Giving Thanks for what?

Giving thanks at Thanksgiving dinner continues as an ingrained ritual. At some holiday tables, those present state in turn what makes them most thankful. At others, the most senior member gives a Thanksgiving prayer. In most cases, that is about as far as reflection on the meaning of this peculiar American holiday goes. Nobody mentions, of course, its historical origins in continental conquest and racist extermination. Only the mythical feast with natives helping colonists to survive is affirmed.

This season of giving thanks, I look at the headlines on Trumpist subservience to the barbarian brutality of a Saudi tyrant. I examine analyses of overwhelming evidence of climate chaos and its accelerating risks to national security and international stability stridently denied by the highest authorities. I struggle to find something of major importance for which I can feel genuine in giving thanks. We live in desperately dangerous if uncomfortably interesting times.

No Thank You

Around the world, I see the rise of authoritarian dictators (Brazil, Philippines, Eastern Europe, etc.) who brag of their history of assassinations and parallel future intentions. No thank you.

In the U.S., we have elected a megalomaniacal narcissistic would-be dictator, who is steadily gaining more power by demagoguery and pandering to the demands of the super-rich. No thank you.

The “administration” released the latest U.S. climate assessment report by a team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee on Black Friday, hoping to bury it in a no-news day. Drawing on resources of multiple government agencies, the report forecasts massive economic and health costs of growing climate chaos. These are imminent catastrophic consequences if our government continues to deny facts. Meanwhile, the Trumpists pursue a policy of destroying the minor federal efforts so far taken to mitigate catastrophic climate change. No thank you.

Not long before Thanksgiving, I read the brilliant and frightening small book, To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, by Dutch philosopher Rob Riemen. He describes the current resurgence of fascism in Europe. His list of neo-fascist tendencies strikingly parallels what we observe right here in Trumplandia today. No thank you.

I note the continuing concentration of income and wealth among the 1% of the 1% of the richest Americans and corporations. Its correlation with the destruction of the middle class and the expansion and intensification of poverty among the rest of us is not coincidental. No thank you.

I read of the growing auto-loan debt, credit card debt, corporate debt, and government debt. These threats to economic stability result from extreme income tax cuts for the super-rich and the systematic concentration of wealth and income in recent years. The risk of societal collapse that such greed portends is also extreme. No thank you.

I know that the decline of community in America has a long continuing history that parallels the rise of the corporate state. The currently exploding opioid-addiction epidemic reflects a crescendo in that trend, due to the alienation of American institutions from their claimed purposes. Like mass incarceration, it results from “health care” and “law enforcement” institutions serving themselves, not the public interest. No thank you.

Creating Grounds for Giving Thanks

Of course, the list goes on. Giving thanks inevitably seems to require us to look to our immediate families, friends, and neighbors. All indicators suggest that we must strengthen our local communities to counter the global trends that otherwise seem insurmountable as well as extremely destructive.

Giving thanks will truly mean something when we take back control of our lives by turning away from the oppressive institutions and culture of the global “technosphere.” Politics must become local again and drive decisions that will enhance rather than destroy life on planet Earth. Then giving thanks will have resulted from putting human values ahead of the demands of the machine.

Diary of a Mad Jubilado: (first in a series)

Jubilado Jubilee

“So much to do, so little time.”  That cliché never meant much to me.  The “so little time” part had no meaning.  I was busy with my life and there was always tomorrow.  It seemed as if I had all the time in the world. Careers go fast if you are busy and engaged. University teaching, for example, is not as simple or easy as most imagine if you take it seriously. In my case, like many professors, I was constantly challenged by students who were either ill-prepared or thought they already knew everything there was to know.  Many felt they merely had to get through this class in order to get that “piece of paper.” Any class was just another obstacle to getting the college degree.

Many unprepared students lack not only information about the world and about diverse fields of study; they also lack the critical thinking skills needed to excel in any field. That seems to be no deterrent to the ability of humans to be certain about whatever they happen to believe. Many just do not reflect on how they came to believe what they believe. It is very difficult to teach adults or even post-adolescent college students how to think clearly when most of the forces affecting their lives push them to believe one thing or another regardless of the evidence. Too much education is about accepting knowledge because of the authority behind it, rather than the evidence for it. Yet, many of my students retained their underlying curiosity despite the appallingly poor elementary and high school education that failed to prepare them for “higher learning.”

So here I am, more than a decade into ‘retirement’ now, with so much to do and so little time, it seems, to do all the things I want to do.  The term “retiree” always struck me as an odd word with a rather ominous tone, like “Senior Citizen.”  In some cultures, for example in the few “Blue Zones” around the world, where an inordinate number of elders live beyond 100 years, the local language has no word for “retirement.”

I have always liked the sounds of Spanish.  “Jubilado” is the Spanish equivalent of “retiree” in English.  “Jubilación” is “retirement” in Spanish.  Interestingly, the biblical meaning of “Jubilee” is “a yearlong period observed by Jews once every 50 years, during which Jewish slaves were to be freed, alienated lands were to be restored to the original owner or an heir, the fields were to be left untilled, and all agricultural labors were to be suspended. Lev. 25.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/jubilee?s=t).  It seems that the underlying theme was not unlike our notion of a “vacation,” a distinct break with the ordinary oppressiveness of everyday life. Yet, those long-living denizens of the Blue Zones don’t take vacations, they just live consistent happy lives uncomplicated by industrial modernity.

Jubilee can also refer to the cancellation of all debts by the sovereign in ancient times when the accumulation of debt had become too burdensome and the concentration of wealth to extreme for the economy to function well. Wait, does that sound familiar? We may very well need a jubilee today. (For a fascinating account of debt and money in history, read David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years.)

It all seems a matter of how human groups have defined their relations to material objects in relation to one another. Most folks today look at money and debt as absolutes. They are not.

Nobody has cancelled my debts; thus, I remain the “Mad Jubilado.”

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NOTE: An earlier version of this post first appeared in http://www.aparallelworld.com, a site that brought environmentally conscious consumers together with like minded vendors in their area, until trolls and Russian bots took it down by so disrupting it that it could not continue on its small budget… a sign of the times…

Borrowing Nothing from Nowhere: Phantom Money and Phantom Debt

Borrowing money is a tricky thing to talk about, even trickier than talking about money itself. We all seem to have a love-hate relationship with the stuff. Well, maybe ‘stuff’ is not the right word. People disagree about what money actually is. Some, who I’ll call “money realists,” believe that the essence of money is that it is a physical thing that has intrinsic value. For the money realist, only a fixed commodity – usually gold – is “real” money. So called “fiat money,” valued because a government declares it as “legal tender,” is not seen as “real.” Some others, the “money representationalists,” believe that money is an object that has value because it represents something else that is valued, also usually gold. That is what the “gold standard” was about, but money also represents the value of anything we value. Borrowing is a major reason money is so troubling.

Money represents the value of a credit or debt, enabling the exchange of anything of measurable value (in monetary units of quantity) for that thing. Finally, for most people money is an abstract symbol of value based on some metric or quantity that measures the value of anything. That is why money can be transferred, borrowed, and lent electronically – it is a symbol, whether represented in paper or binary code, of a measurable value. Despite that abstraction, we usually treat money as a real object to be exchanged for other real objects, or for real services, or even for promises to provide such things later. Most money today is “fiat” money, because it is declared by a sovereign government to have a relatively stable measurable value for any exchange. But what is value? Is value real or do we just imagine it so?

You can read Wikipedia’s entries on money to get an overview of the conventional definitions of money, currency, credit, and debt. But something is missing. What is increasingly important today is how money is being transformed. Critics complain that the government is “printing too much money.” However, most money today is brought into being by electronically “posting” it to a computerized accounting system in a bank. An electronic bookkeeping entry creates money as a debt to a bank, not as printed currency.

Borrowing Nothing

A bank that is a member of the Federal Reserve, lends money into existence electronically when a customer borrows it. That’s right; it didn’t exist before it was lent, but it creates debt for the borrower and an “asset” (credit) for the lending bank in the form of a note or bond. The note or bond held by the bank obligates the borrower to pay back the amount borrowed plus interest. That means that more money is always owed (to the banks) than is ever borrowed, which is a peculiar problem in itself with deep implications for the entire economy. Think Greece; same basic deal.

The Federal Reserve oversees this process, called the fractional reserve banking system. “Fractional reserve” means that the bank gets to loan out a certain percentage more than it holds “in reserve” as deposits. This whole process must be carefully regulated or things can get way out of hand. Just before the financial crisis of 2008, banks were allowed to loan many more multiples of their reserves than ever. Leverage always entails risk.

Banks may lend some of the money they create to mortgage lenders and “payday” lenders, as well as to corporations and individuals. Mortgage lenders – savings and loan institutions, regional banks, etc. – will borrow from the national bank, make a home loan, and then sell the mortgage to another bank. Without vigilant regulation of the conditions of loans, things can get quite messy. If enough bad loans are written and if enough loans default, the whole system becomes unstable. This is especially true when loans are bundled into “derivatives” and sold to unsuspecting investors looking for a steady income stream.

Making Phantom Money

The gradual deregulation of banking and finance, starting with Bill Clinton, Alan Greenspan, and Larry Summers, has released the most powerful financial elites from societal controls. The 2008 financial crisis resulted from several factors, including the lowering of reserve requirements for the Big Banks. Mortgage brokers and other primary retail lenders loosened the lending requirements for borrowers. Regulators looked the other way. The resulting risky mortgages were then purchase and packaging into “derivative” financial instruments by the Big Banks on Wall Street. They were then resold to pension funds and other institutional investors, putting many people at risk. Lots of money was “made” in the form of fees and profits. In the process the entire world economy was endangered. After all, the banking system of the U.S. and other major industrial nations had already been integrated and these financial manipulations had spread world-wide.

The advent of high-speed electronic data processing and communications has allowed the creation of new forms of financial manipulation of the money system. High-speed computers can skim “value” from stock markets by engaging in electronic “trading” so fast that tiny differences in bid-ask pricing can be exploited in the interim between offers by ordinary traders. So-called “derivatives,” financial instruments comprised of abstracted fragments of mortgages or other debts, can be marketed to the point of risking collapse of markets. The largest financial institutions have transformed money from a public medium of economic exchange into a method of economic plunder and political control of society. But these financial absurdities only exist because of the greatest absurdity of all. We are all forced to borrow nothing from nowhere and it is costing (almost) everyone dearly.

Phantom Federal Debt: Who Needs It?

It has been generally taken for granted that “fiat” money is issued by sovereign governments for the benefit of their national economies. Not exactly. Most currencies are valued on the basis of the solvency of the government, its international balance of payments, and the stability of its economy. International exchange rates are based on such factors. But since the early 20th century, for the most part such assumptions have been a fiction. In the U.S., despite the Constitution, which authorizes the Congress “To coin money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin,” the government does not create money. Yes, it still stamps out pennies and quarters, but the private banks, which own the Federal reserve, create most money. In 1910, the major private banking interests conspired at their infamous meeting on Jekyll Island to control the national monetary system. In 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, empowering the cartel of private investment banks to control the money and banking system and “loan” money created out of nothing and from nowhere to the U.S. Treasure. Hence, the national debt. What a windfall for the banks – and a permanent indebtedness for the nation – unless we reassert our national sovereignty.

It has worked out much better – for the mega-banks – having the government borrow money from the private banking cartel called The Fed so that the banks can control everything and the rest of us can take on all the resulting debt! If our government were actually sovereign (instead of subservient to the mega-banks), it could ISSUE money rather than borrow fake money from corrupt banks. What a different economy that would produce.

Individualism and Its Discontents

Why Our Culture Keeps Us from the Pursuit of Happiness

Individualism may be the most entrenched and pervasive icon of American civilization.  After all, personal liberty was one of the founding principles of the republic formed in rebellion against the oppressive rule of the British monarchy and its economic elite.  Rarely mentioned, however, is the historical fact that the economic elite in the British colonies retained power in the new republic and were the main beneficiaries of the political freedom that came to be expressed as individualism.  Yet, over time, liberty has been transformed from a right of political independence and free political expression to an ethic of unlimited shopping.  I will never forget George Bush’s emblematic admonition to the American people after the tragedy of 9-11, to “go to the mall,” as a reaffirmation of the freedom and individualism for which “they hate us.”   Perhaps it is not so odd that the emblematic day of shopping madness is named “Black Friday,” the near-violent or actually violent character of which bring to mind the catastrophic nature of the numerous Black Fridays throughout history.

From its origins in the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment philosophers who developed theories of the individual citizen’s relationship to society and government, American individualism has remained central to the political-economy and culture of the nation.  Yet it has been gradually transformed into a more contemporary ideology that serves the economic interests of the neo-conservative wealthy class – heirs of the colonial economic elite – that shapes the nation’s political and economic policies.  We need not recite the familiar mantra of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or the utopian supposition that the “free market” makes the world right for everyone, to grasp the fact that current economic theory and governmental policy are driven by the usefulness of these illusions in retaining and gaining ever more social control by the power elites that fund their political campaigns.  Do we really know that these concepts are illusions meant to preserve the shape of power in the declining American empire?

I think most people know and understand that the power elites direct the giant financial, corporate, fossil fuel, political and military institutions.  They know that the name of the game for the rest of us has become all against all in the economic realm and that the game is rigged.  Upward social mobility is largely a thing of the past.  Most importantly Americans mourn the loss of community and the fragmentation of families.  But the game is also driven by the use of ideology to control public perceptions of what individualism really is about in this era’s unique race to nowhere. 

Personal identity is now very much tied up in the culture of individual consumption.  The cultural core of the endless-growth economy, which requires unbounded expansion in order for the debt on which it is based to be paid, is driven by orchestrated wants that have little if anything to do with achieving happiness, and everything to do with capital formation in the biggest banks.  Individualism and freedom are equated with the ability to buy the products of the giant corporations, while shrinking paychecks make it impossible to do so without incurring further debt.  In a cultural world dominated by advertising, the corporate media are the primary sources of our images of need, which uphold unrestrained consumerism.  While people know deep down that something is very wrong, it is difficult to see our own relation to the problem when it is the very source of the problem that also shapes our images of reality.

Neither ecology nor human relations are considered by an economy that is driven by profits through increasing debt and endless expansion.  While the ecological limits of growth will ultimately stop the profit-through-debt machine, if we do not override the consumer culture with reality-based behavioral and social change – and a new ethic that recognizes interdependence – the end of unbounded consumerism will be globally catastrophic – both ecologically and socially.  Only by seeking happiness in the areas known to actually produce it, such as personal and community engagement in the context of a steady-state economy based on the pursuit of happiness in an ecologically sustainable economy, will the end of the endless-growth economy mitigate global catastrophe.  Black Friday symbolizes the illusions of individualism by its frantic embodiment of the most absurd elements of the culture of consumerism.

Money: Banking on the Economy of the Absurd

Money and banking seem far too mysterious to far too many people.  Read all about it and you may feel that much of your time was wasted, simply because at root it seems not all that complicated.  Oh, the world of money and banking has been made quite complicated, but that’s because of who is running things and why they make decisions over all of our financial lives the way that they do.  With the endless elaboration of the complex institutions from which emanate the decisions that matter for the rest of us, the so-called “financial industry” has emerged as a much larger share of the economy than ever before.  But what does that mean?  Are we all wealthier?  Hardly.  As the “main street” economy has faltered while big corporations and banks grow ever larger profits, why has the financial industry—which claims to be so vital  to the nation’s economy—grown so large?

Along with the ideologically excused deregulation of banking and finance—driven, actually, by the growing influence of the big banks and their corporate companions over the laws that govern economic activity—have come a steady onslaught of banking practices that have made a very few people and corporations very, very rich and resulted in the rest of us falling further and further behind.  By expanding their control over the creation and lending of money, these institutions have expanded far beyond their usefulness to the nation. To big to fail?  Yes, if propped up by government bailouts.  But more important, too big to tolerate!

Have you ever wondered why over many generations people pay mortgages on their homes, yet very few of the succeeding generations ever live in a home without it being mortgaged?  Where is the accumulation of wealth?  Well, while complex interactions of a number of factors are at play, and individual cases vary, the “bottom line” is that we live in a debt-based economy, and it is debt based on purpose.  No, it wasn’t your idea and it wasn’t my idea.  It was the idea of the private bankers who took over the public function of banking way back when.  In a debt based economy, new money has to be created to pay the interest on old debt.  That requires endless economic expansion financed by new debt.  It is a never-ending cycle until one of two things happens:  1) a crash brought on by the excessive speculation in new debt—gambling—by the Banksters; or 2) the whole system expands beyond the carrying capacity of the ecological system on which we all depend.  The Great Depression of the 1930s has been matched by the real unemployment of the “Great Recession” of 2008-present as the absurd economy roars past sustainability.

Banking is an inherently public function.  In fact, money is a public institution.  Whether private banks control it has varied in time and place.  When you are playing Monopoly (the board game) the players are equivalent to the public but each acts as an individual, not as a member of that very small public—which helps to instill in the players an individualistic sense of what money is.  But the “play money” used in the game is “real money” for the purposes of that game.  One player is designated the banker, but only manages the allocation of money during play.  The players agree as to the initial distribution of money (usually equal) and to the rules of the game.

Eventually, through luck and skill, one of the players gathers so much money and property that the game is over—s/he won!  Oh, but then there’s no game anymore, unless the players want to start another game, in which case they have to redistribute the money so each player will have money with which to play.  In fact, once the game is over, there is no money, only amusing little pieces of colored paper in a box with the board and various symbols of property, etc.  But why does someone always win Monopoly?  The widely ignored fact of economic reality also ends every game of Monopoly.  Once a player has accumulated significant economic power, that player’s ability to gain economic power increases.  So it is in the real economy, with the added bonus of increased political power, which means that to keep the game going, something’s got to give.  The result has to be either collapse or some form of redistribution, that’s what history demonstrates.

So, you can see the difference between a game and social reality, or, technically, economic reality.  In the real world, the game can never be over, even when one element—the Banksters in our case—accumulates enough wealth to render the other players powerless to make a successful move.  In the real world, this holds right up to the point where some starve to death for lack of resources.  In the game, with all the money accumulated by a small number of lucky and/or skilled players, everyone else is out of the game.  In real life that is deadly and is bound to result in some kind of chaos, collapse, or major restructuring of the economy.  Look around, both in the world today and in history.  Money hasn’t been in play all that long.  It emerged slowly and in various odd forms when and where some surplus of valued goods was accumulated.  When, at various times when wealth became so concentrated in the hands of the elite, a monarch or emperor recognized that wealth had to be radically redistributed in order to keep the economy going.

The earliest examples of money and debt were in societies where sedentary agricultural practices replaced nomadic hunting and gathering.  Much of this is chronicled in David Graeber’s fascinating book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years.  Graebner is an anthropologist whose analysis of money and debt as cultural phenomena clearly breaks out of the illusions about money and debt upon which our deeply absurd, and equally unjust, economy is based.

Unless we face some very fundamental and widespread social illusions, we will be unable to grasp how debt drives our absurd economy and how deeply destabilized the system has become.  Sometimes these illusions have two sides, neither of which reflects economic or cultural reality.  For example, we have the “gold bugs” and the advocates of “fiat money.”  Gold bugs confuse symbols with reality and fiat money fanciers confuse wealth with abstractions of value.  Both obsess over the form of money, failing to see that the very essence of its existence is consensual rather than essential.

There is nothing in the essence of gold that makes it money and there is nothing in the essence of paper that prevents it from being money.  All manner of items at one time/place or another have been money because the conditions allowed and the people agreed to define them as money, from sticks to shells to stamped pieces of copper or other metal to beads to paper.  In no case did just any stick, shell or piece of paper do.  It had to have certain qualities or it couldn’t become money.

In one fascinating example, a stick with certain inscriptions would be split in two and the creditor and debtor each took a piece.  No other stick could represent that relationship of value-exchange because no two sticks will split in exactly the same way.  That made the stick parts a unique symbol of the value exchanged.  With gold, the size, ie., weight, of a nugget or shaped coin stands for its exchange value.  In every case of an object that becomes money, its value is designated in such a way that it cannot be altered.  So it is with paper.  With paper money, methods are devised to make it nearly impossible to duplicate without detection, but of course some counterfeiters have been very skillful, which results in a technology race between the legitimate and illegitimate printers of money.

Today, of course, most money takes the form of an electronic entry in computerized accounting systems controlled by banks and other financial institutions.  And that brings on an entirely new level of complexity and exploitability of what at base was a very simple relationship. But, as always, who controls the creation of money is still at the root of the way the money system works.

Because the nation so stupidly gave away the rights to control a fundamental public utility—money—to a cartel of private banks, the Federal Reserve, the creation of money (except for coins, which, trivially, are minted by the U.S. Treasury) is controlled not by public policy but by private banking interests.  “The Fed” is owned by its member big-private-banks yet is politically defined as a quasi-public institution even though it is entirely controlled by the cartel of private banks, except to the extent that the political system can influence its actions, which is almost nil.  Power flows from the banks to the government, not the other way around.

Well, you saw how well that worked out when the federal government essentially gave away the commonwealth by “covering” the bad bets of the world’s biggest gamblers—the Banksters, as I prefer to call them—because their agents, from Treasury Secretaries “Hank” Paulson and Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, and the rest of the Wall Street gang were very much in control of the political response to the crisis.  These same Banksters had helped steer the congress to do away with the protections against gambling with depositors’ money that resulted from the Great Depression of the ‘30s.  The recent ‘Great Recession’ was the result of the same kinds of financial manipulations as precipitated the great crash, but now with lightning speed of computerized trading and lax limits on holding reserve capital to cover losses, as well as a whole new breed of “financial instruments” which are “derivatives” of complex combinations of debt.  The whole Dodd-Frank “reforms” were a smokescreen to cover continued abuse by the financial elite.

The whole system is, as they say, rigged.  And because it is entirely dependent on generating more debt in order to sustain profit, ultimately all that debt cannot be paid, since it is really a pyramid scheme basing illusory wealth on ever-expanding debt that cannot be sustained.  No, it is not about “the national debt” and “deficit spending” by the federal government, though they are part of the system.  And the “debt ceiling” is pure political theater.  It is about the centralized private control of the public means by which money is allocated to the actual people who participate in the economy as a way of sustaining their lives—through debt—with that private control being exercised in the sole interests of the so-called “masters of the universe,” the Wall Street Banksters and financial deal makers who have no idea what a real economy looks like.  It’s all about the art of the deal which generates paper profit [or, I should say, electronic profit] out of money generated with no other purpose, but which bounds the people to a system of debt over which they have no participation except as victims.

Therein lies the absurdity of the economy for you and me.  Money, the function of which had been to provide a medium for and a repository of actual exchange value—that is, the exchange of real objects and services of value to people in a real economy—has been perverted into a devise for generating false wealth—paper or electronic profit—which is treated as real wealth by the Banksters who control the Economy of the Absurd.