Nightmares of Moloch

Do you ever read the New York Times? Lately there seems to be a running theme through some of the editorials. And that theme is: you, Mr. Middle Class Consumer, are just not spending enough money. You’re saving money, and saving money is bad. Spend! Spend now! Never mind flat real wages, high levels of existing debt, and an uncertain future. It’s up to you to save American capitalism. Without your spending we can’t economic growth, and without growth, we can’t make enough new jobs. Exactly where these new jobs are coming from is uncertain, when “free trade” continues to close American factories and corporate investment is mainly in ways to eliminate staff.
I’m not feeling very optimistic. I suppose I shouldn’t really feel too bad. I mean, my personal situation is okay. We have a nice little house we can afford, no other debt, some savings, decent jobs, food. I should be able to say, well, I’m good, so fuck y’all. But I can’t. The future is always uncertain, but today seems even a little murkier than usual. I’m old enough to remember the days when we wondered if today was the day the bombs were gonna fall and vaporize us all.
But now, instead of facing the spectre of Soviet invasion we face an internal security apparatus of a size and scope that would make the KGB blush with envy. Today’s Committee on State Security would like you know that all will be well as long as you continue to shop for mass-produced consumer goods in your malls and big-box retailers and online with Amazon. Can’t sell your house? Might as well remodel the kitchen! Just don’t step out of line or complain.
Is it paranoid to feel anxiety today? Clearly, I’m not the only one feeling that something has gone badly off the rails. We may not all agree on the causes or the solutions, but we’re all feeling the heat. Well, most of us, anyway. Some, not so much. When MF Global went bankrupt after “misappropriating segregated client funds” was the staff pepper sprayed by cops in riot gear? It seems like the events of the last few weeks could hardly be more demonstrative of the two sets of rules that operate in our society. Either you are a member of the protected class or it’s the boot in the face forever.
Not that this is an especially new phenomenon. It’s one of the oldest stories in the history of human civilization. For as long as we’ve had notions of wealth and political power, the holders of the wealth and power have used force to maintain the concentration of wealth. Even in nominally socialist societies where material wealth was limited, whatever was available tended to go to the aristocracy, while the commoners were restricted.
I, personally, do not expect this to change, at least not suddenly in my lifetime. People get pushed too far and rise up, and sometime are successful in pulling down their oppresors, but eventually the wealth and power reconstitutes into a malignant force, like Butch Patrick in Terminator 3. We’re wired with a tendency to be possesive, and we’ve never found a particularly practical way to govern society without, you know, governing it. So as satisfying as it might seem at the time, just putting the bastards up against the wall with a last cigarette and a blindfold doesn’t really help you all that much in the long run.
Does this mean that there is no hope for any kind of justice? That actual individuals who committed actual crimes will face some actual punishment commensurate with those crimes? A couple of years ago, President Obama signed an executive order to form the Interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, to, you might think, investigate financial fraud. Now, you’d think the past decade or so, with fraud apparently rampant and widespread, from brokers fudging loan documents all the way up to the latest robosigning scandal and Goldman Sachs and Citibank arranging billion-dollar deals with one client to screw another client, that this task force would be operating in a target-rich environment and we’d be seeing record levels of fraud prosecutions, but no. In fact, prosecutions continue to drop in number.
Perusing through the reports of the Task Force and the items listed on StopFraud.gov web site, it is apparent that most of the cases involve petty thieves and con artists. As, for instance, a realtor who participated in a loan-fraud scheme to funnel mortgage funds into his own pockets by faking loan papers with the help of straw buyers. Now, these people are real crooks and should go to jail, but they’re isolated incidents. They’re not directly connected to the systemic problems in the finance industry. Corporate malfeasance is treated differently. There may be investigations and negotiations of a settlement. A fine with no admission of wrongdoing. A fine usually smaller than the profits on the crime. Though recently, the judge in charge of overseeing the SEC’s wristslap of Citibank has decided he’s had enough of their (the SEC’s) bullshit and is calling them on it. But even that is unlikely to result in any individual at Citi having to take any responsibility for actions, or to change Citi’s corporate behavior.
It’ll be interesting to see how the MF Global failure is handled–if any individuals or even top dogs like Corzine get criminal trials. It appears that MF Global didn’t even go through the motions of setting up dodgy deals to rip off clients, they just grabbed the money out of client accounts. Even the investor class is upset about this one. No honor among thieves, and all that, I guess.
So I’m not feeling like I want to be particularly cooperative with requests to shop till I drop. As I write this, we’re on the eve of our annual orgy of consumer excess, Black Friday, the “official” beginning of the Christmas Holiday Shopping Season. Time to go to Macy’s and Walmart and Best Buy to pick up the latest iteration of electronic bumblepuppy from a factory in China. Well, fuck it. The road to hell is paved with iPods.

Occupation Forces

Have you been thinking about the Occupy Wall Street movement? I have. I consider myself a fellow traveller with the cause, to the extent that I can claim to understand it. Some are bothered by the diffuse nature of the protests, that there is not a single unifying “message” or demand. I am not. The issues protesters are raising are many and inconsistent. This is fine. The issues are complex and many points of view are needed to be aired. The only real commonality is the general idea that “Wall Street” (that is, the financial industry) has just fucked everybody, taken the loot and gone home, and that those who hold the levers of political power—our elected representatives and various government agencies—are not only not helping us, but having been actively helping Wall Street get away with blatantly criminal activity. Perhaps we are not in perfect agreement on everything but we know that we have been cheated, and we know who has done it to us.

So people are turning to streets, because there is nowhere else to go. What is the point of making demands, organizing politically, when most of the political institutions are playing for the other team? The Obama administration is not going to help us. The Fed is not going to help us. The corporate news media is not going to help us. The Department of Justice is not going to help us. The political parties are not going to help us.

Which means that it is up to us to help ourselves. We have to take the anger and channel it into practical ideas that we can actually implement in our daily lives, today. We can’t wait for there to be policy changes, we can’t wait for the revolution to come. Those things may never come. Unlike Harold Camping, I don’t think Jeebus is flying down out of the sky next Friday, either. I’m writing this out mainly to try to clarify some of my own thinking on these issues; most of the ideas here are hardly new. I’m not claiming to be highly original here. I also apologize in advance if this seems a bit rambly and diffuse as a result. That seems to be the spirit of the day. Assuming anyone is even reading this.

None of these ideas are perfect cure-alls; there are no perfect cure-all answers. Not all of them will work equally well for everyone. You have to make your own choices. I am not trying to say anybody has to do anything, and I would reject out of hand any group that tries to make people pledge loyalty oaths to uncompromising ideological positions. That, frankly, strikes me as more than a little fascist. This blog is just my attempt to think through some ideas. Above all, this is what we must do: engage the brain.

So we have to actually make changes in our own lives if we want there to be any change in society. Some of these things may involve giving up some conveniences and incurring some costs. But it is clear that change is not going to come from above; it has to come from us. If we aren’t willing to do it for ourselves, then nothing will happen.

Abandon the money center banks. Fortunately, this is a movement that is starting to get some traction. You may have heard about about national bank transfer day. If you have money at one of the big Wall Street banks, move it. More than likely, there is in your area a better-managed, less corrupt community bank or credit union. Most of them can offer the same retail banking services that the big banks have. Try not to make too much of a scene when you do it, though, because the bank might try to have you arrested if you do. It’s worth making a little effort to find a good bank; look at their reports and statements, most of which can be found online. Sadly, the FDIC, which has the most complete data, keeps secret their own ratings of banks’ financial health.You might do well to avoid the banks on the unofficial problem bank list, which tries to track banks that have had regulatory actions imposed on them by the FDIC.

Use cash. In the not-so-long-ago past, most people used cash for most of their daily transactions. And it wasn’t really that difficult. Anybody reading this is probably old enough to remember that. You’re probably old enough to remember when stores gave cash discounts and had minimum purchase requirements for credit cards. But the big credit processors—MasterCard and Visa—pressured the merchants to eliminate those things, even though it was costly for the merchant. What has been the result of the proliferation of plastic? Massive debt, for one, at exorbitant interest rates. Just check the Fed flow of funds reports for revolving debt. And of course, the issuing banks and processors make money not just on interest and fees for the borrower, but the heavily contested swipe fees. Swipe fees are almost pure profit for the banks. Even if you pay your card in full every month and get “rewards,” the bank makes money on you. Merchants have to pay higher fees on reward cards. And the banks know you’ll spend more because of it. This is the goal, to make spending as frictionless as possible, so that you will spend, be in debt, and they’ll get a cut of every transaction. None of this is for your benefit. It is a completely parasitic relationship. Don’t feed the parasite. And in this day when nearly everything we do and buy is tracked and recorded, cash may be just about the last private financial transaction you can have.

Buy local. Another old idea, but one that dovetails with the others. If you’re using cash, you’re not spending it on the internet, you’re spending at the local store. Buying locally-made products does keep money in the community. Buying locally or regionally grown food sustains farm production. If agricultural land can’t be worked profitably, it’ll be sold off to developers for more McMansions and strip malls. And all we’ll have left to eat is industrial packing material posing as tomatoes and strawberries. I get most of the food I eat now from a CSA farm in my state. It’s a little more expensive than some of my other options, but not as much as you might think. The quality of the food is very good and at the height of harvest time the quantity can be substantial, so I feel like I get good value for the money. In fact, many weeks it can be a challenge to use all the food; excess gets canned or made into soups for the freezer, to come out in the winter.

But the point of this is really just this: how can you expect to make a living if your neighbor cannot? As has been written about extensively elsewhere, globalization, driven largely by the needs of investors and fund managers, has really put the screws to the American worker. I’m not, in general, anti-trade. Trade is, on the whole, a positive thing, even a necessary thing. Nor do I really begrudge people in the developing world a chance to better their own living standards. But it’s a question of balance. The US was once, not even all that long ago, a creditor nation. Now that situation has reversed itself. We have an enormous trade deficit. And that deficit is a bigger drain on the economy than the government. At least when the government spends money, it goes into our economy. When we have a trade deficit, that is money going out of our economy. And the bulk of our trade deficit is from two sources: China and oil. You want to help create jobs in this country? The next time you buy something, turn it over and look at the label.

Withhold political donations. The corrosive effects of money in politics is hardly a new issue; it’s been an issue as long as there’s been money and politics. Modern political campaigns need a lot of money, and have always relied on wealthy donors and corporate money. Various attempts at reform of campaign laws haven’t done much to control the problem, and many see recent court decisions like Citizens United and the loosening of PAC funding regulations as regressive steps that remove restraint on corporate influence. Politicians can be very responsive to the needs of big donors. They need those big donors to get enough money for their campaigns, because their opponents have their own stable of big donors. But when campaign time comes around, politicians are still going to ask you for money. They still need your small donations. However, you are not going to get any consideration for your donation. When push comes to shove, they are still going to vote to sell you down the river. So why give them money? The court ruled that in politics, money is speech, but the flipside of that is that withholding money is speech too.

Unenroll from your political party. If you are registered as a Republican or a Democrat, why? The parties no longer exist (if they ever did) to represent any sort of coherent ideology, only roughly cobbled-together coalitions loosely bound by various common interests and however many random policy “planks” that can be screwed together to keep the coalition together. The result is that party platforms end up being Frankenstein monsters with barely concealed contradictions and sets of issues that bear no real relation to each other. But the goal of party leadership is to enforce adherence to the whole platform, and perpetuate its own power. Indeed, now the goal of control seems to trump all concerns even if it means nothing actually gets down. From the party perspective, it is better that nothing be done than any bit of your opponent’s agenda have a chance. I used to hope that a viable third party would develop, but it never happens. The two parties exert a lot of control over the election process itself, and in many places it is difficult for independent or third-party candidates to get on ballots, and of course the party establishment controls the districting process to their own advantage. So the only real choice is to increase the number of independents. Of course, this means that if you want to vote, you will still be faced with party choices, and the differences between those choices will be fairly minimal. In the upcoming elections it is beginning to look like the main differences in the positions of the various candidates is merely the speed with which they want to hand everything over to the oligarchy, not their desire to do so. In the foreseeable near future, it may be that the best we can do is to put the parties on notice that party loyalty is done; they will have to fight for every vote.

To clarify that a little, it is apparent that there still remain some differences between the two parties. These differences mainly revolve around a few social issues. Issues like gay rights and abortion can produce strong emotional responses, even for people who are not directly affected by them. But on many core economic issues, the parties are much closer together. And they know that elections can swing on basic “pocketbook” issues. So the emotional issues are used as bait to drive people to the polls. This, to my cynical mind, is partly why no real attempt is made at any sort of rational resolution of these issues; too much political power is derived from their tension.

When it comes to election time, we have to choose one from column A or one from column B. When we are disappointed with A we change sides and let B have a go, forgetting that the last time we had B in charge, we weren’t happy then, either. And it’s not like they have any new ideas; they’re just recycling all the crap that didn’t work before. But at no point do we say, hey, let’s get off this merry-go-round. Well, sometimes we say we’re going to, but we never actually do it.

It’s a democracy and that means we have to participate, right? But when we go to the polls we have to choose among the choices given to us. We can decide not to vote, but it’s difficult to register a vote of no. We can’t actively reject the choice. Not voting isn’t the same. Nonvotes aren’t counted. I suppose we could write-in. Write-in campaigns historically have not done well. Nevada has a “none of the above” option on the ballot, but it doesn’t really matter. Some protest vote movements have been organized, but with little effect. The parties have us pretty well trained, especially for the primaries. The primaries, by their nature, tend to draw the most partisan voters. Few people go to the primaries to vote against all the options.

But why not give it a go? Some states have open primaries, and this year the president is running unopposed, so there won’t be any Dem primaries. So if you can, go to the Republican primary in your state and vote “none of the above.”

Divest. This is a complicated issue that I for one do not really have good plan for myself. But taking our deposits away from the banks is only part of the solution. If you’re fortunate to have a job that still provides some sort of retirement benefit, chances are it’s a 401K-type account or other sort of managed investment fund. You and/or your employer plunk some money into the fund, and maybe you get to choose from a few different ones, but then the money goes into the bucket and do you have any idea what happens to it after that? What stocks and bonds it pays for? A fund manager pushes it around and takes a cut. Sometimes the fund goes up, sometimes not, the manager gets paid either way. Can we take this money away from them?

Add your own value. By this I mean, don’t be a passive a consumer. Make things, do things. It doesn’t have to be especially “creative.” Not everyone needs to be an artist. Though, of course, it’s cool if that’s your bag. But breaking the chain of dependency on the processed and packaged revitalizes real culture and lessens the power of our corporate masters. Play an instrument. Learn to cook. Learn to fix things. Grow food. Set up a darkroom. There’s an endless list of possibilities. A lot of people already do these things; it’s not that hard and doesn’t necessarily require a heavy investment. I for one, like to cook, and bake. I like food, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I bake my own bread, make jams and pickles, my own breakfast cereal. I like the fact that I can break my food needs down to basic ingredients and not need much processed food. I have a lot more control over the sources of my food, with fewer steps between me and the source. I think of my chef’s knife as a weapon of resistance. Find your weapon of resistance; it’s out there somewhere.

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