Exxon’s Money or Your Life: Immoral Capital is Still in Charge

What makes the majority of politicians most uncomfortable about Bernie Sanders is not that he is a “democratic socialist” (Notice, they usually leave out the “democratic” part.) Most do not understand the concept anyway. They just find the word an easy target for the personal derision of Bernie, the disheveled outsider who has remained an outsider working on the inside for decades.

What really disturbs the political and media elites about Bernie is that he is an authentic moralist. It is Bernie’s insistence on framing economic issues in moral terms that most offends the political “pragmatists” of whatever party persuasion. Unfortunately, in order to be accepted as a member of the Washington Establishment you have to give up any sense of personal morality in favor of platitudes and political “compromise” of moral principles.

American political culture sustains a powerful pretense of morality as it’s justification for the politics of the economic system. Economics itself stands firmly in the quicksand of magical thinking rooted in the consensual adulation of a simple phrase mentioned only a couple of times by the politically deified Adam Smith: “the invisible hand.”[1]

That magical thinking extends to the supposedly necessary and “natural” financial structure of an impossible economic objective: endless economic growth in a world of obviously finite resources.

Both the “invisible hand” and the perpetual growth machine are claimed – endlessly and with a straight face on CNBC – to offer the best and only solution to providing for the general welfare of humanity. Well, look at where that has got us. What is conveniently ignored or denied by our immoral economic system apologists is the completely unprecedented destruction it has wrought upon people and planet. The “business model” of immoral capital, simply put, is to extract maximum “value” from people, land and ecosystems, then leave the waste in its wake, looking for the next “resource” to plunder.

Unbounded Global-Scale Immorality

Hurricane Patricia, Category-5, about to make landfall south of Puerto Vallarta, 23 October 2015. Unprecedented.

Hurricane Patricia, Category-5, about to make landfall south of Puerto Vallarta, 23 October 2015. Unprecedented.

The most egregious execution of the plunder capital business model must be the actions of Exxon’s executive decision-makers over the last four decades. In the 1970s, its own scientists had discovered the trend of global warming in Exxon’s internal climate research program. The Exxon scientists reported to their bosses that global warming would trigger climate destabilization. It has been known for awhile that Exxon has funded propaganda efforts at “climate denial” since global warming became a public concern. But the Big Lie was much bigger than anyone knew.

Recent investigative reporting by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, revealed the greater evil of Exxon. “As Croasdale’s team was closely studying the impact of climate change on the company’s operations, Exxon and its worldwide affiliates were crafting a public policy position that sought to downplay the certainty of global warming.”[2] Exxon executives knew from the 1970s on how fossil fuel burning was causing global warming and they knew from reports of their own scientists the highly probable catastrophic consequences that would have for the planet by destabilizing climate around the world. Yet their only concern was for the company’s operations.

In 1988 renowned NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the U.S. Congress, expressing concern about his findings from research on climate models he had begun over a decade earlier. He knew that only a small window of opportunity remained to change the course of energy production and consumption before the ultimate climate catastrophe could no longer be averted. Exxon had a moral choice. The executive “leadership” of Exxon chose the immoral strategy, risking the extinction of the human species in favor of its own corporate bottom line. If that is not a crime against humanity, then nothing is.[3]

Imagine the impact of Exxon’s prodigious scientific research and its massive databases collected on CO2 in the atmosphere and on global warming might have had on skeptical congressmen in 1988. Confirmation of Hansen’s analysis by Exxon’s large-scale empirical investigations might have spurred serious climate actions decades ahead of present-day fits and starts. Indeed, today, the continued faltering of climate-policy efforts is in part due to Exxon’s massive climate-denying propaganda effort. Exxon took the exact opposite of a moral path, the most evil of all possible paths. It launched the same propaganda strategy of denial that the tobacco industry previously used to sow seeds of doubt about the scientific facts of cancer caused by Americans’ tobacco use. Well, Big Tobacco was a piker compared to Big Oil.

Economic Justice Must Be Societal and Global in Scope

What if there existed an international court actually capable of meting out justice for high crimes against humanity committed by corporations and their executives? I would surmise that complete confiscation of every asset of Exxon and its subsidiaries would provide a minimal down payment for compensation to the people of the world. Incarceration for life with hard labor on projects designed to mitigate the damage they have wrought would be a minimal “punishment” for the decision-makers. Would that be sufficient punishment? Who cares? The planet is in a state of emergency that is still barely recognized for its urgency by political decision-makers. We need to apply all available resources to undoing as much of Exxon’s damage that we possibly can.

Of course the responsible executives must be punished. Past failures to hold bad executive actors to account for their crimes continue to encourage such behavior. We can afford no more of it. It is good to see that Bernie Sanders and others are pushing for a Justice Department investigation to determine if there is sufficient evidence of racketeering to prosecute the Exxon Offenders. No “expert consulting” form of “community service” sentencing for these guys – we don’t need them for that. Only hard physical labor on climate action projects will do. After all, that’s what the greatest victims of Big Oil have to do every day just to survive.

The haze of corporate propaganda and the fog of political oratory still form a thick ethical overcast that blankets the national consciousness. They project a false image that implies, “We’re taking care of this.” Meanwhile, profits and political corruption keep flowing right along with climate degradation.

A serious illusion blocking adequate climate action globally is the “debate” over responsibility between the “developed” and “developing” nations for funding and taking major climate actions. However, the sweep of history we call the Industrial Era demonstrates that it is a much simpler matter. Big Oil would prefer the “debate” continue while it reaps more profits from our doom.

The Earth is Warming...

The Earth is Warming…

China may be the world’s currently most prolific polluter. How much of its emissions come directly from Corporate America’s outsourced manufacturing? Well, nearly every product of U.S. corporations sold in the Big Box stores is made there. North America and Europe are the source of most of the total carbon emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution two-hundred years ago. The total CO2 already emitted is the source of our growing current and near-term climate disruptions. All current and future emissions have to be drastically reduced (as in, to zero) to avert climate collapse. And who suffers most from past and current emissions? The non-industrial peoples of the equatorial regions that were most plundered for the materials to feed the industrial and economic growth machine, that’s who.

Immoral Capital Must Pay, Humanity Must Receive

The only moral solution is also the only viable solution that has a chance at slowing climate destabilization before it becomes irreversible. It is largely a matter of cause and effect. In fact, those who have gained the most economic wealth from the extraction, manufacturing, consumption, and waste of planetary resources must pay the most to reverse the headlong charge to species extinction (ours). It is quite simple: they have the money and they are responsible for the problem. The only viable solution, however, will not be an easy one. After all, the very corporate elite from which the money must be taken is protected by the political elite that has pandered to corporate criminality all along.

Those nations whose land, populations, and resources have been most plundered by these industrial processes and typically suffer most from the climate consequences, must receive support to “weather the storm” created by the industrial north. They must also find near zero-carbon paths to sustainable development – not growth – with that support. China, India, and to a much lesser degree a number of other developing nations must turn away from emulating the industrial nations and instead find sustainable paths to ecological economies. The industrial nations, for their part, must rapidly construct their own ecological economies from the remains of the disintegrating global-growth economy.

However, immoral capital is still in charge of the economies of the world. It is immoral capital that forced austerity on the Greek people to protect itself from the immoral actions of plunder capital (Goldman Sachs) and politics (former military ‘governments’ and their moneylenders). Immoral capital still attempts to make its victims pay for repairing the damage it has inflicted on the economies of its victims.

The institutionalized immorality of today’s capital is relentless and is bolstered by international political structures. However, Iceland provided the world a model for responding to attempts to force a nation’s people to take the punishment for the crimes of private bankers. The U.S. revolving-door Wall Street politicians did just the opposite, bailing out the criminal banks and brokerage houses and saddling the nation with unprecedented debt.

Corrupt politicians protect immoral capital by convincing the people that we must save “capitalism” from itself by “fixing” it. Congressional agents of the corporate elite try to convince the people that we need “market solutions” and “investment in technology” to save the planet by saving their doomed endless-growth economy. Nothing is thought to work unless it feeds the corporate pig.

To get a sense of the disconnect, just look at the world climate trajectory and species extinction rates today – it shows up in diverse research reports online from NOAA, NASA, and numerous university climate research centers, including the recent report by Stanford University researchers on the accelerating Sixth Mass Extinction. [4] Then look at CNBC and see the bulk of the business of immoral capital proceed as usual – a total disconnect. We must build ecological capital fast. You can fool many people for awhile, but you can never fool Mother Nature.
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[1] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. (1759) Part 4: Utility’s Effect Upon Approbation. Chapter 1, and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) Book IV, Chapter II. In his A History of Astronomy, written before The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith used the term to refer to “natural phenomena otherwise explainable.” As Joseph Stiglitz put it, “the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.” See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_hand#Other_uses_of_the_phrase_by_Smith.
[2] Los Angeles Times, “What Exxon knew about the Earth’s melting Arctic,” by Sara Jerving, Katie Jennings, Masako Melissa Hirsch and Susanne Rust (Oct. 9, 2015). Accessed at http://graphics.latimes.com/exxon-arctic/ . Bill McGibbon’s article, “Exxon’s climate lie: ‘No corporation has ever done anything this big or bad,’” concisely describes Exxon’s treachery in The Guardian.
[3] Democracy Now! aired a good summary and discussion of the Exxon situation, including prospects for a Justice Department investigation on October 21, 2015. See: http://www.democracynow.org/2015/10/21/prison_for_exxon_execs_calls_grow
[4] See for diverse examples: http://www.noaa.gov/climate.html; http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/; http://news.stanford.edu/news/2015/june/mass-extinction-ehrlich-061915.html, and http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253

The Ideology of Predatory Capital: Social Illusions and Planetary Reality

With the fall of the Soviet Union and various other communist states, the victory of capitalism seemed assured. Ronald Reagan took on a God-like aura, anointed by Margaret Thatcher. The “Iron Lady” affirmed that there was no such thing as “society,” and there was no alternative to unfettered growth of neo-liberal capitalism. All was well in the West, or so it was said.

Now, all sorts of things were possible with the “peace dividend.” The triumph of American Individualism over Soviet totalitarianism was expected to yield huge savings resulting from the end of the arms race that had been required by the “cold war.” Yet, somewhere on the way to peace and prosperity, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower had warned us against, just kept growing bigger and bigger. We were warned against potential new forms of conflict for which we must be prepared.

That growth relentlessly consumed more and more of the federal budget. The pursuit of military goals to assure the continued supply of energy from the Middle East left little money for “domestic programs” throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. The pursuit of endless wars of choice into the twenty-first century created widespread international resentments. “Freedom fighters” in their own minds, growing numbers of “terrorists” and “insurgents” defended against indiscriminant U.S. invasions and occupations. Such groups grew much more rapidly than they ever had before nine-eleven. The costs of these military adventures have been mostly off-budget, yet have continued to bloat the national debt, their funding appropriated from nowhere. Meanwhile the congress continues to focus on cutting corporate taxes and domestic programs and subsidizing fossil-fuel extractive industry. Small government for the people, big government for the Empire.

The Ideology of Economic and Military Predation

In tandem with aggressive U.S. foreign policy, the growing dominance of neo-liberal economics – formerly called “Laisse Faire” – meant increasing control of the U.S. economy by international corporations. So called “free markets” and “free trade” operated as ideological cover for ever-increasing corporate domination of both domestic and international economies. The story was always, let individual entrepreneurs and small businessmen – the mythical “job creators” – be freed of government regulation and Adam Smith’s “indivisible hand” will assure the best outcome for all. But the hard economic reality has been quite different.

Capitalist economies work best for their people when markets are regulated to control the worst excesses of the power of capital itself. The free-market ideologists carefully neglect to admit to the power of power to accrue more power. The question, “free for whom?” is neither asked nor answered. That is exactly how the mega-corporations have ideologically controlled polity, economy, and society. The corporatists, whether pundits on CNBC or the politicians bought and paid for by the corporate and financial elites, have clear expectations and intentions. Only by reducing taxation on corporate profits and eliminating “onerous regulations” needed for public health, workplace safety, and the environment, as well as those evil “entitlements,” can the capitalist economy work best – well, best in fact for the corporations and worst for the people.

Of course, corporate taxes are at all-time lows and deregulation of financial markets has been fully achieved by the Republi-crat one-party corporate state. The result is the starving of federal and state budgets and destruction of middle-class employment. Deregulation of financial markets, aided by the power of electronic computing, has allowed corporate malfeasance on a scale never before imagined. This has driven both U.S. and international economies to financial crises on a scale not seen since the great depression of the 1930s.

Deregulation of production and labor markets has released large corporations from any responsibility for environmental damage, abuses of labor, increased health risks to citizens, or unfair competition. Their domination of politics, economics, and society was thereby assured. Their control of politics and the mass media have kept at bay any serious discussion or action to counter the climate crisis that fossil-fuel driven extractive capital has created. The corporate state propels us toward the sixth great extinction while its elites grab their short-term profits.

Illusions of Separation and Dominion

All this is sustained by massive social illusions about the nature of human society and the nature of nature itself, all promoted by the power elites’ propaganda. The social illusion that the capitalism we have is what we need is promoted and sustained by the financial, corporate, and military elites who benefit economically from its unrestrained damage to people and planet. The problem, of course, is that almost all political discussion, deeply grounded in illusions and propaganda imposed through the media they control, flatly excludes reality. The power of mass media control is the power to ignore.

It is not only interesting but very important to note that the illusions fostered by the power elite about society are the same illusions promoted about nature. The perspective is atomistic and reductionist. But contrary to the pseudo-science of economics, the natural world is the world in which we live, and it is a complex living system, not a simple mechanistic causal chain. It and we are complex interdependent living systems. Despite any illusions we hold about our dominion over nature, we are inescapably part of it.

To think clearly about humanity and its place among the other complex living systems on earth, we must purge the old ideological schism over capitalism vs. socialism. (It is all internal to society anyway and the ideological debate ignores nature while assuming human domination over the earth.) Roosevelt tried to save the capitalism of the early twentieth century by modifying its destructive tendencies – it worked for awhile. Later, communism collapsed from its own dead weight. Neither was much cognizant of the natural world – that would have been anti-industrial and thereby unacceptable.

Despite the limitations imposed on him, Roosevelt did a pretty good job – the “New Deal” reforms kept U.S. Capitalism alive for almost a century. The former extreme boom-bust cycle was dampened by the regulations he imposed on banking – separating speculative investment banking from commercial depository banking. The result was “the business cycle” where relatively mild recessions between periods of growth replaced the severe crashes previously experienced. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and later programs dampened socioeconomic instabilities. But in the post Reagan-Thatcher era of deregulation, we have regressed to extreme risk of financial collapse and social chaos resulting from the abolition of those reforms. Our situation is not unlike the past, but amplified by the electronic speed of today’s financial transactions and the much greater size and power of today’s corporations.

If we continue on this path of self-delusion about economic and planetary realities, the next financial collapse will be far more severe and will reverberate throughout the world in the form of social chaos. If we continue with the self-delusions of the extractive predatory capitalism we have, not only will the world economy collapse, but the unmitigated climate disruptions produced by the delusional endless-growth economic system will put the planet over the brink, ultimately – and soon – leading to full-on climate collapse, extreme crop failures, mass starvation and uncontrollable migrations, widespread armed violence, and untold human suffering.

Interdependent Reality

The underlying reality of both human society and living earth systems resides in the fact of interdependence. Some elements of the idea of personal independence and freedom are important and true and lead to cultural creativity in a variety of ways, within a context of inherent societal and ecological interdependence.

Yet the ideology of American independence, unfettered capital markets, and “free” trade, as promoted by the power elites, is rapidly becoming deadly in its consequences for both human society and large numbers of living species, as well as the living earth systems of which we are a part.

Ecological Reality and Political Illusions

So, Bernie Sanders is a “democratic socialist,” or, in the European term, a “social democrat.” From the perspective of the ideology of the U.S. power elites, that is a political horror of horrors. That is why the mass media try to ignore Sanders. Besides, the unreality of “The Donald” is so “entertaining.” After all, the social programs Bernie Sanders advocates would disrupt their near total power over the economy. But from the perspective of a desire to secure the future against the ravages of unfettered predatory extractive capital hell-bent to destroy the living earth in favor of the next quarterly report, Bernie is a rather mild-mannered moderate. He would institute many of the same sorts of programs that Roosevelt did to save capitalism from itself. But today there is a big difference.

It is no longer a matter of fixing our socially and environmentally dysfunctional version of capitalism; now it is a matter of replacing the disaster capitalism we have with a new ecological economy never before seen on the planet, except in miniature among indigenous peoples. We must create local indigenous economies at planetary scale. That is a daunting but necessary task that must be accomplished in very short order if we are to avoid much more severe social and ecological chaos in the wake of economic collapse as well as climate collapse. The system we have is destabilizing all sorts of natural systems that have been in relative balance for a very long time. Oscillations in disturbed systems tend to amplify toward system collapse. This is why tipping points are so important. The economic and climate oscillations are accelerating.

It is not just poverty, racism, unemployment, or the extreme accumulation of phantom wealth in the delusional financial markets that are at stake – as if they were not enough. Now it is a matter of social and ecological survival. The living interdependence of multiple species in multiple ecologies around the world is being disrupted on a massive scale. We are only partly aware of the complex ways humans depend on these even more complex ecological inter-relationships. Many such interdependencies are being exposed as we careen toward mass extinction. Scientists know this; politicians are not listening. We are all at extreme risk. Only massive cooperation among people, neither corporate competition nor the corporate state, will make the difference between a forming a new ecological society and our present path to an accelerated extinction of many more species, including our own.

The Big Climate Blunder and Its Antidote: Risking Everything for What?

The Industrial Era has provided prosperity for many in the nations that industrialized first. In many ways it has also involved the plunder and pollution of both Body and Planet for over 200 years. After beginning to improve material existence for industrialized nations, especially through the 1950s and 1960s, the broadening participation in prosperity began to fade. The widely praised success of the industrialized nations of the North was achieved on the backs and at the expense of the non-industrialized peoples of the South.

Colonialism and later imperialism were essentially a massive transfer of materials for industrial production just as slavery was a forced transfer of human labor for agricultural production. The result was prosperity in Europe and North America and poverty nearly everywhere else. At first, environmental degradation was mostly in the South except in Northern factory towns; now it is everywhere. The culmination of the Industrial Era is climate disruption and its converging catastrophes of social disintegration, poverty, starvation, and war – unless drastic actions are taken now.

The Worst of the Best
But prosperity had its costs for the people in the industrial North. It has increasingly distorted human life by marketing more and more meaningless products while wages decline and jobs are lost. Capital is mobile; labor is not. NFTA, TPP, and other international trade agreements betray citizens and national sovereignty in favor of unfettered international capital movement. The worst of prosperity for the growing numbers who are excluded is that the poverty and pollution caused by extractive industry and international trade fall disproportionately on them. The worst of pollution is that the politics of extractive industrial technology have allowed increasingly toxic materials invade living systems everywhere.

Any real democracy would have put on controls to protect the public interest. Our false democracy serves the corporate interest in immediate profit at the expense of the public interest in health and happiness. Exposure of the smallest microorganisms and the largest ecological earth systems to the myriad of chemicals in the waste of prosperity wreaks havoc on living systems. The diverse and ubiquitous forms of industrial and consumer waste never existed over millennia as living systems evolved. So they never had a chance to develop resistance to the toxic effects of unnatural waste. Biological evolution occurs at a pace vastly slower than the speed with which the industrial revolution has polluted the planet. Today’s unprecedented rate of species extinction is accelerating with no end in sight.[1] Humanity depends on the complex web of life for its survival. But our power elites are locked into a death dance of short-term and very short-sighted self-enrichment. [2]

Larger earth systems, mainly climate and the oceans, are key determinants of the stability and survival of species in local ecologies. In addition to widespread exposure to toxins, climate disruption has also caused major damage to local ecosystems as well as larger earth systems. The damage is seen in key components of these systems, such as acidification of the oceans and increasingly erratic storm patterns. These large earth systems play major complex roles in local ecological conditions over time, and have major impact on their stability. What recently appeared to some as a hiatus in global warming, measured as average atmospheric temperatures, was actually an artifact of the oceans absorbing much more carbon dioxide and heat than had been expected. This has caused unprecedented acidification of ocean waters, massively disrupting the food chain by causing many species of crustaceans to be unable to form their shells. Coral reefs are dying; clam and other populations are plummeting. Changes in ocean temperatures are having major effects on weather patterns such as El Nino and La Nina, which in turn cause more extreme weather in various locations.

Prisoners of Greed
The extreme danger of doing nothing or doing a little about global warming is increasingly obvious to most thinking humans who have access to basic climate-change information. But one factor in policy decisions that is rarely mentioned is the relative comparison of risk and reward for different lines of climate action and for different political interests. Power elites are ‘in the game’ but play out their personal (high salaries and obscene bonuses) and corporate (stock prices) short-term interests, without reference to the public interest or the interests of humanity.

“The Prisoners Dilemma,” is an exercise used by game theorists and behavioral researchers to better understand how human decisions are made in conditions of variable risks and imperfect information. It is a simple game. Each player has two choices. If player A chooses the potentially high-reward option, s/he can win all, but only if Player B chooses the moderate reward option. If both players choose the potentially high-reward option, both lose. However, if both players choose the moderate reward option, both players win moderate rewards. Ultimately, it is about greed and aggression vs. cooperation and moderation. In such simulations, the players usually learn over several iterations of the game that the moderate-reward win-win scenario works best for all. But learning takes time.

In the real world where situations are much more complex, the risks and rewards can vary widely. But despite claims of free-market fundamentalists, cooperation often performs far better for all involved than does greed. Our economy of ever-growing extractive capital and industrial and consumer waste has in recent years performed very well for those power elites who have chosen the potential high-reward option of greed. (The rest of us seem to have chosen the moderate reward option, and we are losing.) But just as in the Prisoners Dilemma, the continuation of the plunder capital model of success is ultimately unsustainable. Because these “corporate robots” are captives of the magical thinking of the Sacred Money and Markets” ideology, they are slow learners when it comes to cooperation and protecting the commons.

Games are abstract forms; they can be repeated endlessly by simply starting over regardless of the outcome. But the real world is not a game; it has real boundaries of time and environment. When we destroy earth systems, there is no do-over. Extinctions are forever. We cannot restart destroyed ecosystems; we can only try to save them before it is entirely too late. We cannot rewind the growth economy, nor can it go on much longer. All we can do is create a new economy that does not destroy the earth systems upon which we depend for survival. The old failing growth economy will die of its own failures or we will transform it into a living economy that supports both humans and the rest of life on this planet. We must choose quickly.

Choosing Life
Ever more concentrated wealth in the hands of the power elites ultimately will destroy their dominance. It is an open question whether their downfall will come at the hands of climate catastrophe or social rebellion, or both. The timing and success of cooperation overcoming greed will determine the degree of chaos avoided. We also wonder whether the necessary Great Transformation of the economy and society can happen before climate disruption leads to increased food insecurity, poverty, mass migration, water wars, and related catastrophes.[3] We must say yes, turn away from the international corporate growth economy, and shape resilient local community economies in harmony with the living Earth. No small task.

Life, of course, is much more complicated than the “Prisoners Dilemma” game. Yet, games can help us learn more about human behavior and decision making. Other social psychological patterns are also informative, such as the “free rider syndrome.” I liken the Wall Street financial elite, the President, and the Congress to a gang of subway riders who jump over the turnstile to get free rides at everyone else’s expense – only the consequences of their ‘free ride’ are far worse. They take vastly more and cost the rest of us vastly more, both on an immensely grander scale: that of the global economy. They destroy the system in order to continue plundering it.

These elite players routinely take the high-risk option in seeking the high reward – but they have already rigged the game. They ‘socialize’ the high risk (pass off the losses to the rest of society). They ‘privatize’ the high rewards (capture for themselves the phantom wealth generated by their financial and economic manipulations). They do all this through personal and corporate control of “the game” – but they don’t seem to understand that it is not a game; it is a life and death struggle for humanity. Just a few of their methods include:

• legislating tax reductions for the rich;
• preventing climate action, which would cut into their pollution-producing profits;
• eliminating legal controls on financial speculation, cutting government programs that are in the public’s and planet’s interest;
• keeping wars of choice going for huge arms industry and banking profits;
• reducing government control over international financial transactions, trade, and money laundering; and
• forcing through Congress international trade deals – such as NAFTA and TPP – that legalize corporate sovereignty over governments, preventing health, labor, and environmental regulations that might interfere with their profits.

In the short run, that high risk is borne by everyone else and the high rewards are theirs. We have to understand, many of the most powerful are clever sociopaths; that is how they got where they are. Others are merely highly paid skilled functionaries, supporting the system that rewards them and punishes deviance from corporate “values.” They can retire to their high-security estates and revel in their clever success, though many are unable to quit their quest for ever more power. But their greed is ultimately self-destructive in spite of their denial and their political power. They may even survive a little longer in their gated compounds than some less privileged. But nobody will escape a dying planet. We may all lose everything if their gamble fails, and it will. It is only the rest of us who can make a difference, if we will.[4]

The most important question is whether we will be able to do something about the coming collapse in time to avoid it. That is why to do anything less than take extreme actions to constrain climate chaos is suicidal. That is also why our situation is so difficult. To wait for the President, the Congress, or the financial and corporate elites to take drastic actions to transform the growth-at-any-cost economy to a sustainable living economy is both futile and suicidal too. Only by massive social mobilization can the power elites be brought under control and the economy transformed to align with the requirements of living on the Earth. Perhaps Pope Francis’ encyclical and his invitation to Naomi Klein to the Vatican conference on climate change portend a major shift toward the Sacred Life and Living Earth story. Yes, there are signs everywhere that the Great Transformation has begun. But we must hasten it.
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[1] Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anthony D. Barnosky, Andrés García, and Todd M. Palmer, “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction,” Science Advances. Vol. 1 no. 5 (19 June 2015). http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.full
[2] David Korten, Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2015) makes an important point: Because of the predominance of the culture of “Sacred Money and Markets” the power elites are not so much in control of the corporations (“money seeking robots”) that rule the economy. Rather, they are mere cogs in the leviathan of corporate plunder of the Earth’s living wealth. Control rests with the Story, which, as he argues, must be changed.
[3] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011) takes us on a tour of numerous locations around the world where the “catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate disruption” is already fueling migrations, wars, and starvation amidst the devolution of failed states and collapsing economies unable to sustain growing populations whose “carbon footprints” are vastly smaller than those of the industrialized nations that have caused most of anthropomorphic global warming.
[4] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014) chronicles both extractive capitalism’s disruption of the climate and the political failure of mainstream environmental organizations to institute effective climate action policy. Klein concludes that only a mass movement from below that transforms the social order can save the planet. David Korten (2015) offers a transformative framework for replacing the “Sacred Money and Markets” narrative that dominates the planet today, with a “Sacred Life and Living Earth” narrative capable of producing and sustaining a moral economy in the interests of humanity and the planet.

Funny Money: Social Illusions about Value, Reward, Cost, and Risk

Money is a funny phenomenon, funny-peculiar that is. Money has a lot of odd characteristics, most having something to do with social definitions and the assumptions that shape perception. It exists, for example, only because we have willed it so – it is a social construction. Money has value only because we value it – we instill it with value. No money has intrinsic value. But most people don’t believe that. “Real” money, they think, is inherently valuable.

Now here is where I get in trouble with the monetary realists – mostly “gold bugs.” These folks believe that gold has intrinsic value independent of human perception or definition. I once took an “independent study” class with a philosopher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was supposed to read Karl Marx’s Capital. Well, it was a very big book and I didn’t exactly finish reading it; I skimmed a lot of it toward the end of the semester. Any college student knows what I’m talking about. So, yes, Marx was quite a scholar and economic researcher – unlike many of his followers. But it was the reaction of the professor to my apparently unorthodox views that I remember most distinctly. Well, I thought his views on both money and matter were rather peculiar too, and overly resolute.

He was convinced, based on what evidence I do not know, that atoms have intentionality, some sort of free will – as if they could do as they pleased. I think it had something to do with his trying to make sense of Marx’s materialism. Maybe he was trying to reconcile the obvious existence of purpose in humans with the mechanistic aspects of materialist determinism. He also asserted that gold has intrinsic value regardless of its relationship to humans. That contradicted other things I was learning that made much more sense to me. That semester I was taking a class in social psychology from Tomatsu Shibutani. He was teaching us about symbolic interaction and its central role in human behavior.

Golden Illusions, Symbolic Reality
Shibutani was a great teacher; he tied the theories and experimental work in social psychology directly to everyday experience. He was one of the most impressive teachers I ever had. I was really into that class. Shibutani was amazingly organized in drawing evidence and explanations from all the social sciences to demonstrate how people behave in relation to one another and the often illusory symbolic worlds we inhabit. So I wrote a paper for this philosopher. I explained how I thought money was essentially a symbolic process in which humans engaged to facilitate their economic relations, whatever their illusions about it. Who knows what Marx might have thought of my paper? But the result did not reflect the philosophy professor’s view of Capital. I cited my sources, but somehow he concluded that I’d plagiarized the whole thing from some author unknown. I didn’t; I explained that it was my interpretation of what I had been learning in social psychology applied to money as a socially constructed symbol of value. I got the impression that he didn’t believe I was capable of writing what I had written. I was offended. We argued. To my distinct indignation, he gave me a B.

That ‘academic’ experience was part of a series of things – including my military experience – that framed my sociological thinking. I was ultimately led to see much of human behavior as well as thought and emotion as based in illusions framed in symbolism. It’s not that our responses to experiencing the real world are not real or are necessarily mistaken. Instead, the thoughts and emotions about the world we experience indirectly respond to and help shape our perceptions. Perceptions are filtered and “edited” by what we already believe. They are always colored by the ideas and attitudes that we have previously acquired and are committed to.

A new phenomenon has to really get our attention in order for it not to be pushed into an old comfortable category. Global warming is a clear example of this. At any point in time, we come to the world with a “preconceived” framework for perceiving and interpreting our experience. In that sense, almost no experience is “pure.” Instead, it is tainted by our expectations. Those expectations are based on our pre-existing beliefs. Here’s the kicker: most beliefs are not a result of perception; they are the result of our being “socialized” into the culture in which we live.

Most of what we believe, we have learned from others and from the mass media that surround us, not from direct experience. But most of us don’t believe that since we define ourselves as “independent.” Any honest assessment of the mass persuasion of electoral politics ought to dissuade us of that illusion. Our perceptions are shaped by the culture within us and its manipulation by corporate-controlled mass media. That is why it is so difficult to face the new facts of climate disruption, the end of the growth economy, and the necessity to reorganize the way we relate to the planet and each other. Yes, many of us are in denial. These emergent realities do not fit the world view that has dominated our entire lives.

Untenable Beliefs in a Rapidly Changing World
Today, we live in the last stages of the dying culture of an extractive industrial economy of increasingly concentrated wealth, expanding poverty, massive waste, and flourishing ecological destruction. But that dying culture still shapes most of what we believe and the way we perceive the world. The industrial revolution began when the earth was not densely populated, and vast expanses of land and mineral wealth were not yet exploited. New technologies were just beginning to apply fossil-fuel energy to do work and reorganize the way we live. There was much room for expansion. The debt-based money system required continual expansion for a return on capital investment. The whole ideology of unlimited economic growth grew and took over the cultures of nations as they industrialized. We perceive value, reward, cost, and risk through the lens of that same dominant preconceived framework that industrial capital continues to sustain in the face of massive evidence that it will no longer work.

Money no longer represents value. Today, money – which is created and tightly concentrated and distributed by and in the interests of the power elites – controls value. The real costs of extractive industrial production are externalized by corporations to the people and planet in the form of increased poverty, diminished health and ecological destruction. The risks of continued economic growth and concentration of wealth are avoided by elites who have transferred those risks to the people and the planet. The power elites – financial and mega-corporate executives and their political allies – are temporarily insulated from risk by obscene salaries and bonuses, bribes, political cover, and gated compounds. But they won’t be protected much longer; Mother Nature makes no class distinctions.

We have already reached the tipping point of ecological destruction and climate disruption. Only massive social action to counter the in-place system of money-driven illusion of unlimited economic concentration and growth will have a chance to turn the tide. The illusions of money are not funny anymore.

Making Money, Making Time, and Making a Living

For many Americans, the time has come to reassess our relations with the economy that is being driven off the cliff by the creation and hoarding of phantom money by the very few and catastrophic burden of debt for the rest of us. The economy is controlled by the Big Banks and it has not worked for ordinary citizens. The economy of the plutocrats has kept the nation in debt. At the same time it has made it more and more difficult to make a living by simply working at a job.

This situation raises several serious questions about the nature of money itself and how it is created, managed, distributed, and used in our economy. Most of us are not schooled in the technical aspects of ‘money and banking’ or the philosophy of money, neither of which quite rises to the level of science. But we know that something is very wrong with the way money flows – mostly up – in today’s economy. Just like blood in our arteries and veins, money must circulate broadly to assure a healthy society. One might consider today’s mega-banks as aneurisms in the economy’s aorta, poised to burst.  Surgery is required.

Time is Life
Some recent criticisms of contemporary economic culture have looked at money from the larger perspective of life itself. We have all heard the cliché, “Time is money.” An alternative view is that “Time is life.” What does that mean? Well, time is all we really have in this life and what we do with that time is our life. When we complain that we “don’t have time” for things we deem important, it is because we do not make time for them. Our time is mediated by money, which controls our access to the essentials of living. [1] Thus, money controls much of our life, so political control of the money system is critical for making a living — life.

The cult of American Individualism would blame the victim of poverty for not exercising her/his “individual freedom.” But where is the individual freedom of the increasingly common fast-food or other service worker who has to work two jobs just to pay the rent? Such admonitions assume a perfect world in which anyone who works hard can achieve anything. As Barbara Ehrenreich[2] and others have demonstrated, for many Americans, hard work is simply not enough.

You can’t make time you do not have. If you have to work at minimum wage or less, it is necessary to work most waking hours to avoid homelessness. As middle-income jobs are “outsourced” to China or other super-low wage nations, the middle class shrinks because jobs with a living wage continue to disappear from the American economy. Corporate controlled international trade agreements such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the new TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) supersede national sovereignty over environmental quality and worker rights. They are negotiated in secret because voters would not tolerate them if they knew of their terms. “When Corporations Rule the World,”[3] the people lose their basic rights along with power over their own lives and the ability to make a living.

What Christian Parenti [4] has called a “catastrophic convergence” of accelerating poverty, violence, and climate disruption is already producing chaos around the world. An impending sense that the party is over is also beginning to bring about a sea change in the image ordinary people have of their lives in relation to both the economy and the planet. Profligate consumption and waste are reaching their limits as resources have passed their peak of easy extraction. Increased costs of extraction cascade into manufacturing costs and cannot be controlled. Capital is moved to locations where labor costs can be reduced. But this results in post-industrial markets shrinking due to the loss of wages that would otherwise be used to buy products. It’s a downward spiral.

A major cultural reassessment is under way. The economy is obviously failing to serve the people. The concentration of wealth in the top 1% of the top 1% is now greater than at the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is unsustainable. Any economy is sustained by the effective circulation of money as the means for allocating time for doing work. Capital exists only to the extent that labor organizes material – the production of value. Yet, our economy has become subservient to a financial elite that increasingly “makes” phantom money [false capital] by generating more debt without economic productivity.

The fundamental purpose of money in the economy has been subverted. Corporate media attempt to maintain the illusion that multinational corporate capitalism is just that good old Adam Smith version of “small business” and “free” markets in bucolic communities. But we are closer to a corporate police state than any imagined democratic capitalism. Whether they articulate it in such economic terms, people know that the system is rigged. They also know that it is the corporate control of the economy and political system that is doing the rigging. Not only do the people have little or no chance of making a living in that rigged system, but those who do so sustain the larger problem.

A living Economy to Thwart Climate Catastrophe
So, what is to be done? When a system is rigged the only way to break out is to turn away from that system. This is being done in little ways all around the country. Most scientists know that massive programs to stop or at least slow climate chaos must be initiated at the national and international levels. But the system is rigged against that as it accelerates toward the convergence of climate, economic, and population catastrophes causing mass starvation/migration, resource wars, and social chaos. Energy production and wasteful consumption must be severely curtailed, but how?

Parenti argues that: “We cannot wait for a socialist, or communist, or anarchist, or deep-ecology, neoprimitive revolution; nor for a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to the mythical small-town economy of preindustrial America as some advocate…Instead, we must begin immediately transforming the energy economy. Other necessary changes can and will flow from that.” (p. 241) Parenti, like so many others who see what is needed, fails to articulate how such a massive transformation can be accomplished. He says that it “will require a relegitimation of the state’s role in the economy.” But that is precisely what the power elites will not allow – except, of course, where that role entails the massive economic subsidies the state already provides to the mega-corporations. So, he is partly right and partly wrong. He is right to say that we cannot wait, but for what? He is wrong in assuming the energy economy will be transformed from the top without revolutionary change in the structure of political power.

First, we cannot wait for the federal government to act in the public interest – it is controlled by the corporate interests tied to the fossil-fuel economy. The energy economy must be transformed immediately, but how? Even if Bernie Sanders were elected president, the hypocritical Corporate Democrats and the magical-thinking Corporate Republicans would still be in control of legislation and continue to serve their corporate masters. Second, the only action that cannot be stopped by the political-economic elites is the grass-roots action of growing numbers of people organized to change their lives to make a living without depending on the corporate consumer economy. That is both very difficult to do and the only viable path available.

Parenti is right in saying that the immediate task is specific: drastically cut carbon emissions. But that entails a myriad of even more specific tasks, which if achieved will have arisen from below, demonstrating human resilience in the face of corporate-state paralysis. So much to do, so little time.
________
1 David C. Korten, Change the Story, change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.
2 Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.
3 David C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2001.
4 Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.

Runaway Capital and the Necessity of SLOW

Slow Food; Slow Money; Slow Life. Such concepts are anathema to the frenzied culture of the dying industrial age. But these ideas are becoming popular among a small but growing class of folks who are simply tired of ‘the rat race.’ “Slow” is closely aligned with the simplicity movement. What do they mean, why should we want to achieve them, and what’s the point?

To fully recognize the fatal flaw of the current economic path and the need for a new direction, one really must understand acceleration. Or, grasping the power of compound interest would do. With regular savings and compound interest over a working career, a worker with a modest salary could retire a millionaire. But how many do?

For that to work, the saver must also avoid debt – especially consumer debt. That is increasingly less likely as wages are squeezed for ordinary workers who are pressured to consume more with “easy” credit. Of course, “credit” is the availability of money for borrowing. Consumer debt is a burden that more than neutralizes any savings program. The debt-based economy is a complex trap.

Runaway Capital
The debt-based economy must continually expand. How else can interest be paid but by adding more money to the system? Banks are allowed to loan a lot more money than they keep in “reserve.” That new money is created as debt in the accounts of borrowers. Economic expansion is based on expanding debt. Government debt and private debt are the basis for the profit that interest rates generate as growth.

Since the 2008 collapse, the Federal Reserve loans the Big Banks money at near zero rates. It has bought the bad debt that should have pushed the Big Banks into bankruptcy. But infused with new cheap capital, banks are nevertheless afraid to lend to businesses since so little demand remains in the economy. The result is that with institutional rates so low, banks buy each other instead of lending to business.

Corporations are afraid to invest in production since demand is so low. They use their trillions horded in cash to buy back shares and drive up share prices, making themselves appear more valuable. This allows executives to ‘justify’ larger bonuses, instead of investing in meaningful production – which would expand employment, if only in Asia.

In a finite world, at some point the acceleration of growth – via compound interest on growing debt– becomes an unsustainable Ponzi scheme. It is no longer the real economy that is growing. The expanding “financialized” economy of accelerated growth of phantom wealth through complex derivative instruments keeps expanding. It is allowed because no real restraints have been imposed on the banksters who caused the crash. The fatal flaw has been covered over in imaginary cash.

This false creation of money has no substantive basis for capital creation in real life. These financial manipulations generating phantom wealth produce no real value. The consequences for the currency will be dire. The basis for the value of the dollar cannot be sustained in debt alone. That is why the Chinese are quietly unloading dollar debt instruments – treasury notes and bonds – in favor of gold and currencies with more long-term security.

Slow Capital, Real Investment
The most important problem with “Fast Capital” is that it drives financialized economic growth at the expense of the real economies of communities. “The economy” no longer fits the real circumstances of the world we live in. It was a tenuous fit to begin with. By the 20th century so little of the world was left to conquer that it had scant room to grow. Now the growth model is being tested against environment limits. But financial growth, being abstract, is only limited by debt structures.

Today the real-growth economy is restrained by a finite supply of depleting resources and its own accelerating ecological destruction. Unfortunately, most attempts to provide an alternative world based on ‘renewable’ energy and resources are framed in the failing economic-growth model. Most advocates of renewable energy and resources do not argue for a no-growth economy. Growth is a deep political value in the economic culture. Growth is seen as an inevitable requirement for prosperity – everyone is for it. It is both the essential element and fundamental flaw in the conventional model of the economy.

A new economy that is based on slow capital is now necessary. Certainly, the transition from the economy of indiscriminant expansion to a carbon neutral economy of stability will involve selected areas of real growth – and others of major contraction. In this new context, capital investment must apply technological innovation to “the old ways” of producing needed goods in creative ways. The technologies of “labor saving” overproduction cannot work. Slow production with higher quality responding to real needs will support more jobs requiring more skill and education. Slow education is labor intensive and would require little capital – it will require social commitment of slow capital.

Creating an abundant new ecological economy requires innovative thinking and experimentation, not automated extractive industry to supply overproduced useless objects. Slow capital must be invested in new technologies for effective use of more skilled labor to convert the economy to more carbon-neutral activity serving human needs, not fast capital serving financial growth for elite phantom wealth.

It is still hard for us to visualize. Our thinking is so influenced by the growth-economy culture. But the ecological economy will be slow and both intellectually and artistically rewarding. It will focus on human interaction to realize the cultural goals of achieving basic sustenance, artistic expression, intellectual exploration, and civic engagement. None of these require fast capital, or false wants for overproduced meaningless objects of momentary attraction. All those suburban storage units will not be needed. What is most required is a societal commitment to an economy driven by core human needs.

Why a Return to Progressive Taxation is necessary…and Right

The accelerating concentration of income and wealth in the upper 1% of the upper 1% of the population and the failure of the “growth” economy to serve the population that supports it, are not only moral questions of fairness. The distribution of income and wealth are also important elements of the health of the economy itself. Between 30% and 75% of aggregate income in the past 30 years has gone to the top 10% and most of that has gone to the top 1%. After the “great recession” of 2008, almost all of new income went to the top of the top 1%. If this trend continues, the circulation of money and therefore the health of the economy will stagnate even further.

It is fortunate that French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, is making such an international splash. Piketty raises fundamental questions about the economy that most economists, in their pandering to the power elites, have avoided ever since crowning Adam Smith patron saint of mainstream economics.

What classical economics, as practiced throughout the industrial era, has ignored is the inherent tendency of capital to concentrate among the wealthiest individuals and corporations, unless mitigated by social policies that assure the broader circulation of money throughout the economy.  It’s really quite simple. The economic power of those who control the most wealth and income gives them advantages that enable them to accumulate wealth at increasing rates, to the disadvantage of everyone else in the economy.  Without economic regulations that dampen the special advantages of wealth, such as the progressive income tax that once benefited the economy, extreme disparities in income and wealth cause all sorts of problems.

The evidence of that destructive process is grossly obvious in the current economies of the industrial nations, especially in the United States. That is exactly what happened before the Great Depression of the 1930s, causing economic collapse due to excessive concentration of wealth among the richest class in America. Yes, class, that concept so long banned from discussion in the U.S. Forget the fancy academic analyses of socioeconomic class and status in social relations. It’s simply a matter of an inevitable distortion of the distribution of wealth and circulation of money when the tendency for concentration is not tempered by some kind of social policy designed to limit concentration by re-balancing the circulation of money in the economy. Such policies were enacted in the 1930s, but, under pressure from the most privileged, have been abandoned, allowing further distortion of income and wealth.

The concentration of wealth and income was moderated when we had a progressive income tax system. The simplest and most practical approach to staving off plutocracy (rule by the wealthiest members of society) and reducing damage to the economy that results from unfettered accumulation of wealth, is to return to a progressive system of taxation of income and the return of the tax on inheritance. There is simply no economic reason, let alone moral justification, for allowing the economy to spin out of control and fail to serve the public interest in order to allow the wealthiest members of society to become that much wealthier, simply because they already have excessive economic power.

At the same time, the obsession with reducing the federal debt by further cutting expenditures that support the general population, such as social security, medical insurance coverage, and public education, serves no earthly purpose other than to make the rich richer. The biggest con of all these days is the one that characterizes the ‘rentier’ class – those who merely make money on the value of the wealth they have already accumulated – is that their income and wealth ought to be protected from taxation because they are the “job creators.” They are no such thing, and their excessive income is of benefit to nobody, not even themselves – you can only spend so much before reaching absurd redundancy.  But the quest for power knows no bounds.

Restoring the progressive income tax would be fit medicine to help restore the health of an economy suffering from the cancerous growth of the ‘cells’ of the richest class of Americans and the corporations they control. The federal revenue gained thereby could be applied not only to the national debt, but to investing the desperately needed transformation of the fossil-fuel driven economy to a carbon neutral economy in order to minimize the damage of climate disruption. After all, it is the 1% and their fossil fuel related investments that have driven us to the brink of climate catastrophe.

Bottom line: an economy is not an economy of the whole society without consistently adequate circulation of money throughout the population.  It is both immoral and foolish to continue on the path of accelerating concentration of wealth to the detriment of the entire society. Privilege and wealth will not disappear with progressive taxation. Look at the post WW-II 1940s and 1950s, when the marginal tax rate on income above $200,000 — the tax rate on the part of income above the first $200,000 earned, and there were 23 brackets below that with progressively lower rates — was 91%; adjusted for inflation, that would be the rate for income above $2.41 million today. We should have such a healthy economy today!