Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Challenge of the 21st Century Is To Extricate Ourselves From Existing Empires

Some empires change outward appearance over time.  For instance, the British Empire has morphed into the American Empire; the Russian Empire went from the czar to the communists to Vladimir Putin; not to be undone, the Chinese Empire also had a flirt with the communists before returning back to oligarchic rule; finally, the European Union today looks a lot like the former Holy Roman Empire. 

Some Empires shrink back to their original territory.  I am thinking of the former French, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese Empires.  These were the losers in the struggle for imperial conquest.  Each one had its day, only to be eclipsed by a rival empire: the French, Dutch, and the Spanish lost out to the British, while the Japanese were crushed by the Americans.

Perhaps, the world's greatest empire, the Roman Empire, did not disappear altogether but simply shifted its focus from military conquest to the struggle to control men's souls.  Taking into consideration the expanse of the Roman Catholic Church's assets and revenues, the fear of god is as much a potent force to subjugate a population as is a Roman legion.

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At the heart of each empire, regardless of the manner in which it is constituted or the means employed, is the desire to reduce people to subjects, which is to place them under the power of another, the king, plutocrats, oligarchs, or a sovereign assembly.

The means of maintaining empire consist of using military conquest or the threat thereof, ideological domination that excludes alternative ways of thinking about organizing a society and its economy, and religious zealotry.  Most often, a ruling elite will make use of more than one of these methods to maintain its ironclad grip on the reins of power.

As a Canadian citizen, I live in a country that is a vestige of the British Empire.  As a result, I am subject to the laws of Parliament, a most undemocratic elected assembly, that provides oligarchic rule in which its adopted laws must receive the Royal Assent from a representative of Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, before they come into force.

Only in rare circumstances are people capable of escaping the clutches of those who want to expand or maintain an empire without a massive amount of bloodshed.

For instance, the wars in the Middle East followed the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the retreat of European colonialism, plunging the region into successive bloody conflicts between rival factions.  The same can be said of the Balkans, whose peoples had the misfortune of being subjected to repeated imperial conquests of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires.

To make matters worse, "a drowning man will clutch a dragon."  Taking advantage of a people's desire to escape the repression of imperial occupation, despots first seize power and then extract a nation's wealth for their own purposes.  This was the case in Libya Iraq, Syria, and Romania.

But there are exceptions.  The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) were able to escape from Soviet rule without armed conflict just before the collapse of the Soviet Empire.  Similarly, Tunisia, the pearl of the Arab Spring, having been freed from French colonial rule, overthrew a despot and has become a democratic nation.

It should be noted, however, that each of these countries is rather small with regard to territory and possesses a highly homogeneous population, making it much easier to channel the desire to create an autonomous state.

Today, we are witnessing the Ukrainian struggle to create an autonomous state from a former empire.  Historically, they have been the victim of successive imperial conquests.  As well, in seeking independence from Putin's Russia, they must also deal with their own recent history of widespread corruption throughout their newly minted political system and the ethnic divisions that exist within the present Ukrainian borders, due to the melding of national groups into a single political entity, a throwback to the old divide and rule mentality of former empires.  Moreover, given the recent austerity measures adopted by the European Union, which reflects the domination of a neoliberal ideology that rewards financial elites at the expense of the common people, alignment with a competing empire may simply mean changing one set of problems for another.

The overwhelming challenge for the Ukraine resembles the struggles for the creation of veritable democracies in other former colonies, both in the developed and developing world.  The question that needs to be asked is whether it is possible to dismember existing nation states that were born out of imperial expansion into smaller democratic nations, where the principles of democracy trump the politics of nationalism.

This is not an easy task since those who maintain empire, for the most part, control the media and the use of state-sanctioned coercion.  It is extremely difficult to mobilize a population to confront the oppression from within; it is even more so to move toward a political system that is based upon the fundamental equality of its citizens and to have this equality reflected in the political process.

But this is the challenge. 

Previously, we could think that it was just a matter of time, quite often a very long time, before an empire collapsed.  Today, we can no longer afford to wait such long time because the economic exploitation of the planet brought upon by ever-improving technological advances threatens the planet's ecosystem.  In the face of catastrophic climate change, there will be no place to take refuge.  All humans, the powerful and the powerless, will have to confront the possibility of a massive die off.

Importantly, only smaller political entities that provide government of, by, and for the people are up to the challenge of making the necessary changes to effectively reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. 

Empires by their very nature are geared for continual economic expansion because it is only through expansion that those who rule can attempt to satisfy their need to ostentatiously display their wealth.  In reality, this need is unsatiable, and those who have their hands on the hands of the steering wheel give no second thought at the possibilty that they are driving us off the cliff.  If anything, they are pressing even harder upon the gas pedal.

Consequently, our shared future on the planet will either go in one of two directions: the breakup of the existing empires established in the twentieth century into smaller democratic nations, or the planet-wide devestation of the planet's ecosystem.

No wonder more and more films like Interstellar, depicting humans fleeing earth in search of other habitable planets, are making their way to the cinemas worldwide.  The theme has become part of the Zeitgeist of the 21st century.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

After Five Years, This Democrat Is More Disgruntled Than Ever

Well, a little more than five years have passed since I started writing this blog.  Despite the efforts of a number of agents for social change, we are as far away from living in a veritable democracy as ever.

And it's not for a lack of trying.  At the provincial level in Canada, there have been four referendums on changing the voting system to make it more democratic, one in the UK with the same objective, and a referendum on independence in Scotland.  Each democratic initiative did not pass.

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As for me, I chose to go way of the courts to challenge the constitutionality of the first-past-the-post voting system only to have the Supreme Court of Canada refuse to hear our case for reasons unknown.

 I found the whole process to be a farce because in order to gain status before the courts to question the constitutionality of the voting system, I had to demonstrate that I was personally affected by vagaries of the voting system in question.  In the lower court, we gained cause and were allowed to proceed.  Thereafter, having participating in the electoral process as a candidate for the Green Party was then used to sufficiently demonstrate that my democratic rights were not impinged upon by the very fact that I could become a candidate.

Talk about a Catch 22 situation.  Gain the right to bring the question to court because I was a candidate for a small political party, but then have the question tossed aside because I had been a candidate for a small political party.  All the evidence that we brought to the Court was not even considered.  The judges couldn't be bothered even to address a single one of our arguments to show that we had erred.  WTF?  The fix was on.

Now that a couple of years have passed and the dust has settled, I can see things more clearly.

What I notice is that throughout the Anglo-American Empire there really isn't much of an appetite for democracy.  That being said, it is an impossible task to try to graft onto a body politic a set of cultural values that are foreign to its core set of beliefs.

From top to bottom, the societies of the Anglo-American Empire are all about the accumulation of material wealth.  From time to time, prosperity is shared on a wider basis, but it usually takes a series of catastrophic of events, like the Great Depression followed by Second World War, to bring about this state of affairs.  Most of the time, in most of the countries within the Empire, the rich get richer while the poor are lucky if they can tread water and keep their heads above the poverty line.

Let's not kid ourselves.  Democracy is quintessentially an egalitarian ideology.  The market is not.  So, when doing a survey of the countries with the Empire, it should not come as a surprise  that they are all market-based political economies.

For the most part, the entire population buys into this set of beliefs.  Yes, there are a few individuals that would prefer to live by a different set of values, but each political system in the Empire has a political system rigged so that alternative views to free market thinking never gain traction.

In fact, the composition of the societies in the UK, the USA, Canada, and Australia are remarkably similar.  At the top is the rentier class, the top one tenth of the top one percent of the population, who can never get enough because they are always struggling to maintain face in the social sphere of extreme ostentatious consumption: no yacht, no mansion, no private jet is ever good enough. Beneath, come the petit bourgeois of the lumpen professional class. If they intermarry, they can earn enough to send their children to the best of schools so they can perpetuate their socio-economic advantage.  Further down, we have the vast majority who try as best they can to hang on and not fall into the ranks of the destitute.  Oddly, within this class we find a massive instance of Stockholm syndrome in which huge numbers of the population actually identify and empathize with their crony capitalist captors, accepting the free market cant as if it were gospel while watching their quality of life deteriorate.

Forget about trying to bring about democratic reform in these countries within the present socio-economic context.  The super rich own the political process which controls the armed forces; the smart ones are only looking out for themselves: and those who would have the most to gain be living in a democracy are simply too fucking dumb to know any better.

So, what is a democrat to do?  Suck it up and try to live one's life so one doesn't feel soiled at the end of the day?  Maybe, it would be better to simply move on to somewhere where people actually get and value living in a democratic society.

I wonder if I could claim status as a politic refugee and become a citizen of one of the Nordic countries?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Should We Go or Should We Stay Now: Can Scotland Escape the Status Quo Trap?

Two days to go before the Scots will decide in a referendum whether to create their own independent country or to continue as part of the United Kingdom.
Apparently, the upcoming result is too close to call.  Although the "No" side had a substantial lead six months ago, the "Yes" vote has increased substantially as the date of the referendum approaches.

But is it enough?

I'm very sad to say that I don't think so.

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The arguments to create a new independent country free from the dysfunctional governance of Westminster and the City couldn't be clearer.  I would highly recommend George Monbiot's excellent op-ed piece, "A yes vote would unleash the most dangerous thing of all -- hope".

But these reasons to vote yes are not sufficient to carry the day.  Unfortunately, there exists in Scotland a large bias towards the status quo that is simply part of human nature.

In short, better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

It's that simple.

Forget the value of the oil in the North Sea, whether an independent Scotland could continue to use the pound, and what happens to Scotland's share of the UK's accumulated debt.

The real ballot box question is whether independence is worth the bother.

If the Scots decide yes, they'll have to deal with a lot of shit that is now being decided for them at Westminster and in the City.  Certainly, things will become a lot riskier for the Scots and there are no guarantees that life will become better.

So, given the uncertainty, why not let the status quo remain?  Life ain't all that bad.  Have a cuppa and watch a wee bit of what's showin on the tele.

Robbie Burns must be rolling in his grave.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The American Rentier Economy: Has the US Become a Failed Nation?

When I first started to write this blog five years ago, to make the point about how the concept of the economy is used to the detriment of the vast majority of the population I distinguished between the real economy and the zombie economy.  Essentially, those who derive their wealth from non-productive financial practices prey upon the living who exchange real goods and services in the real economy.
To be more precise, I now prefer to use the term rentier economy because although the practice of wealth extraction is still the same, the term rentier has been used for a great many years in traditional economic discourse.

In a great article posted on the web, The Age of Rentier Capitalism, Guy Standing asserts:

Rental income enables people to make money simply through the possession of scarce assets. Sometimes assets may be “naturally” scarce: if fertile land is owned by a few landlords, they need not work themselves but can rent it out to others for a high price. This income is rent, not profits from a productive activity, as the landlords do nothing to earn it aside from owning the land.

These days, rental income is mainly derived from “contrived scarcity.” This is explained by the Lauderdale Paradox, named after the eighth Earl of Lauderdale, who in 1804 observed that as private riches grew, public wealth fell. This is because the more the rich own, the more they can limit the availability for others, driving up the price. Today, such contrived scarcity has become pervasive and global, which is paradoxical, since globalization should have resulted in a surge of extra goods and services.

While there are indeed more goods and services than ever, the means of obtaining rental income have multiplied. They include control of natural resources by a few corporations and plutocrats, a new intellectual property regime, a system of state subsidies that go to asset holders, and myriad mechanisms that entrap people in debt.

Importantly, today there is a greater return on investment from seeking rents and the exchange of financial securities than from the profits generated from the exchange of goods and services.  This means that there is less money that gets invested into economic activities that require human labour.

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For instance, entrepreneurs who become billionaires as a result of their business acumen no longer need to maintain their entrepreneurial skills once their accumulated financial assets generate more profits than their businesses. 
Once this happens they can successfully cash in their chips by selling off their shares in their business adventures and live in extreme comfort from the rents that their financial portfolios generate.

Moreover, the CEOs of America's biggest corporations earn more from their stock options and their subsequent manipulations than they do from salaries generated from the profitable management of real assets in the real economy.

As a result, corporations now imitate the members of the rentier class.  Just as the
ultra-rich transfer their financial assets to offshore tax havens to avoid paying taxes in the countries where they reside, corporations now transfer the location of where they are legally incorporated, moving the legal entity offshore to as well avoid paying taxes in the countries where they first prospered.

Like rentiers, American corporations are now sitting on huge piles of cash, estimated at more than two trillion dollars, with no intention of investing in real economic activity, which has effectively reduced the cash flow into investments that would generate jobs.

The economic term that describes this state affairs is "secular stagnation",  a condition of negligible or no economic growth in a market-based economy, a term, in my opinion, as hollow as "collateral damage" which is used to describe the unintended civilian casualties caused by a military operation.

In this case, the civilian casualties are those unlucky enough to be living and working in the real economy.  The damage inflicted upon their lives results from the unbridled greed of those who profit from the machinations of the rentier economy, which, however, is anything but unintended.

Given this state of affairs, it makes me wonder whether the US is heading down the road to become a failed nation, one in which extractive economic practice overwhelms any attempt to bring about inclusive economic policy.

I don't think that it would take much to convince the estimated 46 million people living on food stamps in the US that the nation has already failed them.                                  

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Bright and Shiny Lumpen Professional Class of the Post-Industrial Age

For Karl Marx, the lumpenproletariat -- I love the sound of the word, "lumpen" -- is the lowest stratum of the industrial working class, including also such undesirables as tramps and criminals.

The members of the Lumpenproletariat—this “social scum,” said Marx—are not only disinclined to participate in revolutionary activities with their “rightful brethren,” the proletariat, but also tend to act as the “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue.”

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I wonder what he would think of those well-paid, well-educated, employees of the state, usually with defined benefits pension plans, that make the system run and are as about inclined to bringing about any meaningful change to the present status quo as the "social scum" of Marx's day were inclined to participate in his so-called revolutionary activities.

Just as the lumpens of olden days gave no second thought to the well-being of the population at large, the same could be said of the bright and shiny lumpens of the post-industrial age.

Marx got it wrong.  Capitalism is much more resilient than he ever dreamed of.  There is no inevitability to its collapse in the foreseeable future.  Instead, increasing productivity brought on by technological change drives a deep wedge into what he believed to be the existing solidarity of the so-called working class.

Pay those who would otherwise "rouse the rabble" well enough so that the gulf between classes separates those who make the system run, (elected officials, school administrators, senior bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, etc.) from those that the system is supposed to serve, the vast majority of those who have to work for a living, and you have figuratively cut the head, those who could lead, from the body politic.

Those who are able to climb the rungs of our meritocracy are much more inclined to pursue the material rewards that their taxpayer-funded salaries afford than to serve the real interests of those whose lives are affected by the quality of the social services that the state offers.

In other words, make the system run, not so that it runs well -- that would require a significant redistribution of wealth -- but that it runs well enough so that nothing emerges that would challenge the ever increasing share of the nation's wealth that is destined for those who never have to work for a living.

In exchange, the bright and shiny lumpen get a much cheaper and much more scaled down version of the lifestyle that the haute bourgeoisie enjoy, especially if two of the bright and shiny lumpens decide to marry and raise a family.

In this case, the lumpen couple can afford to live in a neighbourhood that offers a social milieu very favorable to the development of their children: daycare, schools, summer camps, access to private schools if necessary, and family vacations abroad, which gives them a huge advantage in performing well in our meritocracy.

Just as material wealth is transferred from generation to another, so are the soft skills and competencies that enable people to earn higher salaries.

Indeed, research shows that the only factor that is of importance in the prediction of the child’s educational attainment is the education of the parents. Most importantly, the children of parents with less than high school education are much less likely to proceed beyond high school than are the children of parents at other educational levels. And the children of parents with university degrees are much more likely to complete university themselves than are the children of parents with lesser education.

In general, people don't tend to marry others with lower socio-economic status.  As a result, those who could make a difference to the plight of Marx's proletariat don't make a difference.  They are too busy looking after themselves and their own.

With regard to being effective agents of social change, the bright and shiny lumpen professional class is as about as useless as Marx's lumpenproletariat for the former will never bite the hand that feeds it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Weight Loss Industry In North America Is Built Upon A Web Of Lies And Deceit

According to the data by Marketdata Enterprises, a market research firm that specializes in tracking niche markets, Americans spend north of $60 billion annually to try to lose pounds, on everything from paying for gym memberships and joining weight-loss programs to drinking diet soda.

Considering that as of 2012, the US led the way in obesity rates among OECD countries with Mexico a close second and Canada sixth, it would appear that the potential profit within this industry is, for lack of a better word  -- enormous.

How is that so many people could become so overweight and have such difficulty shedding the unwanted pounds, so many dollars spent with so little to show with regard to sustained weight loss?

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Well to begin, when it comes to food choices, the North American public was told one of, if not the biggest lie in the history of public health.  In short, they were told that if they wanted to avoid cardiovascular disease, they should eat a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.  As a result, North Americans reduced their consumption of saturated fat and at the same time increased their consumption of trans fat and the simple carbohydrates proffered by the food industry, even though that research demonstrates that neither saturated fat nor cholesterol correlates with increased levels of morbidity.

To say the least, this change in the North American diet was an unmitigated disaster for the population at large, but was most certainly a boon for the weight loss industry. 

For example, between 1980 and 2000, obesity rates doubled among adults in the United States. About 60 million adults, or 30% of the adult population, are now obese.

Similarly since 1980, overweight rates have doubled among children and tripled among adolescents – increasing the number of years they are exposed to the health risks of obesity.
Direct health costs attributable to obesity have been estimated at $52 billion in 1995 and $75 billion in 2003.
In other words, there is a ton of money to be made once the population gets fattened up: some of it goes to the health care industry while another share makes it way to the weight loss industry.
Once declared obese, an individual is then subjected to the bogus promises of the benefits of following the latest diet or dietary supplement.
First, another deceitful line of reasoning must be planted into the unsuspecting mind:
when it comes to body weight, calorie intake minus calorie expenditure equals calories stored.
No shit Sherlock!  That's like saying that rich people are ones that make more money than they spend. 
Here comes the kicker: surrounded by tempting foods, we overeat, consuming more calories than we can burn off, and the excess is deposited as fat.
The simple solution is to exert willpower and eat less, which is another way of saying "go on a diet, you fat fuck!"
The problem is that this advice doesn’t work, at least not for most people over the long term.  According to Dr. Mark Hyman, the average person gains five pounds for every diet that they go on.

Even worse, when the lose weight, they lose muscle and fat. When they regain the weight, they gain back all fat. And since muscle burns seven times as many calories as fat, their metabolism is slower than when they started the diet, meaning that for 95% of those that set out on this course of action will be worse off than when they started.

Talk about repeat customers. 

Having been set up to fail, the average person, convinced that it is just a question of willpower and finding the right miracle diet, oblivious of the effect that dieting has on his or her endocrine system, is easily duped into buying the latest weight loss method endorsed by a celebrity spokesperson.
Too bad, we don't often hear the rather simple method of maintaining a healthy weight: be physically active (10,000 + steps a day) and eat a balanced diet like the Mediterean diet.

Such sound advice with so few takers.

Not enough hype.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Truth Be Told: The Rich Don't Give A Shit About The Economy That You Live In

It never ceases to amaze me that we continue with the charade of watching how the economy performs.  Last week, we learned that the American economy grew by a whopping four percent during the last quarter.

Whoopee shit!

Am I supposed to fall off my chair thinking about what a great job those in charge are doing in managing the economy?

Yeah, pretty much.  That way you don't give much thought to what really matters: for the last 35 years the vast majority of Americans have been shafted royally.

Think about it.  Since 1980 the US economy has grown roughly 4% annually.

Yet, during the same time the population at large faces what is at best an uncertain future.

Three things strike me to be a lot more important than the rate of annual economic growth.

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First, the percentage of workers that have defined-benefits pension plans has shrunk from 60% in 1980 to about 11% today.  This represents a massive reduction in the quality of life for an aging population, especially when we consider the vast wave  of baby boomers that are and will be retiring in the next 25 years.

Second, the cost of a university education has created an emerging generation of wage slaves.  Since 1985, the overall consumer price index has risen 115% while the college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500%.  Pursuing the American dream by obtaining a higher education has become a debt trap.  Indeed, low paying, precarious employment does not generate the revenue to pay down the debt and to provide for a middle class lifestyle.  Consequently, a great many millennials do not have the means to move of their parents' basements in order to make it out on their own.

Third, income growth has stalled for most Americans.  At $51,017, the real median household income in 2012 is even less than it was at the end of the eighties ($51,681) and down from 9% from its high in 1999 ($56,080).  Conversely, during this period (2009 to 2012), 95 percent of all income growth went to the top 1 percent of income earners.

Clearly, something is amiss and it what needs to be pointed out is that the scale of the problem suggests that it's not just a question of not following the right economic policies as would the progressive economists like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich would have us believe.

What's really at issue is that the super rich, those who make it on the Forbes list of the top 400 wealthy Americans, are no longer dependent on the performance of the American economy to increase their wealth.

Yes, there is still a great amount of money to be made from selling goods and services to the top 20% of American income earners, more so since production can be sent off shore where wages are significantly less, and corporations can be inverted so that on paper they appear to be owned in jurisdictions where the tax rates are lower.

But over and above these ploys that leave the majority of Americans out of the wealth generating loop, even greater returns can be had in the financial sector.  After all, it makes much better sense to pursue a greater return on investment in a sector that is not exposed to the risks of unfavorable economic performance and, in fact, has the risk of failure (too big to let fail) underwritten by the government and the American taxpayer.

What a sweet deal!!!

Seen from this perspective, the latest economic reports are of little or no significance.  What matters is what happening in the investment portfolios of those at the top of the food chain. 

And let's face it, the game is rigged in their favor.  Hedge fund managers can only make billions if they are able to make even more for their clients while the little guy is left to fend for himself, trying to sell his labour in a market in which there are less and less buyers.

So why bother?

In short, it keeps the natives from getting restless.  As long as progress can be shown on the economic front widespread financial difficulties within the population can be dismissed as nothing more than personal failure.

In other words, as long as the majority of Americans give credence to the existing economic discourse they remain effectively sedated.

So much so, they are unable to oppose the massive wealth extraction that is taking place by means of sustained wealth redistribution enacted through the political process.

As well, the population through their tax dollars continue to fund the largest military force ever assembled to protect American interests (American capital) abroad.

The overclass in America has never has it so good.

All it takes is a little statistical smoke and mirrors.