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A Crisis from the Top: The Unwisdom of Elites

Paul Krugman, New York Times
The past three years have been a disaster for most Western economies. The United States has mass long-term unemployment for the first time since the 1930s. Meanwhile, Europe’s single currency is coming apart at the seams. How did it all go so wrong?

… The fact is that what we’re experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. The policies that got us into this mess weren’t responses to public demand. They were, with few exceptions, policies championed by small groups of influential people — in many cases, the same people now lecturing the rest of us on the need to get serious. And by trying to shift the blame to the general populace, elites are ducking some much-needed reflection on their own catastrophic mistakes.

… What happened to the budget surplus the federal government had in 2000?

The answer is, three main things. First, there were the Bush tax cuts, which added roughly $2 trillion to the national debt over the last decade. Second, there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which added an additional $1.1 trillion or so. And third was the Great Recession, which led both to a collapse in revenue and to a sharp rise in spending on unemployment insurance and other safety-net programs.

So who was responsible for these budget busters? It wasn’t the man in the street.

President George W. Bush cut taxes in the service of his party’s ideology, not in response to a groundswell of popular demand — and the bulk of the cuts went to a small, affluent minority.

Similarly, Mr. Bush chose to invade Iraq because that was something he and his advisers wanted to do, not because Americans were clamoring for war against a regime that had nothing to do with 9/11. In fact, it took a highly deceptive sales campaign to get Americans to support the invasion, and even so, voters were never as solidly behind the war as America’s political and pundit elite.

Finally, the Great Recession was brought on by a runaway financial sector, empowered by reckless deregulation. And who was responsible for that deregulation? Powerful people in Washington with close ties to the financial industry, that’s who.
(9 May 2011)

The New Sputnik

Juan Cole, TruthDig
In 1957, a United States shocked by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite bounced into action to compete on the world stage. More than 50 years later, in May of 2011, the U.S. is facing a new challenge. The Chinese Communist Party has decided to launch a crash program to produce green energy, a field where it already has a commanding lead over the U.S. The difference between 1957 and 2011 is that American politics in the meantime have been captured by parasitic or corrupt industries such as high finance and big oil and gas. The Green Gap produced by China’s increasing lead in the technologies of the future is not even headlined in America’s corporate mass media, much less galvanizing a nation of gas guzzlers and coal junkies.

The disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has caused the Chinese Communist Party to reconsider its plans to vastly expand its own nuclear power industry. The government of President Hu Jintao is thinking instead of vastly expanding the green energy sector, aiming to produce 50 gigawatts from solar energy by 2020, up from a previous goal of 20 gigawatts. If the new goal can be met, it will be an impressive accomplishment in its own right. The six reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, among the largest such plants in the world, produced 4.7 gigawatts, so the Chinese solar plants would be the solar equivalent of more than four such complexes.

The real promise, however, is that if the Chinese government really does throw a trillion and a half dollars at solar and other renewables over the next decade and a half, the cost of producing energy in that way is likely to plummet. The Middle Kingdom already produces half of the world’s solar panels. The bad news for the United States is that China could dominate the rapidly growing and crucial world market for green technology in coming decades, leaving literally in the dust a Rust Belt America wedded to dirty coal, oil and water-slurping shale extraction.

China’s production of green technology has been growing 77 percent a year, and solar panels, wind turbines and other green manufactures account for 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product. Only tiny Denmark outdoes China on this score, deriving 3.1 percent of its GDP from renewable energy technology. But of course in absolute terms China’s production in this sector, at $64 billion annually, leads the world. The U.S. derives only 0.3 percent of its GDP from green tech and substantially trails China in absolute terms. Last year Beijing installed three times as much new wind turbine capacity as the United States. It added 18.9 gigawatts of new wind power-generating capacity in 2010, or about half of all the new wind installations in the world.

Chinese officials, unlike many representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives, have no doubt that spewing carbon into the atmosphere is causing climate change of a sort that threatens the world’s and their own country’s future prosperity. China’s dirty coal-burning plants are a major source of this pollution, and it is they that the clean energy installations will replace.
(10 May 2011)

Escape from the Zombie Food Court

Joe Bageant,
Joe Bageant recently spoke at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky University at Lexington, and the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, where he was invited to speak on American consciousness and what he dubbed “The American Hologram,” in his book, Deer Hunting With Jesus. Here is a text version of the talks, assembled from his remarks at all three schools.

… The bad news is that we nevertheless remain one of the most controlled peoples on the planet, especially regarding control of our consciousness, public and private. And the control is tightening. I know it doesn’t feel like that to most Americans. But therein rests the proof. Everything feels normal; everybody else around us is doing the same things, so it must be OK. This is a sort of Stockholm Syndrome of the soul, in which the prisoner identifies with the values of his or her captors, which in our case is of course, the American corporate state and its manufactured popular culture.

When we feel that such a life is normal, even desirable, and we act accordingly, we become helpless. Learned helplessness. For instance, most Americans believe there is little they can do in personally dealing with the most important moral and material crises ever faced, both in America and across the planet, beginning with ecocide, war making, and the grotesque deformation of the democratic process we have settled for. Citizenship has been reduced to simple consumer group consciousness. Consequently, even though Americans are only six percent of the planet’s population, we use 36% of the planet’s resources. And we interpret that experience as normal and desirable and as evidence of being the most advanced nation in the world. Despite that our lives have been reduced to a mere marketing demographic.

Let me digress for just a moment, to tell you about how life is outside the marketing demographic. I live much of the year in the Third World country of Belize, Central America, a nation so damned poor that our cash bounces. True, it ain’t Zimbabwe, or the Sudan — there are no dying people in the streets. But food security is easily the biggest problem and growing by the day.

Yet, despite our meager and diminishing resources down there, and much government corruption, people are still citizens, not marketing demographics, not yet anyway. Citizens who struggle toward a just society. They have made more progress than the United States in some respects. For instance, we have: A level of free medical care for the poor, though we lack much equipment and facilities. Maternity pay if either you or your spouse are employed. Retirement on Social Security at age 60. Worker rights, such as mandatory accrued severance pay for workers, even temporary workers. Most Belizeans own their homes outright, and all citizens are entitled to a free piece of land upon which to build one. Employment is scarce, and that has a down side: Many folks waste a lot of valuable time having sex , perhaps because they have too much time on their hands. The Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries are working hard to fix that problem.

Anyway, American and Canadian tourists drive by in their rented SUVs and you can see by their expressions they are scared as hell of those bare footed black folks in the sand around them. Central America sure as hell ain’t heaven. But lives there are not what we Americans are told about the Third World either. It’s not a flyblown, dangerous place run by murdering drug lords, and full of miserable people. It’s just a whole lot of very poor people trying to get by and make a decent society.

I mention these things because it’s a good example of how North Americans live in a parallel universe in which they are conditioned to see everything in terms of consumer goods and “safety,” as defined by police control.
(3 April 2009)
A long piece by the late great Joe Bageant. Suggested by Amanda Kovattana. -BA