Taylor and Appel: The subprime education scandal

We used to hear more often about those malignant institutions serving, or rather plaguing, the poor: the loan sharks who charged 100% or more per year in interest, the furniture or radios that ended up costing several times their value on the installment plan. Two or three decades ago, however, we didn’t think of an education as being part of the landscape of predation upon the poor. Now, as Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel explain, when it comes to a new crew of “for-profit” colleges, higher education has gone hyena and is tearing at the financial flesh of the poor.

Even mainstream institutions can be sketchy these days, if you look closely enough. Most liberal arts college programs give their students a vague, if exhilarating, sense that the best possible outcome of their vocation is practically an inevitability, and yet there are far from enough tenure-track jobs, top galleries, or niches on bestseller lists for all the people being educated.

Though people make it in all these fields, they are a tiny minority.  So many others pay their dues and get little for it, except whatever is inherently meaningful in their education, which won’t, of course, lighten their loan burden at all.

Once upon a time, it was different. The radicalism of the 1960s, for instance, should be chalked up in part to the great freedom of youth at a time when the fat of the land seemed inexhaustible and the safety net unbreakable. The two radicals I know who became wanted fugitives in the 1970s and then tenured faculty members (now retired with pensions) operated in a more forgiving era — and a more affluent one.

My parents believed that any kind of bachelor’s degree pretty much guaranteed your white-collar future, and that was a truth of their era. Thirty years ago, when I came along, it was already less of a reality; today, so much less than that. Still, the hangover from that conviction lingers. I went to California’s public universities as their golden age of nearly free and superb education was ending and got through college scrambling to the sound of doors shutting behind me. It was all part of the end of an egalitarian dream birthed and nurtured by the New Deal of the 1930s, the creation of social security in the 1940s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It’s now popular to say that, as president, Richard Nixon was to the left of Barack Obama, but what that means is that our society was then closer to a social democracy (and that since we’re really bad at talking about it, we’d rather focus our attention on figureheads).

Maybe communism was good for us after all, at least — as David Graeber argues — in scaring the powers that be into offering their own limited versions of equality and opportunity. California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, was the beginning of the end of that dream, arising as it did from the now-entrenched belief that what we have separately beats whatever we have together anytime. Taxes were portrayed as the nails that stuck every breadwinning Jesus to his own personal cross, rather than the way to keep roads and bridges and schools in shape, have safe drinking water and, like, a postal system and libraries (and also a giant military eating up more than half of the federal government’s discretionary spending). As the retreat into the private sphere began in earnest, people started forgetting how good, how secure life had been, while Republicans launched the mantra that future tax cuts would be a magical ointment capable of curing anything.

Part of the great work of Occupy Wall Street was to make some of the brutality of the current economy visible. People whose lives were being ravaged by housing, medical, and educational debt came out of the shame and the shadows to testify, while activists and homeowners took action against foreclosures and banks. From the beginning Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, was part of that movement and moment.  Her work there led to her involvement with Strike Debt and the fledgling Debt Collective. Now, she and Hannah Appel focus on the conditions that produced the perfect educational storm in the form of the private for-profit university/corporation. Rebecca Solnit

Education with a debt sentence
For-profit colleges as American dream crushers and factories of debt
By Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel

Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream — gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.

Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%. In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.

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Is ‘progress’ good for humanity?

Jeremy Caradonna writes: The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress.

The story tends to go something like this: Inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world. Fueled by the optimism and scientific know-how of the Enlightenment, a series of heroic men — James Watt, Adam Smith, William Huskisson, and so on — fought back against the stultifying effects of regulated economies, irrational laws and customs, and a traditional guild structure that quashed innovation. By the mid-19th century, they had managed to implement a laissez-faire (“free”) economy that ran on new machines and was centered around modern factories and an urban working class. It was a long and difficult process, but this revolution eventually brought Europeans to a new plateau of civilization. In the end, Europeans lived in a new world based on wage labor, easy mobility, and the consumption of sparkling products.

Europe had rescued itself from the pre-industrial misery that had hampered humankind since the dawn of time. Cheap and abundant fossil fuel powered the trains and other steam engines that drove humankind into this brave new future. Later, around the time that Europeans decided that colonial slavery wasn’t such a good idea, they exported this revolution to other parts of the world, so that everyone could participate in freedom and industrialized modernity. They did this, in part, by “opening up markets” in primitive agrarian societies. The net result has been increased human happiness, wealth, and productivity — the attainment of our true potential as a species.

Sadly, this saccharine story still sweetens our societal self-image. Indeed, it is deeply ingrained in the collective identity of the industrialized world. The narrative has gotten more complex but remains à la base a triumphalist story. Consider, for instance, the closing lines of Joel Mokyr’s 2009 The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain, 1700–1850: “Material life in Britain and in the industrialized world that followed it is far better today than could have been imagined by the most wild-eyed optimistic 18th-century philosophe — and whereas this outcome may have been an unforeseen consequence, most economists, at least, would regard it as an undivided blessing.”

The idea that the Industrial Revolution has made us not only more technologically advanced and materially furnished but also better for it is a powerful narrative and one that’s hard to shake. It makes it difficult to dissent from the idea that new technologies, economic growth, and a consumer society are absolutely necessary. To criticize industrial modernity is somehow to criticize the moral advancement of humankind, since a central theme in this narrative is the idea that industrialization revolutionized our humanity, too. Those who criticize industrial society are often met with defensive snarkiness: “So you’d like us to go back to living in caves, would ya?” or “you can’t stop progress!”

Narratives are inevitably moralistic; they are never created spontaneously from “the facts” but are rather stories imposed upon a range of phenomena that always include implicit ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. The proponents of the Industrial Revolution inherited from the philosophers of the Enlightenment the narrative of human (read: European) progress over time but placed technological advancement and economic liberalization at the center of their conception of progress. This narrative remains today an ingrained operating principle that propels us in a seemingly unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology, because the assumption is that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.

Advocates of sustainability are not opposed to industrialization per se, and don’t seek a return to the Stone Age. But what they do oppose is the dubious narrative of progress caricatured above. Along with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they acknowledge the objective advancement of technology, but they don’t necessarily think that it has made us more virtuous, and they don’t assume that the key values of the Industrial Revolution are beyond reproach: social inequality for the sake of private wealth; economic growth at the expense of everything, including the integrity of the environment; and the assumption that mechanized newness is always a positive thing. Above all, sustainability-minded thinkers question whether the Industrial Revolution has jeopardized humankind’s ability to live happily and sustainably upon the Earth. Have the fossil-fueled good times put future generations at risk of returning to the same misery that industrialists were in such a rush to leave behind? [Continue reading...]

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Steve Fraser: The return of the titans

Think of this as the year that democracy of, by, and for the billionaires shall not perish from the Earth — not when we’re on a new electoral playing field in a political world in which distinctions are no longer made between unlimited money and unlimited speech.  In other words, these days, if you have billions of dollars, you can shout from the skies and the rest of us have to listen.  If, as Steve Fraser points out today, we’ve been witnessing the return of “family capitalism on steroids,” nowhere has it been bigger than in American politics, aided and abetted by that ultimate family institution, the Supremes (and I’m not, of course, talking about the classic Motown group).

We’re still almost two months from the midterm elections in which the Republicans already have the House of Representatives essentially wrapped up and ads for Senate races are zipping onto TV screens in “battleground states” at a dizzying pace.  To fund those ads and other campaign initiatives, dollars by the millions are pouring into the coffers of “dark money” outfits in a way guaranteed to leave the record for spending on midterm elections in a ditch at the side of the road.  We now have our first estimates of what election 2014 is going to look like as a billionaire’s playground; and count on it, you’re going to hear the words “record,” “billionaire,” and “ads” a lot more until November.

“Outside groups” have already spent $120 million on TV ads alone, more than half that sum coming from those dark-money groups that don’t have to let anyone know who their contributors are.  At the top of that shadowy list are six outfits linked to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers from Wichita. Together, those groups have already sent a mind-spinning 44,000 ads into the politico-sphere in those battleground states, and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) leads the pack with 27,000 of them. In the end, AFP alone is expected to put $125 million into this year’s midterm elections, a figure that should take your breath away and yet that’s only a start.

Sheldon Adelson, of casino fame, may, for example, put $100 million of his $31.6 billion fortune into this campaign season, shuttling much of it through dark-money outfits, including AFP. On the liberal side of the spectrum, environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer has pledged to sink $50 million into campaigns to promote candidates ready to act on global warming (though there is little question that, in the billionaire sweepstakes, the right-wing ones are going to outspend the liberal ones, and Republicans outspend Democrats).

In all of this, you can see the urge of America’s new crop of billionaires to “play god” at our expense and with our lives — to decide for us, ad by ad, dark-money outfit by dark-money outfit, how we should organize ourselves politically. Historian Steve Fraser, TomDispatch regular, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, and co-founder (with me) of the American Empire Project, has rubbed elbows with many a billionaire — on the page, if not in life. From this country’s earliest tycoons to the latest batch of family capitalists, he finds one overwhelming, unifying trait: a deep-seated belief, in a country that worships self- or family-made money, that the more billions you have, the more you should be listened to. In his upcoming book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, he explores how, in our second (even more) gilded age, others with little money also came to believe that, rather than resist it. Tom Engelhardt

Playing God
The rebirth of family capitalism or how the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and other billionaires are undermining America
By Steve Fraser

George Baer was a railroad and coal mining magnate at the turn of the twentieth century.  Amid a violent and protracted strike that shut down much of the country’s anthracite coal industry, Baer defied President Teddy Roosevelt’s appeal to arbitrate the issues at stake, saying, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for… not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”  To the Anthracite Coal Commission investigating the uproar, Baer insisted, “These men don’t suffer. Why hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”

We might call that adopting the imperial position.  Titans of industry and finance back then often assumed that they had the right to supersede the law and tutor the rest of America on how best to order its affairs.  They liked to play God.  It’s a habit that’s returned with a vengeance in our own time.

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Chip Ward: Leave it to beaver(s)

If you want to be unnerved, just pay a visit to the U.S. Drought Monitor and check out its map of the American West with almost all of California stained the deep, distressing shades of red that indicate either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.  In other words, it could hardly be worse.  California is now in its third year of drought, with no end in sight; state agricultural losses are estimated at $2.2 billion for 2014 alone; most of its reservoirs are less than half full; the Colorado River basin, which supplies water to “about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states,” including California, is compromised; and California’s first six months of 2014 have been the “hottest ever… nearly five degrees warmer than the twentieth century average.” The drought’s arms extend north through Oregon (“severe”) into Washington, where it’s already been the fire season from hell — and it’s just beginning.  They also reach east through Nevada as far as Utah and straight across the Southwest in various shades of yellow, orange, and deep red.

TomDispatch’s western contingent, environmentalists Chip Ward and William deBuys, have had the stresses of climate change, rising heat, drought, wildfires, desertification, and someday the possible abandonment of parts of the Southwest on their minds (and so on the minds of TD readers) for years now.  These days, the chickens are coming home to roost — but not, it seems, the beavers.  Ward, a Utah environmentalist and the former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, has long focused not just on how our American world is being ravaged, but on how to protect and restore it.  In today’s post, he offers a reminder that sometimes such restoration can come in small packages and that even the most modest of natural geo-engineering can disturb vested interests. Tom Engelhardt

The original geo-engineers
Or how to save the iconic West from the cow
By Chip Ward

The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the “boomers” who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol’ boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the “nesters” or “stickers” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.

That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple.  All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms, reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust. 

The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature’s own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one.  Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.

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Michael Klare: Fighting for oil

Call it a double whammy for the planet or simply irony with a capital “I.”  As the invaluable Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of The Race for What’s Left, points out today, if you scan the planet for conflict, what you’ll find from Syria and Iraq to the South China Sea are a series of energy wars — fossil-fuel conflicts to be exact.  At present, despite some hopeful signs, this crazed planet of ours is still a ravenous beast that only fossil fuels can sate.  No question that conflicts and wars are terrible things.  Just consider the million new refugees being generated by the disintegration of Iraq in a blaze of warfare and sectarian killings.  But oil wars add a grim twist to the mix, because when they’re settled, however miserably or bloodily, the winners take to the oil rigs and the refineries and pump out yet more of the stuff that puts carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere and, as in the Middle East today, creates the basis for yet more conflict.

That region has been going through a period of heightened dryness and drought that researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe to be caused, at least in part, by global warming.  This winter, the driest in decades, Syria and Iraq in particular have experienced a severe lack of rainfall in what should be the wettest part of the year and record heat as well.  These are factors the Pentagon lists in its recent Quadrennial Defense Review as “threat multipliers.”  According to meteorologist Eric Holthaus, “As in neighboring Syria, it’s increasingly clear that Iraq is drying out, an effect that’s long been predicted as a result of the human-caused build up of heat-trapping gases like CO2. Since 1973… parts of Iraq and Syria have seen ‘some of the most dramatic precipitation declines in the world.’ Citing projected stark declines in rainfall and continued population pressure and upstream dam building, a study released earlier this year made the case that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers may no longer reach the sea by 2040.”

The weather destabilization of Syria and the rise of ISIS seem to be connected.  In the Mobius Strip of life, the more desperate you are — thank you, global warming — the more you’re likely to fight over what resources, from water to oil, you can command, and then when you’re done, you’ll use those resources to heat the planet further.  It’s a closed system, a simple formula for the production of violent emotions, dead bodies, and a particularly nasty world. Tom Engelhardt

Twenty-first-century energy wars
Global conflicts are increasingly fueled by the desire for oil and natural gas — and the funds they generate
By Michael T. Klare

Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine, the East and South China Seas: wherever you look, the world is aflame with new or intensifying conflicts.  At first glance, these upheavals appear to be independent events, driven by their own unique and idiosyncratic circumstances.  But look more closely and they share several key characteristics — notably, a witch’s brew of ethnic, religious, and national antagonisms that have been stirred to the boiling point by a fixation on energy.

In each of these conflicts, the fighting is driven in large part by the eruption of long-standing historic antagonisms among neighboring (often intermingled) tribes, sects, and peoples.  In Iraq and Syria, it is a clash among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, and others; in Nigeria, among Muslims, Christians, and assorted tribal groupings; in South Sudan, between the Dinka and Nuer; in Ukraine, between Ukrainian loyalists and Russian-speakers aligned with Moscow; in the East and South China Sea, among the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and others.  It would be easy to attribute all this to age-old hatreds, as suggested by many analysts; but while such hostilities do help drive these conflicts, they are fueled by a most modern impulse as well: the desire to control valuable oil and natural gas assets.  Make no mistake about it, these are twenty-first-century energy wars.

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An ex-Trader Joe’s exec’s plan to reduce food waste and feed the hungry

The Atlantic: America’s growing income inequality has dominated the national conversation in recent months, accompanied by an avalanche of data: economists tell us the richest 1 percent of American households earn 20 percent of all income and own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. But how do these figures translate into everyday life? For a glimpse into what has gone wrong, consider America’s food paradox: Grocery stores catering to wealthy shoppers discard billions of pounds of wholesome food because of minor cosmetic flaws while, in low-income neighborhoods across the country, 48 million Americans lack reliable access to affordable, nutritious food.

Doug Rauch, the former president of the Trader Joe’s Company, has first-hand knowledge about America’s food waste. He tells me that he has seen shocking quantities of food discarded because customers expect perfect fruit and vegetables on their supermarket shelves. “Grocery stores routinely trash produce for being the wrong shape or containing minor blemishes,” he tells me. After three decades in the grocery business, Rauch retired four years ago to devote himself to investigating and addressing the problem. The USDA estimates that 31 percent of food produced in America goes uneaten every year, amounting to a loss of $161.6 billion. “Here we are in the richest nation in the history of the world in terms of food production, yet one in six Americans is going hungry,” he says.

Rauch wants to take a stab at tackling this inefficiency in America’s food system. The solution seems obvious to him: Couldn’t we take the excesses of the wealthy and give them to the poor? This is precisely the concept behind Daily Table, a grocery store he is launching this fall in Roxbury, a low-income Boston suburb. Rauch plans to salvage food discarded by supermarkets and sell it at very low cost to consumers who would not otherwise have the means to adequately feed themselves. If this experiment works, he plans to open stores like it around the country. [Continue reading...]

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Systemic pesticides pose global threat to biodiversity, harming bees, butterflies, fish and birds

AFP reports: Neurotoxic pesticides blamed for the world’s bee collapse are also harming butterflies, worms, fish and birds, said a scientific review that called Tuesday for tighter regulation to curb their use.

Analysing two decades of reports on the topic, an international panel of 29 scientists found there was “clear evidence of harm” from use of two pesticide types, neonicotinoids and fipronil.

And the evidence was “sufficient to trigger regulatory action”.

“We are witnessing a threat to the productivity of our natural and farmed environment,” said Jean-Marc Bonmatin of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, co-author of the report entitled the Worldwide Integrated Assessment.

Far from protecting food production, these nerve-targeting insecticides known as neonics were “imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem.”

The four-year assessment was carried out by The Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which advises the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s watchdog on species loss.

Neonics are widely used insecticides whose effects can be instant and lethal, or chronic. Exposure can impair smell and memory in some species, curb procreation, reduce foraging, cause flight difficulties and increase disease susceptibility.

Used for insect pest management in farming, but also in pet flea control, they have been fingered in the recent decline in bees — crucial pollinators of human food crops — in Europe, the Americas and Asia.

The latest study says these pesticides, absorbed by plants, are also harming other insect pollinators, fish and birds as they leach into soil and water.

The most affected species were terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms, which are crucial soil-enrichers, said a press statement.

Bees and butterflies were next, followed by aquatic invertebrates like freshwater snails and water fleas, then birds, and finally fish, amphibians and certain microbes. [Continue reading...]

Imidacloprid, primarily manufactured by Bayer CropScience, is not only the most widely used neonicotinoid pesticide but also the most widely used insecticide of any type in the world.

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Despite the explosion in online analytics, marketers still don’t know what they’re doing

Pando reports: We’re in the second decade of the advertising and marketing revolution brought on by the Internet, one that has ripped the heart out of the print media industry. Digital content is targeted and responsive now, offering marketers detailed insight into who clicked, who read, and who shared.

Except the sad thing is, as evidenced by Contently’s The State of Content Marketing Measurement report, a survey of 302 marketers across April and May, is that no one really knows if the new information on offer makes any sense.

The statistics are staggering: 91 percent of marketers Contently spoke to had some level of uncertainty to whether the content performance analytics they used were a good gauge of business impact. [Continue reading...]

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Who’s in control — nation states or global corporations?

Gary Younge writes: The night in 2002 when Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won his landslide victory in Brazil’s presidential elections, he warned supporters: “So far, it has been easy. The hard part begins now.” He wasn’t wrong. As head of the leftwing Workers’ party he was elected on a platform of fighting poverty and redistributing wealth. A year earlier, the party had produced a document, Another Brazil is Possible, laying out its electoral programme. In a section entitled “The Necessary Rupture”, it argued: “Regarding the foreign debt, now predominantly private, it will be necessary to denounce the agreement with the IMF, in order to free the economic policy from the restrictions imposed on growth and on the defence of Brazilian commercial interests.”

But on the way to Lula’s inauguration the invisible hand of the market tore up his electoral promises and boxed the country around the ears for its reckless democratic choice. In the three months between his winning and being sworn in, the currency plummeted by 30%, $6bn in hot money left the country, and some agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk ratings in the world. “We are in government but not in power,” said Lula’s close aide, Dominican friar Frei Betto. “Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital.”

The limited ability of national governments to pursue any agenda that has not first been endorsed by international capital and its proxies is no longer simply the cross they have to bear; it is the cross to which we have all been nailed. The nation state is the primary democratic entity that remains. But given the scale of neoliberal globalisation it is clearly no longer up to that task.

“By many measures, corporations are more central players in global affairs than nations,” writes Benjamin Barber in Jihad vs McWorld. “We call them multinational but they are more accurately understood as postnational, transnational or even anti-national. For they abjure the very idea of nations or any other parochialism that limits them in time or space.”

This contradiction is not new. Indeed, it is precisely because it has continued, challenged but virtually unchecked, for more than a generation, that political cynicism has intensified.

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” argued the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. “In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

The recent success of the far right in the European parliamentary elections revealed just how morbid those symptoms have become. [Continue reading...]

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It’s simple. If we can’t change our economic system, our number’s up

George Monbiot writes: Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham.

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems. It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues miraculously vanished, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth. [Continue reading...]

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The cooperative economy

Orion magazine: In the mid-1960s, when author, historian, and political economist Gar Alperovitz was working as legislative director for Senator Gaylord Nelson, change was in the air. Ink had dried on an early version of the Clean Air Act, the civil rights movement had won major victories, and the first Earth Day was in the works. The U.S. still faced plenty of serious challenges, but many Americans felt their country was capable of dealing with them successfully.

Today, things feel very different. “From climate change to a medieval level of wealth disparity, what we face in this country is no longer a regulatory crisis,” says Alperovitz. “We face a systemic crisis. And if you begin there, you begin to wonder: Is capitalism itself in profound trouble?”

Alperovitz believes it is. The author of several books on the subject, including America Beyond Capitalism, and a professor of political economy at the University of Maryland, he points to capitalism’s increasing dysfunction as the impetus for the rise of another economy, one built from the ground up by democratically owned organizations like cooperatives, community land trusts, and municipal institutions.

Orion editor Scott Gast spoke with Alperovitz after the publication of his most recent book, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution, which explores whether the cooperative economy can provide the seeds for a system that isn’t capitalism and isn’t socialism, but something entirely new. [Continue reading...]

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‘Now, we have a democratically elected totalitarian government’ — Arundhati Roy

Tahir Mehdi writes: In Pakistan, apprehensions are rife about Narendra Modi’s flamboyant success. But fervent Modi supporters in the Indian middle classes prefer to place him in the economic governance arena. Dawn recently talked to renowned Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, in Delhi to explore what Modi’s rise means for India.

“The massive, steeply climbing GDP of India dropped rather suddenly and millions of middle-class people sitting in the aircraft, waiting for it to take off, suddenly found it freezing in mid-air,” says Ms Roy. “Their exhilaration turned to panic and then into anger. Modi and his party have mopped up this anger.”

India was known for its quasi-socialist economy before it unfettered its private sector in 1991. India soon became global capital’s favourite hangout, sending its economy on a high. The neo-liberal roller coaster ride, however, hit snags. The Indian economy, after touching a peak of over 10pc growth in 2010, tapered down to below 5pc in the last three years. The Indian corporate class blames this lapse solely on the ruling Congress party’s ‘policy paralysis’. Its ‘meek’ prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was now identified as a hurdle. The aggressive Modi thus provided the ultimate contrast.

“What he [Modi] will be called upon to do is not to attack Muslims, it will be to sort out what is going on in the forests, to sweep out the resistance and hand over land to the mining and infrastructure corporations,” explains Ms Roy. “The contracts are all signed and the companies have been waiting for years. He has been chosen as the man who does not blink in the face of bloodshed, not just Muslim bloodshed but any bloodshed.” India’s largest mining and energy projects are in areas that are inhabited by its poorest tribal population who are resisting the forcible takeover of their livelihood resources. Maoist militants champion the cause of these adivasis and have established virtual rule in many pockets.

“Bloodshed is inherent to this model of development. There are already thousands of people in jails,” she says. “But that is not enough any longer. The resistance has to be crushed and eradicated. Big money now needs the man who can walk the last mile. That is why big industry poured millions into Modi’s election campaign.”

Ms Roy believes that India’s chosen development model has a genocidal core to it. “How have the other ‘developed’ countries progressed? Through wars and by colonising and usurping the resources of other countries and societies,” she says. “India has no option but to colonise itself.” [Continue reading...]

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Who watches the watchers? Big Data goes unchecked

Politico reports: The National Security Agency might be tracking your phone calls. But private industry is prying far more deeply into your life.

Commercial data brokers know if you have diabetes. Your electric company can see what time you come home at night. And tracking companies can tell where you go on weekends by snapping photos of your car’s license plate and cataloging your movements.

Private companies already collect, mine and sell as many as 75,000 individual data points on each consumer, according to a Senate report. And they’re poised to scoop up volumes more, as technology unleashes a huge wave of connected devices — from sneaker insoles to baby onesies to cars and refrigerators — that quietly track, log and analyze our every move.

Congress and the administration have moved to rein in the National Security Agency in the year since Edward Snowden disclosed widespread government spying. But Washington has largely given private-sector data collection a free pass. The result: a widening gap in oversight as private data mining races ahead. Companies are able to scoop up ever more information — and exploit it with ever greater sophistication — yet a POLITICO review has found deep reluctance in D.C. to exercise legislative, regulatory or executive power to curb the big business of corporate cybersnooping.

The inertia — and lack of a serious legislative push — on private-sector data mining has several causes. Many Republicans are averse to any new regulation of business. Many Democrats are skittish about alienating campaign donors in Silicon Valley. [Continue reading...]

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Greenwald sells movie rights of Snowden story to Sony Pictures

The New York Times reports: After a long, slow haul, the film rights to Glenn Greenwald’s book about Edward J. Snowden and his revelations about electronic surveillance by United States security officials have found a home, at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Sony said on Wednesday that it had acquired rights to Mr. Greenwald’s book, “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the U. S. Surveillance State,” for the producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli. Mr. Wilson and Ms. Broccoli are known for their work on James Bond films like “Skyfall” and “Quantum of Solace,” both of which were released by Sony and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

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Mapping a new economy

Scott Carlson writes: David Harvey would implore you to imagine life without capitalism—that is, if you can. Chances are, even if you’re puzzled by the manipulation of phantom money on Wall Street, troubled by society’s growing inequality, or disgusted with the platinum parachutes of corporate executives, you probably still conceive the world in terms of profits, private property, and free markets, the invisible hand always on the tiller.

To Harvey, a professor of anthropology and geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, that world is coming to an end. In Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford University Press), Harvey examines what he sees as the untenable elements of capital, and he analyzes how they can produce an unequal, destructive, crisis-prone system. The book represents a distillation of Harvey’s 40-year study of Karl Marx, and in its own way a bid to change the conversation about what’s not working and what’s possible—especially when many have consigned Marx to history’s dustbin.

“I was tired of hearing Marx quoted in ways that struck me as completely wrong,” Harvey says in his office at CUNY, around the corner from the Empire State Building. “Who I am writing for is, in a sense, anybody who says, Who is this guy Marx? I wanted to make it simple enough so that people could get into it, without being simplistic.” [Continue reading...]

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Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing Big Oil to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth

Chris Hayes writes: In 2012, the writer and activist Bill McKibben published a heart-stopping essay in Rolling Stone titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” I’ve read hundreds of thousands of words about climate change over the last decade, but that essay haunts me the most.

The piece walks through a fairly straightforward bit of arithmetic that goes as follows. The scientific consensus is that human civilization cannot survive in any recognizable form a temperature increase this century more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Given that we’ve already warmed the earth about 0.8 degrees Celsius, that means we have 1.2 degrees left — and some of that warming is already in motion. Given the relationship between carbon emissions and global average temperatures, that means we can release about 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by mid-century. Total. That’s all we get to emit if we hope to keep inhabiting the planet in a manner that resembles current conditions.

Now here’s the terrifying part. The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a consortium of financial analysts and environmentalists, set out to tally the amount of carbon contained in the proven fossil fuel reserves of the world’s energy companies and major fossil fuel–producing countries. That is, the total amount of carbon we know is in the ground that we can, with present technology, extract, burn and put into the atmosphere. The number that the Carbon Tracker Initiative came up with is… 2,795 gigatons. Which means the total amount of known, proven extractable fossil fuel in the ground at this very moment is almost five times the amount we can safely burn.

Proceeding from this fact, McKibben leads us inexorably to the staggering conclusion that the work of the climate movement is to find a way to force the powers that be, from the government of Saudi Arabia to the board and shareholders of ExxonMobil, to leave 80 percent of the carbon they have claims on in the ground. That stuff you own, that property you’re counting on and pricing into your stocks? You can’t have it.

Given the fluctuations of fuel prices, it’s a bit tricky to put an exact price tag on how much money all that unexcavated carbon would be worth, but one financial analyst puts the price at somewhere in the ballpark of $20 trillion. So in order to preserve a roughly habitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world’s most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away from $20 trillion of wealth. Since all of these numbers are fairly complex estimates, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we’ve overestimated the total amount of carbon and attendant cost by a factor of 2. Let’s say that it’s just $10 trillion.

The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865 — and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought.

It is almost always foolish to compare a modern political issue to slavery, because there’s nothing in American history that is slavery’s proper analogue. So before anyone misunderstands my point, let me be clear and state the obvious: there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules. The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.

More acutely, when you consider the math that McKibben, the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) all lay out, you must confront the fact that the climate justice movement is demanding that an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say goodbye to trillions of dollars of wealth. It is impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition. [Continue reading...]

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The overwhelming power of money in American politics

Al Jazeera reports: It’s not just your imagination: The influence of money in politics has indeed drowned out the voices of American voters, a new analysis shows, with runaway corporate lobbying and a lack of campaign finance reform to blame for giving much more political weight to the wealthy.

Researchers at Princeton University and Northwestern University compared the public’s influence on 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, finding that more often than not, the interests of wealthy groups and individuals won out over the demands of the general public. For instance, when 80 percent of the public asked for a change of some sort, they got their way only about 43 percent of the time.

The study, its authors say, points to the overwhelming power of wealthy lobbying groups and individuals backing certain interests in American politics, and the marginalization of voters and public advocacy groups.

“I expected to find that ordinary Americans had a modest degree of influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups would serve to promote those interests,” Martin Gilens, a political scientist at Princeton and a co-author of the study, wrote in an email to Al Jazeera.

“What we found instead was that ordinary Americans have virtually no influence over government policy and that mass-based interest groups as a whole do not reliably side with the wishes of the average citizen.” [Continue reading...]

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Killing of environmental activists rises globally

The Associated Press reports: As head of his village, Prajob Naowa-opas battled to save his community in central Thailand from the illegal dumping of toxic waste by filing petitions and leading villagers to block trucks carrying the stuff — until a gunman in broad daylight fired four shots into him.

A year later, his three alleged killers, including a senior government official, are on trial for murder. The dumping has been halted and villagers are erecting a statue to their slain hero.

But the prosecution of Prajob’s murder is a rare exception. A survey released Tuesday — the first comprehensive one of its kind – says that only 10 killers of 908 environmental activists slain around the world over the past decade have been convicted.

The report by the London-based Global Witness, a group that seeks to shed light on the links between environmental exploitation and human rights abuses, says murders of those protecting land rights and the environment have soared dramatically. It noted that its toll of victims in 35 countries is probably far higher since field investigations in a number of African and Asian nations are difficult or impossible. [Continue reading...]

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