By guest blogger Terry Morrone
I’ve heard a lot of gloom and doom about the United States lately. We have so much debt we’ll have to go into default or inflate the currency. The dollar is falling in value. The middle class is disappearing. We’re doing nothing substantial about global warming. We’re running out of oil and water. We should be spending mega billions developing a new energy infrastructure, but we’re spending practically zilch. A study by Georgia Tech concluded that we’ve lost the title of most technologically advanced country to China. Health care costs are sky rocketing. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Corruption is rampant. Inflation is much higher than the government admits. James Kunstler predicts that in the face of oil and natural gas shortages, the central government will lose control, and we’ll end up with mostly anarchy. Russian Professor Igor Panarin predicts that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation may trigger a civil war and the collapse of the dollar.
And yet we must try to be happy and look at the bright side. Cell phones, the internet, automobiles and televisions are better than ever. Babies are still cute. Parents still love their children, etc. etc. If you’ve lost your job and your house, you know something is wrong. If you are living out the American dream, with a house a spouse, a job, good friends and a family you’re likely to think you live in a great country.
I’m reminded of bacteria in a dish of jello. As long as they have enough jello to eat, the bacteria increase their numbers by a factor of 2 every hour. After 20 hours their numbers increase by a factor of one million, but there’s no more jello left, so they start eating each other. At 19 hours they were convinced that it was the best of all worlds.
We have challenges. I’ll discuss here the question of whether the U.S. has the resources to cope with them, and suggest some actions that we can take to reverse our decline. First I’ll try to summarize why we’re in such a state of crisis.
The global demand for oil is increasing every year and supply can’t possibly keep up. We’re probably near the peak of production now, and we can expect a decline of production in the next few years. When demand exceeds supply the price will rise. Besides sharp rises in transportation costs, we will also see a rise in food prices, since food production and delivery uses up a lot of fossil fuel. Food prices will also rise because of soil erosion, climate change, declining amounts of water available for irrigation, and increased demand caused by an increasing population. A Washington Post article of 11/17/09 revealed that 50 million people in the U.S. struggled last year to get enough to eat.
Most of our manufactured products now come from overseas. Foreign investors and many Americans have lost respect for our investment industry, because of its toxic financial products, and are looking for other places to invest their capital. For years we’ve been importing goods from all over the world and paying with pieces of paper. Fortunately, we’re “too big to fail,” and our creditors will be patient, but not for ever.
The bank bailout cost at least 14 trillion dollars, about 47,000 dollars per person. The poor and middle class will pay for it in the form of inflation, declining infrastructure, poorer education, and higher state and local taxes.
States are already cutting back on spending on infrastructure and education. College enrollment is still high but drop out rates are very high also. Less than 50 percent of students graduate, and many that do cannot find jobs. Many students have no trouble starting college, but find that they have to work their way through in a time of constantly rising tuition, and end up not graduating.
Declining incomes and the coming shortages in gasoline, heating oil and natural gas will make it very hard to live in suburbia. I live in a suburban area that was once good farmland. I expect the homes will eventually be torn down because nobody will be able to afford to live in them, and the land used for growing food.
We’re spending trillions of dollars on fighting wars and maintaining military bases all over the world to control the world’s oil supply and other resources. But it’s not cost effective. Nor is it moral. Obtaining our fair share of resources through negotiations and cooperation would be far more productive. Imperialism is a great way of transferring money from the poor and middle classes to the rich. Our tax dollars pay for the military conquests and corporations get the profits.
Many of our most talented people go to work in the financial sector. They think of ingenious ways to get rich, mostly at the expense of the public, instead of working to produce useful products, or instead of working to solve our country’s problems.
Let’s take a look at the people in the U.S. Here are a few quotes for Chris Hedges’s book, “Empire of Illusion:”
Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate – a figure growing
by more than 2 million a year.
Television is on for 6 hours and 47 minutes a day in the average household.
Television a medium built around the skillful manipulation of images, ones that can
overpower reality, is our primary form of mass communication.
Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology.
The culture of illusion thrives by robbing us of the intellectual and linguistic tools
to separate illusion from truth. It reduces us to the level and dependency of children.
Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as celebrities.
I’m always amazed how much knowledge people have of celebrities – their marriages, affairs, children, state of health, etc.
In “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Twenge and Campbell detail a shift in culture towards greater self- admiration and self expression. The web sites Facebook and Myspace are examples. People spend hours describing themselves so they can be admired. Narcissism is increasing along with obesity, debt and ignorance. We feel we are entitled to more than we can afford.
Our sense of superiority extends to our country. A recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that 79 percent of Americans believe it would be “good for American ideas and customs to spread to the rest of the world,” and 70 percent say they like “American concepts of democracy.”
About 82 Percent of Americans believe in miracles; 83 percent believe in heaven; 78 percent believe in angels; 78 percent believe in hell. One American in 5 believes that the sun rotates around the earth.
The U.S. average IQ is 98, the lowest among the developed countries of the world. A study by ABC news showed that in scientific and mathematical skills, by age 15, Americans are behind 25 other countries.
Many Americans, and especially the Christian right, believe the Bush, Obama line that we are fighting evil, and we invaded the Middle East to fight terrorism and to spread democracy. That’s a sign of a successful brainwashing campaign. Quoting from Andrew Bacevich’s book on American militarism: “Today as never before in their history Americans are enthralled with military power,” and “America will surely share the fate of all those who in ages past have looked to war and military power to fulfill their destiny. We will rob future generations of their rightful inheritance. We will wreak havoc abroad. We will endanger our security at home. We will risk the forfeiture of all that we prize.” I’m reminded in our massive use of torture and the as pointed out by Chris Hedges, the sadistic nature of our pornography.
Americans also have a deep contempt for education. For example, in the 2008 election campaign Obama’s Harvard Law School education was cited as evidence that he was an elitist and out of touch. Politicians who can convince the public that they’re ordinary people are considered to be authentic Americans, while intellectuals are distrusted.
So here we are in the U.S., a bunch of conceited, fat, arrogant, wasteful, superstitious, racist, militaristic, ignorant TV addicts. Not only are our economic prospects dim, but we seem to be getting dumber. Will we have the intellectual resources to resist the propaganda of tyrants, who wish to exploit our growing discontent to overthrow the little democracy we have left? I’ve been looking for a bit of optimism in the writers I’ve been reading lately, i.e. Kevin Philips, Chris Hedges, Nomi Prins, Naomi Kline, Muhammad Yunis and Andrew Bacevich. It’s hard to find. What’s easy to find are statements that we’ve never been in greater danger.
I believe that to make real change we have to greatly modify our present capitalistic system, which requires constant growth. The planet cannot afford any more growth. Population growth can be stopped only if we eliminate poverty and insecurity. The highest birth rates occur in poor African countries and Afghanistan. Real change will not occur easily in America and probably not until living conditions get worse. We’ll have to content ourselves with incremental changes, mostly on a local level, for the time being. I’m going to make a few suggestions and observations and ask the readers to put on their thinking caps and come up with new approaches.
First I’ll write about a few projects that I’m personally familiar with to illustrate what type of project is likely to succeed. In 2004 I and a few others started the Huntington Civil Rights Defense Campaign. Our goal was to get the town board of Huntington, Long Island to pass a resolution condemning the Patriot Act. The project was supported by a group of high school students who provided much energy and dedication. For a long time we had no official leader. At the beginning of each meeting, I picked someone, including the high school students, to chair the meeting. The students always did a very good job. Our members ranged in age for 16 to 75. After close to a year of forums, petitions, demonstrations, public access TV shows, and rock concert fund raisers, the town board approved our resolution, but the main benefit of our efforts was that we educated a lot of people, many of them young.
Another project that I’m familiar with is the Long Island Food Not Bombs campaign. The participants get food from supermarkets that would otherwise be discarded, and distribute it to poor people. It was started by a young man who disliked going to meetings. I made a video of the group in action that can be seen on their website. It seems that you need a well defined goal to keep large numbers of people working for change.
On the other hand I’ve gone to a lot of peace demonstrations, locally and in Washington, D.C. Unlike the above projects, it’s very hard to see if the demonstrations did very much good. My hope was that the Washington demonstrations would inspire large numbers of people to become activists, but in my experience this did not happen. The same people come out to all the local demonstrations. We usually demonstrate by the side of a road and people honk their horns in support as they drive by, but how much good does it do? My feeling is that we have to keep doing it, but we must also do other things. We need activities that produce a result that can be measured, so we can how well we are doing, and try new approaches if results are disappointing.
We’re ruled, in my view, mostly by large corporations and the military, i.e. the military industrial complex. Corporations have 2 sources of income. The first is a product or service. The second is stock. They have the ability to in effect print their own money. The public dutifully buys the stock. Corporations used to pay significant dividends, but not any longer. Occasionally they buy back stock, but it doesn’t make much difference. We buy the stock and make money only when someone new comes along and buys it for more money than we paid. It’s close to being a Ponzi scheme. Furthermore, they take our money and use it to bribe Congress and thereby subvert democracy. We can help avoid this by investing only in companies that have a social conscience. We’ve mostly lost the right to strike, because unions are so weak and companies can move or threaten to move their operations overseas. In a conventional strike we withhold labor. I propose a new type of strike where we withhold capital. I’d like to see corporations rated not just for the Value Line criteria of timeliness, safety, and technical, but also for honesty, environmental impact and treatment of workers.
Furthermore, I’d like to see boycotts of the products of certain large corporations. For example, the big banks that received bail out money are using it to give themselves big bonuses and to buy other banks. Let’s shift our business to smaller banks. A boycott is already in progress. The web site, moveyourmoney.com, shows you how to find small banks that are not owned by large banks.
The concept of microcredit was first instituted by the Grameen Bank. The bank was founded in Bangladesh by Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. It makes small loans without collateral to poor people at reasonable cost so they can start small businesses and ultimately raise themselves out of poverty. In the past 30 years, microcredit has spread to every continent and benefited 100 million families. The Grameen Bank is an example of what Yunus calls a social business. A social business aims at providing a social benefit rather than in maximizing profit for its owners. The owners get the money they invested back, but no more. A second type of social business makes a profit for its owners, but the business is owned by large numbers of poor people. In his book, “Creating a World Without Poverty,” Yunis lists 25 successful social businesses, including Grameen Telecom, Knitwear, Health Care Services, and Communications.
David Bornstein’s book “How to Change the World” tells the stories of people who have both changed their lives and found ways to change the world through social entrepreneurship. I’d classify the Free Software Foundation as a social business. Volunteers develop software and through the foundation distribute it to the public for free. The foundation gives out annual awards for the “Advancement of Free Software” and for the “Project of Social Benefit.”
Any shift from big corporations to local businesses and local agriculture is a welcome step in ending corporate control of the government. But to go local will not be easy. For example, as the era of cheap oil winds down, big Agribusiness will have a hard time competing with locally grown food because of the increased cost of transportation. Today food grown by big corporations travels an average of 1500 miles to reach the consumer. Big Agra will not lose profit without a fight. It is trying to get Congress to mandate food irradiation and excessive government regulations aimed at putting the small farmer out of business. We need people to educate the public and Congress about these issues.
In the struggle for freedom from corporate control, it is very important that we have the right to vote. We now have electronic voting machines. What’s to stop the parties in power from controlling the result? There are 2 types of voting machines. One is called a DRE (digital recording electronic). It’s a computer with a big “touch” screen. They leave no paper trail. We’re at the mercy of the ones who control the machines. They’re usually rich Republicans. Then we have optical scanners which leave a paper trail. Here’s how an election using scanners works. A voter marks boxes on a ballot. He puts a ballot into a scanner that records the entries. The ballots are saved. After the election the results are read out of the scanner and sent to election central. The central tabulator can easily be fixed to favor one party. The scanners can easily be hacked. A spot check is essential. To have confidence in the result, about 5 per cent of the ballots from randomly chosen election districts are sometimes compared with the machine results. Great, but if the election officials want to fix the election, they simply don’t pick the districts randomly and they don’t cheat in the districts they choose to check. Paper ballots would be ideal. The counting process could be public with representatives of all the parties watching. It would be cheaper also. But it is never considered. It’s very important for progressives get into local government to work towards honest elections.
Another area where activism is needed is the Clean Money, Clean Elections campaign. It’s a move towards public financing of election campaigns in states and cities. Six states and 2 cities have such laws. California will also adopt such a law is voters approve in June 2010.
We should also support the Green Party. It has its flaws, but it is the only nationwide liberal third party. The democrats and Obama have betrayed the poor and middle classes. They have supported immoral wars, bailed out the rich, and let lobbyists for the health insurance companies write the health “reform” bill. They have scheduled the health bill to go into effect after the 2012 elections to make sure Obama is reelected, because once it goes into effect, people will realize what a give away to the insurance industry it is. The democrats will not need any support from us, since they’ll get billions from the industries they’re subsidized with taxpayer money.
My personal project is a public access TV show. Since most people get there information from the TV, public access is a good way to reach the general public. I fear that we won’t have it for much longer. The cable companies are generally unenthused since it costs them money. When they get a franchise from a town or city to install a cable system, they often agree as part of the deal to provide public access TV. Air time is awarded usually on a first come, first served basis. Movie cameras are now cheap and it’s not expensive to put a show on the air. In some cases the cable companies lend equipment to public access producers. I get my material for my shows from interviews of activists, peace demonstrations, conferences, forums (such as the Left Forum in New York City), and the internet.
The internet is a much better source of information than the propaganda on corporate TV, and very helpful in organizing resistance to the establishment. We need activists to keep it free.
The last sentence in Chris Hedges’s book “Empire of Illusion” is, “Love will endure even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all to triumph over the wreckage that remains.” I hope love will emerge as a force before our civilization is a total wreck. I hope volunteers will provide alternatives to the large corporations that are wrecking the planet.
We’re in a struggle against corporate power on many fronts and I’ve tried to show that there’s plenty of room for many types of activism. Pick one that suits you. Edmund Burke once said: “No body made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little,” and from Mahatma Gandi: “Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but you must do it.” Consider that the military industrial complex is infiltrated by honest men, who often blow the whistle on immoral activities. We’ll get help from within and with a lot of pressure from outside, real change will occur. We might even, some day, be able to raise taxes on the rich and make a big dent in our debt crisis.
Jared Diamond wrote of the collapse of societies such the Easter Island community that used up all its resources and perished. It could be happening to us. Chris Hedges and Kevin Phillips suggest we’re a civilization in decline. Kevin Phillips posits that a sign of decline is “financialization.” That is, society puts far too much effort is shuffling financial paper around instead of building infrastructure and useful products. Another sign, according to Phillips, is the growth of the influence of religion on politics. We certainly seem to be satisfying Phillips’s criteria. The national government is incapable of constructive action. Every crisis is used as an opportunity to make the rich richer.
Arnold Toynbee wrote extensively about the rise and fall of civilizations. Most historians don’t like him. They say he bends the facts to fit into his grand theories, yet I think his theories apply today. According to Toynbee, civilizations decline when their leaders become corrupt and turn to militarism and empire. For a new civilization to emerge, Toynbee writes, we need a challenge and a positive response. We need a new civilization and we certainly have a well recognized challenge: to stem the devastation of the earth brought about by ignorance and greed. But Toynbee also writes that we need leaders who can gain the support of the people and change the course of history. Such leaders have emerged in the past many times when the stakes were not as high. But great leaders do not emerge from a vacuum. They come from an environment filled with desire for change, and filled with many people working for change.
Study Shows China as World Technology Leader, http://www.objectivasoftware.com/docs/HighTechIndicators2007.pdf
Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Free Press, 2009.
Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion, Nation Books, 2009.
Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, Viking, 2006.
Kevin Phillips, Bad Money, Penguin Books, 2008.
James H. Kuntsler, The Long Emergency, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.
Muhammad Yunis, Creating a World Without Poverty, Public Affairs, 2007.
David Bornstein, How to Change the World, Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas
Oxford University Press, 2004.
Nomi Prins and Krisztina Urgin, Bailout Tally Report, http://www.sitemason.com/files/esMlDW/bailouttallydec2009.pdf (Supplementary Analysis for “It takes a Pillage”, Nomi Prins, John Wiley & Sons, 2009.)
Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking, the Penguin Group, 2005
Arnold Toynbee, A Study in History, Revised and Abridged, Weathervane Books, 1972.
A Study in History, Volumes 1 – 12, Oxford University Press, 1934 – 1961.
Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism, Oxford 2005.
Dmitri, Are Americans Stupid? - Statistics, Studies and Research, http://www.abytheliberal.com/internationalism/are-americans-stupid-statistics-and-research-data
Amy Goldstein, America’s Economic Pain Brings Hunger Pangs, http://nuestravoice.com/?p=5236
Igor Panarin, U.S, Will Collapse by Next Year, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/04/igor-panarin-us-will-coll_n_171725.html
List of Countries by Birth Rate, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_birth_rate
Americans Blinded by Nationalist Views, http://news.ncmonline.com/news/view_article.html?article_
College Drop Out Rate Climb as Students Face Challenges, http://newsblaze.com/story/2007091202000800001.mwir/topstory.html
The Value Line Investment Survey, valueline.com. (The survey can be seen at any public library.)