Monday, March 21, 2011

Democracy Run Amok

While the Middle East continues to struggle to topple dictatorships and establish the roots of democracy (TNR Article), at home we continue to push further and further away from it. Since the 70s, there has been ample evidence that Republicans are not that fond of democracy -- from Watergate to Iran-Contra to the Florida 2000 debacle to the diverse efforts by the Bush Administration to establish a Presidency above national and international accountability or law. Citizens v. United States of America (an ironic title if there ever has been one) further undermined democracy and the voice of the people, by allowing the much more heavily subsidized voices of corporation to have an even larger (unlimited) role in elections. Now we learn that the Republicans who spent an unprecedented amount of money to take back the House are not only working to overturn Obama's healthcare reform (which is still unpopular), but also the watered down Wall Street reforms that he passed with popular support: Politico. However, since Wall Street Reform remains popular with a public still suffering under its excesses borne of the deregulation of the past 30 plus years, Republicans decided their efforts to reform the Dodd-Frank should be a little less publicized -- or, wait, not publicized at all. The GOP, claiming that new regulations on derivatives, credit rating agencies and private equity firms are undermining economic growth by "raising the cost of doing business in America but also send jobs overseas." Besides the fact that these are relatively absurd claims, is the fact that those reforms, as meager as they are, are a direct response to the root of the financial crisis that emanated from derivatives gone wild, credit agencies that profoundly overrated what were essentially worse than junk bonds and private equity firms that callously continued to sell CDOs, while openly acknowledging they were garbage. Again, the voices of the people are silenced and corporate interests brought to the fore of policy. And yet again we see a Washington DC that seems completely oblivious to the sources of our continuing financial crisis and ways to solve them.

Bipartisanism in the Shadows?

The Washington Post reported a couple of weeks ago about a bipartisan group of Senators working behind the scenes to tackle the disaster that potentially looms from our skyrocketing debt: Link. Their discussions include addressing entitlement costs, increasing the retirement age to 69 and simplifying the tax code to increase revenue from corporate taxes. What is not included is any increase in taxes for the wealthiest Americans. One of the members of the unofficial group, Senator Chambliss, actually went as far as arguing, ""None of us have ever voted for a tax increase, and I don't intend to. But the tax system is 'way out of kilter,' producing $1.1 trillion in revenue in 2009 while giving away $1.6 trillion in deductions and other breaks. We can do it in a fair and reasonable way and . . . actually lower rates and at the same time raise revenues." Sounds like the old Laffer Curve come back to haunt us -- even after being proven wrong for years. The tone deafness across DC to the reality of our current situation and potential ways to solve it is astounding. While billionaires like Gates and Soros are slowly giving away their fortunes to try to improve the world, others work arduously to ensure that they don't pay any more in taxes. We are working toward establishing a plutocracy in this country, with the help of politicians, pundits, Supreme Court justices, technocrats, lobbyists, pseudo-intellectuals and others supporting a system that will hurt them in the end. As Verbal espoused in the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." And the devil is in the details of our collective collapsing future ...


Many scholars have been talking for years about the McDonaldization of the world, with U.S. "fast food"/consumer culture spreading across the globe undermining local cultural traditions, national pasttimes and, even, more healthy dietary practices. While I've always found the discourse on American cultural imperialism a little deterministic and reductionist in ignoring the agency of non-Americans to American culture and the reality that the power of capitalism and consumer culture is its ability to channel desire and offer ephemeral cathexis of the very wants, needs and desires it pawns as natural.

Well among those who still adhere to the "McDonalization" discourse, it might be time to update your moniker. Apparently, Subway has overtaken McDonald's as the biggest chain restaurant in the world (Link). McDonald's still remains the most profitable chain with $24 billion in sales to Subway's $15.2 billion. But Subway, which first made its international foray in Bahrain in 1984, has a total of 33,749 restaurants to McDonald's 32,747. Subway plans to continue growing internationally and to have more foreign than domestic restaurants by 2020 (Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are also expanding internationally, particularly in China where the former will triple their chains and the later plans to open thousands of new outlets in the coming years). A McDonald's spokeswoman was not terribly disturbed by the news: "We remain focused on listening to and serving our customers, and are committed to being better, not just bigger." And thus the marketing magicians who gave us Supersizing, among a number of other practices that have made buying anything at a restaurant or theatre feel like culinary harrassment, have decided that size doesn't matter, except in your French Fries, of course.  

Sunday, March 13, 2011

And the Great World Spins

The world stands in chaos today, from protestors across the Middle East, to renewed violence in Israel/Palestine (where a husband, wife and infant were stabbed to death in their beds) to rebels under attack by government forces in Yemen and Libya to continued protesters in Wisconsin and the devastating effects of the earthquake in Japan. Reading through the L.A. Times, it becomes clear that the battle between humans and nature is far from over and that people fighting for a better world will always confront strong challenges from entrenched power. Even in victory, Egypt and Tunisia stand in chaos, with increased crime, violence and unstable governments that are having trouble establishing order in the wake of revolution. Here in the U.S., floods in Ohio, protesters in Madison and battles across the country against a radical conservative agenda that seeks to undermine the power of the government and further solidify the corporate takeover of the state continue. One interesting article detailed the power of radio personalities Kobylt and Chiampou and blogger Jon Fleischman in working to enact their anti-tax agenda, even as the state stands on the brink of financial disaster.

What is at stake across the globe today? The future of democracy is clearly at the forefront as well as the future of humanity, as we continue to experience the effects of our mistreatment of the planet. And on the other side of confronting these issues stand fundamentalism and its inability or unwillingness to adopt to a changing world. While dictatorships in other parts of the world are certainly more forceful in their attempts to maintain and even expand their rule over the people, here it is ideological, anti-democratic reforms that stand at the forefront of the fight for our collective future. It is the fundamentalist belief of the increasingly powerful radical right wing that seem increasingly able to influence lawmakers and enact policies that stand in stark contradiction to addressing fundamental problems today. Even as unemployment remains far above recent levels, as poverty increases, as we continue to pollute the world and as money stands in as the greatest arbiter of decision-making at the local, state and national level, the call is simply to continue shrinking government and cutting taxes.

In California, the radical agenda seems ready to seriously undermine the education of children in our public schools, cut services that many need simply to survive, lower the status and quality of education in our world-class public university system and actually shrink the economy rather than admit that the quality of life of millions of people is more important than a deficit that largely resulted from their blockage of almost any attempt to raise taxes. Fundamentalism in all forms is dangerous, as it fails to react to a changing world. The Enlightenment attempted to confront and overcome this adherence to orthodoxy and mythology, by making science and reason the build blocks for a better world. As Adorno and Horkheimer argued in the 20th century, this faith in science and instrumental reason were themselves dialectic, failing to acknowledge the human element in decision-making and true democracy. This led to a profound critique of the new world order and its positivist predilections. Now we need to critique the most dangerous fundamentalism today. No, I'm not thinking of Islam. It is neoliberalism and its blind faith in the market and absolute skepticism toward the role of government in working to mitigate and solve social and economic problems. Rather than admitting that tax raises on the richest Americans could solve much of the budget mess we are currently suffering through, the only answer is cuts and those cuts must be in education, in undermining unions and in shrinking the size of government for the long run. And even though there is a strong case for green policies that could actually increase the revenue the federal or state governments receive (according to, among others, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz), we continue to essentially sell the futures of our children and grandchildren down the river rather than make sacrifices for the common good. Unless we do, I believe the U.S. and globe stand in peril of destruction at the hands of those who cannot adopt to changing reality and instead rely on the unquestionable validity of received wisdom unsubstantiated by empirical reality, or even logical coherence.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Photoshop as You Shoot

Have you ever felt that photographs don't really capture the real you? Do you turn away whenever someone places you in the aim of their image creating machines? Are you about as photogenic as Richard Nixon? Well, Panasonic has a solution just for you: Reuters -- a new camera that has a "beauty re-touch" function. The camera can whiten your teeth, increase the translucency of your skin, remove dark eye circles, make your face look smaller or even magnify the size of your eyes. While models and the less physically-adept rejoice, those mired in the world of online dating are given further pause in their pursuit of love -- or an easy one-night stand. The current epoch many have labeled "post-modern" has certainly benefited from new technology and media; and now it appears that new technology and media are instantiating in the real the abstract claims of the theorists that defined the movement.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

It's the Unions, Silly!

Magnanimous Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has threatened to fire 1,500 public sector workers if the 14 Democratic State Senators who escaped the state don't return for a vote enacting his new bill to take away collective bargaining rights from state workers. Following through on a strategy he suggested during a crank call with an activist posing as conservative billionaire David Koch, he will use these workers as leverage to pass a bill that it appears most in the state and country don't want. A recent poll from Rasmussen, in fact, finds that 57% of Wisconsin residents are opposed to the new Governor's agenda and 48% strongly disapprove. In a recent national poll, 52% of respondents said they support unions and another showed that many would rather that taxes on the rich are passed than that social services are cut. These are interesting findings, given that Republicans swept into power in the House based on what appeared to be the opposite perspective.

In a broader sense, one wonders if the 30-year battle to change common sense about unions is about to change. Unions had outlived their purpose, they were inefficient and corrupt and they were holding back the economy. That was the conventional wisdom shilled by conservatives from Ronald Reagan forward. And many came to embrace this idea as if it was an irrefutable fact. Many people I talked to hated unions and many workers were actually against the organization that provided us with the minimum wage, 40-hour work week, paid vacations, company-sponsored healthcare, pensions and the like. The truth is actually the opposite. Unionization percentages (or labor power in places like France) is the best predictor of income inequality in a country. The higher the percentage of the workforce that is unionized, the less inequality experienced in the country. As the U.S. moved from Fordism to Post-Fordism and a service economy, union percentages decreased dramatically and income inequality increased precipitously. If workers don't have collective bargaining rights, employers will use the opportunity to cut wages and benefits.

When the economy is bad, this situation grows even worse. And that is what the new governor was counting on. But people in Wisconsin and across the country have been protesting against these changes with a populist vehemence that pulled Obama to a landslide victory in 2008. Now one wonders if the tide will turn and politicians will start listening to the people and reaffirm the rights of employees to a livable wage and reasonable working conditions. Business is doing everything in their power to ensure that this doesn't happen. I guess we shall see if the will of the people can trump money this time; as it appears to be across the Middle East ...