Marketers marshaling the millennials

The lie behind much (most?) commercial activity is that vendors — when successful — are providing consumers with what they want. If Tic Tac’s latest offering sells well, its creators will congratulate themselves on having filled a previously unmet need.

In truth, these needs are manufactured and the marketing drive to cater to millennials is in fact a blitzkrieg to control their desires.

The New York Times reports: The makers of Tic Tacs had a problem on their hands.

After 18 months of internal study, they had concluded that the all-important millennial generation might not be content with a mere mint.

No, the millennials wanted entertainment, release from boredom, “emotional rescue.”

So this month a new and more amusing Tic Tac is coming to store shelves — the Tic Tac Mixer, which changes flavors as it melts on the tongue. From cherry to cola, for example, or from peach to lemonade.

It’s yet another play in the millennial mania that is overtaking all manner of businesses, and seems to be getting more obsessive by the day. Not since the baby boomers came of age has a generation been the target of such fixation.

But this has a 21st-century style of urgency — with 24/7 micropandering, psychographic analysis, a high-priced shadow industry of consultants and study after study. (A few from recent days: how luxury brands can connect with millennials; what millennials think about restaurant loyalty programs; and which emotions most influence the purchasing decisions of millennials. Answer: anxiety and empowerment.) [Continue reading…]

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Welcome to the new Wild West of data collection without regulation

The Nation reports: Nicole Keplinger, 22, had long seen ads on Facebook promising financial relief, but she always ignored them and assumed that they were scams. Keplinger was drowning in student debt after obtaining a worthless degree from the for-profit Everest College, whose parent corporation, Corinthian Colleges Inc., had recently collapsed under accusations of fraud and predatory lending. But when an offer arrived in her e-mail inbox in April — “Cut your student loan payment or even forgive it completely!” — she thought it seemed more legitimate than the rest, so she called the number.

The person on the other end was aggressive. “They wanted my banking information, my Social Security number, my parents’ number and their information. I was like, ‘Wait a minute,’” Keplinger recalled. Even after she said that she lived on a fixed income (on disability due to a kidney transplant), the telemarketer kept up the pressure. “They said I needed to get a credit card. I don’t know if they were going to take money off it or what… but why do I need to get a credit card if I’m trying to reduce my student loans?”

Keplinger lied and said she’d call back, but not everyone gets away. If she disclosed her bank information, her loans most certainly would not have been cut or forgiven. At best, she would have been charged a large fee for something she could do herself: get on government repayment programs such as forbearance or deferment. At worst, she might have had the money debited each month from her bank account without any benefit provided in return, or been ensnared by a “phantom-debt collector” — a distressingly common racket that involves telling people they owe phony debts and scaring them into paying. It’s the perfect ploy to attempt on people who have already been preyed upon by unscrupulous outfits like Corinthian and who, having been misled and overcharged, are understandably confused about how much money they owe. At the same time, the fact that Keplinger was e-mailed in addition to seeing ads on Facebook suggests that her information was in the hands of a “lead generator,” a multibillion-dollar industry devoted to compiling and selling lists of prospective customers online.

Welcome to a new age of digital redlining. The term conjures up the days when banks would draw a red line around areas of the city — typically places where blacks, Latinos, Asians, or other minorities lived — to denote places they would not lend money, at least not at fair rates. “Just as neighborhoods can serve as a proxy for racial or ethnic identity, there are new worries that big data technologies could be used to ‘digitally redline’ unwanted groups, either as customers, employees, tenants, or recipients of credit,” a 2014 White House report on big data warns. [Continue reading…]

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How to blow the fight against climate change

Bill McKibben writes: If historians someday need to explain how mankind managed to blow the fight against climate change, they need only point to last month’s shareholder meeting at Exxon Mobil headquarters in Dallas.

The meeting came two days after Texas smashed old rainfall records — almost doubled them, in some cases — and as authorities were still searching for families swept away after rivers crested many feet beyond their previous records. As Exxon Mobil’s Rex Tillerson — the highest-paid chief executive of the richest fossil fuel firm on the planet — gave his talk, the death toll from India’s heat wave mounted and pictures circulated on the Internet of Delhi’s pavement literally melting. Meanwhile, satellite images showed Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf on the edge of disintegration.

And how did Tillerson react? By downplaying climate change and mocking renewable energy. To be specific, he said that “inclement weather” and sea level rise “may or may not be induced by climate change,” but in any event technology could be developed to cope with any trouble. “Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity and those solutions will present themselves as those challenges become clear,” he said.

But apparently those solutions don’t include, say, the wind and sun. Exxon Mobil wouldn’t invest in renewable energy, Tillerson said, because clean technologies don’t make enough money and rely on government mandates that were (remarkable choice of words) “not sustainable.” He neglected to mention the report a week earlier from the not-very-radical International Monetary Fund detailing $5.3 trillion a year in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. [Continue reading…]

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How a corporate cult captures and destroys our best graduates

George Monbiot writes: To seek enlightenment, intellectual or spiritual; to do good; to love and be loved; to create and to teach: these are the highest purposes of humankind. If there is meaning in life, it lies here.

Those who graduate from the leading universities have more opportunity than most to find such purpose. So why do so many end up in pointless and destructive jobs? Finance, management consultancy, advertising, public relations, lobbying: these and other useless occupations consume thousands of the brightest students. To take such jobs at graduation, as many will in the next few weeks, is to amputate life close to its base.

I watched it happen to my peers. People who had spent the preceding years laying out exultant visions of a better world, of the grand creative projects they planned, of adventure and discovery, were suddenly sucked into the mouths of corporations dangling money like angler fish.

At first they said they would do it for a year or two, “until I pay off my debts”. Soon afterwards they added: “and my mortgage”. Then it became, “I just want to make enough not to worry any more”. A few years later, “I’m doing it for my family”. Now, in middle age, they reply, “What, that? That was just a student fantasy.” [Continue reading…]

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Monsanto bets $45 billion on a pesticide-soaked future

Mother Jones reports: Once an industrial-chemical titan, GMO seed giant Monsanto has rebranded itself as a “sustainable agriculture company.” Forget such classic post-war corporate atrocities as PCB and dioxin — the modern Monsanto “uses plant breeding and biotechnology to create seeds that grow into stronger, more resilient crops that require fewer resources,” as the company’s website has it.

That rhetoric may have to change, though, if Monsanto succeeds in buying its Swiss rival, pesticide giant Syngenta. On Friday, Syngenta’s board rejected a $45 billion takeover bid. But that’s hardly the end of the story. Tuesday afternoon, Syngenta’s share price was holding steady at a level about 20 percent higher than it was before Monsanto’s bid — an indication that investors consider an eventual deal quite possible. As The Wall Street Journal’s Helen Thomas put it, the Syngenta board’s initial rejection of Monsanto’s overture may just be a way of saying, “This deal makes sense, but Syngenta can hold out for more.”

The logic for the deal is simple: Syngenta is Monsanto’s perfect complement. Monsanto ranks as the globe’s largest purveyor of seeds (genetically modified and otherwise), alongside a relatively small chemical division (mainly devoted to the herbicide Roundup), which makes up just a third of its $15.8 billion in total sales. [Continue reading…]

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The world beyond your head

Matthew Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head, talks to Ian Tuttle.

Crawford: Only by excluding all the things that grab at our attention are we able to immerse ourselves in something worthwhile, and vice versa: When you become absorbed in something that is intrinsically interesting, that burden of self-regulation is greatly reduced.

Tuttle: To the present-day consequences. The first, and perhaps most obvious, consequence is a moral one, which you address in your harrowing chapter on machine gambling: “If we have no robust and demanding picture of what a good life would look like, then we are unable to articulate any detailed criticism of the particular sort of falling away from a good life that something like machine gambling represents.” To modern ears that sentence sounds alarmingly paternalistic. Is the notion of “the good life” possible in our age? Or is it fundamentally at odds with our political and/or philosophical commitments?

Crawford: Once you start digging into the chilling details of machine gambling, and of other industries such as mobile gaming apps that emulate the business model of “addiction by design” through behaviorist conditioning, you may indeed start to feel a little paternalistic — if we can grant that it is the role of a pater to make scoundrels feel unwelcome in the town.

According to the prevailing notion, freedom manifests as “preference-satisfying behavior.” About the preferences themselves we are to maintain a principled silence, out of deference to the autonomy of the individual. They are said to express the authentic core of the self, and are for that reason unavailable for rational scrutiny. But this logic would seem to break down when our preferences are the object of massive social engineering, conducted not by government “nudgers” but by those who want to monetize our attention.

My point in that passage is that liberal/libertarian agnosticism about the human good disarms the critical faculties we need even just to see certain developments in the culture and economy. Any substantive notion of what a good life requires will be contestable. But such a contest is ruled out if we dogmatically insist that even to raise questions about the good life is to identify oneself as a would-be theocrat. To Capital, our democratic squeamishness – our egalitarian pride in being “nonjudgmental” — smells like opportunity. Commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority, where liberals and libertarians fear to tread. And so we get a massive expansion of an activity — machine gambling — that leaves people compromised and degraded, as well as broke. And by the way, Vegas is no longer controlled by the mob. It’s gone corporate.

And this gets back to what I was saying earlier, about how our thinking is captured by obsolete polemics from hundreds of years ago. Subjectivism — the idea that what makes something good is how I feel about it — was pushed most aggressively by Thomas Hobbes, as a remedy for civil and religious war: Everyone should chill the hell out. Live and let live. It made sense at the time. This required discrediting all those who claim to know what is best. But Hobbes went further, denying the very possibility of having a better or worse understanding of such things as virtue and vice. In our time, this same posture of value skepticism lays the public square bare to a culture industry that is not at all shy about sculpting souls – through manufactured experiences, engineered to appeal to our most reliable impulses. That’s how one can achieve economies of scale. The result is a massification of the individual. [Continue reading…]

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Time to #BoycottBudLight

First up (to be completely honest): I’m not in a position to boycott Bud Light or any other Anheuser-Busch product.

It’s easy enough to identify pissy beer from the brand without needing to taste it — I’m confident I’ll be able to continue through the rest of my life without ever drinking a single Budweiser. That said, if there is a movement to #BoycottBudLight sprouting up among current drinkers, I applaud all those who support it.

The New York Times reports: A new label on some bottles of Bud Light, one of the brands owned by the beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, is falling flat among women, a demographic group the industry has been desperately courting in hopes of jump-starting flagging sales of suds.

In a continuation of its “Up for Whatever” campaign, a wide blue band low on the label says, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

Protests quickly erupted in social media, criticizing what was perceived as perhaps not the best marketing language in the midst of public outcry over date rape on college campuses.

“As a woman, as a mother of a girl and a boy, I find this message very disturbing and dangerous,” someone using the name Danielle Sawada posted on Bud Light’s Facebook page. “I have been a Bud Light drinker for quite a while, but until this campaign ends, you do not have my dollars.”

Alexander Lambrecht, vice president for the Bud Light brand at Anheuser-Busch, says:

“It’s clear that this message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.”

With all due respect, that’s bullshit.

Anheuser-Busch is trawling a market that’s a bit lacking in discrimination, but even so, I seriously doubt that the advertising campaigns dreamed up their agency, BBDO, are being created by a group of idiots.

Rather than treat the corporate response as an admission of an honest mistake, it should in my opinion be viewed as a smokescreen — not so much a reaction to the campaign, but instead an integral component in the campaign strategy.

The watery beer behind the label has been on the market for over 30 years. Creating some buzz around an old brand has to get increasingly difficult — especially when the age at which young people start drinking is the period in life when they have least interest in imitating their overweight parents.

A campaign built around the hashtag #UpForWhatever is clearly aimed at breaking boundaries — not staying in well-worn tracks.

The outrage provoked by this campaign, far from being fallout from “missing the mark,” may in fact be the mark itself — free publicity on Twitter and across the media.

Arguably, the only way of having a big impact through social media is by stoking controversy. After all, outrage is the currency of the realm.

And in this case, expressing consternation gets turned into an equal opportunity exercise whose participants include executives not only at Anheuser-Busch but also BBDO.

The agency’s Director of Digital Strategy, Lucy Leiderman, tweeted: “Oh no. Bud Light’s new tagline: “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”… ” but then removed the tweet.

Was this just a bit of damage control on behalf of the agency? Maybe, but perhaps Leiderman can be given the benefit of the doubt.

Prior to her arrival at BBDO, she wrote quite astutely about the dangers of removing “no” from ones vocabulary, addressing her warning directly at advertising creatives:

Marketers everywhere are singing the siren song of increasingly outrageous social campaigns. Decision makers are seeing signs that the end of the traditional is nigh. More and more, the creative space has become a world of “yes.” And that’s a problem.

But it isn’t just a problem that results in outrageous advertising. By its very nature advertising is always coercive and always designed to precipitate choices that might otherwise not be made.

Every ad wants you to say “yes.”

As Bud Light lights up Twitter, Anheuser-Busch and BBDO are getting exactly what they want. The only way of making the backlash truly instructive will be if it moves beyond the digital sphere and consumers in significant numbers actually stop buying the beer.

Still, even if to my surprise, the #UpForWhatever campaign turned out to become a very expensive mistake, I don’t anticipate the kind of seismic shift that I would really hope for in American culture.

In the larger scheme of things, this is a somewhat trivial example of a trend that permeates almost every strand of public discourse.

Language, through its relentless abuse, gets stripped of meaning. As meaning ebbs away, there is a frenzy in which everyone is turning up the volume, trying to make themselves heard even when much of the time they have nothing of true value to say.

Advertising is inherently emotive. It is designed to provoke feelings — not thought.

It’s not by chance that BBDO would choose the hook of a generational phrase — whatever — in an effort to fuel mindless consumption, cloaked as free spirit.

Whatever signals a vocabulary already severely depleted as advertisers try and knock out its last line of defense.

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HSBC warns fossil-fuel investors they risk ending up on the ‘wrong side of history’

Newsweek reports: Global banking giant HSBC has warned investors of the growing risk of their fossil fuel assets becoming useless, in a private report seen by Newsweek.

In the report, titled ‘Stranded assets: what next?’, analysts warn of the growing likelihood that fossil fuel companies may become “economically non-viable”, as people move away from carbon energy and fossil fuels are left in the ground.

Energy innovation measures, including ‘disruptive’ clean technologies and the EU’s success in decoupling energy use from economic growth, are cited as factors that could in the long term cause fossil fuel assets to become devalued, as green energy becomes cheaper and more easily available.

More stringent government regulation on carbon emissions, especially in the run-up to the Paris climate conference in December this year whose aim is to establish a legally binding global climate commitment, are also cited as longer term risks to investments in traditional energy.

However the analysts also warn that in the short term, low energy prices caused by oversupply should be factored into portfolios.

“The speed of the collapse in energy prices over the past three quarters has taken the fossil fuel industry by surprise, in our view,” reads the report. “As rigs are dismantled, capex is cut and operating assets quickly become unprofitable, stranding risks have become much more urgent for investors to address, including shorter term investors.”

The paper proposes three options for investors – divesting completely from fossil fuels; shedding the highest risk investments such as coal and oil; or staying the course and engaging with fossil fuel companies as an investor. The report argues that investors who stay in fossil fuels “may one day be seen to be late movers, on ‘the wrong side of history’”. [Continue reading…]

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Consumed: why more stuff does not mean more happiness

By Judith Stark, Seton Hall University

Consumption. By a strange shift of meaning, this 19th-century word describing a serious and often fatal disease is the same word used now for a way of life focused on material goods. Is it time to bring back its negative, and often deadly, associations into our public discourse?

Consumption as reality and metaphor operates on many levels – personal, communal and economic. Most importantly, it causes profound consequences for the planet and its resources.

The forty-fifth anniversary of Earth Day provides a fitting occasion to think more broadly and deeply about what these patterns of consumption mean for us, our communities, and for planet Earth.

Diminishing returns

We all want stuff, but in our overdeveloped, fast-paced culture we seldom challenge ourselves to ask ourselves the one important question: how much is enough?

[Read more…]

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Laura Gottesdiener: Another round of Detroit refugees?

I noticed recently that the catastrophe area that was once the great city of Detroit — bankruptcy, busted neighborhoods, acres of deserted houses, water shutdowns, and now, as TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener reports, an almost biblical foreclosure crisis that could result in tens of thousands of people being thrown out of their homes — regularly gets compared to “Katrina”; that is, to the destruction Hurricane Katrina visited on New Orleans back in 2005. Here are some typical headlines: “Is the Motor City ‘a five-decade Katrina?,’” “Unprecedented ‘Katrina’ of Tax Foreclosures to Hit Detroit, Wayne County March 31,” “Water Shutoffs: Detroit’s Katrina?,” “Comparing Detroit to Nola After Katrina Not So Far Off,” “A Hurricane Without Water: Foreclosure Crisis Looms in Detroit as State Takes Action.”

But in a country in which Congress has trouble raising money for essential highway upkeep, not a single mile of real high-speed rail exists (the Acela Express in the Northeast being a high-speed joke), the national infrastructure gets a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and one of its formerly great cities makes the phrase “hollowed out” sound like a euphemism, perhaps we should change our metaphors.  Maybe when something devastates part of this country, it’s not a “Katrina” any longer, but a “Detroit.”  Maybe the next time a city is hit by a hurricane, the headlines should refer to it as “a five-hour Detroit.”  Maybe when the next set of aging natural gas pipelines blows up, we should speak of “an underground Detroit.”

It’s a small wonder of American life that something close to a trillion dollars a year goes into what is called “national security,” while the actual security of Americans has generally been starved of funding and insecurity is on the rise.  Meanwhile, the biblical continues to happen to the former Motor City, a sign of what neglect means in the insecure heartland of twenty-first-century America.  Gottesdiener, TomDispatch’s roving correspondent in forgotten America, offers a devastating account of the latest chapter in the saga of a city on the road to hell. Tom Engelhardt

A foreclosure conveyor belt
The continuing depopulation of detroit
By Laura Gottesdiener

Unlike so many industrial innovations, the revolving door was not developed in Detroit. It took its first spin in Philadelphia in 1888, the brainchild of Theophilus Van Kannel, the soon-to-be founder of the Van Kannel Revolving Door Company. Its purpose was twofold: to better insulate buildings from the cold and to allow greater numbers of people easier entry at any given time.

On March 31st at the Wayne Country Treasurer’s Office, that Victorian-era invention was accomplishing neither objective. Then again, no door in the history of architecture — rotating or otherwise — could have accommodated the latest perversity Detroit officials were inflicting on city residents: the potential eviction of tens of thousands, possibly as many as 100,000 people, all at precisely the same time.

Little wonder that it seemed as if everyone was getting stuck in the rotating doors of that Wayne County office building on the last day residents could pay their past-due property taxes or enter a payment plan to do so. Those who didn’t, the city warned, would lose their homes to tax foreclosure, the process by which a local government repossesses a house because of unpaid property taxes.

[Read more…]

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How Middle East wars have created a boom for American defense contractors

The New York Times reports: To wage war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is using F-15 fighter jets bought from Boeing. Pilots from the United Arab Emirates are flying Lockheed Martin’s F-16 to bomb both Yemen and Syria. Soon, the Emirates are expected to complete a deal with General Atomics for a fleet of Predator drones to run spying missions in their neighborhood.

As the Middle East descends into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks, countries in the region that have stockpiled American military hardware are now actually using it and wanting more. The result is a boom for American defense contractors looking for foreign business in an era of shrinking Pentagon budgets — but also the prospect of a dangerous new arms race in a region where the map of alliances has been sharply redrawn.

Last week, defense industry officials told Congress that they were expecting within days a request from Arab allies fighting the Islamic State — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt — to buy thousands of American-made missiles, bombs and other weapons, replenishing an arsenal that has been depleted over the past year.

The United States has long put restrictions on the types of weapons that American defense firms can sell to Arab nations, meant to ensure that Israel keeps a military advantage against its traditional adversaries in the region. But because Israel and the Arab states are now in a de facto alliance against Iran, the Obama administration has been far more willing to allow the sale of advanced weapons in the Persian Gulf, with few public objections from Israel.

“When you look at it, Israel’s strategic calculation is a simple one,” said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The gulf countries “do not represent a meaningful threat” to Israel, he said. “They do represent a meaningful counterbalance to Iran.”

Industry analysts and Middle East experts say that the region’s turmoil, and the determination of the wealthy Sunni nations to battle Shiite Iran for regional supremacy, will lead to a surge in new orders for the defense industry’s latest, most high-tech hardware. [Continue reading…]

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Why your employer would like to replace you with a machine

Zeynep Tufekci writes: The machine hums along, quietly scanning the slides, generating Pap smear diagnostics, just the way a college-educated, well-compensated lab technician might.

A robot with emotion-detection software interviews visitors to the United States at the border. In field tests, this eerily named “embodied avatar kiosk” does much better than humans in catching those with invalid documentation. Emotional-processing software has gotten so good that ad companies are looking into “mood-targeted” advertising, and the government of Dubai wants to use it to scan all its closed-circuit TV feeds.

Yes, the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.

Not just low-wage jobs, either.

Today, machines can process regular spoken language and not only recognize human faces, but also read their expressions. They can classify personality types, and have started being able to carry out conversations with appropriate emotional tenor.

Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, who’s in a mood to pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a coupon to nudge them toward a sale. In applications around the world, software is being used to predict whether people are lying, how they feel and whom they’ll vote for.

To crack these cognitive and emotional puzzles, computers needed not only sophisticated, efficient algorithms, but also vast amounts of human-generated data, which can now be easily harvested from our digitized world. The results are dazzling. Most of what we think of as expertise, knowledge and intuition is being deconstructed and recreated as an algorithmic competency, fueled by big data.

But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis. [Continue reading…]

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CEO sets minimum wage of $70,000 for all his employees

The New York Times reports: The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.

His idea bubbled into reality on Monday afternoon, when Mr. Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.

“Is anyone else freaking out right now?” Mr. Price asked after the clapping and whooping died down into a few moments of stunned silence. “I’m kind of freaking out.”

If it’s a publicity stunt, it’s a costly one. Mr. Price, who started the Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm in 2004 at the age of 19, said he would pay for the wage increases by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70,000 and using 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million in profit this year. [Continue reading…]

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How California’s wealthiest homeowners are sucking the state dry

The San Jose Mercury News reports: Despite having the second-highest per capita consumption in the Bay Area, the Bear Gulch District serviced by the California Water Service Co. has cut water use only 11.3 percent since 2013. The district includes Woodside, Portola Valley, Atherton and portions of Menlo Park and Redwood City.

In the Alameda County Water District, water use plummeted 20.5 percent compared with 2013.

“We can turn off their water if we need to,” said Stephanie Nevins, the Alameda district’s water conservation supervisor. “But we haven’t had to. We’re delighted about how responsive customers have been.”

A National Science Foundation-funded research study by UCLA scientists confirms the Bay Area pattern. Analyzing 10 years of data that linked water consumption with socioeconomic demographics, prices and other factors, the study concluded:

• Income is the primary driver of water consumption. Wealthier neighborhoods consume three times the amount of water that less affluent neighborhoods use.
• Single-family residential households overwater their grass, flowers and shrubs.
• “Tier pricing,” which sharply increases the cost of water as usage goes up, encourages conservation.

The greatest reduction of water use results from a combination of mandatory restrictions and price increases, supported by incentives and outreach, according to the UCLA study.

Woodside is filled with large estates owned by Silicon Valley luminaries that have included, in addition to Ellison, venture capitalist John Doerr, Intuit founder Scott Cook, investor Charles R. Schwab and Internet entrepreneur Jeffrey Skoll.

Landscape irrigation accounts for 70 percent of the district’s water usage, internal data show. The state average is about 50 percent.

Menlo Country Club in the Bear Gulch District, which uses potable water on its fairways, says it is seeking a recycled water source.

About 300 Woodside households use more than 75,548 gallons a month, according to Cal Water. Many of those residents use more than a million gallons of water a year — for just one home. [Continue reading…]

The Los Angeles Times reports: Water usage in Los Angeles was 70 gallons per capita. But within the city, a recent UCLA study examining a decade of Department of Water and Power data showed that on average, wealthier neighborhoods consume three times more water than less-affluent ones.

With Gov. Jerry Brown’s order requiring a 25% cut in water consumption, upscale communities are scrambling to develop stricter laws that will work where years of voluntary standards have not. Many believe it’s going to take a change in culture as well as city rules to hit the goal.

“Some people — believe it or not — don’t know we are in a drought,” said George Murdoch, general manager of utilities in Newport Beach, which is beginning to fine chronic water wasters. “We have people that own a home here but aren’t around a lot, so they could miss a leak.”

Stephanie Pincetl, who worked on the UCLA water-use study, said wealthy Californians are “lacking a sense that we are all in this together.”

“The problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich,” Pincetl said. [Continue reading…]

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Warren Buffett’s mobile home empire preys on the poor

The Center for Public Integrity and the Seattle Times report: Denise Pitts walked into the pawn shop not far from where she bought her mobile home in Knoxville, Tennessee, and offered up her wedding rings for $100. Her marriage wasn’t over, but her husband was battling cancer and, Pitts said, her mortgage company told her the only way to keep a roof over his head would be to sell everything else.

Across the country in Ephrata, Washington, Kirk and Patricia Ackley sat down to close on a new mobile home, only to learn that the annual interest on their loan would be 12.5 percent rather than the 7 percent they said they had been promised. They went ahead because they had spent $11,000, most of their savings, to dig a foundation.

And near Bug Tussle, Alabama, Carol Carroll has been paying down her home for more than a decade but still owes nearly 90 percent of the sale price — and more than twice what the home is worth.

The families’ dealers and lenders went by different names — Luv Homes, Clayton Homes, Vanderbilt, 21st Mortgage. Yet the disastrous loans that threaten them with homelessness or the loss of family land stem from a single company: Clayton Homes, the nation’s biggest homebuilder, which is controlled by its second-richest man — Warren Buffett.

Buffett’s mobile home empire promises low-income Americans the dream of homeownership. But Clayton relies on predatory sales practices, exorbitant fees, and interest rates that can exceed 15 percent, trapping many buyers in loans they can’t afford and in homes that are almost impossible to sell or refinance, an investigation by The Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times has found. [Continue reading…]

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Steve Fraser: Mongrel firebugs and men of property

“The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.” So wrote British playwright Harold Pinter.  How apt that seems when one compares life in our own “second Gilded Age” to the way things were done in the original Gilded Age of a century ago.  True, there are some striking similarities between the two moments, including the rise to power of crony capitalism, the staggering growth of inequality, the exiling of democracy, and the spread of Darwinian rationales to justify and camouflage the embedding of plutocracy at the heights of our world.

What is strikingly different, however, is the way Americans of the nineteenth century reacted to all of this.  They managed to mount a kind of sustained economic, political, and cultural resistance to plutocratic rule that is simply unimaginable today.  Masses of our ancestors refused to accept that tooth-and-claw capitalism was their fate and that they should submit to it without a whimper of protest.  Instead, they imagined new, more civilized ways of living together and then took to the streets in staggering numbers and with remarkable persistence, even in the face of the armed power of corporations and the state, to make their points felt.  We can hardly say the same about our more recent past.

How did they manage that? Novelist William Faulkner viewed the past differently than Pinter. As he famously observed, “The past is not dead; it is not even past.” Those confronted by the iniquities and inequities that ran rampant in the first Gilded Age stood up to exploitation and oppression by reaching into their varied pasts. There they were able to find the moral, intellectual, and even organizational wherewithal to defy the prevailing capitalist order of things. At the same time, with a creativity that would amaze us, they looked far into alternative futures to imagine ways of escaping a fate their overlords insisted was both right and inevitable, envisioning worlds that seemed far more inviting to everyone but the plutocrats.

Today, we are faced with a double dilemma: How do we once again make Pinter’s “foreign country,” that rich world of resistance to capitalism that now seems lost in the mists of time, a familiar part of our lives? And how, in doing so, do we make what now seems, in Faulkner’s terms, so undead — all the brutishness, mayhem, inequality, and injustice that so disfigures the present — finally die? While you’re considering that, here’s a glimpse (from my new book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power) of the two worlds of the first Gilded Age and the chasm that lay between them. Steve Fraser

Plutocracy the first time around
Revisiting the great upheaval and the first Gilded Age
By Steve Fraser

[The following passages are excerpted and slightly adapted from The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Little, Brown and Company).]

Part 1: The Great Upheaval

What came to be known as the Great Upheaval, the movement for the eight-hour day, elicited what one historian has called “a strange enthusiasm.” The normal trade union strike is a finite event joining two parties contesting over limited, if sometimes intractable, issues. The mass strike in 1886 or before that in 1877 — all the many localized mass strikes that erupted in towns and small industrial cities after the Civil War and into the new century — was open-ended and ecumenical in reach.

[Read more…]

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How the Anthropocene narrative is obscuring the role of capitalism in climate change

Andreas Malm writes: Last year was the hottest year ever recorded. And yet, the latest figures show that in 2013 the source that provided the most new energy to the world economy wasn’t solar, wind power, or even natural gas or oil, but coal.

The growth in global emissions — from 1 percent a year in the 1990s to 3 percent so far this millennium — is striking. It’s an increase that’s paralleled our growing knowledge of the terrible consequences of fossil fuel usage.

Who’s driving us toward disaster? A radical answer would be the reliance of capitalists on the extraction and use of fossil energy. Some, however, would rather identify other culprits.

The earth has now, we are told, entered “the Anthropocene”: the epoch of humanity. Enormously popular — and accepted even by many Marxist scholars — the Anthropocene concept suggests that humankind is the new geological force transforming the planet beyond recognition, chiefly by burning prodigious amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas.

According to these scholars, such degradation is the result of humans acting out their innate predispositions, the inescapable fate for a planet subjected to humanity’s “business-as-usual.” Indeed, the proponents cannot argue otherwise, for if the dynamics were of a more contingent character, the narrative of an entire species ascending to biospheric supremacy would be difficult to defend. [Continue reading…]

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We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it

George Monbiot writes: Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

It’s literally and – it seems – metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”. [Continue reading…]

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