, human capital and public safety.  Governments are elected to promote the general welfare and are to function with the consent of the governed.  This arrangement was designed to provide a system of checks and balances.

Inadequate revenue is a prescription for bankruptcy for both entities.  The irony of the false equivalency is that were it to be implemented, taxes would be levied on the governments most lucrative market, our wealthiest citizens and businesses and increased substantially.  We would have ideological consistency – government run like a business – but I imagine, public policy that would drive the advocates of business-government equivalency insane with rage.

Fantasy #4: The Tea Party and the Founding Fathers have similar beliefs. (Chris Schell)

Most of the Founders were personally tolerant of others’ religious beliefs. A few were atheists; several were Deists, cafeteria Christians in today’s negative terminology. Most believed in religious tolerance because they had seen the result of religious hatred.   The Founding Fathers were freethinkers, scientists and lawyers – the educated elite of their day. They were at the forefront of scientific discovery and invention and of legal and political thought. Elite, educated, thoughtful, progressive, devoted to knowledge, tolerant.  They were also willing to negotiate and compromise for the sake of political progress. Does this sound like the Tea Party?

Naturally the Founders did not always live up to their ideals. They tolerated racism and bigotry for political success or financial advantage.  They thought land ownership was a requirement for political participation and that wealth should provide a path to political power. They particularly were interested in the rights of white males.  Some – but not all – of these belief dovetail nicely with those of the Tea Party.

But even if you disagree with these judgments, do you really think that Washington, Hamilton, Paine, Adams, Jefferson or Franklin would have any respect for Glen Beck?

Fantasy #5: Republicans Support our Troops. (Charles Sackrey)

Starting in 2003, George W. Bush and the Republicans used a witches’ brew of fraudulent evidence to justify sending over 1,000,000 military personnel to war in Iraq.  Of these, 4,440 died, and 30,000 were wounded.  About one third of the survivors have suffered mental illnesses since their return.  These facts alone dispel the myth that the Republicans support our troops: they sent them to war and to their fate on false pretenses.  (It always needs mentioning that, along with U.S. military losses, at least 125,000 Iraqis have so far died and 2.5 million have been displaced.)

Once the U.S. troops came home, the Republicans’ assault on some of them continued.  In 2005 Salon.com, and in 2007 the Washington Post, brought national attention to complaints from war-wounded patients at D.C.’s Walter Reed Army Hospital about treatment there.  The complaints were about understaffing, and about rats, roaches, black mold, cheap mattresses, and a lack of heat and hot water in some rooms. Investigations led to the sacking of the hospital’s head and to its overhaul.  Thus, during much of the Iraq War, the hospital was in a steady decline.

More recent examples are easy to come by.  In their war on spending, Congressional Republicans are now trying to eliminate $75 million from the budget of the Veterans Administration to be allocated to housing vouchers for at least some of the 76,000 veterans who are now homeless. And, Congresswoman Michele Bachman, a Tea Party fan from Minnesota, has proposed lopping $4.5 billion from the overall VA’s budget.

While they try to limit housing vouchers for Iraq veterans, the Republicans are working just as hard to retain the Bush tax cuts which each year provide about $40 billion of extra income to the nation’s richest 1%.

What do the veterans think?  Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) recently evaluated the Congress on the basis of support for the interests of U.S. war veterans. These grades were awarded strictly on performance rather than on party affiliation.

Here are the results:

The IAVA gave out 154 D and F grades. 142 of those went to Republicans and 12 to Democrats — meaning that 92 percent of the D and F grades went to members of the GOP.

Of the 94 congressmen that received A or A+ grades, 91 are Democrats and three are Republicans.

Fantasy #6: Cold Winters in the Eastern USA prove Global Warming is a myth. – Karl Patten

Snowstorms or colder weather do not prove much about global warming.  These events are simply weather experienced in a specific location at a specific time.  Climate, however, refers to the prevailing weather conditions – such as average temperature, precipitation, wind, humidity, and atmospheric pressure – observed over decades.

Climate data show that global warming is already having profound effects on precipitation patterns, intensifying rain or snowfall in places accustomed to such precipitation while decreasing precipitation in areas or times of the year that typically receive little.  These impacts are likely to become even more pronounced in the decades ahead if heat-trapping emissions continue unabated.  (See Union of Concerned Scientists – www.ucsusa.org/blueprint)

Fantasy #7:  Evolution is just a theory.  (Joe Detelj)

Actually this is true.  Evolution shares elegant company with the theory of gravity, electro magnetism, relativity and photosynthesis.  Just to name a few.