Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Bubbles, Bungles and Busts

Prior to the end of WWII the system of agriculture in the central regions of Italy was known as “mezzadria” or share-cropping. Contadini worked for landowners in houses furnished by the owners, with whom they had a contract providing that they share everything produced or sold.

When the war ended industries sprung up in the cities and the contadini, given the opportunity to change their category from “contadino” to the more prestigious “operaio” on their identity papers, fled to the cities in droves. In Terni, Rome or Milan they worked in steel factories, automotive factories or in construction. Some worked as building porters and for the first time in their lives, actually made money. A few of them, very few, accumulated enough money to buy the houses where their parents were still living or more often, houses in the villages they came from.

Here, in and around Acqualoreto, nearly all the farmhouses were owned by three families living in the smaller village of Morruzze, just up the hill. Some of the houses had held eighteen people or more. While there were a few artisans and professionals who lived in the village itself, by the 1960's the land and the farmhouses were deserted. At the end of WWII, Acqualoreto had three teachers, three doctors, a pharmacy with a resident pharmacist, a Post Office, a general store, and another food shop which doubled as a bar. The departure of the contadini disrupted life in the village as well as in the surrounding countryside.. The pharmacy went away, the teachers and the doctors either died, retired or moved away. The doctor who now serves the area lives in Terni, 50 km away. The shops stayed on until about 1990 and 2005, while the Post Office closed in 2005. Local schools from three villages were consolidated into a new building midway between them in the mid 1980's.

A large unrenovated farmhouse
The seventies saw the arrival of the first of the “forestieri”, or outsiders. Large empty stone farmhouses were bought up by writers and movie people from Rome for little more than what a small Fiat 128 cost about the same time; an Australian woman who worked at FAO in Rome was one of the first foreigners to arrive. She decided she'd prefer to commute and have her daughter grow up in the countryside. In nearby Torre Gentile, the American sculptor Beverly Pepper and her journalist/writer husband Curtis Bill Pepper bought one of the dozen or so sentry towers that formed an early warning system around Todi in medieval times. They transformed the tower and its stables into a magnificent home and studio. Throughout the 70's and 80's other foreigners bought up the remaining country houses, usually for very little money, depending on the time of purchase. Among them were painters, writers, architects, professors, journalists, dress designers, lawyers and people from the world of TV.  Prices of the country houses continued to go up, those of houses in the village not so much. In part, because the outsiders preferred to remain reclusive outsiders, but also because the typically two or three room house in the village had been inherited by ten to twenty relatives scattered around Italy, most of whom had little interest in maintaining, restoring, selling, or least of all, inhabiting it. Negligible property taxes on these houses and building department bureaucracy contributed to the stasis.

The housing bubble here, as elsewhere, expanded for years. When the bubble burst in the US in 2008, its effects were not immediately felt here. While there had been no influx of Americans in the new terror-obsessed century, the slack had been taken up by people from Holland, the Caribbean and Ireland, at least until the Irish economy went belly up.

A regally renovated farmhouse
By now the Great Recession has spread and sunk roots and both the Italian economy and the real estate market have collapsed. People who cleverly bought houses for a song in the 80's are getting older and no longer feel invigorated or gratified by the hard work required to maintain these big houses and the land that surrounds them.

Large houses are proving hard to sell in this new buyer's market but if prices of large properties have slumped, the prices of apartments and houses in villages and towns throughout Umbria, and probably all over Italy, have crashed.
Florida bargain
Not like Florida, where people we know have bought houses for as little as $17,000. That's cheaper than a mid-sized station wagon and while station wagons may be fine for sleeping, they offer little in the way of toilet or cooking facilities. Leafing through a current booklet of real estate offerings in the area, I see 2 BR apartments in Todi for €65,000 and €87,000. The first even has a garage and a garden while the other is a ground to roof building in the picturesque old center. That sort of money will buy you a fairly flashy car but cars lose most of their value over ten years or so. House prices can always go lower but they're down now so the odds are on their going up. Of course, if you have more money to invest, there's no upper limit. Just call our friend Caroline Van Agteren at Antonini Realty and she'll fix you right up. You could also contact another realtor friend, Michiel Bloemgarten, who lives right here in Acqualoreto. With the market so far down, he spends more of his time these days back in Holland but I'm sure he'd be eager to help.

Italy's once flourishing industrial sector, which excelled in textiles, clothing, shoes, leather goods, automobiles, glass, steel and ceramics, has been devastated by globalization and the theologians of austerity. While Italian “smoke sellers” have always been adept at selling intangibles, such as “Italian design”, and some continue to peddle pricey Italian-designed products made in China, Italian financiers have never managed to develop that mystical aura of unquestioned, hard-headed respectability with which Anglo-American bankers have so successfully fleeced individual and institutional investors, paving the streets of lower Manhattan and central London with gold in the process. Unemployment is high in Italy and young people are emigrating out faster than from any other country in Europe. In many ways the situation appears bleak. The birth rate is among the lowest in the world.

However, while our shops and our Post Office are long gone, here in Acqualoreto we now have a restaurant and a lively summer festival. More surprisingly, in a village of two hundred people, we have four building contractors, all of them more than capable, and a social circle, which maintains a bar, with members from at least a dozen countries. Food is as good as ever, both in the fresh ingredients and in the preparation, and the countryside is stunning. Our weather is feeling the effects of climate change, but where is it not? At least we're more than 400 meters above sea level so we're relatively safe from major flooding. Although Italians used to smoke a lot, and the lung cancer rates still reflect it, Italian life expectancy is the highest in Europe.

With democracy in the US and the UK now just a fading memory and the big banks having seized control of their regulators in order to facilitate their gaming proclivities, it's only a matter of time before the next major economic crisis. We can't predict how the effects will play out. Will all the remaining wealth of the collapsing countries just continue to quietly flow to the oligarchy or will rebellion spread, with blood running through the streets as the militarized police demonstrate why they've been so lethally armed?

A perfectly restored farmhouse
Umbria is a tranquil place, the home of St. Francis of Assisi and one of the least populated regions of Italy. We don't have legions of angry young men ready to riot. Most of them have already moved to England. If you're sitting on, or in, any valuable property in one of the markets which haven't collapsed yet, this would be a good time to downsize and put some of your winnings into a peaceful getaway home in Umbria. The area is as attractive as ever and if the deflated housing bubble doesn't reinflate soon, it means that the cost of living will remain low. If it does reinflate, you'll be able to congratulate yourself on getting in at the right time. At the moment, there may be better values to be had in Greece and Spain but the future of Greece seems a little iffy and from what we've heard, large areas of recently (over-) developed parts of Spain have simply been abandoned. The unemployment rate in both those countries doesn't bode well for civil tranquillity.

Having no plans to go anywhere, I have no vested interest in any of this hypothetical investment but we do like to see new faces at the weekly Happy Hour of the Circolo, as well as seeing our friends and neighbors prosper. Membership in the Circolo is open to all and we look forward to welcoming interesting new people. 

Proposed retirement community, Patriot Estates, in West Virginia
 However, for any of you reading this who might have (US) Republican sympathies, or similar Tory leanings, it's only fair to point out that you might find even less expensive opportunities elsewhere, more to your liking.

American conservatives have pleaded in vain that the face of Ronald Reagan be added to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Sorry folks, it isn't going to happen, but new and better opportunities are coming up and the more individualistic and adventurist people among you may want to be a part of them. Vast areas of mountainous terrain in West Virginia and parts of eastern Kentucky are currently being transformed into a dramatic new landscape. This area too has a sparse population and now that traditional coal mining has been abandoned, jobs are even more scarce than in Umbria. (The number of people working in the WV coal industry has dropped from 120,000 to 15,000.) Once stripped of its coal, the land is much cheaper than anything here. Buy a plot on one of the remaining peaks and you'll have splendid vistas into the new valleys. No bad interactions with the townies since most have either died or moved away or will soon. All you'll need is lots of imagination, a little real estate nest egg to invest and small change for bottled water to drink and bathe in. Friends, this can be an international monument to the potential of laissez-faire government. Those newly carved mountains would make the perfect site for gigantic likenesses of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush and Ayn Rand.
proposed Objectivist monument

It's time to act folks. Let us know if there's anything we can do to help.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Life Follows Art- A Comic Strip World

One of the last movies my wife and I saw in 2014 was The Dark Prince, the latest Batman epic. We both wondered why we bothered to sit through it, why it was made, and who it was made for. OK, it was a comic strip brought to the big screen, and yes comic books are made for kids and they are full of gratuitous violence and heroic heroes and villainous villains. But comic books are cheap to make and their fantasy world is the stuff of small children. Why then this multi-million dollar special effects extravaganza with violence far too gratuitous, graphic and perverse to subject small children to, yet too simple minded in its characters to subject adults to? It utilizes a degree of sophistication in its special effects that might be wasted on the violence prone adolescents that the movie would seem to be aimed at.

In the real world there are good and bad people too but mostly there are people who are good in some contexts and not so good in others. The basis of classical tragedy is man at war with himself over his good and bad instincts. Most of us have some of both. Public issues usually are fueled by those inner conflicts as well as by legitimate conflicting interests. Here we have a blockbuster film with a villain, Joker, who seems to have no plausible reason for being, only a desire to be evil and an otherworldly ability to exercise his will. Why spend so much time and money on such toxic rubbish?

Or so we thought. Only a few days later congressional elections were held in the United States, where the voter turnout reached a record setting low, partly due to voter suppression but mostly due to sheep-like passivity and the widely held conviction that all the politicians are so bad that it doesn't really matter who is voted in. One might have supposed that the big GOP victory signaled a return of conservatism, that is, a slowing down of dramatic social change, and a desire to reach back to the values and styles of the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not that was the intention, that wasn't the result.

Emboldened by their capture of both houses of Congress, the Republicans didn't even wait for their new members to be sworn in. In the lame duck session they passed legislation to keep the government running for another few months. The Joker managed to insert a number of his trademark acts of civil sabotage. The Joker?! Well, it seems that some of our elected representatives also saw the movie and were inspired by the effectiveness of the Joker. Others may have simply met with Dick Cheney. Among the Joker provisions hidden in the finance bill were:

  • Apache ancestral and ceremonial lands were ceded to what is reputed to be a wholly owned foreign subsidiary of Joker Industries, Rio Tinto, the mining company famous for its environmental and human rights records. This was actually included in the National Defense Authorization Act, rather than the general funding bill.
  • Trucking companies, which in the past could force their drivers to work seventy-two hours a week, now get to keep those slackers on the nation's highways for eighty hours a week.
  • Seeing how useful Citizens United proved to be in the buying of Congress, campaign finance laws were further undermined.

  • Wall Street reforms in Dodd-Frank were gutted to enable Jamie Dimon, Gordon Gecko and the Joker to have another go at destroying the economy.
  • Underfunded corporate pensions can now be reduced, presumably to avoid embarrassment and loss of profits for the companies, as well as to make the Joker smile.
In subsequent sessions, the House ofRepresentatives voted to raise the number of weekly hours worked from 30 to 40 which trigger the employer's requirement to provide health insurance to the employees. This will allow the Joker and other employers to reduce the workweek to 39 hours and avoid providing health insurance to their workers.

Republicans then vowed to attack Social Security with all the resources at their disposal.

Not to be outdone, President Obama, while making his State of the Union address, in which he promised to work for a number of enlightened policies, from lowering the cost of college to slightly shifting the tax burden from the middle class to the very wealthy, none of which have an iceberg's chance in Hell of floating through this Congress, also pledged to pass the secret trade agreements, TPP and TTIP. Besides sending more jobs abroad, increasing our trade deficit, increasing the cost of medicines, and inflicting controls on the internet, these so-called “trade agreements” will establish ISDS courts, responsible to no elected government and staffed by corporate lawyers, which by inflicting fines on governments for passing legislation which might reduce a corporation's theoretical profits, will effectively control all legislation by elected governments large and small, local, regional or national, all over the world. The Joker's smile has never shined so brightly.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


treason- (trè'z'n) 1. now rare. The betrayal of any trust or confidence; breach of trust. 2. The offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.

U.S. Constitution Article III.
Section. 1.
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
Section. 2.
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;— between a State and Citizens of another State,—between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
Section. 3.
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

Words see their meanings distorted and shifted over time. The Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution have simply been discarded as “quaint” by the Department of Justice. The current Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment as protecting the freedom of religion of corporations as well as interpreting their free spending of money to buy elections as protected free speech.

In the post-Orwell era it may be useless to try to assign logical meaning to words, but what the hell, what else have we got to lose? In the days of the Founding Fathers wars were fought between nations with canons and muskets. Now we have permanent war and wars have been declared on everything from poverty to drugs to breast cancer to terror. It would be no more of a stretch than those made by the Supreme Court and the Department of Defense to consider actions by an alien body such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association as an act of war against an American state, and by extension, against the United States of America. The GMA isn't merely lobbying and bribing legislators to do its bidding, the traditional and now legal procedures for having one's way; it is attacking the State of Vermont in a US court over a law passed by the elected state legislature to protect its constituents from corporate malfeasance. A number of corporations belong to the GMA. Monsanto is one and it is no surprise to see it at war with the citizenry of Vermont, as it seems to be at war with the entire population of the earth. Starbucks is another member and that's another matter. While sipping a Starbucks cappuccino did you stop to consider that you might be contributing to a conspiracy to commit treason?

It gets worse. The present act of war against the State of Vermont is apparently to be fought in US courts. It is still to be hoped that a rational judge will throw the case out and assess a hefty fine for bringing a frivolous suit, but with Active John Roberts still at the helm of the Supreme Court, you never know. However, secret negotiations are going on now for the so-called “trade agreements” TTP and TTIP which would set up off shore courts run by and for corporations to carry out war on elected governments, such as the Vermont Legislature, throughout the world. Fines could be levied by the corporate courts on any non-compliant government, with no recourse to review by any court or agency accountable to the public. That would instantly make all local, state and national governments dead meat. Not a shot need be fired, not a bomb thrown, nor a plane high-jacked. This plot is being hatched within the US Government. President Obama wants it in place soon. The corporate-owned GOP congressmen are enthusiastic. The Fox Crazies want Obama impeached for extending health care insurance to those who need it, and for “Benghazi” but never do they mention TPP.
The way I read it, Article III, sec. 3 of the Constitution states that the Judicial Branch shall rule over pretty much all disputes between states, individuals, and foreign states. An effort by the Executive Branch, with approval by the Legislative Branch, to cede such duties and responsibilities to an alien court would seem to be at the least unconstitutional, or with a more generous interpretation, an act of treason, that is, if you accept my personal perception of artificial entities such as the GMA or the US Chamber of Commerce as enemy agents.
Next time you're stopping for a coffee at Starbucks, think about what you're doing.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Fat Lady Has Sung

It's over folks! The 238 year American experiment with democracy has ended, not with a bang but with an embarrassing fart. The unrelenting efforts of the Supreme Court to undermine the Constitution in favor of its corporate sponsors have borne their fruit and both Houses of Congress have now passed into the control of the oligarchy, along with the judiciary. Will the executive branch follow? Does it matter?

In the wake of the mid-term elections, which broke all campaign spending records for non-presidential elections, and may have set new records in percentages of voters not showing up (most reports state the national voter turnout as 36.6%), Democrats have taken to blaming everything from factions, strategies, the press, voter suppression laws, the widespread perception of the two parties as being equally corrupt and ineffectual, the failure of candidates to embrace Obama, and Obama himself, to the nastiness of the Republicans for the debacle, but the debacle stands.

From the nether world of the ex-Confederacy comes news of Rush Limbaugh's latest tirade. He urges the new GOP  Congress to be unrelenting in their quest to dismantle the country. This time I can only agree. Please don't offer any compromises to Obama. He has a tragic affinity for compromise and a tendency to meet his declared enemies 3/4 of the way on any issue. So keep the heat on, Radical Right Republican Reactionaries, pedal to the metal, all the way to oblivion-- total meltdown or nothing!

Well meaning friends ask me if I think the results will have an effect on the next presidential election in 2016. What can I say? Actions have consequences. Inactions do too.

The appointment of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 led to a catastrophic series of events from which the United States has never recovered and probably never will. In case your memory isn't working as well as it once did, in short order we witnessed: a corrupted Presidential election, a stock market collapse, 9/11, an unfocused invasion of Afghanistan, the illegal invasion of Iraq, the Bremer administration of the occupation, tax cuts for the rich and the conversion of a budget surplus into a monster deficit, Hurricane Katrina and “good job Brownie” in New Orleans, torture as DOD policy, domestic spying as NSA policy, massive voter suppression, deregulation of everything that needs to be regulated, another stock market collapse with a too big to fail bailout followed by too big to jail and the Great Recession.

While prior to this election, most serious news was successfully suppressed, apart from hysteria inducing stories of ebola, ISIS and out-of-control immigration, the day after the election the news came out of a newwhistle-blower, Alayne Fleishman, who spoke of her difficulty in getting the Justice Department to hear and do anything about the crimes she witnessed while working for JP Morgan Chase. Just a few weeks before this news surfaced documenting his reluctance to prosecute big-time banksters on criminal charges, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation. Fortunately for the denizens of Wall Street, as quickly as a magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat, a nearly perfect Holder clone, Loretta Lynch, was found among the inner circle of lawyers who alternate between defending white collar criminals of the sort who work for banks, and working for the Justice Department. Her current gig is US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She's the one Obama appointee almost certain to be approved by the Senate. Even Rupert Murdoch supports her. Jamie Dimon can continue to sleep soundly. While Republican Senators, and some Democrats, couldn't bring themselves to approve Debo Adelbile, a well-qualified lawyer, as head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department because he'd once defended Mumia Abu-Jamal, it's hard to picture Republican Senators blocking her appointment just because she has defended a number of crooked bankers. Besides, she's black, and of course, they wouldn't ever want to be seen as racist.

The goals of the new GOP controlled Senate will be:
1. To repeal Obamacare- This may prove more difficult than thought since thousands of people now have health care who didn't have it before. It's one thing to deny something to people. It's another to take something away from them once they've got it.

2. Approval of the Keystone Pipeline and the evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, who famously stated in 2008 that his top priority was to assure that Obama would be a one-term President, has a new priority. He feels the responsibility to block all action on climate change and to reign in the Environmental Protection Agency, which his new colleague in the Senate, Joni Ernst, the ex-hog castrator from Iowa, has compared to the Gestapo. It will be interesting to see how well Senator Ernst does her work in Republican committee meetings.

3. Approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact.
Obama wants it to happen and the corporate owned GOP Congress will be happy to speed it along. These are the democracy ending “trade agreements” that have been in secret negotiations for months. Secret because if the public knew what was in them there would be rioting in the streets. (or am I being uncharacteristically optimistic?) There's a bitter irony in this since Republicans have always railed against international institutions such as the UN which “threaten US sovereignty”. The TPP, negotiated in secret by a cabal of large corporations, will end all local and national sovereignty in the USA and everywhere else, and cripple the ability of elected governments to legislate on matters related to the environment, food safety, workplace safety, minimum wage, working conditions and internet privacy. They may still be permitted to debate whether theories about evolution, gravity or climate change may be discussed in schools, so we'll probably have to retain a skeleton force of elected officials. Not too big though, since ALEC now writes most US legislation. Yes folks, if you hadn't noticed, government has been privatized. TPP is the biggy, the bomb in the schoolhouse, the one big thing that makes everything else fade into insignificance since it basically abolishes electoral-based governance.

There may be historic reasons for a bit of optimism. Many of my liberal friends are hopeful that in 2016 Democrats will retain the presidency and retake both Houses of Congress. Republicans are in a quandary about whom to select for their Presidential candidate from among the brain dead, the certifiably insane and the sociopaths in their number. All three groups were rewarded with remarkable success in this year's elections. In a bit of a panic over this situation, Wall Street groups have dragged out the name of Jeb Bush as a possible saviour from outside the three main factions.

On the other side of the aisle, it appears that Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her new Athena, Goddess of War mode, is the only Democratic candidate. Hmm, Bush-Clinton! Wonder what that will do for voter turnout? At least the electorate may have an inkling of who the candidates are. Campaigning as the less horrible choice didn't work this year and there's no assurance that it will in two years either. We'll have to pin our hopes on the GOP picking a really grotesquely horrible candidate, something clearly within their capabilities.

History can move quickly. Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany at the start of 1933, following the huge gains his Nazi Party scored in the 1932 elections. Before he died in his Berlin bunker just eleven years later, WWII had devastated much of Europe. That's even faster than the devastation brought on by the election of 2000, although don't tell that to an Iraqi. Some 13 million Iraqis and Syrians are now reported to be displaced and homeless. By 1946, following the Nuremberg trials, Europe was starting to rebuild. Our own recovery (as well as that of Iraq) from the wake of 2000 hasn't gone as well and with the election results in, it may be on permanent hold.

On a brighter historical note, it was in AD 41 that Emperor Caligula discussed making his horse Incitatus the newest member of the Roman Senate, on the basis that his horse was capable of doing as much as the current members. Some things haven't changed in two millennia. We haven't crowned an emperor yet but the electorate, who still theoretically get to choose members of the Senate, took a similar course as Caligula, giving the nod to such luminaries as the aforementioned Joni Ernst, Thom Tillis and incumbents such as Pat Roberts, a stellar all-star cast.

The Roman Senators didn't take the slight lying down. A bunch of them got together and stabbed Caligula to death and then tried to restore the Republic. That failed, as the Roman equivalent of our Secret Service rounded up the assassins, killed them and saved the Empire. The good news is that the Roman Empire glided on for another relatively good three or four centuries till Romulus, the last Roman Emperor was deposed in AD 476 by Odoacer, one of the invading barbarians. 435 years after Caligula! That's a pretty impressive run.

The ascendancy of Jim Inhofe to Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works may throw a monkey wrench into our hopes for a similarly long, slow decline. We all know that our planet earth won't be around forever but mostly we think in terms of geologic ages, a bit of an abstraction. Senator Imhofe may change the time scale of the planet's demise to something most of us humans can relate to personally. The good Senator, like many of his Oklahoma constituents, is not unduly concerned since he and they know that the second coming of Jesus will carry us all (at least the righteous amongst us) away to heaven when we manage to arm Israel sufficiently to pacify the Middle East. The Bible tells us that there will always be seeds and the harvest, no matter what Monsanto is up to and that God creates the weather so what is all this presumptuous talk about our changing it.

Once again, there is a kernel of hope, despite all odds. Our current form of government has been called by many names. Recently Sheldon Wolin dubbed it “Inverted Totalitarianism”. That may be technically valid but sounds a bit academic for my taste. I prefer “Corporate Fascism”, which besides being reasonably accurate, touches an appropriate nerve. The oligarchs running the system all seem to be driven by an insatiable lust to exploit the planet and gather the world's riches for themselves. They are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. While the current operating mode may be corporate fascism, or whatever name you choose to apply, their phenomenal success is leading inexorably to neo-feudalism. Once everything in the world is owned by the Walton and Koch families, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Paul Singer and a handful of others, we can all go back to being serfs. Mass consumption will end. After all, how much can those people consume? Pollution will be reduced, along with life expectancies. This may not be the future you had hoped for your grandchildren but hey, life is a gift; it's a wonderful planet. Its population of seven billion people may be radically reduced along the way but with a little luck the planet may be restored to health for our grandchildren's grandchildren.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The 2014 Punditalia Political Platform

Punditalia has published its platform for American politics in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Although 95% or more of our suggestions have not yet been taken, we believe they remain valid.

It may be too late to contemplate realistic political improvement in the United States since the country has sunk into passive acceptance of fascist oligarchy, from which escape will be difficult. Nevertheless, hope is always the last to die and hey, things can always get worse if nobody does anything.  

The current state of affairs in the US is well described in an interview by Chris Hedges of John Ralston Saul and Sheldon Wolin.  Wolin defines it as "inverted totalitarianism".

There is one dim but ongoing ray of light in the continuing, if futile thus far, efforts to undo the Supreme Court's legalization of bribery in its landmark Citizens United decision. The most grotesque travesty of justice since the Dred Scott decision, Citizens United effectively ruled that corporations are people and money is speech. For those of you who may not remember the Dred Scott decision, in 1857 the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, ruled that African-Americans, whether free or not, could never be citizens and therefore had no standing to sue in court. It went on to hold that slaves taken by their owners to states where slavery had been abolished, did not become free.

The Dred Scott Decision, coming at a time when slavery was being challenged, attempted to solidify its legal basis and insure that the rights of slave owners would be secured. Citizens United, like Dred Scott earlier, went far beyond what the Court was asked to decide, in a similar attempt to promote property rights over human rights.

Even Antonin Scalia, no slouch himself at tarnishing the image of the Court, has written that the Dred Scott decision tarnished the reputation of Justice Taney and aggravated the tensions that led to the Civil War. John Roberts will bear that burden for Citizens United. It remains to be seen if it will take an insurrection, another civil war, or just a Constitutional Amendment to rid the country of this aberration.

While the threat to democracy posed by the Citizens United decision is obvious to anyone who gives it a thought, new so-called “Trade Agreements”, most notably the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which are currently being negotiated in relative secrecy, would effectively establish rules barring the exercise of democracy, not only in the US but throughout the countries joined by those treaties. While the negotiations are closed to members of Congress and the public at large, these provisions are being written by trade associations and corporations seeking power and unlimited profits. The concept is that any government, local, state, provincial or national, which enacts legislation which might limit or reduce profits of a corporation, could be sued for damages in a special court, set up by the corporations and responsible to no elected body.

While we may hold a minority view here, the enactment or proposal of any such trade agreement would meet our standards for treason. Although these negotiations are being conducted by a theoretically Democratic administration, make no mistake, the only hope of stopping these diabolical “agreements” is to make sure that both houses of Congress have Democratic majorities. Many Democrats have sold out to the big corporations too but the Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the US Chamber of Commerce and allied subversive groups. If you're eligible to vote, we urge you to do so but please, make sure that anyone you vote for is committed to opposing TPP.

For those of you who are not US citizens, we hope you've read this far. TPP is not just a threat to Americans or to American democracy. It is a very real threat first to the member countries, but if this goes through, its effects will spread. Your phone calls and emails are already being monitored by the NSA. Perhaps that doesn't bother you. You have nothing to hide. But things can get worse. You may wake up one day to find that you're forced to eat foods that meet US Government standards. For those of you living in Italy, on Sunday night, October 19th, at 10 or 10:30 PM, RAI 3 TV will have a program dealing with TPP. Forget Ebola, forget ISIS, but be very, very afraid. TPP is worse than both of them. Get out and let your politicians hear about it.

Many other issues need to be addressed, from climate change and ending the permanent state of war to dismantling the surveillance state and demilitarizing the society but if Citizens United isn't overcome and TPP canceled, we're cooked.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Jobs Nobody Wants

We usually hear this phrase in conjunction with immigration policy. Should we allow more Central Americans into the US to pick our grapes, tend our gardens or process our meat products? Here in Italy, people arrive crossing the Mediterranean rather than the Rio Grande, or else they trek in from Eastern Europe. The pizza makers and tomato pickers are mostly from Africa. People from Eastern Europe do practically everything, with a heavy concentration of them looking after the old and the infirm. It would seem that in both the USA and in Europe there are many jobs that nobody wants to do, despite unusually high levels of unemployment. US Speaker of the House John Boehner recently said that “a rising number of people would rather sit around”. He was partly right. He should have said that most people would rather sit around. That's what drives investment Johnny!   Most rational people would prefer to sit around and get money from their investments rather than being paid to work. The problem is that some don't have anything to invest. They started life on the wrong foot or rather, in the wrong womb.

What are these jobs that nobody wants? Cleaners of houses, streets, offices and porta-potties, hamburger flippers, coal miners, steel workers, soldiers and pesticide sprayers come freely to mind. Some unloved jobs get done by importing or finding people so desperately poor that they'll do anything. Other unpleasant tasks such as embalming the dead or pouring molten steel get done by paying the workers handsomely. We've managed to eliminate many of those nasty jobs. The steel mills have been exported to cheap labor countries. Undertakers appear to be secure for the near future but no doubt some entrepreneur is already devising a scheme to freeze dry bodies for low cost embalming and cosmetic treatment in Honduras. Once upon a time coal miners were paid enough to make a decent living despite the dangers and the hardships of the work. After years of only partially successful union busting, coal companies have invested heavily in gaining approvals for the cheaper and more efficient technique of mountain-top removal to get at the coal. It's a bit hard on the local environment but with the jobs gone, there's not much reason to live in those places any more anyway.

Soldiering has an up and down history of desirability. While defending one's country may be a noble endeavor, and in remote centuries kings demonstrated their valor by leading their armies in battle, few of us really want to spend our lives as paid killers. The draft was used to overcome the reluctance of the masses to devoting themselves to this line of work but when too many people objected to killing people they had no quarrel with, the draft was eliminated in the US and an all volunteer military was instituted. Salaries were increased to the point where they represented the best economic opportunity for people from the poorer outposts of the society. The better money was combined with promises of free college later and useful training while in service. Many of these promises turned out to be hoaxes but then, that's been the nature of all sorts of recruitment throughout history.

As the American state of permanent war goes well into its second decade, those sorts of enticements have worn thin. Now, besides the good money and the deceptive promises, hero status has been bestowed. At every major sporting event in the US, uniform wearing veterans are called upon to receive our praise and gratitude, or to sing the national anthem as fighter planes do awesome flyovers. Not all veterans are happy with being anointed as heroes but it apparently stimulates the recruitment needed to keep the military industrial complex's lower echelons fully staffed.

Ironically, some of the jobs nobody wants aren't so terrible in and of themselves. Picking fruit may be strictly for cheap imported labor but last year a lawyer friend of ours flew in from Santa Monica to help pick his sister's olives for four days. He loved it. More and more of our neighbors are having friends visit from Ireland, Holland and even Bermuda to help with their olive harvest. I'm unconvinced about the inherent joys of olive picking but intrigued by the Tom Sawyer aspect of this phenomenon. We have more olive trees outside our door than I'll ever want to pick myself so if any of you want to share in the joy of the harvest, you're welcome to come and help. Free wine and bruschetta for the pickers, though you'll have to find your own accommodations and travel arrangements.

Gardening is another of those unwanted jobs that many of us spend a godawful amount of time and money on without any financial return. We do occasionally get some help from the most sought after resident of our village, an extraordinarily hard working fellow from Albania. If he could be cloned, there would be work for five of him.

What is a job that people really want to do? What makes people do the job that they do? Back in history a century or so, and still today in some parts of the world, people seemed to give less thought to this than they do now. If their father was a butcher, they'd be butchers. If their father was a farmer, chances were even better that they'd be farmers too.

Growing up the the American suburbs, that pattern was broken for me. I had no idea what work was or what adults did. Female adults cooked and shopped. Male adults put on a suit, walked to the train and reappeared, briefcase in hand, in the evening. Now, thanks to the popular TV show Mad Men, we've learned that they spent their days smoking, drinking, scheming how to outfox their colleagues and having illicit sex.

My brother and I were sent to a testing service in New York to determine what, if anything, we were fit to do and what we might enjoy doing. His childhood talent for burying ants in tar using only a magnifying glass proved to be a precursor of a successful career in weapons systems, a scientific orientation that the testing service recognized and encouraged. In my case the testers found a propensity for argument even stronger than the desire to draw, leading them to urge a career in law. Alas, my argumentative nature was so strong that when a neighbor, who was both a lawyer and a judge, advised me that the quality of my law school performance would be far less important to my career than the number of local civic and political organizations I managed to join, rather than acknowledging the generosity and wisdom of his words, I scuttled the entire project to follow the advice of a brilliant but naive professor of American art and architecture who claimed that America needed architects more than it needed lawyers.

Lawyers, architects, doctors, dentists, businessmen, professors. They're all thought to be desirable positions. Why? The obvious answer is money. All the people emigrating from scenic, unspoiled places to industrial wastelands do so because they need money to live. That's simple enough but once you have enough money to live, what makes a job something you want to do? Money is always in the list of motivators and for some people it comprises the entire list, but two other major factors, pleasure and mission, seem to play a part.

The mission of the doctor is to heal people; the architect wants to create a better built environment, the lawyer hopes to bring justice to the society; the journalist wants to reveal the truth; the teacher intends to impart a richer and more rewarding life to people growing up; the priest wants to save souls. The mission always sounds good; the actual tasks involved are often less appealing. 

Medicine has been the best paid major profession* for as long as I can remember, conferring prestige as well as high income, although those formerly distinct rewards have tended to become synonymous. Since we all fear for our lives and for our health, and medicine requires years of study and preparation, the high level of compensation seems justified. Yet how many of us would want to do what they do? Specialization brings greater income but who would want to spend their days, weeks and years probing one unhealthy rectum after another, or examining a steady stream of oozing skin rashes?
Surgery can be as bloody as working in a butcher shop but your bad cuts may end up as litigation rather than sausage. (*among major professions I exclude pro sports figures, hedge fund managers, bank CEOs, heads of Mafia families, politicians, and oligarchs, who combine to make up a numerically insignificant privileged class)

Architecture has been romanticized to the point where architects don't get paid, since the pleasure of the work is compensation enough. The public is unaware that in major architectural offices the people dreaming up exciting new buildings are vastly outnumbered by those writing reports, meeting minutes, peer reviews or specifications and by those preparing door schedules and foundation details.

I can assume that many young lawyers who want to see justice done spend an inordinate amount of time writing wills or devising schemes to keep wealthy clients from paying taxes or employees. Teachers who want to create a better informed generation may spend most of their time maintaining order and assuring that no crimes are committed on their watch. Soldiers who want to defend their country, which hasn't been under attack since before their parents were born, may find that their political superiors send them out to invade places they'd never even heard of. Conceivably, some politicians have have started their careers thinking they might help their country, only to discover that raising campaign funding to secure their reelection is a full-time job in its own right, one which entails soliciting bribes from deep pocketed contributors in return for making those contributors their only constituents who matter.

Money and mission are important but surely the pleasure experienced in doing something must play an important part of making a job desirable. Pursuing a career in the arts is an extreme case of people driven by the love of an activity itself, regardless of the economic sacrifices it entails, but many lines of work, from being a chef to being a scientist, pilot or explorer have some of this aspect.

As I recall, boys at the age of career decisions enjoy playing sports more than almost anything else. The ultimate dream is to be able to play games into middle age and get paid vast amounts of money to do so. The only activity they'd rather engage in is sex, but opportunities are always inadequate. They may resort to dreams to fulfill their desires but few would dare dream of making a career out sex work. Chances of becoming a shortstop for the Yankees or even making it onto an NFL practice squad may be slim, but the odds of making that much money in sex are slimmer still.

For years, feminists have lamented that women's opportunities in professional sports are limited, and they're right, but nature provides a degree of symmetry. Women may have a harder time breaking into professional sports than men but they have opportunities in sex work that men would die for. Girls are raised differently than boys, or were until recently, but based on the inherent pleasure involved and despite the lingering stigma attached, I'd have thought that the oldest profession would also be the most sought after career option. There are signs that, just as the best and brightest young men are abandoning the traditional professions to seek their fortunes as hedge fund managers, increasing numbers of their female counterparts have taken to prostitution to work their way out of student debt.

Playing games into adulthood can pay extremely well but only for a very select few in this most competitive of worlds. For the vast majority seeking such careers, the rewards are meager for such gruelling work. That may also be true for prostitutes but success doesn't get their faces on Wheaties boxes so neither we nor the IRS can know where their career opportunities top out.

While many military people may object at being called heroes, perhaps we could give a boost to some more needed occupations with this strategy. There are other occupations outside the military which are also statistically risky. Besides steel workers and coal miners, there are garbage collectors, loggers, fishermen, farmers, roofers, police and fire fighters, heroes all. Let's start calling our electricians, plumbers, teachers, nurses and septic tank cleaners heroes. For that matter, if we held up our sporting matches five minutes for a patriotic musical tribute to our fruit and vegetable pickers, maybe enough Americans would enter the trade so that the US could end its border controversies.