Saturday, March 26, 2011

It's (Still) the Economy, Stupid

I’ve got some bad news, America.

Remember that “Great Recession” you used to hear so much about in the news? You may have thought it ended. It hasn’t. The economy still sucks.

Of course, if you are one of the hundreds of unemployed Americans still struggling to find work, this is not news to you. You are well aware of the economic reality. But those lucky enough to have a job seem to have completely forgotten about the recession.

Contrary to what you may have read in the corporate newspapers, the nation is still struggling to recover from the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Robert Christensen is one of the unlucky ones. The 49-year-old Portland resident lost his job as a marketing director last June and has been looking for work ever since.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see any sign of improvement,” Christensen said. “If the economy is improving, I certainly have not benefited from it. I have applied to every job I can find. But so far nothing has worked out. I have been rejected from them all.”

Christensen was one of 700 attendants at a Portland Press Herald-sponsored job fair, at the Italian Heritage Center, on Tuesday. According to a job fair staffer, the economy is getting better, but “it’s a very slow growth.”

Some of that growth includes a noticeable rise in consumer spending. charts a $5.9 billion increase in credit accounts for January 2011. (However, rising gas prices, and expected surges in the cost of items such as cotton, grain and coffee, may halt this rise in spending in its tracks.)

Unfortunately, many economists are using these incremental, short-term signs of improvement to overemphasize the economy’s overall health.

Let’s look at the indications of economic improvement, shall we?

A recent story in Kiplinger’s offers ten mundane though not insignificant signs the economy is on the rebound. These include the “latte factor,” or the increase in sales of expensive, Starbucks-style coffee drinks, which many may have viewed as an unjustifiable luxury when money was tight. The article claims such caffeinated beverages are “one of the first little luxuries that consumers find worth shelling out for when they start to feel more comfortable with the direction of the economy.”

Another source citing economic growth is even more dubious—Warren Buffett.

In a recent interview with NBC’s business network, CNBC, the billionaire investor made grand claims of an economy on the upswing.

Buffett’s source for this claim? The continued success of his own businesses, which include Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. and the Burlington Santa Fe railroad. While Buffett has become something of a go-to economic pundit in recent years, one must wonder if indeed there ever was a recession for billionaires like him. Seeking Buffett’s views on the economic hardships of regular, working-class citizens is like asking an American what it is like to work in a Chinese sweatshop.

The fact is the increased financial earnings of Starbucks and Warren Buffett are no accurate barometer of the economy’s health. Things are (slowly) getting better, yes. But to claim the recession is “over,” or “behind us,” is downright insulting to those who are still out of work.

“Washington has lost interest in the unemployed,” writes New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Paul Krugman in a recent piece (“The Forgotten Millions,” March 18, 2011).

“It might not be so bad,” he continues, “if the jobless could expect to find new employment fairly soon. But unemployment has become a trap, one that’s very difficult to escape. There are almost five times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings; the average unemployed worker has been jobless for 37 weeks, a post-World War II record.”

Part of the problem, Krugman explains, is while the mass layoffs that marked the start of the recession have decreased, most companies are still not hiring new employees.

Corporations’ modern view of employees as another expense (as opposed to an integral investment) means many of them are literally sitting atop piles of income that was not earned the old-fashioned way, but saved by skimping on the workforce. (Add to this, another disturbing modern development in which many employers are refusing to even consider a job application from a person who is currently unemployed.)

Krugman writes, “Put it this way: At this point, the U.S. economy is suffering from low hiring, not high firing, so things don’t look so bad—as long as you’re willing to write off the unemployed.”

The other problem, according to Krugman and other economists, is the Obama administration’s initial stimulus bill was too small and timid—especially when compared with the gargantuan trillions lavished on Wall Street.

And that, in many respects, represents the root of our economic troubles. We have money for Wall Street banks, but not for regular Joes. While the Republican Congress is focused almost maniacally on cutting spending on things like public workers, welfare programs and NPR, none of the money we are saving has been allocated for job-creation. And, as I noted in my previous post, we still have plenty of money for the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya.

So, no: The recession is not over. Far from it. But try telling that to the corporate media and the Warren Buffetts of the world.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

As the War Machine Keeps Turning...

Today marks the eighth year of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

While anti-war protesters plan to march in Washington on Saturday to observe the anniversary, their numbers are not likely to be as great as they were during the run-up to the invasion in 2003. Eight years after President George W. Bush used lies and fabricated intelligence to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iraq, Americans seem to devote precious little attention to the conflict.

As Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzales noted in yesterday’s installment of the news show, “because of the lack of media coverage, most people have almost forgotten certainly Iraq, if not [the war in] Afghanistan as well.”

As protesters calling for an end to the eight year conflict descended upon the Capitol, about 20 activists held a companion vigil in Portland’s Monument Square. Participants tried to link the enormous financial cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the troubled economy with signs that read, “Bring Our War $$ Home,” and “How Is the War Economy Working for You?”

“Using the money we’ve spent on these wars,” protest organizer Wells Staley-Mays said, “we could create a system of single-payer, universal health care that would cover all Americans.”

Another protester expressed disgust with President Obama’s failure to end either war. “I received a call from the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] looking for a donation the other day. I was on the phone with her for about half-an-hour explaining how disappointed I am with Obama. I told her the Democrats would not receive one dime from me until I see some real progressive changes.”

I have attended a number of anti-war protests like this one, and they always seem to attract the same handful of dedicated people. As is typical at these events, young people were scarce. (I spotted about three who looked like colleges students.) While drivers and passerby honked in approval, or flashed us the peace sign, none of them heeded our encouragement to come and stand with us.

At one point, a scruffy-haired young person approached two members of the crowd to question their motives. “Why was it OK to ‘take out’ Mubarak, but not Saddam Hussein?” he asked, videotaping the answer on his cell phone. Then he implied the protesters were hypocrites for owning cars if the “war is about stealing oil.”

The two protesters argued with him eloquently, but he did not seem truly interested in their answers. This person is emblematic of the juvenile “hipster” attitude—quick to criticize the motives of those willing to take a stand, but seemingly devoid of any such moral conviction, himself. Perhaps this is why every anti-war rally I have ever attended is composed primarily of middle-aged baby-boomers. The millennial generation, as far as I can tell, does not believe in anything.

Of course, Iraq is not the only war the United States is currently engaged in. The war in Afghanistan is entering its tenth year. And Congress just voted to keep it going. Yes, you read correctly. On Thursday, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted against a bill to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and end the funding for the conflict.

Again, this bill received next to no coverage in the mainstream media and the vote itself went down with little fanfare. Maine’s two representatives, Mike Michaud (D) and Chellie Pingree (D)--both of whom have emerged as reliable opponents of war-spending--voted in favor of the bill.

Unfortunately, on Thursday they proved the exception to the rule, as a majority of Democrats voted to continue the misbegotten Afghanistan occupation. Time after time supposedly anti-war Democrats like Steny Hoyer (Md) and Carl Levin (MI) vote to continue paying for wars they claim to oppose. Indeed, I am uncertain of a clearer example of the two parties’ uniform agreement when it comes to matters of foreign policy.

(Ironically, during the Afghanistan vote, the House also passed a measure to cut-off all federal funding for the “liberal” NPR. Just to keep track here, we have got money for war and endless empire-building, but heaven forbid U.S. taxpayers are forced to shell out another dime to public radio.)

To date the Iraq War has claimed over 4,400 U.S. soldiers’ lives. Over 32,000 have been seriously wounded. And more than 1,000,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003 according to a comprehensive study by the British polling firm, Opinion Research Business.

According to the website cost of, the state of Maine will pay $464.1 million for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the fiscal spending year 2011. For the same amount of money, the website indicates, Maine residents could fund the following:

- 8,340 elementary school teachers for one year.
- 48,208 scholarships for university students for one year.
- 185,561 households with renewable electricity for one year.
- 103,283 people receiving low-income healthcare for one year.

With these numbers in mind, I reiterate the question:

How is the war economy working for you?

Friday, March 11, 2011

On Pop Music

Mikal Gilmore contributed a great article on the Clash in last week’s issue of Rolling Stone. A key passage, for me, came in the story’s closing paragraph:

“That sort of vision [of rock n’ roll as liberation music] feels like something from a long time ago, another story of death and glory,” Gilmore writes.

“Popular culture rebellions have grown smaller; popular fears loom bigger. The tragedy of the Clash isn’t about the Clash itself—that they fought for something honorable yet defeated one another. The tragedy of the Clash is that we no longer allow the room for their sort of voice.” (“The Fury and The Power of the Clash,” March 3, 2011.)

I was born too late to have experienced the Clash while the group was active, but they remain one of my favorite bands, regardless. The only rock band from my generation to have a comparable impact on popular consciousness, was Nirvana.

I am hard-pressed to identify this generation’s Clash—or, at least their next-best version. With a handful of notable exceptions, today’s music is insular, uninspired, and highly innocuous. And before you write me off as an aging, punk-rock Originalist hipster, just turn your radio on to any major commercial station, listen for about fifteen minutes and tell me differently. ‘Nuff said.

Vapid, talentless acts like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and the Killers dominate album sales and iTunes downloads. (The ubiquitous Justin Bieber is featured on the cover of the afore-cited issue of Rolling Stone.) The electro-synth beats and retro dance styles of these acts seem to harken back to the equally insipid new-wave pop of the 1980s.

Lyrically, these acts inspire little more than hedonistic pleasures and instant gratification. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” the sultry Rihanna manipulates the rhyme on her new single, “S&M,” “But chains and whips excite me.”

Rap and hip-hop--genres previously so infused with social and political commentary—now celebrate consumer capitalism and material possessions. Rappers like Kayne West, Lil’ Wayne, and Eminem mostly rap about themselves and their celebrity identities—shallow themes compared to the radical, militant lyrics of early genre-innovators NWA and Public Enemy.

Even so-called “indie-rock” (a highly vague and misleading genre label that applies even to the most commercial of artists) bands shy away from pressing societal concerns. Indie darlings like the Decemberists trade in self-indulgently complex song-structures and highly pretentious, antebellum-inspired lyrics, about as far removed from contemporary life as one can get. Sample lyrics: “One night I overheard/The Prior exchanging words/With a penitent whaler from the sea.”

Indeed, Lady Gaga seems to sum up contemporary pop’s primary ambition with the title of one her own hits: “Just Dance.”

“Pop music is predigested,” wrote cultural critic Theodor Adorno in his polarizing 1941 essay, “On Popular Music.”

Drawing a stark contrast between popular artists and what he describes as “serious,” or classical music, Adorno attributes the differentiating factor to pop’s “standardized” song-structures (i.e. repetitive choruses, guitar riffs, or musical progressions).

“The whole structure of popular music is standardized,” he writes, “even where the attempt is made to circumvent standardization… Serious music, for comparative purposes, may be thus characterized: Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme.”

Such standardized music, Adorno argues, serves as another means of oppressing individual freedom and personal choice.

He writes, “The necessary correlate of musical standardization is pseudo- individualization. By pseudo-individualization we mean endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardization itself. Standardization of song hits keeps the customers in line by doing their listening for them, as it were. Pseudo-individualization, for its part, keeps them in line by making them forget that what they listen to is already listened to for them, or ‘pre-digested’.”

Music thus becomes another form of distraction from national or global concerns of war, militarization, environmental destruction, the economy or the like. Adorno believes pop listeners become so accustomed to such standardized fare they become blind to its oppressive nature. He points to factory workers who, after spending their work day performing the same repetitive tasks over and over, unwittingly seek out the same form of repetition on the radio when they go home at night.

(Adorno, for his part, saw no room for artistic progression within pop music. He dismissed jazz and other forms of improvisational music outright and likely would have little time for contemporary art-rockers like Radiohead or Sonic Youth.)

Certainly, it is true pop has always been about escapism. But reading Gilmore’s article, it is easy to believe pop culture will never again produce a band as fiery, righteous and politically charged as the Clash.

And, once you arrive at that sad conclusion, it is easy to understand why people tune-out new music as they get older.

As Joe Strummer observes in "White Man in Hammersmith Palais":

"The new groups are not concerned
with what there is to be learned.
They've got Burton suits--you think it's funny
Turning rebellion into money."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Workingman Blues

Saturday marked a national day of solidarity with the protesting public workers in Wisconsin, with rallies held in nearly every state capital. Over 500 Maine teachers, public workers, union representatives and activists joined a MoveOn sponsored rally in Augusta.

MoveOn estimates over 50,000 people participated in protests on Saturday throughout the country. According to a statement released by the organization, “The progressive community has not seen coordinated rallies this size on an issue since the height of the anti-war movement during the Iraq war.”

The Augusta rally received front-page coverage in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram the following day. The article (“Convergence in the Capital: Rallying Cries,” Feb. 27, 2011) was particularly notable for its acknowledgement of the Koch Brothers’ role in financing Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s extremist campaign—an aspect of the story ignored by most of the major media outlets. A Press Herald staff editorial earlier last week siding with Gov. Walker (“Our View: Public Workers Protests show System Breakdown,” Feb. 24, 2011) made no mention of the Koch Brothers. (Then again, Sunday’s story was not written by a PPH staffer. The byline indicates it was taken from its sister paper, the Kennebec Journal.)

“We’re in this predicament because of unscrupulous CEOs and corporations that want to fill their pockets,” rally attendant, Emery Deabay said in the story. “They caused this mess and should be in jail. We’re here to make sure the governor [Maine Gov. Paul LePage] doesn’t try to punish workers when he balances the budget and take away their rights and benefits.”

The following day Madison public workers participated in the largest demonstration in the capitol building to date. The state has not seen a march of such scale since the Vietnam War protests.

Indeed, the massive opposition to Gov. Walker’s union-busting bill has been truly inspiring.

For decades now working-class Americans have been under attack by politicians on both sides of the aisle. President Reagan is credited with delivering the first blow when he infamously fired over 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. Many historians believe this single act set the tone for the harsher, zero-tolerance attitude businesses continue to hold toward unions and the labor movement today.

A decade later, Bill Clinton furthered the assault on the working-class with his enactment of NAFTA, which shipped hundreds of jobs overseas and essentially eviscerated the nation’s manufacturing sector. He followed this move up by dropping nearly 2.1 million Americans off of welfare benefits in 1996. Finally, Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act removed the consumer-protection barriers separating Wall Street and investment banks, and ultimately paved the way for the current economic recession.

More recently, Americans have watched with bitter scorn as the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama oversaw massive tax-cuts for the very wealthy, while poor and middle-class workers struggle to find jobs in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Yet, even before the modern day rollback of worker protections, early 20th century labor activists had to fight tooth-and-nail to establish the most basic of worker rights. Things like minimum-wage, a 40-hour, five-day work week, paid overtime, holidays off and child labor laws were all hard won gains by early progressive activists like Eugene Debs and the International Workers of the World. (Indeed, many of these worker protections were initiated by socialists, a highly ironic fact in light of conservatives’ current outcry over President Obama’s “socialist agenda.” It is only because of the early U.S. Socialist movement that we enjoy any worker rights at all.)

One of those socialist reformers was Upton Sinclair, who famously chronicled the plight of the working-class in his muckraking expose, The Jungle.

The 1906 novel revealed the deplorable, unsanitary working conditions laborers confronted in a Chicago slaughterhouse, as well as protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus’ dissolution with the American Dream.

Jurgis is a poor, unskilled immigrant from Lithuania, who travels with his family to America in search of a better life. What he finds instead, is a tedious, physically exhausting job that demands long hours and little pay. Furthermore, Jurgis’ limited command of the English language and unfamiliarity with the dubious underside of American capitalism makes him and his family members easily susceptible to sinister con artists who swindle them at every opportunity.

“They were beaten; they had lost the game, they were swept aside,” Sinclair writes of the family. “…They had dreamed of freedom; of a chance to look about them and learn something; to be decent and clean, to see their child grow up to be strong. And now it was all gone—it would never be! They had played the game and they had lost.”

Though published over 100 years ago, Sinclair’s book is all the more relevant today in light of the Wisconsin protests. One hundred years later, it seems workers are still fighting for the most basic of rights. Let’s hope Saturday’s rallies were just the beginning.