Thursday, May 17, 2012 9:48 AM
Individually the poor are not too tempting to thieves, for obvious reasons. Mug a banker and you might score a wallet containing a month’s rent. Mug a janitor and you will be lucky to get away with bus fare to flee the crime scene. But as Business Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.
The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal, and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up 30 minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.
Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600% a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.
It’s not just the private sector that’s preying on the poor. Local governments are discovering that they can partially make up for declining tax revenues through fines, fees, and other costs imposed on indigent defendants, often for crimes no more dastardly than driving with a suspended license. And if that seems like an inefficient way to make money, given the high cost of locking people up, a growing number of jurisdictions have taken to charging defendants for their court costs and even the price of occupying a jail cell.
The poster case for government persecution of the down-and-out would have to be Edwina Nowlin, a homeless Michigan woman who was jailed in 2009 for failing to pay $104 a month to cover the room-and-board charges for her 16-year-old son’s incarceration. When she received a back paycheck, she thought it would allow her to pay for her son’s jail stay. Instead, it was confiscated and applied to the cost of her own incarceration.
Government Joins the Looters of the Poor
You might think that policymakers would take a keen interest in the amounts that are stolen, coerced, or extorted from the poor, but there are no official efforts to track such figures. Instead, we have to turn to independent investigators, like Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft in America, who estimates that wage theft nets employers at least $100 billion a year and possibly twice that. As for the profits extracted by the lending industry, Gary Rivlin, who wrote Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. -- How the Working Poor Became Big Business, says the poor pay an effective surcharge of about $30 billion a year for the financial products they consume and more than twice that if you include subprime credit cards, subprime auto loans, and subprime mortgages.
These are not, of course, trivial amounts. They are on the same order of magnitude as major public programs for the poor. The government distributes about $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, the Earned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.
And while government generally turns a blind eye to the tens of billions of dollars in exorbitant interest that businesses charge the poor, it is notably chary with public benefits for the poor. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, for example, our sole remaining nationwide welfare program, gets only $26 billion a year in state and federal funds. The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid: on the one hand, offering safety-net programs for the poor; on the other, enabling large-scale private sector theft from the very people it is supposedly trying to help.
At the local level though, government is increasingly opting to join in the looting. In 2009, a year into the Great Recession, I first started hearing complaints from community organizers about ever more aggressive levels of law enforcement in low-income areas. Flick a cigarette butt and get arrested for littering; empty your pockets for an officer conducting a stop-and-frisk operation and get cuffed for a few flakes of marijuana. Each of these offenses can result, at a minimum, in a three-figure fine.
And the number of possible criminal offenses leading to jail and/or fines has been multiplying recklessly. All across the country -- from California and Texas to Pennsylvania -- counties and municipalities have been toughening laws against truancy and ratcheting up enforcement, sometimes going so far as to handcuff children found on the streets during school hours. In New York City, it’s now a crime to put your feet up on a subway seat, even if the rest of the car is empty, and a South Carolina woman spent six days in jail when she was unable to pay a $480 fine for the crime of having a “messy yard.” Some cities -- most recently, Houston and Philadelphia -- have made it a crime to share food with indigent people in public places.
Being poor itself is not yet a crime, but in at least a third of the states, being in debt can now land you in jail. If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage -- a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: “sewer service.” In a sequence that National Public Radio reports is “increasingly common,” a person is stopped for some minor traffic offense -- having a noisy muffler, say, or broken brake light -- at which point the officer discovers the warrant and the unwitting offender is whisked off to jail.
Local Governments as Predators
Each of these crimes, neo-crimes, and pseudo-crimes carries financial penalties as well as the threat of jail time, but the amount of money thus extracted from the poor is fiendishly hard to pin down. No central agency tracks law enforcement at the local level, and local records can be almost willfully sketchy.
According to one of the few recent nationwide estimates, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 10.5 million misdemeanors were committed in 2006. No one would risk estimating the average financial penalty for a misdemeanor, although the experts I interviewed all affirmed that the amount is typically in the “hundreds of dollars.” If we take an extremely lowball $200 per misdemeanor, and bear in mind that 80%-90% of criminal offenses are committed by people who are officially indigent, then local governments are using law enforcement to extract, or attempt to extract, at least $2 billion a year from the poor.
And that is only a small fraction of what governments would like to collect from the poor. Katherine Beckett, a sociologist at the University of Washington, estimates that “deadbeat dads” (and moms) owe $105 billion in back child-support payments, about half of which is owed to state governments as reimbursement for prior welfare payments made to the children. Yes, parents have a moral obligation to their children, but the great majority of child-support debtors are indigent.
Attempts to collect from the already-poor can be vicious and often, one would think, self-defeating. Most states confiscate the drivers’ licenses of people owing child support, virtually guaranteeing that they will not be able to work. Michigan just started suspending the drivers’ licenses of people who owe money for parking tickets. Las Cruces, New Mexico, just passed a law that punishes people who owe overdue traffic fines by cutting off their water, gas, and sewage.
Once a person falls into the clutches of the criminal justice system, we encounter the kind of slapstick sadism familiar to viewers of Wipeout. Many courts impose fees without any determination of whether the offender is able to pay, and the privilege of having a payment plan will itself cost money.
In a study of 15 states, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found 14 of them contained jurisdictions that charge a lump-sum “poverty penalty” of up to $300 for those who cannot pay their fees and fines, plus late fees and “collection fees” for those who need to pay over time. If any jail time is imposed, that too may cost money, as the hapless Edwina Nowlin discovered, and the costs of parole and probation are increasingly being passed along to the offender.
The predatory activities of local governments give new meaning to that tired phrase “the cycle of poverty.” Poor people are more far more likely than the affluent to get into trouble with the law, either by failing to pay parking fines or by incurring the wrath of a private-sector creditor like a landlord or a hospital.
Once you have been deemed a criminal, you can pretty much kiss your remaining assets goodbye. Not only will you face the aforementioned court costs, but you’ll have a hard time ever finding a job again once you’ve acquired a criminal record. And then of course, the poorer you become, the more likely you are to get in fresh trouble with the law, making this less like a “cycle” and more like the waterslide to hell. The further you descend, the faster you fall -- until you eventually end up on the streets and get busted for an offense like urinating in public or sleeping on a sidewalk.
I could propose all kinds of policies to curb the ongoing predation on the poor. Limits on usury should be reinstated. Theft should be taken seriously even when it’s committed by millionaire employers. No one should be incarcerated for debt or squeezed for money they have no chance of getting their hands on. These are no-brainers, and should take precedence over any long term talk about generating jobs or strengthening the safety net. Before we can “do something” for the poor, there are some things we need to stop doing to them.
Barbara Ehrenreich, a
, is the author of
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
(now in a 10th anniversary edition with a
). She is most recently the founder of the just-launched
Economic Hardship Reporting Project
, which supports innovative journalism on poverty and economic hardship. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Ehrenreich discusses how the poor get soaked and her latest project to fund investigative journalism on poverty, click here or download it to your iPod here.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Barbara Ehrenreich
Wednesday, July 20, 2011 12:43 PM
It’s a telling sign of our time when it’s a struggle to actually talk about the value of things and not just the price they are supposedly worth. When we struggle to discuss what actually makes something worth its weight in gold, so to speak, and not some speculative number put on it. Does it keep up safe from the elements? Does it sate our hunger? Quench our thirst? Educate our children? These are what actually make things worthwhile, but all we talk about are what those things cost, which is too often defined by, at best, speculation and at worst, deceit.
This is the thrust behind David Korten’s idea of phantom wealth and real wealth. (I’ve written previously about Korten here and here.) In a recent blog post at YES! Magazine Korten writes about a new report from the New Economy Working Group (NEWGroup) called How to Liberate America from Wall Street Rule. In that post Korten takes on the malfeasance of Wall Street and corporations: “Despite the financial crash of 2008, the financial assets of America’s billionaires and the idle cash of the most profitable corporations are now at historic highs.” The report continues the attack:
The 2008 financial crash was a direct and inevitable consequence of a social engineering experiment conducted by Wall Street interests that allowed Wall Street financial institutions to consolidate their control of the creation and allocation of money beyond the reach of public accountability. The priority of the money system shifted from funding real investment for building community wealth to funding financial games designed solely to enrich Wall Street without the burden of producing anything of real value.
The report offers a six-part agenda for leading us back to a world where the real value of things comes to the forefront. The suggestions include, “Break[ing] up the mega-banks and implement[ing] tax and regulatory policies that favor community financial institutions” and “Establish[ing] state-owned partnership banks in each of the 50 states, patterned after the Bank of North Dakota.”
It’s hard to see something like this actually working right now, given the repulsion so many in Congress feel toward the government they make up—and the success they’ve had in turning that repulsion into votes. Still, it’s nice to see an approach that stems from actual values instead of made-up ones.
Source: YES! Magazine, How to Liberate America from Wall Street Rule
Image by aflcio, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, February 17, 2011 12:22 PM
This post originally appeared on Guernica.
A report from the Pew Research Center says that over 50% of the American public doesn’t know about what has happened in Egypt. Or if they do know about the revolution that occurred over there, they don’t really care all that much about it.
We’re looking at this thing from a tired old script.
Some Americans, feel the Egyptian protesters were looking for a U.S.-style democracy. Basically, they wanted American nylons and Hershey bars, and whatever else liberated people want in those old movies. It seems these people were also inspired by George W. Bush and his belief in the one-size-fits-all exportability of democracy.
Of course, the shiny people (they’re the ones who believe that America is a shining inspiration to all, since World War II) forget that there are many strains of democracy, and that it doesn’t always lead to the same kind of corporate one that we have here. They forget that democratic governments emanate from national identities. And these governments operate out of national interest, and nothing else. What’s in the national interest of some country elsewhere may not match what’s in ours.
Meanwhile on the far left, they’re running with the unicorns, predicting that these changes will mean a new, more peaceful world. Or revolution here (I went to a rally for Egypt that was hijacked by Maoists who said that, with our pathetic little posters, we were going to rise up and take over New York City and then the country). Many on the left attack Obama for not having urged revolution, right away. Of course, they forget that the United States serves its corporations first, and that it has long-been entangled in a variety of foreign alliances. We’ve hardly ever (have we ever?) supported a people’s revolution. Yet, Obama is supposed to be a superman. He isn’t. America hasn’t elected a revolutionary into office in some 200 years.
As Americans, we have inherited a stacked deck. We’re in a headlock with our corporate masters and in exchange we’re kept numb by entertainment and assurances that we’re the strongest country on the face of the earth. We serve our corporations and what they want. What these corporations want from Egypt is a territory kept cooperative enough for America to pick clean of its resources.
The Egyptian revolution is inspiring, even more so because it occurred at the edge of U.S. power. We can’t control what’s happened. No one can, not even the lords at GM GE Exxon Mobil—and that’s what a revolution is. It’s, well, revolutionary. what happened in Tahrir Square happened without us, and we weren’t even invited. It was the result of what Steven Berlin Johnson calls emergence: it was leaderless, and all the more powerful because of that.
For over 30 years, we gave Egypt the shaft, because it was in our national interest to do so. Now it’s time for Egypt to find out where its own interests are, without a strongman leading the way. The country has a difficult and terrible road to walk. I hope they’ll have enough of a jaundiced sensibility to look to themselves for guidance, because the United States and its allies will first be interested in keeping the world safe for 9 to 5, not in engendering equality and economic parity. One can only hope their revolution succeeds—and that it spreads.
Image by mshamma, licensed under Creative Commons.
Copyright 2011 Meakin Armstrong
Meakin Armstrong is a freelance writer and fiction editor at
. His nonfiction has been featured in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, TheAtlantic.com, TheAlanticWire.com, Time Out New York, USAir Magazine, and in the books, New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg and Museyon Guides Film + Travel North America. In 2007, he received a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference scholarship for fiction.
Friday, January 14, 2011 10:44 AM
The U.S. Supreme Court decided in the widely condemned Citizens United case that corporations enjoy the legal status of people—so a Florida woman is seeking the hand of a corporation in legal marriage.
Sarah “Echo” Steiner of Lake Worth, Florida, will hold a press conference on Saturday, January 22, to announce her search for a suitable corporate spouse, reports the Undernews blog of Sam Smith’s Progressive Review, citing a Facebook press release put out by Steiner.
Citizens United specifically recognized corporate personhood when it comes to political donations, but a host of observers worry that corporate rights are going to continue to creep into realms previously reserved for humans.
Steiner tells the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, which savvily points out that “the effort is something of a political stunt,” that she wants to draw attention to the one-year anniversary of Citizens United. She is a Green Party member who’s active in party politics—and of course, she’s single.
“I haven’t found the right man,” she tells the New Times, “but there are plenty of corporations out there.”
Steiner is going to look far and wide for Mr. Perfect Incorporated, telling the New Times that she has already rejected a single-proprietor video company from Ithaca, New York, as too small for her needs. If she finds the right match, of course, she’d have to convince local officials to fork over a marriage certificate—and they already told the New Times they wouldn’t do it. Oh, well. Gays have dealt with this sort of discrimination for years, and corporate America will simply have to build a movement to overcome the prejudice and ignorance. I imagine it can afford some pretty high-powered lawyers.
Steiner isn’t the first to send up Citizens United with a mock campaign. A corporation, Murray Hill Incorporated, is attempting to run for Congress. See the video here:
The Progressive Review
Broward-Palm Beach New Times
Friday, October 29, 2010 5:37 PM
This piece was originally published by
This country is being run for the benefit of alien life forms. They’ve invaded; they’ve infiltrated; they’ve conquered; and a lot of the most powerful people on Earth do their bidding, including five out of our nine Supreme Court justices earlier this year and a whole lot of senators and other elected officials all the time. The monsters they serve demand that we ravage the planet and impoverish most human beings so that they might thrive. They’re like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, like the Terminators, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except that those were on the screen and these are in our actual world.
We call these monsters corporations, from the word corporate which means embodied. A corporation is a bunch of monetary interests bound together into a legal body that was once considered temporary and dependent on local licensing, but now may operate anywhere and everywhere on Earth, almost unchallenged, and live far longer than you.
The results are near-invincible bodies, the most gigantic of which are oil companies, larger than blue whales, larger than dinosaurs, larger than Godzilla. Last year, Shell, BP, and Exxon were three of the top four mega-corporations by sales on the Fortune Global 500 list (and Chevron came in eighth). Some of the oil companies are well over a century old, having morphed and split and merged while continuing to pump filth into the air, the water, and the bodies of the many -- and profits into the pockets of the few.
Thanks to a Supreme Court decision this January, they have the same rights as you when it comes to putting money into the political process, only they’re millions of times larger than you -- and they’re pumping millions of dollars into races nationwide. It’s like inviting a T. rex into your checkers championship -- and it doesn’t matter whether dinosaurs can play checkers, at least not once you’re being pulverized by their pointy teeth.
The amazing thing is that they don’t always win, that sometimes thousands of puny mammals -- that's us -- do overwhelm one of them.
Gigantic, powerful, undead beings, corporations have been given ever more human rights over the past 125 years; they act on their own behalf, not mine or yours or humanity’s or, really, carbon-based life on Earth’s. We’re made out of carbon, of course, but we depend on a planet where much of the carbon is locked up in the earth. The profit margins of the oil corporations depend on putting as much as possible of that carbon into the atmosphere.
So in a lot of basic ways, we are at odds with these creations. The novelist John le Carré remarked earlier this month, “The things that are done in the name of the shareholder are, to me, as terrifying as the things that are done -- dare I say it -- in the name of God." Corporations have their jihads and crusades too, since they subscribe to a religion of maximum profit for themselves, and they’ll kill to achieve it. In an odd way, shareholders and god have merged in the weird new religion of unfettered capitalism, the one in which regulation is blasphemy and profit is sacred. Thus, the economic jihads of our age.
They Fund By Night!
In the jihad that concerns me right now, most of the monsters come from Texas; the prey is in California; and it’s called our economy and our environment. Four years ago, with state Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, we Californians decided we’d like to cultivate our environment for the benefit of all of us, human and biological, now and in the long future.
They’d like to pillage it to keep their profit margins in tip-top shape this year and next. The latest tool to do this is called Proposition 23, and it’s on our ballot on November 2nd. It is wholly destructive, cloaked in lies, and benefits no one -- no one human, that is, though it benefits the oil corporations a lot. (You could argue that it benefits their shareholders, but I’d suggest that their biological and moral nature matters more than their bank accounts do and that, as a consequence, they’re acting against their deepest interests and their humanity.)
When he signed AB 32 into law, Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, who’s totally weird, termed out, but really good on climate stuff, said: “Some have challenged whether AB 32 is good for businesses. I say unquestionably it is good for businesses. Not only large, well-established businesses, but small businesses that will harness their entrepreneurial spirit to help us achieve our climate goals. Using market-based incentives, we will reduce carbon emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. That's a 25% reduction. And by 2050, we will reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels. We simply must do everything in our power to slow down global warming before it's too late."
With Proposition 23, two out-of-state oil corporations, Valero and Tesoro, and right-wing oil billionaires based in New York and Kansas are trying to use the California initiative process, originally intended to allow citizen intervention in the governance of this state, to countermand AB 32 and set policy for us. “According to data from the California Secretary of State's office,” Kate Sheppard recently reported in Mother Jones magazine, “more than 98% of contributions to the pro-Prop. 23 campaign are from oil companies. Eighty-nine percent of the contributions come from out of state… Valero contributed $4 million, Tesoro gave $1.5 million, and a refinery owned by the notorious Kansas-based billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, of Koch Industries, kicked in another $1 million. Just last week, Houston-based Marathon oil contributed $500,000.”
Actually, Tesoro and Valero are headquartered out of state, but their refineries in California gave us 2.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals in our air and water last year, and they’d like to continue offering the citizens of my state these gifts that keep giving illness, death, and long-term environmental devastation without interference. The coming vote is not about protecting fancy places for upscale hikers -- the stereotype used to portray environmentalism as a white-person’s luxury movement -- it’s about air quality for inner-city people, especially those who live near refineries and harbors. This is the kind of environmental degradation that’s about childhood asthma and increased deaths from respiratory illness. In other words, Prop. 23 is part of a corporate war on the poor. A vote for Prop. 23 is a vote to turn the lungs of poor children into a snack for dinosaurs, to put it in bluntly Hollywood-ish terms.
Lies of the Living Dead
To sabotage AB 32, they’re spending lots and lots of money and telling lots and lots of lies. Start with the proposition’s name -- “The California Jobs Initiative” -- designed to make you think that this measure will create jobs. Actually, according to most reputable analyses, it will do the opposite. A green economy has made jobs, is making jobs, and will make more jobs. This stealth initiative would suspend AB 32 until unemployment in California drops below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters, which it won’t anytime soon, if ever.
The implication is that doing something about climate change is a luxury we cannot afford in this bleak economy. That’s a lie. Down the road, if we don’t retool to address a future in which there’s less petroleum (at far higher prices), we’ll truly crash and the suffering will be intense. AB 32 would prevent that crash; Prop. 23 steers us directly into it.
The more we heat up the planet, the more it costs all of us, not just in money, but in colossal famines, displacements, deaths, and species extinctions, as well as in the loss of some of the things that make this planet a blue-green jewel, including its specialized habitats from the melting Arctic tobleaching coral reefs.
Doing something about climate change makes economic sense right now. It’s good business.
It’s hardly surprising that the corporate aliens lie when it comes to the relationship between doing something about climate change and the economy. After all, oil corporations funded a lot of the disinformation campaigns which, for years, promoted the idea that human-caused climate change was a figment of the overheated imaginations of mad environmentalists, and later that there was controversy (as well as corruption) among scientists when it came to global warming. The only honest information would have been that about 97% of the world’s relevant scientists overwhelming agree that climate change couldn’t be more real and is a genuine danger to humanity and the planet -- and that the evidence is all around us in freakish weather, rising oceans, melting arctic ice and glaciers, shifting habitats, and more.
The Phantom of Democracy
The oil dinosaurs want to win so badly in my home state because what happens here matters everywhere. The nation often follows where California goes. In the 1970s, we started setting energy efficiency standards that mean we Californians now use about half the energy of the average American (with no diminishment of quality of life or pocketbook pain). In the last decade, we created cutting edge measures to curb carbon emissions.
In 2002, Los Angeles state assemblywoman Fran Pavley (now a state senator) put out AB 1493, which was to -- and will -- reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. It was, unfortunately, held up for six years by the Bush administration and then transformed into a national standard by Barack Obama as one of his first acts in office. Pavley also authored the now embattled “Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006,” AB 32.
If you think oil corporations and life share an interest, you should’ve been in the Gulf of Mexico a few months ago. I was. I saw their oiled pelicans, their unemployed fishermen, and their oil-smeared marshes. I tasted and smelled the poisons I could not see, and I read their lies.
The people of the Gulf will struggle to survive the recklessness of BP for decades to come, but the petrobeasts aren’t just destructive when things go wrong; they’re that way when things go according to plan as well. If the 5.5 million barrels of oil that spilled into the Gulf, thanks to BP, had instead made it to our gas tanks, the consequences would still have been dire. They are dire. The companies funding Prop. 23 are themselves a major source of climate change and, of course, a major obstacle to coming up with solutions to it.
Like the people of the Gulf during the spill, the people of Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay area, live with those tastes, smells, and consequences all the time, because they’re in the shadow of Chevron’s biggest west coast refinery. (Corporate headquarters are only 25 miles away.) Sirens go off during excessive leaks of toxins like ammonia, and as if out of a horror movie, an explosion at the plant in 1999 that sent an 18,000-pound plume of sulfur dioxide fumes into the air was said to be so nasty it took the fur off squirrels.
Chevron is one of the biggest corporations on the planet. While the average income for a human being in Richmond is a little over $19,000, Chevron’s profits last year were $24 billion, meaning the corporation is more than one million times as rich as the average citizen there. Nonetheless, the humans there won a huge victory recently, preventing the corporation from expanding and retooling its refinery so that it could process even dirtier crude oil (with dirtier local emissions, in a place that already suffers huge health consequences from the monster in its backyard). It may be the world’s first victory against refinery expansion.
Chevron is both the state’s biggest single greenhouse-gas emitter and a huge financial force in Richmond elections, invariably funding campaigns against green candidates. The mostly poor, mostly nonwhite citizens of Richmond are, however, organized and motivated, so if you want to watch a monster movie in which the little guys have been winning lately, follow city politics there.
One of the cool things about the West County Toxics Coalition, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Green Party mayor, and the activists working with them is that they know better than anyone how to act locally and think globally, and even sometimes how to act globally and think locally. Maybe collectively they’re not so little. They’re allied with antiwar groups, with Burmese human rights groups, with the people of Ecuador and Nigeria who have suffered petro-contamination at least as bad, if not worse than BP’s Gulf spill this spring, with groups around the world fighting the petrobeast. There’s a movement out there, and sometimes it even wins amazing victories.
Around the world this month, 350.org coordinated more than 7,000 demonstrations in favor of lowering atmospheric carbon to a sane 350 parts per million, while the climate justice movement had a global day of action on Columbus Day. Among the month's heroic efforts were direct action against mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia, blockades of refineries in France and Britain and of a coal-fired power plant in Germany, protests and gas-station blockades in Canada, and a rally in the Philippines, a demonstration in Finland, a march in Ecuador, a protest in South Africa, among others. In California, activists worked steadily against Prop. 23.
Think for a minute about horror movies: in some of them, the little people rally and do heroic things and the monsters or aliens are vanquished. The forces that have come together against Prop. 23 are impressive, ranging from inner-city job coalitions and traditional environmental groups to university think tanks and business interests. Winning or losing, however, depends on what happens when California voters look at that deceptive label “California Jobs Initiative” on their ballots on November 2nd.
If your heart isn’t pounding, and you aren’t biting your fingernails and teetering at the edge of your seat, then you haven’t noticed the monsters yet. Look carefully. They’re all around us -- and they’re coming for you.
Rebecca Solnit’s brother David does organizing work against Chevron, and she often shows up for the marches. She is the author of 13 books, including the forthcoming
Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas
(which maps toxins and right-wing corporations in the Bay Area, among other things) and
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. She writes for Tomdispatch.com as often as she can. It’s her personal version of being David in the face of all those Goliaths.To catch Solnit discussing “mixed-up California” in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview, click here or, to download it to your iPod,here.
Copyright 2010 Rebecca Solnit
Tuesday, February 02, 2010 5:15 PM
Now that corporations are more like people—as many argue the Supreme Court decided in the recent Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case—corporations may soon want the right to vote. Corporations may also want to marry, run for office, and be counted in the census. Writing for McSweeney’s, Steven Seidenberg writes imagines a dystopian world where corporations are treated like people, and this happens in 2028:
Winning 72.1% of the popular vote, California Governor Mickey Mouse is elected President of the United States. He runs weakest among men (garnering just 39% of the vote) and women (45%). However, he is carried to victory by his strength in other key demographic groups: corporations (67%), cartoons (68%), lobbying groups (73%), copyrighted film scores (78%) and online avatars (81%).
Tuesday, November 03, 2009 11:39 AM
You can be forgiven if you’ve grown somewhat cynical about food labeling in the organic and natural aisle: Lately it always seems to turn out that brands with names like Grandma’s Garden are fabricated and owned by Acme Evil Megafoods Inc. At EcoSalon, Vanessa Barrington sizes up 10 big organic and natural food brands to explore who owns what, and what they’re putting into their products.
Can you guess which of the following brands on the list are still independently owned, even though they’ve grown large enough to make it to your local market?
- Arrowhead Mills
- Cascadian Farms
- Nature’s Path
- Newman’s Own Organics
- Organic Valley
- White Wave/Silk
Read Barrington’s full post at EcoSalon for her thoughtful analysis and commentary on these 10 brands. The website has become a must-bookmark destination for people interested in solid, sane advice on living green. Recent topics have included the Purell-ification of flu-panicked America, a new Levi’s clothing tag that promotes Goodwill donations, and seven delicious non-tofu meat alternatives.
Image by arincrumley, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009 10:44 AM
Google and the Saddleback megachurch have more in common than the undying worship of their devotees. Both organizations are set up around “campuses” that are meant to be spaces where people can do more than just work. They both have beach volleyball courts and cafes, where people can socialize and feel a greater connection to their organizations. Triple Canopy reports that the architecture “is meant to persuade church members or secular employees—especially younger people—to spend their most productive time there.”
The modern corporation and the Christian megachurch have developed simultaneously, according to Triple Canopy. Both organizations have tried to figure out how to maximize the engagement and productivity of their devotees. For the churches and the corporations, creating city-like campuses represents “the logical next step in their colonization of everyday life, part and parcel with the ever-more-diffuse protocols they have developed for managing souls.”
Source: Triple Canopy
Image of the Saddleback Megachurch.
Monday, January 26, 2009 3:42 PM
So you think environmentalism has gone mainstream, what with Al Gore spreading the climate change gospel and countless people and businesses boasting of going green? Hold on a minute: Environmental journalist Jeffrey St. Clair tells Northern California magazine Terrain in an illuminating interview that despite all the talk, the grassroots green movement has in fact lost much of its fire and been co-opted by corporate America.
St. Clair, editor of the Counterpunch website, author of the book Born Under a Bad Sky and co-editor of the book Red State Rebels, traces the start of the movement’s downfall to the Clinton presidency, when “a new kind of environmentalism” was adopted by then-Vice President Gore and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. Instead of focusing on regulations, the Clinton administration cut deals with environmentally destructive industries, and during the same period environmental groups grew too cozy with big business and overly reliant on foundation funding. Here’s where St. Clair delivers some of his most damning, and convincing, criticisms:
“Many of these foundations are the progeny of the oil companies. Look at the major three that are funding the environmental movement: Pew Charitable Trust, that’s Sun Oil; W. Alton Jones, another oil company; Rockefeller Family Fund. Those three foundations basically control the environmental movement. … If you look at the board of directors of the large environmental groups, they’re filled with corporate executives. From the timber industry, to the oil industry, to the real estate industry, to the airline industry, to the nuclear power industry, they’re there, on every one of these boards. They’re rich, they’re corporate, and they don’t want you shaking things up. So [the environmental groups] are like Gulliver, they’re pinned down. They’re shackled by their source of money, shackled by their relationship to the Democratic Party, shackled by the fact that their boards are controlled by corporate executives.”
The economic crisis and its crimp on foundation funding may actually offer some hope, he says:
“A lot of them, certainly the smaller groups, will lose their funding first, and that’s going to be a very good thing. The weaning process is going to hurt for a while. But when they emerge from that, they’re going to be much better off. … Hopefully in the future, you’re going to be seeing … much more indigenous radical and unpredictable, organic environmental groups that will end up being much more effective, much more healing for people.”
Read a review of Green Inc., which explores in detail the ties between the corporate world and environmental groups, in the January-February Utne Reader. And to learn more about how foundation funding has taken the bite out of many grassroots movements, keep an eye out for the March-April Utne Reader’s cover story on philanthropy.
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