Tag: Economic inequality

The implications of inequality

What on earth has inequality to do with dogs!

A fair question one might think. Because this blog is primarily about what we humans should be learning from our dogs. Well, I do see a connection, a message of learning for us. Stay with me for a while.

But first, here’s how I open up Chapter 18 Sharing in my book – Learning from Dogs.

Here’s a silly story that made me laugh when I first came across it.

A man in a casino walks past three men and a dog playing poker.
“Wow!” he says, “That’s a very clever dog.“
“He’s not that clever,” replies one of the other players.
“Every time he gets a good hand he wags his tail.“

This clever dog couldn’t hide his happiness and had to share it by wagging his tail. OK, it was a little bit of fictional fun but we all recognise that inherent quality in our dogs, how they share so much of themselves in such an easy and natural fashion.

Now if one was being pedantic one would say that sharing is not the same as equality. Yet I see them as two separate seats in life’s common carriage.

Many lovers of dogs know that when they lived a life in the wild, slowly evolving from the grey wolf, they replicated, naturally, the pack characteristics of wolves. As in the pack size was around 25 to 30 animals. Yes, there was a hierarchy in the pack but that really only presented itself in the status of three animals: the female ‘alpha’ dog; the male ‘beta’ dog; the ‘omega’ dog that could be of either gender. Ninety percent of the pack were animals on equal standing. If only that was how we humans lived.

A few days ago there was an essay published on The Conversation blogsite under the title of Why poverty is not a personal choice, but a reflection of society.

It opened with this photograph.

A homeless camp in Los Angeles, where homelessness has risen 23 percent in the past year, in May 2017. AP Photo/Richard Vogel

Let me emphasize this: “A homeless camp in Los Angeles, where homelessness has risen 23 percent in the past year, in May 2017.”

Here are two small extracts from that article:

Research Investigator of Psychiatry, Public Health, and Poverty Solutions, University of Michigan


As someone who studies poverty solutions and social and health inequalities, I am convinced by the academic literature that the biggest reason for poverty is how a society is structured. Without structural changes, it may be very difficult if not impossible to eliminate disparities and poverty.


About 13.5 percent of Americans are living in poverty. Many of these people do not have insurance, and efforts to help them gain insurance, be it through Medicaid or private insurance, have been stymied. Medicaid provides insurance for the disabled, people in nursing homes and the poor.

Four states recently asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for permission to require Medicaid recipients in their states who are not disabled or elderly to work.

This request is reflective of the fact that many Americans believe that poverty is, by and large, the result of laziness, immorality and irresponsibility.

In yesterday’s post celebrating July 4th, where I shared that lovely picture sent to me by Neil Kelly from my Devon days, there was an exchange of comments between me and author Colin Chappell. Colin is the author of the book Who Said I Was Up For Adoption.

First, in response to Colin saying “That pic really says it all doesn’t it!”, I replied:

No question. Indeed, one might ‘read’ that picture at many levels. From the level of providing a smile for the day all the way through to a very profound observation on life itself.

Colin then replied to me:

I ‘ll go straight for the profound perspective! As I recently noted on another blog, I cannot recall anybody from history who became famous for their material possessions. In fact, I recently read an article written after an individual had surveyed a few thousand gravestones… and they drew the same conclusion. There was not a single epitaph which alluded to a material possession. Dogs know all that intuitively, so why does our superior (?) mind have trouble grasping such a simple perspective?

I then responded by saying that I thought it would make a fabulous introduction to today’s post. The heart of which I am now coming to.

Here in our local city, Grants Pass, there is a Freethinkers and Humanists group. They meet once a month. Jerry Reed from that group some time ago recommended to me reading the book The Spirit Level authored by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Jerry and I were exchanging emails in the last couple of days and he reminded me of that book.

There it was sitting on my bookshelf with a bookmark in at page 62. For reasons that escape me, I had become distracted and forgotten to stay with the book. Despite me being very interested in the proposition.

I said as much in an email reply to Jerry. He then replied to my email with this:

Hey, that happens to me a lot too, very frequently. So, I frequently settle for a video that might capture the essence of the book in considerably less time, while also maintaining my attention much better.

So, if you want a video about what Wilkinson has to say, here’s the one I recommend:

Here is that video. It is a little under 17 minutes long. Please watch it.

Published on Oct 24, 2011

http://www.ted.com We feel instinctively that societies with huge income gaps are somehow going wrong. Richard Wilkinson charts the hard data on economic inequality, and shows what gets worse when rich and poor are too far apart: real effects on health, lifespan, even such basic values as trust.

I haven’t got anything profound to say by way of closing today’s post.

But what I will say is that if our societies, especially in certain countries not a million miles from home, more closely emulated the sharing and caring that we see in our dogs then that really would be wonderful.

Image seen on this website: http://enlightendogs.com/about/testimonials-2/

Monbiot Unmasked

Another reposting of a Monbiot essay.

I’m preparing this post on Sunday; i.e. three days ago.  Reason is that my sister, Elizabeth, and friend, Merle, are arriving on Monday afternoon (as in two days ago) bringing us up to three guests in the house.  My mother leaves on tomorrow morning and then Elizabeth and Merle depart on Friday morning.  So for all the right reasons, Learning from Dogs is taking a backstage. Hence me doing as much as I can ahead of time.

In Monday’s post, The tracks we leave, towards the end I wrote, “The utter madness of mankind’s group blindness is beyond comprehension.” Many know that there is something very badly wrong with the way politics is operating today. Yet, at the same time, many intuitively know the political changes that mankind has to see if there is to be any chance of a sustainable future for mankind on this planet.

Thus George Monbiot’s essay published on the 29th July makes encouraging reading in the context of the growing confidence of the UK Green Party.  It is republished here with the kind permission of George Monbiot.

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Unmasked

July 29, 2014

The justifications for extreme inequality have collapsed. But only the Green Party is prepared to take the obvious step

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 30th July 2014

When inequality reaches extreme and destructive levels, most governments seek not to confront it but to accommodate it. Wherever wealth is absurdly concentrated, new laws arise to protect it.

In Britain, for example, successive governments have privatised any public asset which excites corporate greed. They have cut taxes on capital and high incomes. They have legalised new forms of tax avoidance (1). They have delivered exotic gifts like subsidised shotgun licences and the doubling of state support for grouse moors (2). And they have dug a legal moat around the charmed circle, criminalising, for example, the squatting of empty buildings (3) and most forms of peaceful protest (4). However grotesque inequality becomes, however closely the accumulation of inordinate wealth resembles legalised theft, political norms shift to defend it.

None of this should surprise you. The richer the elite becomes, and the more it has to lose, the greater the effort it makes to capture public discourse and the political system. It scarcely bothers to disguise its wholesale purchase of political parties, by means of an utterly corrupt and corrupting funding system (5,6). You can feel its grip not only on policy but also on the choice of parliamentary candidates and appointments to the cabinet. The very rich want people like themselves in power, which is why we have a government of millionaires (7).

But that describes only one corner of their influence. They fund lobby groups, thinktanks and economists to devise ever more elaborate justifications for their seizure of the nation’s wealth (8). These justifications are then amplified by the newspapers and broadcasters owned by the same elite.

Among the many good points Thomas Piketty makes in Capital in the 21st Century – his world-changing but surprisingly mild book – is that extreme inequality can be sustained politically only through an “apparatus of justification.” (9) If voters can be persuaded that insane levels of inequality are sane, reasonable and even necessary, then the concentration of income can keep growing. If they can’t, then either states are forced to act, or revolutions happen.

For the notion that inequalities must be justified sits at the heart of democracy. It is possible to accept that some can have much more than others if one of two conditions are met: either that they reached this position through the exercise of their unique and remarkable talent; or that this inequality is good for everyone. So the network of think tanks, economists and tame journalists must make these justifications plausible.

It’s a tough job. If wages reflect merit, why do they seem so arbitrary? Are the richest executives 50 or 100 times better at their jobs than their predecessors were in 1980? Are they 20 times more skilled and educated than the people immediately below them, even though they went to the same business schools? Are US executives several times as creative and dynamic as those in Germany? If so, why are their results so unremarkable?

It is, of course, all rubbish. What we see is not meritocracy at work at all, but a wealth grab by a nepotistic executive class which sets its own salaries, tests credulity with its ridiculous demands and discovers that credulity is an amenable customer. They must marvel at how they get away with it.

Moreover, as education and even (in the age of the intern) work becomes more expensive, the opportunities to enter the grabbers’ class diminish. The nations which pay the highest top salaries, such as the US and Britain, are also among the least socially mobile (10). Here, you inherit not only wealth but opportunity.

Aha, they say, but extreme wealth is good for all of us. All will be uplifted by their god’s invisible hand. Their creed is based on the Kuznet’s curve, the graph which appears to show that inequality automatically declines as capitalism advances, spreading wealth from the elite to the rest.

When Piketty took the trouble to update the curve, which was first proposed in 1955, he discovered that the redistribution it documented was an artefact of the peculiar circumstances of its time. Since then the concentration of wealth has reasserted itself with a vengeance (11). The reduction in inequality by 1955 was not an automatic and inherent feature of capitalism, but the result of two world wars, a great depression and the fierce response of governments to these disruptions.

For example, the top federal income tax rate in the US rose from 25% in 1932 to 94% in 1944. The average top rate throughout the years 1932 to 1980 was 81%. In the 1940s, the British government imposed a top income tax of 98% (12). The invisible hand? Hahaha. As these taxes were slashed by Reagan and Thatcher and the rest, inequality boomed once more, and is exploding today. This is why the neoliberals hate Piketty with such passion and poison: he has destroyed with data the two great arguments with which the apparatus of justification seeks to excuse the inexcusable.

So here we have a perfect opportunity for progressive parties: the moral and ideological collapse of the system of thought to which they were previously in thrall. What do they do? Avoid the opportunity like diphtheria. Cowed by the infrastructure of purchased argument, Labour fiddles and dithers (13).

But there is another party, which seems to have discovered the fire and passion that moved Labour so long ago: the Greens. Last week they revealed that their manifesto for the general election will propose a living wage, the renationalisation of the railways, a maximum pay ratio (no executive should receive more than 10 times the salary of the lowest paid worker), and, at the heart of their reforms, a wealth tax of the kind Piketty recommends (14).

Yes, it raises plenty of questions, but none of them are unanswerable, especially if this is seen as one step towards the ideal position: a global wealth tax, that treats capital equally, wherever it might lodge. Rough as this proposal is, it will start to challenge the political consensus and draw people who thought they had nowhere to turn. Expect the billionaires’ boot boys to start screaming, once they absorb the implications. And take their boos and jeers as confirmation that it’s onto something. You wanted a progressive alternative? You’ve got it.

www.monbiot.com

References:

1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/29/farcical-tax-system-cheating-billions-chase-avoiders

2. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/28/britain-plutocrats-landed-gentry-shotgun-owners

3. Clause 144, Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2012/10/section/144/enacted

4. http://www.monbiot.com/2011/03/29/the-freedom-swindle/

5. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jul/01/-sp-tory-summer-party-drew-super-rich-supporters-with-total-wealth-of-11bn

6. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/oct/29/capitalism-bankrolls-politics-pay-price

7. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/election/article-1280554/The-coalition-millionaires-23-29-member-new-cabinet-worth-1m–Lib-Dems-just-wealthy-Tories.html

8. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/17/millionaires-corporations-tax-breaks-sway-opinion

9. Thomas Piketty, 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press.

10. Thomas Piketty, as above.

11. Thomas Piketty, as above.

12. Thomas Piketty, as above.

13. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/28/supine-labour-lets-tories-daub-lipstick-pig-austerity

14. http://greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/Wealth%20Tax%20briefing%20July%202014.pdf

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Want to know some more about the UK Green Party?  Their website is here.

Patterns and ripples.

It’s not just the climate change that is unsustainable!

Early in yesterday’s post I wrote:

My post last Monday, The lure of patterns, appears to have resonated far and wide.  In the sense of many echoes reinforcing the perilous nature of our present times and the desperately uncertain decades ahead.  Tomorrow I shall be writing specifically about those echoes.

Those echoes, as I chose to call them, were kicked off by a recent item on the blog Economic Populist.  The item was called Maps of Economic Disaster and had some sickening information.  Such as:

Today 15% of Americans live in poverty.  Below is a county map showing the previous year’s poverty rate and we see once again the South has high concentrations.

povertymap

People are living on the edge.  People living in liquid asset poverty is a whopping 43.9%.  This means 132.1 million people lack the savings to cover basic expenses for three months if they lose their job, have a medical emergency or some other sort of crisis.  The below map** breaks down that percentage state by state.  Pretty much half the country is living on the edge, paycheck to paycheck.

** I’ve not included that map but it may be seen here.  However, I did want to republish the closing map.

Finally, the next map shows how income inequality has grown in United States over time.  The gini index is a measure of income inequality, the higher then index gets, the worse income inequality is. If there is ever a map which shows the the destruction of the U.S. middle class, it is this one.

[N.B. The following map is an automated GIF so just left-click on it to see the sequence.  That sequence is essentially a coloured graphical image of each year, from 1977 through to 2012.  Don’t struggle with it.  All you have to note are the changing colours.  More colours towards the green end of the spectrum indicate a worsening gini index, i.e. a worsening measure of income inequality. ]

Gini map

America is clearly in dire straights and the above maps it all out.  Why then has this government, this Congress not put wages and jobs as jobs #1 is a good question.  Why America hasn’t outright revolted, demanding this government do so is a better one.

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George Monbiot.
George Monbiot.

Let me now turn to George Monbiot, a British writer known for his environmental and political activism.  WikiPedia describes Mr. Monbiot, in part, as:

He lives in MachynllethWales, writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of a number of books, including Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (2000) and Bring on the Apocalypse: Six Arguments for Global Justice (2008). He is the founder of The Land is Ours, a peaceful campaign for the right of access to the countryside and its resources in the United Kingdom.

On his own website, he offers us this:

Here are some of the things I love: my family and friends, salt marshes, arguments, chalk streams, Russian literature, kayaking among dolphins, diversity of all kinds, rockpools, heritage apples, woods, fishing, swimming in the sea, gazpacho, ponds and ditches, growing vegetables, insects, pruning, forgotten corners, fossils, goldfinches, etymology, Bill Hicks, ruins, Shakespeare, landscape history, palaeoecology, Gavin and Stacey and Father Ted.

Here are some of the things I try to fight: undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, environmental destruction, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency.

Here is what I fear: other people’s cowardice.

There was a recent essay concerning the UK’s energy strategy posted by George Monbiot published in the Guardian on the 22nd October.  It is also on his website.

The essay opens, thus [my emphasis]:

Fiscal Meltdown

The government is betting the farm on a nuclear technology that might soon look as hip as the traction engine.

Seven years ago, I collected all the available cost estimates for nuclear power. The US Nuclear Energy Institute suggested a penny a kilowatt hour. The Royal Academy of Engineering confidently predicted 2.3p. The British government announced that in 2020 the price would be between 3 and 4p. The New Economics Foundation guessed that it could be anywhere between 3.4 and 8.3p. 8.3 pence was so far beyond what anyone else forecast that I treated it as scarcely credible. It falls a penny short of the price now agreed by the British government.

Mr. Monbiot’s essay concludes:

An estimate endorsed by the chief scientific adviser at the government’s energy department suggests that, if integral fast reactors were deployed, the UK’s stockpile of nuclear waste could be used to generate enough low-carbon energy to meet all UK demand for 500 years. These reactors would keep recycling the waste until hardly any remained: solving three huge problems – energy supply, nuclear waste and climate change – at once. Thorium reactors use an element that’s already extracted in large quantities as an unwanted by-product of other mining industries. They recycle their own waste, leaving almost nothing behind.

To build a plant at Hinkley Point which will still require uranium mining and still produce nuclear waste in 2063 is to commit to 20th-Century technologies through most of the 21st. In 2011 GE Hitachi offered to build a fast reactor to start generating electricity from waste plutonium and (unlike the Hinkley developers) to carry the cost if the project failed. I phoned the government on Monday morning to ask what happened to this proposal. I’m still waiting for an answer.

That global race the prime minister keeps talking about? He plainly intends to lose.

NB. I edited out the links to a comprehensive set of references to make the essay easier to read off the screen.  But all the facts reported by Mr. Monbiot may be seen here.

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Just two more or less random pieces of writing that have graced my ‘in-box’. Nothing scientific about my selection; just the sense that they are representative of the reams and reams of articles, essays and reports coming in on an almost daily basis from right across the world showing an ever-increasing credibility gap between the peoples of many nations and those who purport to serve those peoples in their respective Governments.

Frankly, I can’t even imagine how or when we will ‘transition’ out of this present period.  But one thing I am sure about. This schism between us, the people, and those who govern us is unsustainable!

Fascinating times! (I think!)

Need to go and hug a dog!

Come here, Hazel! I need some loving!
Come here, Hazel! I need some loving!

The lure of patterns.

Is this present era really coming to an end?

Somewhere in my aged brain cells is the memory of having heard that humans are great lovers of patterns.  In other words, patterns are deemed to be very important for the progress and evolution of homo sapiens.  Of course, it is not just humans who learn from patterns; I’m sure most of the animals who live around us are great pattern matchers.  To support that proposition, anyone who has owned a dog or cat will have spotted how quickly they learn patterns.  (As an aside, some months ago our puppy German Shepherd, Cleo, work me at around 4am because she needed to go outside for a ‘call of nature’.  I now get woken every single night variously between 2am and 5am for Cleo’s benefit!)

The British mathematician G. H. Hardy who lived from the last quarter of the 19th Century well into the 20th Century, reputedly said (and I cheated and looked it up!):

A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.

So why has this post opened with the theme of patterns?  Because, call it coincidence or what, within the last couple of weeks there have been three articles, each from very a different source, predicting that the present levels of inequality in society are both unsustainable and the beginning of the end.

First, on Michael Robert’s blog there was a post eleven days ago about global wealth inequality. From which I quote:

Global wealth inequality: top 1% own 41%; top 10% own 86%; bottom half own just 1%

—–

Just 8.4% of all the 5bn adults in the world own 83.4% of all household wealth (that’s property and financial assets, like stocks, shares and cash in the bank).  About 393 million people have net worth (that’s wealth after all debt is accounted for) of over $100,000, that’s 10% own 86% of all household wealth!  But $100,000 may not seem that much, if you own a house in any G7 country without any mortgage.  So many millions in the UK or the US are in the top 10% of global wealth holders.  This shows just how little two-thirds of adults in the world have – under $10,000 of net wealth each and billions have nothing at all.

This is not annual income but just wealth – in other words, 3.2bn adults own virtually nothing at all.  At the other end of the spectrum, just 32m people own $98trn in wealth or 41% of all household wealth or more than $1m each.  And just 98,700 people with ‘ultra-high net worth’ have more than $50 million each and of these 33,900 are worth over $100 million each.  Half of these super-rich live in the US.

Michael Robert’s essay closes:

All class societies have generated extremes of inequality in wealth and income.  That is the point of a rich elite (whether feudal landlords, Asiatic warlords, Incan and Egyptian religious castes, Roman slave owners, etc) usurping control of the surplus produced by labour.  But past class societies considered that normal and ‘god-given’. Capitalism on the other hand talks about free markets, equal exchange and equality of opportunity.  But the reality is no different from previous class societies.

Secondly, just last Friday I was drawn to an essay on, of all places, The Permaculture Research Institute blog.  The essay, by Chris Hedges (**), was called On Inequality and the Collapse of Globalization.  Chris Hedges opened his essay, thus:

The uprisings in the Middle East, the unrest that is tearing apart nations such as the Ivory Coast, the bubbling discontent in Greece, Ireland and Britain and the labor disputes in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio presage the collapse of globalization. They presage a world where vital resources, including food and water, jobs and security, are becoming scarcer and harder to obtain. They presage growing misery for hundreds of millions of people who find themselves trapped in failed states, suffering escalating violence and crippling poverty. They presage increasingly draconian controls and force—take a look at what is being done to Pfc. Bradley Manning—used to protect the corporate elite who are orchestrating our demise.

We must embrace, and embrace rapidly, a radical new ethic of simplicity and rigorous protection of our ecosystem—especially the climate—or we will all be holding on to life by our fingertips. We must rebuild radical socialist movements that demand that the resources of the state and the nation provide for the welfare of all citizens and the heavy hand of state power be employed to prohibit the plunder by the corporate power elite. We must view the corporate capitalists who have seized control of our money, our food, our energy, our education, our press, our health care system and our governance as mortal enemies to be vanquished.

The PRI editor’s preamble to the Chris Hedges essay included a couple of videos that he recommended watching.  One was a talk by Robert Reich: How Unequal Can America Get Before We Snap?

The other one was a recent TED Talk by Richard Wilkinson (his profile is here).

Mr. Wilkinson explains that for the majority of people there is an instinctive feeling that societies with huge income gaps and corresponding high levels of social inequality are somehow going wrong. He charts the hard data on such economic inequality and shows what gets worse when rich and poor are too far apart: ergo, the very real effects on health, lifespan, and even such basic values as trust.

Just 16 minutes long, it’s a very revealing talk.  Do watch it.

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The final, third piece of the pattern was me coming across an essay on the blog DeflationLand, not a blog I had come across before, on the same day that I saw the PRI article.  This essay, published just two days before the PRI article, was about patterns; the patterns of the centuries.  More specifically, how the characteristics of a century generally evolve to a new culture within the first 10 to 15 years of the following century.  It was a most interesting proposition and, to my delight, I was given permission to republish that essay here on Learning from Dogs.  So here it is.

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Why I stopped worrying and learned to love the currency collapse

For the past 300 years, the historical pattern has been for the era marked by a century to continue into the following century by fourteen or fifteen years. Let me explain.  Everyone knows that the 19th Century, its uprightness, its optimism and sense of purpose, the halcyon days of British Empire, came to an end with World War I, starting in 1914 and building to a nasty crescendo by 1916.  The 20th Century had arrived, and it had some real horrors in store for us.

Germans before Kraftwerk
Germans before Kraftwerk

But if we return back another hundred years, we notice that the 18th Century ends in 1815 with the final defeat of Napoleon, that final project of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution.  With the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, we have a new Europe along the lines of Metternich’s plan, and the 19th Century at last is here.

"Sorry, guys.  My bad."
“Sorry, guys. My bad.”

In 1713 and 1714, we have the Treaties of Utrecht, Baden, and Rastatt, bringing an end to the era of Spain as a major power, and the rise of the Habsburgs.  Louis XIV dies in 1715, after reigning for 72 years.  The Baroque period is over, and we are now firmly in the 18th Century.

War of Spanish Succession
War of Spanish Succession

We still live in the 20th Century.  Nothing much significant has changed in our lives in the past twenty years.  Symptoms of a deeper rot are appearing here and there, foreshadowing a larger crisis, but the crisis itself has not arrived yet.  We still live in an era of Pax Americana, the old republic very much a strained and tired Empire now, with the U.S. Dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

That is going to change.

The next task for History is to dismantle the untenable structures and institutions put in place by late Modernity, which have been extended now as far as they can go.  Our debt-based monetary system will collapse, our unbacked fiats will be worthless.  The debts and unmeetable obligations will all default.

There are ironies and great contradictions as the former home and hope of Liberty becomes viciously unfree and increasingly despotic.  Our leaders no longer govern, but try instead to rule us — they are less legitimate with each passing day, their laws corrupt or worse.  They are nearly finished, and will be swept away with the tide.

Just as in 1914, the internationalist system will break down, dashing the hopes of the would-be first-world nations.  We will probably have a pretty good war as well, or many local ones worldwide.  These transitions tend to involve war.

Deflation first — it clears the way for the complete loss of faith and hyperinflation that will follow.  The next big wave down in the financial markets is the battering ram.  The U.S. national debt is about faith, so is quantitative easing, and so is the very idea of magical coins that could ever be “worth” a trillion dollars.  When this faith breaks, in concert with loss of faith in perpetual growth and unlimited cheap energy, then things will move very, very quickly.

There is nothing any of us can do at this point, except navigate the rapids as well as possible, and to stay out of the way of a dying empire, which is still very dangerous in its death throes.  We are actually very privileged to be alive and witnessing this next transition, to what we do not know just yet.  But what an honor to live at this time, not in ignorance but with an existential resolve to come out of it alive and much the wiser.

Ass Americana.
Ass Americana.

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** Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning author and former international correspondent for the New York Times. His latest book is The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.

I am neither a scientist nor a historian; just someone who has lived in and observed the world for coming on for 60 years.

So you have to understand that my prediction is hardly worth the ‘paper I write upon’ (which certainly dates me!).  But, undaunted, here are my predictions for the 21st Century:

  • That the power of internet communications will allow more people, more quickly, to find their soul-mates wherever they are on this planet.
  • That the realisation of how dysfunctional many Governments are, of how truly poorly they serve the majorities of their citizens, will lead to mass rejections of these so-called Governments’ policies.  Such rejections predominantly peaceful, as in taking the horse to water but being unable to make it drink.
  • That there will be a new form of localism.  At two levels.  Literally, people geographically close to each other creating 21st C. versions of local communities.  Virtually, those local communities linking to other like-minded communities right across the world resulting in highly effective and innovative learning, accelerated common-sense, (call it wisdom if you wish), and extraordinarily efficient and sustainable ways of living on this planet.

What do you think?

This is not ‘rocket science’!

We all live on one, finite, planet.  Full stop!

When putting together the short item for yesterday, Sunday, I was taken by the power of such simple concepts as beauty, harmony, love, the natural world.  Then I came across an article published by Tom Engelhardt, of TomDispatch fame, a little over two weeks ago.  It was a guest essay by Chip Ward and is reproduced below.

Learning from Dogs is about integrity.  In the sense that dogs, both literally and metaphorically, offer mankind an alternative, and more integrous, way of living.  As I wrote in one of the background items to Learning from Dogs, over two years ago,

Because of this closeness between dogs and man, we (as in man!) have the ability to observe the way they live.  Now I’m sure that scientists would cringe with the idea that the way that a dog lives his life sets an example for us humans, well cringe in the scientific sense.  But man seems to be at one of those defining stages in mankind’s evolution where the forces bearing down on the species homo sapiens have the potential to cause very great harm.  If the example of dogs can provide a beacon of hope, a incentive to change at a deep cultural level, then the quicker we ‘get the message’, the better it will be.

Dogs:

  • are integrous ( a score of 210) according to Dr David Hawkins
  • don’t cheat or lie
  • don’t have hidden agendas
  • are loyal and faithful
  • forgive
  • love unconditionally
  • value and cherish the ‘present’ in a way that humans dream of achieving
  • are, by eons of time, a more successful species than man.

So with those thoughts in mind, please read Chip’s essay as published on TomDispatch.  It is reproduced with the written permission of Tom Engelhardt

Someone Got Rich and Someone Got Sick
Nature Is the 99%, Too
By Chip Ward

What if rising sea levels are yet another measure of inequality? What if the degradation of our planet’s life-support systems — its atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere — goes hand in hand with the accumulation of wealth, power, and control by that corrupt and greedy 1% we are hearing about from Zuccotti Park?  What if the assault on America’s middle class and the assault on the environment are one and the same?

Money Rules: It’s not hard for me to understand how environmental quality and economic inequality came to be joined at the hip.  In all my years as a grassroots organizer dealing with the tragic impact of degraded environments on public health, it was always the same: someone got rich and someone got sick.

In the struggles that I was involved in to curb polluters and safeguard public health, those who wanted curbs, accountability, and precautions were always outspent several times over by those who wanted no restrictions on their effluents.  We dug into our own pockets for postage money, they had expense accounts.  We made flyers to slip under the windshield wipers of parked cars, they bought ads on television.  We took time off from jobs to visit legislators, only to discover that they had gone to lunch with fulltime lobbyists.

Naturally, the barons of the chemical and nuclear industries don’t live next to the radioactive or toxic-waste dumps that their corporations create; on the other hand, impoverished black and brown people often do live near such ecological sacrifice zones because they can’t afford better.  Similarly, the gated communities of the hyper-wealthy are not built next to cesspool rivers or skylines filled with fuming smokestacks, but the slums of the planet are. Don’t think, though, that it’s just a matter of property values or scenery.  It’s about health, about whether your kids have lead or dioxins running through their veins.  It’s a simple formula, in fact: wealth disparities become health disparities.

And here’s another formula: when there’s money to be made, both workers and the environment are expendable.  Just as jobs migrate if labor can be had cheaper overseas, I know workers who were tossed aside when they became ill from the foul air or poisonous chemicals they encountered on the job.

The fact is: we won’t free ourselves from a dysfunctional and unfair economic order until we begin to see ourselves as communities, not commodities.  That is one clear message from Zuccotti Park.

Polluters routinely walk away from the ground they poison and expect taxpayers to clean up after them.  By “externalizing” such costs, profits are increased.  Examples of land abuse and abandonment are too legion to list, but most of us can refer to a familiar “superfund site” in our own backyard.  Clearly, Mother Nature is among the disenfranchised, exploited, and struggling.

Democracy 101: The 99% pay for wealth disparity with lost jobs, foreclosed homes, weakening pensions, and slashed services, but Nature pays, too.  In the world the one-percenters have created, the needs of whole ecosystems are as easy to disregard as, say, the need the young have for debt-free educations and meaningful jobs.

Extreme disparity and deep inequality generate a double standard with profound consequences.  If you are a CEO who skims millions of dollars off other people’s labor, it’s called a “bonus.”  If you are a flood victim who breaks into a sporting goods store to grab a lifejacket, it’s called looting.  If you lose your job and fall behind on your mortgage, you get evicted.  If you are a banker-broker whodesigned flawed mortgages that caused a million people to lose their homes, you get a second-home vacation-mansion near a golf course.

If you drag heavy fishnets across the ocean floor and pulverize an entire ecosystem, ending thousands of years of dynamic evolution and depriving future generations of a healthy ocean, it’s called free enterprise.  But if, like Tim DeChristopher, you disrupt an auction of public land to oil and gas companies, it’s called a crime and you get two years in jail.

In campaigns to make polluting corporations accountable, my Utah neighbors and I learned this simple truth: decisions about what to allow into the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat are soon enough translated into flesh and blood, bone and nerve, and daily experience.  So it’s crucial that those decisions, involving environmental quality and public health, are made openly, inclusively, and accountably.  That’s Democracy 101.

The corporations that shred habitat and contaminate your air and water are anything but democratic.  Stand in line to get your 30 seconds in front of a microphone at a public hearing about the siting of a nuclear power plant, the effluent from a factory farm, or the removal of a mountaintop and you’ll get the picture quickly enough: the corporations that profit from such ecological destruction are distant, arrogant, secretive, and unresponsive.  The 1% are willing to spend billions impeding democratic initiatives, which is why every so-called environmental issue is also about building a democratic culture.

First Kill the EPA, Then Social Security: Beyond all the rhetoric about freedom from the new stars of the Republican Party, the strategy is simple enough: obstruct and misinform, then blame the resulting dysfunction on “government.”  It’s a great scam.  Tell the voters that government doesn’t work and then, when elected, prove it.  And first on the list of government outfits they want to sideline or kill is the Environmental Protection Agency, so they can do away with the already flimsy wall of regulation that stands between their toxins and your bloodstream.

Poll after poll shows that citizens understand the need for environmental rules and safeguards.  Mercury is never put into the bloodstreams of nursing mothers by consensus, nor are watersheds fracked until they are flammable by popular demand.  But the free market ideologues of the Republican Party are united in opposition to any rule or standard that impedes the “magic” of the marketplace and unchecked capital.

The same bottom-line quarterly-report fixation on profitability that accepts oil spills as inevitable also accepts unemployment as inevitable. Tearing apart wildlife habitat to make a profit and doing the same at a workplace are just considered the price of doing business. Clearcutting a forest and clearcutting a labor force are two sides of the same coin.

Beware of Growth: Getting the economy growing has been the refrain of the Obama administration and the justification for every bad deal, budget cut, and unbalanced compromise it’s made.  The desperate effort to grow the economy to solve our economic woes is what keeps Timothy Geithner at the helm of the Treasury and is what stalls the regulation of greenhouse gasses.  It’s why we are told we must sacrifice environmental quality for pipelines and why young men and women are sacrificed to protect access to oil, the lubricant for an acquisitive economic engine.  The financial empire of the one percenters and the political order it has shaped are predicated on easy and relentless growth.  How, we are asked, will there be enough for everyone if we don’t keep growing?

The fundamental contradiction of our time is this: we have built an all-encompassing economic engine that requires unending growth.  A contraction of even a percent or two is a crisis, and yet we are embedded in ecosystems that are reaching or have reached their limits.  This isn’t complicated: There’s only so much fertile soil or fresh water available, only so many fish in the ocean, only so much CO2 the planet can absorb and remain habitable.

Yes, you can get around this contradiction for a while by exploiting your neighbor’s habitat, using technological advances to extend your natural resources, and stealing from the future — that is, using up soil, minerals, and water your grandchildren (someday to be part of that same 99%) will need.  But the limits to those familiar and, in the past, largely successful strategies are becoming more evident all the time.

At some point, we’ll discover that you can’t exist for long beyond the boundaries of the natural world, that (as with every other species) if you overload the carrying capacity of your habitat, you crash.  Warming temperatures, chaotic weather patterns, extreme storms, monster wildfiresepic droughtsBiblical floods, anavalanche of species extinction… that collapse is upon us now.  In the human realm, it translates into hunger and violence, mass migrations and civil strife, failed states and resource wars.

Like so much else these days, the crash, as it happens, will not be suffered in equal measure by all of us.  The one percenters will be atop the hill, while the 99% will be in the flood lands below swimming for their lives, clinging to debris, or drowning. The Great Recession has previewed just how that will work.

An unsustainable economy is inherently unfair, and worse is to come.  After all, the car is heading for the cliff’s edge, the grandkids are in the backseat, and all we’re arguing about is who can best put the pedal to the metal.

Occupy Earth: Give credit where it’s due: it’s been the genius of the protesters in Zuccotti Park to shift public discourse to whether the distribution of economic burdens and rewards is just and whether the economic system makes us whole or reduces and divides us.  It’s hard to imagine how we’ll address our converging ecological crises without first addressing the way accumulating wealth and power has captured the political system.  As long as Washington is dominated and intimidated by giant oil companies, Wall Street speculators, and corporations that can buy influence and even write the rules that make buying influence possible, there’s no meaningful way to deal with our economy’s addiction to fossil fuels and its dire consequences.

Nature’s 99% is an amazingly diverse community of species.  They feed and share and recycle within a web of relationships so dynamic and complex that we have yet to fathom how it all fits together.  What we have excelled at so far is breaking things down into their parts and then reassembling them; that, after all, is how a barrel of crude oil becomes rocket fuel or a lawn chair.

When it comes to the more chaotic, less linear features of life like climate, ecosystems, immune systems, or fetal development, we are only beginning to understand thresholds and feedback loops, the way the whole becomes greaterthan the sum of its parts.  But we at least know that the parts matter deeply and that, before we even fully understand them, we’re losing them at an accelerating rate.  Forests are dying, fisheries are going, extinction is on steroids.

Degrading the planet’s operating systems to bolster the bottom line is foolish and reckless.  It hurts us all.  No less important, it’s unfair.  The 1% profit, while the rest of us cough and cope.

After Occupy Wall Street, isn’t it time for Occupy Earth?

Chip Ward co-founded and led Families Against Incinerator Risk and HEAL Utah. A TomDispatch regular, he wrote about campaigns to make polluters accountable in Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and about visionary conservationists in Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land.

Copyright 2011 Chip Ward

Words fail one

Income inequality, when it becomes excessive, is very corrosive to a society.

This is clearly a complex subject because one man’s excess is another man’s just reward for building a successful business that employs his fellow citizens.

Nonetheless, I do want to touch on this sensitive area because, to my mind, they are connected with the tragic story that is the point of this article.

But first, a couple of quotes from an article by Prof. G. William Domhoff of the Sociology Department of the University of California at Santa Cruz.  It was entitled Wealth, Income, Power.

This document presents details on the wealth and income distributions in the United States, and explains how we use these two distributions as power indicators.

Some of the information may come as a surprise to many people. In fact, I know it will be a surprise and then some, because of a recent study (Norton & Ariely, 2010) showing that most Americans (high income or low income, female or male, young or old, Republican or Democrat) have no idea just how concentrated the wealth distribution actually is.

Later on, Prof. Domhoff writes:

The Wealth Distribution

In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.7%. Table 1 and Figure 1 present further details drawn from the careful work of economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2010).

That table and the whole article is powerful and a well-worth reading. Read it here.

Stay with me a little longer.  Here’s an extract from an article from Nicholos Kristof of the New York Times written in November last year.

Nicholas Kristof

In my reporting, I regularly travel to banana republics notorious for their inequality. In some of these plutocracies, the richest 1 percent of the population gobbles up 20 percent of the national pie.

But guess what? You no longer need to travel to distant and dangerous countries to observe such rapacious inequality. We now have it right here at home — and in the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, it may get worse.

The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. As Timothy Noah of Slate noted in an excellent series on inequality, the United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana.

C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

By the way, Kristof has his own blog site and added material from him about this topic and readers’ comments are here.

Now to the core of this article on Learning from Dogs which, I passionately believe, is closely tied in to the background theme already expressed here.  It’s from the blogsite Corrente and, once again, I am indebted to Naked Capitalism for having it in a recent set of links.

It concerns Jack, his family and their house.

The House that Jack’s Bank Took

Jack was a friendly man, who always had a pleasant word and a smile and handshake for everyone. The men hung with him at barbeques and discussed sports. He was strong, had a belly, and always wore a baseball cap. He was married to his high school sweetheart, Mary. He was good to his 4 kids and took care of his oldest child when he had a breakdown in his early twenties. He went to all school and family events and encouraged his children in their dreams. He took care of the family needs and finances. He was a small business owner and had invented his product, which a short while ago became outmoded. He always decorated the house with lots of Christmas decorations and candles. They are still up. He lost his house to foreclosure and the family was given 3 days to move out.

He drove into the deep woods and drank poison to make sure he was dead. I knew him. My family knew him; he lived within walking distance of one of us. At his funeral his childhood sweetheart and their children told a lot of Jack stories. The family did their best to resurrect him to our eyes. One of his kids sang and the eldest read a poem he’d written. Mary said she didn’t know what she was going to do and that she would now have to rely on those from town sitting in the packed chapel pews. There are other houses nearby that haven’t been foreclosed on but Jack’s house was nice and had a good view. The bank has now given Mary 3 weeks to move out.

It was written on the 15th February, 2011; you can read it here.  Click on the link and read some of the comments expressed – very powerful.

Wish I could think of something apt to say but I can’t.  All I can feel is great sadness and a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that this ‘Jack’ story is being echoed in many other places.

Fairness in society

Very difficult times ahead but a fairer social order could be one outcome.

As is so often the case, a number of different lines of thought come together once again to highlight the pressures on society and my belief that we are in the ‘zone of change’ between the last 40 or 50 years and what is ahead for western societies.  There is no question that these are very difficult times as, I presume, all phases of change have been over many centuries.

On the 28th October there was a Post on Learning from Dogs about the recent book from Will Hutton, Them and Us.  That book masterfully articulates the core issues in British society arising out of some fundamental economic policy errors and the very difficult times that are being experienced right now.

The British are a lost tribe – disoriented, brooding and suspicious. They have lived through the biggest bank bail-out in history and the deepest recession since the 1930s, and they are now being warned that they face a decade of unparalleled public and private austerity.

As if to underline the fact that the economic situation is far from recovery, despite what is being promoted, here’s a recent article from Washington’s Blog. Almost impossible to take an extract that conveys the essence of this powerful (and scary) article – so just go here and read it.  Or if you haven’t the time here’s a taste:

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 27, 2010

It’s Not Just the “Peripheral” European Countries … Financial Contagion Could Spread to “Core” Eurozone Countries and the U.S.

CNN notes:

Americans will not be spared if there’s a recession in Europe, even if U.S. bank exposure to European government debt is relatively limited.

SNIP

The European Union is the second largest market for U.S. exports, behind only Canada. The EU bought about $175 billion in U.S. goods in the first three quarters of this year. That’s up about 8% from a year ago.

So worsening problems in Europe will clearly be a drag on the U.S. as well.
Niall Ferguson, Marc Faber, and SocGen’s Edwards and Grice predicted 9 months ago that the European debt crisis would eventually spread to America.

But the question of what country the “contagion” might spread to next is really the wrong question altogether.

The real question is whether the wealth of the people around the world will continue to be shoveled into the bottomless pit of debts held by the big banks, or whether the people will prevail and the giant banks and bondholders will be forced to take a haircut. See thisthis and this.

So back to the issue of fairness.  There is no escaping the consequences, still playing out, of the ‘spend now, pay tomorrow’ culture of the last 30 or 40 years so then the main issue is how do we mitigate the consequences for those who are most exposed to some of less prettier aspects of modern life.  Ponder on that question while you read this recent piece from Open Democracy.

Fairness and the cost of life for the poor in Britain

Brian Landers26 November 2010

Most Britons had “never had it so good” despite the “so-called recession” declared Lord Young of Graffham.  His words were immediately disowned by David Cameron, who fired him. But in reality Young was only articulating what he and his circle are experiencing and privately believe.

For example, on the BBC’s Sunday morning Broadcasting House on 21 November, Lord Charles Powell who was Margaret Thatcher’s advisor, complained, “unfortunately he said the wrong thing. In terms of fact what he said was probably right, with interests rates low people are not particularly badly off at the moment. But some people are very badly off and it is insensitive, I suppose, to suggest that everyone is not doing too badly at this time. It does show that you can’t speak the truth in politics anymore you have to defer to what is politically correct”.

Well, there is another truth: that for thousands of pensioners and not just “some” of them, negative real interest rates on their savings are becoming a disaster. Even though for the heavily mortgaged wealthy, low interest rates do indeed make them much better off.

What Young’s comments illustrate, therefore, is that when we consider equality and inequality we need to look at expenditure patterns, which can be just as important as differences in income.

Historically debates on social equality focus overwhelmingly and inevitably on inequalities of income. We read, for example, that according to a study by Incomes Data Services chief executives of the UK’s 100 largest companies are now paid on average 88 times the pay of typical full-time workers and that this ratio is getting worse. Last year the multiple was 81 times and ten years ago top bosses took home 47 times the average wage.

But in addition to their income being a lot lower the poor also suffer more because life costs them more. There are two issues, one obvious, one less so.

The primary issue is one of fairness. Three for the price of two supermarket offers are great value only for those who can afford to buy two; those who can only afford one end up paying 50% more per unit. Is that fair?

Another supermarket example which received widespread but soon-forgotten newspaper coverage earlier this year is more subtle. Tesco owns three convenience store brands in this country: Tesco Express, Tesco Metro and One Stop. An enquiry in 2006 found that the corporation was charging more than 20% more for the same products in its One Stop stores than in its Tesco branded stores. Tesco responded that it was bringing prices down in One Stop but in 2010 further research showed that One Stop prices were still 14% higher than prices for the same product in the rest of Tesco. One Stop typically operated in less attractive (that is poorer) areas where there was no competition from other mega-corporations and where therefore significantly higher prices could be charged. Again that raises issues of fairness.

If such unfairness is somehow familiar there is a further layer that goes beyond fairness: we live in a society where in many tiny ways the poor actually subsidise the better off through the way patterns of expenditure are organised by the market place, (i.e., not just by providing cheap labour).

Consider for example the cost of owning a car.  Bernard Jullien of the University of Bordeaux analysed published data on household expenditure and trade data from car distributors (See Competition and Change 6, 2002). He showed that richer consumers were being cross-subsidised by poorer consumers. Distributors in France (and almost certainly elsewhere) were following a conscious policy of keeping new car prices lower to increase their market share. Then then marked up the prices of spare parts and maintenance to maintain their overall profit levels. Jullien found that the unintended consequence was that well off customers, who were more likely to buy new cars, ended up being subsidised by less well off customers who typically bought second hand cars that needed more frequent repair.

There are more examples if the term “well off” is extended to include corporations. The cost of producing and distributing the electricity needed to power a light bulb is the same whether the bulb is in a private house or in the office of a mega-corporation – and yet the corporation will undoubtedly pay far less. Quantity discounts typically reflect the purchasing power of the buyer rather than any scale economies for the seller.

What are apparently rational pricing strategies have the unintended consequence of ensuring that poor people pay more than the well off in ensuring the overall profits corporations need.

Then there is time. Time budget surveys have shown, for example, that the poor take much longer per mile to get to work than the rich because the forms of transport they use are typically much slower. Similarly the poor have to devote more time to food shopping and a host of other activities.

There is nothing conspiratorial about the way that the poor fare worse than the rich. Often it is just the accidental by-product of perfectly sensible business decisions. Indeed in some cases there may even be wider social benefits. Improved stock control with Just-In-Time inventory techniques and Call-Off procurement contracts has ensured that waste in many industries has been sharply reduced; it is unfortunate that in food retailing one consequence is that end-of-day price reductions on perishable products are now less common, again hurting the poor more than the rich.

What can be done to mitigate these expenditure inequalities? First, they deserve to be highlighted, if only because, like so much else, they are beyond the experience of the multimillionaires in and around the cabinet. Second, and especially if we are going to talk about Big Society and us being ‘all in it together’, we need to think about economic models that build into their measures of success their consequences for all of us.

[Published with the permission of Brian Landers and openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.]

By Paul Handover