When the gods dance...

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Another bullied gay teen commits suicide

During a month of tremendous strides for LGBT rights, Jadin Bell reminds us how far we still have to go

Another bullied gay teen commits suicide

It’s a celebratory month for American LGBT rights. Marriage equality is becoming the norm in more and more states — with Rhode Island approving it just last week. After a deluge of bad publicity, the Boy Scouts are at long last making noises about admitting gay scouts. When New Jersey teenager Jacob Rudolph came out to his class while accepting an acting award, he was greeted with cheers and his speech went viral. Even famed former champion of “traditional” marriage David Blankenhorn is now proposing “a new conversation that brings together gays and lesbians who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.” And on Jan. 21, Barack Obama became the first president to mention gay and lesbian rights in his inaugural address.

Yet in the midst of all the good news, we still have so much more to do, and so much hate to still overcome. We still have to fight hard, every day, so there are fewer tragedies like Jadin Bell. Bell, a 15-year-old high-school sophomore in La Grande, Ore., was taken off life support earlier this week after hanging himself on a playground structure at Central Elementary School. His family says that he had been bullied for being gay.

In a conversation with local news station KATU on Tuesday, family friend Bud Hill told reporters that Bell had been bullied both in person and online, and that he’d asked his parents to home-school him. The boy had recently communicated about the problem with school officials, who told KATU that they were in the process of an investigation when Bell hanged himself. “He was different,” Hill said, “and they tend to pick on the different ones.”

At a vigil last week, Bell was remembered by friends as an “amazing young man,” a kid who loved cheerleading and volunteering at the local assisted living home for seniors. His mother, meanwhile, had a pleading message for the school bullies. “The next time you are thinking of being unkind to someone,” she told the La Grande Observer, “think to yourself, ‘If that person was a member of your family, would you want them treated like that?’ Don’t treat them like that.”

So for all the strides we’re making, we need to remember that teenagers are still killing themselves because bigoted monsters are making their lives hell. Tyler Clementi. Seth Walsh. Kenneth WeishuhnJosh Pacheco, just last month. And families and friends are left shattered and grieving because we still live in a climate where bullying is too often not taken seriously enough, and where LGBT individuals are subject to institutionalized discrimination and flippant homophobia on a regular basis. It does get better, and a whole lot of things in this country have gotten better, but as long as kids are dying because hateful creeps are pushing them around, we have miles and miles to go. As Bud Hill told the La Grande Observer, “It should not have come to something like this.” Not for Bell. Not for any kid. Not again.
Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub

Churches threaten to pull funding if Boy Scouts drop anti-gay ban

About 70 percent of Scout troops are sponsored by faith-based organizations. 

Many are threatening to break ties

Churches threaten to pull funding if Boy Scouts drop anti-gay ban 
(Credit: Reuters/David Manning)

The Boy Scouts of America announced earlier this week that they are considering an end to their decades-long ban on gay members, leaving it to regional and local councils to dictate membership guidelines on sexuality.

The news was met with cheers from scouts across the country who have been banned from the organization after coming out, but many conservative and religious leaders are angry about what they see as the organization abandoning its long-standing commitment to biblical principles.

“If that is what the leadership is doing, then I think it will be a sad day in the life of the Boy Scouts of America,” Fred Luter, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told the Baptist Press. “This is a tradition that so many of us across the country grew up in. We were in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts in elementary school, and this organization has always stood for biblical principles — all the things that grounded our lives as a young kid growing up. To now see this organization that I thought stood on biblical principles about to give in to the politically correct thing is very disappointing.”

About 70 percent of all Boy Scout troops are sponsored by faith-based organizations, with the Southern Baptists, Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, United Methodist Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints representing the most troops, according to Fox News.

And many are suggesting they will break financial and membership ties with the organization if the policy goes through.

“Churches of all faiths and denominations, including Southern Baptist churches, will be forced to reevaluate whether they can, in good conscience, continue to host Scout troops given that the Scouts appear poised to turn their backs on this clear biblical and moral issue,” Roger Oldham, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said.

Kay Godfrey, a spokesman for Boy Scouts in the Great Salt Lake Council, told NPR: “We’ve had 100 years of a very conservative approach to scouting. A major shift along these lines could change the face of scouting, but we’ll have to just wait and see.”

Beyond the larger religious organizations threatening to remove funding, many parents vow to take their sons out of the Scouts if the national executive board approves the measure.

“If this comes to pass, then I will pull my boy from Scouts. It wont be because of ‘fear’ as some ridiculously suggest. I simply don’t approve of the lifestyle,” wrote one parent in response to a blog denouncing the policy change by Matthew Franck, professor of political science at Radford University.

Katie McDonough is an assistant editor for Salon, focusing on lifestyle. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.


From Debtor’s Prison to Debtor Nation

The Politics of Debt in America 


By Steve Fraser

[This essay will appear in the next issue of Jacobin.  It is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

Shakespeare’s Polonius offered this classic advice to his son: “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  Many of our nation’s Founding Fathers emphatically saw it otherwise.  They often lived by the maxim: always a borrower, never a lender be.  As tobacco and rice planters, slave traders, and merchants, as well as land and currency speculators, they depended upon long lines of credit to finance their livelihoods and splendid ways of life.  So, too, in those days, did shopkeepers, tradesmen, artisans, and farmers, as well as casual laborers and sailors.  Without debt, the seedlings of a commercial economy could never have grown to maturity.

Ben Franklin, however, was wary on the subject. “Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt” was his warning, and even now his cautionary words carry great moral weight.  We worry about debt, yet we can’t live without it.

Debt remains, as it long has been, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of capitalism.  For a small minority, it’s a blessing; for others a curse.  For some the moral burden of carrying debt is a heavy one, and no one lets them forget it.  For privileged others, debt bears no moral baggage at all, presents itself as an opportunity to prosper, and if things go wrong can be dumped without a qualm.

Those who view debt with a smiley face as the royal road to wealth accumulation and tend to be forgiven if their default is large enough almost invariably come from the top rungs of the economic hierarchy.  Then there are the rest of us, who get scolded for our impecunious ways, foreclosed upon and dispossessed, leaving behind scars that never fade away and wounds that disable our futures. 

Think of this upstairs-downstairs class calculus as the politics of debt.  British economist John Maynard Keynes put it like this: “If I owe you a pound, I have a problem; but if I owe you a million, the problem is yours.”

After months of an impending “debtpocalypse,” the dreaded “debt ceiling,” and the “fiscal cliff,” Americans remain preoccupied with debt, public and private.  Austerity is what we’re promised for our sins. Millions are drowning, or have already drowned, in a sea of debt -- mortgages gone bad, student loans that may never be paid off, spiraling credit card bills, car loans, payday loans, and a menagerie of new-fangled financial mechanisms cooked up by the country’s “financial engineers” to milk what’s left of the American standard of living.   

The world economy almost came apart in 2007-2008, and still may do so under the whale-sized carcass of debt left behind by financial plunderers who found in debt the leverage to get ever richer.  Most of them still live in their mansions and McMansions, while other debtors live outdoors, or in cars or shelters, or doubled-up with relatives and friends -- or even in debtor’s prison. Believe it or not, a version of debtor’s prison, that relic of early American commercial barbarism, is back. 

In 2013, you can’t actually be jailed for not paying your bills, but ingenious corporations, collection agencies, cops, courts, and lawyers have devised ways to insure that debt “delinquents” will end up in jail anyway.  With one-third of the states now allowing the jailing of debtors (without necessarily calling it that), it looks ever more like a trend in the making.

Will Americans tolerate this, or might there emerge a politics of resistance to debt, as has happened more than once in a past that shouldn’t be forgotten?  

The World of Debtor’s Prisons

Imprisonment for debt was a commonplace in colonial America and the early republic, and wasn’t abolished in most states until the 1830s or 1840s, in some cases not until after the Civil War.  Today, we think of it as a peculiar and heartless way of punishing the poor -- and it was.  But it was more than that.

Some of the richest, most esteemed members of society also ended up there, men like Robert Morris, who helped finance the American Revolution and ran the Treasury under the Articles of Confederation; John Pintard, a stock-broker, state legislator, and founder of the New York Historical Society; William Duer, graduate of Eton, powerful merchant and speculator, assistant secretary in the Treasury Department of the new federal government, and master of a Hudson River manse; a Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge; army generals; and other notables.

Whether rich or poor, you were there for a long stretch, even for life, unless you could figure out some way of discharging your debts.  That, however, is where the similarity between wealthy and impoverished debtors ended.

Whether in the famous Marshalsea in London where Charles Dickens had Little Dorritt’s father incarcerated (and where Dickens’s father had actually languished when the author was 12), or in the New Gaol in New York City, where men like Duer and Morris did their time, debtors prisons were segregated by class.  If your debts were large enough and your social connections weighty enough (the two tended to go together) you lived comfortably.  You were supplied with good food and well-appointed living quarters, as well as books and other pleasures, including on occasion manicurists and prostitutes. 

Robert Morris entertained George Washington for dinner in his “cell.” Once released, he resumed his career as the new nation’s richest man.  Before John Pintard moved to New Gaol, he redecorated his cell, had it repainted and upholstered, and shipped in two mahogany writing desks.

Meanwhile, the mass of petty debtors housed in the same institution survived, if at all, amid squalor, filth, and disease.  They were often shackled, and lacked heat, clean water, adequate food, or often food of any kind.  (You usually had to have the money to buy your own food, clothing, and fuel.)  Debtors in these prisons frequently found themselves quite literally dying of debt.  And you could end up in such circumstances for trivial sums.  Of the 1,162 jailed debtors in New York City in 1787, 716 owed less than twenty shillings or one pound.  A third of Philadelphia’s inmates in 1817 were there for owing less than $5, and debtors in the city’s prisons outnumbered violent criminals by 5:1.  In Boston, 15% of them were women.  Shaming was more the point of punishment than anything else.

Scenes of public pathos were commonplace.  Inmates at the New Gaol, if housed on its upper floors, would lower shoes out the window on strings to collect alms for their release.  Other prisons installed “beggar gates” through which those jailed in cellar dungeons could stretch out their palms for the odd coins from passersby.

Poor and rich alike wanted out.  Pamphleteering against the institution of debtor’s prison began in the 1750s.  An Anglican minister in South Carolina denounced the jails, noting that “a person would be in a better situation in the French King’s Gallies, or the Prisons of Turkey or Barbary than in this dismal place.”  Discontent grew.  A mass escape from New Gaol of 40 prisoners armed with pistols and clubs was prompted by extreme hunger. 

In the 1820s and 1830s, as artisans, journeymen, sailors, longshoremen, and other workers organized the early trade union movement as well as workingmen’s political parties, one principal demand was for the abolition of imprisonment for debt.  Inheritors of a radical political culture, their complaints echoed that Biblical tradition of Jubilee mentioned in Leviticus, which called for a cancellation of debts, the restoration of lost houses and land, and the freeing of slaves and bond servants every 50 years.

Falling into debt was a particularly ruinous affliction for those who aspired to modest independence as shopkeepers, handicraftsmen, or farmers.  As markets for their goods expanded but became ever less predictable, they found themselves taking out credit to survive and sometimes going into arrears, often followed by a stint in debtor’s prison that ended their dreams forever. 

However much the poor organized and protested, it was the rich who got debt relief first.  Today, we assume that debts can be discharged through bankruptcy (although even now that option is either severely restricted or denied to certain classes of less favored debt delinquents like college students).  Although the newly adopted U.S. Constitution opened the door to a national bankruptcy law, Congress didn’t walk through it until 1800, even though many, including the well-off, had been lobbying for it.

Enough of the old moral faith that frowned on debt as sinful lingered.  The United States has always been an uncharitable place when it comes to debt, a curious attitude for a society largely settled by absconding debtors and indentured servants (a form of time-bound debt peonage).  Indeed, the state of Georgia was founded as a debtor’s haven at a time when England’s jails were overflowing with debtors.

When Congress finally passed the Bankruptcy Act, those in the privileged quarters at New Gaol threw a party.  Down below, however, life continued in its squalid way, since the new law only applied to people who had sizable debts.  If you owed too little, you stayed in jail. 

Debt and the Birth of a Nation

Nowadays, the conservative media inundate us with warnings about debt from the Founding Fathers, and it’s true that some of them like Jefferson -- himself an inveterate, often near-bankrupt debtor -- did moralize on the subject.  However, Alexander Hamilton, an idol of the conservative movement, was the architect of the country’s first national debt, insisting that “if it is not excessive, [it] will be to us a national blessing.”

As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton’s goal was to transform the former 13 colonies, which today we would call an underdeveloped land, into a country that someday would rival Great Britain.  This, he knew, required liquid capital (resources not tied up in land or other less mobile forms of wealth), which could then be invested in sometimes highly speculative and risky enterprises.  Floating a national debt, he felt sure, would attract capital from well-positioned merchants at home and abroad, especially in England.

However, for most ordinary people living under the new government, debt aroused anger.  To begin with, there were all those veterans of the Revolutionary War and all the farmers who had supplied the revolutionary army with food and been paid in notoriously worthless “continentals” -- the currency issued by the Continental Congress -- or equally valueless state currencies.

As rumors of the formation of a new national government spread, speculators roamed the countryside buying up this paper money at a penny on the dollar, on the assumption that the debts they represented would be redeemed at face value.  In fact, that is just what Hamilton’s national debt would do, making these “sunshine patriots” quite rich, while leaving the yeomanry impoverished.

Outrage echoed across the country even before Hamilton’s plan got adopted.  Jefferson denounced the currency speculators as loathsome creatures and had this to say about debt in general: “The modern theory of the perpetuation of debt has drenched the earth with blood and crushed its inhabitants under burdens ever accumulating.”  He and others denounced the speculators as squadrons of counter-revolutionary “moneycrats” who would use their power and wealth to undo the democratic accomplishments of the revolution.

In contrast, Hamilton saw them as a disinterested monied elite upon whom the country’s economic well-being depended, while dismissing the criticisms of the Jeffersonians as the ravings of Jacobin levelers.  Soon enough, political warfare over the debt turned founding fathers into fratricidal brothers.  

Hamilton’s plan worked -- sometimes too well.  Wealthy speculators in land like Robert Morris, or in the building of docks, wharves, and other projects tied to trade, or in the national debt itself -- something William Duer and grandees like him specialized in -- seized the moment.  Often enough, however, they over-reached and found themselves, like the yeomen farmers and soldiers, in default to their creditors. 

Duer’s attempts to corner the market in the bonds issued by the new federal government and in the stock of the country’s first National Bank represented one of the earliest instances of insider trading.  They also proved a lurid example of how speculation could go disastrously wrong.  When the scheme collapsed, it caused the country’s first Wall Street panic and a local depression that spread through New England, ruining “shopkeepers, widows, orphans, butchers... gardeners, market women, and even the noted Bawd Mrs. McCarty.”   

A mob chased Duer through the streets of New York and might have hanged or disemboweled him had he not been rescued by the city sheriff, who sent him to the safety of debtor’s prison.  John Pintard, part of the same scheme, fled to Newark, New Jersey, before being caught and jailed as well.

Sending the Duers and Pintards of the new republic off to debtors’ prison was not, however, quite what Hamilton had in mind.  And leaving them rotting there was hardly going to foster the “enterprising spirit” that would, in the treasury secretary’s estimation, turn the country into the Great Britain of the next century.  Bankruptcy, on the other hand, ensured that the overextended could start again and keep the machinery of commercial transactions lubricated.  Hence, the Bankruptcy Act of 1800.

If, however, you were not a major player, debt functioned differently. Shouldered by the hoi polloi, it functioned as a mechanism for funneling wealth into the mercantile-financial hothouses where American capitalism was being incubated.

No wonder debt excited such violent political emotions.  Even before the Constitution was adopted, farmers in western Massachusetts, indebted to Boston bankers and merchants and in danger of losing their ancestral homes in the economic hard times of the 1780s, rose in armed rebellion.  In those years, the number of lawsuits for unpaid debt doubled and tripled, farms were seized, and their owners sent off to jail.  Incensed, farmers led by a former revolutionary soldier, Daniel Shays, closed local courts by force and liberated debtors from prisons.  Similar but smaller uprisings erupted in Maine, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania, while in New Hampshire and Vermont irate farmers surrounded government offices. 

Shays' Rebellion of 1786 alarmed the country’s elites.  They depicted the unruly yeomen as “brutes” and their houses as “sties.”  They were frightened as well by state governments like Rhode Island’s that were more open to popular influence, declared debt moratoria, and issued paper currencies to help farmers and others pay off their debts.  These developments signaled the need for a stronger central government fully capable of suppressing future debtor insurgencies.

Federal authority established at the Constitutional Convention allowed for that, but the unrest continued.  Shays' Rebellion was but part one of a trilogy of uprisings that continued into the 1790s.  The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was the most serious.  An excise tax (“whiskey tax”) meant to generate revenue to back up the national debt threatened the livelihoods of farmers in western Pennsylvania who used whiskey as a “currency” in a barter economy.  President Washington sent in troops, many of them Revolutionary War veterans, with Hamilton at their head to put down the rebels. 

Debt Servitude and Primitive Accumulation

Debt would continue to play a vital role in national and local political affairs throughout the nineteenth century, functioning as a form of capital accumulation in the financial sector, and often sinking pre-capitalist forms of life in the process. 

Before and during the time that capitalists were fully assuming the prerogatives of running the production process in field and factory, finance was building up its own resources from the outside.  Meanwhile, the mechanisms of public and private debt made the lives of farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and others increasingly insupportable.

This parasitic economic metabolism helped account for the riotous nature of Gilded Age politics. Much of the high drama of late nineteenth-century political life circled around “greenbacks,” “free silver,” and "the gold standard."  These issues may strike us as arcane today, but they were incendiary then, threatening what some called a “second Civil War.”  In one way or another, they were centrally about debt, especially a system of indebtedness that was driving the independent farmer to extinction.

All the highways of global capitalism found their way into the trackless vastness of rural America.  Farmers there were not in dire straits because of their backwoods isolation.  On the contrary, it was because they turned out to be living at Ground Zero, where the explosive energies of financial and commercial modernity detonated.  A toxic combination of railroads, grain-elevator operators, farm-machinery manufacturers, commodity-exchange speculators, local merchants, and above all the banking establishment had the farmer at their mercy.  His helplessness was only aggravated when the nineteenth-century version of globalization left his crops in desperate competition with those from the steppes of Canada and Russia, as well as the outbacks of Australia and South America.

To survive this mercantile onslaught, farmers hooked themselves up to long lines of credit that stretched back to the financial centers of the East.  These lifelines allowed them to buy the seed, fertilizer, and machines needed to farm, pay the storage and freight charges that went with selling their crops, and keep house and home together while the plants ripened and the hogs fattened.  When market day finally arrived, the farmer found out just what all his backbreaking work was really worth.  If the news was bad, then those credit lines were shut off and he found himself dispossessed.

The family farm and the network of small town life that went with it were being washed into the rivers of capital heading for metropolitan America.  On the “sod house” frontier, poverty was a “badge of honor which decorated all.”  In hisDevil’s Dictionary, the acid-tongued humorist Ambrose Bierce defined the dilemma this way: “Debt. n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.”

Across the Great Plains and the cotton South, discontented farmers spread the blame for their predicament far and wide.  Anger, however, tended to pool around the strangulating system of currency and credit run out of the banking centers of the northeast. Beginning in the 1870s with the emergence of the Greenback Party and Greenback-Labor Party and culminating in the 1890s with the People’s or Populist Party, independent farmers, tenant farmers, sharecroppers, small businessmen, and skilled workers directed ever more intense hostility at “the money power.”

That “power” might appear locally in the homeliest of disguises.  At coal mines and other industrial sites, among “coolies” working to build the railroads or imported immigrant gang laborers and convicts leased to private concerns, workers were typically compelled to buy what they needed in company scrip at company stores at prices that left them perpetually in debt.  Proletarians were so precariously positioned that going into debt -- whether to pawnshops or employers, landlords or loan sharks -- was unavoidable.  Often they were paid in kind: wood chips, thread, hemp, scraps of canvas, cordage: nothing, that is, that was of any use in paying off accumulated debts.  In effect, they were, as they called themselves, “debt slaves.” 

In the South, hard-pressed growers found themselves embroiled in a crop-lien system, dependent on the local “furnishing agent” to supply everything needed, from seed to clothing to machinery, to get through the growing season.  In such situations, no money changed hands, just a note scribbled in the merchant’s ledger, with payment due at “settling up” time.  This granted the lender a lien, or title, to the crop, a lien that never went away.

In this fashion, the South became “a great pawn shop,” with farmers perpetually in debt at interest rates exceeding 100% per year.  In Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, 90% of farmers lived on credit.  The first lien you signed was essentially a life sentence.  Either that or you became a tenant farmer, or you simply left your land, something so commonplace that everyone knew what the letters “G.T.T.” on an abandoned farmhouse meant: “Gone to Texas.”  (One hundred thousand people a year were doing that in the 1870s.) 

The merchant’s exaction was so steep that African-Americans and immigrants in particular were regularly reduced to peonage -- forced, that is, to work to pay off their debt, an illegal but not uncommon practice.  And that neighborhood furnishing agent was often tied to the banks up north for his own lines of credit.  In this way, the sucking sound of money leaving for the great metropolises reverberated from region to region.

Facing dispossession, farmers formed alliances to set up cooperatives to extend credit to one another and market crops themselves.  As one Populist editorialist remarked, this was the way “mortgage-burdened farmers can assert their freedom from the tyranny of organized capital.”  But when they found that these groupings couldn’t survive the competitive pressure of the banking establishment, politics beckoned.

From one presidential election to the next and in state contests throughout the South and West, irate grain and cotton growers demanded that the government expand the paper currency supply, those “greenbacks,” also known as “the people’s money,” or that it monetize silver, again to enlarge the money supply, or that it set up public institutions to finance farmers during the growing season.  With a passion hard for us to imagine, they railed against the “gold standard” which, in Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan’s famous cry, should no longer be allowed to “crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”

Should that cross of gold stay fixed in place, one Alabama physician prophesied, it would “reduce the American yeomanry to menials and paupers, to be driven by monopolies like cattle and swine.”  As Election Day approached, populist editors and speakers warned of an approaching war with “the money power,” and they meant it.  “The fight will come and let it come!”

The idea was to force the government to deliberately inflate the currency and so raise farm prices.  And the reason for doing that?  To get out from under the sea of debt in which they were submerged.  It was a cry from the heart and it echoed and re-echoed across the heartland, coming nearer to upsetting the established order than any American political upheaval before or since. 

The passion of those populist farmers and laborers was matched by that of their enemies, men at the top of the economy and government for whom debt had long been a road to riches rather than destitution.  They dismissed their foes as “cranks” and “calamity howlers.”  And in the election of 1896, they won.  Bryan went down to defeat, gold continued its pitiless process of crucifixion, and a whole human ecology was set on a path to extinction.

The Return of Debt Servitude

When populism died, debt -- as a spark for national political confrontation -- died, too.  The great reform eras that followed -- Progessivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society -- were preoccupied with inequality, economic collapse, exploitation in the workplace, and the outsized nature of corporate power in a consolidated industrial capitalist system.

Rumblings about debt servitude could certainly still be heard.  Foreclosed farmers during the Great Depression mobilized, held “penny auctions” to restore farms to families, hanged judges in effigy, and forced Prudential Insurance Company, the largest land creditor in Iowa, to suspend foreclosures on 37,000 farms (which persuaded Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to do likewise).  A Kansas City realtor was shot in the act of foreclosing on a family farm, a country sheriff kidnapped while trying to evict a farm widow and dumped 10 miles out of town, and so on.

Urban renters and homeowners facing eviction formed neighborhood groups to stop the local sheriff or police from throwing families out of their houses or apartments. Furniture tossed into the street in eviction proceedings would be restored by neighbors, who would also turn the gas and electricity back on.  New Deal farm and housing finance legislation bailed out banks and homeowners alike.  Right-wing populists like the Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin carried on the war against the gold standard in tirades tinged with anti-Semitism.  Signs like one in Nebraska -- “The Jew System of Banking” (illustrated with a giant rattlesnake) -- showed up too often.

But the age of primitive accumulation in which debt and the financial sector had played such a strategic role was drawing to a close. 

Today, we have entered a new phase.  What might be called capitalist underdevelopment and once again debt has emerged as both the central mode of capital accumulation and a principal mechanism of servitude.  Warren Buffett (of all people) has predicted that, in the coming decades, the United States is more likely to turn into a “sharecropper society” than an “ownership society.”

In our time, the financial sector has enriched itself by devouring the productive wherewithal of industrial America through debt, starving the public sector of resources, and saddling ordinary working people with every conceivable form of consumer debt.

Household debt, which in 1952 was at 36% of total personal income, had by 2006 hit 127%.  Even financing poverty became a lucrative enterprise.  Taking advantage of the low credit ratings of poor people and their need for cash to pay monthly bills or simply feed themselves, some check-cashing outlets, payday lenders, tax preparers, and others levy interest of 200% to 300% and more.  As recently as the 1970s, a good part of this would have been considered illegal under usury laws that no longer exist.  And these poverty creditors are often tied to the largest financiers, including Citibank, Bank of America, and American Express.

Credit has come to function as a “plastic safety net” in a world of job insecurity, declining state support, and slow-motion economic growth, especially among the elderly, young adults, and low-income families.  More than half the pre-tax income of these three groups goes to servicing debt.  Nowadays, however, the “company store” is headquartered on Wall Street.

Debt is driving this system of auto-cannibalism which, by every measure of social wellbeing, is relentlessly turning a developed country into an underdeveloped one.  

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are back.  Is a political resistance to debt servitude once again imaginable?

Steve Fraser is a historian, writer, and editor-at-large for New Labor Forum, co-founder of the aaaa

Catalan sovereignty: emancipation or politics as usual?

Posted: 30 Jan 2013 04:41 AM PST

As Catalan parties square off with the federal government to claim independence from Spain, the reality of the street remains one of deferred dreams.

On 23 January 2013, the Catalan Parliament approved a so-called Declaration of Sovereignty, thus supporting the calls for independence expressed in a massive protest organized by the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya that brought Barcelona to a halt on 11 September 2012. In an uncharacteristically radical swing for a governing party that has been anything but friendly to popular demands since coming into office in November of 2011, the neoliberal Convergència i Unió party (CiU), with the support of left-wing parties favoring the right to self-determination, has opted for a policy of confrontation with the central Spanish government in Madrid.

Has the Catalan government finally caved in to the voices of the streets? Are they tuning in to some new, emancipatory potential in concepts such as sovereignty, independence or national identities? In order to answer these questions, let’s rewind a bit, see where they’re coming from and ask ourselves why it’s on the political agenda now.

The early days of the acampada at Plaza Catalunya were an astonishingly intense and productive period. To the thousands that came together to voice their indignation, the air smelled of hope, strength and solidarity (and a little bit of weed). To the kleptocratic elite throughout the Spanish state, it smelled of uncertainty, condemnation and revolt (and too much weed). As the multitude articulated their positions on an array of issues that had been sidelined for decades, new debates emerged and contrasting positions were respected in a spirit of autonomy. Yet there was one question which proved particularly difficult for the General Assembly to agree on: Catalonia’s right to self-determination.

After three days of debate, the General Assembly decided to include this basic democratic right in its demands, as had the General Assemblies of several other acampadas outside of Catalonia previously. And while the debate had been particularly draining for many of its participants, the movement came out of it stronger. Throughout the first year of the 15-M movement, Barcelona’s indignados were arguably the most radical in Spain, occupying entire housing blocks for evicted families, occupying public hospitals threatened with being closed down, and reaffirming the city’s nickname of la Rosa de Foc (“the Rose of Fire”) during the General Strike of 29 March 2011 that shut down the city.

Meanwhile, the CiU government found itself in the same deteriorated position as all governments that had been imposing austerity upon people. In the months following the General Strike, polls showed that they had started hemorrhaging votes at an alarming rate. The police state tactics of Felip Puig and the popularity of actions like Occupy Mordor were proving costly to a party that had claimed to carry the smoldering torch of liberal democracy and business-friendly “moderation”. The Catalan government was in need of some serious cosmetic surgery if it was going to improve its image with an increasingly hostile public.

Around this time, nationalist and pro-independence organizations from throughout Catalonia were converging in the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya, which held its Constitutional Assembly in March of 2012 at Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana, an ornate building emblematic for its characteristic Catalan modernista design as well as its centrality in one of Catalonia’s most notorious corruption scandals. The ANC’s heavy emphasis on a Catalan identity as its raison d’être and pan-Catalan call for national unity in its struggle for sovereignty brought together members from across the political spectrum, including many politicians in the governing party. And while CiU’s members were divided in their support for independence, practically all of them supported greater fiscal independence from Madrid.

For years, Catalan society had been evenly split on the issues of independence and self-determination, which meant that this was a perfect wedge issue. It was also a chance to fix their image problem by rebuilding some democratic credentials. If CiU were able to gather enough support from Catalan voters, they would be liberated from the politically damaging pact they had made with the conservative, fiercely centralist Partido Popular in order to pass austerity measures.

Shortly after the 11 September protest, Catalan President Artur Mas met with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy to demand fiscal independence from Spain. It was a carefully crafted spectacle that predictably ended with Mas leaving empty-handed and calling for early elections. With uncanny fervor, the Catalan establishment radicalized their language. Over the next few months, the politicians, intellectuals and pundits that had dominated the airwaves with visceral, anti-radical rhetoric were suddenly talking a lot like the indignados had sounded the year before.

Catalan public television spouted apolitical nonsense about national unity, sinking to a nauseating low when it aired a North Korean-style musical tribute to The Nation featuring the Alpha male in the Iberian pop imaginary, el primo de Zumosol. President Artur Mas made grand speeches about democracy and posed for a dramatic campaign poster with his arms outstretched in triumph over a background of blurred faces, Catalan flags and a single phrase in block letters: La Voluntat d’un Poble (“The Will of a People”). They claimed that only an overwhelming CiU victory, a Triumph of the Will, would bring independence to Catalonia.

Unfortunately for CiU, Catalan society had not entirely forgotten what their government had done while in office. When a quarter of the population and over half of the youth in a region are unemployed, when people are being evicted from their homes and left out in the street on a daily basis, when a government puts health care out of reach for the people who need it, everybody knows somebody whose life has been affected by the violence of neoliberal austerity. No flag is large enough to cover all of that indecency, and the November elections not only denied CiU the absolute majority they were aiming for, but knocked them down 12 seats, forcing them to reach a stability pact with Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC).

Months later, a number of questions remain. Is the Catalan government’s bid for independence and sovereignty sincere? And what do we make of concepts such as independence, sovereignty and national identity in a global struggle for emancipation? If we are to take the key players in Catalonia’s bid for sovereignty as our reference, the answers seem clear: not really and nothing good. While parties like CiU and ERC sign grandiose declarations, they are privatizing hospitals, laying off teachers and privatizing the territory’s water. They grant more sovereignty to banks and supranational organizations like the Troika than to the people in Catalonia.

Meanwhile, the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya has adopted proto-fascist tactics and rhetoric, attempting to bully dissenting voices into consenting with The One Nation. More disgustingly, their “roadmap to independence” calls for a census in which Catalan residents identify themselves as Catalan, so that “those who vote on the independence of Catalonia are ‘the people’ of Catalonia and not ‘the population’ of Catalonia.”

Meanwhile, the only openly pro-independence Catalan party that offers a critical, emancipatory reading of sovereignty and independence is the Canditatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), an interesting experiment in direct democracy that now holds 3 seats in the Catalan parliament (out of 135). Once a strictly municipal-level candidacy composed of neighborhood associations, social movements, radical left pro-independence groups, and prominent members of anarcho-syndicalist unions, some CUP candidates made it very clear in their first regional campaign that they differentiate between being pro-independence and being nationalist (while the first emphasizes democratic control over a territory, the other focuses on a modality of birth, as in the Latin nātĭō, or “that which has been born”).

Their message of independència total sounds hopeful, but so far the story of the Catalan push for independence shows that talk is cheap, promises are debts and politicians’ debts in particular have a bad habit of being paid for by the people.

“So what about those hundreds of thousands of indignados who flooded the streets last year?” you might be asking yourself. That’s a very good question. On the one hand, nearly one million people took to the street in Barcelona during the relatively tame General Strike of 14 November, providing a welcome reality check eleven days before the election, amongst all the nationalist noise. On the other, protests are growing more issue-based, whether they are in favor of migrant rights, decent housing or in defense of public health care. The streets aren’t quiet, but they aren’t exactly boiling either.

As you walk around Barcelona, you see flags draped on balconies in every building block. The graffiti whispers about those 3% commissions that CiU likes to skim off of public works, whispers fuck them all, whispers anarchy is order. The web chatters idly about corruption or the brain drain and cafés sigh in desperation, as a woman asks for change on the sidewalk and an African man pushes a shopping cart filled with scrap metal. The question in Catalonia today is not what happens to one dream deferred, but to so many at once…

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Obama’s Flip-Flops on Money in Politics: A Brief History

President Obama at the Inaugural Ball on Jan. 21. In a reversal this year, the inaugural committee accepted corporate donations. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The creation this month of Organizing for Action, which will promote the president’s second-term agenda, appears to be the fourth reversal by Obama on major money-in-politics issues since 2008.

“No big bank or corporation will donate million-dollar checks to OFA without the expectation that it will impact which issues they engage on, and that’s very troubling,” said Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

The Washington Post noted that in reorganizing his campaign as a tax-exempt social welfare group, the president is embracing a structure that has been criticized for allowing anonymous money into politics.

Conservatives who’ve been attacked by the Obama camp for their reliance on such “dark money” groups called out the president’s “brazen hypocrisy.” Neither the White House nor Organizing for America responded to requests for comment.

Here’s a brief history of Obama’s other shifts on money-in-politics issues going back to 2008:
  • Public financing

In November 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama pledged to take part in the presidential public financing system for the general election, calling himself “a longtime advocate for public financing of campaigns.” Under the system, created in the wake of Watergate, a candidate receives taxpayer money ($84 million in 2008) and cannot accept most private donations or spend beyond the amount of the government grant.

Less than a year later, in June 2008, Obama reversed himself and announced he was opting out of the system. He maintained he still supported the system in principle but said it should be reformed.

Obama became the first candidate to decline general election public financing since the creation of the system and went on to raise a then-record $745 million for the cycle. He outspent John McCain, who did accept public money, by four-to-one. Obama’s 2008 decision generally takes at least some of the blame from campaign finance observers for killing the system.

Neither Obama nor Mitt Romney accepted public financing in the 2012 race. The Obama campaign raised $782 million for the cycle.
  • Super PACs

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 2010 Citizens United decision, opening the way for the creation of super PACs financed with unlimited corporate or individual money, Obama became the ruling’s biggest critic.

“Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign corporations — to spend without limit in our elections,” Obama said in his State of the Union address a few days after the decision. “I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”

That criticism turned into a pledge not to use the new funding vehicles. In July 2011, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt told the Washington Post: “Neither the president nor his campaign staff or aides will fundraise for super PACs. Our campaign will continue to lead the way when it comes to transparency and reform.”

Seven months later, the campaign reversed itself and embraced a super PAC founded by former White House aides called Priorities USA Action. “[O]ur campaign has to face the reality of the law as it currently stands,” wrote campaign manager Jim Messina in a blog post.

With the blessing of the campaign, top Obama aides, such as then-Chief of Staff Jack Lew and confidantes like Rahm Emanuel, were dispatched to solicit super PAC donations from Democratic millionaires and billionaires. Priorities USA ultimately spent more than $60 million to help re-elect the president.

  • Inaugural festivities funding

After Obama’s victory in 2008, his inaugural committee abided by what it called “an unprecedented set of limitations on fundraising as part of President-elect Obama’s pledge to put the country on a new path.” That meant taking no corporate money and no individual contributions in excess of $50,000 to pay for the myriad parties and balls that end up costing tens of millions of dollars.

The second time around, Obama reversed the policy. The inaugural committee organizing this month’s inaugural festivities accepted corporate money and imposed no limits on giving. A spokesperson cited the need to “meet the fund-raising requirements for this civic event after the most expensive presidential campaign in history.”

  • Unlimited special interest spending

Just a few months ago, the Obama campaign sent me a memo on the president’s campaign finance record, highlighting his repeated denunciations of special interest money in politics.

“That’s one of the reasons I ran for President: because I believe so strongly that the voices of ordinary Americans were being drowned out by the clamor of a privileged few in Washington,” he said in May 2010, decrying the way Citizens United “gives corporations and other special interests the power to spend unlimited amounts of money — literally millions of dollars — to affect elections throughout our country.”

In 2012, the Obama campaign specifically called out social welfare, or 501(c)(4),  groups that spent hundreds of millions of dollars of anonymous money on political ads.

That’s why campaign finance reformers are so angry: Organizing for Action is a 501(c)(4) that will advocate for the president’s second-term agenda.

The group has said that despite its status, it will voluntarily disclose donors. But it’s not clear whether that will involve full, prompt disclosure of who is giving and how much, or simply providing a list of names at some point.

A spokeswoman for the new group told NBC this week the disclosure issue is “still being worked out.”

Unnamed Democratic officials have told media outlets that the group will take corporate money (though not donations from registered lobbyists). Indeed, at a meeting this month at the Newseum in Washington, Obama campaign aides pitched top Democratic donors, reported Politico, which obtained a ticket to the event.

The meeting was sponsored by a trade association founded by Fortune 100 companies, including UnitedHealthcare, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and Duke Energy.

Social welfare groups are formed to promote the common good and may be involved in politics. Under IRS rules, they are not supposed to be primarily engaged in campaigns.

It’s unclear whether Organizing for Action will get involved in electoral politics as other such nonprofits have in recent years. The group’s spokeswoman told NBC it will run “issue” ads to support Obama’s agenda — but that’s a category of political advocacy that has been open to wide interpretation.

Patty Andrews, Singer With the Andrews Sisters, Dies at 94

Lynda Wells, a niece, confirmed the death.

With their jazzy renditions of songs like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B),” “Rum and Coca-Cola” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me),” Patty, Maxene and LaVerne Andrews sold war bonds, boosted morale on the home front, performed with Bing Crosby and with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, made movies and entertained thousands of American troops overseas, for whom the women represented the loves and the land the troops had left behind.

Patty, the youngest, was a soprano and sang lead; Maxene handled the high harmony; and LaVerne, the oldest, took the low notes. They began singing together as children; by the time they were teenagers they made up an accomplished vocal group. Modeling their act on the commercially successful Boswell Sisters, they joined a traveling revue and sang at county fairs and in vaudeville shows. Their big break came in 1937 when they were signed by Decca Records, but their first recording went nowhere.

Their second effort featured the popular standard “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” but it was the flip side that turned out to be pure gold. The song was a Yiddish show tune, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön (Means That You’re Grand),” with new English lyrics by Sammy Cahn, and the Andrews Sisters’ version, recorded in 1937, became the top-selling record in the country.

Other hits followed, and in 1940 they were signed by Universal Pictures. They appeared in more than a dozen films during the next seven years — sometimes just singing, sometimes also acting. They made their film debut in “Argentine Nights,” a 1940 comedy that starred the Ritz Brothers, and the next year appeared in three films with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello: “Buck Privates,” “In the Navy” and “Hold That Ghost.” Their film credits also include “Swingtime Johnny” (1943), “Hollywood Canteen” (1944) and the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby comedy “Road to Rio” (1947).

After selling more than 75 million records, the Andrews Sisters broke up in 1953 when Patty decided to go solo. By 1956 they were together again, but musical tastes were changing and they found it hard to adapt. When LaVerne Andrews died of cancer in 1967, no suitable replacement could be found, and Patty and Maxene soon went their separate ways. Patty continued to perform solo, and Maxene joined the staff of a private college in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

Patricia Marie Andrews was born on Feb. 16, 1918, in Minneapolis. Her father, Peter, was a Greek immigrant who changed his name from Andreos to Andrews when he came to America. Her mother, Olga, was Norwegian.

Like her older sisters, Patty learned to love music as a child (she also became a good tap dancer), and she did not have to be persuaded when Maxene suggested that the sisters form a trio in 1932. She was 14 when they began to perform in public.

As their fame and fortune grew, the sisters came to realize that the public saw them as an entity, not as individuals. In a 1974 interview with The New York Times, Patty explained what that was like: “When our fans used to see one of us, they’d always ask, ‘Where are your sisters?’ Every time we got an award, it was just one award for the three of us.” This could be irritating, she said with a touch of exasperation: “We’re not glued together.”

The Andrews Sisters re-entered the limelight in the early 1970s when Bette Midler released her own recording of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” modeled closely on theirs. It reached the Top 10, and its success led to several new compilations of the Andrews Sisters’ own hits.

The previous year, Patty Andrews had appeared in a West Coast musical called “Victory Canteen,” set during World War II. When the show was rewritten for Broadway and renamed “Over Here!,” the producers decided that the Andrews Sisters were the only logical choice for the leads. They hired Patty and lured Maxene back into show business as well. The show opened in March 1974 and was the sisters’ belated Broadway debut. It was also the last time they sang together.

The sisters got into a bitter money dispute with the producers and with each other, leading to the show’s closing in January 1975 and the cancellation of plans for a national tour. After that, the sisters pursued solo careers into the 1990s. They never reconciled and were still estranged when Maxene Andrews died in 1995.

Patty Andrews’s first marriage, to the movie producer Marty Melcher, lasted two years and ended in divorce in 1949. (Mr. Melcher later married Doris Day.) In 1951 she married Wally Weschler, who had been the sisters’ pianist and conductor and who later became her manager. They had no children. Mr. Weschler died in 2010. Ms. Andrews is survived by her foster daughter, Pam DuBois.

A final salute to the Andrews Sisters came in 1991 in the form of “Company B,” a ballet by the choreographer Paul Taylor subtitled “Songs Sung by the Andrews Sisters.” The work, which featured nine of the trio’s most popular songs, including “Rum and Coca-Cola” and, of course, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” underscored the enduring appeal of the three sisters from Minneapolis.

Dennis Hevesi contributed reporting.

Corporate power: exposing the global 1%

Posted: 29 Jan 2013 11:29 AM PST

In these infographics, the Transnational Institute offers a visual insight into who dominates our planet at a time of economic and ecological crisis.

Did you know that less than 1% of the world’s transnational corporations, mostly banks, control the share of 40% of global businesses? Did you know that 0.001% of the world’s population (corresponding to roughly one pixel on your computer screen) controls assets worth $14.6 trillion — or over 20% of global annual GDP? In its State of Power 2013 report, the Transnational Institute breaks down the concentration of wealth and power of the world’s plutocracy into a series of powerful infographics.

TNI President and scholar-activist Susan George provides this introduction:

Towards the end of 2011, three young, very smart and tenacious mathematicians specialising in complexity theory at the Zurich Polytechnic published the paper the rest of us had been waiting for—except, to be truthful, we didn’t even know we’d been waiting for it. Nobody had ever assumed it might be possible to put the powerful structures of corporate control in an unarguably rigorous scientific framework.

That is what Stefano Battiston, James Glattfelder and Stefania Vitali, or BG&V, did with their Network of Global Corporate Control and TNI is gratefully borrowing from them in this pamphlet. Naturally we had good sources for our infographics series before and we’re using them again—lots of lists of the Biggest and the Richest had been published earlier from reliable sources such as the UN or major corporations themselves (e.g. Merrill-Lynch) or magazines serving that very clientele like Forbes.

But BG&V skewered the Davos Class—my name for those who personify the interconnected nature of the world’s most powerful corporations; interchangeable individuals with common interests and goals that make them a genuine international, nomadic social class.

The mathematicians did it by mapping the topography of the corporate universe just as astronomers map the suns, planets, constellations and supernovae of the night sky and they demonstrated how they are interconnected through direct and indirect ownership.

> View TNI’s report: State of Power 2013

Coordinator: Nick Buxton
Research: George Draffan
Design: Ricardo Santos


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Boy Scouts Want YOU -- To Weigh In


It finally looks like the Boy Scouts of America are seriously considering changing policy on inclusion of openly gay scouts and troops. BSA is actively soliciting feedback from the general public. The link below will provide you with options to communicate with the organization. I am an Eagle Scout and member of the Order of the Arrow. And I'm gay. I returned my Eagle Scout medal a few months ago with a letter supporting gay scouts who were fighting for change. It hurt me to do this. I loved scouting and would have been happy to have worked with a Troop as an openly gay adult. This was not to be, of course. We must work harder than ever right now to make these opportunities available to those who wish to continue in scouting and, most of all, to the young gays who seek acceptance into the fraternity of scouting.

Administrators for the Boy Scouts of America want to get people's general opinion on whether the organization should accept openly gay troops and members.

According to GLAAD, calls to the BSA's National Service desk (972-580-2330) ask callers, "Are you for or against the change in policy?" Emails can also be sent to nationsupportcenter@scouting.org.

The call for feedback comes as the Boy Scouts national board of directors will vote on the policy at its meeting next week. GLAAD is also urging people to spread the word on the Scouts' call for feedback through social media.