Monday, October 26, 2009

Make Them Buy Brioche!

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming on you. Your riches are corrupted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be for a testimony against you, and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up your treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you have kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of those who reaped have entered into the ears of the Lord of Armies. You have lived delicately on the earth, and have taken your pleasure. You have nourished your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the righteous one. He doesn't resist you.

James 5:1-6, World English Bible (a public domain translation)

As I recently stated on this blog, the global “official” economy is tracing out a “phugoid cycle” of collapse driven by the increasing price fluctuations and scarcity of one key resource: crude oil. This process of this collapse threatens the notional wealth of all who are invested in this economy, and especially the wealth of the rich masters of this economy. It should be obvious by now that the governments of the West, and especially the US Government, are therefore being used to prop up the notional wealth of their richest citizens.

But in understanding the actions and strategies of these governments, we need to see just what “wealth” these governments are trying to salvage. What does the notional wealth of the rich actually consist of?

In the West, a large portion of that notional wealth consists of legally binding obligations placed by the rich minority on the vast poor majority. These obligations have value as generators of revenue streams which enable a small elite class to enjoy a lavish and leisurely lifestyle through the labors of their poorer fellows. Examples of this include the following:

  • Intellectual property” the copyrights of which are held as tradeable property, for things like software, published books and entertainment media like music and movies;

  • Market share,” secured by large enterprises driving competitors out of business;

  • Monopoly arrangements, which are the ultimate end of increasing market share;

  • Most importantly, interest-bearing debts owed by the poor to rich creditors, and by the rich to each other;

  • And lastly, fees charged by insurers in exchange for a promise to cover the costs of financially catastrophic events.

These are the primary assets of many of the world's rich people, and some of these rich have no real assets beside these legally binding, revenue generating obligations.

These legally binding obligations are valuable only as long as the poor are either willing or able to honor them. The trouble for the rich is that from 1980 onward, real wages for the working class have been either stagnant or declining, while the things purchased by the working class have gotten steadily more expensive. Some of these things, such as college education and health care, were turned by their providers into “cash cows” whose price appreciated at a rate that far exceeded the rate of inflation. In order therefore to maintain economic activity and to protect their revenue streams, the rich providers of goods and services were obliged to offer these things on credit, forcing the poor consumers of these things to take on ever more debt until there was no way that most members of the working class could ever become debt-free during their lifetimes.

This arrangement worked as long as the members of the working class were able to pay the interest on their debts, the royalties on the intellectual property they consumed, and the fees on the insurance on which they relied. But from 2005 to the present, that ability to pay all of these obligations was eroded – first, by the spike in oil prices caused by constrained supply, and then by the explosion in costs of everything that depended on oil for its manufacture or delivery. This threatened to render many of the assets of the rich worthless, because those assets consisted of contracts between the rich and the working class in which the working class promised to pay a certain amount per year to the rich, and now the poor were no longer able to make their payments.

The truth is that a large number of working class people in the First World, and especially in the U.S. are now flat broke. They have lost incomes, they have defaulted on loans, they are no longer able to pay for insurance, their stuff has been repossessed, they can't afford cable or new flat-screen TVs and they have no spare change to purchase “intellectual property” like DVD's or music. Their obligations owed to the rich are now worthless, because they will probably never be paid. But there is a further threat to the “assets” of the rich: namely, that an increasing number of working-class people are waking up to what's being done to them by the rich, and are trying to create alternatives to dependence on the rich. This threatens such assets as the revenue generated by market share dominance or monopoly arrangements.

The government bailouts of banks and investment firms are an attempt to re-inflate the assets of the rich, by turning the vast mass of working-class taxpayers into collateral for loans that are now worthless, and to repair the revenue streams of the rich via government confiscation of the labors of the poor. The government has also been employed to criminalize certain alternatives to dependence on the rich, such as the recent “food safety” laws that place huge regulatory burdens on small organic farmers. But as economic activity continues to contract and revenues continue to fall, the rich and their stooges in government are desperately trying to take confiscation to a new level.

This seems to be the motive behind nearly all of the public discussion by the mainstream media and by politicians regarding health care reform in America. Our problem is that most Americans can't afford health care anymore without insurance (it cost less than $100 to have a baby in 1950; it costs $6,000 to $14,000 today), and most Americans can't even afford health insurance premiums anymore, as these premiums are already exorbitant and are continuing to rocket upward. Yet instead of talking about genuine health care reform (as in making health care universally available at a price people can afford), the public debate has been framed as a discussion of health insurance reform. This deliberately misses the point, and is nothing more than a ploy to protect two cash cow “industries” (the private insurance “industry” and the health care industry) and the notional wealth of their owners.

The response of the Congress and the medical/insurance lobby to the health care crisis has been to say, “What? Most Americans don't have access to health care? Then make them buy insurance!” The bill crafted by Senator Baucus and others is a case in point, as it would force all Americans to buy private health insurance or face an IRS tax penalty. This is as dumb as a bag full of rocks. If most Americans can't afford health care, how are they going to afford ever-more-costly health insurance? Will the Federal Government force the people I see next to freeway offramps and sleeping under bridges to buy health insurance?

Ah,” some will say, “but these bills don't place that requirement on the poorest Americans.” However, placing that requirement on people who are already teetering on the edge of poverty will drive many of them over the edge. If people own the places where they live, or own some other asset like a car, yet can't afford thousands of dollars a year for private health insurance, will the Government seize their assets? Why are the Feds trying to fatten the profits of bloated businesses like Aetna and United Healthcare at our expense?

In continuing to impose ever-greater burdens on the poor and the working class, the United States has come to resemble France under Louis XVI, and the history of the U.S. from 1980 to the present has come to resemble the history of France under Louis XVI and his immediate predecessor. During that time, France had a huge national debt, caused by the wars and foreign adventures of the monarchy, as well as the lavish lifestyles of the monarchs. The French debt was so huge that no other European power was willing to loan money to the French monarchy. France also had a system of heavy and unequal taxation, in which the lowest members of society shouldered the heaviest tax burden, while the nobility paid little or nothing. Then there was the unwillingness of anyone in the French government to reform the systems of power and economy to make them more just and equitable. Lastly, there was the contraction of the French economy due to resource scarcity (crop failures and famine) in the 1780's, in which the poor suffered greatly while the rich maintained their exploitation of the poor in order to continue a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption.

The presence of these factors, combined with the lack of any avenue of escape for the French peasantry, led to the French Revolution. The friction that caused that explosion is exemplified by a saying attributed to Marie Antoinette, who is reputed to have heard that the peasantry could no longer afford wheat to make bread, and who said, “Then let them eat cake!” (“Cake” here is literally, “brioche.”)

We in the U.S. have had avenues of escape from the predations of our rich class, but they are being closed off from us. It would be fairly easy to neutralize the rich non-violently by becoming independent of them. Yet when that avenue is closed off, there no longer remains a safety valve for pent-up citizen rage against the rich who rob us. While history doesn't repeat, it does rhyme, as some bloggers have said. I don't think it's wise right now for anyone in our government to be saying, “Then make them buy brioche!” Not unless you want a nation full of people like Ann Minch.

* * *

P.S. Over the last several months I have been following another website that publishes content related to our present global energy, environmental and economic crises. It has come to my attention that some of the things I have said on this blog are taken up by the writers on that website a few days to a few months after I have said them. This is cool, as diverse people often wind up noticing the same things and commenting on them. What's not so cool is that I have found content on that site that sometimes mirrors almost exactly some of the things I've said, yet there's no attribution given. If I see examples of this again, I think I'll write a blog post titled, “What A Coincidence!”, complete with quotes, excerpts and links.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Next Phugoid Cycle

Over the last couple of weeks, the price of oil rose from the low $70's to over $81 a barrel before settling to $80.50 a barrel today. For those like me who have begun to follow the present energy predicament of our society, this is an interesting development. A few questions arise – are we on the cusp of another oil price superspike like the one we experienced last year? What factors are behind the present rise in oil price? Is it due simply to “speculation”? Or to expectations of economic “recovery”? Or to rising consumption in the developing world? Or is it due to flat or falling supply? Or is it due to a combination of these?

For my money, I'll go with constrained supply as the predominant factor. Some Web writers have talked of huge inventories of oil in storage, and have stated their view that petroleum prices can't stay this high for much longer, and must soon collapse. There is some reason for such a belief; U.S. commercial crude inventories have remained consistently above the average range for the last several months. However, it is also true that U.S. commercial inventories have remained relatively flat when averaged over the last several months, and that for most of this time, EIA Weekly Reports have shown drawdowns in inventory. I still believe that the German Energy Watch Group's Oil Report is the best picture we have of our oil situation – namely, that we are past peak, and that from here on, oil will become more expensive and less available.

So what does this mean for us? Our last price spike was the event that pushed the global official economy undeniably into crash mode. According to most of the mainstream figures in the media and in government, the official economy is beginning to “recover” from its crash. But as economic activity recovers, and oil demand with it, the price of oil will again rise to economy-threatening levels. There is one important difference between this time and the last spike: that spike caused a lot of damage to an economy that seemed on the surface to be healthy. This next spike will add further damage to an economy that is very obviously damaged. What will the new damage look like? I think we'll all find out shortly. But I think that the standard of living of many of us is about to take another major hit. Our official economy is like an airliner that has lost all its hydraulic systems and has entered into a cycle of oscillations up and down, trending generally downward. The end won't be pretty.

* * *

On a (very) loosely related note, I am in Los Angeles this week on a business trip. I have noticed a few curious things. First, there seems to be an emerging bicycle culture here. I remember how risky things were when I worked downtown in 2005 and commuted by bike. I tried riding like a motorist, just like many bike commuter experts recommended, and was met with very obvious hostility. Now it seems that Angelinos are more accommodating toward bikers. Maybe last year's gas price spike has something to do with it. L.A. has even painted some bike lanes in the downtown district.

Fixies” (single-speed bikes) seem to be especially popular here, and there are groups of people who get together to ride late at night. But there are more than a few fools here as well: I saw at least three people riding the wrong way on one-way streets, sometimes at night with no lights, and all without helmets. I have also seen downtown “public safety officers” riding Smith and Wesson bicycles. (I'll bet you didn't know that Smith and Wesson made bikes. Neither did I until this week.)

One other thing I've seen is the unhealthy pervasiveness of television in So. Cal. I was still living here when supermarkets like Albertson's started installing flat screen TV's at the checkout counters. But someone convinced gas station owners to install TV's at their pumps. You go up to one of these pumps to get gas, and the TV starts talking to you, saying something like, “Research has determined that advertising in public places can generate big bucks for your business...” The last time I encountered one of these talking gas pumps, I felt like yelling, “Shut up! Shut up! SHUT UP!” I saw the most egregious example of invasive TV this week: the Los Angeles MTA has installed TV's on their buses. So hungry are advertisers to brainwash us that they can't leave us alone anywhere. (L.A. isn't the only city to be afflicted thus; see this:, and Demise of Contemplative Space)

I've got just one thing to say to TriMet: you'd better not. If you ever install a TV on any of your buses or MAX trains, I will find out who is responsible for this and have you tarred and feathered.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Community-Managed Safety Nets, Food Security and Zenger Farm

It should be fairly obvious by now that the last few decades have seen the tearing apart of government-backed social safety nets in much of the world, and especially in the United States. While it is true that America now has a Democratic president and a Congress controlled by Democrats, their actions to date have not inspired overwhelming confidence that these safety nets might be repaired. (Just look at the present health-care “reform” debate and how our politicians and mainstream media define this in terms of health “insurance” reform. Forcing all Americans to buy private health insurance is not the same as providing universal health care at a cost that our rapidly expanding poor class can afford.)

It is therefore necessary for communities to create their own safety nets. Volunteers must arise to begin building community connections for meeting community needs, often without expecting much help from large government or corporate institutions (though there are cases where communities are pleasantly surprised by offers of government help). A key safety net is the provision of community food security, defined by the World Health Organization as “existing when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” (Source: WHO | Food Security)

In the United States, as the standard of living of many people has been eroded over the years, community-based volunteer organizations have arisen to address the growing lack of access to adequate food, and to build systems of community food security. There are the usual food pantries and canned-goods collection drives. But in recent years there have also arisen many urban farming/gardening organizations that promote and teach the growing of food and raising of suitable livestock within urban communities.

I knew nothing about such organizations when I was living in Southern California. But over the last couple of years I have enjoyed getting to know a few of the several community-based, nonprofit urban agriculture organizations here in Portland, and watching some of their extraordinary staff. Many of these people are young, either college students or recent college graduates who have chosen to spend two or more years of their lives as full-time volunteers in these organizations. There is a touch of the otherworldly about them – their education and career paths clearly show that they didn't go to school to get big bucks and a BMW, but they are concerned about larger issues and social justice.

I've interviewed some of these staffers in the past. You can read the interviews here: A Safety Net Of Alternative Systems - Places To Live, in which the Portland Fruit Tree Project was mentioned; and Volunteer Groups And Community Food Security, which featured Growing Gardens. This week's post is another interview, this time featuring Zenger Farm in outer southeast Portland.

Zenger Farm ( is a century-old working farm that was once owned by Ulrich Zenger, a Swiss dairy farmer, and later by his son, Ulrich Zenger Jr, who protected the farmland from commercial development. In 1994, after the death of Ulrich Jr., the City of Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services purchased the farm. In the years since then, the farm has been leased by concerned citizens who incorporated as Friends of Zenger Farm, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the farm as a public space and community resource for sustainable urban food production. Friends of Zenger Farm also works in partnership with the City to oversee a 10-acre wetland adjoining the farm.

On a pleasant, sunny October morning, I had the opportunity to meet with Prairie Hale, Community Involvement Coordinator for Zenger Farm. I was primarily interested in trying to quantify the impact of the farm in building local safety nets and contributing to a resilient community, although there were other things that I wanted to explore. Below are my questions (in bold type), and Prairie's answers.

Has anyone tried to measure or quantify the impact of Zenger Farm on the surrounding community? There has not been a lot of measurement. However, there are general observable impacts. Zenger Farm serves as a place for field trips and educational and volunteer opportunities to learn about the natural world and develop a connection to that world; and to learn about growing, cooking and preserving food, thus fostering self-sufficiency.

The farm is known as a positive place and a good neighbor in the community. The farm staff are aware of what is happening in the neighborhood and are contributing to neighborhood goals. Not only does the farm grow food for the neighborhood, but it forms partnerships with neighbors to run egg co-operatives and farmers markets with the goal of providing culturally appropriate, fresh affordable food for the community. (However, the egg co-op has not yet attracted many members from the surrounding neighborhoods.)

The farmers market is a joint venture with the Lents Food Group, and the market has an “international” flavor. The market has provisions for accepting WIC (Women, Infants and Children) coupons, food stamps and senior coupons, and has a food-stamp matching program.

Field trips to the farm are conducted by local schools and teachers from public, private and alternative schools in the Lents and Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhoods. The farm also serves as a gathering place to build a sense of community among residents.

The farm is part of a larger urban agriculture “community of knowledge,” both in the Portland metro area and worldwide.

On a related note, what contribution does Zenger Farm make toward building a “resilient community”? (A resilient community is able to survive economic shocks without its members being dislocated by those shocks.) The farm contributes toward increasing food security – that is, a stable supply of affordable healthy food in the neighborhood, as well as generating increasing numbers of people with skills to grow, cook and eat on a tight budget. The farm has offered a very popular class in local schools, named “How to Buy Food On A Budget.” This class has been taught in both English and Spanish, and has attracted both children and their parents.

What are the demographics of the neighborhoods surrounding Zenger Farm? The farm is adjoined by the Lents and Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhoods. Much of this area is poor, yet many of the residents are actively trying to better their neighborhoods. Twenty-five percent of the population can be classified as “food-insecure.” The area was ranked “last in livability” according to a recent survey. The poor population is also being squeezed by gentrification (the encroachment of wealthy buyers of real estate into the neighborhoods), resulting in rising rents and real estate prices.

For the majority of schoolchildren, English is a second language. Only 30 percent are native English speakers. Spanish is the first language for another thirty percent; then the remainder are from Russian, Vietnamese or Laotian backgrounds. Zenger Farm is actively seeking translators for its classes and workshops.

How would you rate the ability of non-profit groups to make up for the dismantling of social safety nets formerly provided by local governments? There is some uncertainty regarding that question. For residents under stress in a disadvantaged urban neighborhood, worries about personal and family needs might take away energy from community organizing. Also, there is a lot of anonymity in cities, whereas small rural communities tend to be much more tightly-knit, and much more willing to pull together in times of crisis.

However, there are good examples of urban and neighborhood groups meeting neighborhood needs. One example is “Generous Ventures” on southeast 111th Street, a group that salvages food that might otherwise go to waste, and distributes it to the poor.

What sort of lifestyle adjustments are required of a member of a non-profit organization? (In other words, most of the people I've met from groups like Growing Gardens or the Portland Fruit Tree Project did not go to school in order to get rich!) If someone is going to commit himself or herself to this kind of service, what should their expectations be? Not surprisingly, don't expect to get rich. Seek to gain satisfaction from developing a strong social network so we can take care of one another and provide for our needs.

(At this point, Prairie told me more of the personal events that had led her down this path. She related her family's Quaker background and how she spent most of her life in a small rural Oregon farm community. But as a result of an injury of a family member and loss of income, she and her family found themselves in Ecuador for a year when she was around eleven. That experience, and seeing the drastic difference between American life and the standard of living of the Ecuadoran population, was the catalyst of her interest in social justice.

As a result of that experience, she went to Earlham College, a Quaker institution of higher learning, and obtained a degree in Peace and Global Studies, a field of study which teaches nonviolent ways of bringing peace and social justice where it is lacking. One lesson she remembers is summed up in this saying: “Create the change that the community is ready for.”)

Regarding “closing the loop”: farming tends to deplete soils unless all organic wastes are properly composted and returned to the soil. Zenger Farm does not do humanure composting at this time, but have you ever thought about it? If you tried it, would you do so as part of a larger study of the feasibilty of this sort of composting in an urban environment? Humanure composting is feasible, but it requires a level of expertise and management that Zenger Farm does not yet possess. It seems to be more feasible on the scale of individual homes. As far as composting in general, Zenger buys compost now, but is looking to cut expenses by recycling more of its own plant matter into compost.

Are there any other general research projects being undertaken by Zenger Farm? The farm has not traditionally been involved in research, although a new focus is starting this year, with two farmers who want to try experimental organic techniques. The farm would like to explore other areas of research, such as adding more rainwater catchment and measuring the decrease in use of City water for irrigation when stored rainwater is used. They also want to do more water testing and measurement of sedimentation in the adjacent wetland, and want to explore various furrow and plowing arrangements to limit sediment runoff and erosion.

Do you have any thoughts on remediating urban sites that have been contaminated by industrial pollutants, in order to prepare these sites for urban agriculture? Research has been done on the use of fungi and mushrooms to rehabilitate sites. One prominent worker in this field is Paul Stamitz, a mycologist.

That concluded my interview with Prairie. As I was leaving, I remarked that it was refreshing to see younger people looking for more than a life of materialism and creature comfort (as opposed to my generation, who went to school solely to acquire big houses and BMW's), and that maybe we were witnessing a revival of something that had not been seen in the U.S. since the 1960's. She agreed, and said that it's not just young people who are waking up. Many older people are seeing that the American dream doesn't work, and are starting to want something more meaningful. Maybe there's hope for us after all.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Dearth Of Waters

I'm on the road today, on a trip to a jobsite inspection. I have just driven down from Portland to the coast, beneath a doomy, portentious sky lying like a blanket over hills soaked by rain, whipped by strong winds, and clothed with trees turning color. But my mind was entertaining a very different image as I drove.

It was a vision of a formerly green, well-watered valley, now become a parched, cracked landscape beneath a sky of brass in which hung a merciless sun. The land was littered with signs of a former prosperity and fertility that had evaporated away – plantings of trees now dead from drought, a few empty shells of decrepit buildings suggestive of a ghost town, skeletons picked clean, and a desperate, humbled mass of gaunt survivors now trying to figure out how to come to peace with their altered surroundings, that they might somehow live.

Yet their efforts were being thwarted by a small group of extremely wealthy people – the very people who had drained the valley of its life-giving water. For as the valley was being exhausted of its water, the drainers of the valley were sending their agents to seize the stored and hoarded water of the poor survivors. But not even this was enough to satisfy the exponentially increasing thirst of the rich. Thus they began even to seize the survivors to feed them into a giant machine in order to suck the moisture out of their bodies. The machine had several names. Two of its names were “Corporatocracy” and “Crony Capitalism.” Those who passed through this machine were spit back onto the landscape like so much human jerky.

Maybe it's a hokey image (a novelist I am not!). But I think it fits the economic news I've been reading lately. This week, the Oregonian newspaper is running a series on the housing and foreclosure crisis. One of their stories talks about a couple who owned three houses during the height of the real estate boom, yet is now reduced to sharing a condo with a relative and taking food stamps. While it is certainly possible to find fault with this couple for over-reaching, the article makes the telling point that the (really big) banks are getting all kinds of help from the Federal Government (really, that's us taxpayers), while the banks are giving absolutely no help to the average debtor. The Oregonian article also describes the plight of many other people who were not over-extended, yet got into trouble because of the present economic downturn, and who were given no help by the banks.

There's also a blog I recently discovered, called The Automatic Earth, which talks about how out of 4 million home mortgages in trouble so far, only around 1700 have been permanently modified under the Federal mortgage rescue program. Yet the banks were given $75 billion to help rescue distressed homeowners. (You can read more here: Don't audit the Fed, pull the rug) Lastly, I have noticed that people are finally starting to get angry about the medical insurance “industry's” attempt to force the Federal government to define “health care reform” as “forcing everyone to buy private insurance.” Many more people need to get angry, and to let their anger be known. Otherwise, we'll all be sucked dry.

But now, speaking of literal water, I have noticed that my post, The "Congress Created Dust Bowl", seems to be a bit more popular than I expected it to be. Thanks to all of you who have read and commented on it. I mention this post because of a conversation I had with a co-worker a couple of weeks ago. He talked disparagingly about how “the Federal Government is interfering with economic growth by cutting off water to California central valley farmers!” Of course, he knows my views and he was trying to get a reaction out of me.

I mentioned to him that there was a sea in the Soviet Union which the Soviet government ruined in order to promote economic growth in a certain region. Basically, they pumped the sea nearly dry over a period of a few decades. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember the name of the sea during my conversation (although the mention of this event did silence my co-worker). But now I remember: it's the Aral Sea. The Wikipedia article on the Aral Sea shows how much it has shrunk since the 1960's, and describes the corresponding ecological damage:

  • The Aral Sea fishing industry, which at one time produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union's entire fish catch, has been wiped out.

  • The muskrat population in some of the adjoining deltas has been wiped out.

  • The sea has shrunk to ten percent of its original size and is now nearly three times as salty as the ocean.

  • The dry plains left by the sea's disappearance are covered with salt and toxic chemicals, which are blown onto neighboring populations via dust storms. This has led to high rates of certain cancers and lung diseases.

These are just some of the effects of human stupidity and greed in that part of the world. Could the people demanding more irrigation water from the Sacramento River do the same thing to that river that was done to the Aral Sea?

Answering that question would not be very difficult. One would only need to know how much water was being diverted for farming, how it was being altered, and the likely effect of the diversion and altering (pollution) of the water on the river and its ecosystems. But that doesn't seem like the sort of science project that would interest Fox News or the people putting up the “Congress Created Dust Bowl” signs.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

An Inmate's View Of Federal Prison

As I have written before, we live and function in an official economy which is run by a very small group of very rich people. Their goal is the continued growth of their profits; yet because of emerging constraints on the earth's natural resources, the rich can no longer grow their profits by unlimited industrial expansion. Increasingly, the only way for the rich to maintain or grow their profits is by robbing the poor.

One way of robbing the poor is by depriving them of their liberty and turning them into extremely cheap slave labor. I discussed this in an earlier post, The Replacement of Petroleum Slaves, which described how the state and Federal prison systems of the United States were being turned into a pool of slave labor with the potential to replace cheap foreign labor for industry in the event of a breakdown of globalism. In this present post, I will expand a bit on that theme, based on some confirming information I received relatively recently.

Several weeks ago I was introduced to a person who had been incarcerated in a Federal prison in the American Southwest around decade ago. I had heard something of his background before we met, and I also had an extensive body of knowledge regarding the prison-industrial complex in various American state prison systems. I wanted to see if my conclusions also applied to the Federal system, so we did an interview.

He told me that there is most definitely a “prison industry” at the Federal level, named UNICOR, also known as Federal Prison Industries. UNICOR is a “wholly owned government corporation created in 1934,” shortly after the creation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. (Source: Federal Prison Industries, Inc. - Wikipedia) UNICOR produces goods and services from the labor of inmates of the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons. According to Federal law, UNICOR is ostensibly restricted to selling its products and services to Federal government agencies, and cannot sell to the commercial market. (More on that later.)

UNICOR produces many products, including clothing, textiles, electronics, and office furniture. My former inmate acquaintance mentioned that UNICOR's labor rates were cheaper than Chinese labor, and said that back when he was in prison, an inmate earned between 11 cents and 26 cents an hour. He also informed me that UNICOR is publicly traded – thus capable of being influenced by the profit motive.

This profit motive, and the opportunity to use the Federal prison system as an instrument of private profit, has had a predictable effect: Federal prisons try as hard as possible to find excuses to keep inmates imprisoned for as long as possible, since all able-bodied inmates who are not security risks are required to work in prison, either for UNICOR or to support prison operations. Also, according to this former inmate, many people sent to Federal prison are framed, including a highly disproportionate number of minorities. Those who are framed are easy for the other inmates to spot, because in conversation it soon becomes obvious that these people do not know how to commit a crime. Native Americans accused of crimes are predominantly judged under Federal law which is much harsher than state laws, and leads to much harsher sentences.

According to my interviewee, prisoners working for UNICOR are not provided with many of the worker safeguards common in private industry. He told me of times where he and other inmates had to dispose of or recycle old electric power transformers containing PCB's, without any protective clothing or safety measures. (By the way, this statement about inadequate worker safety is corroborated by other sources, such as “UNICOR Continues To Use Prisoners To Recycle Electronics,” The Real Cost Of Prisons Weblog, 20 April 2009; and “Prisoners and Workers Poisoned By Prison Recycling at UNICOR Are Suing,” The Real Cost Of Prisons Weblog, 11 August 2009.)

As for prison culture, my interviewee told me that gangs are largely in control at the various prison units, except for the maximum security units. However, the prison guards regularly try to instigate trouble between prison gangs. We discussed the impact of prison culture on the broader American culture. At this point, the interviewee was joined by his spouse, who talked about how with many people from minority neighborhoods being singled out for lockup, the culture and families in these neighborhoods were being ruined. Children in these neighborhoods were now being conditioned to grow up as criminals, due to corrupt and excessive application of police “enforcement” in the places where these children live.

This led to a discussion of ways in which minority culture could be repaired in the United States. My interviewee had two immediate suggestions: first, get rid of mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent crimes; and second, stop the American “war on drugs” as it is now being waged. The interviewee's spouse had suggestions for how concerned and caring volunteers could go into minority neighborhoods to provide exposure to opportunities for learning that would not otherwise be available.

For me, this interview was yet another confirmation of the deliberate breaking of poor neighborhoods and minority communities by the dominant holders of power and wealth in the U.S. It was also a confirmation of the corroding, corrupting nature and effect of growth capitalism. Truly, “the love of money is root of all the evils.” (1 Timothy 6:10) In research that I did following this interview, I found more information on UNICOR's status as a publicly traded company, as well as the efforts of state prison systems to imitate UNICOR. Here are some links:

One last note. We live in a time of severe economic distress, with falling tax revenues at the State and Federal levels, and states that are unable to balance their budgets. Yet you can just bet that next year, in states where the private prison industry or the prison-industrial complex has gained a foothold, there will be lobbyists pushing for an expansion of harsh mandatory sentencing laws for non-violent crimes – even though there's no longer any money to enforce such laws. I think of the mess these people have already made in California, or of the mess that people like Bill Sizemore and Kevin Mannix would like to make in Oregon.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Fight Among Cannibals

We live and function in an “official” economy which is run by a very small group of very rich people. Their goal is continued economic “growth”, yet what that really means is continued growth of their profits. In the days before the present limits on the resource base of the global industrial economy, this growth could be achieved by industrial expansion. But now that our natural resource base has become constrained, the growth of the profits of the rich increasingly comes only by the robbing of the poor.

A prime example of this is the big ongoing Congressional song-and-dance over health care “reform.” It should be fairly obvious that universal health care is not the same as universal health “insurance.” The Congress could have aimed for universal health care for all Americans, regardless of income. The money spent on bailing out the banks and Wall Street could easily have covered the cost of universal health care. The money spent on the Iraq war could easily have covered universal health care. Even under our present arrangement, there would have been lots of change left over. And the elimination of the private insurance “industry”, combined with Federal prohibitions on unjust medical price inflation by pharmaceutical companies and hospitals would have made our care just that much more affordable.

That sort of genuine reform was never seriously attempted by anyone in Congress or the Executive Branch. The medical industry was too strong, having grown to 1/8th of the total U.S. economy, according to this source: Health Care Reform: Problems for Human Health. The best our leaders could come up with was a proposal for a Government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurance companies. Private insurers are at present hideously expensive, with rates that rose at an annual rate of up to 13 percent in 2002 and 2003, and are rising at a rate of five percent per year now. The private insurers were deathly afraid of the mere possibility of Government-backed insurance, let alone genuine health care reform, and worked hard to kill this option, in a Senate Finance Committee vote which took place last week.

The Senate Finance Committee has therefore settled on a “reform” plan that would force all Americans to buy private health insurance by 2013. This plan is a “compromise” worked out by Democrats in order to appeal to Republicans who were afraid of the “Government spending taxpayer money to support socialism!!!” However, under this plan, ordinary Americans would be forced to spend:

  • up to 13 percent of yearly (pre-tax) income for a family of four making up to $88,000 a year;

  • over $700 a month for a family of four making $66,000 a year;

  • and a tax penalty of up to $1500 a year for those who refuse to buy health insurance and whose earnings are less than 300 percent of the poverty level, and $3800 a year for those who refuse to buy health insurance and whose earnings are greater than 300 percent of the poverty level. (Source: “Reform Bill Will Address GOP Fears,” Washington Post, 15 September 2009)

And our leaders call this “fixing health care”?!

I wonder many families are now heavily indebted, having been tricked into buying overpriced houses and overpriced cars, having had to make ends meet with stagnant or declining real wages while the prices of basics like food, gasoline and utilities continue to rise. So many students have been drawn heavily into debt to attend colleges whose tuition continues to rise at a rate far outpacing general inflation. So many people are now either laid off or are on involuntary part-time schedules. So many small business owners have been given the business by this present “recession” that has put them out of business. The only green shoots one sees in the vicinity of many empty and boarded-up strip mall lease spaces are the shoots of weeds rising through the cracks in the pavement. And I do see a lot more people in raggedy clothes next to freeway off-ramps, holding up signs saying something like “Please give. Anything helps. God bless!”

Is the Government going to force these people to spend $700 a month on private health insurance? Is the Government going to hit these people with a $1500 or $3800 a year tax burden if they don't buy insurance? And what kind of insurance would they buy? The insurance lobby and their Republican sock puppets would propose making insurance “affordable” by offering plans with high deductibles in order to “keep costs down.” So that means that Americans are forced to give money to private insurers, and that they get almost nothing in return? If you buy one of these plans, does that mean that eighty or ninety percent of the cost of a doctor's visit is not covered by insurance? That's like getting into an airplane and being handed a parachute the size of a handkerchief. It won't slow you down much, will it?!

Now people like Glenn Beck and the Tea Party organizers claim to be fighting for the American taxpayer. Why are they not protesting this plan to force Americans to buy private health insurance? Why isn't Fox News protesting this? Why isn't Sarah Palin outraged over this? Are the Tea Partyers all “partied-out”? Or are they on the side of the enemy, after all? And why are both Democrats and Republicans helping the insurance “industry” to rape ordinary Americans?

For a rape it is, or to use another metaphor, it is a cannibal feast. Ordinary Americans have now been reduced to little more than a pile of body parts and limbs, some of which have already been picked clean. The cannibals comprise a small group, yet among them are competing interests. Each representative of these interests wants as big a share as possible of the pile of body parts and limbs, because each competing interest wants to grow as fat as possible.

So we have the private prison lobby, which wants to grow rich locking up as many Americans as possible. But wait – if they do that, that will hurt the growth prospects of the real estate “industry,” who will not have anyone to buy their excessive housing inventory. But if people buy houses, and their wages don't rise, they won't be able to afford consumer electronics and cheap Chinese-made goods, and this would hurt Wal-Mart and other big chain stores. Now the medical/insurance complex wants its share of the cannibal feast – “hey, let's extort $700 a month from every American family to fatten ourselves!” But that will mean that people don't have money anymore to go to Starbucks or to keep their cable TV subscriptions, or to buy new cars, or to buy stocks, etc.

What to do, what to do? How will the competing cannibals sort it all out? I don't know. Perhaps they will all get into a fight with each other, killing each other off and leaving the rest of us alone. I have to confess that I would enjoy seeing such an outcome. Lord, forgive me.

Meanwhile, if you want to see an example of genuine citizen rage and not some store-bought Tea Party astroturf purchased by rich lobbyists, here's a link to a YouTube video of a woman delivering a few words to Bank of America. I must warn you that her language is not family-friendly. Yet I say “Amen” to her message. Here's the link:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Where There Is No Doctor (Because You Can't Afford One)

Much of this blog has focused on the ongoing economic collapse in the United States, and the warped economic arrangements that prevent ordinary people of small means from becoming resilient in the face of that collapse. American health care is just one aspect of these warped arrangements. Because health care in America is provided by a private “industry” that demands ever-increasing profits, the cost of American health care has become an ever-more-weighty and insupportable elephant on the backs of ordinary people.

Of course, this has led to the widespread suffering of ordinary people, and has generated much attention from politicians who have promised to “reform” the system. Genuine health care reform would consist of transforming American health care from a growth industry to the providing of an essential service, in all likelihood administered by the Government because of the proven untrustworthiness and selfishness of the private sector. Unfortunately, our leaders in government seem utterly unable to come to this conclusion. The best they can do is talk about providing universal health insurance (which is not the same as universal health care) to all American citizens. Their so-called “public option” would consist of a Government-run insurance program that would compete against private health insurance providers. This last week, the Finance Committee of the United States Senate voted twice to reject this “public option.” As things now stand, therefore, we ordinary people are about to be left once again at the mercy of the health care industry and its adjuncts, the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance “industry.”

But there is another option available. It is a “public” option, though it does not depend on the Government for its implementation. Who is responsible for implementing it? You are, dear reader. Today, let's talk again about citizens building a safety net of alternative systems for themselves. I must warn you that the steps of building a citizen-created health care safety net will be somewhat challenging. Some study and hard work will be required. But I have no doubt that many people will be sufficiently motivated for the task, once they find themselves thrown out of work by the present economic contraction. When their unemployment checks total less than $1300 a month and they are faced with COBRA payments of almost $1100 a month, that will be a real kick in the pants! (Source: COBRA Premiums for Family Health Coverage Consume 84 Percent of Unemployment Benefits)

By the way, health insurance payments have risen over 131 percent from 1999 to the present. COBRA payments in some states now exceed the size of mortgage payments on small to mid-sized houses. (Sources: Health Inflation Slows as Economy Tumbles, KFF Reports, and Insurance Premiums Still Rising Faster Than Inflation and Wages.) Thus, one other aim of my “public option” is that it would kill off the private health insurance “industry” in the U.S. if it were widely adopted. And that “industry” is ripe for the killing, if you ask me. (There is yet a third aim: to shut up all the "tea party" idiots now yelling about illegitimate birth certificates and "socialism!!!")

One caveat: I am not a doctor, but an engineer by training. I can't take someone's blood pressure or interpret what I would see if I stuck a tongue depressor into someone's mouth and told them to say “Ahh.” But I'd like to believe that I'm a somewhat competent systems thinker, and it seems to me that the health care problem is a systems problem with a systems solution. My proposed citizen-generated health care alternative therefore addresses three specific system concerns: preventive health care, infectious disease control and injury treatment.

Why these three concerns? What about degenerative diseases such as hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and so forth? I believe that a proper emphasis on preventive health care education and preventive health habits would greatly reduce the incidence of many degenerative diseases in the American population. If people took proper care of themselves and lived in unpolluted environments, the only threats to their health that they'd have to worry about would most likely be the threat of infectious illness and the threat of injury.

Preventive Health Care

Preventive health care consists of many elements that are already familiar to most of us, such as the development of healthy habits like eating right and exercise. If you see your body as a machine, it should be obvious that a properly maintained machine is less likely to break down in the first place. We need to learn to maintain ourselves.

Of course, part of that maintenance has to do with how we eat, and how much we eat. But another part of that maintenance consists of proper exercise. By this I don't mean the sort of “exercise” that's often sold at chain-store health clubs. I mean real, functional physical conditioning that enables people to do strenuous things without hurting themselves. My personal leanings are toward the Crossfit program ( and its teachers, although I don't agree with everything they say, and their classes are too expensive for me. (Also, I'm not quite as hardcore as they are.) But I like the fact that they encourage people to work hard, to develop functional capabilities that actually have some use, and that they are willing to train anyone for strength, from children to the elderly. By starting people off young and training them in a wide variety of fitness strategies, they help people build a solid foundation for maintained physical capability in later life, without worries about things like osteoporosis, injuries and other fractures, circulatory diseases, and diabetes.

Exercise should be a family affair. If you want strong, capable kids, you've got to work yourself to be strong and capable. I remember when I used to live in Southern California, that there was a horse/nature trail near my apartment. The trail head was right behind a County courthouse, and wound around past a medical office complex before ending again at a small man-made “lake” (a pond, really). Sometimes when I walked that trail, I would encounter a large family jogging past me. Usually their group consisted of several of the kids, the oldest of whom was in high school. But one time I think I saw the entire family – Dad, Mom and all the kids (they had many) running along in shorts and jogging shoes, with the youngest (who seemed to be around nine or ten years old) pounding along at the rear. That family was an inspiration and an example to me. May they be so to you also. So get off the couch, put out the cigarette, put down the sour-cream-and-chives potato chips, turn off the TV and start modeling some good behavior.

Dealing With Illness and Injuries

Last week's post, Communities of Healing Hands - The Hesperian Example, described the work of the Hesperian Foundation in developing simple, practical printed literature to teach untrained health care workers how to help sick and injured people. The writers of this literature strove to provide health care workers with tools that are uncomplicated, widely available, inexpensive, and easy to implement.

Ordinary Americans who want to free themselves from worry over possible medical emergencies should master this literature. As many people a hundred years ago knew how to treat a fracture, how to clear a boil, and how to deliver a baby, I think it's going to be necessary for many of us to re-learn skills like these if we don't want to be bankrupted by the medical “industry.” We are also going to have to learn to make our own medicines, and how to deal with infectious diseases. And we are going to have to learn to identify environmental factors that make people sick, and learn what to do about these.

As the Introduction to Where There Is No Doctor says, “...even where there are doctors, people can and should take the lead in their own health care...Health care is not only everyone's right, but everyone's responsibility...Informed self-care should be the main goal of any health program or activity...”

Educate, Practice and Agitate

It's time to educate ourselves, and to practice the techniques we learn through this education. Our goal should be to create community-based health care systems that work so well that we no longer need health “insurance” or special access to the overpriced products of the present health care “industry.”

If this goal appeals to you, then consider buying the Hesperian literature (or downloading it for free from their website). Start a reading/discussion circle to study this literature with friends, neighbors or co-workers. (At my job, we're going to kick off a study group for Where There Is No Doctor. Our first meeting is a week and a half from now.)

If you want an opportunity to practice what you learn, consider volunteering to provide basic health care services for the homeless, or at a local rescue mission. Document your efforts, along with any lessons learned, in a form such as a blog that allows a large audience to learn from what your doing. Try to analyze and measure the effectiveness of your efforts, and compare them to the results that would be provided by the standard American health care system.

As I have said, the Hesperian literature is written at a very basic level. But for those who want a more advanced theoretical background knowledge of health care, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has provided online study materials for its Health Sciences and Technology curriculum under its Creative Commons-licensed OpenCourseWare. There are also many other sources of open-source or Creative Commons-licensed health care and health education information on the Web.

Lastly, we need to agitate. Where there are institutional, legal or political barriers to community-created health care, these must be publicized and those who create these barriers must be shamed. This is especially true where available cheap generic drugs are blocked from the market by powerful pharmaceutical interests and their political hired guns. I think of the way in which cheap Canadian generic drugs have been blocked from being imported to the U.S. by means of Congressional legislation. This legislation was especially ridiculous in 2006, when Republican congressmen argued that by banning the entry of cheap Canadian generics they were helping to protect the U.S. from terrorists! I wonder what drugs those Republicans had been taking...