"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Profiteering’

Why Life in America Can Literally Drive You Insane

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Oldspeak: “Can you imagine the uproar, the national panic if 1 in every 78 Americans had cancer? Or was a victim of gun violence? Or if 1 in 78 Americans had AIDS? Why then is it acceptable that 1 in 78 Americans is suffering from severe and disabling mental illness? Why is it acceptable that there has been a 35 FOLD INCREASE in mental illness among children!?!!  Pathology has been normalized. Sociopathy is a key trait in the dominant institutions of our civilization (corporations) and by extension the people who work within them. 70% of Americans hate their jobs.  Lack of empathy and compassion is seen as normal.  You see it every day walking down the street; people looking upon with disdain or just plain actively ignoring the steadily growing number of homeless and mentally ill who populate our streets.  Elder abuse is institutionalized in this time where there our population is the greyest it’s ever been. Youth are increasingly disposable, with children serving as fodder for the burgeoning prison-industrial complex; pumped full of powerful toxic, illness inducing pills that no one has any idea what the long-term health effect will be. While pharmaceutical drug dealers’ profit margins explode.  Whole cities are failing while the banks & other corporations that greatly contributed to their failure are given unlimited resources. Something is terribly terribly wrong. Our society is making us crazy. Destroying our planet. How much longer well we go on without having serious discussion about restructuring our civilization in a way that healthy, beneficial and sustainable for all? ” -OSJ

By Bruce E. Levine @ AlterNet:

In “The Epidemic of Mental Illness: Why [3]?” (New York Review of Books, 2011), Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, discusses over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, pathologizing of normal behaviors, Big Pharma corruption of psychiatry, and the adverse effects of psychiatric medications. While diagnostic expansionism and Big Pharma certainly deserve a large share of the blame for this epidemic, there is another reason.

A June 2013 Gallup poll [4] revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Life may or may not suck any more than it did a generation ago, but our belief in “progress” has increased expectations that life should be more satisfying, resulting in mass disappointment. For many of us, society has become increasingly alienating, isolating and insane, and earning a buck means more degrees, compliance, ass-kissing, shit-eating, and inauthenticity. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness.

While historically some Americans have consciously faked mental illness to rebel from oppressive societal demands (e.g., a young Malcolm X acted crazy to successfully avoid military service), today, the vast majority of Americans who are diagnosed and treated for mental illness are in no way proud malingerers in the fashion of Malcolm X. Many of us, sadly, are ashamed of our inefficiency and nonproductivity and desperately try to fit in. However, try as we might to pay attention, adapt, adjust, and comply with our alienating jobs, boring schools, and sterile society, our humanity gets in the way, and we become anxious, depressed and dysfunctional.

The Mental Illness Epidemic

Severe, disabling mental illness has dramatically increased in the Untied States. Marcia Angell, in her 2011 New York Review of Bookspiece, summarizes [3]: “The tally of those who are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) increased nearly two and a half times between 1987 and 2007—from 1 in 184 Americans to 1 in 76. For children, the rise is even more startling—a thirty-five-fold increase in the same two decades.”

Angell also reports that a large survey of adults conducted between 2001 and 2003 sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health found that at some point in their lives, 46% of Americans met the criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association for at least one mental illness.

In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, spoke [5] to the National Press Club about an American depression epidemic: “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago. . . the average age of which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5. . . .Now the average age is between 14 and 15.”

In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [6] (CDC) reported that antidepressant use in the United States has increased nearly 400% in the last two decades, making antidepressants the most frequently used class of medications by Americans ages 18-44 years. By 2008, 23% of women ages 40–59 years were taking antidepressants.

The CDC, on May 3, 2013, reported [7] that the suicide rate among Americans ages 35–64 years increased 28.4% between 1999 and 2010 (from 13.7 suicides per 100,000 population in 1999 to 17.6 per 100,000 in 2010).

The New York Times [8]reported in 2007 that the number of American children and adolescents treated for bipolar disorder had increased 40-fold between 1994 and 2003. In May 2013, CDC reported in “Mental Health Surveillance Among Children—United States, 2005–2011 [9],” the following: “A total of 13%–20% of children living in the United States experience a mental disorder in a given year, and surveillance during 1994–2011 has shown the prevalence of these conditions to be increasing.”

Over-Diagnosis, Pathologizing the Normal and Psychiatric Drug Adverse Effects

Even within mainstream psychiatry, few continue to argue that the increase in mental illness is due to previous under-diagnosis of mental disorders. The most common explanations for the mental illness epidemic include recent over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, diagnoses expansionism, and psychiatry’s pathologizing normal behavior.

The first DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, was published by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952 and listed 106 disorders (initially called “reactions”). DSM-2 was published in 1968, and the number of disorders increased to 182. DSM-3 was published in 1980, and though homosexuality was dropped from it, diagnoses were expanded to 265, with several child disorders added that would soon become popular, including oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). DSM-4, published in 1994, contained 365 diagnoses.

DSM-5 was published in May, 2013. The journal PLOS Medicinereported [10] in 2012, “69% of the DSM-5 task force members report having ties to the pharmaceutical industry.” DSM-5 did not add as many new diagnoses [11] as had previous revisions. However, DSM-5 has been criticized even by some mainstream psychiatrists such as Allen Frances, the former chair of the DSM-4 taskforce, for creating more mental patients by making it easier to qualify for a mental illness, especially for depression. (See Frances’ “Last Plea To DSM-5: Save Grief From the Drug Companies [12].”)

In the last two decades, there have been a slew of books written by journalists and mental health professionals about the lack of science behind the DSM, the over-diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, and the pathologizing of normal behaviors. A sample of these books includes: Paula Caplan’s They Say You’re Crazy (1995), Herb Kutchins and Stuart Kirk’s Making Us Crazy (1997), Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder (2007), Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (2008), Stuart Kirk, Tomi Gomory, and David Cohen’s Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs (2013), Gary Greenberg’s The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry (2013), and Allen Frances’ Saving Normal (2013).

Even more remarkable than former chair of the DSM-4 taskforce, Allen Frances, jumping on the DSM-trashing bandwagon has been the harsh critique [13] of DSM-5 by Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Insel recently announced that the DSM’s diagnostic categories lack validity, and that “NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” And psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, former chair of the DSM-3 task force, wrote the foreword to Horwitz and Wakefield’s The Loss of Sadness and is now critical [14] of DSM’s inattention to context in which the symptoms occur which, he points out, can medicalize normal experiences.

So, in just two decades, pointing out the pseudoscience of the DSM has gone from being an “extremist slur of radical anti-psychiatrists” to a mainstream proposition from the former chairs of both the DSM-3 and DSM-4 taskforces and the director of NIMH.

Yet another explanation for the epidemic may also be evolving from radical to mainstream, thanks primarily to the efforts of investigative journalist Robert Whitaker and his book Anatomy of An Epidemic [15] (2010). Whitaker argues that the adverse effects of psychiatric medications are the primary cause of the epidemic. He reports that these drugs, for many patients, cause episodic and moderate emotional and behavioral problems to become severe, chronic and disabling ones.

Examining the scientific literature that now extends over 50 years, Whitaker discovered that while some psychiatric medications for some people may be effective over the short term, these drugs increase the likelihood that a person will become chronically ill over the long term. Whitaker reports, “The scientific literature shows that many patients treated for a milder problem will worsen in response to a drug—say have a manic episode after taking an antidepressant—and that can lead to a new and more severe diagnosis like bipolar disorder.”

With respect to the dramatic increase of pediatric bipolar disorder, Whitaker points out that, “Once psychiatrists started putting ‘hyperactive’ children on Ritalin, they started to see prepubertal children with manic symptoms. Same thing happened when psychiatrists started prescribing antidepressants to children and teenagers. A significant percentage had manic or hypomanic reactions to the antidepressants.” And then these children and teenagers are put on heavier duty drugs, including drug cocktails, often do not respond favorably to treatment and deteriorate. And that, for Whitaker, is a major reason for the 35-fold increase between 1987 and 2007 of children classified as being disabled by mental disorders. (See my 2010 interview with him, “Are Prozac and Other Psychiatric Drugs Causing the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America [16]?”)

Whitaker’s explanation for the epidemic has now, even within mainstream psychiatric institutions, entered into the debate; for example, Whitaker was invited by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) to speak at their 2013 annual convention [17] that took place last June While Whitaker concludes that psychiatry’s drug-based paradigm of care is the primary cause of the epidemic, he does not rule out the possibility that various cultural factors may also be contributing to the increase in the number of mentally ill.

Mental Illness as Rebellion Against Society

“The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, is not humanly interesting. . . . In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree. . . . Ultimately such a society produces only two groups of men: the conditioners and the conditioned, the active and passive barbarians.” —Lewis Mumford, 1951

Once it was routine for many respected social critics such as Lewis Mumford and Erich Fromm to express concern about the impact of modern civilization on our mental health. But today the idea that the mental illness epidemic is also being caused by a peculiar rebellion against a dehumanizing society has been, for the most part, removed from the mainstream map. When a societal problem grows to become all encompassing, we often no longer even notice it.

We are today disengaged from our jobs and our schooling. Young people are pressured to accrue increasingly large student-loan debt so as to acquire the credentials to get a job, often one which they will have little enthusiasm about. And increasing numbers of us are completely socially isolated, having nobody who cares about us.

Returning to that June 2013 Gallup survey, “The State of the American Workplace: Employee Engagement [18],” only 30% of workers “were engaged, or involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace.” In contrast to this “actively engaged group,” 50% were “not engaged,” simply going through the motions to get a paycheck, while 20% were classified as “actively disengaged,” hating going to work and putting energy into undermining their workplace. Those with higher education levels reported more discontent with their workplace.

How engaged are we with our schooling? Another Gallup poll “The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year [19]” (released in January 2013), reported that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in 37 states in 2012, and found nearly 80% of elementary students reported being engaged with school, but by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. As the pollsters point out, “If we were doing right by our students and our future, these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.”

Life clearly sucks more than it did a generation ago when it comes to student loan debt. According to American Student Assistance’s “Student Debt Loan Statistics [20],” approximately 37 million Americans have student loan debt. The majority of borrowers still paying back their loans are in their 30s or older. Approximately two-thirds of students graduate college with some education debt. Nearly 30% of college students who take out loans drop out of school, and students who drop out of college before earning a degree struggle most with student loans. As of October 2012, the average amount of student loan debt for the Class of 2011 was $26,600, a 5% increase from 2010. Only about 37% of federal student-loan borrowers between 2004 and 2009 managed to make timely payments without postponing payments or becoming delinquent.

In addition to the pain of jobs, school, and debt, there is increasingly more pain of social isolation. A major study reported in the American Sociological Review in 2006, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks Over Two Decades [21],” examined Americans’ core network of confidants (those people in our lives we consider close enough to trust with personal information and whom we rely on as a sounding board). Authors reported that in 1985, 10% of Americans said that they had no confidants in their lives; but by 2004, 25% of Americans stated they had no confidants in their lives. This study confirmed the continuation of trends that came to public attention in sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Underlying many of psychiatry’s nearly 400 diagnoses is the experience of helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization—culminating in a loss of autonomy and community-connectedness. Do our societal institutions promote:

  • Enthusiasm—or passivity?
  • Respectful personal relationships—or manipulative impersonal ones?
  • Community, trust, and confidence—or isolation, fear and paranoia?
  • Empowerment—or helplessness?
  • Autonomy (self-direction)—or heteronomy (institutional-direction)?
  • Participatory democracy—or authoritarian hierarchies?
  • Diversity and stimulation—or homogeneity and boredom?

Research (that I documented in Commonsense Rebellion [22]) shows that those labeled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do worst in environments that are boring, repetitive, and externally controlled; and that ADHD-labeled children are indistinguishable from “normals” when they have chosen their learning activities and are interested in them. Thus, the standard classroom could not be more imperfectly designed to meet the learning needs of young people who are labeled with ADHD.

As I discussed last year in AlterNet in “Would We Have Drugged Up Einstein? How Anti-Authoritarianism Is Deemed a Mental Health Problem [23],” there is a fundamental bias in mental health professionals for interpreting inattention and noncompliance as a mental disorder. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where all pay attention to much that is unstimulating. In this world, one routinely complies with the demands of authorities. Thus for many M.D.s and Ph.D.s, people who rebel against this attentional and behavioral compliance appear to be from another world—a diagnosable one.

The reality is that with enough helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization, we rebel and refuse to comply. Some of us rebel by becoming inattentive. Others become aggressive. In large numbers we eat, drink and gamble too much. Still others become addicted to drugs, illicit and prescription. Millions work slavishly at dissatisfying jobs, become depressed and passive aggressive, while no small number of us can’t cut it and become homeless and appear crazy. Feeling misunderstood and uncared about, millions of us ultimately rebel against societal demands, however, given our wherewithal, our rebellions are often passive and disorganized, and routinely futile and self-destructive.

When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.

For some Americans, no doubt, the conscious goal is to get classified as mentally disabled so as to receive disability payments (averaging $700 to 1,400 per month [24]). But isn’t that too a withdrawal of cooperation with society and a rebellion of sorts, based on the judgment that this is the best paying and least miserable financial option?

Links:
[1] http://alternet.org
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/bruce-e-levine
[3] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/?page=1
[4] http://www.latimes.com/business/money/la-fi-mo-employee-engagement-gallup-poll-20130617,0,5878658.story
[5] http://www.nonopp.com/ar/Psicologia/00/epidemic_depersion.htm
[6] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
[7] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6217a1.htm?s_cid=mm6217a1_w
[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/04/health/04psych.html?_r=0
[9] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/su6202a1.htm?s_cid=su6202a1_w
[10] http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001190
[11] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/15-new-mental-illnesses-in-the-dsm-5-2013-05-22
[12] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allen-frances/saving-grief-from-dsm-5-a_b_2325108.html
[13] http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2013/transforming-diagnosis.shtml
[14] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Spitzer_%28psychiatrist%29
[15] http://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Epidemic-Bullets-Psychiatric-Astonishing/dp/0307452425/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1354546881&sr=1-1&keywords=Anatomy+of+an+Epidemic%3A+Magic+Bullets%2C+Psychiatric+Drugs%2C+and+the+Astonishing+Rise+of+Mental+Illness+in+Ame
[16] http://www.alternet.org/story/146659/are_prozac_and_other_psychiatric_drugs_causing_the_astonishing_rise_of_mental_illness_in_america?paging=off
[17] http://www.peteearley.com/2013/07/01/nami-convention-coverage-robert-whitakers-case-against-anti-psychotics/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+peteearley+%28The+Official+Blog+of+Author+Pete+Earley%29
[18] http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/162953/tackle-employees-stagnating-engagement.aspx
[19] http://thegallupblog.gallup.com/2013/01/the-school-cliff-student-engagement.html
[20] http://www.asa.org/policy/resources/stats/
[21] http://sites.duke.edu/theatrst130s02s2011mg3/files/2011/05/McPherson-et-al-Soc-Isolation-2006.pdf
[22] http://www.amazon.com/Commonsense-Rebellion-Taking-Shrinks-Corporations/dp/0826414508/ref=pd_sim_b_2
[23] http://www.alternet.org/story/154225/would_we_have_drugged_up_einstein_how_anti-authoritarianism_is_deemed_a_mental_health_problem?paging=off
[24] http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/social-security-disability-benefits-29686.html
[25] http://www.alternet.org/tags/mental-illness
[26] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

Multinational Greed Is Threatening The Stability Of Societies Across the Planet

In Uncategorized on July 26, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Oldspeak: “Around the globe, people are getting increasingly frustrated by governments going out of their way to ensure an enabling environment for big business while making drastic cuts in public spending on social welfare. This is fuelling alienation among electorates, spurring protests. Of great concern, is that those seeking to expose the nexus between governments and big business are being subjected to various forms of persecution with state complicity….. while the power of transnational corporations has expanded exponentially, income and wealth disparities are threatening to tear societies apart. The World Economic Forum’s 2013 annual survey of global risks identifies severe income disparity as a key concern likely to manifest itself over the next decade. The International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director has admitted that the top 0.5 percent of the globe’s population holds 35 per cent of its wealth . Civil society group, Oxfam estimated that in 2012, the world’s top 100 billionaires earned enough money to end poverty four times over.  ….But despite the grave warnings from civil society, governments and financial institutions continue to spin arguments about the need to privatise services when they should be focusing on how to make the public sector fit for purpose. Shockingly, during a global economic downturn, political leaders and captains of industry have together managed to subject ordinary people to double jeopardy: having to pay taxes to the state and then having to fork out profit-adjusted higher costs for privatised health, education, public transport, telecommunications, road works, electricity, water supply and so on. These services are indeed governments’ responsibility to provide as part of the social contract between citizens and the state.” -Mandeep Tiwana

“It seems pretty obvious at this point that the people who’ve profited the most from the 2008 global economic collapse, our corporate citizens who’ve been bailed out and are constantly being supported by monthly taxpayer financed subsidies via “Quantitive Easing” policies are driving the current global economic and ecological  downturn. Depressing wages, eliminating workers, stripping worker protections, destroying food and water supplies, taking ownership of all,  replacing jobs with living wages with jobs with slave wages, asserting supra-governmental control via a number of secret laws, directives, policies, treaties and trade agreements.  Logic dictates that fewer workers with less spending power = failing economy.  Yet this logic is ignored. This is happening world wide for the most part. It’s clear that the governments worldwide are no longer representative of their people. They’re serving as facilitators and gatekeepers of a global neo-feudalist control system being emplaced. The people continue to honor the social contract between them and the state while the state has thrown it out, and entered into a new contract with the 0.5%. How else to explain half the world living in poverty, when the 100 people could end it 4 times over. How else to explain GM and Chrysler being bailed out while the city around them, Detroit, is being allowed to go bankrupt, not mentioned ONCE in Obama’s latest rhetorical master speech on the U.S. Economy, even as he crowed about saving the U.S. Auto Industry. How else to explain Citigroup’s profits increasing by 42% as it cuts its workforce and makes more than 50% of its profits outside of the U.S.? We have to have real conversations about the fatal corruption of the capitalist system by greed for money. The system is irreparably corrupted by money and amorality. What do we do when a computer’s system is corrupted? We fix it, or if it’s beyond repair, we replace it with a new system. This is what must be done with our economic system. We must replace it.” – OSJ

By Mandeep Tiwana @ Al Jazzera English:

The people are angry. In Turkey, Brazil, and most recently again, Egypt, thousands have taken to the streets to voice their anger and frustration at the lack of social and economic justice. Political and economic elites, working in tandem, have managed to neutralise the aspirations of ordinary people, in part spurring the disenfranchisement driving the protests.

Whether it is the removal of subsidies  [3]protecting the poor against inflation and price shocks in Egypt, or the enormous cost of hosting high profile sporting events  [4]in Brazil at the expense of social services, or government plans to commercialise  [5]a beloved public park in the heart of Istanbul, the headlong embrace of neoliberal economic policies by governments is likely to cause further dissatisfaction and unrest across the globe.

Neo-liberalism, using a dictionary definition, as a “modern politico-economic theory favouring free trade, privatisation, minimal government intervention, reduced public expenditure on social services etc.,” reduces the responsibility of the state while promoting privatisation to favour those with access to resources and influence. It is playing havoc with the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people.

Despite mainstream perceptions, the sad reality is that free markets don’t automatically regulate themselves nor do they naturally respect individual or community rights. In Indonesia [6], people are choking from fires set by agricultural companies to clear forests to allow mammoth palm oil plantations to flourish. In the United States [7], popular demands for effective gun control are being blocked by congressmen bankrolled by the arms industry. In Ethiopia [8], thousands have been displaced through forced villagisation programmes to make way for agricultural companies that want to make land more “productive.” In Spain  [9]and inGreece [10], public property such as hospitals and airports are being sold to private players to make the economy more “nimble.” In the UK [11], frustration is mounting about tax evasion by transnational corporations whose turnover exceeds the GDP of many countries, while the average citizen continues to dutifully pay their fair share of taxes.

Around the globe, people are getting increasingly frustrated by governments going out of their way to ensure an enabling environment for big business while making drastic cuts in public spending on social welfare. This is fuelling alienation among electorates, spurring protests. Of great concern, is that those seeking to expose the nexus between governments and big business are being subjected to various forms of persecution with state complicity.

In Cambodia [12], land rights activists opposing official plans to forcibly acquire land for big companies have been subjected to brutal attacks by security forces and lengthy prison terms. In Honduras [13], peasant farmers’ groups involved in land disputes with companies have been subjected to murderous attacks.  InIndia [14], peaceful activists ideologically opposed to the government’s economic policy have been charged under draconian laws of being members of outlawed terrorist organisations. In Canada [15], non-profit groups opposed to the conservative government’s policy of loosening environmental restrictions to enable extraction of oil and gas from ecologically sensitive zones have been subjected to surveillance and funding cuts, while being accused of being obstructive of the country’s economic development.

Widening income inequality

Worryingly, while the power of transnational corporations has expanded exponentially, income and wealth disparities are threatening to tear societies apart. The World Economic Forum’s 2013 annual survey of global risks identifies severe income disparity [16] as a key concern likely to manifest itself over the next decade. The International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director has admitted that the top 0.5 percent of the globe’s population holds 35 per cent of its wealth [17]. Civil society group, Oxfam estimated that in 2012, the world’s top 100 billionaires earned enough money to end poverty four times over [18]. CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance has argued in its annual report  [19]that the discourse on inequality is becoming commonplace with the 1 percent vs the 99 percent meme entering the mainstream.

But despite the grave warnings from civil society, governments and financial institutions continue to spin arguments about the need to privatise services when they should be focusing on how to make the public sector fit for purpose. Shockingly, during a global economic downturn, political leaders and captains of industry have together managed to subject ordinary people to double jeopardy: having to pay taxes to the state and then having to fork out profit-adjusted higher costs for privatised health, education, public transport, telecommunications, road works, electricity, water supply and so on. These services are indeed governments’ responsibility to provide as part of the social contract between citizens and the state.

In the past, the political and economic elite have erroneously sought to deride the occupy movements,indignados and anti-corruption protestors as fringe elements without clear vision or majority support. But with greater numbers of people taking to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction against corruption, environmental degradation and top down austerity policies, decision makers have a reality check staring them in the face. But will they right the ship on neo-liberal economic policies when they are privately profiting from it? Perhaps citizen action will help answer that.

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Links:
[1] http://english.aljazeera.net/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/mandeep-tiwana
[3] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/21/egyptians-held-back-neoliberalism-not-religion
[4] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/06/2013619134555233454.html
[5] http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2013/07/20137112549633235.html
[6] http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/press/releases/Palm-oil-companies-must-come-clean-on-Indonesian-fire-hotspots—Greenpeace/
[7] http://www.forbes.com/sites/frederickallen/2013/04/18/gun-control-a-congress-of-cowards/
[8] http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/01/16/ethiopia-forced-relocations-bring-hunger-hardship
[9] http://iberosphere.com/2013/06/spain-news-private-sector-moves-into-spains-public-hospitals/8701
[10] http://pathfinderbuzz.com/resilience-makes-greek-ports-attractive/
[11] http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/nov/12/starbucks-tax-avoidance-controversy
[12] https://www.civicus.org/media-centre-129/61-press-releases/1030-cambodia-civicus-calls-for-unconditional-release-of-detained-activists
[13] http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR37/003/2013/en/4fabe3f5-648c-4192-9383-06ae42fa9922/amr370032013en.html
[14] http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/06/26/india-stop-misuse-counterterrorism-laws
[15] http://socs.civicus.org/?p=3825
[16] http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/
[17] http://www.imf.org/external/np/speeches/2013/051513.htm
[18] http://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressrelease/2013-01-19/annual-income-richest-100-people-enough-end-global-poverty-four-times
[19] http://socs.civicus.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/2013StateofCivilSocietyReport_full.pdf
[20] http://www.alternet.org/tags/neoliberalism
[21] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

“The Super Bowl Of Disasters”: Disaster Capitalists Profiting From Crisis In Post-Earthquake Haiti

In Uncategorized on February 24, 2012 at 3:27 pm

US taxpayers are underwriting sweatshop expansion in Haiti. Here, textile workers protest for better rights and working conditions. Photo: Ansel Herz.

Oldspeak:”Many a corporation, lobbyist, and consultant has seen Haiti’s losses as their gain, leveraging humanitarianism for profit. Plenty of the $1.1 billion in disaster aid has gone not to desperate Haitians but to inside-the-Beltway contractors. Often the very same corporations have wrested financial and political gain from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the countries hit by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans after the ensuing flood of 2005, and lots of other places.” Disaster capitalism is being practiced all around the world. Review the 4 steps of the Disaster Capitalism and Cycle and consider the implications.  Haiti is at step 2.  The United States is at step 3.

The Disaster Capitalism Cycle

1. The shock of war, torture, disaster, or political upheaval distracts or deconstructs the popular identity, precluding or minimizing protest against free market reform and privatisation, which are usually unwanted by the masses.

2. First World interests, multinational capitalist firms, and a cooperative and corrupt elite benefit the most from these changes, while for the general population wages drop, the cost of living increases, and social services like welfare and healthcare decrease.

3. The privatisation of important sectors, from mining to healthcare to homeland security, takes away citizen power and control over policy making in these areas, as the government limits its own power through the free market legislation and de-regulation. It becomes difficult to undo these reforms.

4. A feedback loop of international scale emerges, the wealthy and powerful becoming more so. Certain sectors and private hands have an interest in maintaining instability, as they learn to profit more and more from war and disaster – as the cycle returns to step 1.

By Deepa Panchang, Beverly Bell and Tory Field, Other Worlds Are Possible:

As Americans were gearing up for last week’s Super Bowl championship, Haiti’s president Michel Martelly was on a plane to the World Economic Forum to recruit players interested in what one businessman dubbed “the Super Bowl of Disasters” – Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake.[1] The Irish-owned cell phone company Digicel footed his trip there, and hosted a regional business tour complete with a gala ball before his return to a country still reeling from crisis conditions in housing, jobs, and basic rights.[2]

Haiti’s status as prime-time jostling space for prospective investors is not new. Many a corporation, lobbyist, and consultant has seen Haiti’s losses as their gain, leveraging humanitarianism for profit. Plenty of the $1.1 billion in disaster aid has gone not to desperate Haitians but to inside-the-Beltway contractors. Often the very same corporations have wrested financial and political gain from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the countries hit by the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans after the ensuing flood of 2005, and lots of other places. The same deals have been cut over Haiti in the past, too, particularly during periods of political instability.

The earthquake has provided a fresh wave of opportunity. In the first year after the earthquake, the US government awarded more than 1,500 contracts worth $267 million. All went to US firms except 20, worth $4.3 million, which went to Haitian businesses.[3] Among the American corporations that received contracts, we’ve seen everything: many millions going to companies that had had previous contracts cancelled for bad practices, that had paid out as much as eight-figure settlements for violence happening under their watch, that had been investigated by Congress for gaming the system, or that had been the subject of federal reports accusing wastage of funds.[4] We’ve seen corporate executives and members of Congress going through a revolving door and leveraging both sides for contracts. We’ve seen public funds given without any competition or transparency, quite a few to friends of the Clintons and other well-placed insiders.

Local labor and production, which are critical elements in economic recovery, have been trumped for American business profits. According to federal procurement data, among contracts which provide products (as opposed to services), 77% were for products manufactured in the US. They don’t list which, if any, of the remaining 23% involve any Haitian materials or labor.[5]

Two months after the earthquake, companies gathered in a luxury hotel in Miami for a “Haiti Summit” to discuss post-earthquake contracting possibilities. The meeting was sponsored by the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA), but these were no peaceniks. Their members are predominantly private mercenary companies that enforce ‘security’ in war and disaster zones for the US government because, unlike elected entities, they can completely avoid public scrutiny and accountability. They included such companies as Triple Canopy, which took over Blackwater’s contract in Iraq.[6] One of the corporate representatives at the Summit described the outlook: “Their infrastructure is pretty much destroyed, communications are destroyed, there’s a lot of opportunities there for companies, particularly US countries [sic] because of the close proximity.”[7] The Summit was apparently worthwhile, as US government paid out more than $10 million to the industry for “guard services,” and almost $20,000 for riot shields and suits.[8]

Below are a few examples of post-earthquake contracts and grants, selected to show just some of the problems at play. They offer a small glimpse into a much larger, secretive world of disaster deals. We’re grateful to our investigative journalist colleagues who, alongside us, have kept heavy on the scent of these corporations and brought buried information to light.

^^^^^^

“American corporations and their stakeholders must understand how helping Haiti over the long term also helps them,” said the non-profit CHF International in its March 2010 board report. “By contributing to Haiti’s reconstruction in a lasting, meaningful way, companies will be helping to build a new, more vibrant Caribbean market for their own goods and services.”[9]

CHF’s involvement demonstrates how even non-profits can drive development that props up American business interests on the backs of poor Haitians. What CHF refers to as “helping Haiti” has meant using US tax dollars to underwrite textile sweatshops, making it easier and more profitable to score the cheapest source of labor in the hemisphere. In 2006, USAID gave CHF a $104 million, 4-year contract to help “existing industries to increase their capacity, efficiency and reach new markets,” primarily through the export textile industry. The money subsidized CHF’s creation of infrastructure such as roads around industrial areas and training of factory workers on skills such as “how to work in a formal work environment.”[10] Bolstered by additional USAID funding, this project continued after the earthquake.

CHF’s post-earthquake USAID contract, for $20.9 million, went to clean-up projects, including cash-for-work.[11] Cash-for-work meant camp residents engaging in hired-hand projects such as digging drainage ditches and clearing debris, for a period of a few weeks. The scheme has come under fire by camp residents and human rights groups, with even a USAID evaluation raising some serious critiques.[12] The jobs are unpredictable, workers have said, and while the short duration can palliate personal crisis for the moment, the program quickly returns the worker’s family to its desperate state. Those hired are paid officially at the unlivable minimum daily wage of 200 gourdes, or US$5, though unofficially they often earn less. A Haiti Grassroots Watch exposé found, furthermore, that cash-for-work hiring is often based on corruption, with many workers having to pay a ‘kickback,’ negotiate sex (in the case of women) for a job, or affiliate with political parties or candidates.[13] USAID also noted that cash-for-work programs it funded increased risks of “serious and avoidable” accidents on the job “by failing to develop and enforce consistent workplace safety rules and accident procedures.”[14]

CHF’s projects, based on factory jobs and cash-for-work, have given neither livable incomes to employees nor offered development opportunities to the nation. Meanwhile, CHF has gained humanitarian clout and an influx of funding, and its garment industry partners sit happily with the perks.

^^^^^^

Using tried-and-true strategies of political manipulation, some corporations have been able to edge their way into post-earthquake contracts despite histories of fraud and corruption.

AshBritt Environmental, for instance, has a record of disaster response elsewhere that spells trouble for Haiti. The company had received $900 million in contracts for Hurricane Katrina clean-up, after hiring lobbyists formerly involved in state government.[15] An MSNBC investigation later brought to light complaints by local contractors, a mayor, and local legislators that the company’s work was too slow, that it overcharged, and that it was not hiring local contractors.[16] The extent of “layer cake” contracting was so extreme that in one case, AshBritt was paid $23 per cubic yard of debris removed but subcontracted through three middleman companies so that the company that actually removed the rubble received $3 per cubic yard.[17]) Even a 2006 federal report accused the company of wasting money in this subcontractor layering after Katrina.[18]

Given its experience, AshBritt wasted no time unleashing its skills in lobbying and political pressure to get in on the Haiti game. Early in 2010, the company paid $90,000 to a lobbying firm to pressure the government for Haiti contracts, according to disclosure records described in the press.[19] In a prime instance of revolving door between public and private sectors, one of the lobbyists working on the case was the former chief of staff for Senator John Kerry.[20] Kerry, in turn, was the senator who co-sponsored the legislation for Haiti relief funding.

With influential people circulating between the givers and receivers of funds, AshBritt was confident enough about future contracts that it spent an initial $25 million setting up for anticipated operations in Haiti with a soccer field-sized base camp and services to house future project managers.[21] In July 2010, AshBritt won a $500,000 US government contract for debris removal, the first of what the company anticipated would be many contracts to come their way.[22] Continuing the revolving door trend, another lobbyist for the firm was the former USAID Mission Director in Iraq, Lewis Lucke, who was paid $30,000 per month to help win contracts via a partnership venture AshBritt set up.[23] Lucke claimed he “played an integral role” in obtaining three contracts for the company, including $10 million from the World Bank and about $10 million more from the Haitian government (one of the first major government contracts for debris removal).[24] As of this writing, not even the company’s website contains an update on what work it has or has not completed in Haiti.

^^^^^^

Like AshBritt, CH2M Hill, a large engineering and construction firm, should have raised warning signals as a company to be hired on the taxpayer dollar. A government database that monitors federal contracts reveals a track record of corruption, listing nine instances of misconduct for the company since 1995.[25] In one case, the company was paid $4.1 million for a contract in Iraq though no work was actually completed. [26] On the Gulf Coast, a US government investigation of $45 million paid to CH2M and the three other companies in no-bid contracts for Katrina response was declared wasteful spending. [27] CH2M was also accused in a congressional investigation in 1992 of misusing money during its cleanup of toxic waste sites in the U.S. More than two million dollars of this contract were allegedly used for “unallowable and questionable costs,” such as $11,379 for a Christmas party and $2750 for specialty chocolates.[28] The company is listed in the top 50 of U.S.-based contractors and has been a major player in wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.[29]

The track record was nothing that some strategic lobbying efforts couldn’t mitigate, however. The lobbyist who headed up CH2M Hill’s efforts to win contracts in Haiti was Larry LaRocco, a former congressman from Idaho who now runs his own lobbying firm.[30] And unsurprisingly, the company spent half a million dollars in political contributions in 2010. [31] Thus equipped with politicians in its pocket, CH2M was well-positioned to compete in the latest contract game. It received its first post-earthquake contract just days after the disaster, and was given a joint contract with KBR Global Service (itself notorious due to its Iraq and Afghanistan activities) for facilities operations support at the end of 2010.[32]

^^^^^^

In the case of a few other contracts that we know to be operating in Haiti, we’ve spent hour after hour on the scent. We’ve scoured internet resources, news articles, and company websites to track companies we know received post-earthquake contracts in Haiti. Nothing. Not even a mention, sometimes, in the 100-plus-page 2010 annual reports.

What we have been unable to uncover is at least as alarming as what we have learned about some of the firms receiving millions from the US government, and what they have done with those millions. We wonder whether the US government has had any more knowledge or oversight of the corporate actions than have the corporation’s investors. As for the American people, they have no way to know how their money has been spent or what has been done in their names. The lack of transparency has also given a green light to profiteers to neglect standards, quality, and honesty.

There is one group for whom the secrecy, foul play, taking of power that should never be taken, giving away of what should never be given away, matters most of all: Haitians, the ones whose country is being treated like a Monopoly game. They alone will have to live with the long-term outcome of what foreign companies build, demolish, restructure, or steal in their country.

Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part.  Please credit any text or original research you use to Deepa Panchang, Beverly Bell, and Tory Field, Other Worlds.


[1] Mike Clary, “Broward Rivals Battle for Work in Post-Quake Haiti,” Sun-Sentinel.com, July 14, 2010.
[2] Paul Cullen, “Attracting trade now focus for Haiti’s president,” The Irish Times, http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2012/0130/1224310943929.html
[3] Alex Dupuy, “One Year after the Earthquake, Foreign Help is Actually Hurting Haiti,” Washington Post, January 7, 2011.
[4] Emma Perez-Trevino, “Beating Death Lawsuit Ends in Settlement,” The Brownsville Herald online, January 7, 2010, http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/articles/rosa-107144-settlement-beating…. Martha Brannigan and Jacqueline Charles, “U.S. Firms Want Part in Haiti Cleanup,” Miami Herald, February 9, 2010.
[5] “Haiti Earthquake Report,” Federal Procurement Data System, data updated as of 9/15/2011, https://www.fpds.gov/downloads/top_requests/Haiti_Earthquake_Report.xls.
[6] See, for example, Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2007); Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007); Jeremy Scahill, “US Mercenaries Set Sights on Haiti,” TheNation.com, February 1, 2010; and Anthony Fenton, “Private Contractors ‘Like Vultures Coming to Grab the Loot,” IPSNews.net, February 19, 2010.
[7] “Al Jazeera Reports on the Haiti ‘Summit’ for Private Contractors,” YouTube video, 3:32, Al Jazeera reporting, posted by “WebofDem,” May 6, 2010, http://youtu.be/kkNCdy0GXyc.
[8] “Haiti Earthquake Report,” Federal Procurement Data System, data updated as of 9/15/2011, https://www.fpds.gov/downloads/top_requests/Haiti_Earthquake_Report.xls.
[9] Jane Madden, “Corporations Must Consider Haiti’s Long Term Needs,” Philanthropy News Digest online, March 10, 2010, http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/commentary/co_item.jhtml?id=287300002.
[10] “New USAID-Funded Haiti Apparel Center to Provide Training to Thousands of Haitians in the Garment Industry,” press release by USAID, August 11, 2010, http://www.usaid.gov/press/releases/2010/pr100811_1.html.
[11] USAID, Haiti Earthquake: Fact Sheet #48, April 2, 2010,
http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/humanitarian_assistance/disaster_assistance/countries/haiti/template/fs_sr/fy2010/haiti_eq_fs48_04-02-2010.pdf.
[12]Center for Economic and Policy Research, “USAID/OTI’s Politicized, Problematic, Cash-for-Work Programs,” December 21, 2010, http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/cepr-blog/usaidotis-politicized-problematic-cash-for-work-programs; Antèn Ouvriye, Submission to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review: Labor Rights (Transnational Legal Clinic, University of Pennsylvania Law School, 2011), http://ijdh.org/archives/17948; and Office of Inspector General, Audit of USAID’s Cash-for-Work Activities in Haiti (San Salvador: September 24, 2010), http://www.usaid.gov/oig/public/fy10rpts/1-521-10-009-p.pdf.
[13] Haiti Grassroots Watch, “Is Cash-for-work Working?”, http://www.ayitikaleje.org/Dossier2Story2. Haiti Grassroots Watch, “Cash for Work – At What Cost,” http://www.ayitikaleje.org/haiti-grassroots-watch-engli/2011/7/18/cash-for-work-at-what-cost.html.
[14] Office of Inspector General, Audit of USAID’s Cash-for-Work Activities in Haiti, September 24, 2010, http://www.usaid.gov/oig/public/fy10rpts/1-521-10-009-p.pdf.
[15] Jordon Flaherty, “One year after Haiti earthquake, corporations profit while people suffer,” Monthly Review Magazine, January 12, 2010. “It’s who you know,” CorpWatch, August 16th, 2006, http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14008
[16] Mike Brunker, “Dust flies over Katrina’s debris,” MSNBC, January 29, 20006, http://risingfromruin.msnbc.com/2006/01/fighting_over_t.html
[17] Rita King, “Layers and Layers,” CorpWatch, August 16, 2006, http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=14011.
[18] Martha Brannigan and Jacqueline Charles, “U.S. Firms Want Part in Haiti Cleanup,” Miami Herald, February 9, 2010.
[19] Kevin Bogardus, “Haiti’s recovery aided by U.S. lobbyists,” The Hill, October 11, 2010.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ben Fox, “Masters of disaster: Foreign firms set up shop in Haiti and wait for construction boom,” Associated Press, June 7, 2010.
[22] Mike Clary, “Broward rivals battle for work in post-quake Haiti,” Sun Sentinel, July 14, 2010, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-07-14/news/fl-haiti-recovery-rivals-20100714_1_ashbritt-post-earthquake-haiti-debris.
[23] Ben Fox, “Ex-US official sues contractor in Haiti for fees,” Associated Press, December 31, 2010.
[24] Mark Weisbrot, “Haiti and the international aid scam,” The Guardian, April 22, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/apr/22/haiti-aid.
[25] Project on Government Oversight, http://www.contractormisconduct.org/
[26] Matt Kelley, “Canceled Iraq contracts cost U.S. $600 million,” USA Today, November, 17, 2008.
[27] Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Impatient to Profit from Disaster,” October 14, 2010, http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/relief-and-reconstruction-watch/impatient-to-profit-from-disaster
[28] Keith Schneider, “Company Accused of Bilking U.S. on Waste Sites,” New York Times, March 20,1992.
[29] Top 400 Contractors Sourcebook cited on http://newsroom.ch2mhill.com/pr/ch2m/industry-rankings.aspx. Statement of Mr. Fred M. Brune, President, Government Facilities and Infrastructure Business Group, CH2M Hill Constructors, Inc. before the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, July 26, 2010, http://www.wartimecontracting.gov/…/hearing2010-07-26_testimony_Brune_(CH2M%20Hill).pdf.
[30] Kevin Bogardus, “Haiti’s recovery aided by U.S. lobbyists,” The Hill, October 11, 2010. http://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/123565-haitis-recovery-aided-by-lobbyists
[31] CH2M Hill Expenditures, Center for Responsive Politics, http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/expenditures.php?cycle=2010&cmte=C00143305
[32] “Haiti Earthquake Report,” Federal Procurement Data System, data updated as of 9/15/2011, https://www.fpds.gov/downloads/top_requests/Haiti_Earthquake_Report.xls.

Christmas Co-Opted: Today Show And Wal-Mart Cloak Poverty, Homelessness, Unemployment In Meaningless Commercial Consumerism

In Uncategorized on December 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Oldspeak: ” ‘Offering hope to a family in crisis‘ Yes because what a broke, homeless, unemployed  and health care-less family needs most are laptops, a kindle and big screen TV at Wal-Mart and to meet Matt Lauer and Ann Curry on a segment of “The Today Show” sponsored by Wal-Mart, in what amounted to commercial for Wal-Mart.  Not food, or shelter or heath care or anything like that…  O_o This is how corporations show they care! By graciously giving desperately poor, homeless and unemployed people opportunities to consume shit they don’t need, and meet people who don’t really care about them or helping to alleviate their conditions. The poor, homeless and unemployed are reduced to consumable content, to be presented in a ‘positive’ light, to fleetingly acknowledge the devastating national epidemics of poverty, homelessness, inequality, and lack of access to heath insurance. ‘America’s problem seems to be that it can only be cruel 364 days a year. Christmas is that time of year when the United States of Scrooge takes a vacation from heartless profiteering and the nasty joy Americans get, that “I’m-not-one-of-those-losers” frisson.’ -Greg Palast “Ignorance is Strength”

By Greg Palast @ Dissident Voice:

I don’t usually watch Today or any American TV because my reports appear on the British Broadcasting Corporation, a network run by highly-educated America-haters.

But there I was, last Friday, in this hotel room in Atlanta, a city pretending there’s no Depression, chewing my complimentary morning donut, and Today is telling us about the “new face of American poverty.”

“More than 49 million Americans now live below the poverty line and a number of them like the family you’re about to meet propelled into bankruptcy by a one-two punch of job loss and a catastrophic health crisis.”

Wow! US television finally grabs the Big Issue.

This white suburban family called the Kleins have lost their home to eviction. They’re completely broke, because one of their kids got a tumor in her face. They have no insurance so the $100,000-plus medical bills wiped them out.

They live with neighbors and they hoped to at least get their kids a couple pair of underwear as a Christmas gift.

But if you think America doesn’t give a crap about the cancerous growth of poverty, just keep watching: The Today reporter takes the white family to WalMart where the bubbly journalist gushes, “The wonderful people of WalMart opened up their stores and their aisles and their hearts. The store is your oyster, Michelle!”

Then some WalMartian PR person tells the bankrupt mom to address the issue of long-term unemployment, “Let’s go shopping!”

And you thought America was cold-hearted, just because the Republicans tried to block unemployment insurance this Christmas for three million families.

On their free shopping spree, the Kleins got laptops and a Kindle, and a big-ass TV and all the good things that WalMart can provide.

And if you think WalMart has shown how selfless and caring Americans are, just wait until you find out what the Today show is giving America’s desperate poor: Simply the best-est gift ever …

“We saved the best for last!” The reporter tells the Kleins that NBC is flying them to New York, “to be on the Today show, to be on our set with Matt Lauer and Ann Curry!”

Matt and Ann! Both of them! Well, I bet they wouldn’t do that in North Korea or Sweden! Only in America!

Mr. Klein is so happy he’s meeting Ann that he doesn’t seem care anymore that he lost his job at Ford Motor. He just has his family. In some other family’s house, of course. But that’s a detail.

And if you thought this was just some cheap publicity stunt by WalMart, dig this, Mr. Cynical: WalMart is going to pay for all the Klein’s medical bills for a full year! And to pay for it, WalMart’s 1.4 million employees will not have all their medical bills covered for the year. Now, that’s generosity!

(This heartwarming segment of the Today show about the Klein kids, by the way, is sponsored by — no points for guessing: WalMart.)

But then I thought: wait a minute. What about ObamaCare? Once the plan is in place, no American can be denied insurance, even someone with a tumor in their face.

Americans love to hate ObamaCare. But isn’t that more valuable to the Kleins than a TV screen with no house to put it in?

Now, many of my friends will be surprised to hear me say this, as I’ve been quite skeptical about the accomplishments of the Pope of Hope. But let’s admit that Barack Obama tried to save the Kleins from medical-bill devastation, that he is trying to get them some unemployment insurance, trying (if on sketchy terms) to save the auto industry, all in the face of resistance of America’s hatred of Socialist Government.

Maybe we don’t need Santa Claus. Maybe we need Anti-Claus: A skinny ‘Muslim’ from Kenya squirming down your chimney!

America’s problem seems to be that it can only be cruel 364 days a year. Christmas is that time of year when the United States of Scrooge takes a vacation from heartless profiteering and the nasty joy Americans get, that “I’m-not-one-of-those-losers” frisson.

Listen to Rick and Newt and Mitt and Michele and Ron and what you get is the Great American F***’em! They lost their jobs? F***’em! Their kid has a tumor and they don’t have health insurance? F***’em!

Unless, of course, it’s Christmas and you have to look at the tumor on TV. Then, it’s like, Someone buy them a big-screen television so we don’t feel bad.

Santa’s erstaz elf, Bill O’Reilly, keeps talking about the “War on Christmas.” Because one day a year he has to dress up in Good Will to All Men drag. He can deck his halls with bags of bullshit make-believe kindness.

The rest of the year, he’s jerking off while talking dirty to his horrified female producers and raking in millions from the yahoos who haven’t lost their jobs yet.

So that’s it: for me, no more chestnuts roasting on an open fire. My chestnuts have gone down with my Lehman bonds, anyway. I’m declaring war on Christmas.

Don’t like that, O’Reilly? Then eat my shorts — with cranberry sauce.

Surgery for kids with cancer, a house to live in that’s not a relatives’ basement, and a job making something other than “financial products”… These are rights, not gifts. They don’t come down the chimney, they come from a community that can set aside its bred-in-the-bone meanness for more than one day a year.

 

***** 

And to all a good night.

Merry, um, Festivus, from the Palast Investigative Team.

Greg Palast studied healthcare economics at the Center for Hospital Administration Studies at the University of Chicago. His investigative reports can be seen on BBC Television’s NewsnightRead other articles by Greg, or visit Greg’s website.

A Failed Social Model: Providing Basic Goods Via Crushing Consumer Debt

In Uncategorized on November 22, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Oldspeak:” Something to think about days before the annual hedonistic consumption orgy that is “Black Friday” when crushing consumer debt will likely increase. “We have been living in a society where debts, rather than rights, have been the major means for accessing basic social goods like housing, education, and health care. That social model was built around the assumption that while real incomes stagnated and the state did not directly provide many basic goods through universal entitlements, cheap credit would do the trick instead. High finance was inextricably intertwined with the privileges of citizenship.” -Alex Gourevitch When High finance is linked to a system, you can pretty much guarantee it will be accompanied by exploitation, corruption, fraud, greed and disenfranchisement. We are beginning to see the devastating effects of attaching debt commitments to basic needs combined with decades long wage stagnation for most workers and concentration of wealth among owners. A collapsed housing market and unprecedented rates of foreclosure. 1 in 5 Americans on food stamps. 1 in 3 children living in poverty. Widespread medical bankruptcies and less and less access to preventative health care.  Exploding student loan debt and creation of artificially constricted choice of profession and shortages of manpower in vital and low-paid ‘public interest’ jobs. All while the banksters have grown richer and more brazen in their casino capitalistic practices. Providing basic social goods for all has very few negative consequences. However it doesn’t adhere to basic corporcratic ethos “Internalize profits, externalize costs”, thus universal rights and freedoms will continue to be at worst denied, and at best a monetarily  based privilege. “Profit Is Paramount”

By Alex Gourevitch @ New Deal 2.0:

Some things — education, health, housing — should be rights, not financed through taking on more and more debt.

Occupiers have joined anti-foreclosure advocates to occupy home auctions and abandoned buildings and block foreclosures. A few state attorneys general have begun resisting the Obama administration’s awful mortgage fraud settlement and started investigating banks and servicers. Even shareholders are in revolt, filing class action suits against their companies. By one measure, student loans are one of the biggest concerns amongst supporters of Occupy Wall Street. There is now an OccupyStudentDebt. A petition to forgive student loans has gathered 300,000 signatures and was included as part of a general debt forgiveness bill on the floor of the House of Representatives. Congress has even begun to touch on medical debt issues.

Taken together, we can say that these and other actions are the sign of growing resistance to key aspects of the social model of the past 30 to 40 years. We have been living in a society where debts, rather than rights, have been the major means for accessing basic social goods like housing, education, and health care. That social model was built around the assumption that while real incomes stagnated and the state did not directly provide many basic goods through universal entitlements, cheap credit would do the trick instead. High finance was inextricably intertwined with the privileges of citizenship. This was not a very good social model. With any luck, and a serious amount of political action, current resistance could lead to alternative ways of thinking about how we make these goods available to all.

After all, while the previous decade has been represented as a debt-financed spending binge when consumers lived well beyond their means, it turns a complex story into a morality play. A major part of the credit ‘binge’ was about necessities, not luxuries. Sub-prime mortgages (especially with the decline of affordable housing) were the only way for many to become homeowners. Similarly, student loans were the only way for many to gain access to higher education and thus participate as equals in the radically unequal distribution of opportunity in the United States. The total value of student loans has surpassed total credit card debt, and is projected to top $1 trillion later this year. Mike Konczal posted the following graph at Rortybomb showing the dramatic rise of student debt. In a decade, student loans have gone from a third of consumer loans to far more than half.

alex1

We find a similar story in health care. Two major national studies of medical indebtedness by a group of scholars, including Elizabeth Warren, have shown that illness and medical costs are a major cause of household bankruptcy. They noted that by 2001 “illness or medical bills contributed to about half of bankruptcies.” Notably, in their 2001 study, they found that 75.7 percent of medical debtorshad insurance at the onset of illness. Underinsurance, as much as lack of insurance, was a major financial burden. So too was loss of income due to illness (by their estimate, income loss is 40 percent of medical-related indebtedness). Worse yet, their follow up 2007 study of medical indebtedness notes that the “number of un- and underinsured Americans has grown; health costs have increased; and Congress tightened the bankruptcy laws.” That has led to a 50 percent increase in the proportion of bankruptcies attributable to medical problems. These bankruptcies, moreover, occurred in families only marginally worse than the median income and occupational class of American citizens. Once again, indebtedness is the product of the 99% trying to meet the costs of a basic good — health care.

If there is a reasonable expectation that debtors can meet their interest payments then in theory debt is not a particularly bad way to finance access to certain goods. It is on the individual borrower to make a judgment about what constitutes a reasonable debt burden.

There are, however, two problems with this theoretical view. First, there might be very good social reasons to not want to yoke access to certain social goods to debt. Education is a prime example. Taking on debt means accepting a kind of discipline. One must make all future calculations about, say, educational and career choices with the need to meet future interest payments in mind. In conscious and unconscious ways this narrows horizons and produces a more instrumental relationship to education. In college I saw concerns about debt shape decisions about which classes to take and what to major in. I also saw many of my college classmates make more conservative professional choices (corporate law, consulting, finance, medical specialist) than they might otherwise have made (public service, teaching, science, public interest law) in order to ensure their ability to pay back loans. This appears to have been a pattern. A study of educational and career choices in the early 2000s by Princeton economists has found that “debt causes graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and reduces the probability that students choose low-paid ‘public interest’ jobs.”

It is frequently observed that the growth of finance sucked up the math and physics geniuses, who might have contributed something lasting to society, into hedge funds and investment banks to ruinous effect. But the alteration of professional choices is much wider than that. The number crunchers at the top were, one suspects, lured away by lucrative pay. The much more widespread, and difficult to measure, shift in career choices due to the discipline of debt burdens is probably the more important, and still ongoing, consequence of high student loans.

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If access to higher education were on the order of something like a right — a publicly financed good, provided at little or no cost, to ensure real equality of opportunity — then one can imagine a much different set of results. While conservatives like to talk about ‘freedom,’ this is a place where the left ought to have the upper hand in connecting economic practices to real freedoms. Providing necessary social goods, especially education, as a right rather than through debt not only reduces the disciplining effects of the latter. It also is a way of publicly recognizing and democratically defending the real freedoms of all citizens.

To be clear, this is not a moralistic criticism of debt as evil or irresponsible. But there are very good reasons why society would not want to impose certain kinds of discipline on (most of) its citizens. Firstly, from a social point of view, people’s talents might be much more productively used in some other area than those that promise the most immediate monetary returns. There is no shortage of aspiring bankers and traders, but there is a primary care doctor shortage. Primary care doctors can graduate medical school with as much as $200,000 in debt.

A second reason is that practice does not resemble theory. Again, the theory is that so long as each individual makes a reasonable calculation about his or her ability to meet debt payments, there is nothing wrong with financing access to basic social goods through credit. Putting systematic fraud aside (but remembering it is unlikely that credit can sink that far into housing and educational markets without it), there is a deep historical reason for thinking that practice was the opposite of theory. The rise of debt-financed household consumption generally was the product of stagnating wages. Consider, for instance, this research by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco comparing the growth of debt, wealth, and income:

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Or compare the above growth of household debt with the stagnation of wages and benefits during that same period (from State of Working America):

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Debt-financed consumption was, in other words, a response to the declining ability of most households to afford existing rates of consumption, not an increasing ability or trust in future ability to pay back that debt.

The entire social model, then, was built on a lie. The separation of consumption (financed by future promises to pay) from production (based on limiting present ability to earn) was a mirage. The problem has been that the underlying right to maintain a certain standard of living, or even to access to certain basic social goods like housing, health, and education, was just that: implicit. Every so often, of course, it was made somewhat public — for instance when Clinton or Bush would say something about providing housing to the poor and minorities who could not otherwise afford it (mainly by changing market incentives and promoting sub-prime borrowing, as it turned out). But this promise was always implicit and had to stay that way because it was mediated through the credit system. Access to these basic social goods was never a fully publicclaim each individual had against society. Instead, access to these social goods was a matter of a complex series of private, individualized claims against other private institutions like banks and employers, with the public role submerged in the form of altered market incentives. That is the difference between debt and right, and it is clear that the debt-based social model has failed.

There are certainly some situations where debt-financed consumption is a perfectly good option. For instance, the current call for more fiscal austerity at the federal level is ideological claptrap. Moreover, any economy always has to take a bet on the future if it is going to innovate, especially since innovation always comes with the risk of failure. But there are certain kinds of basic goods that are better provided as a matter of universal right, both for the sake of the freedom of the persons who need those goods and as a matter of economic efficiency and productivity. We can have risk-averse graduates and a chronically ill workforce chained to underwater mortgages, or we can have healthy, well-educated citizens with enough security, and thus freedom, to take real risks in their lives.

Alex Gourevitch a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Political Theory Project at Brown University. He also runs a blog calledThe Current Moment.

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